Votes For Lichfield's Victorian Women

In a game of Trivial Pursuits you may be asked when women were given the vote. The immediate response would probably be to say after the Reform Act of 1832. Yes, some women were qualified to vote as a result of this Act, but we had to wait until after the Great War for full women suffrage. However, at our November meeting, Dr. Sarah Richardson from Warwick University explained to us that, predictably, things weren't quite that straightforward. Indeed, to the surprise of most of the audience, some women were entitled to vote in local elections as early as the fifteenth century. How did this come about? To answer this question, Sarah had to go back in time to give us a brief explanation of what passed for local government in these earlier centuries, prior to the creation in 1890 of local government units more or less in the form we know them today.

The management of community affairs often coincided with the administration and operation of the local parish church where, unlike today, pastoral responsibilities could be very wide ranging. Our most basic instrument of local government, the parish council, is also our oldest, springing, as its title suggests, from its ecclesiastical roots. Such councils were probably established to administer the day to day operation of the local church and its interaction with, and support for, the local community. As time passed so the local town or village accrued new responsibilities; perhaps for the management of common land, for the care of the poor,sick and orphans, for the enforcement of local laws and so on. What more logical place to gather together these parish responsibilities than with the local church council? Constables, sextons, beadles and overseers of roads all found themselves placed under the responsibility of the church or parish council. As the range of local responsibilities grew, so more members of the community had to be appointed. Increasingly members of the parish were elected to serve through a rudimentary voting system.

In this way local government in England grew up in a haphazard, ad hoc, way. There were no national rules to follow so settlements organised their parish councils and the appointment of local officers through custom and practice. In this "anarchy of local autonomy" the most able and willing came forward to serve. This included women who were elected to parish offices. Moreover if they were the head of the household, perhaps through the death of their husband, they were entitled to vote in elections for parish officers.

Information on women voting is scant. Much written documentation has been lost or destroyed since, by its nature, it is local and ephemeral. However, Sarah has stumbled across a rare survival, being a parish poll book for St Chad's Parish, Lichfield dated 1843, which contains the names of women voters. Cross checking with the 1841 Census reveals that the 25 women in the poll book who voted were by no means wealthy. Two are described as paupers and two are washerwomen. Yet all are heads of household and thus entitled to vote. Lichfield is not alone. Sarah has found evidence of women voting in Bristol, Portsmouth, Leeds and Edinburgh many years before universal women's suffrage was enacted.

The assumption before this talk was that we were going to learn about the fight for "votes for women" in the twentieth century. We went away understanding that women played a central part in the running of parish services for a considerable period before that. It you're tempted to learn more, Sarah will be talking on this subject on BBC Radio Four on 7th December 2014.

Roger Hockney
November 2014