Fifty years before some women were given the franchise, Lily Maxwell voted in a by-election. It's time she was written back into historyby Peter Kellner / October 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
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…