First woman votes in Bri­tish elec­tion

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It may have been the re­sult of a mis­take, but it helped the suf­frag­ist cause re­gard­less. It was on this day in 1867 that Lilly Maxwell be­came the first woman to vote in a UK elec­tion, af­ter her name was ac­ci­den­tally added to the elec­toral reg­is­ter.

Lilly was born around 1800, in Greenock, La­nark­shire, but owned a shop in Manch­ester, sell­ing mis­cel­la­neous goods from crock­ery to fish. The 1861 cen­sus records her as head of the house­hold at 17 Bridge Street in Ard­wick.

As a prop­erty owner, if she had been male, she would have been able to vote, but she ap­peared on the list of vot­ers in 1867 by mis­take, as reg­is­tered voter num­ber 12,326 in the par­lia­men­tary bor­ough of Manch­ester. How­ever, she was en­cour­aged by oth­ers, namely suf­frag­ist and am­a­teur sci­en­tist Ly­dia Becker (1827-1890), the sec­re­tary of the Woman Suf­frage So­ci­ety of Manch­ester, to try to vote as a test case for lo­cal suf­frag­ists. She there­fore at­tended the elec­tion, held at Chorl­ton Town Hall, where the re­turn­ing of­fi­cer had to let her vote, as her name was clearly on the elec­toral roll. She voted for Ja­cob Bright, a sup­porter of the suf­frag­ist cause, be­fore she and Ly­dia were ‘es­corted from the com­mit­tee room by a large num­ber of per­sons, and were much cheered as they passed to and from the poll’.

Ly­dia Becker duly per­suaded over 1000 other fe­male house­hold­ers in Chorltonon-Med­lock to ask for their names to also be put onto the elec­toral rolls. How­ever, on 2 Novem­ber 1868, their claims were held at the Court of Com­mon Pleas, and although leg­is­la­tion was vague, us­ing the term ‘man’ in­stead of ‘male’, it was ruled that women could not vote in Bri­tish elec­tions. Lilly’s vote was deemed to have been il­le­gal.

Lilly Maxwell died in 1876 in the lo­cal work­house; although it has since been shown that other women had ear­lier tried to vote in elec­tions – in­clud­ing 30 in Lich­field, Stafford­shire, in 1843 – it is Maxwell’s case that re­mains the best known, and it is her case that was re­ported in the con­tem­po­rary press as ‘the record ac­cep­tance of a vote by a lady’.

Lilly and Ly­dia were ‘much cheered as they passed to and from the poll’

Lil­lyMaxwell(top) andLy­di­aBecker

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