The Women’s Freedom League Caravan Campaign in Surrey
The Women’s Freedom League (WFL), had broken away from the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1907, following a disagreement over tactics. The WFL opposed violence preferring to use peaceful forms of protest such as tax boycotts, refusal to complete census forms and chaining themselves to objects in the Houses of Parliament. The WFL had over 4,000 members and published The Vote newspaper. The WFL continued with its pacifist activities during the First World War, supporting the Women’s Peace Council and members suspended their campaigns to take up voluntary work, but in 1916 they restarted their lobbying activities.
It was reported in the Surrey Advertiser on 23 May 1908 that a group of enthusiastic supporters of women’s suffrage met the previous Saturday at “Earnshaw Cottage”, the Esher home of Mrs Charlotte Despard. The aim of the meeting was to launch a new education campaign for the suffrage movement. A number of prominent supporters of the suffrage cause had accepted Mrs Despard’s invitation to give the van, the first to be used in such work, a hearty send-off.
Those campaigners present at the caravan’s departure included Christabel Pankhurst, Madame Brunel, Edith How-Martyn, Edith Mansell [-Moullin], [Mary] Pearson, Maud Mary Brindley, Aphra Wilson, Dr Mabel Hardy, Miss Tullock, Teresa Billington-Greig (Secretary of the WFL), Lillian Hicks ( Honorary Secretary of the WFL Van Committee) Margaret Clayton (Honorary Treasurer of the WFL Van Committee), Margaret Nevinson, and Muriel Matters.
Muriel Matters set off in charge of the van on its journey to Leatherhead, together with many of the other supporters on bicycles, or foot.
The caravan pulled up just opposite the Bull Inn, Leatherhead and a large crowd gathered to jeer and heckle the suffragists. Teresa Billington-Greig was the first suffragist to try and speak to the crowd but they denied her a hearing by singing, shouting and bell-ringing to drown out her voice.
Mrs Despard was able to secure a hearing for a short while, but the suffragists decided to wait until their public meeting later in the evening at Victoria Hall. The meeting proved eventful, with a mass of people thronging through the narrow High Street to Victoria Hall, where some scuffles broke out. The local police lead by Inspector Falkner and Sergeant Dixon ensured that the crowd did not gain entry to the hall and became targets for rotten eggs and other missiles, a stone was thrown which broke a window, fortunately no-one was hurt.
During these events a number of ladies and gentlemen had been admitted to the hall and the meeting was able to take place with relatively few interruptions. After the meeting the speakers, Teresa Billington-Greig, Edith How-Martyn, Charlotte Despard and Muriel Matters, were followed by the rowdy mob accompanied by hooting, bell-ringing and jeers.
The caravan set off for its next stop in Guildford, arriving the following Tuesday. The intention was to hold an open-air meeting in North Street and crowds began to gather early. By the time the speakers arrived, a crowd of about 2,000 young men and women had assembled, there were a number of small children who were in danger of being trampled. A chair was placed outside the Fire Station (now the public conveniences on the corner of Ward Street) and it was from here that the speakers tried to be heard. Lillian Hicks was drowned out by shouting and the blowing of trumpets. Muriel Matters was next, she did manage to speak but the reception was largely hostile and there was an attempt to “rush” the chair. In an impassioned voice, Muriel pleaded with the crowd not to injure the children. After they had been led to safety the atmosphere reached fever pitch and the meeting could not continue. Muriel closed the meeting by announcing a woman-only meeting the following evening. The crowd violently hustled the speakers, who were helpless in the middle of the throng as they surged in the direction of the Royal Arms Coffee Tavern. The police, together with some of the men, formed a bodyguard around the speakers and guided them to the Royal Arms where they were admitted and the doors locked against the crowd. Two hours later when the crowds had dispersed the speakers were able to return to Mr Rose’s farm where the caravan had been left.
The following evening the suffragists were able to speak at a woman-only meeting at Ward Street Hall. On their return to Mr Rose’s Farm they found that Mr Rose had moved the caravan to Mount Farm, but Muriel and the others, including the police escort, were lost in a field below the Hog’s Back.
These adventures did not deter the suffrage campaigners and Thursday saw the caravan arrive in Godalming. The suffragist camp was pitched behind W J Nash’s premises in Meadrow, at around 10am.
The local police were prepared for trouble during the day. People began to assemble in anticipation of the suffragists arrival at the rendezvous point at the junction of Brighton Road and Wharf Street. The police, two sergeants and eleven constables, under the direction of Superintendent Jennings, were present. At 8pm Muriel arrived promptly with an escort of a large number of men and women. She took her stand on a chair in the middle of the road accompanied by her helper Miss Cowen and two gentlemen friends. The crowd was approximately 2,000 strong, including a large number of women and children, the crush was stifling. There were howls of derision, hooting and blowing of trumpets when Muriel started speaking, the din was loud and Muriel continued to try to get the crowd’s attention. She announced a meeting the following evening at the Masonic Hall to which she invited her women friends. She continued to be heckled and was told her place was in the home, a clothes peg was thrown and the meeting was closed by Miss Matters in consultation with Superintendent Jennings. In the attempt to hustle Miss Matters and her sympathisers away, the crush was tremendous and many objected to the ungentlemanly behaviour of the majority of the crowd.
Miss Matters and her escort of sympathisers then reappeared in Bridge Road and the opposing crowds followed and regrouped. The ladies resolved to walk through the town escorted by the police, they proceeded along High Street and down Church Street as far as Thorns Restaurant where they took refuge and refreshment. Church Street was blocked by the crowd and the police remained on guard outside. After the suffragists had been at Thorns for some time, Mr Thorn bolted and barred the front door and the suffragists escaped using ladders over the wall into the Deanery House garden, where they emerged near the church and found their way to the railway station, to see off a friend bound for London. The mob caught up, Mr Smith the stationmaster shut the station and ordered the suffragists off the premises. They then made their way along the muddy public path across the Buries to Bridge Street where they obtained shelter from the mob at the police station. After about an hour they were able to make their way back to the caravan.
A largish crowd remained outside Thorns Restaurant refusing to believe the suffragists had got away. Mr Thorn told them that they had left but he would give a half-sovereign reward to anyone who could find a suffragette on his premises, the crowd soon dispersed. The crowd then dispersed.
During the afternoon of Friday 22 May, the suffragists held a well-attended meeting at the Masonic Hall. The proceedings were orderly. Miss Matters was able make a speech putting the case for the removal of the sex disability and the betterment of the condition of women. She took questions from the floor and gave confident answers. Sir William Chance chaired the meeting and his views on women’s suffrage were reported by the Surrey Advertiser on 23 May 1908.
The Surrey Advertiser continued its coverage of the WFL caravan in its 30 May 1908 paper, reporting on the arrival the caravan in Haslemere. A large crowd of noisy youths made their presence felt when Muriel tried to give a speech to a public meeting in front of the Town Hall which ended early. Superintendent Jennings and twelve police officers were there to keep order but the racket made by the crowd made speeches difficult.
After further meetings in both Grayshott and Haslemere the WFL caravan continued its tour of the South-East through Hampshire, Sussex and Kent.
Contributed by Miriam Farr, ‘The March of the Women’ project volunteer.
Surrey Advertiser, 23 May and 30 May, 1908
Lorraine Spindler, Struggle and suffrage in Leatherhead (2018)
Lorraine Spindler, Walton on the Hill & District Local History Society, newsletter no.91 Feb 2019 (SHC ref J/263/90)
Vote 100 blog about the Women’s Freedom League
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Find out more about the Women’s Suffrage Movement 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