The Great Pilgrimage through Surrey, 1913
“Why are thousands of women ready to walk along the dusty suffocating high roads under a July sun? …It is an act of devotion on the part of law abiding suffragists… [an] outward sign of women suffragists’ unalterable determination not to cease from pressing their claim to the vote by every lawful means in the their power till the vote is won” (Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser, 5 July 1913).
The Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage or ‘Great Pilgrimage’ as it became known, of July 1913, was arguably the single most influential event in the fight for the emancipation of women in Britain. It saw the mobilisation of tens of thousands of ordinary women in a series of marches across the country – demonstrating just how many ‘quiet home-loving’ and law-abiding women wanted the vote.
Two of the six major routes of the Great Pilgrimage wound through Surrey on their way from the coast to the capital. One started in Brighton and passed through Horley, Redhill, Reigate, Merstham, Purley and Croydon, up to Vauxhall. The second route started in two places – Bournemouth (via Southampton, Winchester, Alton and Farnham) and Portsmouth (passing through Liphook, Haslemere and Godalming) – before joining at Guildford and heading to Cobham, Esher and Kingston. Meetings were held along the way which attracted large crowds and lively debate.
Women from across Surrey joined in the Pilgrimage as it passed through the county between the 19 and 24 July 1913 – walking or driving cars along part of the route. At Redhill, 1500 people assembled on Earlswood Common to watch the arrival of the pilgrims – carrying banners and wearing the colours of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) – “they had come all the way from Brighton, wet or fine, and had had nothing but kindness from everyone, and that was a very cheering thing” (Surrey Mirror, 25 July 1913). Isabel Cowe had cycled from Edinburgh as part of a national Suffrage pilgrimage and was stopped by a police officer on London Road, Egham, for riding her bicycle on the pavement.
The Surrey Advertiser described the arrival of the Pilgrimage in Haslemere – the pilgrims “numbered about 150, some of whom travelled in motor cars gaily decorated with ribbons and flowers of the suffragist colours – red, white and green. The great majority however proceeded on foot, some carrying flags and nearly all wearing sashes or rosettes of the triple colours” (Surrey Advertiser, 26 July 1913).
Many well-known suffragists took part in the march through Surrey, including: Helena Auerbach, Noeline Baker, Lady Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Balfour, Julia and William Chance, Maria Theresa Earle, Dorothy Hunter, Gertrude Jekyll, Lady Maud Selborne, Alys Pearsall Smith and Mary Watts. Ethel Snowden, wife of Philip Snowden, a Labour politician, who later lived in Churt, was a speaker at the Hyde Park Rally held at the end of the march. Harriet Blessley, who had marched all the way from Portsmouth and had kept a diary, described Ethel Snowden as ‘my favourite of favourite speakers’.
Other Surrey residents hosted Pilgrims at their homes – providing rest and refreshments. In Merstham, ‘pilgrims’ were entertained by the Walker family at Merstham House and “Miss Walker herself motored some of the footsore and weary several stages on their journey” (Surrey Mirror, 1 August 1913). In Purley, 50 pilgrims were hosted by the journalist, Olive Christian Malvery, and in Witley, pilgrims were entertained at lunch by Mrs C.W. Dixon (Agnes) at Great Roke.
The Pilgrimage was organised by the NUWSS in response to fears that the actions of militant suffragettes weredamaging the suffrage cause. The pilgrims were to show themselves the very opposite of the suffragettes – they carried conciliatory banners declaring themselves ‘non militant’ and were encouraged to be neatly dressed, polite and tactful. Purple (the colour of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)) was banned – one pilgrim who marched through Surrey, Harriet Blessley, wrote in her diary of the event that she was presented with some white and purple sweet peas which she had to “smuggle out of sight, as purple of any description is forbidden” (Portsmouth History Centre ref. 1155A_1 (a)).
By turning out in large numbers and presenting a clear argument for women’s suffrage at meetings held along the routes – the pilgrims would promote the suffrage cause in a peaceful and, arguably, more influential way than that of their militant sisters.
As Surrey campaigner Lady Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Balfour said in one of her speeches in the run up to the event, the Pilgrimage “would give the government one more opportunity not to listen to the lawless, but to the law-abiding” (Surrey Mirror, 11 July 1913).
A Mixed Reception
Unfortunately, the distinction between the militant and non-militant arms of the suffrage movement was not always so clear to the man or woman ‘on the street’. Militant suffragettes kept making headlines in the period leading upto, and during the Pilgrimage. In Guildford just weeks before, huge crowds had come to witness the trial of two ‘suffragists’ charged with setting fire to the Grand Stand at Hurst Park racecourse. Hundreds had watched the women taken away from court and hissed at them as they were escorted to the train at Guildford Station. In Haslemere, a ticking bomb was found on the staircase at the railway station with a ‘suffragist’ message, just hours before the pilgrims marched into the town.
