Muriel Matters

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Muriel Lilah Matters (12 November 1877 – 17 November 1969) was an Australian born suffragist, lecturer, journalist, educator, actress and elocutionist.[1] Based in Britain from 1905 till her death, Matters is best known for her work on behalf of the Women's Freedom League during the height of the militant struggle to enfranchise women in the United Kingdom.

Early life[edit]

Muriel Matters was born in the inner city suburb of Bowden in Adelaide, South Australia to a large Methodist family. Her mother, Emma Alma Matters (née Warburton) gave birth to five daughters and five sons with Muriel being the third oldest. Her father was John Leonard Matters, a cabinetmaker and later stockbroker.

Matters spent the majority of her youth in South Australia and during her time there the colony had gained widespread notoriety for being the first self-governing territory to give women equal franchise on the same terms as it was granted to men. The legislation was carried by the Kingston Government in 1894 and, though too young to be directly involved, Matters would have been inadvertently acquainted with the ideas of the Women’s Movement.

During Matters’ upbringing she was introduced to two Nineteenth Century literary figures who proved influential in informing her political consciousness. These were the American poet Walt Whitman and the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, author of ‘A Dolls House’. Whilst attending elocution classes as a child, the works of both of these writers featured prominently.

Matters studied music at the University of Adelaide and by the late 1890s had begun to act and conduct recitals, initially in Adelaide, but later in Sydney and Melbourne with the Robert Brough Company.[2]

At the time of Federation, Matters returned to Adelaide and taught elocution[3] while concurrently performing for audiences at numerous halls and saloons across the state.[4] In 1904, she left Adelaide once more to join her family who in the meantime had moved to Perth, Western Australia. In Perth she continued her acting and was encouraged by friends in the industry to further her career in London.[2] She soon followed their advice and, in late 1905, a twenty-eight-year-old Muriel Matters boarded the passenger ship Persic - destination London, England.

Conversion to the Suffrage Cause[edit]

When Muriel arrived in London she began doing recitals intermittently and eventually performed at the prestigious Bechstein Hall (now named Wigmore Hall).[5] However, recital work in London was difficult to acquire due to a surplus of performers and Muriel was forced to undertake occasional work as a journalist for income. As a journalist she is known to have interviewed George Bernard Shaw and the exiled anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin. Matters eventually performed at the home of Kropotkin and, after her recital, he challenged her to use her skills for something more useful stating that, "Art is not an end of life, but a means."[6] Matters agreed with his assessment and soon became involved with the Women's Freedom League (WFL) to further the cause of women. She would later write that her encounter with Kropotkin, "proved to be the lifetime in a moment lived – my entire mental outlook was changed."[6]

Work with the Women’s Freedom League[edit]

Caravan Tour of 1908[edit]

In early May through to mid-October 1908, Matters was ‘Organiser in Charge’ of the first ‘Votes for Women’ caravan that toured the South East counties of England.[7] The caravan tour began in Oxshott and passed through Surrey, Sussex, East Anglia and Kent. The purpose of the tour was to speak about women’s enfranchisement and establish new WFL branches in the region. Despite the occasional heckler, Matters and the others involved, such as Charlotte Despard and Amy Hicks, were successful in achieving these aims and established several branches.[7] On this tour Matters met a young Quaker named Violet Tillard in Tunbridge Wells who remained a close acquaintance until Tillard’s death in 1922 due to typhus contracted while helping people in famine-ravaged Russia.

The Grille Incident[edit]

On the night of 28 October 1908, the WFL conducted a simultaneous protest at the British Houses of Parliament. It was to occur outside St. Stephen's Entrance, the Old Prison Yard and in the House of Commons. The purpose of the protest was to raise attention to the struggle of women and remove the ‘Grille’, a piece of ironwork placed in the Ladies’ Gallery that obscured their view of parliamentary proceedings.[8] Matters was at the heart of the protest. She and an associate, Helen Fox, both chained themselves to the Grille of the Ladies’ Gallery and Matters began loudly proclaiming the benefits of enfranchisement directly to the elected MPs. Meanwhile, Violet Tillard lowered a proclamation to the politicians below using pieces of string and a man from the Stranger’s Gallery threw handbills onto the floor of Parliament. The police soon seized all the people involved but could not separate Matters and Fox from the Grille. Eventually the Grille was removed completely with the women attached and, once escorted to a nearby committee room, a blacksmith was fetched to detach the women from the ironwork. Not charged over the incident, Matters and the other women involved were soon released near St. Stephen’s Entrance where they rejoined other members of the WFL who were still protesting. It was here that Matters was arrested on a "trumped-up charge of obstruction" trying to rush the Parliament’s lobby.[9] The following day, 14 women (including Matters) and one male were tried at the Westminster Police Court. Matters was found guilty of wilfully obstructing London Police and was sentenced to one months imprisonment to be served at Holloway Gaol.[10]

