The 1911 census, released in 2009, is of particular interest to historians. Additional columns recorded for the first time the number of years a woman had been married, her children still living and those who had died. Moreover, the census was taken at a time of heightened political momentum. The Liberal government pushed for ambitious welfare reforms; at the same time, the Votes for Women campaign was growing vigorously. Suffrage organizations decided to boycott the census in protest at women’s exclusion from the franchise.

In this article we offer an assessment of the significance of that rebellion, based upon our database of 572 names across England; schedules are analyzed by occupation and family structure, suffrage organization and region. Our reading of suffrage historiography had led us to expect fairly high levels of census evasion and resistance. But our study suggests higher than expected levels of compliance. Why?

This article examines the intellectual and political ‘battle for the census’ in spring 1911 – between women’s citizenship demands and reformers’ welfare agenda. One hundred years later, on the census centenary, the ingenuity of evaders and defiant statements of resisters still retain the power to inspire.

The 1911 census, released in 2009, was always destined to be of wider significance for historians than any earlier censuses. There are three distinct reasons. First, the 1911 form included four additional columns, requiring the ‘head of family’ to state ‘for each married woman entered on this schedule’ the number of years ‘the present marriage has lasted’ and how many children were born alive to that marriage (this figure was further subdivided into ‘children still living’ and ‘children who have died’).1 Second, unlike its predecessors, a 1911 schedule may be read exactly as it was written, usually in the head of family’s own hand – rather than transcribed into a book by the census enumerator, who in the process sometimes standardized information.2 Thus the schedules offer individuality rather than uniformity, an opportunity to eavesdrop on life in the Edwardian home. Third, 1911 was, of course, a time of heightened – indeed often frenzied – political activity. On the one hand, Herbert Henry Asquith’s Liberal government had been returned at both 1910 General Elections, permitting the promotion of ever more ambitious welfare reforms. On the other, after nearly fifty years of campaigning, ‘Votes for Women’ supporters were becoming increasingly obstreperous. Suffragettes who had shown themselves ready to damage government property were unlikely quietly to obey government demands for census compliance. When the militant suffrage societies called for a boycott, the census became a site for what we have termed ‘the battle for the census’.

The release of the archived 1911 census data was therefore awaited with particular interest. When the schedules were released early, in January 2009 rather than in January 2012 as expected, members of the public were able to pore fascinated over the handwritten depositions of their Edwardian ancestors. However, it was the suffragette census protest that captured the 2009 press headlines, in newspapers keen to remark upon the census boycott, deployed for the first time in Britain as a real political weapon.3

But beyond popular interest as to who might have evaded the enumerator, historians are now able to comment on the complex relationship between this piece of Whitehall data-collection in the early twentieth century, with its new questions about married women and their children (the answers to which would provide the statistics on which to base future social legislation), and the ‘Votes for Women’ campaigns, in 1911 nearing their height. For this collision of competing political agendas – welfarism and suffragism – is of key significance. We see in spring 1911 the two spheres of the traditional model used to depict Victorian society – the public, characterized by masculinity and politics, and the private, by the female and the home – in dramatic conflict. With every household instructed to complete its own census schedule, state bureaucracy was penetrating into the heart of the Edwardian home. It intruded most impertinently, its critics charged, into the domestic privacy of every woman, especially that of married women. The ‘head of family’ (usually a husband) was now required by law to provide the state with her intimate personal details. Yet this information was demanded by the same Liberal government that steadfastly denied women the rights of full citizenship. It was this entwining of the public and political with the intimate and domestic that transformed the 1911 census into a fierce battleground. The many returns for suffragette households, emblazoned with outspoken protest statements in their own handwriting, are a vivid testimony to this discord.

* * *

This article sets out to analyse the battle for the 1911 census. Using the newly-released schedules for England, it has four aims. First, it gives a provisional assessment of how widespread was suffragette evasion of the census (escaping the notice of the enumerator) and of resistance (defying the requirement to provide information). It maps patterns across the English regions and communities to suggest the scale of the census boycott. Second, it examines possible individual motives, looking at personal identities, family structure and occupation, as well as at broader suffrage factors such as the presence of a local organizer, in order to identify reasoning that shaped decisions to boycott, both individually and within organizations. Third, it explores the context behind these patterns, looking at the contemporary political debates and fierce intellectual arguments of spring 1911. It sets the Liberal Government’s reform agenda to curb family poverty and infant mortality against the suffrage movement’s pressing demand of ‘Votes for Women’, asking which of the two arguments carried the greater weight in the ‘battle for the census’. Did the promise of welfare reform, shaped by census data, outweigh the suffrage insistence that such reforms required the consent of the governed? And finally, it enquires how historians might assess the broader significance of the census boycott.

* * *

The context, much of it well-known, was the embattled political relationships of 1909-1911. On one side was the Liberal Government, in power for over five years. Its earlier promises of reform had included supporting Nonconformists who had opposed the Conservatives’ 1902 Education Act on religious grounds and who, by withholding their education rates and so having their goods distrained, had become ‘passive resisters’. Once in office, the Liberals pushed through Lloyd George’s momentous 1909 ‘People’s Budget’ against resolute opposition from the House of Lords – in order to finance the Chancellor’s daring legislative plans, notably for Old Age Pensions and more recently for National Insurance. Lloyd George was supported more modestly by John Burns at the Local Government Board (LGB). Burns, MP for Battersea and the first working-class cabinet member, was also responsible for administering the census and so collecting data on fertility in marriage and child mortality.

