'Defend Dorset Hall’: My campaign to save the former home of suffragette Rose Lamartine Yates.
by Barbara Gorna
I regularly drove by a wonderful old building on my commute with the words Dorset Hall etched above the doorway. The building was boarded up and in a state of disrepair.
The name ‘Dorset Hall’ seemed familiar, but I simply could not place it. A little research and I remembered: it was the former home of WSPU suffragette Rose Lamartine Yates, her husband Tom, and a regular haunt for other renowned suffragettes.
Rose and Tom moved to Dorset Hall in 1909 and in September that year she became the organising secretary of the Wimbledon branch of the WSPU. Prior to this she was the first female council leader of the Cyclists Touring Club some 40,000 members strong. Her parents were French, and she was educated in Kassel, the Sorbonne, and Royal Holloway where she met Emily Wilding Davison who became her close friend. In 1897, she read for Oxford Final Honours; the highest award available to women at that time.
Tom was a solicitor and she studied Law to help him in his practice becoming acutely aware of the ‘one-sided laws of divorce and guardianship of children’.
Rose’s first arrest for the cause was in February 1909 after the Caxton Hall meeting when she was arrested after attempting to serve a petition to the Prime Minister. She was jailed for one month and a cartoon in Punch magazine critiqued her for ‘leaving’ her 8-month-old baby Paul to be looked after by his nurse.
Wimbledon Common was her platform and on Sundays she attracted crowds hundreds strong to listen to her impassioned speeches on the condition of the poor, particularly women’s lives, and the need for the vote to improve their power. Alongside, she was an enthusiastic supporter of the WSPU ‘window-smashing’ campaign and militancy, including the attacking of property such as Golf courses. The ‘Votes for Women’ slogan was etched with acid into Wimbledon Common Golf course, and there was an attempt to burn down the All England cricket Pavilion under her watch.
Her home, Dorset Hall, became a hub of the women’ suffrage movement and a place of refuge for many leading suffragettes. Indomitable suffragette Mary Leigh lived there for 6 months; Edith Begbie, Gertrude Williamson, and Mary Gawthorpe were all frequent visitors. Rose was even suspected of hiding Christabel Pankhurst there in 1912, when she was on her way to Paris having fled the Police. Rose refused to allow them to search her home.
However, probably the most well-known and frequent guest was her friend and fellow suffragette Emily Wilding Davison. Emily spent the afternoon visiting her friend Rose at Dorset Hall and collected two flags marked ‘Votes for Women’ the day before her fatal collision with the King’s horse at Epsom Derby in 1913. The suffragettes wanted to petition the King in person but were now notorious and had been banned from the owners’ enclosure that day. Emily is thought to have died trying to throw a Votes for Women sash on or around the King’s horse as it galloped past but was seriously injured as the horse tried to jump and trampled her. She eventually succumbed to her injuries.
What was the conversation between the two friends Emily and Rose that prior afternoon at Dorset Hall? Rose and Mary Leigh rushed to Emily’s bedside after the accident and decorated her bed with the WSPU campaign colours of purple, white and green. Rose was later one of the key organisers of Emily’s funeral in St George’s Bloomsbury and led the first guard in the procession to Euston and onwards to Morpeth where Emily is buried.
Captain Davison, Emily’s half-brother, was represented at the inquest by Rose’s husband Tom Lamartine Yates. He stayed with Rose and Tom at Dorset Hall immediately after the accident and during the inquest.
Rose became ill after Emily’s death and went abroad to recover. On her return, the Great War of 1914 broke out and Rose fell out with the Pankhurst’s who tasked the WSPU with supporting the war rather than continuing the women’s suffrage campaign. She set up a new organisation called Suffragettes of the WSPU and continued to lobby for the vote. She was also instrumental in creating the Suffragette Fellowship ensuring a legacy for suffragette history.
Post War in 1918, she was asked to stand for Westminster against Sir Joseph Hood – but decided to fight an LCC (London County Council) seat instead which she won. She continued to fight for women and the poor all her life and pledged her garden at Dorset Hall in perpetuity to the people of Merton.
Therefore, I was saddened to see the now dishevelled ‘Dorset Hall’ which was bought by Clarion housing about 10 years ago as part of a job lot and turned into bedsits. This project was abandoned about four years ago and the building has laid empty since, its future uncertain.
Dorset Hall is such an important site, rich with the history of the women’s suffrage movement and its campaigners like Emily Wilding Davison, that I passionately believe it simply must be saved and prevented from deteriorating further. So, I’ve started a campaign called ‘Defend Dorset Hall’ with plans to turn it into a museum and place of refuge for women and to recognise Rose’s contribution.
Will you join me? Can you help with this campaign? Please contact me with ideas and suggestions about saving Dorset Hall for now and for future generations at email@example.com
About the author:
An ardent campaigner for women’s rights, Barbara Gorna was the architect of the Sex Discrimination (No. 2) Bill, now part of the Equality Act 2010. The bill sought to prevent private clubs from discriminating against women politically, socially, or in sporting events. She was a director of Fawcett for five years (as Barbara Nutt) and a trustee. She has also advised on domestic violence campaigns, education, and social issues. In 2003, her first play in conjunction with Demos was performed at the Labour Party conference, and since then she has written produced, and co-produced five feature films and documentaries: the last being with Clare Balding, ‘Secrets of a Suffragette’. Barbara owns the iconic sash belonging to Emily Wilding Davison on display in the Palace of Westminster.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are soley those of the author. Any views and opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of Mapping Women's Suffrage, and/or any/all contributors to this site.