Votes for Women - and Men!

on Tuesday, 20 February 2018. Posted in Archives

There has been a lot in the media recently about the centenary on 6th February 2018 of the Representation of the People Act 1918 but a lot of this has focused on female suffrage and of course this Act represented a big landmark in suffrage reform for men as well as women. The focus as well, understandably, has been on the national picture and I hope in this blog to shed a bit of light on Wiltshire’s story.

Background: the suffrage movement in the 19th century

The 19th century saw a great deal of progress in the movement towards votes for men and women which is useful background to the 1918 Act. At the start of the 19th century only a small minority of people could vote, based on freehold property ownership – this did, however, include an even smaller minority of women! In Wiltshire in 1831 there were 2 county MPs and 32 borough MPs, voted for by around 1200 people i.e. 0.5% of the total population of around 240,000. Some people had more than one vote and the system was unfair – large boroughs had the same number of MPs as smaller ones with fewer voters. Some Wiltshire boroughs were ‘rotten boroughs’ ie having a tiny number of voters who were in the pockets of a landowner who effectively bribed them to vote a certain way – Old Sarum is a notorious example cited for this, being in the pocket of the Pitt family from the 17th century to 1802. These local issues are symptomatic of the wider lack of the genuine democracy which many people wanted to see, and the example of revolutionary France (1789) was a cautionary tale of what might happen if reforms didn’t take place. 

With the passing of the 1832 Great Reform Act Wiltshire lost 16 of its seats in Parliament, leaving 18 in total – 2 members for the northern division, 2 for the south; 1 each for Wilton, Westbury, Malmesbury, and Calne boroughs; and 2 each for Chippenham, Cricklade, Devizes, Marlborough, and Salisbury. The franchise was widened for men to include small landowners, tenant farmers and shopkeepers for the county vote. For the borough vote the irregularities and disparities were sorted out by the creation of a uniform franchise giving the vote to all householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more, and some lodgers. (Source: For women the result was catastrophic - total exclusion from the parliamentary franchise. However, it is very important to remember, as Dr Sarah Richardson has shown (, large numbers of women continued to vote for and hold office for a range of local bodies, including overseers of the poor, surveyors of the highway and constables, due to paying poor rates.

Disappointed by the limitations of the 1832 Act campaigners called the Chartists were pressing for (amongst other things) a vote for all men over 21 of sound mind and not in prison; for secret ballots; for payments for MPs to allow ordinary working people to become MPs; and a fairer distribution of numbers of voters in constituencies – all things which seem very reasonable by modern standards! In 1839 and 1840 the Chartists had torchlight processions, fiery speeches, and threats to resort to arms in Bradford on Avon, Trowbridge, Westbury, Holt and Salisbury, and outright rioting in Devizes. Though the magistrates were undoubtedly alarmed by this they acted with restraint and managed to avoid too much bloodshed in their deployment of troops. The local ringleaders based in Trowbridge and Westbury were arrested and indicted of conspiracy with intent to disturb the peace. Three of the local leaders were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, one with hard labour.  Apart from a militant flare-up in Swindon in 1848, this was the end of militant Chartism in Wiltshire.

Between 1832 and 1867 the large landowners continued to have huge political influence in Wiltshire. The more open forms of bribery had been banned but other more subtle forms continued to exist – paying election expenses, or using precarious tenancies where a tenant farmer was unable to vote independently of his landowner for fear of losing the farm. This wasn’t sorted out till the 1872 Secret Ballot Act. However relations between the landowning and other classes were improving due to things like improvements in housing, sanitation and education. The growth of literacy among working class people helped fuel a demand for local newspapers - 35 newspapers started in Wiltshire between 1830 and 1911. Some of these represented the Tories, some the Whigs (Liberals). This growth in education helped to give working class men both greater aspirations to get involved in politics and the means to achieve it.
1866 saw the first mass petition in favour of votes for women, which was presented to Parliament (available online at: Only three Wiltshire women signatories are listed: Anne Cunnington of Devizes, and Miss Lanham and Miss Turner who ran a ladies’ boarding seminary, Claremont House, Corsham. The petition was unsuccessful but both the Tories and the Whigs could see that further parliamentary reform was needed and the 1867 Second Reform Act ( widened the franchise to all male householders in the boroughs, as well as lodgers, who paid rent of £10 a year or more. It also reduced the property threshold in the counties and gave the vote to agricultural landowners and tenants with very small amounts of land. It is estimated that before the Act nationally only 1 million men (of a population of 7 million adult males) could vote; after the Act that was doubled. In Wiltshire that figure was 12,500 men, representing 3.5% of the total population. (Women were still excluded from the parliamentary franchise.)

