Jackie Weaver may have become a social media sensation overnight with her calm, authoritative management of a contentious parish council meeting held on Zoom, but she is not a lone pioneer. A brief consideration of the history of parish politics in Britain demonstrates that women have a long track record of interventions at this local level, says Professor Sarah Richardson from Warwick’s Department of History.
In 1788, the crown brought a case against Alice Stubbs, a landowner who had been appointed as an overseer of the poor in Ronton Abbey, Staffordshire. The contention was that she, as a woman, was incapable of undertaking this parochial office and ineligible on grounds of her sex. The judge threw out the case leading the philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, to bemoan the erosion of men’s rights.
In Leeds in 1835, the parish was dominated by nonconformist councillors who refused to set a Church rate. Local Conservatives appealed to women electors to vote them off, stating, ‘the sooner the ladies interfere the better.’
Women voters were parodied by Charles Dickens in his satirical account of a parish election in Sketches by Boz. The two candidates were Spruggins and Bung, with the majority of women supporting Spruggins. The quick-witted agent for Bung hired a number of carriages, offering women a lift to the poll. Once there, they were hustled into the polling booth and out again, not realising they had voted for Bung.
Many men were of course against women sitting on parish councils. In 1901, the Rev. Canon Holder, spoke in very strong terms against women becoming members of Dundee Parish Council. This was because of the shocking details of cases that were brought to the Relief Committee. He said it would be terrible if women had to sit amongst a large number of men whilst these things were being discussed.
However women were expert at exploiting the electoral system, particularly if men were apathetic. In 1843 a notice was attached to the door of Birstal Church, calling a vestry meeting to elect a churchwarden for the ensuing year. At the time appointed, the wife of the assistant overseer entered the Vestry with the parish book in which the entry is made of the election. After waiting nearly an hour she returned home with the book under her arm. Her husband eagerly enquired who was appointed warden, to which she replied why me to be sure – thee ejaculated the astonished official, yes, me, reiterated the wife, for there has not been another living soul at the meeting, therefore, I suppose, I must be the churchwarden.
A similar coup took place in the village of Bishops Itchington in Warwickshire in 1949. A headline in the Leamington Courier announced: ‘The Ladies Will Govern Bishops Itchington’ with the sub-heading ‘They’re welcome to try say the men.’ Edith Chapple-Hyam, the chair of the village Women’s Institute was fed up with the lack of action on issues such as sewage works, policing and public spaces by the all-male parish council, so when an election was announced, she, and five of her committee members, submitted their nominations. Only two of the existing parish councillors bothered to put in their own papers expecting that the election would not be contested and they would be re-elected by default. One of the men’s applications was received too late and was declared invalid and so all six women and the sole male candidate were duly elected. As has happened with Jackie Weaver, Edith Chapple-Hyam quickly became a celebrity, receiving fan mail from Women’s Institutes all over the country.
As Handforth Parish Council have found out, it is best not to under-estimate women’s role in local politics.
8 February 2021
Professor Sarah Richardson is a research historian at the University of Warwick. She is an expert in women and political culture in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century.
Professor Richardson is currently leading the Mapping Women's Suffrage project, seeking to map all known women’s suffrage activists in England.
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