Brian Green and Helen Graham

The first evidence of pressure to achieve women’s suffrage in the Dulwich area dates to the petition to Parliament raised by John Stuart Mill in 1866. Of the 1500 signatories, three are from Dulwich area residents. They are Mary Finch, Elizabeth Hawkins and Eleanor Watson all from 4 Gipsy Hill. Others nearby include Miss M Thornley of Champion Hill, who was the Superior of the Ladies Collegiate School; Betsy and Catherine Green, Luton House Camberwell; and Anne Levey 188 The Grove, Camberwell.

In 1871 there were moves on another front which might also have contributed to the debate over women’s suffrage. This took the form of a public meeting, held in Dulwich Village and organised by the governors of Dulwich College. This was to discuss the matter of women’s education and whether it should enjoy the same standard and access to the same benefits as that for men. One of the speakers was Maria Grey who pointed out the “This glaring inequality (in education) ought surely to be corrected”. Maria Grey was a campaigner for women’s education and later set up the Girls’ Public Day School Trust (Dulwich High School would be one of its early achievements). She, and her sister Emily, were also suffragists and in 1870 Maria published a booklet Is the Exercise of the Suffrage unfeminine?. She demanded that girls should receive an education which would prepare them for their increased civil responsibilities.

It is therefore logical that educated women such as school mistresses were in the forefront of the women’s suffrage movement. Evidence for this can be found in a petition in the Archive of the Houses of Parliament in support of Women’s Suffrage, signed and delivered by the headmistress and mistresses of Dulwich High School for Girls (now Rosemead School) in 1884. It was a a highly well-thought of school with an impressive academic record under its charismatic headmistress, Mary Jemima Alger. The Petition reads:

To the Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal Great Britain and Ireland in Parliament assembled. The humble petition of the undersigned the Head Mistress and Assistant Mistresses of the Dulwich High School

Sheweth That a measure is now before Parliament for extending the franchise to all men householders in the United Kingdom. That by this Bill two millions of the least educated section of the Community will be added to the electorate, while educated and intelligent women, who are head of households are excluded from the operation of the Bill although they contribute equally with men to the taxation of the Country. That among the persons so excluded are women landowners, who form one seventh of the land proprietors of the country; women of means and position living on their own property, schoolmistresses and other Teachers, women farmers, merchants manufacturers and shopkeepers besides large number of self-supporting women engaged in other occupations. They believe that the claim of these householders for admission within the pale of the Constitution is as reasonable as that of the County householders and that they would be at least equal in general and political intelligence to the great body of agricultural and other labourers who are to be enfranchised by the Government Bill.

That the injustice of excluding women householders from representation would be greatly intensified by the operation of the new service franchise, under which the servants of a Lady , living in houses for which she paid rent and taxes, would have the vote in right of the occupation of those houses while she herself though the head of the household would have no vote.

Wherefore your petitioners humbly pray that in any measure which may be submitted to your Right Honourable House, for amending the Law relating to the Representation of the People, your Lordships will make such provisions as shall seem expedient for the exercise of the Franchise by duly qualified women.


Mary Alger, Joan Grunner, Clara Arnold, Helen Cemions, Dora Knight, Mary E Swindells, Linacre Everfield, Ada B Hurrell, Emily Collyns, Maud M Eccott, Anna Barth, Sarah Luker, Gertude Smith, Ida Salvage, Bertha Taylor, Alice Russell, Margaret Morrison, Grace Louise Brassime, Catherine S Jones, Mary A Burrell, William Mann, Humphrey Stark MB

The last two names, those of men appear to be the school doctors.

The petition was noted but Parliament declined to act upon it. However, from around the date of this petition, suffrage societies started to liase with each other and by 1897 many came together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. A Mrs Harvey of 46 The Gardens, East Dulwich was secretary of the local branch.

While the earlier campaigners, called suffragists, had sought the right of women to vote through peaceable and constitutional means, their failure to achieve this aim led to the formation of more aggressive campaigners who were called suffragettes.

A recent stiudy by Helen Graham of Dulwich U3A as part of a Royal Holloway, University of London, project has found that some strands of the suffragette movement were taking an evermore militant approach and that from 1911 attacks were made on private property, the campaign being stepped-up by Christobel Pankhurst in the following two years. Arson was a particular tool employed by the militants with fires started with the use of paraffin and there were arson attacks locally, one at Dulwich College and another at St Catherine’s church, near Telegraph Hill.

On September 5th 1913, it was reported that the Dulwich College science building was set on fire in two places with an estimated cost of damage as £280.The incendiarists must have considered the school a “posh” establishment for boys, and an easily accessible target for arson, especially for Suffragettes living in South London. A police constable discovered the fire and acted with great promptitude in raising the alarm in time to get three fire brigades on the scene before serious damage had been done. After the fire, Suffragette literature was found pinned to trees in the vicinity with women’s hatpins, and police accepted this as proof that a militant suffragette “Arson Squad” was responsible, but the incendiarists were never discovered. In the minutes of the Dulwich College Governors’ meeting for 19th September 1913 item 8 reads “The Chairman reported that a fire occurred early in the morning of 5TH September in the science building- the estimated cost of the damage being £280. The police are of the opinion that the fire was caused by Suffragettes but up to the present time the incendiaries had not been discovered. It was resolved that a gratuity of £2 and 2 shillings be made through the commissioner of police to the Police Constable who discovered the fire and acted with great promptitude in raising the alarm”. No mention of this incident was reported in the Dulwich College school magazine, The Alleynian. However, in their review of the Greek play “The Frogs of Aristophanes” performed on Founders Day July 1913 there is reference to a servant of Persephone-Hylas- “owing to a fear of suffragettes putting out the fire, only men servants are now allowed in Hades” .

Despite the suffragettes’ campaigns (suspended at the outbreak of the First World War) the generally accepted account of the achievement of partial women’s suffrage in 1918 was the government’s willingness to agree to petitions by women to work in munitions factories from 1915, an agreement later extended to other forms of employment to assist the war effort. Once this had been agreed there was no going back on accepting the role of women in society.