Suffragettes and the 1911 census

The 1911 Census took place against a background of a threatened boycott by the Women’s Suffrage movement. The returns offer historians a unique snapshot of suffrage organizations across the country, with their resisters, evaders and compliers, including those in Surrey.

Boycotting the census

Ethel Smyth, 1913 (SHC ref 9180/9/27)

Ethel Smyth, 1913
(SHC ref 9180/9/27)

The census boycott emerged from the Women’s Freedom League’s (WFL) campaign for non-violent ‘passive resistance’ and a stand against taxation, i.e. a woman could be taxed but she did not qualify to vote. However, once it was known that the census was to include detailed questions about the fertility of married women, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) vigorously pledged their support – women were voteless and had no direct say in any legislation yet were to face in-depth personal enquiry about their marital status and fertility. The January 1911 edition of the WFL’s The Vote alerted readers to the new census questions and the following issue carried the dramatic headline: ‘Boycott the Census’. The penalty for refusal to complete the schedule was a fine of £5 or a month’s imprisonment. The only other option was to render oneself uncounted by staying away from home on the night of the 2 April.

Front cover of Ethel Smyth's composition The March of the Women, dedicated to the Women's Social and Political Union, 1911 (SHC ref <strong><a title="Front cover of Ethel Smyth's composition The March of the Women" href="https://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/collections/getrecord/SHCOL_9180_5" target="_blank">9180/5</a></strong>)

Front cover of Ethel Smyth’s composition The March of the Women, dedicated to the Women’s Social and Political Union, 1911 (SHC ref 9180/5)

Suffragists were encouraged to write across their census schedule ‘No Vote, No Census’, others improvised with ‘I don’t count so I won’t be counted’. In Surrey Ethel Smyth, the eminent composer and suffragette, and possible lover of Emmeline Pankhurst, was residing at Coign, Hook Heath, Woking. Smyth wrote ‘No Vote, No Census’ across her schedule (Census ref. RG14; Piece: 3044; Schedule Number: 272) but the census enumerator, P Macdonald, registrar of Woking, completed the form for her, recording ‘Miss E M Smyth’, with no other information, along with two anonymous female servants (being her domestic cook and housemaid). With no forthcoming information about the property or its occupants, Smyth’s residence is recorded as having ‘probably 8’ rooms. In the same year Smyth composed her suffragette anthem The March of the Women, dedicated to the WSPU.

Census return for Ethel Smyth, Woking (Census ref. RG14; Piece: 3044; Schedule Number: 272)Ancestry.com. 1911 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Original data: Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA), 1911.

Census return for Ethel Smyth, Woking (Census ref. RG14; Piece: 3044; Schedule Number: 272)
Ancestry.com. 1911 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.
Original data: Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911. Kew, Surrey, England:
The National Archives of the UK (TNA), 1911.

A short distance away from Smyth, P MacDonald also received a boycott from Mary Elizabeth Stables, a fellow suffragette, who lived at Deerstead House, St John’s Hill, Woking, formerly the home of local Horticulturalists, the Jackman family (Census ref. RG14; Piece: 3044; Schedule Number: 76). Mrs Stables wrote across her schedule:

No vote No census. As Mrs Stables is deprived of her citizen’s right of voting, she declines to make a census either of her visitors, family or servants in this year of 1911”.

Census return for Mary Elizabeth Stables, Woking (Census ref. RG14; Piece: 3044; Schedule Number: 76)Ancestry.com. 1911 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Original data: Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911. Kew, Surrey, England:The National Archives of the UK (TNA), 1911.

Census return for Mary Elizabeth Stables, Woking (Census ref. RG14; Piece: 3044; Schedule Number: 76)
Ancestry.com. 1911 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.
Original data: Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911. Kew, Surrey, England:
The National Archives of the UK (TNA), 1911.

Although Mrs Stables signed her schedule, Macdonald entered what information he could, which extended to her being of ‘private means’, having a daughter (‘Miss Stables’), three servants (a trained nurse, domestic cook and housemaid) and two anonymous visitors. Macdonald annotated the schedule ‘as per instructions’ counting 10 rooms and seven persons present.

At Heath Field, Weybridge, Agnes Gardiner, secretary of the Weybridge and District branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), appears on the schedule, apparently courtesy of her mother, Susan Gardiner, who completed and signed the form as head of the household. Agnes is aged 59 years old and her occupation is recorded as ‘Sec. to Weybridge & Dist. Suffrage Soc.’ Residing with Agnes, her mother and six domestic staff, is her unmarried sister Henrietta, whose occupation is given as ‘school manager, Surrey County Council’.

