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Symposium

Symposium 2008

2008 Irish Studies Symposium: November 3 & 4

Suffragettes and the 1911 census of Ireland
Dr. William Murphy, Mater Dei Institute of Education

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The digitization of the 1911 census for Dublin has been a great success. That it is free to all and searchable by individual as well as address, ensures that it is an extraordinary resource that facilitates historians in approaching a huge range of subjects and research questions with fresh data and from fresh perspectives.

One such subject — which has received minimal attention to date — is the attempt by some Irish suffragists to organize a boycott of the census of Ireland in 1911. The digitization of the census returns ensures that we now have a much better idea as to the actions of suffragists on the night of the 1911 census and the reactions of the authorities.

As in Canada, organized female suffragists have emerged in Ireland in the 1870s. The first such organization was founded in Belfast but perhaps the most important was the Dublin Women's Suffrage Society founded in 1886, which became the Irish Women's Suffrage and Local Government Association (IWSLGA). These suffragists' organizations adopted the standard methods of lobby groups: they held meetings, they propagandized, they wrote letters, they organized petitions, they pestered politicians. By the early years of the 20th century they had made progress.

The suffrage issue by then was consistently before the public, but the suffragists had not yet convinced the establishment to legislate for the women's right to vote. At this point a new phenomenon emerged; militant suffrage groups whose members came to be referred to as suffragettes. In Britain, the most famous of these was the Women's Social and Political Union which was led by the Pankhursts, Emmeline and her daughters. Between 1905 and 1914, the WSPU was at the forefront of a steadily escalating campaign of militancy. Disruption of political meetings and public protests gave way to the breaking of windows in public buildings, politicians homes, shops and then to arson, chemical attacks and bombings. Around 1,000 women and 40 men were jailed in the UK in the years 1905-1914 for militant activity in the cause of female suffrage.

Initially, the WSPU did not organize in Ireland and Irish suffragism remained comparatively moderate. But in November 1908, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins, along with their feminist husbands, Francis Sheehy Skeffington and James Cousins, founded the Irish Women's Franchise League (IWFL). The IWFL did not immediately embark upon militant activity, rather gradually a vanguard of committed activists emerged. The first step towards militant action was taken in October 1910 when Sheehy Skeffington and Hilda Webb heckled Augustine Birrell, chief secretary of Ireland, at a meeting in Greystones, Co. Wicklow. In November 1910, six IWFL members, including Margaret Cousins, were imprisoned in England when they participated in protests organized by the WSPU. They broke the windows in Birrell's London home by throwing potatoes through them and were then later arrested for breaking windows on Downing Street.

Soon after this, the census of 1911 provided an occasion to suffragists to demonstrate their discontent at home, in Ireland. As James Cousins put it, "the census was a prime opportunity of throwing metaphorical spanners in official machinery." As with suffrage militancy in general, a boycott of the census was not an idea indigenous to Ireland. The proposal to boycott the census emerged in Britain where, as in Ireland, the census was fixed for the 2nd of April. This campaign was led by the WSPU and another militant organization, the Women's Freedom League operating under the slogan "No Vote, No Census" these groups announced that as women were not treated as full citizens their members would not fill out their the census form as required by law.

It was quite late in March before Irish suffragists began to reveal their final attitudes to the proposed protest. At a public meeting by the IWFL on the 28th of March — five days before census night — a Miss Tatlow publicly justified the boycott of the census, arguing that it was "the Government that forced them into their proposed action with regard to the census" by failing to keep promises to legislate for female suffrage.

When a correspondent to the Irish Times and Freeman's Journal, writing under the name Arjapim, complained that "the census evasion is an attempt to diminish the value of an undertaking of immense importance and social value" and asked "Will the Irish Women's Franchise League explain how they are able to justify such a crime against society as census evasion?" he was met with a volley of responses.

Mary F. Earl, a leading member of the IWFL, outlined the thinking that under-pinned the boycotters' actions. She wrote, "Women have not votes, and therefore, are unable to bring influence of this sort to bear. Hence they are forced to adopt a method less conventional than that used by men. The census is a numbering of the people. We are considered part of the people by the Government when it wants to tax us or to count us. We are quite willing to be part of the people as regards to the census when we are allowed to be part of the people as regards the Parliamentary vote."

Earl continued, "We quite recognize the importance of the census, but we are sure that the statistics obtained by it will be used as a basis of legislation, on matters affecting women, by a House of Commons consisting of men only and elected by men only. As laws passed by such a body can hardly fail to be unjust to women, we consider we are quite justified in our refusal to supply information."

