www.hastingsonlinetimes.co.uk     Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper
Muriel Matters being interviewed by Peter West (Photo BBC)

Muriel Matters being interviewed by Peter West (Photo BBC)

Why Muriel Matters matters

Not so long ago an elderly Australian lady could be found most days at the Hastings Public Library thumbing the various newspapers and keeping up to date on current events. Few knew that this lady had, at one time in her youth, filled up the columns of these very same publications  with some of her own exploits. The aging lady’s name was Muriel Matters and, sitting in her library chair, she could scarcely have imagined that a building down the road would one day be named in her honour. Steven Glenn Anderson speaks to Frances Bedford, secretary of the Muriel Matters Society in Australia about the life of this fascinating suffragist and what the historical society named after her has been up to so far this year.

Muriel Matters was, amongst other things, a prominent suffragist in the early twentieth century who fought hard for women to receive a basic democratic right now enjoyed by all adults today – the right to both vote at elections and stand for parliament. Matters was rescued from historical obscurity largely by the efforts of Frances Bedford, a Member of Parliament in Muriel’s birth place of South Australia.

Frances met with Oliver Waldren in Hastings who was a friend of Muriel Matters many moons ago!

Frances met with Oliver Waldren in Hastings who was a friend of Muriel Matters many moons ago!

Can you tell us about Muriel Matters’ connection with Hastings?

Muriel’s life took many twists and turns to end up in Hastings. She was born in 1877 on the other side of the world in Adelaide, South Australia. A promising actress and elocutionist who travelled around Australia, she was soon encouraged to pursue a life on the stage in London, shifting there in 1905. Not long after her arrival she became involved in the suffrage movement and the rest, as they say, is history.

Muriel became intimately involved with one particular group called the Women’s Freedom League and she lead a number of high profile protests – including one occasion in which she chained herself to the ‘grille’ in the House of Commons and another in which she travelled via balloon over London dropping suffragist leaflets.

Muriel lectured and spoke all over the United Kingdom and Australia on a number of issues, usually about women’s suffrage but sometimes about topics as varied as prison reform, the Montessori educational philosophy and pacifism.

Muriel had a lasting and intimate connection with Hastings. As early as 1908 she was agitating in favour of women’s suffrage in the area, helping to convert as many locals as she could to ‘the cause’. After women received limited suffrage in Britain in 1918 she put up her hand to run, albeit unsuccessfully, as the Labour Candidate for the seat of Hastings at the 1924 election.

Muriel lived with her husband in Hastings on and off from the 1920s, eventually returning permanently after his death in 1949, passing away not too far from her Pelham Crescent home in 1969.

Obviously, with the new Hastings Council Buildings being named in her honour, it has really solidified her reputation as a prominent and well-respected member of the community.

Have you opened the London Chapter of the Muriel Matters Society as yet?

The London Chapter has met annually since 2015, each time at an event at Australia House. There are many ex-pat Australians in London and Greater England already involved and we have been honoured to have Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Mrs Pankhurst, become our first UK Life Member. This show of confidence and support from such an eminent figure in the women’s movement means a great deal to the new chapters as we start out and the recognition of The Society in this way will give us a wider audience. Now that everything is in place from those small beginnings, we would certainly welcome new members as we gear up to celebrate the Centenary of Suffrage.

More details about UK memberships can be found on our website, Muriel Matters Society.

The Muriel Matters Society UK Committee. L to right: Becky Bailey-Harris, Frances Bedford, Julia Tymukas, Ben Waters, and Stephen Spence.

The Muriel Matters Society UK Committee. L to right: Becky Bailey-Harris, Frances Bedford, Julia Tymukas, Ben Waters, and Stephen Spence.

How are things progressing with a Hastings branch? Did you visit Hastings this year?

Hastings residents have welcomed The Society since our inception in 2009 and on each visit, there has been greater interest. Hastings has a proud suffrage history and many prominent local residents have provided help. Hastings Borough Mayors and councillors, as well as council staff, have offered wonderful support. Through The Lady magazine, we located a gentleman who knew Muriel late in her life and he has been able to give us invaluable information. We hope there will be more people like him coming forward with information on Muriel as our reputation grows.

If any of your readers have information about, or even a personal connection to, Muriel and her family we would certainly like to know!

Each Chapter of The Society can plan its own events and, in promoting Muriel, we can give women’s issues and the interests Muriel championed a higher profile. Things like – to name but a few: better social housing, improved wages and conditions and the abolition of sweat shops (yes, still around in the 21st Century), education for all, prison reform and world peace.

Apart from the serious messages, we have a lot of fun, too. One member has created an interactive map of Muriel’s activities in Hastings through the historical newspapers which can be viewed through The Society’s website. Muriel’s home has a blue plaque, we have contributed to the restoration of The Pier project and we want to help preserve St Mary-in-the-Castle.

Frances at Hastings

Francis Bedford, Leader of the Council, Peter Chowney and Cllr Kim Forward

Tell us about the biography of Muriel Matters, launched in London this summer – and how this linked in with The Centenary of Women’s Suffrage?

Launched with a large gathering in attendance at Australia House, ex-pat Australian Robert Wainwright’s Miss Muriel Matters tells Muriel’s colourful story with the information we have to date. Richly illustrated, it is a great read and has been well received popularly and more widely in suffrage circles. It comes at a time when Muriel’s place in the Centenary of Suffrage is being celebrated and plans are underway to have a signature event in 2018 as part of the Votes 100 activities.

How do you feel Muriel Matters’ contribution relates to the current world situation?

Things for women have certainly improved since Muriel’s day. For starters most of us can at least vote and stand for election to parliament! In places like the UK, Germany, and most recently in New Zealand, women from all political groups are currently leading their countries. For decades now, prominent women have been breaking down the ‘glass ceilings’ of private industry as well. In Western counties, most legislators have put in place protections for discriminating against people because of their gender while young girls, by and large, receive the same opportunities as boys to further their own education.

But, if Muriel were alive today, there would still be causes – some frustratingly the same and some new – for her to agitate for change, or at least raise awareness, on a number of issues.

Things like employment conditions and the wage gaps between men and women – and women facing retirement without a secure income due to changes in work arrangements or marital status. Women are still not in as many leadership positions as might be thought possible, depriving decision-makers of a very pertinent point of view, especially in policy formulation.

There are ever present ‘image’ pressures on young girls, particularly through social media. And we are beginning to see the ‘outing’ of inappropriate behaviour aimed at women, demeaning and marginalising them in the workplace and socially, thanks in part to prominent sexist/sexual assault cases in US entertainment at the moment and the ‘#metoo’ campaign. Domestic violence continues at ever-rising levels and in Australia one woman a week loses her life at the hands of someone she has known in a personal relationship.

In an age of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter it would be fascinating to see how Muriel might have used these outlets to garner awareness of some of her causes!

 

The Muriel Matters Society has a membership base of over 400 people in both Australia and the UK, and it warmly invites new members to join. For information on how to become a member, or otherwise browse their activities, visit The Muriel Matters Society website. Muriel Matters was the subject of a documentary film a few years ago, aired nationally on Australian television. Copies of the film can be purchased through the Muriel Matters Society for £16, with free shipping to the UK.

Posted 12:54 Tuesday, Dec 19, 2017 In: Hastings People


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