The Peaceful Protest
Not all suffrage supporters were in favour of forceful protest. While the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was supporting the militancy of their members, their suffragist counterparts in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) advocated change through peaceful methods of protest. Campaigners felt that this more effectively demonstrated their ability to operate in the political sphere and used petitioning, public meetings and lobbying techniques to persuade Members of Parliament to debate the issue.
Helena Auerbach, president of Reigate, Redhill and District Society for Women’s Suffrage, maintained that the branch avoided all connection with party politics. She persistently wrote to the local, national and international press on the subject of Women’s Suffrage, decrying the violent tactics used by the some groups as tarnishing the reputation of other pro-suffrage societies, claiming that ‘…aggressive political coercion is as little suited to our sex as the exercise of physical force’ (SHC ref 3266/1). Click on the image to see the complete letter. Helena served as treasurer of the NUWSS, as well as on a national Jewish committee for women’s suffrage. Taking the cause to an international stage, she was a key speaker at suffrage meetings in France, Germany and South Africa. Helena later co-founded the Surrey County Federation of the Women’s Institute.
On two occasions members of the Society participated in marches to the Albert Hall in London, boarding specially arranged trains for the events – the first was on 13 June 1908 when over 10,000 women attended, and the second was on 17 June 1911 when numbers reached 40,000.
In Surrey, the suffragist movement had a number of high profile supporters, including politicians and nobility representing the peaceful protest. In Compton, Mary Watts, founder of the Compton Potters’ Arts Guild and widow of the famous painter G. F. Watts, promoted the cause through her wide circle of friends. She was made president of the Godalming Branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1909, after writing a letter expressing her support. Mary not only attended high-profile suffrage meetings but also held them at her Surrey studio-home, where on one occasion she gave an impassioned speech declaring ‘a vote meant a voice’. In 1913 Mary Watts offered her husband’s famous allegorical painting Faith (1896) to be reproduced on the cover of the leading suffragist journal The Common Cause.
In Abinger, Thomas Cecil, 2nd Baron Farrer, Liberal MP and his wife Lady (Evangeline) Farrer (Eva), were active suffragists. Lord Farrer regularly corresponded with supporters of the NUWSS, including Millicent Fawcett. In July 1910 Mrs Humphrey Ward, author and staunch anti-suffragist, wrote to The Times claiming that women did not want the vote, Lord Farrer replied on behalf of the women of Surrey that they very much did. On 2 May 1914, Catherine Marshall, honorary secretary to the NUWSS, wrote to Lady Farrer asking her to lend her influence to the cause by writing to peers to ensure they attended the reading of a Women’s Suffrage Bill at the House of Lords.
Many women who deplored the use of militant tactics combined their support for suffrage with other philanthropic and social causes. The Temperance reform campaign attracted many suffrage supporters, including Lady Henry Somerset, whose estates centred on Reigate, where she established the farm colony at Duxhurst to help inebriate women get back onto their feet. She did not believe in violent and dramatic protests. Neither did Eleanor (Nora) Sidgwick, Principal of Newnham College, who was one of the early suffragists and advocated advances in the education of women. Following her retirement she moved to ‘Fisher’s Hill’, Woking, c.1915, to live with her brother, Gerald Balfour and his wife Betty Balfour, a fellow suffragist who became Woking’s first female councillor. Nora advocated that women should have the parliamentary franchise not only in the interest of fairness but also because it would help improve conditions for women in the workplace. Her opinions were published in Common Cause on 24 January 1913, ‘An important reason why women should have the parliamentary franchise is the large number earning their own living and the growing tendency of parliament to interfere directly and indirectly with conditions of employment. Women’s interests may often be different from those of men and should be represented.’ Lady Mary Murray of Churt was a vocal supporter of women’s suffrage but believed that it would benefit women’s working conditions. A report in Common Cause, recounted a meeting in Oxford with female shop assistants, on the 14 October 1909, where Lady Mary argued ‘that women were not ignorant of the cause which influenced wages’ and that gaining ‘the vote would have a beneficial effect on the payment and status of women’s work’.
