Steampunk rebels eat your heart out…
If you thought the scene in the old Ealing Comedy film Kind Hearts and Coronets, where the suffragette aunty flies a hot air balloon to distribute ‘Votes for Women’ leaflets from the air, was made up – think again…
Women’s struggle to win the right to vote in the United Kingdom in the first couple of decades of the 20th century was long and full of both inspiring actions and fierce repression.
As well as traditional methods of campaigning, lobbies, meetings, leafleting, some activists carried out direct actions, sabotage, arson and destruction of property. As the male establishment continued to lock women out, suffragettes developed novel ways of grabbing media attention, devising elaborate and eye-catching stunts.
One lesser known but brilliant action employed red hot technology: the launch of the suffragette airship, flown over London in 1909 by Muriel Matters.
Muriel Matters was born in Australia and became a professional actress. Moving to England, she got involved with the direct action wing of the suffragette movement. She became politically active after being challenged by the anarchist Prince Kropotkin to use her skills for ‘something more useful’ than the dramatic recitals she was earning a living from, after she performed at his home…
Kropotkin asserted that “Art is not an end of life, but a means.” Matters took this on board, and soon became involved with the Women’s Social & Political Union, and then the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), to further the cause of women’s suffrage. She later wrote that her encounter with Kropotkin, “proved to be the lifetime in a moment lived – my entire mental outlook was changed.”
Throwing herself into campaigning for the vote, Matters travelled the south east counties of England in 1908 as “Organiser in Charge” of the first “Votes for Women” caravan, holding meetings, spreading the word and helping found WFL branches. In October 1908, she took part in a WFL protest at the Houses of Parliament, chaining herself to a grille in the Ladies Gallery of the House of Commons, while declaiming a pro-suffrage speech. As a result becoming one of the very first women to make a speech in Parliament… (if unauthorised)! She was jailed for a month in Holloway for this action. She also formed the League of Light, an organisation to support women, particularly stage actresses, who were oppressed or abused by their employers.
On 16 February 1909, King Edward VII officially opened Parliament for the coming year. As a part of the usual bombastic festivities a procession was to be held to the Houses of Parliament, led by His Majesty. To gain attention to the suffrage cause, Matters’ decided to hire a dirigible air balloon (similar to a modern-day blimp in appearance) and intended to shower the King and the Houses of Parliament with pamphlets headlined with the words “VOTES FOR WOMEN”.
Thirty years later she recalled the trip:
“That morning I went to Hendon and met Mr Henry Spencer who had his airship all ready near the Welsh Harp [These days renamed the Brent Reservoir.] It was quite a little airship, eighty eight feet long (25m), and written in large letters on the gas bag were three words, Votes For Women. Below this was suspended an extremely fragile rigging carrying the engine and a basket, like those used for balloons. We loaded up about a hundredweight of leaflets, then I climbed into the basket, Mr Spencer joined me, and we rose into the air.”
The dirigible, with ‘Votes for Women’ painted on one side and ‘Women’s Freedom League’ on the other, ascended to an altitude of 3,500ft (1,000 metres). “It was very cold,” Muriel recalled, “but I got some exercise throwing the leaflets overboard.” She later described how Spencer had to climb out of the basket repeatedly and clamber ‘like a spider’ across the dirigible’s framework to make adjustments to the engine. “Suddenly I realised that if he fell off, I hadn’t the first idea how to manoeuvre the airship.” she said. “Not that I was terribly bothered about that. I was too busy making a trail of leaflets across London.”
Matters scattered 56lbs weight of handbills on the streets and houses below as she flew, with other leading members of the Women’s Freedom League, Edith How-Martyn and Elsie Craig, following behind by car.
However, airships and dirigibles, in these early days of steampunk, were difficult to manoeuvre, especially in adverse weather conditions… They tended to drift with the wind, having limited power of their own – in this case a small motor. The wind on the day in question blew somewhat against the suffragette Air Force, frustrating Muriel’s plan to fly over the Palace of Westminster, Instead they drifted around the outskirts of London, passing over Wormwood Scrubs, Kensington, Tooting, eventually crash-landing in the upper branches of a tree in Coulsdon in Surrey, after a flight lasting an hour and a half in total.
Despite failing to fly over the king’s procession, Matters considered the aerial adventure a great success. “The flight achieved all we wanted”, she said. “It got our movement a great deal of publicity, as you can imagine. In those days, the sight of an airship was enough to make people run for miles!”
Muriel’s airship adventure was also the first powered flight from what later became the London Aerodrome at Hendon, which was to feature prominently in both World Wars, and site of various pioneering aviation experiments, among them the first airmail, the first parachute descent from a powered aircraft, the first night flights, and the first aerial defence of a city.
Muriel Matters continued with her political life as an active member of the suffragettes lecturing all over the world.
Like many of her comrades in the Women’s Freedom League and the core group of Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Federation of Suffragettes (and in marked contrast to the bulk of the women’s suffrage movement), Muriel opposed the slaughter of the First World War. In June 1915, one year after the outbreak of the war, Matters declared her opposition to the war in an address entitled “The False Mysticism of War”.
Returning to London from lecture tours abroad in 1916, Muriel became involved with the “Mothers Arms” project in East London led by Sylvia Pankhurst. With the help of others, she educated working class children in the Montessori method in addition to feeding and clothing them. (She had previously studied under Maria Montessori in Barcelona).
After the war, Muriel ran (unsuccessfully) as Labour Party candidate for the seat of Hastings in the General Election of 1924, on a largely socialist platform advocating a fairer distribution of wealth, work for the unemployed and furthering the equality of the sexes.
Muriel Matters died on 17 November 1969 in St. Leonards on Sea nursing home aged ninety-two.
Being obsessed by airships as well as radical history, Muriel Matters’ flight over West London blew our minds when we read about it. Imagine if this had not been an isolated event, but the start of a free feminist flotilla; airborne activists defeating the male establishment’s control of the streets by taking over the skies… Imagine if we could build such a fleet today; dirigibles or drone-powered; link them together to form free-floating libertarian communist cities in the lower atmosphere, outside the alleged national airspace of the so-called nations… Our theory heavier than cannonballs, our dreams lighter than air…
An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here