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Spotting a suffragist with the 1911 Census

Was your ancestor a supporter of votes for women?

Finding records of the Votes for Women movement isn’t always easy.  For the safety of its members, the militant WSPU didn’t keep a membership roll. This makes it harder to trace those suffragettes who were not able to play a visible role in the movement.

One way you can spot a suffragist in your family tree is with the absence of a record, rather than a record. If your forebear was alive and in the country at the time of the 1911 Census, the lack of a census entry for them may indicate that they were a suffragist as many women boycotted the census – or spoiled their return – on the grounds that “if women don’t count, neither shall they be counted”. Some supporters boycotted the census by spending the night away from home.

Some 100 women spent the night in a house in Birkenhead, “packed like sardines” according to a Miss Davies. This Miss Davies filled out the house’s census return in the name of a manservant on the premises and added: “No other persons, but many women”.

Emily Wilding Davison hid in a broom cupboard of the Houses of Parliament, so that on the census form she could legitimately give her place of residence that night as the “House of Commons”. She was discovered and the 1911 Census counts her once at home and once as Emily Wilding Davidson, with her address as “Found Hiding in Crypt of Westminster Hall Westminster”.

Others voiced their protest by spoiling the census return itself. The scientist Hertha Ayrton wrote: “I will not supply these particulars until I have my rights as a citizen. Votes for Women.” Dorothy Bowker wrote: “Dumb politically, blind to the census, deaf to the enumerator.”

Some, perhaps less vehement suffragists, complied with the census but used the available boxes to voice their protest. Many put “suffragette” in the occupation column or used the infirmity column to make their point. For example, four women in one household put “voteless, therefore classed with idiots and children”.
Of course, having a missing 1911 Census record for an ancestor is not in itself confirmation that your ancestor was a suffragette. Your first step should be to confirm that they were alive and not missing from the census for other reasons. You could then consult local and national newspapers through archives for the British Newspaper Archives to see if their name is listed at any protests. The Women’s Library, currently at the Metropolitan University but moving to the London School of Economics next year, has lots of resources that may help you find your suffragist ancestors.

It’s important to remember that not all women were in favour of the female vote. Notable opponents of women’s suffrage included Florence Nightingale, social reformer Octavia Hill, and – most damagingly – Queen Victoria. She called it “this mad, wicked folly of Women’s Rights” and said “feminists ought to get a good whipping.”

You can find out more about the Suffragist movement in these two books:

Rebel Girls: How votes for women changed Edwardian lives, Jill Liddington, 2006, Virago, ISBN: 9781844081684
The Suffragettes in pictures, Diane Atkinson, 2010, The History Press, ISBN:9780752457963

  • This article is an extract of a longer feature from issue 123 of Your Family Tree magazine. To read the full article, you can purchase a back copy from or a digital back issue from Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 12th, 2012 at 12:16 pm and is filed under Census, Research tips. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a comment, or trackback from your own site.

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| Census, Research tips | 12/12/2012 12:16pm

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