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Bristol and the centenary of women voting and standing for Parliament

February 6, 2018

On 6th February 1918 the Representation of the Peoples Act received its Royal Assent from George V and became law. The fourth major reform of the parliamentary franchise, it gave the vote to all men aged 21 and over and to women aged 30 and over who owned property or were married to male property owners.  Prior to the Act women were not able to vote in Parliamentary elections, though they were able to vote for local councils and the poor law guardian boards. Women were also able to stand for election as poor law guardians (since 1834), members of school boards (between 1870 and their abolition in England in 1902) and for District councils from their creation in 1894. In 1907 Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberal government passed the Qualification of Women Act, which stipulated that women could also be elected to County and County Borough Councils and could serve as Mayor.

Until the 1918 Act men had been able to vote for MPs as long as they were property owners or heads of the household.  The rule meant that male lodgers or adult sons living at home were not able to vote. The First World War had mobilised hundreds of thousands of men and women who would not be able to vote in the election that would be held once the war was over. This was one of the main drivers for a change. The reform added 5.6million men and 8.4million women to the voting registers.

The franchise reform Act had been silent on women standing for Parliament. A Bill was rushed through in the week before the November Armistice so that women could stand in the forthcoming election. When the war ended a week later Prime Minister Lloyd George called an election.  The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 put women on a completely equal footing with men as regards eligibility to stand for Parliament.  There was thus a curious anomaly in that women aged 21 could stand for Parliament but not vote for themselves! Full franchise equality came in 1928.

There was little time for any of the parties to field women candidates, with only 16 standing across the four nations.  One was elected, Constance Markievicz in Dublin St Patrick’s constituency.  As a Sinn Fein representative, she did not take her seat at Westminster.  In subsequent by-elections Nancy Astor was elected for the Conservatives in Plymouth Sutton (November 1919) and Margaret Wintringham was elected for the Liberals in Louth in September 1921.  Both women were elected to replace their husbands. Labour’s first women MPs were elected in the 1923 general election, Dorothea Jewson in Norwich, Arabella Susan Lawrence in East Ham North and Margaret Bondfield in Northampton.

It took time before the three parties in Bristol fielded any women candidates for Parliament, despite there being women councillors and poor law guardians in the city.  The first woman candidate was Lady Clare Annesley, who stood for Labour in the by election in Bristol West in February 1928.  The by election was caused by the elevation of the Conservative George Abraham Gibbs, owner of Tyntesfield, to the peerage as Lord Wraxall. Bristol West was an ultra-safe Conservative seat and Cyril Culverwell, a Westbury on Trym city councillor, was elected comfortably. Annesley was defeated again in the 1929 general election.

In December 1930 Walter Baker, the Labour MP for Bristol East, died suddenly so necessitating another by election in the city.  The local Labour Party was minded to adopt the head of the National Union of Teachers, a Cambridgeshire headmistress named Leah Manning. Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald had appointed prominent barrister Stafford Cripps to the office of Solicitor General just six weeks previously.  But Cripps was not an MP and needed to be found a seat as soon as possible. Manning was first instructed and eventually persuaded by Foreign Secretary Arthur Henderson (who knew a thing or two about shopping for constituencies) to withdraw.  The constituency selected Cripps, who oiled the wheels by paying an annual sum of £400 towards the party’s running costs. Manning was rewarded by being given the nomination for the next available by election and became MP for East Islington in February 1931

It was not until 1943 that the Conservative Party fielded its first woman candidate in Bristol. Again it was for a by-election, this time in Bristol Central.  The Conservative MP, Allen Algernon Bathurst (known as Lord Apsley, his courtesy title as the son and heir of Earl Bathurst, of Cirencester Park in Gloucestershire) had been killed in an air crash in Malta in December 1942.  The local Conservatives nominated his widow Lady Apsley as his successor.  Bristol’s first woman MP should then have been a formality as there was a war time electoral truce between the main parties.  But three independent candidates stood, including Jennie Lee, the wife of Labour MP Aneurin Bevan.  But Lady Apsley won the by election on 18th February 1943 with 52% of the vote.

Bristol’s first woman MP was therefore Violet Emily Mildred Bathurst, Lady Apsley. There is a remarkable photo of the election declaration in front of the steps of the Old Council House in Corn Street.  Flanked by the Lord Mayor and High Sheriff, Lady Apsley is seated in a wheelchair. She had been a keen horse rider but had been injured in a fall.  She made her maiden speech in the House of Commons in her wheelchair.  She is thus not only Bristol’s first woman MP but also its first and so far only disabled MP.  Lady Apsley was a remarkable woman.  During the First World War she had helped her mother and step-father run a military hospital at their home Marsh Court, near Stockbridge in Hampshire. She had married Lord Apsley in 1924, when he was the Conservative MP for nearby Southampton. She was the author of three books on horses and hunting and from 1930 also held a pilot’s licence and was an investor with her husband in the aviation industry. During the Second World War she was an officer in the Gloucestershire ATS and also an elected councillor on Sodbury rural district council.  Lady Apsley’s Commons career was cut short in the 1945 election when she was defeated by the Labour candidate Stan Awbery.  She remained active in Bristol Conservatives and stood for Bristol North East in the 1950 general election but failed to dislodge the sitting Labour MP William Coldrick.