This was not necessarily a position shared by all Irish suffragists. The biographer of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and the foremost historian of the IWFL, Margaret Ward, has suggested that evading or resisting the census was a matter upon which militants and non-militants agreed.

However, some moderate supporters of this female suffragist cause were openly critical of the protest. In the aftermath of the census on the 20th of April, the Dean of Waterford chaired a suffrage meeting in that city, but took the opportunity to state that the census was "for the good of the whole community, for the good of the State. . . . avoiding the census was unworthy of a good citizen. If he might put the matter in a nutshell it was simply this — women claim that they should have their full rights as citizens. Here they had at all events one right as citizens."

Carmel Quinlan, biographer of Anna and Thomas Haslam, the leading lights in the moderate IWSLGA, has noted a resolution passed by the committee of that organization at its meeting in March. It stated that the committee "would not give any support to the movement for refusing to fill up the census as such action would vitiate the returns for the next ten years."

In the days leading up to the census, the press and the authorities in Ireland were curious about the methods that the Irish suffragists committed to resisting the census would adopt. The Freeman's Journal reported that in Dublin speculation as to the suffragists' approach had "imported an element of mild excitement" into the census-taking. This speculation was sustained because, the reporter of the Freeman continued, "in refutation of the popular belief that a lady cannot keep a secret, they seem to have guarded their plans successfully."

In Britain the WFL and the WSPU planned very public resistance. They organized a series of collective public protests on census night, facilitating suffragists' absence from home or any other residence where they might be counted. In London, for example, the Pankhursts attended a concert at WSPU Hall, followed by a protest march at Trafalgar Square attended by around 1,000 women, followed by further entertainments laid on at the Scala Theatre, before concluding the night by going to Aldwych Skating Rink between 3am and 8am.

Interestingly, some of the suffragettes of Birmingham spent the night at the Gaelic League Hall there. When a policeman called upon a committee meeting of the IWFL in Dublin on the day before the census and asked if they intended holding a meeting on the following evening, he was informed that they did not, but instead had "requisitioned a number of airplanes and submarines" for the occasion. When interviewed on the day of the census, Marguerite Palmer, honorary secretary of the IWFL, told the Irish Times that "she could not divulge any of their plans, but their scheme was entirely different to that employed in England." Instead, she said, Irish suffragists intended to be "conspicuous by their absence".

So what happened on the 2nd of April?

The first point to note is that there were no public gatherings or protests in Ireland. It is not clear why the Irish census evaders decided against public demonstrations. The most likely reason is that they would not have been able to muster large numbers. As pointed out already, Irish suffragism was in a period of transition; suffragist militancy in the country was as yet in its infancy and the cohort of militant activists was small.

Secondly, the organizers of the protest almost certainly hoped that a less demonstrative approach would facilitate the participation of moderates in the census evasion. Indeed, a suffragette correspondent to The Freeman's Journal wrote that "Several of our friends have recently congratulated us on the constitutional and eminently ladylike nature of census resistance. In fact it is on that very account being very widely adopted in Ireland." Further, getting about in town at night without male chaperons was not considered ladylike. And in any case, Dublin in 1911 did not offer the range of public spaces that London suffragists had available to them, especially at night.

In his letters of some days earlier, Arjapim had argued that silent evasion of the census was a pointlessly narrow form of protest as it "cannot be a very successful method of advertisement, since, though militant, it is quiet unostentatious and incapable of proper estimation of its effects." The publication of Arjapim's own letter undermined this argument somewhat as did the considerable press coverage that the protest received. Arjapim was correct to this extent, however, it is extremely difficult — even now — to assess the extent of the boycott because, as David Wilson suggested yesterday, it is very difficult to analyze an absence.

Nonetheless, a trawl of the digitized census records for Dublin does reveal certain patterns. At the most fundamental level, a boycott did take place as a number of Dublin suffragists do not appear to have made returns. There is no return for instance for a Marguerite or Margaret Palmer, matching the known biographical detail of the honorary secretary of the IWFL. Neither do returns exist that match the details of the suffragists Marjorie Hasler and Kathleen Houston. Both Hasler and Houston were Dublin-based and were sentenced to prison for militant activity in Dublin in the summer of 1912. It is a reasonable assumption that these women successfully and deliberately evaded the census, although it may never be possible to prove this absolutely. When digitized records for the rest of Ireland are available it will be possible to rule out their being away in the country for the weekend, but even then the possibility that they were abroad will continue to exist.