In 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act had ended women’s right to vote for Guardians or in local elections. This right was returned to them in 1869 with the Municipal Franchise Act enabling female ratepayers to vote for local municipal councils and to elect, and stand as, Guardians of the Poor, although a court case of 1872 restricted this right to unmarried women or widows. The period 1869-1875 saw a lot of activity in Wiltshire relating to the campaign for female suffrage. 26 July 1869 saw a petition in favour of suffrage by Wiltshire women, led by the residents of Salisbury. A meeting about suffrage also took place in Salisbury in March 1871 but this was the last of its kind before 1909. Petitions in favour of suffrage also took place in 1870 and 1873 in Marlborough; in 1870 in Trowbridge and in Westbury (followed by a public meeting on the topic in 1874); and in Market Lavington in 1870 and campaigner Rhoda Garrett spoke at a meeting there in 1872. Suffrage speakers spoke at public meetings in Calne and Chippenham in the late 19th century, but no actual suffrage groups were formed in those towns.   Bills in favour of women’s suffrage were placed before Parliament on an almost annual basis from now onwards but were repeatedly defeated before 1918.

The 1884 Reform Act ( was a big step in the campaign to expand male suffrage. It established a uniform franchise throughout the country and brought the franchise in counties in line with the 1867 lodger and householder franchise for boroughs, in other words all men paying an annual rental of £10 and all men holding land valued at £10 now had the vote. In 1885 the Redistribution of Seats Act was a big step forward in redrawing boundaries to make electoral districts more equal. Wiltshire was left with just 6 seats, one each for the north, north-east, north-west, west, and southern divisions, plus one parliamentary borough, Salisbury. Under the 1884 Act the British electorate now totalled over 5 million but this still only represented about 60% of men, and women continued to be completely excluded from parliamentary elections. 

Ref 2776/22 poster re-extension of franchise 1884

Women’s and Working Class Men’s Suffrage Campaign 1880s-1918

In the 1880s a large number of women began getting very involved in politics and local government, taking part as local organisers, canvassers and speakers for the different political parties, and serving on school boards and Boards of Guardians. The 1888 County Council Act gave female rate-payers the right to vote in Council and Borough elections. Feeling that the Liberal party were not doing enough to represent working people the Independent Labour Party was founded in 1893. In 1900 the ILP played a key role in founding the Labour Representation Committee which became the Labour Party in 1906. The party actively encouraged women to join, linking the quest for universal male suffrage and rights for working class men with the cause of women’s suffrage.

Putting things very simply, there were two main bodies of women campaigning for the vote: the suffragists, who from the 19th century up to 1918 pursued peaceful means to acquire the right to vote, and the suffragettes, formed in 1903, who took a more militant approach. In 1897 the suffragists grouped together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies under the leadership of Milicent Fawcett. The leadership was middle class but many working class women joined the movement and the Union was affiliated to Labour in 1912. The Women’s Social and Political Union was set up in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst, who was impatient with the slow, gradual approach of the suffragists. Taking inspiration from the earlier Chartists, “deeds not words” was their motto and this escalated from occasional acts of vandalism and arson to the infamous instance of Emily Wilding Davison throwing herself under the King’s horse at the Derby in 1913. The suffragettes were punished in a draconian fashion by the government - when they went on hunger strike they were subjected to the terrible ‘cat and mouse’ regime of force-feeding, release and re-arrest which understandably won them a good deal of public sympathy. The suffragettes were led by the middle class Pankhursts but had many working class members. Sylvia Pankhurst, however, broke away from the WSPU in 1914 and formed a socialist splinter group.