Census return for Agnes Gardiner, Weybridge (Census ref. RG14; Piece 2991; Schedule 49)Ancestry.com. 1911 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Original data: Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911. Kew, Surrey, England:The National Archives of the UK (TNA), 1911.

Census return for Agnes Gardiner, Weybridge (Census ref. RG14; Piece 2991; Schedule 49)
Ancestry.com. 1911 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.
Original data: Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911. Kew, Surrey, England:
The National Archives of the UK (TNA), 1911.

Not all suffragists agreed with the boycott and many did not deface their schedule. Other activists simply made themselves absent on the day or were included courtesy of the head of household completing the form. This includes some who had been imprisoned and on hunger strike, who were entered on the census forms, either voluntarily, or as a result of their husband or the enumerator completing the form.

Evading the enumerator

Many suffragettes went to extraordinary lengths to avoid being counted; they attempted to confuse enumerators by travelling to different addresses throughout the night, and some even slept out in the street. Emmeline Pankhurst reported in the WSPU’s paper Votes for Women that she had refused to fill in her form and had scrawled ‘No Vote No Census’ across it. However, she was recorded by the enumerator on census night and appears, wrongly transcribed, as ‘Mrs G. Pankhurst’, one of over 100 guests listed at the Inns of Court Hotel, Holborn, London. Similarly, the most celebrated census evader, Emily Wilding Davison, was discovered hiding overnight in a cupboard at the House of Commons’ crypt. She was recorded twice: firstly by the Clerk of Works, Houses of Parliament (which achieved her aim of being recorded as a resident in the palaces of Westminster) and secondly by her landlady at Russell Square. Although she was arrested and taken to Cannon Row Police Station, she was later released without charge. Two years later, however, Davison died at the 1913 Epsom Derby after throwing herself in front of the King’s horse, Anmer. In recent times an unofficial plaque to Davison has been placed inside the cupboard which reads:

…a modest reminder of a great woman with a great cause who never lived to see it prosper but played a significant part in making it possible’.

Current academic research by Jill Liddington and Elizabeth Crawford (see below) implies that the protest may have failed in its aim of affecting the statistical value of the census results. It did undoubtedly, however, give public attention to the injustices of the British voting system and women’s rights.

Useful sources and further reading

‘Women do not count, neither shall they be counted: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the 1911 Census’, History Workshop Journal, by Jill Liddington and Elizabeth Crawford can be read online at https://hwj.oxfordjournals.org/content/71/1/98.full.pdf+html. Their research led to the creation of a 1911 census suffragette gazetteer, detailed in Jill Liddington’s book Vanishing for the vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the battle for the census (2014). It includes maps, and an authoritative gazetteer of campaigners compiled jointly with Elizabeth Crawford (author of The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide). The gazetteer lists 500 schedules completed on census night 1911 – by region, by county (or London borough), by town or city, and by neighbourhood. Find out more at http://www.jliddington.org.uk/1911a.html.

Christophers, Richard; ‘Dame Ethel Smyth and the other 1911 suffragettes’, Woking History Society Newsletter, issue 248, June 2013.

Details of Emily Wilding Davison’s census entry and her activism can be read online at http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/case-study-emily-wilding-davison/ewd/.

Read more about Suffragist 1911 census evaders on the FindMyPast website and The National Archives website.

The background to the 1911 census and the suffragette activity can be found on Office for National Statistics, Population Trends, nr.142, Winter 2010 http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/population-trends-rd/population-trends/no–142–winter-2010/no-vote—no-census–an-account-of-some-of-the-events-of-1910-1911.pdf.

Discover more about the extraordinary life of Dame Ethel Smyth.

Search the 1911 census on Ancestry.co.uk.  Ancestry is available free of charge to Surrey library members in all Surrey Libraries and in Surrey History Centre via the online reference shelf.

Watch a fascinating online talk, ‘Vanishing for the Vote: The Suffragette Boycott of the 1911 Census’, with Dr Jill Liddington, Elizabeth Crawford and Prof Pat Thane at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zhDRt-gyHM0&index=8&list=PLj3mInRJqIekW08zm2keMIpv3ApeS3dBb

Discover more:

Read the project blog for Surrey Heritage’s new HLF project The March of the Women: Surrey Road to the Vote.

Suffragettes in Surrey

The women’s suffrage movement in Surrey

Activism and militant suffragettes in Surrey

Women get the vote!

Sources for researching the women’s suffrage movement in Surrey

Constance Maud

Ethel Smyth

Emily Wilding Davison

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