MP of the Month: John Moyer Heathcote (1800-1892), the MP who never was

One of our first tasks when we began our 1832-1868 project was to compile a full list of the MPs elected during this period whose biographies we would research. With invaluable assistance from Stephen Lees, who co-edited the later Who’s Who of British Members of Parliament volumes with Michael Stenton, we arrived at a total of 2,589 MPs, including a handful not featured in the 1832-1885 Who’s Who volume. Well over half of these biographies have now been written and can be accessed in draft form on our preview site. However, we always suspected that as our research progressed, we might find another MP or two who, for some reason, had been omitted from our original list. Our MP of the Month, John Moyer Heathcote, is one such new addition, which brings our total number of MPs to 2,590.


John Moyer Heathcote, by Carmen Silvy (1860) (C) NPG, used under CC licence

Heathcote, a local Liberal landowner, was returned for Huntingdonshire at the general election in April 1857. James Rust, who had represented this double member county as a Conservative since 1855, topped the poll with 1,192 votes. His Conservative running-mate, Edward Fellowes, received 1,106 votes, as did Heathcote. After checking the poll books three times, the high sheriff made a double return for the second seat, declaring both Fellowes and Heathcote elected. Following the presentation of three election petitions, an election committee undertook a scrutiny of the poll. It struck off the votes of two disqualified voters and two others who had voted twice on the basis of the same qualification, and added the vote of one duly qualified voter. On 31 July 1857 it declared Heathcote not elected and Fellowes elected. The official record was amended three days later by the clerk of the crown, who erased Heathcote’s name from the return, replacing it with that of Fellowes.

Technically, therefore, Heathcote was never an MP, since his return was invalidated and his only subsequent attempt to win a seat ended in failure. This makes him almost unique in our period – the only other individual we have found who falls into the same category is John Scandrett Harford, whose name was expunged from the parliamentary record following an election petition in 1841, when he had been elected for the Cardigan Boroughs on a double return. Like Heathcote, Harford’s subsequent attempt to enter Parliament ended in defeat.

Although his parliamentary career was non-existent, Heathcote’s biography can still shed valuable light on the politics of this period. He was the first Liberal to contest Huntingdonshire for two decades, challenging what the Daily News described as ‘the compact alliance of conservative family interests, which is paramount in this county’. While the Whigs and the Conservatives had shared the representation without a contest in 1832 and 1835, the Conservatives had made a successful bid for both seats in 1837. The subsequent prominence of agricultural protection as an election issue meant that a Liberal challenge in this predominantly agricultural constituency was fruitless, especially given that many of its leading landowners were Conservatives. Heathcote considered standing for a vacancy in August 1855, but with an early dissolution of Parliament anticipated, he decided to wait for the next general election. Although the Conservatives had monopolised the county’s representation for twenty years, the latent strength of Liberalism was demonstrated by the fact that Heathcote tied with Fellowes for the second seat in 1857.

Despite the disappointment of losing the seat on petition, Heathcote stood again in 1859, when he faced two Conservative opponents, Fellowes and Lord Robert Montagu, brother of the Duke of Manchester, a major local landowner who had previously sat as the constituency’s MP. There was considerable excitement at the hustings due to the appearance of Lord John Russell, who owned property in the county. Russell had plumped for Heathcote in 1857, and after casting his vote had spoken briefly from the window of Heathcote’s committee room. Now, however, he abandoned ‘the reserve usually practised by statesmen of his standing’ in order to propose Heathcote as a candidate. His intervention was spurred on not only by ‘personal friendship’, but also the belief that this was a timely opportunity for ‘a last appeal to the still undecided constituencies’.