This same mix of suffragists and suffragettes can be found in Wiltshire although it’s fair to say the former far outweigh the latter, at least as far as we can tell from the local newspapers which are one of the key sources. Of the suffragettes, we might think of Edith New, a school teacher born in Swindon, who became an activist for the WSPU. Edith chained herself to the railings at 10 Downing Street in Jan 1908, the first time that tactic had been employed by a suffragette. She resigned from teaching and devoted herself full time to the cause, ending up imprisoned and on hunger strike for her beliefs. (See Volume 1 of Swindon Heritage Magazine held at WSHC for an article about Edith by Frances Bevan.)  It is perhaps no surprise that Edith came from Swindon as this town held important meetings about women’s suffrage at the Mechanics’ Institute in March 1875 and again in 1882, featuring speakers from the Bristol Society.  Devizes had a branch of the WSPU, formed in 1911, with Katharine Abraham as Secretary, which organised a resistance to the 1911 census. In Trowbridge Lilian Dove-Willcox travelled from her home in Bristol to work as an organiser for the WSPU and was joint secretary with Miss B Gramlich of the West Wilts WSPU. Her entry in the 1911 census shows the use of it as a tool for protest by some suffragettes.

Dr Jane Howells has discussed the formation of the Salisbury Women’s Suffrage Society (SWSS) which began life in the summer of 1909 following an earlier meeting in February at the Godolphin School – the first meeting on the subject of female suffrage since 1871. “About 20 were present, all of whom were in favour of the object of the meeting though their opinions differed widely as to the best methods to pursue…” (Salisbury Journal 3 Jul 1909, reprinted in Sarum Chronicle volume 9) The Salisbury group was affiliated to the NUWSS, thus they were suffragists not suffragettes. By 1913 another NUWSS society had been formed in south Wiltshire, at Fovant, to serve the women in the south of Wiltshire outside the City.  Swindon was the home of the Swindon and North Wiltshire Suffrage Society.

It is important to recognise that not all women were in favour of suffrage. The Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League was formed in 1907 and locally Edith Olivier is an example of a Wiltshire person who actively opposed suffrage. For example, on 4 July 1910 she writes in her diary:

“Monday 4th To see lots of ratepaying women asking them to write to Mr Bathurst [local MP] & tell him they are not in favour of women’s Suffrage. The bill comes on next week. He is said to be going to vote for it.” (982/44.)

Opposition to suffrage was normally based on three beliefs:
1) that giving women the right to vote would threaten their traditional role within the family leading to the breakdown of society;
2) that God had ordained that women’s role in society was to be a wife and mother not a political creature; and
3) that women could not handle the responsibility of voting as they were too ignorant of public affairs and would therefore make mistakes eg relying on their husbands or fathers to tell them how to vote.
Somewhat ironically, Edith went on to be a female town councillor and the first female Mayor of Wilton, in the 1930s, but back in 1910 she was very much still under the domination of her strict clergyman father. I think it’s fair to say though she was never entirely won over – her memoir Without Knowing Mr Walkley published in 1938 states a little bleakly: “Except for those who have to count them, votes seem to count less now that everybody has one…”
The summer of 1913 was a tumultuous and significant chapter in the history of the women’s suffrage movement in Wiltshire. In June 1913 the newspapers reported an arson attack at Elms Cross, a mansion near Bradford on Avon which was completely burned to the ground.

