What would I have done?

I’ve very much enjoyed reading all the recent blogs, tweets and news items marking the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act (1918); that ground-breaking piece of legislation which gave the vote to women aged 30 and over and extended the male franchise to include all adult males. Ironically, the Act enfranchised the remaining 42% of men who had not previously been eligible to vote while doing the same for just 40% of women. The 1918 Act was clearly important, but it was really just a step in the right direction and perhaps it’s the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act (1928) that we should be celebrating right now; it was under the terms of this later Act that women finally achieved full electoral equality in the UK.

I like to think of myself as fairly enlightened; someone who fully supports what are generally thought of as feminist causes, and as a historian, I often wonder how I might have responded to the political issues of previous eras. Would I have been at St Peter’s Field, Manchester on 16 August 1819 to demand parliamentary reform (and get caught up in the horrors of the Peterloo Massacre)? I’m sure I would have sided with the Tolpuddle Martyrs but would I have been one of the thousands of people who gathered on Kennington Common in the spring of 1848 to march on Whitehall and present the great Chartist petition to Parliament? I’d like to think so but most of all, I’d really like to think that I would have been a passionate supporter of the Suffragist cause.

So much has been written about the Suffragettes; about Emily Wilding Davidson, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Sophia Duleep Singh, Charlotte Despard, Annie Kenney and, of course, about Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Sylvia and Christabel. And there were thousands more whose names are not so well known; ordinary women who took a stand against what we now see as a clear and obvious injustice but which at the time was viewed by many as the natural order of things.

The 1911 census was, to many in the Suffragist movement, the perfect vehicle through which to focus dissent. Under the slogan ‘No Vote, No Census’ a campaign of civil disobedience was launched, encouraging women to refuse to fill up their census forms and to endorse them with the phrase, No Votes for Women; no information from Women. Women who were not householders were asked to refuse the requested information or to absent themselves from home for the night.[1]

Hundreds of examples of ‘spoilt’ schedules have been found in the 1911 census, recording a mixed degree of success when it came to evasion of the census. My favourite failed attempt at census resistance relates to a woman called Eleonora Hawkesworth. In 1892, Eleonora, then aged just 17 had married Edward Arthur Maund, a man 22 years her senior. Maund was a Director of the British South Africa Company and a former African explorer who, along with men like Cecil Rhodes, was instrumental in the British conquest of Rhodesia and appears to have had what we might call a ‘colonial’ mindset.

His views come across loud and clear on his 1911 census schedule.[2] After Maund had completed the form, listing himself, his wife, three children and two servants, Eleonora had evidently got hold of the form, scored out her own name and written ‘Wife Away’ at the foot of the form. Unfortunately, before the form was collected by the census enumerator, her husband discovered what she had done and took action himself, restoring Eleonora’s name and other details, and writing (in red ink):

My wife unfortunately being a Suffragette put her pen through her name, but it must stand as correct it being an equivocation to say that she is away she being always resident here & has only attempted by a silly subterfuge to defeat the object of the Census. To which as “Head” of the family I object. E A Maund


1911 census of the Maund family of Kensington showing Eleonora Maund’s failed attempt to evade the census. TNA: RG 14/227 schedule 4

But surely not all men were cut from the same cloth as Edward Arthur Maund. Surely, there must have been thousands of right-thinking men who fully supported the Suffragist cause; what did they think, and more importantly, what did they do about it?

Well, when it comes to support for the Suffragette’s census campaign, one man stands out from the crowd. His name is not well-known but perhaps it deserves to be. Let me introduce you to Mr Victor Prout…

Victor William Prout was born in Marylebone in 1862, the son of Victor Albert Prout and his wife, Amy Sarah (née Barber). His father was a pioneering portrait photographer and as a young man Victor followed a similar vocation, becoming an engraver. As early as 1881, he is listed in the census as an ‘Engraver on Wood’.[3]

He was also clearly interested in feminist causes; I am grateful to Elizabeth Crawford, the author of The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide (Routledge, 1999 and 2001), for sending me a copy of one of Victor Prout’s engravings. Published in the popular illustrated newspaper The Sphere on 8 February 1902, it is entitled ‘Women Who Work At Our Coal Mines; Cleaning Coal at the Pit Brow’ and illustrates the grim conditions in which the women were working.

Victor Prout engraving The Sphere 8 February 1902

Women Who Work At Our Coal Mines. Engraving by Victor Prout, published in The Sphere, 8 February 1902

Victor Prout appears to have been doing quite well for himself, with numerous commissions as a book illustrator coming in during the 1890s and early 1900s. His illustrations also appeared regularly in The Sphere from June 1901 onwards and seem to have become increasingly political in content. In November 1905, he covered the Women’s march on Downing Street (‘The Women’s Deputation To The Prime Minister’) in a highly sympathetic engraving.

