I’ve written a book about female activism from the desk of a notorious Edwardian activist, Muriel Matters. Daily, I dismount my bicycle and walk through a small arch, hidden between ‘Playland’ amusement arcade and King Fish & Chips, up 20 weathered stone steps, to emerge on the glorious steep curve of Pelham Crescent, overlooking the sea. But much has changed on the fashionable, health-giving Sussex coast since Muriel’s day. Picking my way through discarded fast food cartons, broken bottles and the odd syringe, I often wonder: ‘What would Muriel think?’

Muriel Matters is Hastings’ most famous suffragist. Elegant, musical, cultured and compassionate, Muriel arrived in England from Adelaide, Australia in 1905, aged 28. When her singing career failed to take off, she became a journalist, like me. Her moment of epiphany came during a conversation with the bearded, exiled anarchist, Peter Kropotkin. He encouraged her to use her talents not for art’s sake, but for social good. Said Muriel: ‘My entire mental outlook was changed.’ She joined the Women’s Freedom League, which – though militant – was strongly opposed to Mrs Pankhurst’s campaign of violence and arson.

Off went Muriel in a horse-drawn caravan as ‘Organiser in Charge’, rallying women throughout the South East to join the WFL. Hecklers were rife: these were the conservative Home Counties, staunchly opposed to the idea of women’s suffrage. Then she popped up in the House of Commons, 28 October 1908, chained to the grille of the Ladies’ Gallery along with Miss Helen Fox, shouting down at appalled MPs sitting below. The women were carried away, the grille still chained to their slender bodies, ‘jabbing the sergeant-at-arms with a hatpin’ until a blacksmith could be found to unfetter them. ‘First woman to “speak” in the House of Commons!’ rejoiced Muriel.

Four months later she took to the skies in a dirigible air balloon, emblazoned ‘Votes for Women’, intending to drop leaflets over King Edward’s ceremonial procession to open the Houses of Parliament. Unfortunately the wind blew her off course, and she ended up over a wood in Surrey – but by then she was already notorious. Her stunt made headlines worldwide.

The press photographs of Miss Matters, standing in the rustic wicker basket of a hot air balloon, megaphone in hand, silk scarf around her elaborate Edwardian hair-do, make me yearn to have been her, just for a moment. She is clearly having the time of her life.

When the Representation of the People Act allowed a proportion of women over 30 the vote, Muriel did not give up the fight for gender equality. Six years later, in 1924, she campaigned to become the Labour MP for the safe Conservative seat of Hastings. Unsuccessful but undaunted, she continued to press for women’s rights, to lecture around the world on education, and to engage herself fully in the local community.

The house on Pelham Crescent – my workplace – was where Muriel spent her last 20 years. The crescent was built in 1824 by Joseph Kay around a vast, neo-Palladian church. In 1949, newly widowed, Muriel Matters-Porter moved here aged 72. This elegant, bow-windowed room, where I wrote Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather, was her living room. And sometimes I fancied I could feel her spirit hovering about me, as I tussled with the many perplexing contradictions of the era – a time when women so often seemed to be fighting against each other, rather than pulling together. 

Why, for example, was the bird-loving founder of the RSPB, Etta Lemon, so opposed to the aims and values of the militant suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst? Why would Mrs Lemon’s boundless compassion not include sympathy for women’s rights? And why would campaigning for the vote make Mrs Pankhurst dismiss animal rights as a side distraction? Each story seemed to shed a troubling light on the other, while each campaign also illuminated the other, in unexpected ways. How I wished I could have asked Muriel’s opinion. Did she wear ‘murderous millinery’? Did she care about the birds?

The widowed Muriel Matters-Porter of 7 Pelham Crescent was older, wiser. I imagine her gazing out of the full-length windows, looking back over an exciting past. What sights she had seen! What adventures she had had. It was here in this high-ceilinged room that she liked to sit and eat raspberries (so the story goes), look out over the glittering sea, and read. In advanced old age she remained alert and spirited, often to be found in Hastings Library – and her name often on The Times letters page.

What would Muriel think of her street, and of Hastings, today? She would surely be sad to see the degradation and decay of such an elegant crescent, where extractor fans now waft chip shop fumes up from balustraded basements. She would see, every time she left her front door, that society’s problems have changed very little; that deprivation still stalks this town. And yet she would applaud the rousing recent history of St Mary in the Castle, rescued from neglect and vandalism by a determined local group, opening (with the aid of hard-won grants) in 1997 as a cultural centre.  As the Women’s March and celebration at St Mary in the Castle on Saturday 23 June will show – Hastings’ strength of community is perhaps our most valuable asset. I think she would, immediately, get stuck in.

Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism, Women’s Fight for Change was published by Aurum Press in May 2018. "Huge thanks to the team at St Mary in the Castle for allowing me to settle into Muriel’s room as writer in residence."

LOCAL EVENT: Tessa will be talking about women, birds, hats and votes at Printed Matter Bookshop, Hastings, on Wednesday 13 June at 6pm. For free tickets, click here.

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