The gist of this story is that there was a meeting in Trowbridge a few days before the fire, where the Minister of Agriculture, Runciman, was giving a speech to farmers which was interrupted by a group of suffragettes, “amongst whom were several well-known Bath ladies disguised as country women”, (Source: Shepton Mallet Journal 6 Jun 1913) who were ejected from the meeting. The burning down of the mansion appears to have been in revenge for this ejection as suffragette propaganda was found at the scene of the fire, together with a message: “For damages, apply Runciman, Trowbridge.” Of course, it is possible this was an attempt to frame the suffragettes, but arson was a fairly standard suffragette tactic by this time. No one was ever convicted of the crime, according to the Quarter Sessions records. The £15,000 property belonged to the widow of Isaac Jones, a quarry master. Fortunately no one was hurt in the attack and the house was rebuilt in 1922.

In July 1913 the national suffrage pilgrimage came through the county which had a lot of opposition - this may of course have been influenced by public fear and anger at the recent arson attack. In other parts of the country suffragettes had been known to burn down churches, sports pavilions and railway sidings and there may have been fears that things could escalate in Wiltshire.

Ref P58029 Corsham suffrage image

The national pilgrimage was organised by the NUWSS and was a peaceful march by suffragists from Cornwall to London, via Wiltshire, to try to gain more support for votes for women and raise money for funds. The suffrage pilgrimage was well received in Corsham, where they had a peaceful meeting in front of the Town Hall, and a picnic, but met with a much more hostile reception in Chippenham, Calne, Marlborough and Swindon, where they were shouted down by large crowds, had missiles thrown at them, and had to be escorted to safety by the police.

Lloyd George said of the pilgrimage it: “was one of the cleverest political moves in recent times…dramatic without being repellent.” In many ways it acted as a protest against the more militant approach of the suffragettes and many speeches were made against their criminal behaviour. Sadly, of course, many on-lookers were blind to the distinctions between the two groups and the media for example referred to the suffragists as suffragettes, willy nilly. (eg The Wiltshire Times 19 Jul 1913)

The outbreak of the First World War and the contributions of both women and working class men to this led to increased support for universal suffrage. Many women dropped the campaign for suffrage and worked wholeheartedly for the war effort (although some took a pacifist approach, such as Sylvia Pankhurst.) Throughout Wiltshire, and indeed the nation, women took up roles traditionally carried out by men in a variety of occupations including agriculture, and worked in munitions factories to make arms for the war. Many volunteered for the Red Cross or in one of the auxiliary services such as the WRNS, WRAF or WAAC, or helped out on the Home Front taking care of Belgian refugees or making comfort parcels for Prisoners of War, and so on. Meanwhile the enormous sacrifice of thousands of working men’s lives made it seem unconscionable that they could be allowed to give their lives for their country, without the right to vote. The Home Secretary, George Cave, explicitly addressed this when introducing the Representation of the People Bill in Parliament. He said: “War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides.”

We are privileged to have quite a lot of material relating to the drafting of the Representation of the People bill in collection 947, the papers of Sir Walter Long, minister of state for local government. These include numerous annotated drafts of the bill plus correspondence with anti suffrage campaigners and others. Long was personally opposed to women’s suffrage but he was willing to accede to the demands of the suffragists led by Mrs Fawcett, accepting that the tide in public opinion was overwhelmingly in that direction.

The outcomes of the Representation of the People Act 1918

The bill became law on 6 February 1918. The Act extended the franchise for all men aged 21 and over, and women aged 30 and over who were able to vote in local government elections, owned property, or were a graduate voting in a university constituency. In Wiltshire this meant expanding the electorate to 134,000 people, which was 50% of the population. A lot better than the 0.5% of 1831! (The older voting age was deliberate, to compensate for the diminished male population caused by the War.)

