The activities of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and their leaders – Millicent Fawcett and the Pankhursts – to win ‘Votes for Women’ are familiar to many people in the UK; but the actions of the Women’s Freedom League are perhaps less well-known. This blog explores the efforts of the Women’s Freedom League to win support across West Sussex, and how these efforts can help us understand the local attitude towards the national campaign for women’s suffrage.
The Women’s Freedom League (WFL) was founded in September 1907 after a series of disputes about the constitution and direction of the WSPU caused a breakaway group of women – led by Charlotte Despard, a leading suffrage campaigner, and included Anne Cobden-Sanderson, daughter of the Liberal politician Richard Cobden (who had a family home at Heyshott, near Midhurst) and sister of Jane Cobden Unwin, a fellow suffragist and one of the first female London County Councillors – to set up their own society. Although it was a militant society open to law breaking, the WFL encouraged non-violent methods of protest; yet its members would be frequently arrested and incarcerated for their actions.
One of the WFL’s leading members was Muriel Matters. An Australian actress, Muriel moved to England in 1905 and joined the WFL soon after its inception. She would later become famous as one of a pair of suffragists who chained herself to the so-called Grille (a brass latticework screen erected to shield women visitors from the view of sitting MPs) in the House of the Commons in October 1908. The entire grille had to be removed from its fixings before a blacksmith was able to remove their chains. And in 1909, she took to the skies in an airship emblazoned with the motto ‘Votes for Women’ with the intention of dropping handbills over the King as he progressed from Buckingham Palace to Parliament for its state opening.
However, before these exploits, Muriel was ‘Organiser in Chief’ for the WFL’s Caravan Campaign, and from May to October 1908, she traversed the South Downs attempting to bring the WFL and its campaign to the towns and villages nestled amongst its landscapes. Setting off from Charlotte Despard’s house in Oxshott, Surrey, on 16th May 1908, Muriel eventually arrived at Midhurst, her first stop in West Sussex, on the 30th of May. Perhaps because of its connection to the Cobden family, Midhurst was considered ‘one of the brightest and most likely spots for seed to take root’ and an open-air meeting ‘drew many hundreds of residents’. After a weekend in Midhurst the caravan moved to Petworth and hosted another open-air meeting before heading on to Chichester, where two meetings were held apparently with limited success, ‘the first drawing many hostile roughs’ and the second falling victim to ‘hostility’ due to the women’s ‘doubtful reputation’ and then, once their ‘stolid respectability’ was proven, instead fell victim to ‘the spirit of apathy’.
From Chichester, Muriel drove the caravan to Bognor, spending a long weekend in the town where she held several meetings, both in the open air and at private houses, before heading to Littlehampton. From Littlehampton, Muriel – who was accompanied throughout her tour by Lilian Hicks, a seasoned suffrage campaigner – visited Yapton, ‘a small village with an enlightened vicar’ but found ‘unintelligent and offensive opposition’ when they held their meeting. After a short break from the campaign, so that the women could return to London to join the NUWSS’s mass march and meeting held on the 13th of June, the caravan was back on the road. The next stop was Angmering, where Muriel found that ‘as in other parts, the women seemed to be much more intelligent than the men’, before heading to Findon where conversely, they succeeded in converting several men as well as women. The caravan then moved on to Cowfold, West Grinstead and possibly Horsham before heading to Crawley and East Grinstead towards the end of June, thence further into East Sussex and Kent.
Muriel’s journey and experiences in West Sussex can be traced using the WFL’s regular bulletin entitled ‘Votes for Women’ which featured in the Women’s Franchise newspaper. Unfortunately, while Muriel’s earlier exploits are recorded, the lack of space in the bulletins meant that although she submitted reports of her visits to Crawley and East Grinstead, they were not published.
Muriel’s reports are a delight to read and convey a real sense of her character. Her dry – sometimes sardonic - humour is evident throughout, along with a stoicism and devotion to both the WFL and the wider campaign. The reports also hint at the very real physical danger which Muriel and Lilian Hicks faced throughout their campaign in West Sussex. As two women travelling the countryside alone, in a caravan which afforded little protection, promoting strong views on a subject which aroused equally strong responses, they were vulnerable to the baying mob although this threat is often brushed aside. Muriel makes passing references to ‘hostile roughs’ with ‘rats and mice in evidence’ intended to scare the speakers (Chichester); ‘eggs and flour’ (Yapton); and having to ‘invite the police sergeant to take a walk around the town with us’ (Bognor). However, local newspaper reports reveal the true extent of these threats.
The Chichester Observer, 3rd of June 1908, gives an account of the first (open air) meeting in Chichester where:
‘A crowd of several hundred had gathered and it was soon apparent that the majority were not sympathetic, for when Miss Metters [sic] got up to speak, there was a good deal of interruption. She spoke for about a quarter-of-an-hour, but hardly a word of what she said could be heard, and finding that it was useless to go on further, she declared that “under the circumstances” as the men would not allow her to speak she would be pleased to have “a special meeting for women.” Miss Metters and her supporters then left the steps to proceed to their caravan, which had been placed in Mr Grainger’s yard close by St Pancras Church, but they were immediately hemmed by the crowd, but eventually about half a dozen policemen forced them through. Then a portion of the crowd rushed up East Walls from where they could see the caravan which was then pelted, but the Suffragettes quickly put it under cover.’
The Portsmouth Evening News on 3rd June 1908, reported that Muriel’s return to the caravan:
‘… was the signal for a rush by the crowd and Sergeant Peel and several constables had to go to the protection of the ladies, who were assailed by a shower of old potatoes and mud… For some time, several hundreds of people hung about, expecting the reappearance of the ladies, but by and by they disappeared.’
