Alison Ogilvy (1871-1918)
Town Councillor of Godalming and campaigner for women’s suffrage
Whilst researching for The March of the Women project I came across Patricia Hollis, Ladies Elect : women in English local government, 1865-1914 (Clarendon Press, 1987), in which she mentions that Alison Ogilvy of Godalming was one of the first women to be elected to a Town Council anywhere in Britain. I was intrigued and decided to learn more and so embarked on my pursuit of further information.
Alice Margaret Ogilvy [aka Alison] was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1871 of Scottish parentage, her father, Francis Mackenzie Ogilvy, was a banker, and her mother was Kythie Caroline Mackenzie. Alison had an older brother, Francis John Longley (b.1867) and two elder sisters, Mary Isabel (b.1868) and Lisette Eila (b.1870), who were also born in Argentina. At some point in 1872, following the birth of a brother, Ian Ogilvy, the family returned to Scotland and later settled in Croydon. The 1881 UK Census shows the family residing at 17 Dagnall Park Villas, Selhurst Road, Croydon. By 1891 the family had relocated to Queens Gardens, Paddington. Francis and Kythie had two further children, Harry (b. Scotland, 1876) and Louis (b. Croydon, 1879).
Alison received a good education attending St Leonards School, St Andrews, Fife (fellow students included future suffrage campaigners, Catherine Marshall and Louisa Garrett Anderson), followed by Notting Hill High School (fellow students included suffrage campaigners Mary Collin, Clara Rackham and Helena Swanwick). As an able student Alison went on to study at Newnham College (1890-1891), and at Girton College (1892-1893). She was awarded the Agnata Butler Prize for the most outstanding Classics student of 1893.Alison Ogilvy moved to Godalming in 1909, and was living at “Crown Pits Cottage” Green Lane, Busbridge, according to the enumerator on census night 1911. Kelly’s Directory of Surrey, 1913, cites her address as “Crownpits Cottage”, Grovesnor Road. She was not at home that evening and is not recorded as being present elsewhere. Her status as householder was recorded by the enumerator in the census schedule and the only persons listed at her address were her housekeeper, Lizzie Chisholme, and her daughter, Lottie Chisholme. Perhaps Alison was boycotting the census?
In 1911 Alison stood as an independent candidate for Godalming Town Council, as the nominee of the Godalming and District Local Government Society in the local government elections. On 14 October 1911 the Surrey Advertiser published a feature article “The first lady to seek election from the burgesses of Godalming”, which reported she had taken an active role in the election campaign making 500 calls and speaking to 300 people on the doorstep. The newspaper report states that her candidature was favourably received by most electors except in the case of two people who thought she was part of the women’s suffrage campaign. She would focus her municipal work on areas which required the special attention of a woman, such as housing the working classes, education and child welfare. A report of a meeting held in Godalming in support of Alison’s candidature for the Borough Council was published in the Surrey Advertiser on 1 November 1911. They reported that the nomination of Alison Ogilvy had aroused the interest of the electorate since advances in women’s education made it beneficial to education in Godalming to have a woman on the Borough Council. At this meeting Alison delivered a speech outlining her views, and Miss Sutton (Reading Town Councillor) and Alderman W Thompson (Surrey County Councillor) gave supportive speeches. The meeting passed a resolution in favour of Alison Ogilvy’s candidature. The Surrey Advertiser of the 14 October 1911 and 4 November 1911 reports her election, as do local newspapers as far afield as the Lakes Herald (10 November 1911) and the Ballymena Observer (17 November 1911), which reported that the Borough of Godalming has distinguished itself by electing a ‘Lady Councillor’ for the first time and that she headed the poll with 751 votes. In the same report it was stated that Miss Ogilvy had a distinguished career at Girton College and since leaving Cambridge she had been travelling and teaching.By 1911 the Godalming and District branch of the Women’s Suffrage Society (GDWSS) was well established and undoubtedly some of the members lent their support to the campaign to elect a woman to the Town Council. Alison was clearly a supporter of women’s suffrage, she was listed among the members of GDWSS attending the societies’ AGM (reported in Surrey Advertiser, 29 January 1912). She had also contributed some hand-worked lace and a cushion to the Sweated Industries Exhibition organised by the Godalming, Guildford, Haslemere and Farnham branches of the NUWSS the previous year (4 Nov 1911, Surrey Advertiser).