Russell began his hustings speech in support of Heathcote by referring to his own service as Huntingdonshire’s MP over thirty years earlier. With its representation dominated ever since by the Conservatives, he compared its MPs to men waiting on a railway platform, ‘looking vacantly at the trains going by’ and ‘declining to take part in any progress whatever’. The issue of parliamentary reform, on which he had defeated the Derby ministry a few weeks earlier, was clearly at the forefront of Russell’s mind. He denied that those who had joined him in opposing the Conservative ministry’s reform bill were motivated by faction and emphasised his own differences from John Bright’s more radical view of reform. He also criticised Derby’s government for its ‘lame and impotent measures’ and its incompetence in both domestic and foreign policy. Alluding to landlord influence in Huntingdonshire, he urged that ‘the real opinion of the electors’ on these national questions should decide Heathcote’s fate.

Despite Russell’s endorsement, Heathcote finished third in the poll, almost 250 votes short of Montagu. He did not make a further attempt at the seat, and the Conservatives were spared a contest in 1865. Heathcote did, however, continue to play an important role in local administration as a magistrate and chairman of the Huntingdon board of guardians. In 1876 he published Reminiscences of fen and mere, a local history illustrated largely by his own sketches. He died in March 1892 at the age of 91. His estates passed to his eldest son, John Moyer Heathcote (1834-1912), a talented real tennis player who also made a major contribution to the development of lawn tennis, being the first to suggest covering the ball with flannel.

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Welcome to the Victorian Commons

The Victorian Commons blog provides news and highlights from the History of Parliament’s research project on the House of Commons, 1832-68. For details about the project and how to access our work see our About page. The main History of Parliament website can be accessed here with regular blogs here. You can also follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons and our colleagues @HistParl & @GeorgianLords

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Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons for 2018

The Victorian Commons would like to wish all our readers a very Happy New Year. Before we resume blogging in 2018, we’d like to highlight some posts you may have missed in 2017.


Lily Maxwell

Our most popular post of 2017 looked at Lily Maxwell, the Manchester shopkeeper who cast a vote at a parliamentary by-election in November 1867, over 150 years before the partial enfranchisement of women as parliamentary voters in 1918. Another of our most-read blogs marked the 150th anniversary of John Stuart Mill’s attempt to include women as voters under the Second Reform Act. Female involvement in elections was one of the themes of our blog on the frequently contested constituency of Peterborough. We will be returning to this subject in 2018 as we take part in the Vote 100 celebrations marking the centenary of some women receiving the parliamentary franchise.

Disraeli’s ‘leap in the dark’ in 1867

The 150th anniversary of the Second Reform Act featured in many of our blogs. Our MPs of the Month included three individuals who played a key part in the debates on parliamentary reform in the 1860s. Hugh Lupus Grosvenor was one of the leading Adullamites who opposed the Liberal ministry’s 1866 reform bill. As Conservative attorney-general Sir John Rolt, a former draper’s apprentice, undertook much of the ‘drudgery’ involved in the successful passage of Disraeli and Derby’s 1867 Act. Meanwhile John Tomlinson Hibbert of Oldham was one of several Liberal back benchers who made important interventions on the Conservative ministry’s measure.

conf pic

Conference at the People’s History Museum, Manchester

We also blogged about the conference organised by the History of Parliament in conjunction with the University of Durham, held at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, and inspired by the 1867 Reform Act and the concept of ‘popular sovereignty’. Our editor Philip Salmon spoke on the political role of non-electors, while Martin Spychal looked at the language of ‘interests’ in nineteenth-century debates about the electoral system. Our assistant editor Kathryn Rix also published a new article on the Act, entitled ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’. Another publication from our section this year looked at the 1832 Reform Act: Martin Spychal’s article on Thomas Drummond and the question of parliamentary boundaries appeared in Historical Research.

Thomas Hansard d 1833

Thomas Curson Hansard (1776-1833)

Several of our blogs explored the reporting of parliamentary debate or ‘parliamentary speechification’, as the Spectator dubbed it. As part of the History of Parliament’s contribution to Parliament Week 2017, we looked at Hansard and lesser-known rivals such as the Mirror of Parliament. Charles Dickens was one of the contributors to that publication, and also reported for the press on parliamentary contests, including the 1835 Northamptonshire North by-election, which was one of the inspirations behind his depiction of the colourful and corrupt Eatanswill contest in the Pickwick Papers. With a general election held in 2017, we also had several election-themed blogs, offering a Victorian perspective on issues such as the relationship between local and general elections, and the experience of minority governments.

