In 1894, something momentous happened. A change in the laws allowed all rate payers to vote in local elections. The rates were the equivalent of today’s council tax; everybody paid them. So, working-class, middle-class, male and – above all -female had a local voice, even it if would take more than twenty years before some women received the franchise nationally.
The change opened the way for more women to stand for election to some offices too. Rural and parish district councils, and also as poor law guardians, the people who were responsible for outdoor and indoor relief, that is, benefits, as we might call them, and admission to the workhouse and overseeing conditions there.
A few middle-class women had been elected as guardians (by men). To qualify, they needed to own property worth £15, but it was primarily a job for men. With the change, however, working-class women did run for the office, truly breaking boundaries.
The Leeds Mercury reported from the Conference of Women Workers stating that “A paper was read on “Women in Local Government”. “Owing to the removal of the marriage and rate-paying disqualifications, many women of leisure could now become Guardians, and bring to their work that practical knowledge of the care of the poor which almost every woman with heart and head possessed.
While women Guardians were in favour of severe discipline for able-bodied paupers, they would remove the stigma of pauperism from the innocent children by boarding them out. Workhouse children had not even a piece of string they could call their own. Women Guardians should advocate the employment of paid women inspectors for children and lunatics, and they would be able to look into matters quite beyond the province of men.
Women as Guardians had special qualifications. They brought practical experience to the work. Many of the Guardians were tradesmen and tried to promote the interests of a clique, while women sat supremely apart and judged the case on its own merits.
On a Board composed exclusively of men, they had spent an hour discussing the matter of buttons versus hooks-&-eyes, which the dressmaker eventually decided for herself.”
In my novel The Tin God, I have Annabelle Harper, a working-class woman from Sheepscar in Leeds, running to become a guardian. That’s fiction, but a woman named Eliza Ann Dickinson became a real pioneer. She was one of three working-class women seeking election. Mrs Woodcock, who lived on Beeston Road, not far from Hunslet workhouse, was elected, too. However, a female candidate from the Labour/Independent Labour Party was defeated in the Holbeck South Ward.
Eliza Ann Beardsall was born in Headingley on February 14, 1851.
Her father was a forgeman, and it seems the family moved to Hunslet.
In September 1873, at St. Jude’s church in Hunslet, she married James Dickinson, a miner.
The couple had four children, one of whom died. At some point, she worked at Temple Newsam house.
What prompted a miner’s wife to stand to become a poor law guardian? Her descendants don’t seem to know, but she was inolved in a miners’ strike, and very likely her husband was one of the miners, so she’d have experienced how families suffered.. However, the letter urging her to stand in 1894, and the election poster (with her name misspelled) are wonderful.
She won a position on the Hunslet board of guardians, and is pictured here with the other board members, notably all men. Mrs Dickinson was re-elected three years later, and for a third time in 1901.
In 1911, the daughter, Amelia Jane, and granddaughter were living with the couple.
James Dickinson died in a mining disaster in 1919, still working at the age of 68. The note mentions that Eliza had been a guardian for many years.
By 1922 she was on the electoral register, living on Coggle Street in the Rothwell Haigh ward. She died in 1930.
Outside her own family, hardly anyone knows about her. Yet Eliza Ann Dickinson was a remarkable woman, someone who represented ordinary people on the board of guardians. She would have understood poverty, unemployment, injuries from working; they’d all have been evident in her neighbours. That’s apparent from this 1901 census.
The board was, as the 1894 letter states, dominated by “moneybags.” Someone like Eliza Ann Dickinson was needed to assess relief and look after the workhouse. She deserves far more than to be forgotten.
I’m grateful to historian Vine Pemberton Joss for making me aware of Mrs. Dickinson, and to Denise Morgan and her family for giving me information and supplying all the documents and photographs.