‘A good heart and a steady mind, our purpose clear in view,
And we will show our country now what women folk can do.
From Land’s End by the blue sea coast, from far beyond the Tweed,
We march that all our countryside may know the women’s need.‘
This month, it is 105 years since women were first allowed to stand for election to parliament and in a few weeks’ time, on 14 December, we mark the day in 1918 that 8.5 million women were given the right to vote for the very first time.
While a cause for celebration, this step did not mean that women had equal voting rights, but it was regarded as a move in the right direction. The achievement followed a remarkably strong campaign with many noteworthy events held by those fighting peacefully for women’s suffrage.
The year of 1913 was notable, both for the awful death of the suffragette Emily Davison, who died after jumping out in front of the King’s racehorse at the Derby, and for the huge event that took place on 26 July. Given that details were mainly passed on by word of mouth, a staggering 50,000 suffragists and peaceful campaigners gathered at a rally in Hyde Park. The event, which became known as the Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage, was the culmination of a five-week nationwide walk by women, organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).
The Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage – a journey to equality
The women walked from all corners of the country, taking their message to villages and towns on the way. The sight of many women walking together, sharing the news about their campaign and their belief in peaceful protest caused much interest and solidarity along the way. They were an unusual sight and strongly demonstrated that most women seeking the right to vote were opposed to violence and favoured using “every lawful means in their power” until the vote was won.
Among the marchers were women from Sussex, who were more likely to be suffragists than their more militant counterparts, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The Sussex Express reported in 1911 that a women’s suffrage meeting in Uckfield was very well attended, and included Marie Corbett, a stalwart member of the Women’s Liberal Federation (WLF) and the first woman to serve on Uckfield District Council. It seems inexplicable to us now that women were allowed to sit on councils but could not take part in the democratic process of choosing their representatives for parliament.
Footsteps to freedom: the Sussex pilgrims set off
The Sussex pilgrims, about 100 in number, started walking from Brighton and came from across the county. Some of the Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire Suffragist Federation originated from Land’s End. Many of the pilgrims donned the suffragist colours of green, white and scarlet and the suffragist journal, The Common Cause, was distributed to bemused onlookers on the journey.
The pilgrims stopped at Patcham and later at Clayton Hill. They included a blind woman, Miss Ormerod from Croydon. When they arrived at Hassocks, they were met by local dignitaries and supporters.
At Hammond’s Place in Burgess Hill, Mr Meates offered refreshments, while a large interested crowd gathered at Station Road. Here, women from Eastbourne joined the marchers and listened to Mr Meates furthering the peaceful protests of the suffragists and criticising the militant, often violent tactics of the suffragettes. Helen Hoare from the NUWSS wrote to The East Grinstead Observer, stating: “It’s no doubt true that some men formerly inclined to support it [women’s suffrage] have been alienated by the doings of the militant party.”
People flocked to their gates
When the pilgrims reached Tyler’s Green, they were met by suffragists from Haywards Heath and Cuckfield. By the next morning, they were joined by a central Sussex contingent. In Cuckfield, people “flocked to their gates” and windows and showed their support with smiles and cheers. The pilgrims made an impression wherever they went and they made their way to Hyde Park via Crawley, Redhill, Croydon and Vauxhall.
One of the marchers, Margory Lees, claimed that the pilgrimage succeeded in “visiting the people of this country in their own homes and villages, to explain to them the real meaning of the movement.” The pilgrims were accompanied by a lorry and Margaret Ashton followed in her car, providing rest for those exhausted by the trek.
Flying turf at East Grinstead, but overall a great success
However, not all those witnessing the marchers supported them. The East Grinstead Observer reported that a riot took place at a meeting organised by Marie Corbett. “Yells and hooting greeted them throughout the entire march and they were targets for occasional pieces of turf.” Later, when Laurence Housman attempted to speak in favour of the cause, “a few ripe tomatoes and highly seasoned eggs were flying about”.
Despite occasional setbacks, the pilgrimage was judged to be a huge success – “never was so peaceful, so pleasant a raid on London – and rarely one more picturesque or more inspiring” (The Daily News). The march and subsequent gathering at Hyde Park was arguably, according to The Times, “as much a demonstration against militancy as one in favour of women’s suffrage”. It showed that legal, peaceful means could be successfully used to gain support for their worthy cause.