Tower Hamlets election 1852

The 1852 Tower Hamlets election

Our MP of the Month series continued to show the wide range of individuals who served in Parliament in our period. John Lloyd Davies rose from humble beginnings as a hotel servant to become Conservative MP for the Cardigan Boroughs. We returned to the important question of party loyalty with our blog on Swynfen Jervis, a Liberal MP who defied his party’s whips. Sons of more famous fathers again featured with our biography of William Wilberforce (junior), the son of the prominent abolitionist, who failed to live up to his father’s reputation. Another leading anti-slavery campaigner George Thompson was a highly active platform orator before he became MP for Tower Hamlets, one of the first London MPs to be covered in our project. One extremely important MP whose biography we completed this year was Charles Gilpin, the only Quaker to hold ministerial office between the First and Second Reform Acts. Other MPs were better known for their accomplishments in other fields, including the pioneering photographer Edward King Tenison and the ichthyologist and fossil collector Sir Philip de Malpas Grey-Egerton.

All the draft biographies and constituency articles we are preparing for the 1832-68 project can be accessed for free on our ‘preview’ site – details of how to access and cite our work can be found in these links. You can also sign up to follow our blogs via e-mail or WordPress, follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons, or follow the new @GeorgianLords project and our other colleagues @HistParl.

We look forward to sharing more highlights from our research with you in 2018. Happy New Year!

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MP of the Month: George Donisthorpe Thompson (1804-1878)

December’s MP of the Month blog charts the path into Parliament of George Thompson, a self-educated book-seller’s son. As one of Britain’s foremost platform orators he was a major figure in the abolition of slavery in the West Indies and the United States, as well as an early campaigner for Indian independence. 


George Thompson by Charles Turner (1842) (C) NPG

Born in 1804, George Thompson was educated by his father, a Lambeth book-seller and ‘man of refined manners, and extensive reading’. Working at a City counting house from the age of twelve, he immersed himself in London’s self-improvement culture of the 1820s, distinguishing himself as a public speaker at the London Mechanics’ Institute from 1823.

He got his big break in 1831, when he was recommended by the Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham, for the role of travelling speaker for the London Anti-Slavery Society. With ‘his voice pealing like a trumpet’, ‘perspiration dripping from his head’ and his imposing frame ‘throbbing with emotion’, Thompson’s speeches for the society drew increasingly large crowds. His status as a national celebrity was established in 1833, when he distinguished himself in a series of week-long debates in towns across Britain with the slavery advocate and future MP for Evesham, Peter Borthwick.

Front cover 1836After the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1833, Thompson turned his attention to worldwide abolition. In 1834 he was invited on a lecture tour of the United States by the American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. During an infamous 15-month tour his ‘vitriolic harangues’ against slavery and rumours surrounding his questionable financial dealings attracted widespread coverage, eventually leading to his denunciation by President Jackson, forcing him to flee the United States in November 1835.

On his return to Britain he supported the radical Quaker, Joseph Sturge, in his campaign to abolish slave apprenticeships, before taking up the cause of slavery in India. In 1839 he helped establish the British India Society, whose aim was to make ‘known the wrongs’ of the ‘80,000,000 of people’ in India and to expand ‘Indian cotton sails in order to undersell slave-grown Cotton from the United States’.

Firmly established as one of Britain’s foremost political agitators, Thompson lent his services to the Anti-Corn Law League as part of an agreement with the British India Society in 1841, organising a ‘national convocation’ of ministers from all Christian denominations in order that the League could ‘gain access to their chapels & associations & sanction the public co-operation of the women’. At the convocation, Thompson called for a female petition to the Queen (which secured a quarter of a million signatures), and asked ministers from across the country to arrange meetings of women at which he could lecture. Speaking in support of ‘universal emancipation’ at these meetings, his ‘impassioned language and thrilling accents … secured him great favour from female audiences’.

