Votes for women! Not everyone approved...

The Great Pilgrimage for Womens Suffrage at Cuckfield in 1913. Picture courtesy of Cuckfield Museum

Cuckfield’s link with the long battle for women’s suffrage was certainly a strong one.

The Cuckfield Women’s Suffrage Society (CWSS) was founded by Edith Bevan and held its first meeting in the spring of 1909 at her father’s home, Horsgate House.

Cutting from the Sussex & Surrey Courier 1918

Edith was the youngest child of Richard Bevan, a leading member of a banking family whose fortunes were linked to the Barclays empire.

On July 21 1913, Edith and members of the CWSS joined 50,000 women from all over Britain who marched to London where they converged on Hyde Park, to demonstrate for the right to vote.

Called The Great Pilgrimage for Women’s Suffrage, the march was led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), otherwise known as the Suffragists.

Suffragists were non-militant supporters of the call to give women the vote. Their origins dated to the mid 19th Century, while the more well-known Suffragettes came into being in 1903 when Emmeline Pankhurst split from the NUWSS and formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Cutting from the Mid Sussex Times 1918

While the NUWSS had favoured a gradualist approach to their cause, the WSPU were women of action – their motto was Deeds Not Words.

The routes of the Great Pilgrimage were published in the group’s newspaper, The Common Cause, and showed that some people faced a fortnight’s march to the capital.

The Sussex Pilgrims set off from Brighton wearing their red, white and green Suffragist colours. Many spent the night at Horsgate House before continuing their journey the next day.

Looking through the archives of newspapers such as the Sussex & Surrey Courier, the Mid Sussex Times and the Horsham Gazette, many articles, letters and adverts can be found dotted throughout the pages in the early 1900s. As with all new and ground-breaking ideas, there were many loud voices on both sides of the fence. As the all-important date in 1918 came closer, the voices in opposition became quieter – but some remained concerned about the consequences until the end.

Cutting from Mid Sussex Times 1914

In 1918, a correspondent called ME Paulton wrote to the Sussex & Surrey Courier, linking the issue of infant mortality to that of women’s suffrage.

Paulton said: “The problem of how best to deal with conditions responsible for the high infant mortality is aggravated by the fact that leaders of women, with perverted notions regarding the value of politics in a woman’s life, encourage a larger entry into industry and a greater interest in politics.

“This is responsible for the failure of numbers of women to regard their domestic and maternal duties as of the highest consequence, with the resultant ill health, premature deaths and unhappy home.

“We can’t have it both ways; women’s powers are not equal to the double strain of attending to their private home affairs and outside matters too. Many of your readers, I am convinced, will agree that the embroilment of women in political warfare would be most injurious and hope with me that, even now, this may be averted.”

Others fully supported the coming changes but wondered why they were limited to women over 30 who either owned property or were married to men who owned property.

One MP, Lord Hugh Cecil, described the age limit as “absurd”.

He wrote: “What is the particular attraction about the age of 30? It reminds me of the cheapest kind of comic paper with its allusions to a lady’s age. I am rather surprised that on reflection the Government has not decided that a mother-in-law is entitled to have two votes.”

The Representation of the People Act, giving some women the vote, was passed on February 6 1918, with 8.5 million doing so during the General Election of December 14.

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