Anti-suffragists had organised their own meetings along the route of the Pilgrimage – at Esher, Cobham and Guildford – to help stir up opposition. In Guildford, a crowd of 2,000 came to an anti-suffrage meeting the evening before the pilgrims arrived in town. One speaker described the suffragists as “the delightful ladies who burn our letters and our houses and knock our policemen about”, Harriet Blessley wrote in her diary – “Antis have anticipated us again – gave a message last night. Nearly every place they have anticipated us like this. It seems an unsporting thing to do but all’s fair in war, I suppose” (Portsmouth History Centre ref. 1155A_1 (a)).
As a result, some pilgrims received a mixed reception. In Farnham and Guildford particularly they faced hostility and abuse. In Farnham, “disgraceful scenes” were witnessed at a meeting in Castle Street, where “apparently under the mistaken impression that the speakers were of the militant section…a large and boisterous crowd pelted them with rotten eggs and discharged fireworks”. Witness, Sylvia Nash of Church Crookham, wrote “the shouts of glee, which well-dressed men raised whenever a woman was struck, were perhaps the most discreditable feature of the evening”. (Surrey and Hants News, 26 July 1913). After half an hour the speakers were forced to take refuge in the offices of the local auctioneer J.A. Eggar.
Riotous Behaviour in Guildford
In Guildford the following night, an estimated 8,000 people came to a meeting held by pilgrims in North Street – described by a reporter for the Surrey and Hants News as “undoubtedly the largest assembly ever seen at a public meeting in Guildford” including “large numbers of women and children” (26 July 1913). Lively scenes were expected and from the start, the speakers were drowned out by the singing of ragtime songs, whistling and cat-calls. Harriet Blessley wrote “the old story – we are taken for militants. It is difficult to feel a holy pilgrim when one is called a brazen hussy” (Portsmouth History Centre ref. 1155A_1 (a)).
Before long, an “ugly rush was made for the wagonnette” that was being used as a platform. According to a reporter for the Surrey Advertiser “the surging and swaying of the crowd [became] more ominous every minute…the vehicle began to move and the occupants had to cling to the sides for safety. The police realised the position in the nick of time and prevented what might have been a nasty accident” (Surrey Advertiser, 26 July 1913). The speakers were evacuated from the waggonette but “it was some time before the police managed to clear the street, for the people seemed loath to realise that the sport of women-baiting had come to an end” (Surrey and Hants News, 26 July 1913).
One local NUWSS member accused the anti-suffragists of importing trouble-makers to Guildford to prevent the pilgrims speaking: they wrote to the Surrey Advertiser : “one hopes that report in this case is true and that these cads were an importation into Guildford paid for by the enemies of the cause” (Surrey Advertiser, 26 July 1913).
This accusation was strongly denied by the anti-suffragists who pointed the finger back at the actions of the suffragettes – “in so far as [the pilgrims] have suffered, they have suffered for the sins of the militants and their first endeavour should be to convert their erring sisters to a saner frame of mind…they can no longer be insensible to the tremendous set-back the movement has received by the outrageous conduct of this section” (Surrey Advertiser, 26 July 1913).
Despite anti-suffrage opposition and the confusion with militants, the Pilgrimage through Surrey – as elsewhere – helped to promote the suffrage cause.
Meetings held in Redhill, Merstham, Purley, Liphook, Haslemere, Godalming, Ash, Cobham and Esher all finished with the passing of resolutions in favour of the emancipation of women, often carried with a large majority. Crowds of people came to watch the pilgrims and the ‘pilgrim’s progress’ was reported by all the major local newspapers.
As the editor of the Surrey Mirror wrote – “to the government, the press and the voting public, the NU have clearly demonstrated that the true backing of the suffrage movement is orderly and law abiding” (1 August 1913).
The difference between militants and non-militants was clearer in many people’s minds than it had been before and the suffrage cause had gained much support – including financial support in the form of thousands of pounds of donations from across the country.
Suffrage marches like the Great Pilgrimage would become the pattern for countless peaceful protests on the streets of towns and cities – an inspiration to those fighting for rights and freedoms the world over.
Contributed by Jessica Sawyer, ‘The March of the Women’ project volunteer.
Sources accessed via Surrey History Centre:
Robinson. Hearts & Minds: The Untold Story of The Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote.
Surrey Advertiser. 5 July 1913 – 2 August 1913.
Surrey & Hants News. 26 July 1913
Harriet Blessley’s Suffrage Pilgrimage Diary, Portsmouth History Centre ref. 1155A_1(a). A copy of the Surrey section is held at Surrey History Centre ref. Z/708.
British Newspaper Archive
Dorking & Leatherhead Advertiser. 5 July 1913 – 9 August 1913
The Surrey Mirror. 11 July 1913 – 1 August 1913
Other related sources:
Find out more about the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Surrey
Find out more about the Peaceful Suffrage Protest in Surrey
Search the suffrage indexes from local newspapers and periodicals here
Read our Surrey Suffrage biographies here
Discover sources for researching the Suffrage Movement in Surrey here