Muriel Matters – Suffragette Shero

Muriel Matters was an actor & suffragist who became known for her daring stunts in the campaign for votes for women. She was born in South Australia 1877 and was the third oldest of 10 children. She studied Music at the University of Adelaide.

in 1894, when Muriel was a young woman, the colony of South Australia became the first self-governing territory to give women equal franchise on the same terms as men; young women like Muriel could not only vote at state elections but could also nominate for a seat in Parliament.

By the late 1890s Muriel was giving recitals in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales and performed as an actress in various productions in Australia and New Zealand. In 1905 Muriel left Australia and sailed to London to pursue a career as an actress.

After her arrival in London Muriel delivered recitals and performed in various venues, however Muriel found securing employment difficult so she began a new career as a journalist. Whilst interviewing Prince Peter Kropotkin she was invited to perform for him. After her performance Kropotkin encouraged her to use her skills for a more worthy cause, by stating to her that, “Art is not an end to life, but a means”.

In London Muriel was also shocked to discover that women in England did not have the Vote, despite the status of England as the ‘Mother Country’ to colonies such as Australia and New Zealand.

Muriel began attending meetings of suffrage groups and was exposed to the activities of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), a non militant suffrage group, formed after suffragists Charlotte Despard and Edith How Martyn, broke away from the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) in 1907, due in part as they did not agree with the autocratic leadership style of Emmeline Pankhurst.

Muriel Matters Caravan Tours Sheroes of History
Muriel on her caravan tour

Muriel was promptly offered a paid role with the WFL and in May 1908 began a caravan tour of South East England. Muriel and her friend Violet Tillard would distribute leaflets to the general public to advertise their pro-suffrage speeches. The speeches were generally well received although on occasion Muriel and Violet were pelted with rotten food and eggs. Muriel was widely acknowledged as a highly skilled and entertaining speaker who was able to provide quickfire and intelligent responses to any hecklers in the audience.

In October 1908 Muriel and Helen Fox, another WFL Member, were quietly seated in the Ladies Gallery in the House of Commons in London. During a speech on the floor of the House of Commons Muriel and Helen quickly and efficiently unpacked hidden chains under their coats, and attached one end of the chain with a padlock to the Ladies Grille, whilst Helen Fox also quickly unfurled a proclamation banner outside the grille ironwork. A male accomplice also threw handbills through the iron Grille on the floor of the House.

The police were quickly on the scene however the need to preserve the modesty of the women meant they were unable to remove the chains from around the ladies waists, it was decided to remove the Grille from the Ladies Gallery with the women still attached to it!

Whilst not charged over that incident, Muriel was ejected outside and after attempting to re-enter the Parliamentary lobby Muriel was arrested for obstruction and served one months imprisonment at Holloway Gaol.

In February 1909 Muriel performed another spectacular stunt when she hired a dirigible balloon, piloted by a member of the famed ballooning Spencer family. The dirigible was similar shape to a blimp with a small motor that proved to be too weak to guide the passengers over the intended target of the Houses of Parliament, and they were blown off course, but this did not stop Muriel from depositing a large amount of flyers to the ground below during her daring flight.

Muriel's Votes for Women blimp
Muriel’s Votes for Women blimp

Muriel continued onto another caravan tour for the WFL and toured England and Australia giving talks about the women’s struggle for the vote in England.

Muriel also studied Montessori teaching method in 1916 under Maria Montessori and taught at a nursery school in London established by Sylvia Pankhurst.

As a pacifist Muriel lectured during the First World War against the ‘evils of war’ and was a candidate for her local seat of Hastings in 1924 where she continued to be an active member of her local community until her death in 1969 age 92.

Find out more…

The Muriel Matters Society have lots of information & resources on their website if you want to fine out more about Muriel’s life & achievements.

A film for TV was made about Muriel’s life. Sadly it’s only available in Australia at the moment, but you can find out more about it here and if you’re in Australia you can order it here.

For everyone else you can see clips of the film with some cool illustration here:

 

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