The campaign for women had begun in 1866, when a petition was handed in to Parliament by John Stuart Mill M.P. The petition, with 1,499 signatures was received with ridicule. 52 years later, on 6 February 1918, the Representation of People Act gave the vote to all men over 21, and all women over 30 (falling into certain categories) the vote.
Two of our members went to the Berkshire Records Office to investigate the electoral roll for the area. In 1918, Spencers Wood was in the Swallowfield Polling District, which fell in the Newbury Parliamentary Division.
In the electoral role, each person who was eligible to vote is listed and categorised for their “eligibility” to vote. Their residency isn’t shown (like now) merely a house name, or street, and the area – e.g. Spencers Wood, Riseley, Three Mile Cross etc. The qualifications on the electoral role are listed as:-
- Evidence based
- Business premises qualification
- Occupation qualification
- Qualification through husbands occupation
- Naval or military career
Women could only vote via one of four categories:-
- If they were home owners;
- If they were wives of home owners, or
- Occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or more, or
- Graduates of British universities or similarly qualified.
One criteria had to be met, and that they must be over 30 years of age. There were three listings of electoral rolls – presumably for the categories a) to c). As a percentage we found that Spencers Wood had 81 women who gained the vote, a percentage of 13.68% of the total electorate. Of that, 63 were because they were married to a home owner (77%) & 17 because they were a home owner themselves (21%). Only 1 was on the last register – an occupier of substantial of land in Beech Hill. Whilst the category of home owners themselves, we thought was particularly high, this is offset with the time & the country just concluding the Great War. Many of the men in the area were still away at war, and had gained their right to vote through their naval or military career.
Crucially the act for men changed the criteria from being a home owner, to those being aged over 21. These changes saw the size of the electorate triple from 7.7 million to 21.4 million. Women now accounted for about 43% of the electorate.
It was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women over 21 were able to vote and women finally achieved the same voting rights as men. This act increased the number of women eligible to vote to 15 million.
It was not until 1969 that the voting system enabled people to vote over the age of 18.
Lesley Rolph & Jeannie Brice