Holmwood Common and the Suffrage Movement

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence was a leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and one of the most influential women in the campaign to win votes for women. Her home ‘The Mascot’ (now The Dutch House) overlooking Holmwood Common, became known as ‘the unofficial headquarters of the WSPU’.

Emmeline Pethick had moved from Bristol in 1890 to work among poor girls working in the sweatshops of the London clothing industry.  With Mary Neal she established the Esperance Girls’ Club for them as a refuge from the drudgery of home and work, providing a place where there were games, talks, cookery and sewing, music and dance.  They also introduced an annual holiday of a week staying first on Leith Hill and later by Holmwood Common.

Emmeline was a firm believer in the restorative powers of fresh air and countryside and had discovered the Surrey Hills in her weekend trips out of London.  On marrying Fred Lawrence in 1901, they bought the Lutyens-designed The Mascot between Leith Hill and Holmwood Common as their home. They also bought some cottages and built a further house called the Sundial close by as a respite for impoverished mothers and their children.

Making the WSPU a national organisation

Increasingly convinced that political change was needed to make a significant improvement in working women's conditions, Emmeline and Fred were introduced to Mrs Pankhurst, founder of the WSPU, in 1906 and rapidly became key figures among the Suffragettes. As treasurer, she masterminded the practical operational side of the WSPU, managing its finances, speaking at meetings, raising funds and arranging the mass gatherings in London. She led protests and was imprisoned several times, suffering the pain and degradation of force-feeding.  Fred used his journalistic skills to edit and produce the weekly Votes for Women news sheet, and stood bail for many supporters arrested by police as a result of demonstrating.


In November 1911, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Christabel Pankhurst led a deputation to Prime Minister Asquith making the case a parliamentary bill to enfranchise women, but Asquith was implacably opposed.


In May 1912, the Pethick-Lawrences stood trial alongside Mrs Pankhurst at the Old Bailey after a campaign of window smashing in the West End. They were all imprisoned and the government sued Fred for the trial costs. Bailiffs were sent to The Mascot to seize and auction the contents. Outraged, local friends and the community in Dorking showed their support by buying many of the possessions and presenting them back to Emmeline and her husband.


Every Friday, the WSPU leaders would close up the London office and travel down to The Mascot for the weekend. Away from the day-to-day pressures, this is where the leaders talked and debated campaign strategies, tactics and support. It was also a place for laughter and relaxation with walks and picnics around Holmwood Common. Visitors included Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald and Lady Constance Lytton, plus many Suffragette supporters who needed to recover from bruising encounters with the police or prison authorities.


The First World - a game changer


When war was declared in 1914, the Pankhursts announced that they were suspending the campaign to support the war effort.  They turned their attention to other causes and the WSPU was wound up in 1917.


Emmeline and Fred Pethick-Lawrence had left the WSPU in 1912 but maintained their support for the cause through alternative groups. Crucially, although active campaigning and demonstrations ceased, they continued to edit and publish the Votes for Women magazine. Emmeline repeatedly warned against dropping the campaign for votes on the basis of some vague promises of reform when hostilities ceased. She ensured that the message continued to be communicated, and satirised the government’s position of asking women to contribute to the war effort without rewarding them with votes or equal pay.


The war changed the role of women as they took on new responsibilities, often for the first time. With more men leaving to serve at the front, women stepped in across the country to be stationmasters, postmasters, doctors and land army workers. Ralph Vaughan Williams was surprised to find his telephone at Leith Hill Place being installed by a woman.


The war also delivered the desired result and in 1918 the vote was granted to women over 30 and was extended to all women over the age of 21 in 1928. Emmeline and her husband continued to campaign on women’s issues, including equal pay, and for international peace. They moved from The Mascot to a smaller house in Peaslake in 1921. 


Holmwood Common was very precious to Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and her husband. They loved their home nearby. They often roamed through the trees and along the paths. They entertained their visitors there. Emmeline herself often sat opposite the Sundial, by the Jubilee oak looking back at it, reflecting. There is still a seat there today where you can see her home and Leith Hill behind. Why not take a few minutes when you are next on Holmwood Common to enjoy the space and consider how our predecessors fought to secure the privileges that we enjoy today.


Source: Suffragettes, Suffragists and Antis: The Fight for the Vote in the Surrey Hills by Kathy Atherton, available at Dorking Museum.  

Picture credits: Doring Museum and the London school of Economics