After two years of campaigning for the League, Thompson made his first attempt on Parliament, accepting an invitation to stand at the 1842 Southampton by-election. Coming forward on ‘liberal principles’, he promised to support the Chartist cause and ‘the total annihilation of the corn laws’, but was defeated by two Conservatives. Later that year, he travelled to Calcutta under the patronage of an Indian merchant, Dwarkanauth Tagore. Occupying an entire floor of Tagore’s townhouse in the centre of Kolkata, where he became known as ‘Hindoo Thompson’, he immersed himself in Indian law, offered counsel to the locals, and started campaigning for Indian land reform through the Bengal British India Society.


In 1846, the freed slave Frederick Douglass stayed at Thompson’s home at Whiteheads Grove, SW3.

Back in England by February 1844, he resumed campaigning for the Anti-Corn Law League. After the successful repeal of the corn laws he renewed his crusade to abolish slavery in the US, establishing the Anti-Slavery League in August 1846 with William Garrison and the freed slave, Frederick Douglass, who had been using Thompson’s home as his London residence. Although this new organisation failed to capture momentum in Britain, Thompson maintained a life-long commitment to the abolition of slavery in the US and was reportedly the ‘only foreigner’ in attendance on 14 April 1865, when the Stars and Stripes were raised at Fort Sumter.

In 1847 Thompson’s national status prompted invitations to stand at that year’s general election at Leicester, Westminster, Lambeth and Tower Hamlets. He eventually came forward for Tower Hamlets, which contained Britain’s largest registered borough electorate of almost 19,000 voters.

Tower Hamlets election 1852

The hustings at Tower Hamlets in 1852 where Thompson had topped the poll five years earlier, ILN, 10 July 1852.

At a series of huge public hustings he called for a further extension of free trade and religious rights, extensive parliamentary reform, retrenchment, disestablishment and secular education.  In one of the most notable results of that year’s election, Thompson defeated both of the borough’s moderate Liberal incumbents by 2,500 votes, prompting election officials to report with amazement at how ‘whole pages of votes’ were ‘filled entirely’ with ‘plumpers for Mr George Thompson’.

You can find out how Thompson’s parliamentary career progressed in his full biography, which will be published shortly on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.

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The ‘Parliamentary Speechification Table’: quantifying parliamentary debate in 1833

The influx of new members into the House of Commons following the 1832 Reform Act prompted considerable disquiet within established political circles about the effects which this would have on the day-to-day business of Parliament. The Times reported fears that ‘the ascendancy of the mouvement faction’ of MPs drawn chiefly from the newly-enfranchised constituencies would result in ‘noise and swagger’ overwhelming ‘the good sense’ and sound principles of the Commons.

Commons 1834 a

The Chamber of the House of Commons before the fire of October 1834

In order to combat complaints that the House’s time would be consumed by ‘unprofitable talking’, and that ‘low bred mob orators’ would obstruct parliamentary business, the Spectator decided to analyse all the spoken contributions, excluding mere matters of form, made in the Commons and recorded by the Mirror of Parliament, then the most full record of parliamentary proceedings, as discussed in one of our earlier blogs. Paying particular attention to the utterances of the 51 new Members who could be fairly assumed to owe their return to the changes effected by the Reform Act, the paper hoped to silence the ‘unfair and carping attacks of the Anti-Reformers’.

When the paper’s first analysis appeared at the end of March 1833 it concluded that ‘the old stagers’ were, after all, the most prolific talkers. However, the new reform MPs, who comprised less than 8% of the House, were also reckoned to have made 320 (or 18%) of the 1,776 contributions to debate recorded up to that time. Their speeches had filled 185 of the Mirror’s 1,057 columns, each of which contained about 1,000 words. Significantly, the paper argued that it was not these new MPs who were responsible for the delay which had taken place in the conduct of public business. Instead the ‘everlasting harangues’ over Irish policy were identified as the main obstacle to progress.