The 1950 general election was the first time that the Liberal Party fielded women candidates in Bristol.  Miss Isla G Woodcock stood in the same seat as Lady Astley, coming in third. The Liberal Party also fielded women candidates in Bristol North West, Miss Florence M Pugh, who came third and in Bristol West where Miss Hilda Nuttall also trailed third. In November 1950 there was a by election in Bristol South East caused by the death of Labour’s Sir Stafford Cripps.  The election was the start of the long parliamentary career of Anthony Wedgwood Benn (the “Tony” came much later) but the Liberal Party had a remarkable woman candidate in Doreen Gorsky.  She was a leading feminist and one of the founders of the campaign for equal pay. She went on to be one of the first BBC senior executives, responsible for many TV programmes aimed at women, including the first cookery shows. She was also a commissioner of children’s programmes and people of my generation can thank her for buying the Magic Roundabout from French TV and dubbing it into English.  She tried unsuccessfully to win several Parliamentary seats and in 1970 headed up the Liberal Party’s central office and commissioned its election TV broadcasts.  The Liberal Party also put up Alice Pearce in Bristol North East in the 1959 and 1964 general elections.

Lady Annesley and Lady Apsley remained the sole women candidates put forward by the Labour Party and Conservative Party right through to 1979. No woman candidate stood for Labour in any seat for 50 years, which now seems quite astonishing. It may well be down to the fact that Labour was dominated by trade unionists from the docks and other big employers in the city.  In the 1979 general election Labour’s sole woman candidate in the city was in Bristol West, the seat they were least likely to win. Vivien Bath lost to new Conservative MP William Waldegrave. The Conservatives put up Mollie Mulvany in the marginal Bristol North East but she did not benefit from Margaret Thatcher’s national victory.

In the 1983 general election there were three women candidates.  The SDP stood for the first time in Bristol North West with Hilary Long as the candidate.  Sarah Palmer stood for Labour in the same seat but both of them were beaten by the Tory Michael Stern. Pam Tatlow came third in Bristol West for Labour.

In 1987 there were again only three female candidates but Bristol obtained its second female MP when Dawn Primarolo succeeded the deselected Michael Cocks in Bristol South. Ms Primarolo went on to be one of the handful of ministers who served all the way through the Blair and Brown governments. She was then Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons before retiring in 2015 and now sits in the House of Lords. Hilary Long had stood for the SDP in Bristol South and Mary Georghiou (now Mary Southcott and a campaigner for electoral reform) had come third in Bristol West for Labour.

In 1992 Bristol’s third female MP was elected when Labour’s Jean Corston defeated the Conservative Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol’s first ethnic minority MP) in Bristol East. Dawn Primarolo was the only other female candidate in the city.

In 1997 Labour won all four of Bristol’s constituencies, three of them with women candidates.  In addition to Primarolo and Corston, Bristol West fell to Labour with Valerie Davey. There were no other women candidates so that was a 100% success rate!

In 2001 the three women MPs were re-elected.  Pam Chesters had high hopes of re-gaining Bristol West for the Conservatives but was pushed narrowly into third place by me…

In 2005 Jean Corston retired (later elevated to the Lords) in Bristol East and Kerry McCarthy successfully defended the seat, with the Conservative Julia Manning coming third. I defeated Valerie Davey in Bristol West, becoming the first Liberal victor since 1935 and also the party’s and Bristol’s first openly gay MP.  In Bristol South the Liberal Democrat candidate was Kay Barnard, who went on to be the party’s City Mayor candidate in 2016.

In 2010 Bristol North West elected Charlotte Leslie as its Conservative MP.  Primarolo and McCarthy were re-elected, with the Conservative Adeela Shafi the runner up in Bristol East.  She was Bristol’s first female ethnic minority parliamentary candidate. I used to joke to people between 2010 and 2012 Bristol must have been a unique city in the world, where no straight men held any power as the Leader of the Council was Barbara Janke, with three women MPs and one male gay MP. Cllr Janke became a Liberal Democrat Peer in 2014. Bristol now has three female former elected politicians in the House of Lords.

In 2015 all four of the city MPs were women, as Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire defeated me in Bristol West. Karin Smyth held Bristol South for Labour, where Dawn Primarolo retired after 28 years as a Bristol MP. There were three unsuccessful female candidates – Theodora Clark for the Conservatives in Bristol East, Clare Campion-Smith for the Liberal Democrats in Bristol North West and Claire Hiscott for the Conservatives in Bristol West. Seven female candidates from the three main parties was the highest figure since 1918 and the first time that the majority of candidates were female.

The 2017 general election saw the defeat of Charlotte Leslie by Labour’s Darren Jones in Bristol North West.  The three female Labour MPs were re-elected with resounding majorities. The Green Party fielded their first female candidates, the most prominent being Molly Scott-Cato MEP fighting Bristol West. The other unsuccessful female candidates were Theodora Clark, standing again in Bristol East, Annabel Tall for the Conservatives in Bristol West and Celia Downie for the Lib Dems in Bristol North West.

In the century since women were able to stand for Parliament Bristol has had 8 female MPs.  Most of them have been elected relatively recently and women now dominate 21st century parliamentary politics in the city.  What has surprised me looking back over a century of election results is how few women candidates the three main parties have fielded. Only one stood in the 1920s, none in the 1930s and only Lady Apsley in the 1940s.  Apart from Apsley in 1950 only the Liberal Party fielded any women candidates in the 1950s and 1960s. The general elections of 1970 and the two in 1974 were all male affairs.  From 1979 onwards there has always been at least one female candidate and from 1987 always at least one woman MP.  In 2018 Bristol has one of the best records of any British city, something to celebrate in this centenary year.


Further Reading

These articles by fellow psephology and political history writer Lewis Baston are of interest.  First is on the long build up to women winning the local and national franchise.

The second is on the achievement of a fully equal franchise in 1928, in particular the part played by Margaret Thomas, Viscountess Rhondda, daugher of the Liberal industrialist D A Thomas (1st Viscount Rhondda) and as his sole heir, a peeress in her own right but barred from sitting in the House of Lords.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Doug Reid permalink
    February 6, 2018 1:34 pm

    very informative as usual thanks for putting this together doug

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