The 1918 General Election in Surrey: the impact of the female vote
The Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed in February 1918. The Act widened the parliamentary electorate by abolishing almost all property and residential qualifications for all men over the age of 21, thereby including the millions of soldiers returning from the First World War. The Act also gave the parliamentary franchise to women over the age of 30, who met minimum property qualifications. Due to wartime casualties, demographically, women now outnumbered men in the population as a whole, and this higher age qualification ensured that they did not become the majority in the electorate. Under the new provision women would make up around 43% of the electorate. The passing of this Act forever changed the established way that political parties campaigned and canvassed during elections. For the first time women were admitted to local political associations as individual members, impacting the Conservative Party in particular, leading to a reduction in the role of the Primrose League (previously created to promote Conservative values and the Conservative Party in Britain and actively allowed and encouraged women of all classes as full members).
The first General Election following the Armistice was held on Saturday 14 December 1918, the first in eight years. It was also the first at which women could stand as candidates thanks to a decision passed in Parliament on 25 October 1918. The prospective female candidates had very little time to organise, meaning that only seventeen women stood for election across the whole country. Three prominent Surrey suffragist campaigners stood; Charlotte Despard was the Labour candidate in Battersea North, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence as the Labour candidate in Rusholme and Nora Elam [aka Norah Dacre Fox] was an Independent candidate in Richmond. None of these women were successful in obtaining a seat as an MP. The only female candidate to win in any constituency was Constance Markiewicz who, as a member of Sinn Fein, did not take up her seat in the House of Commons. A year later Lady Nancy Astor became the first woman to take up a seat in the Commons following her by-election win in the Plymouth Sutton Constituency in December 1919.
In a comment on the 1918 election campaign conducted by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and her Labour supporters, The Times commented “Mrs Pethick-Lawrence made a good impression when she opened her campaign in Rusholme against a coalition candidate and an Asquithian liberal but her electioneering has not bought her additional support and she seems likely to be at the bottom of the poll” (14 December 1918, p.12).
Elsewhere, the conservative politician Mr Bonar-Law campaigning on behalf of the coalition in Glasgow was questioned by an audience member as to why Christabel Pankhurst, the only woman standing for election on the coalition ticket, was someone who had opposed the government and whose newspaper had been suspended. Bonar-Law responded that she was standing on the coalition ticket because her four years of support for the war effort qualified her (The Times 14 December 1918, p.12).
As Election Day dawned across Surrey the polling stations opened promptly at 8.00 am. However, the weather was atrocious and turnout was generally low across the county. As in previous elections, women where active in the committees of most of the political parties who put up candidates, they took an active role in canvassing and were engaged as polling station clerks.
As elections go it was a relatively tame affair – women voted in considerable numbers and across constituencies in Surrey the female turnout was greater than that of male voters. The Surrey Advertiser reported that the election was the quietest on record, however, heavy polling amongst women was noted (18 December 1918, p.2). In the Guildford Division, female voters outnumbered male voters 3 to 1, a similar pattern was noted in the Chertsey Division. It was also observed that female voters turned out early and at many polling stations were the first electors to cast their vote.
The Surrey Advertiser reported that in the Farnham Division (which included Woking), that polling took place under dreary and depressing weather conditions. This edition also reported that Mrs J Crew of East Street, Farnham, was the first woman to receive a ballot paper but she was not the first to record her vote, being beaten to it by Mrs Heath of West Street, Farnham (21 December 1918, p.2).
In Woking town there was some interest and excitement compared with previous elections due to irregularities with the electoral register. A number of eligible people were not included; in one case a fifteen year old girl was registered for a vote, as was a soldier who had never set foot in the address for which he was registered. Mr Harris, the anti-coalition candidate, had a number of enthusiastic helpers, including many women and former Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) member, Dr Ethel Smyth (Surrey Advertiser (21 December 1918, p.2). The Surrey Herald reported that the Woking Women’s Citizens Association supported Mr Harris (20 December 1918, p.1).
The Times reported on the involvement of the Women’s Citizens Association in pre-election meetings: “At Croydon the four candidates have each addressed a women’s meeting arranged by the newly-formed Women’s Citizens Association. Before each meeting the candidates met a deputation of delegates from leading women’s societies on the subject of an equal moral standard for men and women” (14 December 1918, p.12).
Woking News and Mail reported that there was a 60% turnout amongst female voters (20 December 1918, p.3). In many cases it was clear that the female voters didn’t understand the way the ballot was conducted and were heard telling polling officials of their voting intentions. Another woman had travelled 200 miles to place her vote then unintentionally spoiled it by writing her name on the ballot paper. A local publican was reported to have marched 30 of his customers to the polling station at 8.00pm to vote, the majority of whom were women. Around twenty houses in Horsell were omitted from the register and a similar number in Goldsworth, which was a cause for concern. Camberley and Frimley Division recorded a higher turnout of women proportional to men in the county, at four female voters to every one male (Surrey Advertiser 21 December 1918, p.2).