Art provided a common bond among suffragists and was used as a powerful tool of persuasion in the county. Joan Harvey Drew of Blackheath Village was a member of the Artists’ Suffrage League and designed postcards, posters and banners for the NUWSS. Garden designer Gertrude Jekyll designed and worked a banner for the Godalming branch of the NUWSS of which she was a member. Fellow suffragist Mary Elizabeth Thackeray Turner, wife of the architect Hugh Thackeray Turner of Godalming, was also a talented embroiderer. In 1907 she co-founded the Women’s Guild of Arts, with May Morris, specifically for female artists because the Art Worker’s Guild did not admit women. It seems likely that Mary may have helped with embroidering Mary Lowndes’ designs for suffrage banners. Mary’s Surrey-based suffragist sisters, Theodora Wilde Powell, Agnes Dixon and Christiana Herringham, were also talented and influential in the world of embroidery and art. Other artists who lived in Surrey and supported the suffrage cause were Dorothy Salmon, an art teacher and later nun, who was born in Kingston-Upon-Thames in 1883, Bertha Newcombe, of the Artists’ Suffrage League, who from 1888 until the 1890s lived at ‘Northcote’, East Croydon, Rachel (Ray) Alice Marshall (later Mrs David Garnett), an illustrator and wood engraver who in the 1911 census resided at ‘Tweenways’, Hindhead, Louise Rica Jacobs, a landscape and flower painter who from c.1935-1946 lived at ‘Beverlac’, Coombe Road, New Malden, Marjorie Hamilton, an artist who lived at ‘The Grange’ Ewell, from 1902-1911 but in 1917 recorded her address on a ship’s manifest as Cranleigh, and Edith Elizabeth Downing, a painter and sculptor who lived at ‘Robins Rough’, Peaslake.
The Women’s Freedom League (WFL) was formed in 1907 by members of the Women’s Social and Political Union who did not agree with Emmeline Pankhurst’s strategy. Led by Easher resident Charlotte Despard and Teresa Billington-Greig, the WFL advocated direct action, such as passive resistance to taxation and a boycott of the 1911 census, but they did not condone attacks on property. In 1908 WFL member Muriel Matters led a caravan tour of the south east counties, including Surrey, and Wales to establish new WFL branches. In 1909 WFL members were urged to avoid the newly introduced National Insurance (NI) tax on servant wages. Around 10,000 women boycotted this tax and about 100 of them went to prison. Kate Harvey of Croydon was of them, after she had barricaded herself inside her house for several months In 1912, before police eventually broke in with a crow-bar. Similarly, in Woldingham, Miss Mary Anderson was a member of the Women’s Tax Resistance League and refused to pay her income tax. Her goods were eventually seized in August 1912 and auctioned but purchased and returned to her by fellow sympathiser Mrs Snow. The case attracted press coverage as after the sale, a protest meeting was held involving Mrs Huntsman and Miss Nina C Boyle of the Women’s Freedom League, supported by Charlotte Despard, President, and Mrs Cobden-Sanderson, Vice-President of the Women’s Tax Resistance League. Also active in Woldingham were Mrs Maud Mary Abbott of ‘Southcliffe’, Long Hill, and Mrs Maud Helen Fisher of ‘The Oaks’, Nethern Court Road. (Details courtesy of The Woldingham History Society). In Woking, Isabel Alice Maud Pocock (b.1883) was Honorary Secretary of the Woking branch of the Women’s Freedom League in 1908. Originally from Wandsworth, her family moved to Lyndhurst’, Chobham Road, Woking, where her father died in 1906.
Providing a literary protest was Constance Maud, the elder daughter of the Rev. Henry Landon Maud, the rector of Sanderstead. In 1911 she wrote and published No Surrender which depicts the experiences of a Lancashire mill worker and an upper class girl, who both become involved in the suffrage movement. The novel is important for its documentation of the social and political events of the suffrage movement, arguably the first to do so.
By 1913, the NUWSS had nearly 100,000 members and launched the Woman’s Suffrage Pilgrimage to demonstrate to Parliament how many women wanted the vote. The march planned to converge on Hyde Park on 26 July 1913, with local groups passing through their own regions. The South-Western Federation, the West of England Federation, and the Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire Federation walked from Lands End to Hyde Park and the route from Brighton passed through Horley, Earlswood Common, Reigate and Redhill, where walkers and cyclists stopped for the night before moving on towards Croydon. Many had received verbal abuse and had missiles thrown at them along the route, particularly during a riot just across the Surrey/Sussex border at East Grinstead. Despite this, an estimated 50,000 women reached Hyde Park in London on 26th July.
Pilgrims also marched from Portsmouth, marching along the Portsmouth Road through Haslemere, Godalming and Guildford, carrying banners. When they arrived in Guildford they held a public meeting in North Street, on 22 July 1913. Haslemere suffragist, Dorothy Hunter, was one of the speakers. Dorothy was a successful ‘girl orator’ (public speaker) for the Liberal Party and considered ‘one of the foremost lady speakers of the day’ on free trade and the enfranchisement of women. The public meeting was thought to be the largest ever held in the town with a crowd numbering 8,000 people. Suffragists were repeatedly faced with hostility during such peaceful demonstrations as they were often mistaken for militant suffragettes, which fuelled rising tensions between the two factions. Harriet Blessley, a suffragist from Portsmouth en route to London, wrote ‘The old story – we are taken for militants. It is difficult to feel a holy pilgrim when one is called a brazen hussy’. The public meeting in Guildford caused so much heckling and disturbance that the speakers’ wagonette was nearly overturned and, fearing riot, police closed the meeting.