The Bognor Observer of the 10th of June also documents the Bognor incident in more detail. Muriel’s first open air meeting met with a fair hearing:
‘but trouble came a little later when she was recognised occupying a seat on the Parade, and at once a spirit of mischief seized the youths, who recognised her. Balls of sand were sent whizzing in her direction, and so uncomfortable did the situation become, and so threatening the rapidly accumulating crowd, that the fair advocate of women’s rights had to seek the protection of police, and the shelter of the police station, whither she was escorted by Sergeant Thomas, followed by a jeering crowd. For some time the demonstrators waited outside the police station expecting the re-appearance of Miss Matters, but the young lady baffled the crowd by resorting to a disguise, the nature of which is only hinted at, and so gained the seclusion of her caravan without further discomfort.’
Muriel and Lilian pressed on, however, refusing to be intimidated and believing that their campaign was worthwhile if they converted at least some of their audience, since this would allow seed to take root. After her visit to Findon (16th June), Muriel commented that
‘It is wonderful to watch the effect that this campaign is having upon these country people, who hitherto have known nothing of the movement, save what they read in the newspaper columns. When we tell them that we really are the same women of whom they read such strange accounts in the London press it makes them pause and reflect. They cannot understand why our speeches have not been fully and faithfully reported in the newspapers. And so our campaign, if doing no other good, is surely causing these country folks to take a kindlier view not only of the movement, but of the women who deal in its ranks.’
The WFL’s Caravan Campaign did have a positive effect upon West Sussex. In July 1908, shortly after its tour of West Sussex was complete, a West Sussex branch of the WFL was set up – the first, organised suffrage society in the county; and it is perhaps a sign of the campaign’s success that a branch of the Anti-Suffrage League was set up later that same year. The first meeting of the WFL branch was held at Easebourne in August 1908, with the elaborately-named Mrs Florence Gertrude de Fonblanque of Duncton in the chair. Mrs de Fonblanque (the sister of Maud Arncliffe Sennett, a prominent suffragist who served on the WFL’s Executive Committee) would go on to achieve a certain amount of fame as the instigator of the Women’s March of 1912, which saw suffragists walk from Edinburgh to London, and subsequently founded the Qui Vive Corps, based in Horsham, in 1913.
(For more on WFL campaigner Florence de Fonblanque see our map. See also Jaakoff Prelooker of the MLWS who was of 'great assistance' during the Sussex caravan campaign).
Other members of the West Sussex branch included Ethel Margaret ‘Madge’ Turner of Chichester, who would be arrested and imprisoned in February 1909 for ‘wilfully obstructing the police’ and later worked as an Organiser for the WFL; Elsie Cummins of Easebourne, who served as Branch Secretary and was arrested and imprisoned in July 1909 for obstructing the police in their duty; and Anne Cobden-Sanderson and Jane Cobden-Unwin, with Anne having been arrested and imprisoned in October 1906 for disorderly conduct (somewhat bizarrely, Jane was accused of locking a policeman in a cupboard at her sister’s trial, although she avoided arrest.)
You can read more about Madge Turner on the Mapping Women’s Suffrage map and watch a video about her CLICK HERE TO VIEW VIDEO
Following on from the establishment of the West Sussex branch of the WFL in 1908, societies affiliated with the NUWSS would be created in Worthing and Cuckfield in 1909, in Littlehampton and Horsham in 1910, and in East Grinstead in 1911. The Bognor Women’s Suffrage Society was formed in 1911, while 1912 saw branches of the WSPU form in Bognor and Worthing. Finally, a branch of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage was formed in East Grinstead in 1912, and other non-militant groups were active in Horsham and Haywards Heath.
Although Muriel and Lilian clearly were met with hostility, derision, and the threat of violence during their campaign, their success cannot be denied. Muriel’s reports suggest that they were often successful in converting only a small number of the audiences, but, as Muriel wrote after leaving Chichester, ‘the spirit of the few is very strong, and we feel sure that they will feed the flame’. Given the rapid succession of suffrage groups which were established across the county in its wake, the impact of the WFL’s Caravan Campaign in West Sussex was real and lasting; those converts not only ‘fed the flame’ but nurtured and helped it spread across the county.
Images from The Women's Library at The London School at the London School of Economics and Political Science [LSE] have been reproduced by permission. The Women’s Freedom League archive is held at The Women’s Library. Digitised copies of Women’s Franchise and The Vote can be accessed online, via LSE’s Digital Library.
This blog was originally written by the author for the West Sussex Record Office’s ‘West Sussex Unwrapped II’ campaign, published March 2021(https://westsussexrecordofficeblog.com/).
Further information about Muriel Matters' role in the WFL’s Caravan Campaign can be found in Robert Wainwright’s Miss Muriel Matters: The Fearless Suffragist who Fought for Equality (2017, Allen & Unwin).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nichola Court is an archivist at West Sussex Record Office. She started as a volunteer back in 2002 and has spent much of her professional life there, also working as Modern Records Archivist for the Royal Society for three years. She is currently developing an Education Programme bringing schoolchildren and students into the archive or visiting schools (Covid permitting). Nichola became interested in West Sussex women’s suffrage when compiling a talk to commemorate the centenary in 2018 of the passing of the Representation of the People Act (1918) and was particularly struck by the WFL’s caravan campaign in the county where she grew up. She has since examined the impact the wider national campaign for women’s suffrage had on one woman’s life, that of Ethel Margaret ‘Madge’ Turner from Chichester.
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.