Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The first woman to vote in Britain

A brick wall in family history research has often led me to look at various Maxwell families who lived in Lancashire during the mid 1860s, especially widows. And while I haven’t as yet solved that personal puzzle, I was astonished to discover that one of the women who interested me has turned out to be the first woman to cast a vote in Britain!

Lily (or Lilly) Maxwell is thought to have been born around 1800 in Greenock, Scotland, although no-one of that name appears in the birth or baptismal records of Scotland’s People around that time. Lily may not have been her Christian name, or perhaps it was a contraction of some other name like Elizabeth. Maybe she wasnt a Maxwell by birth either, so her early days remain a mystery. 

Some references state she opened a small china and tea supplies shop after her husband died around 1861 but there is no proof she was ever married - all the Census Returns described as being unmarried. How she came into enough funds to establish a shop is also unknown.

Lily (Lilly) Maxwell, c 1867, image Manchester City Council
She first appears in the 1841 Census Return for Cheetham, Manchester, as a Female Servant, born in Scotland. (Many 1851 Returns for Manchester are missing or damaged and too difficult to read). In 1861, she is shown living on her own at 17 Bridge Street, Ardwick, Manchester, aged 60, and described as a Housekeeper for Print Works”. And in the 1871 Census she describes herself as a Cook  and has several lodgers.

There’s no knowing for certain either if she was the same Lilly Maxwell mentioned in the Manchester Courier of 5th March 1836 being sent to prison for 4 months for stealing “bacon and other articles the property of Fred. Doubleday” but given what a struggle life could be for any woman on her own at that time or who found herself in difficult circumstances after a supporting partner or husband died, it may well have been her.

Lily wasn’t lily-white as a shop-owner either. On 4 April 1866, she made the newspapers again when she was fined One Pound in the Police Court for defrauding her customers with unjust weights and light measures.

However, as a shop-owner, she had to pay rates to the local council. In 1867 there was a by-election for the local Member of Parliament, one of the candidates being Jacob Bright. Although women weren’t allowed to vote at the time, all men who were ratepayers were. Somehow, Lily’s name mistakenly appeared on the registered list of voters. An early supporter of the suffragist movement, Lydia Becker, got wind of this and so she encouraged Lily to cast her vote. (Jacob Bright looks like a good man to vote for, an “advanced radical”, peace campaigner and a supporter of women’s suffrage.)

One can only imagine the scene when the two women fronted up to the poll. In those days, you had to announce out loud your choice of candidate. Of course, there was much consternation but as Lily was clearly listed, the returning officer had little choice but to accept her vote. It is said the other voters cheered when Lily did so. Several other female property owners in Manchester attempted to follow suit, but within a year the suffragist movement had been banned and any loopholes in rate books blocked by law.

This brief news item, however, appeared in The Ashton Weekly Reporter on 15 August, 1868. (It refers to the general election held a year after the by-election) Being successful once, no doubt Lily was prepared to run another test, but this time she and all the others would have been rejected.
Miss Lilly Maxwell and 1,100 other women householders in the township of Chorlton-upon-Medlock have sent in claims to be placed on the list of voters for Manchester.”
Lydia Becker went on to be celebrated for her early work in the women’s movement, but poor Lily wasn’t so lucky. Although she was still on the rates book for Chorlton-upon-Medlock until 1876, she was admitted to the Withington Workhouse on 5 April 1876 and died on 24 October that same year. Sadly, the workhouse was often where elderly people without any family to support them were forced to end their days. The workhouse records state she was buried in Bradford Cemetery, now known as Philips Park, but where exactly she lies is yet to be discovered.

The Rates Book for 1876, Lily Maxwell second name from top
Workhouse Records, Lily Maxwell first line
Lily’s experience seems to have the most coverage in histories of the women’s movement but she was far from the only one who turned up to vote at elections. Read more here at History of Women website. 

Also see Chorlton History blog here.