The digitized census does reveal firm evidence of the attempts of several women who evaded the census.

One of these was Mary F. Earl whose letter to the Irish Times we saw earlier. At first glance Mary Earl appears to have made a return. Here you can see it at her address at 39 Raglan Road, the address she gave in her letter to the Irish Times. She is the head of household, she is forty and she has two sons and a servant living with her. However, if we look at it more closely we can see that Mary Earl did not complete this form, but it was filled out by MB or Michael Barry, the census enumerator for this area. And we can see Barry's note "Filled as a result of enquiries made by the enumerator, Mrs. Earl having refused to give any information." The fact that Mrs. Earl did not make the return is further confirmed by the fact that the section for the signature for the head of the household is blank.

The enumerators of the census of Ireland had extensive powers to make inquiries about those who did not comply with their obligations under the census. Their ability to wield those powers was enhanced because unlike in the rest of the United Kingdom, the enumerators in Ireland were policemen. In the case of Dublin, they were members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.

It was the head of households who was primarily responsible for filling the form. And in not making the return, women such as Mary Earl who was a head of household invited prosecution. A boycotting woman who was not the head of household placed the relevant relative in danger of prosecution. In an effort to avoid this second eventuality, it seems that the leadership of the IWFL gathered, at least some boycotters in small groups in houses which for various reasons were not enumerated. And this tactic was also adopted in Britain and this is a photograph from Britain, you can see the "No vote, no census" sign up in the house and all the women gathered together to sleep on the night of the census.

In the memoir of James and Margaret Cousins written in 1950, James recalled that on census night, Margaret and Lizzie Duffy, their domestic servant, left to stay at a nearby house that had been vacant for sometime and therefore "not on the enumeration list." James remembered that he was suffering from scarlatina fever at the time so he was left at home in bed with the form, a pen, an envelope and some disinfectant. He wrote: "When the official hour came, I wrote on the declaration form a note to the effect that I could not give a true enumeration of my household as its 'female' members were absent in protest against being officially classed with children, criminals, lunatics and such like. I added that I had filled the paper while laid up in scarlatina, but had duly disinfected it and the envelope."

This is the form that James Cousins filled in for 35 Strand Road, and you can see his actions had acquired some colour with time and telling. And there is no sign of the explanatory note and health report that he remembered so vividly in his memoir. Not only that, but you can see that, despite his claims to the contrary, James Cousins filled in Lizzie Duffy, the servant's details into the form. This raises the interesting issue of class in female suffrage. In 1911 the Irish suffragist groups did not demand universal female suffrage, but were willing to accept a limited female franchise linked to property. Despite his claims in 1950, in 1911 James Cousins saw no reason not to enumerate his female servant. Of course, it is possible that Lizzie Duffy wanted to be enumerated. In any case the DMP enumerator, Patrick O'Connell, amended the form by crossing out Lizzie Duffy, writing in the detail of Margaret Cousins, (she was sometimes called Greta Cousins) and then copying out the details provided on Lizzie Duffy in what society regarded as her proper place, at the bottom of the list, before finally noting "Mrs. Cousins who is a suffragette enumerated from enquiries made." You can see at the bottom of the form again.

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was absent from her home at 11 Grosvenor Place with the purpose of evading the census. In later years, she claimed to have spent the night in Wicklow in a cottage given to her and some other boycotters by Countess Markievicz. She recalled with amusement that "we led the police dance, camping on the hills or in empty houses, scattered far and wide." The police reports from the period give no indication that they wasted any energy in attempting to track these women to their hillside refuges. Again, however, the local enumerator did try to ensure that the census was not distorted by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington's absence. Unfortunately and amusingly, James Crozier made a bit of a mess of it. Here you can see the return made by Hanna's husband, Francis, and Crozier's effort to amend it in which Hanna Sheehy Skeffington is forced in between the lines, but she is mistakenly named Emily Sheehy Skeffington. As in the case of James Cousins, Francis Sheehy Skeffington enumerated the female servants.

While there is clear evidence of an attempt to evade the census on the part of some members of the IWFL, there were suffragettes who were members or associates of that organization who do not appear to have made any effort to avoid enumeration. Among the women who feature on the census returns for Dublin without the intervention of the enumerator are Katte Oldham, she was some time president of the IWFL. There she is here. Perhaps this is not a surprise as Oldham was among the more moderate members of the organization.