On the other was the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign. Viewed from the cabinet room, it was merely one – and a lesser one – of the Government’s many challenges. Suffrage campaigners of course saw matters differently. Since the 1860s a women’s suffrage movement had pressed for women to be granted the parliamentary vote on the same terms as men – a property-based franchise. The tactics deployed by suffragists were constitutional, with only occasional quiet resistance to the state – as in 1870 when the Quaker sisters Anna Maria and Mary Priestman refused to pay their taxes.4 The movement gained countrywide authority after 1897 with the formation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Mrs Fawcett. Then in 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst, losing patience with lack of progress, had formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with other Independent Labour Party (ILP) members in Manchester. Its members soon turned to militant tactics, earning them a new name, ‘suffragettes’, their philosophy of ‘deeds not words’ bringing publicity to ‘Votes for Women’. One dramatic instance was the passive resistance of Dora Montefiore who, arguing that government must rest upon the consent of the governed, refused to pay her taxes; indeed, in 1906 she defiantly barricaded her Hammersmith villa against the bailiffs in the ‘Siege of Montefiore’.5 The following year, a group of suffragettes broke away from the WSPU, charging it with gaining publicity at the expense of internal democracy. Like Montefiore, this new organization, the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) led by Charlotte Despard of Battersea, emphasized government by consent.

From 1908 the new Prime Minister Asquith revealed himself personally unsympathetic to women’s suffrage. Before long, suffragette stone-throwing was followed by hunger-striking in prison and then forcible feeding. Yet the broad suffrage movement continued to grow. Notably, from 1910 the NUWSS, now boasting over 20,000 members, restructured its 207 local societies into large regional federations – for instance, the Manchester and District Federation comprised two dozen local suffrage societies. Alongside, new specialist groups sprang up, including a small Women’s Tax Resistance League, urging tax-paying – yet voteless – women to take a stand against the state.


This article examines the relationship between the public-political and the private-domestic in 1911. Yet while that linkage now seems crucial, histories of the suffrage campaign and of the census remain distinctly separate. So before examining the battle for the census, it is necessary to bring both literatures together.

The census boycott, until recently, has been a very minor theme within the broader suffrage narrative. Where it was noted at all, the distinct impression was given that this WFL initiative was adopted widely not only among suffragettes but also among NUWSS suffragists. As early as 1913, WFL founder-member Margaret Wynne Nevinson commented that other societies and individual suffragists had joined the WFL protest, and observed approvingly: ‘All over the country the names of thousands of women are missing from the Census papers, proving the great axiom of the British Constitution – that government must rest on the consent of the governed'. Four years later a publication for suffrage enthusiasts, again citing the WFL as originator, even estimated ‘that the number of evaders ran into six figures’.6

This impression of a widespread boycott gained added weight in 1914 when in her popular autobiography Mrs Pankhurst claimed:

In April of that year the census was to be taken, and we organized a census resistance … We made the announcement of this plan and instantly there ensued a splendid response from women.7

As she remains the iconic figurehead, public memory of the boycott has, not surprisingly, been dominated by the suggestion that it was WSPU-organized and was a resounding success.

Between the wars, in suffrage memoirs and histories, the boycott was either presented briefly as WSPU-inspired, or was ignored.8 There were only two exceptions, both from those close to the WFL. In her autobiography Margaret Wynne Nevinson claimed for the protest that: ‘those conversant with the roll of their own members consider the figures of the 1911 Census were out by some hundreds of thousands’.9 And Laurence Housman in his autobiography presented the boycott, of which he was a key begetter, as a success:

The Census resistance of 1911 [was] one of the very few things in the way of militancy which the women Suffragists did on so large a scale that the Government was unable to touch them. … In a very short time the idea ‘caught on’; even among the ‘Constitutionals’ it found a certain amount of favour, especially perhaps when the size of the demonstration made legal penalties less likely … . Honest John Burns, when informed by his enumerators that he was against resisters to the tune of many tens of thousands, amounting quite possibly to figures in the hundred thousands, climbed down in a night, and announced in the Commons that … he would be magnanimous and let the offenders off. … The women had come off victors from the field.10

By the Second World War, memory of the suffrage campaign increasingly defined militancy in terms of imprisonment alone.11 With defiance equated to acts leading to prison, such civil disobedience as the census boycott, incurring no legal penalties, contributed little to personal credibility as a ‘suffragette’. In post-war suffrage histories, the census boycott therefore continued to be an only minor theme – insignificant compared with imprisonment, hunger-strikes and forcible feeding.12

From the 1990s, however, a new generation of suffrage historians, keen to look far beyond the two main organizations, the WSPU and NUWSS, sought out fresh primary sources and found neglected connections. Sandra Holton’s 1996 discussion of the census protest stressed the importance attached to it by Laurence Housman, while Clare Eustance in 1998 discussed the boycott in terms of passive resistance, and published a photograph of sleeping evaders crammed like sardines on the floor below a defiant notice: ‘No Vote No Census’.13

So by the new millennium awareness of the census boycott and its WFL origins was beginning to grow. Laura Mayhall in 2003 placed the boycott within the radical tradition of the right of the unenfranchised to repudiate the authority of the law, and commented:

Census resistance brought the women’s suffrage movement together to disrupt the machinery of the state, and not merely against the Liberal government, thereby enlarging the moral scope and enhancing the persuasiveness of the women’s cause.14

However, while suffrage historians might now recognize that the boycott was WFL-inspired, the better-known WSPU still dominated the public understanding. New biographies of the Pankhursts echoed earlier writers, claiming that the census ‘campaign appealed to militants and constitutionalists alike’. But without access to the schedules they could say little beyond what their subjects – notably Mrs Pankhurst – had claimed.15 Only the release of the 1911 census data in 2009 could offer the crucial primary evidence needed to reassess suffrage historiography and feminist responses to a state that denied women the vote.

