Surrey Local Government Women and the Suffrage Campaign, 1870 – 1914
In an Esher churchyard there stands a memorial to the radical Manchester MP, Jacob Bright. An early advocate of women’s suffrage, Bright achieved one of the campaign’s earliest successes when in 1869 he quietly slipped through an amendment to the Municipal Corporation Bill that resulted in women ratepayers getting the local vote. Although married women later lost this right for a while, by 1900 a million women could vote in local elections and there had been female candidates for 30 years.
Early local government women were often members of suffrage societies and Women’s Liberal Associations. Later, Socialist candidates stood. In Surrey there were also a number of Conservative women. Religion and politics were important considerations in school board elections but early women Poor Law guardians distanced themselves from politics and were more likely to be involved with the temperance movement, women’s rescue work and had often been workhouse visitors.
Both the suffrage and anti-suffrage campaign supported women being elected to local boards and councils. For the suffrage supporters it was seen as a stepping-stone towards full citizenship. For anti-suffragists it showed that women didn’t need the parliamentary vote because they could already participate in their natural sphere of ‘domestic’ politics.
School boards were created in 1870 to supplement existing voluntary education. Women ratepayers could vote, while any woman could stand as a candidate. They were taken up enthusiastically in cities and areas where Nonconformity was strong but in Surrey just 29 boards were formed. The first woman elected was Mrs Anna Bidder of Mitcham, in 1880. She was a supporter of women’s suffrage. Miss Florence Hunt, Mrs Emily Grimswade and Miss Lucy Fryer Morland of Croydon School Board, were all active suffragists. Miss May Hawes, of Walton-on-Thames School Board, was later secretary of her local National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). After 1902, when town and county councils became the local education authorities women lost their ability to stand as candidates.
From the time of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 some women ratepayers had been able to vote but it was not until 1875 that the first female guardian was elected. Miss Augusta Spottiswoode, of Shere, sat on Guildford Board of Guardians between 1881 and 1898. She was a signatory of the 1866 Women’s Suffrage Petition and other petitions. Mrs Henry Kingsley, the sister-in-law of the author Charles Kingsley, was a member Kingston Board of Guardians from 1886 to 1889. In 1872 she had addressed a women’s suffrage meeting alongside Jacob Bright. In 1888 she spoke in favour of a fellow Liberal, suffragist candidate, Miss Jenny Foster Newton, who became a member of Richmond Board of Guardians, from 1888-1920. In 1892 Charlotte Despard was elected to Kingston Board for one year. The radical Mrs Despard was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) but later left to join the Women’s Freedom League (WFL).
The reorganization of the local government authorities, along with the removal of the property qualification meant that from 1894 onwards there were greater opportunities for women, especially married women but of course it also introduced competition from working class men. Women’s Liberal Associations and temperance organisations encouraged their members to stand for the new Parish, District and Urban District councils.
In the countryside the ‘Rural Revolution’ saw agricultural labourers and tradesmen challenge the dominance of the church and squire but there were few women on the new parish councils. Miss Spottiswoode was elected in Shere in 1894 but was not re-elected in 1896. Lady Mary Murray, the daughter of the redoubtable Liberal suffragist, Lady Carlisle, was elected to Frensham Parish Council in 1901.
From 1894 onwards the number of female guardians greatly increased in Surrey. Liberal, Conservative and Labour, suffrage supporter and anti-suffragist, they worked together without any reports of open friction. In Richmond there were the suffragists, Mrs Tempany and Mrs Nott-Bower. In Guildford the Liberal suffragist Miss Davies-Colley sat alongside the Conservative, anti-suffragist, Miss Onslow. On the Kingston Board, the Liberal suffragist Mrs Minett sat with the Conservative anti-suffragist Mrs Oakley and in Reigate the Liberal Mrs Powell and the Conservative Miss Rosling, who both supported women’s suffrage, sat alongside two anti-suffragist women, the Liberal, Mrs Lemon and the Conservative, Mrs Harley.
After 1907 women were admitted to all local government authorities. In 1911 the suffragist, Miss Alison Ogilvy joined Godalming Town Council.
The contribution of early local government women in Surrey has been largely forgotten and their names have been lost to history.
Contributed by Christine Jesman, The March of the Women project volunteer
For a list (pdf ( )) of some women who served on Surrey School Boards, Parish Councils, Rural and Urban District Councils, Town Councils, and as Poor Law Guardians, c.1880s – c.1920s, click here.
Mitcham School Board (SHC ref CEB/1/2)
Guildford Board of Guardian minutes (SHC ref BG6/11/20-37)
Kingston Board of Guardian minutes (SHC ref BG8/11/19-28)
Reigate Board of Guardian minutes (SHC ref BG9/11/17-23)
Richmond Board of Guardian minutes (SHC ref BG10/11/19-38)
Frensham Parish Council minutes book (SHC ref P57/2/1)
Shere Parish minutes books (SHC ref 4026/1/1 and P10/3/1)
Croydon School Board minutes book, 1870-1902 (Croydon Museum & Archives)
Richmond Board of Guardian election 1888 – Miss Foster Newton (ref 7/33/16c (1-4)) Surrey Archaeological Society Library
British Newspaper Archive
Spottiswoode, A. “Eight Years as a Guardian’, Englishwoman’s Review, 15 May 1889, pp.201-5.
Crawford, Elizabeth. The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1866-1928, London, Routledge, 2001.
Crawford, Elizabeth, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland: a Regional Survey, London, Routledge, 2006.
Bush, Julia. Women Against the Vote, Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007.
Hollis, Patricia. Ladies Elect: Women in English Local Government, 1865-1914, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1987.
Hollis, Patricia. ‘Women in Council: Separate Spheres, Public Space’, in Rendall, Jane (ed.) Equal or Different, Women’s Politics 1800-1914, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1987.
Linklater, Andro, An Unhusbanded Life: Charlotte Despard, Suffragette, Socialist, Sin Feiner, London, Hutchinson, 1980.
Mulvihill, Margaret. Charlotte Despard: A Biography, London, Pandora, 1989.
Overton, Jenny. (ed.) Peaslake: Story of a Surrey Village, Shere, Hazeltree, 2003.
Bush, Julia. ‘British Women’s Anti-Suffragism and the Forward Policy, 1908-1914’, Women’s History Review, vol. 11, no. 3, 2002, pp. 431-54.
Fowler, Simon. ‘Jenny Foster Newton: ‘a bonnie fighter’, Richmond History, vol. 19, 1998.
Unpublished Thesis and Dissertations:
Davidson, Ruth. ‘Approaches to Social Action: Public Women in Croydon 1900-1914’, unpublished M.A. Dissertation, Open University, 2004.
Davidson, Ruth, ‘Citizens at Last: Women’s Political Culture and Civil Society, Croydon and East Surrey, 1914-39’ unpublished Ph.D, Royal Holloway, University of London, 2010.
Jesman, Christine, ‘Conservative Women, the Primrose League and Public Activity in Surrey and Sussex c. 1880-1902’, unpublished D.Phil, University of Sussex, 2008.
Lister, R.G. ‘The Electoral History of the Croydon School Board 1870-1903’, unpublished PhD, University of Leicester, 1972.