The history of Dorset Hall in Wimbledon
The history of Dorset Hall in Wimbledon
Barbara Gorna tells us about her campaign to save this incredible building that was the home of a pioneering suffragette
For about 18 months I have been chairing a campaign to save Dorset Hall, a Georgian house on Kingston Road, the former home of Rose Lamartine Yates – the leader of the Wimbledon branch of the WSPU.
The WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) was founded by suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and drove the cause for the vote for Women over a 100 years ago.
Simon Hood, my husband, and I often drove past a sorry looking yet fine old house on the way to the shops in Colliers Wood. We had moved to back to Wimbledon at the end of 2019, shortly before lockdown. In October 2020 we investigated.
Pictured: Rose speaking on Wimbledon Common
The name rang a bell, yet I couldn’t place it. I discovered that it was the former home of Rose, one of the leading suffragettes, and had been a place of activism and respite care for suffragettes released from prison. But who owned it? And how had it got into this state?
Dorset Hall had been used as social housing by Merton Council but owned by Clarion Housing and that was my first port of call. The house no longer fits their purpose, and they plan to sell it.
By now, I was intrigued by the associations with the house and determined to find out more. Sarah Gould, Heritage and Local Studies manager, provided detailed information on Rose and her colleagues – including the fact that Rose was one of the leading organisers of Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral, another leading suffragette who died after being injured while grabbing the reigns of the king’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby.
By now I had formed Dorset Hall Group (DHG), made up of a retired architect, a surveyor, a historian, representatives of Merton Citizens – and husband Simon, a very good organiser. We were pushed back at every turn, including by Merton, Historic England and Clarion. We pressed on and had some good publicity with a mention in The Times by Sara Tor and Mapping Women’s Suffrage. As yet we hadn’t seen the state of the building but from the French doors, we could see it was in very poor shape. There was mould on the walls and wet patches on the ceiling. There had to be a hole in the roof. At one point I did consider going up a ladder but decided those days were behind me…
There was only one thing for it. We hired a drone to take shots of the leaking roof, and, curated by our retired architect, sent the pictures to Clarion, Historic England and Merton. The house is listed Grade II and all three have a duty to keep it ‘weatherproof and watertight’. It continued to rain in for a further nine months with increasingly hysterical emails from DHG to those responsible. At one point we had to put in a Freedom of Information request to find out what was happening.
Towards the end of the summer 2021, the roof was finally repaired. But no internal access had been granted. An early supporter was the Architectural Heritage Trust who came back to us with an offer of support, and we were introduced to the National Trust. After several meetings, the National Trust offered to run an ‘options appraisal’ on the future of the building and environs to be completed by autumn 2022. We asked Clarion for a contribution, which has been agreed.
Rose Lamartine Yates deserves to be remembered. She was the first woman on the Cyclist’s Touring Club and took over the WSPU in Wimbledon in 1909. Pilloried in Punch magazine for abandoning her baby to go to prison, her husband Tom, a solicitor, publicly supported her fight for the vote and their home was a centre of militant activism and a fund-raising centre. She continued the fight, setting up ‘Suffragettes of the WSPU’ in Holborn after the Pankhurst’s disbanded the WSPU to support the Great War effort. Her campaign continued throughout the war and in 1918 was asked to stand against Sir Joseph Hood in the General Election. (by an incredible coincidence, he is my husband Simon’s grandfather) but stood for the London County Council and won a seat in Lambeth. Soon after, she opened a children’s clinic, which was adopted by the NHS in 1958.
What is generally not recognised is that she was a close friend of Emily Wilding Davison. They were at Holloway College and St Hugh’s Oxford together. At that time women were allowed to study but not awarded a degree. Both were sporty women and fighters for ‘the Cause’, as the campaign for the vote was called. After Emily’s death, Tom Yates represented the family at the inquest and both Emily’s brother and mother stayed at Dorset Hall – we have seen the actual letters.
Dorset Hall has many stories in its walls. We are campaigning not just to save the hall but to use it for public good and honour the memory of these women who fought so hard on our behalf.
Very few buildings celebrating women’s achievements are known. It is important for the future that these are recognised. After all, what is not remembered is soon forgotten.
Images: Black and white photos courtesy of Merton Library / Sarah Gould.