* * *

Within census literature reference to the suffrage boycott is notably absent. From the very outset, as Hansard records, the Government dismissed it as inconsequential. Indeed, on Wednesday 5 April, within just two days of local enumerators collecting their schedules, John Burns stood up in the Commons and, in response to the question ‘whether the suffragette agitation against the Census is likely to affect prejudicially the accuracy of our statistics’, offered his unperturbed official response: ‘I do not anticipate that the suffragette agitation against the Census will have any appreciable effect upon the accuracy of the statistics of population’. Indeed, Burns added, ‘according to the information that has reached me up to the present, the number of individuals who have evaded being enumerated is altogether negligible’. When pressed on whether he ‘intended to take proceedings against those who deliberately evaded the Census’, Burns urbanely replied: ‘In the hour of success mercy and magnanimity must be shown’.16

With no prosecutions of rebellious suffragettes, Reports of the Census, 1911-23, made no mention whatsoever of the boycott, emphasizing instead the smooth running of the state’s administrative machinery.17 Echoing this, demographic historians have ignored the suffragette boycott. Rather, they have posed a different set of questions. The study undertaken from the 1980s by Cambridge demographic historians (based on privileged advance access to anonymized ‘individual level’ schedules) remains influential. Their monumental study, Changing Family Size in England and Wales, ignores women’s exclusion from full citizenship and so whether the boycott might give any detectable slant to the data.18

The work of Edward Higgs remains pre-eminent among census historians, particularly his recent studies bearing on the ‘battle for the census’. However, in the ‘The Statistical Big Bang of 1911’ he looks at civil servants’ technocratic achievement rather than at political challenge. Higgs’s ‘The Rise of the Information State’ tracked the development of state surveillance, and argued that the decennial census was less about social control and more about creating welfare benefits and rights – including political rights.19 Certainly the 1911 census was intimately linked to conveying social welfare benefits. However, many suffragettes saw the census questions not as hastening and strengthening their citizenship claims but as intrusive and insulting.

Suffrage historians and census historians, from the immediate aftermath of the boycott right through to current literature, posed different questions and created distinct historiographies.20 Would the newly-released schedules indicate who had the better grasp of the real significance of what happened on census night, 2 April 1911?


In 2006, in response to a Freedom of Information Act ruling, the National Archives announced that the 1911 census would go online in 2009, three years early. Access would be simple, dependable and affordable.21 On Tuesday 13 January 2009 selected English counties became fully searchable by the public. Excitement was palpable. By midnight, there had been 3.4 m searches and 17.4 m pages viewed, particularly by family historians.22 But it was suffragettes who grabbed the headlines. In its publicity, the National Archives used a photograph of Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney holding a large ‘Votes for Women’ placard, widely reproduced elsewhere.23 The Guardian illustrated its report, ‘Past Lives: 1911 census goes online’, with this image, as did The Times – under its headline ‘1911 Census: the secret suffragettes who refused to be counted’. Only now, nearly a century later, The Times added, has the full extent of this ‘mass protest by women campaigning to be allowed to vote … finally come to public attention’. The BBC also covered the release, posing the suffrage question to which no ready answer was yet available: ‘so how many women did boycott the census?’24

During 2009 the remaining English counties gradually became available. So what did all this new data enable historians to do – and to know?

* * *

We were looking for census evaders (whom we expected we might not find) as well as resisters (who we believed had returned rebellious schedules), so it was essential to be armed with as much biographical information as possible. For this reason we decided to make an initial search for the suffragists and suffragettes listed in Elizabeth Crawford’s The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide.25 We removed those known not to be resident in England during the 1911 census, leaving us with 319 names.

We then created a database of the information given on each family’s schedule. The data included each campaigner’s name and address, who was denoted head of the family, who (if anyone) had signed the schedule and whether a statement was added, all invaluable for correlating occupation, region and suffrage organization (for instance WSPU, WFL) to census response.26 Additionally, the enumerators’ summary pages listing individual houses in a neighbourhood also proved useful in confirming that many women absent on their family schedule were actually evading. Thus we were able to people our Main database of 319 individual names quite effectively.