Victor Prout engraving The Sphere 11 November 1905

The Women’s Deputation to the Prime Minister. Engraving by Victor Prout, published in The Sphere, 11 November 1905

So, when the call went out to women to resist the census, it’s perhaps not too surprising that Victor was listening and was prepared to do his bit. When Percy Cooper, the enumerator for the Palmers Green district of north London in 1911 went to collect the census schedules for his district, the form returned by the occupants of 6 Stonard Road wasn’t quite what he was expecting. Instead of completing the schedule, Victor Prout had written the following statement across the form[4]:

I wish to protest against the terrible treatment women have recently been subjected to as the result of the Liberal Government’s method of repressing the agitation in favour of Women’s Enfranchisement and I refuse to fill this census form because women are claiming that until they are given the rights of Citizenship they should not be counted and I leave out the men as an act of sympathy with that claim. All the withheld information will be freely given as soon as a Women’s Enfranchisement Bill becomes law. Victor Prout

1911-Victor & Isabella Prout census RG14-7386 s.13a original

Spoilt 1911 census schedule, containing Victor Prout’s protest. TNA: RG 14/7386 schedule 13a

The following day, Cooper sat down and wrote a letter to J H Judd, the local registrar.

As a result of a tramp yesterday from 8 am to 9.30 pm I got in all my schedules, except six which I was unable to obtain owing to people being out. I however secured the remaining six today.

 I have to report that Mr Victor Prout of 6 Stonard Road, Palmers Green refused to properly fill up the form or give any information (notwithstanding I read the Riot Census Act (sec: 2) to him)…

Letter Cooper to Judd

Letter from Percy Cooper to J H Judd. TNA: RG 14/7386

The registrar must then have taken it upon himself to write to Mr Prout. This letter hasn’t survived, but Prout’s reply has and it makes fascinating reading:

Dear Mr Judd

Thank you for your courteous and kindly note asking me if it is not possible to reconsider my decision in reference to my census form.

Let me assure you that on my part I do not wish to cause distress either to yourself or anyone else. My protest is of course not directed to you but the Government and my reason is stated on the form.

Please do not feel anxious that any action which it may be your duty to take on account of my having refused to fill up the Schedule will cause any unpleasantness. All my past relations with yourself have been of so pleasant and friendly a nature that that would be quite impossible.

Believe me when I say that any action you may feel it your duty to take I shall welcome most gladly and let me add in conclusion that no one regrets more than I do the stern need which compelled me to take the course I did.

With kindest regards, I remain
Yours sincerely
Victor Prout

Letter Prout to Judd

Letter from Victor Prout to J H Judd. TNA: RG 14/7386

The final part of the story comes in the form of a memorandum from the Census Office addressed to the Registrar Mr Judd, advising him to ‘fill up a schedule with the best information available concerning Mr Prout and the other occupants on Census night.’

Memorandum Census Office to Judd

Memorandum from Archer Bellingham (Census Office Secretary) to J H Judd. TNA: RG 14/7386

And that’s exactly what he did, as the final version of the schedule reveals.

1911-Victor & Isabella Prout census RG14-7386 s.13a

‘Completed’ 1911 census schedule, containing details of the Prout family. TNA: RG 14/7386 schedule 13a

It’s clear from this that the Government were keen not to give additional publicity to the Suffragette’s campaign by prosecuting offenders. Instead, they took a more pragmatic view and got the best data they could.

From the summer of 1912 we start to see Victor’s name appearing in notices promoting Women’s Suffrage Meetings and in October 1912 he is specifically named as the Honorary Secretary of the Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage.

Men's Federation for Women's Suffrage The Suffragette 25 October 1912 page 27 column c

Notice regarding the Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage, published in The Suffragette on 25 October 1912. Page 27 column c

It’s clear from the very existence of this organisation and other similar ones such as the Men’s League For Women’s Suffrage that Victor Prout was not alone but as far as I’m aware (and I would love to hear otherwise) Victor was the only man to have personally adopted this particular course of civil disobedience advocated by the Suffragettes.

I’d like to think that I would have done the same – who, knows, I may even have joined Victor in the Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage…

[1] Vanishing for the Vote, Jill Liddington (Manchester University Press, 2014)
[2] The National Archives (TNA): RG 14/227 schedule 4
[3] TNA: RG 11/333 f.97 p.4
[4] TNA: RG 14/7386 schedule 13a

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A Wasted Day at TNA

I’ve just got back from a wasted day at the National Archives in Kew. I set off this morning, full of hope that, with three very different cases to investigate in three very different sets of records, and a carefully planned strategy for each one, my chances of success were good. Instead, here I am, back home in the middle of the afternoon, and my hands are empty. Not one document image to pass on to my clients. Not one discovery that might result in the breaking down of any brick walls.

