The Vote Before the Vote

This week, local author Chris Nickson and curator of 2018 exhibition The Vote Before the Vote, tells us more about some important, but relatively unknown women of Leeds.

Right at the start of the era, in 1832, Mary Smith of Stanmore, Yorkshire, which is believed to be a property very close to today’s Cottage Road in Headingley, petitioned Parliament just after the Great Reform Bill broadened the franchise a little. She suggested that “every unmarried female, possessing the necessary pecuniary qualification, should be entitled to vote for Members of Parliament.” It was laughed out of the Commons.

In 1866, plenty of Leeds women, including many working-class women from the Woodhouse area, signed a petition to Parliament, demanding the vote. Two years later, a petition solely from Leeds was submitted, and a number of women across the country attempted to enter their names on the electoral register. 13 were successful, and a Leeds widow named Mary Howell was fined 10 shillings (50p) for bringing “a frivolous claim.” But in 1869, women ratepayers who owned property above a certain value were allowed to vote in some local elections and stand for the School Board and as Poor Law Guardian. In 1873, Mrs. Catherine Buckton became the first woman elected to any office in Leeds when was achieved election to the School Board.

Undated. View shows six women in Victorian period dress from the suffrage movement in front of a poster declaring: ‘Albert Hall, Sheffield, Women’s Suffrage, Great Demonstration of Women’. Lady seated front right maybe Alice Cliff Scatcherd. (Leeds Libraries,

But the tipping point arrived in 1894.The new Local Government Act gave all ratepayers the vote (rates were the equivalent of today’s Council Tax) in some local elections. Men and women of all classes could now vote in local elections for parish and district councils and run to become Poor Law Guardians. Two women were elected in Leeds. The new act gave each ratepayer one vote, altering a corrupted system. This was the real birth of the democracy we know today.

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