However, The Reference Guide privileges those women (and a few men) who were prominent in the suffrage movement, giving a disproportionately London-centred profile. We therefore opened a second, ‘Local’ database, entering the names of activists noted in WSPU’s paper Votes for Women and WFL’s The Vote.27 Many of these little-known local campaigners proved extremely difficult to trace – for example, where we knew only a surname and an imprecise address. To these elusive ‘Local’ entries, we then added ‘random’ searches, deploying a variety of ingenious strategies to locate ‘missing’ women. For instance, we keyed ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ into the forename box on the search screen, thereby discovering women for whom the enumerator, while knowing of their existence, had not been able to elicit even a first name. Most resisters thus uncovered were women hitherto unknown to even the most diligent suffrage historians, so we were particularly delighted to add them to our database. Thus by December 2009 we were able to identify in the census 253 names, either local branch members or ‘random’ names. Adding together our 319 Main and 253 Local entries, we arrived at an initial database total of 572 names.28


In the Main database, names of some resisters surfaced with gratifying speed, providing dramatic evidence of their anger at exclusion from full citizenship. Among our earliest discoveries was WSPU member Mary Howey, twenty-seven years old; she described herself as a self-employed ‘Artist and Suffragette’ and took considerable trouble to embellish her form with ‘Votes for Women’. Mary’s better-known sister, Elsie Howey, and their mother Gertrude had both apparently evaded – there being no sign of them on the schedule Mary completed as ‘daughter’ occupying ten rooms, with one servant.

Some resisters wrote across their schedule ‘No Vote, No Census’, a rubric adopted by members of both the WFL and the WSPU. Dorothy Rock, a WSPU member in Essex aged twenty-nine, wrote on hers, at an unrepentantly defiant angle:

I, Dorothea Rock, in the absence of the male occupier, refuse to fill up this Census paper as, in the eyes of the Law, women do not count, neither shall they be counted.

Beneath this, the enumerator had jotted in the family details (mother, two daughters, three servants). The Registrar signed the form, Mrs Rock having refused to do so.

Fig. 1.

Cartoon by ‘A Patriot’ (Alfred Pease), ‘No Vote, No Census’, Votes for Women, 24 March 1911.

Fig. 1.

Cartoon by ‘A Patriot’ (Alfred Pease), ‘No Vote, No Census’, Votes for Women, 24 March 1911.

Fig. 2.

Mary Howey, Malvern: Census Schedule.

Fig. 2.

Mary Howey, Malvern: Census Schedule.

Fig. 3.

Jennie Baines, Stockport: Census Schedule.

Fig. 3.

Jennie Baines, Stockport: Census Schedule.

Naturally, we were particularly interested to discover returns for suffrage leaders assumed to have evaded the census. For instance, Emmeline Pankhurst reported in the WSPU’s paper Votes for Women that she had refused to fill in her form and had scrawled ‘No Vote No Census’ across it. However, she was in fact caught by the enumerator on census night. She appears, wrongly transcribed, as ‘Mrs G. Pankhurst’, one of over 100 guests listed at the Inns of Court Hotel, Holborn.29 Similarly, the most celebrated evader, Emily Wilding Davison, discovered hiding overnight in a cupboard of the Commons’ crypt, had her presence solemnly recorded by the Clerk of Works, Houses of Parliament.30

Yet, among these examples of defiant census evasion and resistance, we grew puzzled by certain schedules – particularly where militant suffragettes fully complied with the census. One striking example was Jennie Baines, aged forty-seven, a WSPU activist who had already been imprisoned several times and had been on hunger strike, but who apparently did not refuse information to the enumerator. Her husband George Baines had always been supportive of her militancy, so we could not believe that Jennie’s inclusion on the form was against her wish. Why was she willing to be counted? Similarly, in Middlesbrough Charlotte and Amy Mahony, sisters very active in the local WFL branch, both apparently complied. Did their remoteness from London mean that other factors came into play for such suffragettes?

As our research advanced, we found many other schedules at variance with our expectations. All our suffrage reading had led us to believe that evasion and resistance had been very widespread among campaigners, but the primary evidence we were now uncovering suggested considerably lower levels of boycott activity, which hinted at a more complex mix of individual motives. So we began to ponder: should we question the inherited suffragette version and re-examine the dismissal of the census boycott by Liberal ministers and by demographic historians?

We needed to revisit the broader historical context to find possible explanations to these puzzling and unexpected suffragette rejections of the call to boycott the census. We therefore searched more widely, in autobiographies and biographies; personal diaries and oral testimony; national and local newspapers, suffrage press and annual reports; plus, where possible, local minute books. (The only known suffragette minutes for 1911, illuminating group responses at a local level, are those for the Middlesbrough WFL branch.)31


Our reading reminded us that suffragettes and suffragists were not the only ones lobbying for the vote. In 1909 the People’s Suffrage Federation, formed to campaign for the full extension of the vote to all adult men and women, drew support from trade unions and the Women’s Co-operative Guild’s large membership of married working-class women. So, although women’s suffrage was supported by MPs on all sides of the Commons, Asquith’s cabinet had neither the political will nor, despite the best efforts of the suffragists and suffragettes, did it recognize sufficient demand from the electorate to pass a female-only enfranchisement measure. During the two 1910 General Elections political attention focused instead on the constitutional crisis triggered by Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’. With the Liberals now confirmed in power, his National Insurance plans, controversial partly because of their perceived state intrusion into the home, were debated and finalized.32

During 1910 women’s suffrage societies supported an all-party Conciliation Committee. This sought a measure that offered neither too broad a franchise (to woo Conservatives) nor one too narrowly tied to property ownership (to appease Liberal and Labour). After much behind-the-scenes lobbying between suffrage campaigners and key politicians, the result was a bill that would at least enfranchise a limited number of women: just one million women householders.33 Suffrage societies put their faith in this Conciliation Bill. For instance, the small but energetic Women’s Tax Resistance League (WTRL) aimed to secure 500 names of women ‘passive resisters’ willing to refuse to pay their taxes if the Conciliation Bill failed. Its leading members were typically women doctors, with its first meeting held at Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson’s house in Harley Street.34 Similarly, during 1910 the WSPU called a truce on its militancy. Then, in November 1910, hearing the government announce the dissolution of parliament, which halted the progress of the Conciliation Bill, the WSPU ended this truce – and battle erupted in Parliament Square as suffragettes sought to interview the prime minister. From the brutality they suffered, that day, 22 November, became notorious as ‘Black Friday’.

