Retracing the journey of the women’s suffrage pilgrims through Kent in 1913

by Aimee Marshall

1913 saw the great pilgrimage to London involving thousands of women suffragists. Organized by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) as part of their non militant campaign to persuade Britain’s lawmakers to pass legislation to give women the right to vote. Women marched from all over England and Wales taking various routes with the intention of coming together in London’s Hyde Park for a huge demonstration on 21st July 1913.

One of the routes taken by the suffragists was from Kent to London.  Hundreds of supporters of women’s suffrage from Kent took part, following one of two courses, the Northern route and the Southern route [1].

In this blog I shall be discussing the course of the Southern route, revisiting some of the key sites of Tunbridge Wells, Southborough and Tonbridge and the footsteps taken by these courageous women back in 1913.

The Opera House, Tunbridge Wells 2021. [A. Marshall]

Growing up in the area of Tonbridge, Kent I was amazed to find out about the history of my local towns. Especially when it came to the women’s suffrage movement, knowing my everyday walks were the same as those taken by many extraordinary women fighting for their rights within society is very touching.

In 1906 a meeting was held in the Opera House (pictured above) whereby the Tunbridge Wells franchise was established [2]. The Opera House located in the town center of Tunbridge Wells is now a Wetherspoons pub, however in the early 20th century when the campaign for women’s suffrage took place, it was the venue for various meetings and discussions on women’s suffrage.

So, next time you stop by, consider raising a glass to the suffrage pioneers!

1913 saw a marked increase in actions by militant suffragettes in Tunbridge Wells and the surrounding areas, including arson. One example was the attack on The Pavilion [3] which was and still remains to this day a cricket club to Tunbridge Wells.  

However, it was the peaceful great pilgrimage in 1913 and the demonstration in Hyde Park on 21st July 1913 that drew together the most significant display of support for women’s suffrage among the women of Tunbridge Wells, Southborough and Tonbridge.

Royal Tunbridge Wells in 2021. [A. Marshall]
Women’s suffrage pilgrims marching towards Southborough in 1913 https://www.pottedhistorytours.com/index.php/component/k2/item/7-the-suffragettes-in-tunbridge-wells

18 Crescent Road, Tunbridge Wells. Women’s Suffrage Society Office 1913. From the Women’s Library Collection at LSE Library https://www.flickr.com/photos/lselibrary/40080806642/

The women who planned to join the pilgrimage at the Tunbridge Wells route got the train in the morning and met the former suffragists at the local women’s suffrage office on 18 Crescent Road Tunbridge Wells [4] (which is now a hairdressers). Here they gathered together and formed in lines of twos and were set to start the pilgrimage. The women proceeded with excellent formality and many wearing a satchel containing the phrase “Kent pilgrim’s way” and sash across their bodies[5]. Alongside this they held banners expressing that this was a non-militant protest as well as containing the information for the next meeting point which was to be held in Southborough. This meeting was also addressed in the Kent and Sussex Courier on Friday 18th July 1913 [6]. Although these campaigners were taking part in a peaceful protest organized by the non-militant suffragists, from reports we know that some marchers wore the purple, white and green colours of the militant suffrage society, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). It is fascinating to see how in Kent in 1913 both the suffragettes and the constitutional suffragists came together collaboratively.

Royal Victoria Hall, Southbrough.
https://southborough-news.com/history1899/

Many of the residents of Tunbridge Wells came to the streets and applauded the one hundred women on their pilgrimage. Their discipline was enticing, exciting and definitely astonished the people. Many expressed their amazement for the mental and physical strength of these women as a large amount of the suffragists on this pilgrimage consisted of those in older generations alongside expectant mothers. These women were determined to walk the pilgrimage alongside their fellow suffragists and this shows just how serious and passionate these women were in seeking the recognition they deserved within society.

The pilgrims marched through Tunbridge Wells along the main roads to their next meeting point, which was at the Royal Victoria Hall in Southborough. Here more women were waiting to join the protest. Once they arrived at the Victoria Hall they were greeted by many enthusiastic suffragists. They stopped for a break and had some cake and tea alongside further discussions of the forthcoming Pilgrimage before leaving to head to Tonbridge.

