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Retracing time with a pilgrimage of purpose

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: July 12, 2012

This photograph shows the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies march from Land's End to London, known as The Great 1913 Suffrage Pilgrimage

This photograph shows the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies march from Land's End to London, known as The Great 1913 Suffrage Pilgrimage

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The centenary of a pioneering women's rights march from Land's End to London is to be marked by a series of performances along the route.

Organisers of next year's event are keen to hear from anyone in the South West with stories, information, photographs or artefacts relating to what became known as The Great 1913 Suffrage Pilgrimage.

Playwright Natalie McGrath, who is leading the Dreadnought South West project, said: "We are putting out a call for stories from the region about this epic walk from the far western tip of Cornwall to Hyde Park. The plan is to archive the material and also to use it as a basis for the production."

Natalie, who is joined by Josie Sutcliffe, Sue Kay and Mary Schwarz, explained that the first part of the process is to research the exact route taken by the votes for women campaigners. Large numbers of supporters joined the march at different stages, with seven women walking all the way.

"There must be people in Cornwall and Devon and at other points along the route who have family stories of grandmothers, great-aunts or neighbours taking part," said Natalie. "We'd love to hear any information they have, however small, in order to build up a better picture of what must have been a big talking point at the time.

"We don't even know the names of the seven who walked all the way. We do know Dr Mabel Ramsay was the oldest woman to walk the whole route but we think it's important to track down the identities of the others."

The Dreadnought South West project – which is named after leading suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst's radical newspaper – began when Natalie was shown a photograph of the march as it arrived for a rally attended by 75,000 in London's Hyde Park. Eight marches from different parts of the country converged in the capital, with the intention of creating the greatest possible impact.

Natalie, who has worked at the Hall for Cornwall in Truro and teaches at Plymouth University, hopes next year's production will inspire a new generation of women. She is being supported by Arts Council England, Hypatia Trust in Penzance and The Works in Truro, Peggy Ramsay Foundation, Hall for Cornwall and The Brewhouse in Taunton.

"Seven women started at Land's End and made it all the way to Hyde Park," added Natalie, who has received national acclaim for her plays, Coasting, Rift and Metal Remains. "They were joined along the way by large numbers of supporters and held open-air meetings where they were permitted to, as well as encountering some resistance. We're really interested in exploring people's experiences of the suffrage campaign in relation to the contemporary social, economic and political position of women today – as well as current modes of, and attitudes to, public protest.

"The intention is to capture the spirit of this peaceful protest pilgrimage through a piece of agit-prop theatre [with a political message] staged at key stopping places along the South West route."

The Great 1913 Suffrage Pilgrimage started at Land's End and passed through Penzance, Hayle, Camborne, Truro, Falmouth, Bodmin, St Austell, Fowey, Looe, St Germans, Plymouth, Ivybridge, Totnes, Newton Abbot, Teignmouth, Dawlish, Starcross, Exmouth, Topsham, Exeter, Tiverton, Wellington, Taunton and Bridgwater. It then continued through Street, Wells, Winscombe, Bristol, Bath, Chippenham, Calne and Marlborough, where women who had travelled from Gloucester through Cheltenham, Cirencester and Swindon joined the main route. The suffragists then went on via Hungerford, Newbury, Reading, Maidenhead and Slough into the centre of London.

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