The woman who voted in 1868

Fifty years before some women were given the franchise, Lily Maxwell voted in a by-election. It's time she was written back into history
October 13, 2018

I am rather glad that my mother never knew the story I am about to tell. She was proud to be the daughter of a suffragette—and to be born on 14th December 1918, the very day of the first general election after parliament gave women the right to vote, a date that you will hear a lot about as the centenary approaches. But in fact, the 1918 general election was the second, not the first, at which women voted. Some—dozens certainly, hundreds possibly—cast their votes in another, almost precisely half a century earlier, in November 1868.

Our story involves a fatal illness, a sharp-eyed Liberal activist, an accidental heroine and a sexist judge. It begins with a clerical error by an unknown official in Manchester a year earlier. He noted that the resident of 25 Ludlow Street, in its Chorlton-upon Medlock district, paid enough rent to meet the strict property qualification that then applied to join the electorate. He added the tenant to the local electoral register, as number 12326, failing to spot that “Lily Maxwell” was a woman.

Scottish by birth, 66-year-old Maxwell had not had an easy life. She had worked in domestic service, but eventually managed to set up a small crockery shop. By the 1860s she was a widow. While her husband was alive, she, like all married women, had no property of her own. Husbands were deemed to be the sole legal owner of everything the couple possessed. But when he died, she became a property owner in her own right.

She had no idea that she had the vote, and may not have found out had Edward James not succumbed to typhoid fever on his return from holiday in Switzerland. He was one of Manchester’s two MPs; his death meant there would be a by-election. It was held in November 1867. The Liberal candidate, Jacob Bright—brother of the better-known Victorian reformer, John Bright—was an early advocate of votes for women. Then, as now, by-elections attracted more volunteers than general elections. Bright’s team scoured Manchester’s register with special care. One of them spotted Maxwell’s name on the register.

Here was a chance for the nascent suffragist movement to advance its case. The Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage had been founded a few months earlier. Bright contacted Lydia Becker, the Society’s secretary. Becker persuaded her to use her vote, and to do so publicly. A report in The Daily News noted the “record and acceptance of a vote by a lady, at the Chorlton Town Hall.” Accompanied by Becker, Maxwell was “escorted from the committee room by a large number of persons, and were much cheered as they passed to and from the poll.”

Bright won easily. He didn’t need the first ever female vote to be cast in a parliamentary election, but it did not go unacknowledged. In his victory speech, he mentioned Maxwell by name: “This woman is a hard-working, honest person who pays her rates as you do. If any woman should possess the vote, it is precisely one such as she.”

Her vote spurred a nationwide campaign to register women who met the property qualification. The campaign enjoyed early success. Within months, local overseers, who drew up the registers, accepted a large number of applicants not just in Manchester, but as far away as Aberdeen and Southwark. In all, overseers in 21 towns and boroughs added more than 10,000 women to the electoral register.

The overseers’ decisions could be challenged, and many were. They were referred to revising barristers, who struck the great majority of names from the register. In some places, women who had been registered, and then struck off, appealed against the decision. This infuriated some revising barristers—in Leeds and Batley, women were fined for “making a frivolous claim.” Elsewhere, women’s names were not challenged and revising barristers took no action. Their names remained on the register.

"Person" or "man"?

The issue came to a head in a test case, Chorlton vs Lings, a few weeks before the general election. One of the Mancunians whose name had been added to the electoral register, and then removed, was Mary Abbot. Thomas Chorlton, the legal adviser to the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage, appealed to the Court of Common Pleas in London; Lings was the name of the barrister who had struck off Abbot’s name. Chorlton engaged two barristers, John Coleridge and Richard Pankhurst, later the husband of Emmeline and father of Sylvia and Christabel.

The day after the hearings began, an editorial in The Times weighed in on Chorlton’s side: “If women are refused the vote,” it argued, “the nation will, no doubt, be formally, and in the light of day, committing itself, through its judicial tribunal, to the dangerous doctrine that representation need not go along with taxation. “No taxation without representation” is a compelling political argument. But what Coleridge and Pankhurst needed was a legal argument for women having the vote.

They thought they had one. In Victorian Britain, the role of women in society was changing, and the law had recognised this. In 1850, parliament had passed the Interpretation Act. This stated that in all legislation “the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include Females unless the contrary is expressly provided.” At a stroke, women had formal equality in law. This, Coleridge argued in court, should apply to the vote.

Lings could counter this with a more recent decision. The previous year—in 1867—parliament had passed the Second Reform Act, which widened the franchise by lowering the property hurdle. John Stuart Mill, then an MP as well as philosopher of liberalism, had proposed an amendment to the Bill, to grant women the vote. He wanted the Bill to substitute the word “person” for “man.” MPs defeated his amendment by 196 votes to 75.


"Fickleness of judgement"

The question before the Court, then, was essentially whether to apply the letter of the 1850 Act or the implication of the 1867 vote. James Easte Willes, one of the leading judges of the day, opted for the latter, but in a curious manner. In his ruling, he asserted that the “exemption” of women from the vote was nothing to do with “fickleness of judgment” or “any under-rating of the sex either in point of intellect or worth.” Instead, the exemption from “public functions” was “founded upon motives of decorum, and was a privilege of that sex.”

This judgment might have stopped women casting their vote, had it not been handed down only days before voting began (back then, balloting took place over several weeks). The opponents of the suffragettes had no time to move against those women whose registration had not been challenged. And so the United Kingdom held its first general election at which women voted.

The suffrage movement identified 81 women who cast their vote in six areas. Their list was certainly incomplete. But, by the time of the following general election, in 1874, the Willes ruling had been applied fully, and all registered women lost the right to vote for their MP.

However, that is not quite the end of the story. In 1869, the Municipal Franchise Act gave women the right to vote for local councillors on the same terms of men. The effects of this were limited, because married women were still deemed not to own any property in their own right: a court ruling in 1872 confirmed that the right to vote for councillors applied only to single women and widows. Despite the subsequent 1882 Married Women’s Property Act—which gave married women the right to own, buy and sell their own property—this restriction was only scrapped in 1894.

Maxwell herself did not benefit from these reforms. Her shop failed in the early 1870s and she ended up in a workhouse, dying in 1876. Her end was obscure, but it is high time to write her back into the story: she deserves her own memorial. This does not in any way diminish the achievements of the later suffragettes, including my grandmother. It does mean, though, that I can no longer claim, as I used to, that British women first voted for parliament on the day my mother was born.