Today marks the 150th anniversary of the casting of a parliamentary vote by Lily Maxwell, a Manchester shopkeeper, more than half a century before the partial enfranchisement of women in 1918. On 26 November 1867, at a by-election in Manchester, she became the first woman known to have voted at a parliamentary contest since the 1832 Reform Act had specifically limited the franchise to ‘male persons’.
Fittingly, the Liberal candidate to whom Maxwell gave her support, Jacob Bright, was a prominent advocate of women’s suffrage, who had endorsed the enfranchisement of female householders during his campaign. Maxwell’s inclusion as No. 12326 on the electoral register for the Chorlton-upon-Medlock township of Manchester was the result of a clerical error, the overseers who compiled the lists apparently not having realised that ‘Lily Maxwell’, sometimes recorded as ‘Lilly Maxwell’, was a woman. The shop and house which she rented at 25 Ludlow Street were of sufficient value to qualify their occupier under the pre-1867 borough franchise (the £10 household franchise). Although the Second Reform Act had received the royal assent on 15 August 1867, it specified that any by-elections held before 1 January 1869 would take place under the old conditions.
Originally from Scotland, Maxwell, a widow in her late sixties, had worked in domestic service before setting up a small shop selling crockery. Her accidental presence on the register – of which she had been unaware – was discovered by supporters canvassing for Bright, who was making his second attempt to win a seat at Manchester, having lost at the 1865 general election. Alongside his wife, Ursula Mellor Bright, he was an early supporter of the Manchester branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, founded in January 1867. Bright’s election committee alerted Lydia Becker, the society’s secretary, to Maxwell’s unusual position, and she sought to make the most of this opportunity to demonstrate that women were capable of exercising the franchise.
Becker and another woman accompanied Maxwell to cast her vote – which had to be given openly, the secret ballot having yet to be introduced – at Chorlton Town Hall. They were escorted from one of Bright’s committee rooms to the town hall by ‘a large number of persons, including members of the All Saints’ ward committee, and were much cheered as they passed to and from the poll’. The event was widely recorded in the press, with the Yorkshire Post reporting that ‘a woman actually voted!’ Taking a hostile view, it suggested that the polling clerk should have ignored Maxwell’s claim when she appeared to vote, ‘as he would have ignored that of a child 10 years old’.
However, irrespective of her gender, Maxwell’s inclusion on the register – even in error – entitled her to vote, and could not be questioned at this stage. It could have been inquired into had the defeated party decided to petition for a scrutiny of the poll, but with Bright securing a majority of over 1,700 votes, this was never likely. Bright made a special mention of Maxwell’s vote in a victory speech, applauding her as ‘a hardworking honest person, who pays her rates as you do’.
Just five months earlier, the Commons had rejected – by 196 votes to 75 – John Stuart Mill’s proposal to extend the franchise to women by substituting the word ‘person’ for man in the 1867 Reform Act. During the course of this debate, George Denman, a Liberal MP and leading barrister, had raised the possibility that in using the word ‘man’ rather than ‘male persons’, the 1867 Act did in fact confer the franchise on women. This was because under an act of 1850 (sometimes referred to as Romilly’s Act), any reference to ‘man’ was also deemed to include women, unless specifically stated otherwise.
Spurred on by Maxwell’s vote, which ‘removed women’s suffrage from the region of theoretical possibilities to that of actual occurrences’, Lydia Becker co-ordinated a campaign to encourage women who possessed the required property qualification to get their names on the electoral register in 1868. In Chorlton-upon-Medlock, 1,100 female householders joined Lily Maxwell in claiming their right to vote; across Manchester as a whole, 5,750 women lodged claims, supported by the Manchester Liberal Association in the registration courts that September. Their claims were, however, rejected by the revising barrister, as were most female claims across the country. In November 1868, judges in the Chorlton v. Lings case ruled that the 1867 Reform Act did not apply to women. This did not prevent a small number of them who had not been removed from the register from voting at the general election later that month – including nine women in Manchester – but it struck a decisive blow against future claims.
After Mill’s defeat at the 1868 general election, Bright, who had retained his Manchester seat, took over the parliamentary leadership of the women’s suffrage cause. He was responsible for securing the extension of the municipal franchise to women in 1869, and in 1870 introduced the first of several women’s suffrage bills, which passed its second reading by 124 votes to 91, but was subsequently defeated.
Lily Maxwell died in poverty in October 1876, having been admitted to the workhouse a few months earlier. On the 150th anniversary of her pioneering vote, it seems fitting to conclude with the toast which Punch proposed to her in 1867:
To the fair Lily Maxwell a bumper,
Who in petticoats rushed to the poll,
And for Jacob Bright entered her plumper,
Mill’s first ‘person’, singular, sole!
- J. Rendall, ‘Who was Lily Maxwell? Women’s suffrage and Manchester politics, 1866-1867’, in J. Purvis & S. Holton (eds.), Votes for women (2000), 57-83