I have tried very hard to find evidence of individual women’s responses to the Act but without success. Of the diaries and letters I’ve looked at, 6th February seems to have come and gone without any mention of the historic change, or, frustratingly, there are gaps in the diary for that period. There is a reference in Sir Walter Long’s own diary which mentions the passing of the law as “a very great achievement”. (947/1884)

I suspect one reason I haven’t (yet) found a huge response to the passing of the Act by the women affected is that the First World War was still happening and many people probably were preoccupied with their fears for loved ones. Another reason may be that the Act felt inevitable by this stage, and not such a huge achievement as it might have been before the war. Finally I wonder if there’s the fact the Act only brought the vote to women aged 30 or over, so younger women felt excluded and therefore didn’t bother to mention it.

Fortunately local newspapers help to tell us how the Act was received by some women: in Trowbridge “a good muster of interested ladies” met to listen to a talk organised by the Women’s Liberal Association on the new Act in February 1918. The new Act was described as “the greatest measure of reform ever passed…”

This was followed in August by registering to vote and then on 14 Dec 1918 the General Election took place, in which many women voted for the first time at a parliamentary election. Long describes it as “the most momentous election for 100 years.” Again, newspapers are full of interesting stories of how it went. It is pleasing to read in the Wiltshire Times that women “polled well, intelligently and enthusiastically, and many aged women took a delight in voting” (21 December 1918)

The newspaper goes onto elaborate about the impact on individual women such as Mrs Collins of Westbourne Road, Trowbridge, who registered her first vote at the age of 93!

In terms of the outcomes of the Act for working men, their cause was championed for many years by the Labour party in Wiltshire which owes a great deal to individual characters such as Reuben George of Swindon or Captain E N Bennett of Westbury, both of whom stood for election in 1919. We hold the minute book of the Westbury Labour Party for 1918 (4166/2/1) which shows their preparations for the elections that year; Captain Bennett had an ‘uproarious reception’ at the conference immediately before the election! The labour candidates in 1919 only polled 17% of the vote, but they paved the way for later success such as the first Labour MP for Wiltshire in 1929, Christopher Addison of Swindon.

For women, the Act paved the way for increased involvement in local and national government. The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 was passed in November 1918, allowing women to be elected to Parliament. Women aged 21 and over could stand for election, despite the vote only being available to women aged 30 and over. Countess Markiewicz was the first woman MP elected in the 1918 British elections, but she didn’t take up her seat for political reasons (she was an MP for Sinn Fein.) The first woman MP to take up her seat was Lady Astor, for Plymouth, elected at a by-election in 1919. Of course no discussion of 1918 can be complete without mentioning that the franchise was not extended on an equal basis to men till 1928, when women 21 and over also gained the vote.

Locally, there are many examples of women becoming more involved in politics. The Godolphin school magazine (4312/13/B/11) of Salisbury includes a photograph and cuttings about the election of one of the school governors, Lady Hulse, as the first female town councillor for Salisbury, in 1919 - a source of much pride to the school and no doubt an inspiration to the female pupils.

Wiltshire’s first female candidates for Parliament were Lady Currie, who stood at Devizes in 1922, and Mrs Masterman, who stood for the Salisbury constituency in 1929. Neither were successful and in fact it is incredible to realise that the first woman MP for Wiltshire was in 1997 – Julia Drown became the Labour MP for South Swindon. In total Wiltshire has only ever had four female MPs, and all elected after 1997! Some battles for equality are, most definitely, still being fought…

Claire Skinner, Principal Archivist, WSHC

Further Reading
Bevan, Frances – article on Edith New in Swindon Heritage Magazine volume 1, published 2012
Crawford, Elizabeth: The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland: A Regional Survey published 2006
Howells, Jane: article on the Suffrage Movement in Salisbury in the Sarum Chronicle volume 9, published 2009
Liddington, J and Norris, J: One Hand Tied Behind Us: Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, revised edition published 2000
Luck, Kate: articles on the Suffrage Movement in Wiltshire in Wiltshire Life Magazine to be published in Spring 2018
Pugh, R B, ed: The Victoria County History of Wiltshire Volume 5 – published online at:


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