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History of Holmwood Common

Suffragette procession with Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, Christabel Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst in 1909
Suffragette procession with Emmeline Pethick Lawrence and Emmeline Pankhurst in 1909 | © The Women’s Library, London School of Economics

Holmwood Common has played a part in some significant historic moments as home to one of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, and the location of a dramatic plane incident from the Second World War. Discover more about the fascinating history of this place in Surrey.

The women’s suffrage movement and Holmwood Common

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, overlooked Holmwood Common, and was known as the unofficial headquarters of the WSPU.

Emmeline moved from Bristol to London in 1890 to work in the sweatshops of the capital’s clothing industry. With Mary Neal she established the Esperance Girls’ Club for the women who worked there providing a place with games, talks, cookery, sewing, music, and dance.

The healing powers of the countryside

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.

She married Fred Lawrence in 1901, and they bought the Lutyens-designed The Mascot between Leith Hill and Holmwood Common. They also bought cottages and built a house called the Sundial nearby, as a respite for impoverished mothers and their children.

Making the WSPU a national organisation

Increasingly convinced that political change was needed to make an improvement in working women's conditions, Emmeline and Fred were introduced in 1906 to the founder of the WSPU, Emmeline Pankhurst, and rapidly became key figures among the suffragettes.

As treasurer, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence masterminded the practical operational side of the WSPU, managing its finances, speaking at meetings, raising funds, and arranging 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 for demonstrating.

Emmeline Pethick Lawrence stands next to a car with fellow suffragettes Emmeline Pankhurst and Annie Kenny in 1912
Emmeline Pethick Lawrence stands next to a car with fellow suffragettes Emmeline Pankhurst and Annie Kenny in 1912 | © The Women’s Library, London School of Economics

In November 1911, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Christabel Pankhurst led a deputation to Prime Minister Asquith making the case for a parliamentary bill to enfranchise women, but Asquith was implacably opposed. In May 1912, the Pethick-Lawrences stood trial alongside Emmeline 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 friends and the Dorking community showed their support by buying many of the possessions and giving them back to the Pethick-Lawrences.

Weekend visitors at The Mascot

Every Friday, the WSPU leaders would close the London office and travel to The Mascot for the weekend, where the leaders 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.

How the First World War was a game changer for women

When war was declared in 1914, the Pankhursts announced 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.

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

Votes granted for women

In 1918 the vote was granted to women over 30 and extended to all women over the age of 21 in 1928. Emmeline and Fred continued to campaign on women’s issues, including equal pay, and for international peace. They moved from The Mascot, now The Dutch House, to a smaller house in Peaslake in 1921.

Holmwood Common was very precious to Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and her husband, and she often sat opposite the Sundial house, by the Jubilee oak, where there is still a seat today looking out on to her home and Leith Hill.

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

Footbridge over a small stream at Holmwood Common, Surrey
Footbridge over a small stream at Holmwood Common | © National Trust Images/Gary Coshan

Second World War German plane shot down

A German Junker 88 bomber was shot down in 1944 over Holmwood Common during the last Luftwaffe campaign over Britain.

On the night of March 14 at 11.05pm, the Junker JU 88A-14 returning from a raid on London was shot down by an RAF Mosquito night fighter. Jettisoning its remaining bombload, it went into a steep dive and crashed into the undergrowth. It was completely wrecked, and all four crewmen were instantly killed.

The route of the plane and the German losses

The plane had flown from Hamburg to the Suffolk coast, heading south to its target west of London's Isle of Dogs, and then navigated to a point between Reigate and Horsham on its way to France.

The German Junker 88 bomber crew included a pilot, Unteroffizier Gerhard Straube, 21; observer, Unteroffizier Alfred Schiffmann, 21; radio/op, Unteroffizier Hans Sing, 23; and gunner, Heinz Wende, 19.

The pilot and one of the crew members were buried in Dorking, and the remaining two were buried in the German War Cemetery at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire.

Operation Steinbock

This incident happened in the middle of Operation Steinbock, which ran from January to May 1944, and was the last large-scale offensive carried out by the Luftwaffe over southern England. It was smaller scale than the Blitzkrieg of 1940-41 and in the UK was known as the baby Blitz.

For Germany it was a failure. It delivered little benefit and had a huge cost, as 329 bombers were lost, significantly impacting their response to the D-day landings in June 1944.

The de Havilland Mosquito plane

The RAF lost 29 planes in comparison, likely due to the improved defence capability epitomised by this incident. The de Havilland Mosquito was known as an excellent night fighter, fast and well-equipped including radar.

The crew, pilot Flight Lieutenant Head and Flying Officer Andrews, were part of the 96 Squadron, and night combat specialists with the motto Nocturnis obambulamus – 'We prowl by night'. The squadron at this time was posted at West Malling airfield in Kent.

The site was excavated by archaeologists in the 1970s and 1990s, and by the National Trust in 2012. All remains were removed and are under the care of the Wings Museum in Balcombe, Sussex.

Family eating a picnic on a bench at Dunwich Heath and Beach, Suffolk

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