The Croydon women who laid down their lives for equality

Tomorrow, June 4, marks the 100th anniversary of the 1913 Derby, in which militant suffragette Emily Wilding Davison was killed after she ran into the path of the king’s horse at Epsom racecourse. LEE WEBSTER has researched Croydon women’s part in the suffrage movement a century ago

Commemorative bouquets in the trademark green and purple of the suffragette movement were laid for Davison at Tattenham Corner before the 2013 Derby on Saturday, and her image was displayed around the racecourse. The anniversary has sparked much discussion about the achievements of the suffragettes, and where equality between women and men has reached today.

For anyone involved in the women’s rights movement, the suffragettes have a special place in our hearts. Much of the focus rightly lies with the Pankhurst family – I have a particular affinity with Sylvia Pankhurst, a peace activist, anti-fascist and passionate campaigner for working women’s rights.

The grave of Sylvia Pankhurst in Ethiopia

The grave of Sylvia Pankhurst in Ethiopia

Later in life, Sylvia Pankhurst campaigned for the independence of Ethiopia from Italian occupation and eventually she moved there, setting up the first teaching hospital in the country and a monthly socialist newspaper. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Ethiopia several times and always visit her grave, in the cemetery designated for patriots of the Ethiopian resistance.

Yet the Pankhursts didn’t and couldn’t act alone. The campaign for women’s suffrage was built on the commitment, actions and sheer determination of thousands upon thousands of ordinary suffragists and suffragettes.

Recently, I decided to find out a bit more about the role of Croydon women in that movement. I know the tenacity of Croydon women activists today in campaigning on issues that affect them, so I was delighted yet unsurprised to find we follow in the footsteps of women who fought for the vote a century ago.

A note of caution, I’m not a historian by any means, and these snippets of the lives of suffragettes in and around Croydon have been found on various websites, with the help of a certain search engine. Readers may know more, in which case please share. But these snippets warmed my heart, and on this anniversary, let’s take a brief look at our own suffrage heritage.

According to the Croydon Communist party, the women’s movement in the borough in the early 1900s was vibrant, and they had at least three different offices, two in George Street and one in the area of the Green Dragon pub.

A firm fixture on the Croydon suffragette scene was Marion Holmes, president of the Croydon chapter of the Women’s Social and Political Union. A determined champion of women’s right to vote, she led a march on parliament, was arrested and imprisoned for a fortnight. On March 5, 1907, Christabel Pankhurst came to a meeting in Croydon where Marion was joyously welcomed back from her stay in Holloway.

In 1908, two more Croydon women, Mary Pearson and a “Mrs Dempsey” from the Women’s Freedom League were sent to Holloway after obstructing the work of police officers and harassing government ministers. On their return they were awarded the “badge of honour” from Marion Holmes, a suffragette medal recognising their bravery in enduring the prison conditions.

suffragette week in Croydon high street" in 1909

Women lobbying during “suffragette week” on Croydon High Street in 1909

Perhaps my favourite suffragette with links to our town is Muriel Matters (what a name! Too great to be lost to history) who “dropped in” to Croydon in most unlikely fashion. Matters was Australian by birth, a successful actress, and became an active member of the suffragettes’ campaign in London, chaining herself to the grille of the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Commons in 1908.

In 1909 she took a flight in an airship – the very cutting edge of transport technology in that Edwardian era – to scatter Votes for Women leaflets over London. In an amusing interview from the 1960s, Matters describes how the airship was blown off course and she landed in the top branches of a tree in Coulsdon.

These women, and hundreds more from across Croydon, all played their part in an important piece of history. A century later, I wonder what they’d think. The Town Hall is doing fairly well, with 37 per cent of its councillors being women. A way to go, but we’re getting there.

Croydon’s first female mayor was Catherine Gowers Kettle in 1961, and Mary Walker became the first woman leader of the council in 1994. Nationally, the picture is less hopeful – less than a quarter of MPs are women, leaving the UK joint 58th in world rankings for representation in government – alongside Pakistan.

Most recently, the Labour party has decided to have an all-women shortlist to select their candidate to take on Gavin Barwell in Croydon Central. I hope that if they could see us today, those Croydon suffragettes would be proud of the fact that there is a very real chance, a hundred years after their campaign for suffrage, of getting the first ever woman MP for Croydon. May the best woman win.

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2 Responses to The Croydon women who laid down their lives for equality

  1. Successors of Margaret Thatcher, on the right of British politics, bang on about this country being the cradle of democracy. In reality we didn’t achieve universal suffrage until the so-called ‘flappers’ vote’ of 1928 and we lack a properly representative Parliament to this day.

    I understand why the Labour Party uses all-women shortlists, but it shouldn’t be necessary in the 21st century. Maybe it wouldn’t be, if we had open primaries to determine who should be our parliamentary candidates rather than leaving it to a gaggle of old men in a room that was once filled with smoke.

    Meanwhile, how about badgering candidates in next year’s council elections for a commitment to a few green and purple plaques around the borough to remind us of the courage shown by these valiant women?

  2. The domestic violence figures in Croydon; the state of the NHS; the state of the education system (particularly the way parents of Roke were treated); the low levels of funding for talk therapy in mental health care; the high levels of pollution; the poor traffic planning… All tells me that women are nowhere near an equal voice in decision-making in Croydon.

    This is a society that puts cars before the elderly and the young; that puts the profits of money-lenders, off-licences, brothels, etc before public safety.

    The Council Chamber itself is an offensive bear pit that is not designed for community decision-making but is about excluding the majority from power. The use of party whips in local politics should cease and councillors should be required to represent and consult with their constituents.

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