Suffragettes And The Census: The 1911 Protest

The history of the British suffragette movement is likely to be well known to many. It began in the late 1890s and early 1900s, with campaigns from women across Britain leading to the Representation of the People Act in 1918 which granted women over the age of 30 (who met minimum property qualifications) the vote. During the campaigns, in 1911, a census was introduced in Britain. It was the first census to ask about nationality, details of marriage, number of children alive and dead, instead of just requiring a simple headcount.

The intersection of the census and the suffragettes came when an organised movement of women across Britain decided to boycott the 1911 census. They felt that if women did not count, ‘neither should they be counted.’ Women across Britain either left home that night to avoid the census or simply spoiled the census form by writing comments or refusing to give information. For example, in Birkenhead, Miss Davies wrote on her form the name of a male servant and added that there were no other persons, merely women. Emily Wilding Davison, who would become famous for her death two years later, actually hid in a broom cupboard in the Houses of Parliament. In London suffragettes spent the night protesting around Trafalgar Square whilst across the country women gathered for the boycott. However research has shown that the impact of the boycott was statistically negligible. Despite Davison hiding in the Houses of Parliament for two days, she was actually counted twice – by her landlady and the cleaner who discovered her. They didn’t ruin the census but it was not considered a total failure – accounts left by suffragettes showed that in this attempt to stand up to the state, many were galvanised into further action and gave them hope for the movement ahead.

Research into this boycott can be mainly characterised by Elizabeth Crawford and Jill Liddington in their book, ‘Vanishing for the Vote’ was done through the analysing of the census forms returned in 1911. People within a household would fill out how many people lived there and their ages, etc. before returning it to the census counters. Many boycotters used this as an opportunity to write slogans across the forms giving us insight into how many participated. However this in itself can be limited – for example in Crawford and Liddington were only able to retrieve information into English suffragettes because it is Scottish law that the census forms be destroyed to protect information – meaning only the official census books survive. Whilst this makes it difficult to track down how many Scottish suffragettes potentially became involved, evidence can still be found of their efforts. Whilst doing research within the National Records of Scotland, I personally have seen a page of the census books marking that at 22 Drummond Place, Edinburgh, over 40 people refused to give names or ages leaving the counter to simply guess. Later research has shown that this was the site of Café Vegetaria – a meeting place for Scottish suffragettes.

This boycott is one which has rarely made the history books and is unlikely to be studied by more than a handful of people, but despite its minor impact it would’ve been one of the first acts of the suffragette movement to bring women together across Britain and was an excellent foundation for activism to come. The census of 1911 gave suffragettes throughout Britain another weapon with which to challenge the government and win publicity for their cause.

If you want to find more information on the boycott, Vanishing from the Vote by Crawford and Liddington provides an exhaustive and interesting account. For more information on Scottish suffragettes and their contribution to the movement, ‘When The Clyde Ran Red’ by Maggie Craig is unmissable.

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