While she was a town councillor, Alison sat on the Sanitary, Finance and Education committees, and was a school manager of the Godalming County Schools (SHC ref 2253/3/27-28). The West Sussex Gazette (31 July 1913) reported that Miss Ogilvy was elected as chairman of the Godalming County Schools board of managers a role for which she was considered to be well suited, due to her own education.
At a council meeting on 8 July 1912 she proposed a motion “…that this council welcomes the idea of legislation with regard to the feeble-minded and urges the Government to proceed with consideration of the matter with as little delay as possible” (SHC ref 2253/3/27).
Alison worked hard to establish an influential network in the Godalming area. The Surrey Advertiser (22 February 1912) reported that she had gained the support of Mrs G F Watts and Sir William Chance for a proposal to establish a Girl Guide Corp in Godalming.
On 16 May 1912 the West Sussex Gazette report on the annual general meeting of the Women’s Local Government Association stated that Sir William Chance was chosen in succession to Mrs Theodore Williams as president. They also reported that the chief work by the Association during the past year had been obtaining the election of Miss Alison Ogilvy to the Godalming Town Council.
A Godalming Branch meeting of the Women’s Local Government Association was reported in West Sussex Gazette (31 October 1912). Sir William Chance presided, saying that Miss Alison Ogilvy’s presence on the Town Council for a year had been a gain. Miss Ogilvy reported on her years work on the Town Council.
At the Town Council meeting of 31 October 1912 it was noted in the minutes “that a letter had been received from Godalming Branch of the Women’s Local Government Society asking the Town Council to support a petition to Parliament for an amendment to this bill [Franchise and Registration Bill, 1912] in such manner as may be required for placing the local franchise on a just and uniform basis throughout the whole Country” and was placed on the agenda for a subsequent meeting. It appeared on the agenda as item 6 on the 5 November 1912. At the council meeting on 9 November the motion to petition Parliament to amend the proposed Franchise and Registration Bill was proposed by Alison and seconded by Alderman Burgess, but stalled by Alderman Page and Mr Edwards to postpone it until the next meeting. This matter continued to be postponed and on the 4 February 1913 Miss Ogilvy was persuaded to withdraw her motion. It appeared that as the only woman on the Town Council she struggled to get herself heard.
The Common Cause (newspaper of the NUWSS) dated 28 March 1913 advertised a women’s suffrage meeting to be held at the Borough Hall, Godalming, on the 2 April 1913. The speakers were to be Arthur [Jex] Davey, Rev A H Fletcher, A R Heath, Sir William Chance, Lady Betty Balfour, Miss Alison Ogilvie [Ogilvy], Miss Aston, Miss D Hunter and Miss Hay Cooper.
The Mayor of Godalming, Alderman E Bridger, was in the chair for the debate on the subject of “Why Godalming Women want the vote”. The debate was organised by Godalming Branch of NUWSS and speakers from the local anti-suffragists were invited. However, Lady Midleton, Miss Aston and Mr A R Heath sent letters of apology; the Miss Aston and Mr Heath had been invited to the meeting to represent the case for the anti-suffragists. The branch decided to continue with the debate and set out to make the case for women’s suffrage by answering the arguments and assertions made by anti-suffragists. Alison Ogilvy was one of the speakers and she took the anti-suffrage argument that women’s suffrage would not improve the wages of working women and argued that the main problem was women being excluded from better paid roles. She asserted that many classes in technical trades such as bookbinding excluded women and that in every country where women had the vote wages for women had risen. Mabel Smith (an anti-suffragist from London, NLOWS) from the floor challenged Miss Ogilvy on the subject of technical classes and questioned her knowledge of the 1902 Education Act (Surrey Advertiser, 7 April 1913).
On 23 July 1913 Surrey Advertiser reported the arrival of the Portsmouth Road Suffrage Pilgrims in Godalming. Alison Ogilvy was among the local NUWSS supporters who welcomed the marchers. She was also listed as one of the hosts who provided accommodation for the weary pilgrims.
