Votes for women, ‘A simple act of Justice’: a Conservative election agent has a radical idea in 1872; Major TB Baker’s letter to Viscount Chelsea.

There is a letter in the Parliamentary Archive at Westminster, written in January 1872 by Major TB Baker to George Cadogan Viscount Chelsea later 5th Earl Cadogan (1840 – 1915), the prospective Conservative candidate for Bath. In it Major Baker suggests a radical idea, votes for women.

Baker discusses Lord Chelsea’s position on the new Licensing Bill, proposed by the Liberal Home Secretary Henry Bruce later 1st Lord Aberdare (1815 – 1895). This became law with the Licensing Act 1872, limiting the number of pubs and their opening hours and bringing them under the control of magistrates. Lord Chelsea has been against the bill in the past, Baker says, and dodged the question more recently. It would play well in Bath, he says, if you came out in favour of it.

Baker has been at a packed Women’s Suffrage meeting. This is in the very early days of the campaign for women to have the vote. Baker’s first point is to chivvy Lord Chelsea into supporting the Licensing Bill. Lilias Ashworth Hallett, one of the speakers at the meeting, called on voters not to support either of the current sitting MPs for Bath unless they dropped their opposition to the Bill. But he goes on to put an interesting case for supporting the cause of Women’s Suffrage.

In 1867, the Conservatives had passed the Second Reform Act. This gave the vote to all working male householders. Benjamin Disraeli later 1st Earl of Beaconsfield (1804 – 1881) had hoped it would add another million votes to the Conservatives, and he redrew some constituency boundaries to make sure it did. But in fact most new voters went to the Liberals and Disraeli lost the General Election in December 1868.

The Conservatives were still in opposition in 1872, when Major Baker wrote his letter. He has an interesting idea. Why not give women taxpayers the vote? ‘A very large proportion [of women in Bath] are well-known Conservatives.’ But Baker is also impressed by the fact that the question cuts across party lines. There were Liberals and Conservatives at the meeting. And he recognises the basic fairness. A ‘thoroughly conservative’ idea he says. ‘A simple act of Justice to them on the principle of Taxation & Representation going hand in hand.’

This was a very radical idea. In 1867 John Stuart Mill, the philosopher and Liberal MP for the City of Westminster had wanted to include women’s suffrage in the Second Reform Bill. Jacob Bright (1821 – 1899), the radical Liberal MP for Manchester presented a series of Bills for women’s suffrage between 1868 and 1878 but Conservatives and Liberals united to defeat them all. In 1871 the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809 – 1898) described votes for women as ‘a practical evil of an intolerable character.'(1)

The two speakers Baker names at the meeting are key figures in the early women’s suffrage movement. Lady Anna Gore-Langton (1820 – 1879) was president of the Bath Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. She was a founder of the Women’s Printing Society and a pioneer of women’s education, and sat on the committee that ensured women could practise as doctors in Edinburgh. In 1868 she had signed John Stuart Mill’s petition for women’s suffrage. In 1877 she would petition the Conservative Government for the right of women to vote. Unsuccessfully. Women’s suffrage would not be signed into law for another fifty years.

Lilias Ashworth Hallett (1844 – 1922) was the niece of Jacob Bright, his brother John Bright MP, the suffragist campaigners Margaret Bright Lucas and Priscilla Bright McLaren, who had also fought against slavery. Lilias was just making her name in the movement when Baker heard her. She would live to see women over the age of 30 given the vote in 1918 by the Liberal government of David Lloyd George (1863 – 1945). Six years after her death the vote was extended to all women over the age of 21. She was a financial backer of the women’s suffrage movement as well as one of its leading speakers. One of the most extraordinary aspects of the Second Reform Bill was Disraeli’s amendment that educated taxpayers with savings above £50 should have more than one vote. Miss Ashworth said that she was so rich she should have seven votes.

Lord Chelsea was elected as MP for Bath in May 1873, but he sat only briefly. His father the 4th Earl Cadogan died in June, and he took his seat in the Lords. Cadogan was a forward-thinking Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and a philanthropic landlord in Chelsea, where he built housing for workers. He doesn’t seem to have become involved with Women’s Suffrage, but the question may have interested him enough to keep Baker’s letter. Major Baker himself, with his mixture of acuity and enlightenment, remains a mystery.

Letter from major TB Baker to Viscount Chelsea: Parliamentary Archive GB61 CAD 11;

5 East Hayes, Bath

January 25th 1872

Dear Lord Chelsea,

I have given your letter to the Editor of the Bath Chronicle with a view to its appearing in that paper next Thursday.

There can be no doubt that the Licensing Bill of last session must undergo much modification & I can see no reason why the hours of closing should not be the same throughout the country. On referring to the Reports of your two speeches in Bath I find that in November 71 you said that if you had been in Parliament you would not have supported Mr Bruce’s Bill of that year – and on the second occasion in April last year you do not appear to have alluded to that question at all – so that it is important that your views should now be publicly known & no doubt this is a good opportunity for expressing them in this city-

There was a very full meeting last Thursday at the Guildhall on the subject of Women’s Suffrage at which Lady Anne Gore-Langton attended and spoke as well as several Ladies who are well known supporters of the movement – Miss Ashworth a near relation of John Bright called upon the electors not to vote for their two present members unless they withdrew their opposition to the Bill – of course you must be the best judge of your opinions on this question – but it seems to me to be a thoroughly Conservative one as a counteraction to the costs entailed by Disraeli’s very large extension of the Franchise in 1868 – in Bath it would be the means of adding several hundred to the number of voters mostly of the higher & wealthier classes and a very large proportion of them well known Conservatives and as these Ladies pay a very large amount of taxes both local and Government it would be a simple act of Justice to them on the principle of Taxation & Representation going hand in hand – – at the meeting there were both Liberals & Conservatives among the supporters – of course it would only extend to those women who are Householders & who had they been men would have been entitled to vote.

Believe me

Very truly yours,

TB Baker

Lilias Ashworth Hallett (1844 – 1922) and Edith Grey Wheelwright (1868 – 1949), botanist and Secretary to the Bath Branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, photo taken in 1911

(1) Sylvia Pankhurst The History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (1931) p.47 from Spartacus Educational

Biographies of Lady Anna Gore-Langton and Lilias Ashworth Hallett from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilias_Ashworth_Hallett and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Anna_Gore-Langton

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