Finding suffragettes in the 1911 census

By Guest, 6 June 2018 - 4:52pm

Like Michelle Keegan's 2x great grandmother, thousands of women used the 1911 census to demand the right to vote

emily davison
Suffragette Emily Davison in the 1911 census

On her episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, actress Michelle Keegan discovered the story of her 2x great grandmother, Elizabeth Kirwan, whose life was tied to the suffragette movement.

Elizabeth lived in poverty in industrial Manchester and suffered the deaths of two of her children within a year. But despite the hardships her granddaughter, Michelle's great aunt, remembered her as a strong woman who was the centre of her community and always helped others.

Not only that, but the birth of her daughter Norah was registered by Emmeline Pankhurst, who worked as a registrar in Manchester as well as founding the Women's Social and Political Union and leading the suffragette movement.

Michelle was eager to find out whether Elizabeth was involved in the fight for women's rights herself. A lack of records on working-class women's involvement in the movement made this hard to find out, but historian Helen Antrobus showed Michelle some crucial proof - the 1911 census.

This census was conducted during a time of heightened tension in the suffrage movement. The previous November, the nation had been shocked by 'Black Friday', when 300 women protesting outside the Houses of Parliament were physically and sometimes sexually assaulted by police and passers-by.

In these circumstances, many suffragettes and suffragists (who campaigned for votes for women peacefully without direct action) were determined to use the census as a tool of protest. Michelle found proof of Elizabeth's political affiliations - she had listed her profession as 'Suffragist'.

Other women made more dramatic census protests, by vandalising the sheet or refusing to give any information to the censor. The census records are available on major family history websites such as Ancestry, Findmypast and TheGenealogist, and are a gem for a family historian to uncover, and we've picked some of the most interesting… 

 

 

suffragette 1911 census

Some protesters refused to give their information to the censor. In this case, a Miss Goldstone of Chelsea "stayed out all night" to avoid participating.

suffragette 1911 census

Others vandalised the paper. Mary Howey, an "Artist & Suffragette" from Malvern, wrote a beautifully-lettered 'Votes for Women' slogan.

1911 census suffragette

Beatrice Le Mesurier of Hendon ("No Vote, No Census") was more forceful and perhaps more typical of the protesters.

Cynefin

This address in Crouch Hill, London, was home to Sarah Kate Keeling Haslam - a "Passive suffragist?" according to a note on the page possibly written by the census taker - and Constance E. Long, who was a definitely a "Suffragette". Someone has also written on the paper "No other 'Person' for women are not legally 'Persons'".

1911 census suffragette

At 15 & 16 White Hall in Bedford, which appears to be a guest or boarding house, three separate people refused to give any information out of support for the suffragettes.

suffragist 1911 census baby

Albion and Winifred Alderson in Kingston-on-Thames are proud parents to perhaps the youngest "suffragist" in the census - Winifred Joan Alderson, under one month old!

suffragist 1911 census baby

But the most famous protest of the 1911 census was Emily Wilding Davison, who spent the night hiding in a cupboard in the Palace of Westminster. The original plan was to avoid the census, but in the end she was recorded twice - at her usual lodgings and at the Houses of Parliament. Note that the census taker in the bottom right-hand corner is a parliamentary clerk (and that her surname is misspelled as 'Davidson'). A plaque in the cupboard commemorating her was unveiled in 1990. In 1913, Emily was killed while throwing herself under a racehorse in a protest.

 

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