“The suffragettes have now definitely decided to take leave of their Census”
Punch Magazine April 1911
by Anita Davison
My post about early tea rooms I posted last month brought me to 1911 when suffragettes all over the country boycotted the census by spending that night away from home, many carrying placards that declared: "If women don't count, neither shall they be counted."
|Punch Magazine 1911|
The boycott was made as a protest for the suffragettes who opposed Herbert Asquith’s Liberal Government’s reluctance to give women the vote. The 1911 Census was also the first to include extensive information on female fertility. Eugenicists in the government: i.e. those who sought to improve the human gene pool by discouraging undesirable traits via control of the birth rate, argued the lower classes were poor and sickly due to bad genes.
They claimed that provisions to improve public health would simply keep the inferior physical specimens alive, who would then breed more poor and sickly people. At this time the poorer levels of society were seen to be out-breeding the ‘more intelligent’ middle classes. Such an outrageous government policy was a gift to the suffrage movement, who decided to make a stand.
After an evening rally in Trafalgar Square, an estimated 500 women and 70 men gathered at the Aldwych Skating Rink where a concert of music and entertainment was laid on by members of the Actresses' Franchise League who recited Suffragist poems. Resembling a single storey gabled chalet, the rink was located on the north-east curve of Aldwych, east of Houghton Street. The building was also used as a clearing house for Belgian refugees in WWI, but was demolished after the war, replaced by part of the impressive Aldwych curve.
Emmeline Pankhurst was present, having been enumerated in three separate places, her flat in Clement’s Inn, her Surrey country cottage and at the skating rink in Kingsway. There is no trace of a census paper for Christabel Pankhurst who was at the Skating Rink and brought the entertainments to a rousing conclusion at 3.30 am, after which they adjourned to The Gardenia for breakfast.
Emily Wilding Davison – who threw herself in front of Anmer, King George V’s horse in the 1913 Epsom Derby, ate meat lozenges and lime juice while hiding in a broom cupboard in the Palace of Westminster on census night so that she could legitimately record it as her place of residence. After forty-six hours in hiding, she was discovered by a cleaner, and also shopped by her landlady, so was counted twice. Despite their best efforts, a surprising number were counted – including Emmeline Pankhurst, who was listed by the hotel in which she was staying.
Similar activities took place in Manchester, Portsmouth, Cardiff, Bristol, Liverpool, Ipswich, Cheltenham, Reading, Maidstone, and Edinburgh. In Brighton, ‘open houses’ were set up where resisters could spend the night away from home. The local newspaper reported that one house in Hove was so full that only a third of women could sleep at one time, with the rest coming and going throughout the night to confuse snooping enumerators attempting a head-count.
Not all husbands supported their wives’ political beliefs. At the bottom of one census form, Company Director Arthur Edward Maund’s attempted to correct his wife’s attempted sabotage. He wrote; “unfortunately, my wife being a suffragette put her pen through her name. A silly suffragette to defeat the object of the census, to which as head of the household I object”.
|Suffragettes Outside Police Courts 1911|
These stunts might appear frivolous to our more liberal society, but at the time these women, and some men, risked being fined or imprisoned with hard labour. In the event, no one was prosecuted as several thousand people boycotted the census, and the government was wary of taking them on after the publicity of the previous year's hunger strikes.
Jill Liddington’s Book – Vanishing For The Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census is available here:
Anita Davison also writes as Anita Seymour, her 17th Century novel Royalist Rebel was released by Pen and Sword Books, and she has two novels in The Woulfes of Loxsbeare from Books We Love. Her latest venture is an Edwardian cozy mystery being released in June 2015 by Robert Hale.