The Suffragist Pilgrimage: Their March, Our Rights
1913 was a significant year in the campaign for women’s suffrage and is widely remembered for the increasingly militant acts of the suffragettes and in particular the death of Emily Wilding Davison at the Epsom Derby. However, a less well known protest also marks its centenary, the nationwide march of suffrage pilgrims from all parts of the country converging in London in July 1913. Thousands of women marched through towns across England spreading their message of women’s right to vote in a peaceful and law abiding way. In some towns they met a warm response with parades, teas and flowers in others their voices were drowned out and they were threatened with violence and had to be protected by the police. As the march which began at Land’s End on 19th June arrived in Wiltshire this mixed response to the pilgrims was evident. The march took six weeks.
Following successful stops in Somerset and Bristol where the movement had many supporters the first stop for the march in Wiltshire was Corsham. Here the women met with a warm welcome, their speeches were listened to and they drew an interested crowd. However, as they made their way along the A4 through Chippenham, Calne and Marlborough a rougher welcome awaited them. At Marlborough they united with another march that had come from Gloucestershire via Swindon and together made their way onto the final rally in London’s Hyde Park on 26th July.
The pilgrims arrived in Corsham on Wednesday 16th July 1913. A group of about 20 women who had marched from Lands End were given a warm welcome. They spoke to a crowd of nearly 300 people outside the town hall and were then given tea before continuing on to Chippenham that afternoon. A large crowd gathered in the Market Place for the evening meeting where the wagonette was placed in front of the Bear Hotel to form a platform. The crowd of between 2,000 – 3,000 people was noisy and hostile and made it difficult for any speakers to be heard, so a second speaker began addressing the crowd standing in a motor car outside the Waverly Restaurant. The police had to intervene to stop the crowd from overturning the wagonette and to rescue the speakers. The crowd then turned their attention to the other speaker whom the police had to drive away in the motor car to safety.
On Thursday 17th July a similar reception awaited the pilgrims in Calne. They attempted to speak to a crowd of about 2,000 people in front of the town hall but were unable to make themselves heard above the jeering of the crowd and again had to be escorted to safety by the police. The meeting in Swindon on the same day fared a little better as the speakers suffered some interruptions to their speeches but were able to make themselves heard by the crowd of about 1,000 people. However the crowd became more violent when the meeting finished and the speaker was escorted to a police station for safety.
Both groups met and united for the remainder of the march in Marlborough on Friday 18th July. The local newspaper describes their arrival in the town “each wore a satchel or knapsack (across which was the name of the federation to which she belonged), suspended by a sash of red, white and green. Amongst the number were Mrs Ramsay of Plymouth who started at Lands End and hopes to journey the 108 miles to London. The pilgrims were accompanied by a caravan decorated with the Union colours and carried banners on which the words ‘law-abiding suffragists’ were in evidence”.
The speakers gathered on the town hall step to address a crowd of between 2,000-3,000 people many of whom had come from the surrounding villages. They met with a hostile reception and were interrupted by shouting and singing, and then pelted with rotten fruit. The mounted police were used to control the crowd and keep them back from the speakers. The speakers made their way to safety through the town hall building, but local supporters had to be given a police escort home to protect them from the rowdy crowd. Some of the crowd put the suffragists’ caravan into the river, but police prevented further damage by taking the vehicle to the police station.
Was this a typical reception for the suffragists and why didn’t they receive a hostile response in Corsham? Reports from elsewhere in the country do suggest a similar mix of warm and hostile receptions. We know from newspaper reports that a group of anti-suffrage women spoke on the previous evenings in Chippenham, Calne, Marlborough and Swindon but not in Corsham. These women spoke to large and apparently well behaved crowds. They spoke against the suffragists and associated all women in favour of the vote with the actions of the militant minority. The pilgrimage speakers took pains to show that they were law-abiding women as stated on their banners, but they seem to have been condemned by association by parts of the crowd. Overall the pilgrimage march was considered a huge success with 1,000s of people involved and large sums of money collected for the cause. In October 1913, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George, spoke in Swindon to the local women’s suffrage society. He referred to the pilgrimage as one of the cleverest political moves that had been organised in recent times, because it was a dramatic way of catching the public attention but was lawful and peaceful.
Sally Smith from Redruth joined the land journey to remember the courage and sacrifice of her great-grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Wiseman, who endured force-feeding in Holloway Prison for her activities during the campaign for women’s suffrage. As well as donning the suffragettes’ colours of purple, green and white, Sally wore a replica of her great-grandmother’s ‘Holloway brooch’, which was designed by Sylvia Pankhurst and given to all those who were imprisoned.
“They sacrificed so much for women in later generations,” says Sally. “They had families, some of them were working women, and yet they gave up six weeks of their lives to march for a cause that was important to them. It’s remarkable, and it’s important that we remember what they did and why. It’s always about taking that first step, and today we walked in the footsteps of our sisters to commemorate their courage and their passion.”
A number of events will happen along the route of the pilgrimage this month to mark the centenary, including:
Oxygen, a play based on the pilgrimage will be performed in Corsham, Chippenham Marlborough and Swindon, for details please see http://dreadnoughtsouthwest.org.uk/oxygen-tickets/
In Chippenham, there will also be a free performance of a short portion of the play in Market Place on Tuesday 16th July at 4pm, preceded by a talk at 1pm. For further information please contact Chippenham Museum and Heritage Centre on 01249 705020
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