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When Gals In Guildford Were Fighting For The Right To Vote

Published on: 6 Sep, 2013
Updated on: 7 Sep, 2013

One hundred years ago there were women in Guildford as determined as any in the UK to get the right to vote.

Historian Carol Brown by her exhibition at Guildford Institute.

Historian Carol Brown by her exhibition at Guildford Institute.

The Suffragist movement was particularly strong here, and there is an exhibition about it now showing at the Guildford Institute in Ward Street.

Historian Carol Brown and Labour borough councillor Angela Gunning have collected the material for the exhibition that they have called Gals for the Vote – Guildford Suffragettes and Suffragists in the early 20th century. It tells the story in words and pictures of the women’s suffrage events in Guildford in the years prior to the First World War.

Carol explains: “It was a Guildford woman, Nolene Baker, who was instrumental in starting a campaign here in the bid to get women the vote.

“Noeline worked tirelessly in Guildford for the Votes for Women campaign. She was originally from New Zealand and came over in the late 1890s with her parents.

“In late 1909, she and a Miss Swinburne were asked to collect signatures from voters at the 1910 general election. Two meetings were then held at the Astolat Tea Rooms in the High Street.

Cartoon of time of women's suffrage.

Cartoon of time of women’s suffrage.

“Noeline managed to recruit volunteers outside the Guildhall, Sandfield and Markenfield Schools and the Wycliffe Buildings. It was because of the success of this that she was asked to set up the Guildford and District Women’s Suffrage Society, affiliated to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).

Poster for the meeting in 1910.

Poster for the meeting in 1910. Courtesy of the Hocken Library, New Zealand.

“Unlike the Women’s Social and Political Union, set up by Emmeline Pankhurst, the NUWSS was non-militant and all its literature made a point of this.

“They were Suffragists as opposed to Suffragettes, who often scorned them: the public did not often realise the difference between the two societies.

“While Noeline became the secretary of the Guildford branch, Lady Roberts of Henley Park became its first president and her husband a member of the executive committee.

“Lord Roberts felt that he was probably the oldest supporter of women’s suffrage in the county, as he campaigned for votes for women in 1865. The branch’s first public meeting was in the Constitutional Hall. They soon had 35 members, rising to 51 by the end of the year.”

One of Noeline’s biggest achievements was arranging the Great Demonstration on October 29, 1910. More than 1,000 people gathered to hear speeches in favour of Votes for Women.

They women marched from the railway station, along Bridge Street and Friary Street, up the High Street and down North Street to the Borough Halls for the mass meeting.

Women on the march through Guildford.

Women on the march through Guildford. Courtesy of the Hocken Library, New Zealand.

Colourful banners were carried from all the different sections but, as Carol adds: “When the section of women graduates marched past, a man in the crowd heckled: ‘I didn’t know there were going to be popes’.

Marching past the fire station in North Street.

Marching past the fire station in North Street. Courtesy of the Hocken Library, New Zealand.

“Another said if he found his wife taking part in such a parade he would lay her out on her bed for two weeks.”

The Suffragists' shop in Mount Street.

The Suffragists’ shop in Mount Street. Picture courtesy of the Guildford Institute.

The Guildford Suffragists opened a shop at No. 1 Mount Street in 1913. It sold newsletters (The Common Cause), among other items.

There was more trouble on the evening of July 22, 1913, when contingents of the Pilgrims’ Suffragists came to Guildford.  Again Carol takes up the story: “Women from all over England were marching to London to make their voice heard in a mass rally due to take place on July 26 that year.

The 'Pilgrims' Progress' in the High Street in 1913.

The ‘Pilgrims’ Progress’ makes its way up the High Street in 1913. Courtesy of The Guildford Institute.

“The meeting in North Street began just before 8pm with more than 8,000 people present. Just as a Mrs Dempster stood up to speak, young men in the crowd stared singing ragtime songs. A favourite one was Oh You Beautiful Doll.

More than 8,000 people packed into the town.

More than 8,000 people packed into the town. Courtesy of the Hocken Library, New Zealand.

“There were catcalls and shrill whistles and this led to the speaker giving up in despair. A decorated wagonette that was being used as a platform was almost toppled over when the men rushed it. The women had to be rescued by the police. The meeting was promptly closed before anyone was seriously hurt.”

Two sides of a China figure representing women's suffrage with the Guildford town crest upon it.

Two sides of a China figure representing women’s suffrage with the Guildford town crest upon it.

Carol points said that although their fight for the vote continued, at the outbreak of the First World War these women concentrated their efforts on war work.

During the war, Noeline Baker led the Surrey section of the Women’s Land Army.

However, when, in 1918, the vote was given to certain women in Britain, despite all the work she had done, Noeline was not entitled to it. Although by this time she was over the age of 30 (one entitlement), she was not a property owner.

To see the exhibition at the Guildford Institute you will have to be quick as it runs for a limited time – continuing this coming week into Heritage Open Days weekend. The institute will be open on Saturday, September 14 (light refreshments only). Some of its recent building work has now been completed and visitors will be able to see the progress that’s been made – recommended!

See separate story about Heritage Open Days.

Click here for the Guildford Institute’s website.

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