First woman votes in British election
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’