At the beginning of the new 1911 parliamentary session, in the months leading up to the census, the truce resumed. With the Liberal government re-elected, suffragettes and suffragists alike now placed their hopes in a new Conciliation Bill, brought forward by Sir George Kemp, Liberal MP for North West Manchester.35

* * *

Meanwhile, as Local Government Board (LGB) president, John Burns had piloted the Census Bill through the House of Commons. The smooth administration of the census was in the hands of T. H. C. Stevenson, from 1909 Superintendent of Statistics at the General Record Office (GRO). Also in 1909, with the appointment of Bernard Mallet as Registrar General, or census supremo, a more dynamic leadership permitted a previous statistical bottle-neck to be eased. New Hollerith counting machines, which utilized electric current, were introduced, so labour costs could be reduced (a euphemism for replacing adult male GRO clerks with less expensive women and girl school-leavers). From October 1909 on, civil servants had begun detailed census planning, spearheaded with professional precision by Mallet and Stevenson.36

A key political concern at this time was the size of Britain’s families and its high levels of infant mortality. As the sixteenth child in a family of eighteen, only nine of whom survived infancy, John Burns had very personal reasons for wishing to lower the infant mortality rate (by, for instance, improving housing and child-care conditions).37 The Census Committee soon reported that in its view inquiries about the duration of a marriage and the number of children born to it, both now living and dead (as included in the Australian census), would be regarded by the British people as too inquisitorial. By February 1910, however, the need of statisticians to access such data had the backing of the Royal Statistical Society, the Society of Medical Officers and the Royal Society of Medicine, as well as that of John Burns.38

Once the decision had been taken to ask their intrusive questions, it apparently never occurred to these civil servants designing the new census schedule that some women, especially married women (whose husbands were required to provide information about them), might object.39 Yet from the Census Committee report it is clear that the degree to which fertility was affected when women worked – and in what types of employment – was of paramount concern to the state.40 Such data was required if certain types of women’s employment were to be curtailed by law. There were, of course, other welfare uses to which the information on fertility and infant mortality might be put: for instance, to demonstrate the ill-effects of family overcrowding. However, suffragists feared future laws would limit women’s freedoms – especially the freedom to earn a living – and this gave them a strong motive to oppose the census.41 During the 1910-11 run-up to the ‘battle for the census’ neither side, working a short distance apart in central London, was really aware of what the other was planning: suffrage campaigners did not know that such personal details were to be elicited by the designers of the census.

* * *

The census boycott emerged from the WFL’s notion of non-violent ‘passive resistance’ and, more specifically, tax resistance. Mrs Despard, the WFL’s eccentric yet iconic leader, had had meetings in London in 1909 with Mohandas Gandhi, then a young Indian lawyer, who while living in South Africa developed the theory of satyagraha or spiritual resistance to unjust laws.42 The WFL first proposed a census boycott at its Executive Committee in June 1910. The idea grew out of a suggestion from Edith How Martyn, head of WFL’s Political and Militant Department, that ‘if the Conciliation Bill be killed’ they should adopt a policy of passive resistance to all government business, and ‘that the form for immediate interference shall be to boycott the Census’. By October, WFL was liaising with the Women’s Tax Resistance League (WTRL) over planning of the census protest.43

In New Year 1911 the census battle suddenly went public. In January WFL’s The Vote alerted readers to the new census questions which related to married women and their children, while voteless mothers (and indeed all women) would have no direct say in any legislation.44 In early January the WFL took the decision that if the King’s Speech included no mention of women’s enfranchisement, the plan to boycott the census would be announced that day and members alerted. (Thus, for example, on 10 January, Alison Neilans, a WFL organizer, visited the Middlesbrough branch to explain the census campaign.)45 By late January, the WFL finalized its arrangements for the protest.

The immediate trigger for the census boycott was, of course, the omission of women’s suffrage from the King’s Speech, read to the new House of Commons on 6 February. The WFL wasted no time in putting its plans into action. On 11 February, the cover of The Vote led with a dramatic ‘Boycott the Census’ headline. Inside, Edith How Martyn sounded the rallying call to members: ‘Any Government which refuses to recognize women must be met by women’s refusal to recognize the Government’; and she continued, citing the precedent of tax resistance, that the WFL ‘now openly calls upon women all over the kingdom to boycott the Census … We intend to do our best to make it unreliable and inaccurate’. In John Burns’s LGB, she added, attempts had already been made to restrict women’s labour. ‘Suffragists will cease to be merely persons with a grievance; they will become a menace to that good feeling [consent?] upon which even the most powerful Government must ultimately rely.’46 And as soon as the WFL’s proposed boycott went public, the WSPU announced that it too would join the protest, bringing with it its considerable flair for publicity.47

* * *

The NUWSS however took a different view of citizenship and the state, and of the tactics necessary to woo key politicians. When asked earlier about tax resistance, Mrs Fawcett had replied that she was interested, but did not agree with the WTRL ‘that women have no duties to the State’ until they are enfranchised. Indeed, despite being persistently lobbied, at New Year the NUWSS executive decided against recommending its local suffrage societies to resist the census.48 So the likelihood of many suffragists boycotting soon seemed remote.