The Balloon Flight[edit]

On 16 February 1909, King Edward officially opened Parliament for the coming year. As a part of the festivities there was a precession 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 WFL pamphlets.[11] However, due to adverse wind conditions and the rudimentary motor powering the balloon she never made it to the Palace of Westminster. Instead, Matters, beginning at Hendon airfields, hugged the outskirts of London flying over Wormwood Scrubs, Kensington, Tooting and finally landing in Coulsdon with the trip lasting an hour and a half in total.[12] With the airship emblazoned with ‘Votes for Women’ on one side and ‘Women’s Freedom League’ on the other, it rose to a height of 3,500 ft. Matters scattered 56Ib of handbills promoting the WFL’s cause and leading members of the league, Edith How-Martyn and Miss Elsie Craig, pursued her by car.

1910: First Lecture Tour of Australia[edit]

From May to July 1910, Muriel Matters gave lectures focusing on her experiences in Britain agitating for change. In the four-month tour, she spoke in Perth (Literary Hall), Adelaide (Town Hall), Melbourne (Princess Theatre) and Sydney (King’s Hall). Giving three talks in each city she advocated for prison reform, equal pay for equal work, and, naturally, for the vote to be granted to the women of Great Britain.[13] Accompanied by Violet Tillard on the tour, Matters presented the audience with illustrations related to the movement and donned a facsimile of her prison dress. From the newspaper reports surrounding her visit it is evident that she played to sizeable audiences and that her performances were littered with laughter and applause.[14]

At the conclusion of the lecture tour, Matters helped Vida Goldstein secure an Australian Senate resolution that outlined the country's positive experiences with women’s suffrage.[15] The resolution was passed and sent to Prime Minister Asquith in Britain.

Work in East London[edit]

Within a year of Matters’ return from her country of origin, she became involved with the ‘Mothers Arms’ project in East London led by Sylvia Pankhurst. Matters and other concerned women worked with poor children and mothers residing in the slums of Lambeth, London. With the help of others, she educated impoverished children in the Montessori method in addition to feeding and clothing them.

Marriage[edit]

On 15 October 1914, Muriel married William Arnold Porter, a divorced Bostonian dentist. She subsequently became known as Muriel Matters-Porter. The couple did not have any children.

Objection to the First World War[edit]

In June 1915, one year after the outbreak of World War I, Matters declared her opposition to the war in an address entitled ‘The False Mysticism of War’.[16] In essence, she argued that war is not a successful problem solving mechanism and justifications for war are based on false pretences. She expressed her displeasure at Christianity being used as a justification of war as the origins of the faith made no appeal to armed force. For Matters, those advocating war in government along theological lines could not be trusted, "For their god is in their own consciousness, a magnified edition of themselves."[17] Furthermore, in her address she provides a rebuttal of the militaristic arguments presented in the book, ‘War and the World’s Life’, written by Colonel Frederic Natusch Maude. Matters also questions the importance of nationality - the rise of which being a central factor in the outbreak of the war she was denouncing. With the newspapers of the day filled with honour rolls of dead soldiers and advertisements to purchase war bonds, her arguments were in conflict to a society engaged in total war. Nevertheless, the address was later reproduced in the form of a pamphlet by the 'Peace Committee of the Society of Friends' and sold for a small fee.

The Montessori Method[edit]

In 1916, Matters spent a year in Barcelona attending the Italian educator Maria Montessori’s international course which focused on new educational strategies.[18] Spain’s neutrality during the Great War allowed Matters to partake in the course and learn the child-centred approach to learning proselytised by Madam Montessori. On her return to England she resumed work with the poor children of East London and, on occasion, was invited to lecture education students in England and Scotland on the merits of the Montessori method.[18]

1922: Second Lecture Tour of Australia[edit]

In 1922, Matters undertook a second lecture tour of Australia but this time her primary concern was to advocate Montessori’s ideas to the educators of her native country. Giving lectures in Perth, Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne, her tour was closely followed by the Australian press.[18]