Not all women in the county understood or even wanted to vote. The Surrey Advertiser reported that in Leatherhead (Epsom Division), one woman had not wished to avail herself of her vote, because if she were to do so, she would be supporting Christabel Pankhurst (who was not a candidate in the constituency), (21 December 1918, p.2).
The General Election caused more of a stir in the East Surrey Division and the Surrey Mirror observed that the women voters outnumbered men in the polls despite the miserable and constant drizzle which added to the extremely wet and muddy condition of local roads (20 December 1918, p.7). Women, the paper commented, turned out in some numbers confounding those who had said that women would not be interested in voting. At the polling station in Caterham on the Hill, it was noted that five women turned out to vote for every man who voted. The numbers were even higher in the more rural polling stations of Oxted and Limpsfield, where 7 or 8 women turned out to vote for each man who voted. A similar but less marked pattern was observed at Warlingham and Whyteleafe.
The Surrey Mirror reported that in the Epsom Division the weather on polling day was execrable (20 December 1918, p.9). The extension of the franchise to women increased the polling strength but it was noted that in this constituency there appeared to be little interest in the election.
In London, the turnout amongst female voters was noted by The Times Special Correspondent as being considerable, with female electors casting their votes and outnumbering male electors voting by 20 to 1 (16 December 1918, p.12). Women had voted in larger numbers than expected and caused less trouble than had been feared by pessimists. Mindful of women’s duties, the correspondent observed that women had made time to vote despite Saturday being the busiest day of the week for many housewives, who all had shopping to do for that weekend’s meals, had younger children home from school, and an early meal to prepare for working members of the family (workers generally finished their working day early on a Saturday).
The Times, in a comment column headlined “THE WOMEN’S VOTES”, observed that “Whatever the motive which bought women to the polling booths, they demolished with one blow one of the stock arguments of opponents of woman suffrage. This is that women did not want the vote, and would not exercise it if it were given to them.” The journalist continued: “Mrs Fawcett and other pioneers in this field can fairly claim that the position they defended with such courage and constancy has been amply vindicated” (16 December 1918, p.9).
Once the polling stations closed and the ballot boxes were sealed, the boxes were transported to secure storage in Police stations to await the count. The ballot papers were counted on 28 December 1918, as this allowed time for the servicemen, who were still serving overseas, to vote. All the completed ballot papers had to be completed by the voter and received by the returning officer by the 27 December 1918.
The Coalition of Liberals and Conservatives lead by David Lloyd George came first in the polls. The election result was an endorsement of the Government which had led the country through the war years. However, during the life of the government David Lloyd George became more reliant on support from his Conservative coalition partners.
Following the First World War and through the 1920s and 1930s many of the former suffrage activists were attracted to extreme political ideologies such as Bolshevism, Fascism and Pacifism, others preferred to focus their political energies in the mainstream political parties. On the whole, women who had campaigned in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) found roles in the Conservative, Liberal and Labour movements. Many former members of the WSPU also continued their activism through the trade union movement and the mainstream political parties. Disillusioned with male dominated politics, Emmeline Pankhurst set up the short-lived Women’s Party in 1917 but she lost her focus and strayed into anti-Bolshevism, patriotism and jingoism, which did not prove popular.
It is interesting to speculate about the subsequent political activities of the anti-suffrage campaigners in the National League for Opposing Woman’s Suffrage (NLOWS). Some of these women continued to play their part in public life much as they had done throughout the war. Together with their sisters in women’s suffrage campaign, they formed the backbone of welfare, educational, social and political bodies still active today.
Contributed by Miriam Farr, The March of the Women project volunteer.
Reigate and Banstead Conservative and Unionist Association: South Eastern Division of Surrey – minutes of General Council and Central Committee, 1907-1944 (SHC ref 353/3/1/1); minutes of Executive and Finance committees, 1907-1923 (SHC ref 353/3/2/1), and minutes of Central Women’s Advisory committee, 1923-1946 (SHC ref 353/3/3/1)
Farnham Divisional Labour Party, minute book, 1918-1930 (SHC ref 6575/1)
Surrey Herald microfilm held at Surrey History Centre
Surrey Mirror microfilm held at Surrey History Centre
Woking News and Mail microfilm held at Surrey History Centre
Times Digital Archive accessed via Surrey Libraries Online Reference Shelf
British Newspaper Archive accessed via Surrey Libraries Online Reference Shelf
Julie V Gottleib and Richard Toye. Aftermath of suffrage: women, gender and politics 1918 -1945. Palgrave, 2013
Read ‘The March of the Women’ project page on Surrey Women in Local Government https://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/themes/subjects/womens-suffrage/suffrage-biographies/surrey-local-government-women-and-the-suffrage-campaign-1870-1914/
Read the Vote 100 blog on the 1918 General Election candidates