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Lily Maxwell: The first woman to vote


Women in Britain aged over 30 got the vote in 1918, but they weren’t the first women to vote in Britain. 

Political history is often dominated by characters who have certain things in common; they are well-connected, well-educated, wealthy. Lily Maxwell was none of these things, but years before the Suffragettes, she became the first woman to vote.

Born in Scotland around 1800, Lily spent decades working as a servant for a prominent businessman in Manchester, saving up enough money to eventually open her own shop selling a variety of goods including crockery, candles and red herring, in Chorlton-Upon-Medlock, the Manchester suburb known for its many cotton mills.

Despite her name, Lily was not always so lily-white. On 4 April 1866 she made the newspapers when she was fined £1 in the Police Court for defrauding her customers with unjust weights and light measures. Just over 18 months later Lily would appear in the papers again, but for very different reasons. 

As a shop-owner, Lily had to pay rates to the local council. In 1867 there was a by-election for the local Member of Parliament, and although women weren’t allowed to vote at the time, all men who were ratepayers were. Somehow, Lily’s name erroneously appeared on the registered list of voters.

Lydia Becker, an early supporter of the suffragist movement, got wind of this and encouraged Lily to cast her vote. Lily knew passionately that she wanted to vote for the Liberal MP Jacob Bright, a radical peace campaigner and supporter of women’s suffrage.

On the day of the vote Lily marched to her local polling station at Chorlton Town Hall. Accompanied by Becker, Lily cast her vote. In those days, you had to announce out loud your choice of candidate and unsurprisingly this caused much commotion. However, as Lily was clearly listed, the returning officer had little choice but to accept her vote. It is said that the room erupted with cheers for Britain’s first ever female voter. 

In January 1868 the Englishwoman’s Review wrote of Lily: ‘It is sometimes said that women, especially those of the working class, have no political opinion at all. Yet this woman, who by chance was furnished with a vote, professed strong opinions and was delighted to have a chance of expressing them.’

Championed by Becker, over 5,000 more female heads of households applied for their names to appear on the electoral rolls and these claims were presented at the Court of Common Pleas on 2 November 1868 by Sir John Coleridge and Richard Pankhurst (later the husband of prominent suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst). The case ruled that women could not vote in British elections and so the loophole was plugged and women’s suffrage declared illegal.

Whilst Lydia Becker went on to be celebrated for her work in the early British suffrage movement, Lily was largely forgotten. She died in 1876 having been admitted to the Withington Workhouse, a place where elderly people without anyone to support them were often forced to end their days.

We may all be familiar with the contributions of the Pankhursts, Millicent Fawcett and Mary Wollstonecraft to the women’s suffrage cause, but the contributions of ordinary women, like Lily, are just as important. Rather than sit at home, Lily did something extraordinary and decided to exercise the democratic right that had not yet been granted to her – the true definition of ‘deeds not words’.

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