At the start of the twentieth century, the campaign for women’s suffrage was gathering momentum. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) organised the first large march for the cause on the 9th of February 1907. The women planned to march from Hyde Park to Exeter Hall, a large meeting hall on the north side of the Strand. Unfortunately the weather was not on the marchers’ side, and heavy rain made the streets of London very muddy, hence the name of the march. Despite this, the march was considered a great success.
Unlike the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the NUWSS refused to use militant or violent tactics in its attempt to win the vote for women. They were known as suffragists, which differentiated them from the suffragettes in the WSPU. However, they understood the need to have a visible presence in society; this march was their first attempt at using protest marches to attract attention.
Around 3000 women took part, from a range of social classes and occupations, and representing over 40 suffrage organisations. The march was organised by Phillipa Strachey, daughter of Lady Strachey. The march was considered so successful that she went on to organise all the NUWSS’s large marches. The march was led by Millicent Fawcett, leader of the NUWSS, and Lady Strachey, Lady Frances Balfour, and Keir Hardie, also prominent suffragists. The Artist’s Suffrage League designed posters and postcards advertising the march, and designed and made around 80 embroidered banners for the march itself.
Despite the wet weather, thousands of people turned out to watched the march. The sight of thousands of women from across social divides marching together was enough of a novelty to persuade people to brave the rain. Press from across Europe and America were fascinated by the diversity of women involved. At the time, it was perceived that women were reluctant to make displays of themselves in public. As such, the participants in the march were considered to be even more dedicated to the suffrage because they were willing to put themselves through such an experience. Kate Frye was on the march, and she obviously relished taking part, writing in her diary that she “felt like a martyr of old and walked proudly along.”
The NUWSS used protest marches and rallies often after the success of the Mud March. This photo was taken in Hyde Park in 1913 (Source: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images).
The suffragists marched from Hyde Park to Exeter Hall in the Strand, where the Strand Palace Hotel stands today. The Hall was opened in 1831 as an organisational and meeting space for evangelical groups. The Great Hall could hold 4000 people, and lots of causes held meetings there, including anti-Slavery and temperance. In 1880 Exeter Hall was taken over by the YMCA, but the Great Hall could still be used for meetings. The suffragists’ rally must have been one of the last meetings to take place there, as the building was sold and demolished in 1907. It required expensive alterations that the YMCA were unwilling to pay for. The suffragist’s rally featured music from an all-female orchestra, and speakers such as Keir Hardy, Israel Zangwill, Millicent Fawcett, and Lady Strachey.
The success of the Mud March, despite the foul weather, established the large-scale organised procession as a key tactic for the campaign for women’s suffrage in Britain. It has also been argued that the march gave the women’s suffrage movement a sense of respectability that the militant tactics of the WSPU did not.
Sources and Further Reading
Cowie, Leonard W. “Exeter Hall.” History Today 18, no. 6 (1968): 390-397.
Crawford, Elizabeth. “Kate Frye’s Suffrage Diary: The Mud March, 9 February 1907.” Woman and her Sphere. Last updated 21 November 2012, accessed 24 December 2016. Available at https://womanandhersphere.com/2012/11/21/kate-fryes-suffrage-diary-the-mud-march-9-february-1907/
The Armchair Anglophile. “The Mud March.” Last updated 7 February 2012, accessed 24 December 2016. Available at http://www.armchairanglophile.com/the-mud-march/
Wikipedia. “Mud March (Suffragists)” Last updated 17 December 2016, accessed 21 December 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mud_March_(Suffragists)