I suppose we’ve all had days like this; whatever our line of research, we’re almost inevitably going to have days where nothing quite works out. Despite the meticulous planning of the past few days – the list of sources diligently researched, the appropriate documents identified, the advanced orders placed – today was one of those days. The records failed to bear fruit. Nothing. Not even the sniff of a lead.

So, as I said, a wasted day.

But was it really? Well, of course it wasn’t. Take a step back and you soon realise that days like this are all part of the process of becoming a better researcher and that, in any form of historical investigation, negative outcomes can be just as important as positive ones.

I now know that the person who appears in the records of the Kings German Legion (KGL) with a similar name to that of the person I was looking for is not the person I’m researching. I know that the Privy Council’s Plantation Books don’t cover the area that my client and I were hoping they would and I reminded myself of the unfortunate truth that the records of the Assize courts rarely add anything to the details found in contemporary nineteenth century newspaper reports.

But that’s only a part of it. I may not have found what I was hoping to find but, in the process, I gained a better understanding of the records that I was using; I know more about how to access them, what they look like and what sort of information they might provide – all useful material to store away for future research projects.

And while they may not have told me anything about the people I was researching, that doesn’t mean that they told me nothing. In one of the Plantation Books,[1] I found a map of Port Royal, Jamaica, dating from 1801 and showing the Palisadoes forming the southern ‘wall’ of Kingston Harbour – now the site of Norman Manley International Airport.

Map of Port Royal, Jamaica

Map of Port Royal, Jamaica. TNA reference PC 5/15 f.194

In another book in the same series,[2] I found a lengthy legal document relating to the will of the wonderfully-named Bezaleel Hodge of the Island of Tortola (the largest of the British Virgin Islands) and the complicated inheritance of two of his granddaughters, Sarah Purcell and Ruth George (née Hodge).

I found a (presumably Jewish) man named Moses Levy serving in the Kings German Legion during the Napoleonic Wars.[3] Subsequent research reveals that Moses had been born in Hanover around 1782, and that he served with the KGL for over ten years between 1805 and 1816, attaining the rank of Corporal in 1810.[4]

In a register of In-Pensioners of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea,[5] I stumbled upon a list of ‘Nurses’ – female nurses – covering the years 1795 to 1811. Mary Dixon, for example, appears under the date 27 July 1803 (presumably the date that she was admitted to the hospital). A date of death is given in the register (19 November 1815) which ties in with an entry in the Chelsea Hospital burial register, recording the burial of Mary Dixon, Nurse of the Infirmary, aged 65, on 24 November 1815.[6]

I found references to a number of men of the KGL being ‘blown up’ during the Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo in January 1812 and another reference to one of their former comrades in arms (Charles Knierim, a native of Hanover) being shot for desertion ‘by sentence of General Court Martial’ on 1 March.[7] The General Orders – Spain and Portugal (1812) indicate that no fewer than 18 men were tried and sentenced to death at the same General Court Martial.

Seventeen years later, the six men sentenced to death at the Suffolk 1829 Summer Assizes[8] were more fortunate than their Napoleonic predecessors. William Viall, Thomas Wright, Benjamin Whymark, Henry Perry, Thomas Sparks and William Pool all had their death sentences commuted to the lesser sentence of transportation to Australia for life. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to empathise with the convicts and to think about the uncertain future that they faced. It’s also very tempting to look them up in the transportation records to see how they fared on the other side of the world…

So, my day was anything but wasted. Far from it. It was full of stories; stories about real people who lived and died many years ago. The records may ostensibly relate to the British Isles but I learned about people who lived their lives in the Caribbean; about people who came from Germany, served in a British (German!) regiment and died in the Iberian Peninsula, and about people from Suffolk who ended their lives in Australia. The documents that we use in our research breathe life back into these people and the stories that they have to tell are endlessly fascinating. And when you look at it that way, it’s fair to say that not a minute spent looking through them can ever really be considered wasted.

© Dave Annal, Lifelines Research, 30 January 2018

[1] The National Archives (TNA): PC 5/15 f.194r
[2] TNA: PC 5/14 ff.272r-277r
[3] TNA: WO 25/3203 f.324
[4] TNA: WO 122/5
[5] TNA: WO 23/134
[6] London Metropolitan Archives (LMA): DL/T/7/3 p.21
[7] TNA: WO 25/2279
[8] TNA: ASSI 33/11 & ASSI 94/2052

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