The Suffragette Movement in the Local Area
The Suffrage campaign gathered recruits from all over the country, and Surrey was no exception. There is evidence that the women’s movement was active in Guildford from the early 1870s and, as the cause gained momentum, groups affiliated to the different suffrage societies sprang up throughout the county. The law-abiding NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) was by far the most common group, but there was a branch of the militant WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) in Woking. Within the boundaries of what is now the Borough of Runnymede, Egham had a branch of the NUWSS by 1913. This followed on from a separate branch which had been established at Royal Holloway College in Egham in 1908.
Royal Holloway College, which was dedicated to women’s higher education, also has a further strong connection to the Suffragette campaign. Between 1891 and 1893 Emily Wilding Davison studied English Literature there. Emily Davison was very active in the militant WSPU; undertaking criminal activity in order to raise awareness of the cause including window smashing and arson. She endured a number of prison sentences, staged hunger strikes and suffered force feeding. She is most famous for her final act when, on June 4th 1913 she ran onto the racecourse at the Epsom Derby and was trampled by the King’s horse. Two WSPU flags were found to have been pinned inside her coat. She died 4 days later on the 8th June and her funeral procession through London accorded her martyr status for the cause.
A number of NUWSS meetings in Egham were reported in the local paper between 1910 and 1914. Though there seems to have been no specific branch in Chertsey, at least one meeting did take place here. The Egham and Staines News reported, in their April 25th 1913 edition, of one which was held in the Chertsey Public Hall by the Weybridge District branch of the NUWSS. It stated that about 60 people attended a ticketed meeting. Miss Agnes Gardiner gave a 'finely written paper’ in which she argued eloquently for the vote. She was careful to distance herself and the society from the activities of the militant WSPU, some of which had occurred in Surrey.
Militant activity in the Surrey area ranged from high-profile attacks such as the bombing of the Walton-on-the-Hill home of politician Lloyd George, in February 1913, to window smashing and arson. In their 3rd February 1913 edition the Surrey Advertiser reported that for the second time in two months vandalism had been committed to a pillar box. Ink had been emptied into the box at the Chertsey Road Post Office in Chobham. The Anti-Suffrage lobby was also well represented in our locality.
Vandalism to pillar boxes was mentioned at an Anti-Suffrage meeting which took place in Egham in February 1912. Both men and women from the local area attended the meeting and Edward Clarke KC gave a speech in which he argued against the militant actions of the WSPU campaigners. He also stated that ‘No-one in a civilised country had a ‘right’ to vote unless it was to the advantage of the State’.
Suffragette Attack in Englefield Green
By far the most significant Suffragette criminal act carried out within our borough was an arson attack. It is likely to have been perpetrated by two WSPU members - Elsie Duval and Olive Beamish (who used the false name Phyllis Brady). On the night of the 19th-20th March 1913 Suffragettes set fire to Trevethan, a large three storey house in Englefield Green, near Egham, which was owned by Lady White. Lady White was the widow of Sir George White, VC; a hero of the Boer War. The house had been unoccupied for three years. No-one was hurt but it suffered around £3,000 worth of damage.
Given the recent bombings and arson attacks in Surrey, militant Suffragettes were quickly suspected and a search of the grounds revealed papers which read ‘Stop torturing our comrades in prison’ and ‘Votes for Women’. At about 12.40am the constable on the beat in the area had seen two women, wearing motoring veils and long coats, riding at speed on bicycles from the direction of the house.
At the time of the attack, no-one was arrested. However, on the 12th April 1913 Phyllis Brady (real name Olive Beamish) and Millicent Dean (Elsie Duval) were approached by a police officer whilst walking in Croydon at 1.45am. They were both carrying leather travelling cases and claimed they were returning from holiday. They were followed by the policeman and decided to drop their cases and run but were caught and arrested for being found with inflammable material with the intention of committing a felony. According to some sources, both women had been responsible for burning Sanderstead station and other unnamed targets. They were also suspected of the burning of Trevethan house, and a case was being built against them.
However, they were not charged for this offence but instead were remanded in custody and then sentenced to 6 weeks imprisonment in Holloway jail. Both went on hunger strike and were forcibly fed. While they were in prison ‘The Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913’ came into force. Commonly known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, this allowed prisoners who were in danger of dying to be released and then taken back into prison shortly after when they had recovered a little. Elsie and Olive were the first prisoners to have been released under the act on the 28th April 1913. Both absconded after they had been released and did not return to prison.
Elsie left for the Continent soon after being released and only returned to Britain after the outbreak of the First World War. After her release under the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’. Olive Beamish managed to evade capture and continue her militant activity until January 1914. She was then charged, again as Phyllis Brady, with having set fire to Trevethan house, Englefield Green. Olive was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months’ hard labour, though her release was negotiated when she promised to cease militant activities.
Grace Evans, Keeper of Costume, has produced a booklet detailing the story of the Englefield Green attack, including additional information and images, which is available to purchase in the museum shop and online.