Nevertheless in suffragette publications propaganda for the boycott flourished. From 11 February Laurence Housman began his series of boycott articles in The Vote. ‘If -!’ proposed ‘a Census strike’. His argument was partly economic (probably inspired by recent industrial disputes), partly tactical encouragement (to disrupt the complicated machinery of modern government), and partly a contrast between the ordeal undergone by ‘the militant branch of the suffrage movement’ (meaning the WSPU) with the ‘census strike’ which would not involve physical suffering. It was also an appeal to rationality: it would be hypocritical of Liberals to condemn the ‘strike’ since they had earlier condoned Nonconformists’ passive resistance. Housman ended with a clarion call: so ‘it will be difficult for a Government … to argue with any show of consistency that a Census strike of women … is anything else than a protest public-spirited in character, constitutional in aim, and in substance right’.49 He followed this with his whimsically inspiring articles, ‘News from No-Man’s Land’, in which country the census had fortuitously been taken a month earlier: Housman offered a reassuring ‘precedent’ to the undecided in the UK, stressing the low legal risk for evaders. (Thus convinced, the Middlesbrough WFL branch, for example, appointed a Census Agent; 2/6d [12p] was collected for the Census Campaign and a local Census Meeting planned.)50


Amid all the suffragette propaganda, it was probably the WFL’s uncompromising Manifesto, ‘No Votes for Women – No Census’, that had widest and most immediate impact. Issued under the names of Edith How Martyn and Charlotte Despard, it quickly caught the eye of The Times, which quoted from it extensively. The Times dilated on WFL plans to refuse ‘to give intimate personal details’ to the enumerator, and, under the heading ‘Obstruct Government Business’, noted that the WFL even incited members to:

 … oppose, hamper, destroy if possible, the power of an unrepresentative Government to govern women, refuse to be taxed, boycott the Census, refuse all official information until women have won that which is their absolute right – the right of a voice and vote.51

The very next day The Times published a short yet pointed letter rebutting this Manifesto argument, from the eminent educational reformer Professor Michael Sadler of Manchester University. He warned the WFL that ‘to boycott the Census would be a crime against science’ because ‘upon the completeness of the Census returns’ depended future legislation to better the conditions for all people; ‘to sulk against the Census’, Sadler concluded, ‘would not be a stroke of statesmanship, but a nursery fit of bad temper’.52 Sadler, the Oxford-educated Manchester academic, spoke from the very heart of Liberalism’s progressive intelligentsia. His was not a lone voice. Sadler’s deep distaste for the planned suffragette boycott found a ready echo with, for instance, the Manchester Guardian editor, C. P. Scott, also an Oxford-educated member of the Liberal political élite, who had the ear of both suffragist leaders and Cabinet members and acted as an influential go-between.53

Sadler’s jibe of a ‘crime against science’ reverberated – and stung. Immediately, Edith How Martyn (herself a scientist and now signing herself ARCS, BSc) retorted in The Times that for women to comply with the census ‘when governed without their consent is a crime against the fundamental principles of liberty’. Indeed, she stated, ‘the Census is designed, not by a scientist for scientists, … but for politicians with the knack of juggling with statistics’ to make the figures support their theories.54

So within a fortnight of the King’s Speech a fierce political debate for and against the census boycott flared among academics and writers, newspaper editors and suffrage leaders. It pitted scientific statistical accuracy against women’s rightful citizenship demands, raising questions about the very nature of democracy and what constituted a ‘crime’.

Meanwhile, the NUWSS remained absent from WFL census planning. A few suffragists expressed alarm that intrusive questions about married women could be used as an excuse ‘to turn out the married women from the labour market’.55 But for the boycott to be really effective, suffragettes needed thousands of suffragists to join in. Both WFL and WTRL continued lobbying NUWSS societies, furiously dispatching requests to speak at their meetings. For example WTRL, trying to appeal as widely as possible, sent out copies of its ‘Women and the Census’ leaflet, urging that ‘Passive Resistance to the Census involves no sacrifice’ and stating that:

This year Special Intimate Questions relating to Women as Mothers have been added. Refuse to assist a Government which denies you Citizenship – withhold the information which helps make laws which govern you without your consent.

One copy of this leaflet reached the large and influential London Society for Women’s Suffrage (LSWS), where it was duly filed – and ignored.56 Well-practised at polite yet bureaucratic stone-walling, LSWS refused to place the proposal on the agenda of its next meeting, or even to put up a WFL poster ‘as our Society has not adopted the policy of resistance to the Census’.57

* * *

Arguments about the census were not confined to suffrage groups and Liberal intellectuals. They soon fanned out to newspaper correspondence columns and to meeting halls the length and breadth of England. The battle to win hearts and minds was depicted as a moral one: between the wrong wrought by a government that denied women a political voice, and the urgent welfare needs of future generations of women and children – as half-a-dozen local examples suggest.