One of the speakers at the Royal Victoria Hall was suffragist and feminist Amelia Scott. Scott had been an avowed supporter for the women’s suffrage movement since 1905 [7]. Amelia was a member of the Tunbridge Wells franchise of the National Union of women’s Suffrage societies (NUWSS) and 1913 decided to participate in the pilgrimage to London. During the journey through Kent she delivered various inspiring speeches, including one at the Royal Victoria Hall.

Upon arriving in Tonbridge Kent the marching suffragists stopped off at the station whereby they were met with by the Tonbridge suffrage group alongside other protesters that had travelled to Tonbridge to join the pilgrimage.


Tonbridge station c. 1913 (Tonbridge Historical Society [THS18.004])

One of the speakers in Tonbridge was the Australian actress and well known suffrage activist, Miss Muriel Matters. In her speech given at Angel Corner (opposite the station)[8], Matters highlighted the importance of women’s suffrage giving a motivational speech to the pilgrims. Matters was an extremely influential and popular speaker. She had already showed her loyalty and passion for the movement, back in 1909, by chaining herself to the grille of the Ladies Gallery in the House of Commons, an action which consequently led to her arrest. Following the speeches held at Angel Corner the pilgrimage continued down Tonbridge High Street.

The suffragists marching down Tonbridge High Street 1913
http://www.tonbridgehistory.org.uk/events/votes-for-women.htm
Tonbridge High Street 2021. [A. Marshall]

Marching down the high street the suffragists held their excellent formation and togetherness as they passed by the residents of Tonbridge. It is thought that here was where a significant number of male supporters of women’s suffrage joined the pilgrimage showing their support for women’s rights. As they made their way through the high street the protestors headed to the public hall for a second and final meeting in Tonbridge [9] . Before progressing onto Hildenborough and continuing their journey to end in Hyde Park for the great demonstration and assemble with the other suffragists who have travelled from all over the country.

 So do remember, if you ever consider re-walking the footprints of these suffragists, prepare for a 5 mile walk from Tunbridge Wells to Tonbridge!

As I have demonstrated the small towns of Tunbridge Wells, Southborough and Tonbridge in Kent are full of amazing histories to discover. These inspiring events of the past have shaped the communities we live in today. Unknowingly everyday we pass buildings and sites that contain major historical significance. Therefore, it is so important to take time into learning the history of our home towns and the surrounding areas to really appreciate where we live.

References

[1] – Godfrey, Jennifer. 2019. Kent’s Suffragettes. 1st ed. South Yorkshire: PEN & SWORD BOOKS LIMITED. P158-200.

[2]- Potted History tours. “The Suffragettes in Tunbridge Wells.” Guided History Tours of Kent and East Sussex in Our London Taxi., PHT, 18 Mar. 2018,https://www.pottedhistorytours.com/index.php/component/k2/item/7-the-suffragettes-in-tunbridge-wells

[3]- Potted History tours. “The Suffragettes in Tunbridge Wells.” Guided History Tours of Kent and East Sussex in Our London Taxi., PHT, 18 Mar. 2018, https://www.pottedhistorytours.com/index.php/component/k2/item/7-the-suffragettes-in-tunbridge-wells

[4] Godfrey, Jennifer. 2019. Kent’s Suffragettes. 1st ed. South Yorkshire: PEN & SWORD BOOKS LIMITED. P158-200.

[5] Godfrey, Jennifer. 2019. Kent’s Suffragettes. 1st ed. South Yorkshire: PEN & SWORD BOOKS LIMITED. P158-200.

[6] The British Newspaper Archive. “Kent and Sussex Courier.” Register | British Newspaper Archive, 18 July 1913, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000483/19130718/100/0006

[7] Diana. “What’s in a Name?” Southborough Society, UK Charity No:260979, 16 Jan. 2021, https://southboroughsociety.org.uk

[8] Tunbridge Historical society. “1913.” Votes for Women, 2019,  http://www.tonbridgehistory.org.uk/events/votes-for-women.htm

[9] Tunbridge Historical society. “1913.” Votes for Women, 2019, http://www.tonbridgehistory.org.uk/events/votes-for-women.htm

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