The 1868 Registration Battles

{See also press cuttings}

In 1868 overseers of the poor in 21 towns or boroughs accepted the names of thousands of women onto the voters' register, including 1,245 at Salford, 1,066 at Aberdeen, 300 in Southwark, 5,750 in Manchester, 559 in Birmingham and 239 in Edinburgh, and an uknown number in Warwickshire, Wales, Kent, East Surrey, North Staffordshire, East Devon and Leeds. They could not refuse, because the rules they worked by stated that they must list all 'persons' entitled to vote in respect of their occupation of premises. Names could be challenged by registration agents or anyone else who objected, so many women were removed from the list that way. Most of the rest were struck off by the revising barristers.

In only a handful of places did the revising barristers allowed them to remain. To plead her case to remain on the list, a woman had to appear in person, and few propertied ladies wished to make a public spectacle of themselves, or pay a penalty. At Westminster the women's names were struck off. The Liberal agent pointed out that nobody had objected to the names, and the revising barrister said simple that 'it did not matter'. In Leeds the revising barrister Mr Campbell Foster fined Mrs Howell ten shillings for 'making a frivolous claim'; another at Batley was also fined. Suffragist Ernest Jones criticised the RB's conduct as 'unworthy of a gentleman'. At Sittingbourne, the names of 81 women of East Kent and 33 of Ashford were allowed to remain. At Ramsgate, Mary Ann Bailey attended in person to claim her vote, but 'after long and noisy arguments' she was struck off. At Lambeth, the first woman's name was called and the revising barrister announced that he would simply 'take no notice' of it. At Westminster the RB struck out the names of Lady Cecily Fane and Lisette Gregory. Sixty women at Hillingdon were struck off. In East Devon, the names of twenty women were struck out by the RB, despite a Mr Cox arguing that the word 'man' also meant 'woman', as in: 'God created man in his own image; male and female created he them'. At Southwark, not one of the 300 women on the register attended the court and were therefore struck off. In Aberdeen, the city assessor John Milne, a suffragist, allowed 1,088 women's names onto the register, but they were later removed by the Sheriff's Court.

At West Kent, RB Mr W.M. Best, struck out the names of six women of Cheveney, whose names had been put forward by the women's suffrage society but had not appeared in person. He remarked: 'It was not the fault of women that they were a subordinate sex. They were subordinate by the law of nature, the law of God, by the Constitution, and by universal practice throughout the whole world for 6,000 years.'

The revising barrister for Marylebone and Finsbury, Mr James Newton Goren, struck out Sarah Duval's name, and also that of Mrs Lucas, Jacob Bright's sister. An attempt to get women through by altering their first names to look as though they might be unusual male names failed miserably. For example, 'Hanani' Peacock was found to be Hannah. Mr Goren found himself overloaded wth work and asked for an assistant. Mr Chisholm Anstey MP, a very experienced and highly-regarded barrister whose name was known throughout the British empire, seized the opportunity to press forward in his fight to get votes for women. He applied for the job, though it was a junior position, described as 'subordinate and ill-remunerative' and 'far below his merits'. He was appointed.

In Manchester in September, Liberal Registration agent Sydney Smith and Assistant Revising Barrister Thomas Chisholm Anstey pleaded women's cause eloquently. They asserted that the 1832 Reform Act was the first to deprive women of their ancient right to vote. Mr Smith stated that in earlier acts of parliament regarding voting, the word 'people' was used. No Act prior to the Reform Act of 1832 excluded women from voting for MPs. If it were in the constitution that women could not vote, something to that effect would appear in the statute books, and it did not. There were, on the contrary, repeated statements that no person who paid taxes ought to be excluded from voting and that no person who was subject to the laws should be excluded from a voice in making them. Women had for whatever reason chosen not to vote personally, but by proxy, probably because people had been so long accustomed to think that women should not interfere with politics at all, and from this it had come to be inferred that they were not qualified. Furthermore, what the 1832 Act took away, the 1867 Act restored: the 1832 Act said only 'male persons' could vote. Then Lord Romilly's Act of 1850 decreed that in law the word 'man' shall include woman. The 1867 Reform Act used the term 'every man'.

The editor of the Liverpool Mercury (26 Sept 1868) said that Mr Chisholm Anstey's speech, which lasted 90 minutes, 'can scarcely fail to take rank as one of the most learned and exhaustive expositions of the common and staturoty law of this realm upon an abstruse and little-considered point'.

In East Lancashire a revising barrister struck off a woman's name and remarked that the judges at the Court of Common Pleas 'would be inundated' . The editor of the Hampshire Telegraph asserted that the women's claims would not get a fair hearing because the chief judge there was prejudiced against women's suffrage, so the outcome was already decided.

At Finsbury, the Conservative agent begged leave to appeal against Mr Chisholm Anstey's decision to leave Jane Allen's name on the register. Mr Chisholm Anstey granted him leave to appeal, which mean that the case would be heard at the Court of Common Pleas, along with three others. An equivalent case was held first to make the judgment for Scotland. Brown v. Ingrame was heard in the Scottish Court of Session on 30 October. The women lost.

On 7 November 1868 the first appeals of women struck off was heard in the Court of Common Pleas in London as Chorlton v. Lings and Chorlton v. Kessler. Mary Abbot placed her name on the register and Mr Lings, revising barrister, had removed it. Phillipine Kyllman had done the same and been struck off by Mr Kessler. Thomas Chorlton (legal advisor to the Manchester Society for Women's Suffrage) appealed on their behalf. The names Chorlton and Lings were to be famous in suffrage history and quote all over the world, though Chorlton v. Kessler has fallen into obscurity. As women watched from the public gallery, barrister Sir Charles (later Lord) Coleridge QC and his junior Dr Richard Pankhurst (1) used the same arguments as Sydney Smith and Thomas Chisholm Anstey, but the Lord Chief Justice and three other judges decided that women had no statutory right to be recognised as citizens, and that until that right was expressly conferred upon them by Act of Parliament, they had no right to the franchise. They declined to hear any other cases involving a woman, saying that their first judgement would cover all such appeals.

Revising barristers at Finsbury, Sittingbourne, Ramsgate and Ormskirk, and at Castle Sowerbury, Cockermouth and Winterton (all in East Cumberland) let some women's names remain . In all, about 230 women remained on the register by October 1868 and were therefore eligible to vote at the next election. The Times remarked 'It is an odd commentary upon our revising system that ... women who have precisely the same rights will not at the coming election have the same power of exercising them.'

In the 1868 election the following women are known to have voted: 33 in Ashford (Kent); 13 in Salford; 12 in Gorton; 10 in Levenshulme; 9 in Manchester; two in Dublin and an unknown number in Finsbury, East Kent and elsewhere.

(1) Dr Pankurst married Emmeline Goulden in 1879. After his death in 1898 she became the famous Mrs Pankhurst, who led the militant suffragette movement from 1903 to 1918. By a very curious twist of fate, at the Old Bailey forty-four years later Dr Pankhurst's widow Emmeline was given nine months' imprisonment by Coleridge's son for conspiracy to commit malicious damage to get votes for women.

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All pages © Helena Wojtczak 2009. Corrections and additions are warmly welcomed. Email me