Emmeline Pankhurst’s splendidly inspiring oratory before a crowded gathering in Halifax prompted the local Unitarian minister to challenge her moral argument for undermining census accuracy. Pankhurst rebutted him robustly: ‘the greatest moral wrong … is the tyranny … exercised over women … [and they] are prepared to hinder … legislation until they get the power to control that legislation’. The minister persisted: ‘good cannot come out of evil’, and he denounced her tactics as ‘grossly immoral’.58 In the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, the youngest Pankhurst daughter, Adela, WSPU organizer for Yorkshire, did battle with Liberal suffragist Helen Wilson. Dr Wilson opposed the planned census boycott by suffragettes, who ‘will be guilty of an act of wanton destruction the effect of which will be felt for a generation’. The newspaper editor sided with Wilson, for the boycott ‘must inevitably inflict deadly injury on the Women’s Suffrage cause’.59 And the Co-operative News, running a vigorous debate between an adult suffragist and a woman suffragist, now exhorted its Women’s Co-operative Guild readers to recognize their ‘large, clear, and vital public duty’ in ensuring the census was completed accurately to help welfare reform, rather than bowing to ‘individual or sectional’ interests.60

Suffragettes did not give up. For the WFL, at a meeting in Middlesbrough Co-operative Hall, Margaret Nevinson declared: ‘We are going to be guilty of a very great act of rebellion’ that would really make the Government think. Women had been urged in the cause of science not to boycott the census, but, she added, to applause: ‘Well, we may all love science, but we all love liberty a great deal better, and science must go’.61

In similar spirit, two suffragettes wrote to C. P. Scott’s Manchester Guardian that ‘the women will have cleared their own consciences by refusing to give facilities for being governed against their consent’. Scott retorted angrily that their boycott would not merely harm current legislation, but also compromise women and children’s future welfare. Rather pompously, he accused them: ‘so far from clearing their consciences, evaders, we fear, only show how their turbid the[ir] conscience may be rendered’.62

By late March, battle-lines for and against the census boycott were drawn. Suffragette organizers drummed up enthusiasm in their local branches. Propaganda rolled off the presses: particularly memorable was the WSPU cartoon (Fig. 1), accusing John Burns of hypocrisy – on the one hand, as cabinet minister garbed in official regalia, imperiously denying ‘woman’ the vote, and on the other as LGB President humbly entreating her to comply with the census. As census night drew near, both sets of protagonists played on emotion and reason: women’s citizenship rights versus a ‘sin against science’ (as the anti-boycott accusation soon became known).63

By late March rows of clerks were working in the Census Office, bundles of schedules piled high and ready for delivery by a small army of 35,000 local enumerators. In the last days of March, Mallet as Registrar General was making final appeals for compliance, reinforced by newspaper editorials urging how vital it was to produce ‘effective and trustworthy social statistics’.64 On Saturday 1 April enumerators hurried round delivering all their schedules. Sunday midnight was census hour. Suffragettes went into action.

* * *

On Monday 3 April, after the momentous weekend, newspapers reported on the WFL rally in Trafalgar Square and on the WSPU all-night roller-skating at the Aldwych rink on Sunday. The more adventurous daily press had dispatched reporters and photographers to certain darkened houses to report what was going on behind closed doors. The front page of Monday’s Daily Mirror was devoted to census photographs – not only of a family sitting around a table, the father studiously filling in his form, but also of huddled suffragettes sleeping in a friend’s house after the Trafalgar Square midnight meeting; other photos showed about twenty women bedded down at a house near King’s Cross.65 The Daily Sketch ran a similar pictures page, which showed some of the many evading suffragettes sleeping in Denison House, Manchester – to which the Sketch photographer, ‘properly primed with pass-word, was admitted after a parley through the letter-box’.66

The Guardian too, despite its editor’s grave reservations, had dispatched a correspondent to Denison House (near Scott’s own home). He gained furtive entry via a small side door, the darkness faintly lit by a lone candle. Once inside, however, ‘sounds of revelry broke out’ from the assembled evaders. Jessie Stephenson, WSPU Manchester organizer, had suffragette scouts guarding the seven exits to the mansion, seventeen rooms laid out with mattresses, evaders tucked away in its rambling garrets and cellars. At midnight, the Guardian reporter continued, all the women crowded into a magnificent room with oak wainscoting, those assembled solemnly pledging to resist the census as long as they were denied the vote. Then they sang, to the tune of the ‘British Grenadiers’:

Then let us fill a bumper

And drink despair to those

Who call for census papers

And wear official clothes.

Oh! You want to take the census

And count us every man;

With a tow-row-row-row-row-row,

Then catch us if you can.67

The Sheffield Daily Telegraph correspondent, hugging the shadows, made his way to ‘the House of Conspiracy’ to report on Adela Pankhurst who, with her WSPU co-organizer Helen Archdale, ran a similar mass evasion. And the Portsmouth Evening News reporter was told by local WSPU organizer Charlotte Marsh of sixty or seventy evaders entertained with a reading of Ibsen’s prohibited Ghosts, so ‘evading the censor as well as the Census’.68 Overall, it was too good a news story for the most of the popular press to ignore.

