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March 6, 2022

Votes for Women Dirigible Airship Over London, 1909

It was 1909: the skirts were long, the corsets tight. And women in Britain couldn’t vote. For Muriel Matters — so far from her home in Adelaide — taking to the skies in this rickety contraption was worth it. The plan was simple: suffragettes had been told they could not distribute leaflets on the streets. So instead, they were going to drop from the skies campaign leaflets on to the procession of King Edward VII as he made his way in his golden carriage along The Mall to the opening of Parliament on February 16, 1909.

The Votes for Women airship lifting off.

Muriel Matters (1877–1969), an Australian actress, arrived in London in 1905 looking for theatrical work. She loved her adopted country so much that she remained there for the rest of her life, but arriving from South Australia, where women had been voting since 1894, she was appalled at the lack of women’s rights in England. She soon became involved with the suffrage organization Women’s Freedom League (WFL) to further the cause of women.

Matters organized a number of stunts and events in order to bring attention to the suffrage cause. In 1908 she chained herself to the railings on the grille at the House of Commons and she addressed the MPs as they entered. Police had to cut the entire grille from the wall as she refused to tell them where the key was hidden. According to her biographer, Robert Wainwright, “She was dragged out of the gallery still shouting and proclaiming ‘Votes for Women!’ while attached to this section of metal.” She was arrested that evening and sentenced to a month in the notorious Holloway Prison.

Muriel became well known for her antics; her image was printed on postcards and sold by the WFL. But the most outrageous and memorable stunt Muriel pulled was flying in an airship over London.

In 1909 she took off in a dirigible balloon with ‘Votes for Women’ painted in enormous letters on the side. King Edward was opening Parliament and members of the suffrage movement had been told that they would be arrested if they tried to distribute leaflets along the route. So members of the WFL decided that if they couldn’t take their message to the street, they’d take it to the air. Muriel’s plan was to fly over London and scatter 56lbs of Women’s Freedom League pamphlets over Westminster. The weather that day was rainy and windy, so she was blown off course and ended up in South London in Croydon, but the Votes for Women airship made worldwide news and helped promote the suffrage movement.

Muriel Matters in the airship.

Thirty years later she recalled the trip: “That morning I went to Hendon and met Mr Henry Spencer who had his airship all ready near the Welsh Harp. It was quite a little airship, eighty eight feet long (25m), and written in large letters on the gas bag were three words, ‘Votes For Women’. Below this was suspended an extremely fragile rigging carrying the engine and a basket, like those used for balloons. We loaded up about a hundredweight of leaflets, then I climbed into the basket, Mr Spencer joined me, and we rose into the air.”

The dirigible ascended to an altitude of 3,500ft (1,000 meters). “It was very cold,” Muriel recalled, “but I got some exercise throwing the leaflets overboard.” She later described how Spencer had to climb out of the basket repeatedly and clamber ‘like a spider’ across the dirigible’s framework to make adjustments to the engine. “Suddenly I realized that if he fell off, I hadn’t the first idea how to maneuver the airship,” she said. “Not that I was terribly bothered about that. I was too busy making a trail of leaflets across London.”

Despite failing to fly over the king’s procession, Matters considered the aerial adventure a great success. “The flight achieved all we wanted. It got our movement a great deal of publicity, as you can imagine. In those days, the sight of an airship was enough to make people run for miles!”

Muriel’s airship adventure was also the first powered flight from what later became the London Aerodrome at Hendon, which was to feature prominently in both World Wars, and site of various pioneering aviation experiments, among them the first airmail, the first parachute descent from a powered aircraft, the first night flights, and the first aerial defense of a city.

Muriel Matters continued with her political life as an active member of the suffragettes lecturing all over the world.


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