Candidate for Hastings[edit]

The once young actress-cum-suffragist turned education reformer then tried her hand at electioneering, running as the Labour Party candidate for the seat of Hastings in the General Election of 1924.[19] Her opponent was the incumbent conservative candidate, Lord Eustace Percy. She ran on a largely socialist platform advocating a fairer distribution of wealth, work for the unemployed, and furthering the equality of the sexes.[20] During the election, Muriel’s younger brother, Leonard Matters, joined her on the campaign. Leonard’s experience as a writer and journalist, would have been invaluable in negotiating the rather hostile Hastings press (Leonard himself would later become the Member for Lambeth in 1929).[21] Despite Matters’ best efforts, Lord Eustace Percy was returned with an increased majority of 9,135 and echoed the conservative gains felt across the country. Hastings would remain a safe conservative seat and was not claimed by a Labour Party candidate until 1997.[22]

Nevertheless, this was a significant event in Matters’ life as having the opportunity to become elected was the result of a lifetime of activism on behalf of women. Although she was unsuccessful, this actualisation of her belief that women had a natural right to participate in parliamentary decision making bodies was a victory in itself.

Later Life and Death[edit]

In the years after the election Matters settled in Hastings with her husband. It was 1928, when a fifty-one-year-old Muriel Matters finally got what she and the countless other women of Great Britain were craving, suffrage on the same terms as it was granted to men (partial suffrage had been granted to women in 1918). In her later years, Matters often wrote Letters to the Editor, frequented the local library and was heavily involved in the community. Widowed in 1949, she died twenty years later on 17 November 1969 in St. Leonards on Sea nursing home aged ninety-two.[23]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Gosse, Fayette 1986, ‘Muriel Lilah Matters (1877-1969)’, <http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/biogs/A100435b.htm>
  2. ^ a b The Critic, 9 August 1905, p. 7.
  3. ^ ‘Public Notices’, The Advertiser, 8 June 1901, p, 2.
  4. ^ ‘Miss Muriel Matters Recital’, The Advertiser, 30 August 1902, p. 8.
  5. ^ ‘Bechstein Hall – Miss Muriel Matters’, The Times, 9 March 1907.
  6. ^ a b Mrs. Leonard W. Matters 1913, Australasians Who Count in London and Who Counts in Western Australia, Jas. Truscott & Son, Ltd., London, p. 163.
  7. ^ a b Women’s Freedom League 1908, Report for the Year 1908, London, p 13, held in the Suffragette Fellowship Collection, Museum of London.
  8. ^ Women’s Freedom League 1908, Report for the Year 1908, London, p 10, held in the Suffragette Fellowship Collection, Museum of London.
  9. ^ Mrs. Leonard W. Matters 1913, Australasians Who Count in London and Who Counts in Western Australia, Jas. Truscott & Son, Ltd., London, p. 164.
  10. ^ ‘Woman Suffrage – The Disorder at Westminster’, The Times, 30 October 1908, p. 9.
  11. ^ ‘Suffragette Tries Balloon Campaign’, The New York Times, <http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=9C07E5D81738E033A25754C1A9649C946897D6CF>
  12. ^ The Times, 17 February 1909, p. 10.
  13. ^ ‘Address by Miss Muriel Matters’, The Advertiser, 1 August 1910, p. 9.
  14. ^ ‘Through Women’s Eyes’, The Register, 13 June 1910, p. 10.
  15. ^ D.S, ‘Australian Women in Politics: An Interview with Miss Muriel Matters’, The British Australasian, 9 February 1911, p. 9.
  16. ^ Matters, Muriel 1915, ‘The False Mysticism of War’, Headly Bros., London.
  17. ^ Matters, Muriel 1915, ‘The False Mysticism of War’, Headly Bros., London, p. 5.
  18. ^ a b c ‘The Child Mind’, The Argus, 6 October 1922, p. 12.
  19. ^ ‘Parliamentary Candidates’, The Times, 21 August 1924, p. 7.
  20. ^ ‘Election Notes and News’, The Hastings Observer, 28 October 1924.
  21. ^ ‘India: Service in Cause of Freedom’, The Hindu, 31 October 1957.
  22. ^ ‘Muriel Matters: Former Suffragette who Wanted to be Hastings MP’, <http://www.hastingspress.co.uk/history/muriel.htm>
  23. ^ Hastings Observer, 22 November 1969.

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