In the 5 September 1913 issue of Common Cause, Miss Ogilvy is listed among those supporters in the Godalming area who had made donations to help defray the cost of the Women’s Suffrage Pilgrims. Other donors from Godalming included Mr and Mrs G T Pilcher (10s), Miss Blanche A Lummis (5s) and Margaret Ashton (who gave a very generous £300).
The West Sussex Gazette reported (6 November 1913) that Miss Ogilvy would remain the sole female on the Town Council following the failure of the candidature of Miss H Robinson.
A public meeting (reported in Surrey Advertiser 1 April 1914 under the headline, “Women as Councillors, Godalming Lady Councillor’s views”), was held in support of the candidature of Miss Ursula Hutchinson who was standing for election for Haslemere Urban District in forthcoming local government elections. Alison Ogilvy commented that the value of women in the work of local government was beyond question as women would not be content with second best policy. In her opinion it was necessary to have women sanitary inspectors. She challenged the notion that women were the “weaker sex” citing her experience on the golf course where men had caddies to carry their clubs but women had to carry their own clubs. She raised the question if women were the “weaker sex” why was this the case?
On the 6 April 1914 the Surrey Advertiser reported a meeting held at the Municipal Buildings in Godalming. The meeting was chaired by Mr G T Pilcher, supported by Sir William Chance and Lady Chance. It was attended by Mrs G T Pilcher, Miss Alison Ogilvy, Mrs C W Dixon [one of the Powell sisters], Miss T W Powell, Rev Hubert Clarke, Mr Gilbert H White (Guildford), Miss Norah O’Shea (Portsmouth), Mr Fenner Brockway (editor of Labour Leader), Miss Osgood and others. Mr Fenner Brockway proposed a resolution that the meeting demand that the Government bring forth a measure to enfranchise women, the proposal was seconded by Miss O’Shea and the resolution was carried.
A report on 19 December 1914 in the Surrey Advertiser notes that Miss Alison Ogilvy presided at the Brotherhood Meeting of the Godalming Congregational Church the first meeting were ladies were allowed. She was still on the Town Council in 1915 and her attendance at a meeting was reported, as was that of Arthur Jex Davey (who was serving as mayor), Surrey Advertiser, 6 February 1915.
Alison Ogilvy continued to be involved in public life in Godalming, she was reported in the Surrey Advertiser 20 March 1915 as one of the committee members attending a meeting of the Soldiers and Sailors Families Association. Lady Jekyll [Agnes] was in the chair and Mrs Arthur Davey [Iona], another committee member was present.
Alison was living at Waveney Villa, Esplanade, Ventnor, Isle of Wight when she died on Christmas Day 1918. The Hampshire Advertiser (28 December 1918) and the West Sussex Gazette (2 January 1919), published an obituary notice that, Miss Alice Margaret Alison Ogilvy, late of Godalming had died. She left personal effects amounting to £3656.19s.9d, probate was granted to her brother Francis John Longley Ogilvy and her brother-in-law Beresford R Heaton (m. Mary Isabel Susan Ogilvy, 1892, from 1901 they lived in Gomshall and in 1911 Shere).
Contributed by Miriam Farr
Patricia Hollis, Ladies Elect: women in English local government, 1865-1914 (Clarendon Press, 1987)
British Newspaper Archive via Surrey Libraries Online Reference Shelf (accessed via Surrey History Centre)
Ancestry.co.uk via Surrey Libraries Online Reference Shelf (accessed via Surrey History Centre)
Surrey Advertiser microfilms held at Surrey History Centre
Godalming Borough Council minutes, 1911-1918 (SHC Ref: 2253/3/26-33)
For The March of the Women online exhibition panel regarding The Great Pilgrimage see https://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/themes/people/activists/road-to-the-vote/the-march-of-the-women-surreys-road-to-the-vote-online-exhibition/panel-5-suffragists-in-surrey-the-great-pilgrimage/
For Newnham and Girton Colleges history see their websites https://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/about/history/history-of-newnham/ and https://www.girton.cam.ac.uk/discover-girton/girton-past/