On this day – 16th February – in 1909, a dirigible air balloon took to the skies, showering the city of London below with leaflets promoting the suffrage cause. The mastermind behind this was the Australian born political activist, Muriel Matters.
16th February, 1909 marked the opening of parliament by King Edward VII for the coming year and Matters, along with her sisters at the Women’s Freedom League (the WFL; a breakaway, non-militant suffrage group from Emmeline Pankhurst’s autocratic Women’s Social and Political Union, aka the WSPU), believed this presented the perfect opportunity to promote their calls for universal suffrage.
Hiring a motorised dirigible (akin to a modern day blimp in appearance) and enlisting the aide of a member of the acclaimed aeronautical Spencer family to pilot it, Matters intended to fly over the Palace of Westminster, dropping her political tracts upon the heads of the King and the (dis)honourable members of the Houses of Parliament, thereby disrupting the pomp and ceremony of the day. It was agreed that fellow leading WFL members, Edith How-Martyn and Elsie Craig, would follow the balloon’s progress on the ground via motorcar.
However, adverse weather conditions and the weak dirigible motor combined to ensure that Matters’ stunt did not go entirely to plan. Strong winds plagued the South East of England that day and the rudimentary small motor that powered the balloon meant that Matters could not reach her target of Westminster. Instead, the Votes for Women airship had to make do with plotting a course along the outskirts of the capital; a ninety-minute flight that rose to 3,500ft and took in Wormwood Scrubs, Kensington and Tooting before finally making a landing in Coulsdon. During the course of the journey, Matters managed to scatter some 56lb of handbills highlighting the actions of the WFL and their cause, and highlight it did for, despite not achieving the original aim of the day, the daring flight went on to make headlines around the world. The following year the poet Harry Graham composed an ode to Matters’ endeavour, subsequently published in his tome, Deportmental Ditties;
“High above our heads suspended.
(Pamphlets, megaphone and all).
In a big balloon, distended
With the gas of Caxton Hall.
Sours the masterful Miss Matters
Chained securely to her seat
While her circulars she scatters
At our feet”.
The events of 16th February, 1909 was just one of many notable achievements in the life of activist Muriel Matters. During her time with the WFL, she toured a caravan across the South East counties of England to deliver talks on women’s enfranchisement and to establish WFL branches in the region and, in 1908, famously chained herself to the grille – a piece of ironwork that obscured the view of Parliament from the Ladies’ Gallery – in protest at not having the right to vote. Whilst not charged over the incident itself, once she had been removed from the grille, Matters was subsequently arrested on a trumped up charge pertaining to an attempt to rush the Parliament’s lobby and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment at Holloway gaol.