By the time the Spectator produced its analysis of the 11,709 speeches made in the 1833 session that December, it had abandoned separately classifying speeches made by the new reform MPs. Understandably, the most frequent speaker by some margin was Lord Althorp, the chancellor of the exchequer and leader in the House of Commons. Other leading orators included the Irish chief secretary, Edward Stanley, and the secretary to the treasury, Thomas Spring Rice. Senior Conservatives such as Sir Robert Peel, Sir Frederick Shaw and Sir Robert Inglis also weighed in substantially by logging more than 500 speeches between them.

(c) Museum of Farnham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

William Cobbett (c) Museum of Farnham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

However, the paper’s ‘Parliamentary Speechification Table’ revealed that the new reform MPs continued to make a disproportionate contribution to proceedings. The 51 MPs analysed in March had made a total of 1,594 speeches, occupying 815 (or 16%) of the 5,094 columns recorded in the Mirror. The most prolific MP was the veteran radical William Cobbett, who sat for the newly-enfranchised borough of Oldham, and made no less than 261 contributions to debate. The Irish radical MP for Drogheda, Andrew Carew O’Dwyer, spoke 111 times – more frequently than Sir Robert Peel. Indeed, when one adds to these speeches the huge contribution to debate made by more seasoned radicals such as Daniel O’Connell, who spoke the greatest number of words in the session (his 647 speeches covered 338 columns), and Joseph Hume (601 speeches in 253 columns), not to mention other reformers such as Henry Warburton (143 speeches), Colonel De Lacy Evans (111 speeches), and Edward Southwell Ruthven, the repeal MP for Dublin (98 speeches), it was clear that radical views were given a very full airing in the newly reformed House of Commons.

Despite all their efforts to exonerate new MPs from the charge of  ‘noise and swagger’, the Spectator could not resist agreeing with other critics of post-reform debates, when it noted that ‘out of the eleven thousand and odd speeches delivered … at least ten thousand were not worth delivering or hearing’.

Sources: The Times, 11 Feb. 1833; Spectator, 30 Mar., 28 Dec. 1833.

Further reading:

  • P. Salmon, ‘The House of Commons, 1801-1911’, in A Short History of Parliament, ed. C. Jones (2009), 248-69 VIEW
  • J. Meisel, Public Speech and the Culture of Public Life in the age of Gladstone (2001)
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MP of the Month: Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, Earl Grosvenor (1825-1899)

Continuing our celebration of the 150th anniversary of the 1867 Reform Act, November’s MP of the Month focuses on one of the most enigmatic figures in the reform crisis of 1866-67, the property-owning magnate and multi-millionaire Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, later the 1st Duke of Westminster.

Hugh Lupus Grosvenor MP

Grosvenor is probably best known today as Britain’s richest Victorian, with a fortune of about £7 million. Far more fond of horse racing than politics, Grosvenor sat as Whig MP for the family seat of Chester from 1847 until 1869, when he succeeded his father as 3rd Marquess of Westminster. A rare presence in the Commons, and frequently abroad, when he turned up he usually backed the Whig-Liberal leadership in the voting lobbies, but hardly ever spoke before 1865.

His sudden appearance on the national political stage in 1866, as one of the leaders of the so-called ‘Adullamites’, and his pivotal role in bringing down the Liberal government over their reform bill, proposed by his friend and neighbour William Gladstone, were therefore unexpected, to say the least. Even more surprising was his willingness to help keep the Conservatives in office the following year, while they passed a measure of reform that was even more far-reaching in terms of the democratic tendencies that Grosvenor seemed to so vehemently oppose.

