The Vote Before The Vote by Chris Nickson

Today marks the 100th anniversary of legislation which came into force and gave (some) women the right to vote. It starts a year of exhibitions, talks and performances throughout the UK. Chris Nickson celebrates the Leeds women who led the way for female suffrage. The Vote Before The Vote is a new exhibition opening in May at the Central Library, Leeds. 

2018 marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, a landmark that extended the Parliamentary franchise to women – or some women, at least. It would be 1928 before Britain saw universal suffrage, where everyone over the age of 21 could vote.

The Suffragettes had a hand in making that happen. That’s how the histories are taught. But the Suffragettes as a movement only really took shape in 1904. Before them came the true pioneers, the Suffragists, and Leeds women were very much in the vanguard.

To most people, names like Isabella Ford, Alice Cliff Scatcherd, Catherine Buckton, Constance Holland, Mary Gawthorpe and more will mean very little. But they were the Leeds trailblazers who helped make it all possible. From 1832, when a local woman named Mary Smith petitioned the House of Commons for women to have the vote (it was laughed out of Parliament) to those who organised and served on School Boards and as Poor Law Guardians, holding soirees to educate or working with children, this was the spadework that made the revolution possible.

From 1870, women could be elected to the School Board, and Mrs Catherine Buckton was the first woman to be elected on – to any office – in Leeds. But four years earlier a petition to Parliament had included the names of many working-class women from the Woodhouse area. The will was there. Women wanted their place in politics

1894 was the great watershed moment. A change in the law meant that ratepayers of either sex, men and married women – rates being akin to modern council tax – could vote in local elections and run for office as Poor Law Guardians or to serve on parish councils. For the first time, the working had a vote, they had a voice. That is where the modern world, the voting system as we recognise it today, really began. A small beginning, but it blossomed – 34 years later all adults could vote for the people to represent them in Westminster.

This May, from the 3-30, these women who pushed and battled, and the slow progress they made over the years from 1832-1903, will be celebrated in an exhibition called The Vote Before The Vote in Room 700 at Leeds City Library. It’s curated by historian Vine Pemberton Joss, and will feature information and artefacts from the period.

It’s a spotlight on part of our own history that many aren’t aware even exists. We should, because all of us owe these women a huge debt. Without them, the Suffragettes may never have existed. Who knows then when women might have received the vote?

I’m lucky enough to be involved in this project in an administrative capacity, and I’m proud to be a part of something that feels like one of the most vital things I’ve ever done. It’s – and I almost hate to use this word – important, it’s something males and females of all ages should see and feel real pride in what these Victorian Leeds women achieved. Someone pointed out recently that there are no statues of clothed women in Leeds, and it’s apparently true. So perhaps we should change that and put something up to commemorate these heroines of our own history. It would be fitting, especially in this year of celebrating votes for (some) women.

Chris Nickson is the author of several historical crime novels set in Leeds. The Tin God  is the long awaited sixth novel in the Tom Harper series.

Leeds, England. October, 1897. Superintendent Harper is proud of his wife Annabelle. She’s one of seven women selected to stand for election as a Poor Law Guardian. But even as the campaign begins, Annabelle and the other female candidates start to receive anonymous letters from someone who believes a woman’s place lies firmly in the home.

The threats escalate into outright violence when an explosion rips through the church hall where Annabelle is due to hold a meeting – with fatal consequences. The only piece of evidence Harper has is a scrap of paper left at the scene containing a fragment from an old folk song. But what is its significance?

As polling day approaches and the attacks increase in menace and intensity, Harper knows he’s in a race against time to uncover the culprit before more deaths follow. With the lives of his wife and daughter at risk, the political becomes cruelly personal.

The Tin God is published on 29 March and can be pre-ordered here. It will be launched at a free event at 1pm on 5 May at Leeds Central Library as part of The Vote Before The Vote exhibition in Room 700, Central Library, Leeds. 

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

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