Women and the 1832 Paving Committee Election
In this year of Suffrage anniversaries, it is easy to believe that women were not involved in politics before the suffragette movement and the reform of 1918. However, although women could not vote in parliamentary elections, a great deal of women were involved in politics locally.
On Monday 4th June 1832, Bury St Edmunds held an election for three paving commissioners. An Act of Parliament had been passed in 1811 for “…better paving, lighting, cleaning, watching or otherwise improving the town of Bury St Edmunds, in the County of Suffolk.”
Within our local studies collection we hold a copy of the list of voters for this bit of local politics within a Bury Poll Book. Although voting for a paving commission doesn’t sound very interesting, the fact that there are women’s names on the list of those who voted, widens our understanding of women’s involvement in politics. 1832 was also the year of the Great Reform Act. This act widened the electorate, but is largely held to be the point where it was categorically stated that women could not vote. Within this Act of Parliament for the first time were the words “male persons.”
Before the introduction of Secret Ballots in the Ballot Act of 1872, the way that individuals cast their vote was recorded in a poll book. Most poll books list the voters in the order of which they turned up to cast their vote. Some suggest that the value of poll books are limited as they only include those who actually voted rather than who were eligible. However, in the history of women and politics this makes them even more interesting. We can surmise that these women were not on the list due to a clerical error, but they would have been interested in local issues, these “Pavement politics”, and turned up to cast their vote in person.
We hold a will for one of the women on the list, Catherine Brinkley, (IC/500/1/299/62). Catherine Brinkley lived in Eastgate Street at the time of the 1832 poll. Within her will she refers to a bequest to her niece, Susan Reeve. She states that the money she left to her should not be subject to coverture but should be “…for her sole and separate use.”
Coverture was a legal term meaning that when a woman married all her legal rights and obligations were subsumed by her husbands. She had no legal status herself. Man and wife were seen as one person. A married woman could not own property, sign legal documents or enter into a contract, obtain an education against her husband’s wishes or keep a salary for herself. If a wife had permission to work she had to turn her wage over to her husband. She did not even have rights over her children.
Coverture came under increasing criticism as oppressive to women. It hindered them from exercising property rights and entering the professions. Coverture was used as a reason to deny women the parliamentary vote and public office because of the assumption that a married woman would be represented by her husband.
This did not change until the passing of the Married Womens Property Act in 1870 and 1882. This act restored a woman’s legal identity. It allowed a woman to keep her own wage and investments, to keep any property or money she inherited, and it gave her authority over her own children.
Catherine Brinkley was obviously a woman of some standing in 1830’s Bury St Edmunds. On the 1841 census, she is 75 and the head of the household. Her will states she was a widow, perhaps explaining the fact that she had money and property to leave in her will.