Also enumerated, however, were Kathleen Emerson, Mabel Purser and Maud Lloyd all of whom would go to prison because of militant action carried out under the IWFL banner in either 1912 or 1913. This may indicate that these women were not yet radicalized in April 1911 or that they disagreed with the census boycott as a form of protest. Maud Lloyd filled in the form herself as a head of household; perhaps she feared prosecution. In the case of Emerson, she was recently a widowed woman who had returned to live with her parents and you can see she has been filled in by her father. And Mabel Purser, this is her return, she is Lucy Mabel Purser, again she is filled in by her husband. So perhaps they were enumerated against their will by their father and husband respectively.

In his work on 19th century censuses as a source for the study of female occupations in Britain, Edward Higgs has illustrated the extent to which men dominated the census-taking process. Men framed the questions, acted as enumerators, processed the information and, perhaps most importantly in this context, men were expected to act as head of household and fill out the form. Even if Purser's husband or Emerson's father were sympathetic to their suffragist views, it is possible that Purser and Emerson acquiesced in their enumeration because they did not want to expose their male relatives to legal sanction.

Some of those who were reluctant to boycott the census found other ways to use it as a vehicle of protest. This is the census return of Tom Kettle and his wife, Mary Sheehy Kettle. Mary was Hanna Sheehy Skeffington's sister. She regularly appeared on suffragist platforms and on the 6th of April, she spoke at a meeting at Kingstown [now Dun Laoghaire] which was chaired by Mary Earl and addressed by Emmeline Pankhurst. At the meeting Mary Kettle reportedly said that "they had never got anything in Ireland from a hostile Government except by militant methods." Yet, at first glance, the Kettle's census form appears to have been filled out without fuss. A closer examination however reveals a modest if telling alteration to the form. Tom Kettle, having signed the form, amended this section from "Signature of the Head of Family" to "Signature of one of the Heads of the Family".

This is the return of the Tickell family of 11 Sandford Road, Ranelagh. Mrs. Adeline Tickell appeared on the platform when Emmeline Pankhurst spoke at the Antient Concert Rooms in Dublin City Centre, also on the 6th of April, when Pankhurst again justified the census protest. As you can see Adeline Tickell did not boycott the census, but she did make her mark. The last column on the census form provided a space where the head of household was expected to note those in the home who were either "Deaf and Dumb; Dumb only; Blind; Imbecile or Idiot; or Lunatic." The idea was that the head of household would "write the respective infirmities opposite to the name of the afflicted person." In this case, you can see, Mrs. Tickell is enumerated as being "voteless."

Members of the Quaker community tended to disproportionately support female enfranchisement and here is the return of two Quaker sisters, Josephine and Emily Webb, we can see they filled in the infirmity column with "unenfranchised."

And finally, this is the return of 21 Annesley Park, the residence of Ellen Jane Bell and her cousin, Maud Joynt, a suffragist activist, and here you can see again, they went for the "unenfranchised" version.

So what conclusions can we draw as to the impact of the suffragist boycott of the census of Ireland in 1911?

It seems quite clear that the numbers who succeeded in evading enumeration in Ireland were very small indeed. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington recorded in her memoir that "Our numbers abstaining did not greatly throw out the census figures." At the time the government was confident this was the case. In Britain where evasion was more widespread, the President of the Local Government Board could report to Parliament that the number of successful evaders was "altogether negligible."

The protest emphasized the divisions within Irish suffragism rather than uniting suffragists as Ward has suggested, it marked a further stage on the road to full scale militant activity in Ireland. Although the availability of the census returns reveals that supporters of female suffragism in Ireland utilized the census to protest in a variety of ways beyond the simplest and most extreme form of protest, the boycott.

Although the numbers involved were small, the suffragists did succeed in drawing a good deal of attention to their cause through the census protest. The government decided not to prosecute those heads of household who had failed to record the details of suffragist protestors. To laughter, the President of the Local Government Board in Britain informed Parliament that "In the hour of success, mercy and magnanimity should be shown" and this approach was mirrored by the Irish authorities. A series of court cases, fines and perhaps even imprisonments with attendant publicity, would have been welcomed by the militant suffragists, but evidently not by the authorities. The impression that militant suffragism in Ireland was a middle-class pursuit is borne out from the census campaign. All the evidence of the census protest that I found for Dublin appeared in returns from middle class areas such Rathgar and Rathmines. While the willingness in the homes of suffragists to enumerate female servants is also suggestive.

Finally, the census boycott has the potential for one lingering effect which would concern genealogists more than historians. There may be those out there whose ability to uncover vital information about their female ancestors is permanently circumscribed because these women do not appear in the census of Ireland of 1911.

Session VI


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