This apparently ‘contradictory behaviour’ – helping to defeat Gladstone’s Liberal reform bill because of its radical leanings, but then backing a Conservative ministry’s more extensive measure of reform the following year – has understandably been difficult to explain. A number of studies have concluded that in the highly complex negotiations surrounding both proposals, Grosvenor was simply out of his depth. He became an unwitting dupe for his more experienced parliamentary colleagues, lured first into the Adullamite ‘cave’ by their Whiggish rhetoric before being expertly strung along by the Conservatives. One historian (J. Winter) has even suggested that Grosvenor’s ‘naiveté’ was ‘one of Disraeli’s most valuable assets’ in securing the passage of the 1867 Reform Act.

Victorian Chester

Researching Grosvenor’s background as a constituency MP, however, has unearthed a rather more complex picture. His father’s politics as an MP had always been ambiguous, being ‘neither Whig nor Tory; reformer nor anti-reformer’, and when Grosvenor first stood for his father’s old seat at Chester in 1847, he made a point of refusing to state any political opinions or make any pledges. He ‘seems desirous of devoting his best attention to what may be called the social and moral questions of the day apart from party politics’ and ‘his politics will never be … identified with mere party Whiggism’, noted one observer.

Grosvenor’s constituency speeches over the course of the next four general elections revealed not only his genuine attachment to a ‘great extension of the franchise’ but also his horror at the growing influence of the Radicals on setting the reform agenda. In particular he believed that the radical focus on the representation of numbers, rather than ‘interests’, posed a genuine threat to the stability of the British constitution. As he explained in 1859:

If you go at once for manhood suffrage, you go by numbers and population only, by which means you take into the constituency numbers of men of the lowest orders, without property or money … who would follow any demagogue … I hold that the whole of the classes in the country should be represented, property, land, intelligence, wealth and numbers, and not numbers alone … And labour too … There is a large class of wage receiving working men who ought to be admitted to the franchise  … I shall be prepared to see the franchise extended in counties and boroughs … and a fair redistribution of seats, without which any reform bill would be imperfect. (Cheshire Observer, 23 Apr. 1859)

This statement neatly captured Grosvenor’s increasing reservations about a scheme of reform that was not based upon a balanced representation of ‘interests’ and accompanied by a redistribution of seats. By 1865 he was also warning that the ‘advanced Liberals’ regarded any lowering of the franchise as a ‘first instalment’ on the road to universal suffrage. Urging the need for some form of ‘final settlement’ to prevent years of future agitation, he called for a cross-party solution and proposed the appointment of a cross-party committee to bring in a moderate measure of reform that would ‘conciliate all interests’.

It was these long-held beliefs, expressed on the hustings and at constituency meetings, rather than on the floor of the House of Commons, which propelled Grosvenor to act as he did in 1866 and help bring about the defeat of the Liberal reform bill. Gladstone’s proposals were objectionable on three grounds. Firstly, they appeared to take their cue from leading Radicals like John Bright, making a cross-party approach impossible. Secondly, his new franchises based on rental value were not ‘final’ and could easily be lowered; and thirdly, there was initially no accompanying plan of redistribution.

Significantly, when the Conservatives took office following the resignation of the Liberal ministry, they set about formulating an approach to reform that would attempt to address all three of these issues.

The full biography of Hugh Lupus Grosvenor will soon be available on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.

Further reading:

  • D. Sheppard, ‘The Cave of Adullam, Household Suffrage, and the Passage of the Second Reform Act’, Parliamentary History (1995), xiv. 149-72.
  • G. Huxley, Victorian Duke: The Life of Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, 1st Duke of Westminster (1967).
  • J. Winter, ‘The Cave of Adullam and Parliamentary Reform’, English Historical Review (1966), lxxxi. 38-55.


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‘A woman actually voted!’: Lily Maxwell and the Manchester by-election of November 1867

Lily Maxwell; image credit: Manchester City Council

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.

Jacob Bright MP

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.

Lydia Becker, by Susan Isabel Dacre (Manchester Art Gallery;

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!

Further reading:

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