Other papers, either sleepy weeklies or ones taking a civic pride in the professionalism of their local census staff, merely reported the smooth running of the enumeration process in their town. And, as we have seen, John Burns, standing up in the Commons on Wednesday 5 April, portrayed the evasions as ‘altogether negligible’ and pronounced that ‘in the hour of success mercy and magnanimity must be shown’.

Indeed, when they learnt there were to be no prosecutions to prepare for and no fines to pay (unlike the experience of tax resisters), both the WFL and the WSPU quickly immersed themselves in preparations for the next campaign, June’s Coronation procession, for which WFL would carry its new ‘Census Protest Banner’.69 Thereafter, the movement rolled onwards to late 1911 – when Asquith’s bombshell announcement of manhood suffrage set all women’s suffrage campaigners against him.


And there the census boycott rested, lying almost forgotten in millions of individual schedules until their release in 2009. To discover how the ‘battle for the census’ in individual households was really played out, we must return to our database. These 572 names and addresses – of census resisters, evaders or compliers – can now be sorted to gauge emerging patterns of thinking and motives.

We found just under a hundred resisters. Of evaders, not surprisingly we found twice as many – nearly two hundred. To slip away in the dark of night was, of course, less confrontational and theatrical. Of the evaders, the proportion was greater among the leadership (Main database) than among local campaigners, often distant from London. Again, this was to be expected. Among both resisters and evaders, it was known WSPU activists who predominated. The long list of WSPU sympathizers who apparently evaded includes Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson70 and Sidney Mappin, a director of the royal silversmiths, Mappin and Webb. Local database names comprised a mixture of the WSPU, WFL and smaller groups like the Women’s Tax Resistance League (WTRL).71 The many WFL evaders included, for instance, the daughters of the Reverend Cummin in Sussex who completed his schedule for himself alone. However, the enumerator added four daughters, describing two, Virivela and Christobel, as ‘suffragettes wandering about all night’.72

Of the smaller societies, only the WTRL pursued its own boycott campaign. It achieved considerable success in encouraging its small but determined membership to rebel. These were predominantly women with private means, or professionals, notably doctors, unafraid to challenge the authority of the state.73 Thus Dr Octavia Lewin (WTRL and WFL) proclaimed ‘I absolutely refuse to give any information’, before listing her impressive academic credentials.

The remaining individuals named in our database complied with census requirements – and of course represented many, many more campaigners.74 Given how resolutely opposed was the NUWSS, we were not surprised to find that virtually all suffragists complied; those few who did boycott either held joint membership (for instance with WTRL), or were sufficiently confident to go it alone.

We then began to build broad profiles. Among resisters, Mary Howey – twenty-seven and an artist – was fairly typical. Evaders, being more elusive, are more difficult to profile. Some were ‘new women’, living independent lives. One such was Frances Sullivan in a Hampstead boarding house; her name is recorded on the schedule with ‘Evader’ added but all other detail missing. Others were mysterious cases of missing wives. Herbert Levi Jacobs in nearby Highgate, a married barrister of forty-seven and WTRL member, signed his schedule, recording only himself and a domestic servant. His wife appears nowhere else in the census and we assume she evaded.75 Often these evaders were from prosperous families, possibly resentful of state intrusion into their private lives. One retired naval officer, living in a spacious suburban house in Surrey, wrote on his schedule:

Conscientious scruples prevent me from rendering a return of the female occupants of this house for the purpose of … statistical tables, which will be used as the basis of further vexatious legislation affecting women, & in which they have no voice. Should the Conciliation Committee’s bill be passed … the additional details will be forthcoming.76

* * *

A pattern of resisters, evaders and compliers was beginning to take shape. So next we looked across England for a regional mapping of the census boycott. We quickly noted a far higher incidence of evasion or resistance in the capital than across the rest of the country. To pinpoint this more precisely, we decided to look in detail at two regions, London and Yorkshire. Each had similar 1911 populations of about four million, and together the combined population of the two regions represented one quarter of that of England.77 The differences in regional response to the boycott now grew even more striking. Our London database of resisters and evaders quickly acquired 215 names, while across Yorkshire, stretching north from Sheffield up to Middlesbrough, we struggled to reach 70. Moreover, although about three-quarters of London WSPU members apparently evaded or resisted, we have so far found that in Yorkshire fewer than half the women with some WSPU connection did so.78 Likewise, in the Home Counties surrounding London (Essex and Surrey, for instance) we found there was a higher incidence of census rebels than in northern counties. Predictably perhaps, the more remote the rural or industrial region from London, the more sporadic the scattering of boycotters.

Local clusters within regions are revealing. As might be expected, London resisters were grouped in the more prosperous bohemian boroughs – Kensington, Chelsea, Hampstead. For instance, a single page of the enumerator’s book for one Hampstead neighbourhood included Mrs Jane Brailsford (WSPU) and Dr Elizabeth Knight (WTRL and WFL) and recorded of each woman: ‘refused to fill up Form’. However, across the large working-class boroughs of east London – such as Stepney or Hackney – we found few boycotters.

London exceptionalism is striking but understandable. Not only were suffrage headquarters based there, but also it had a higher concentration of independent young women, and news of census boycott plans could speed by word of mouth from office to flat to studio. But what explanation is there for local clusters of defiance elsewhere? A key factor was the presence of an active suffragette organizer whipping up support and co-ordinating evasion, especially in cities where both WSPU and WFL were active, as in Manchester, Portsmouth and York. For instance, in Sheffield the Registrar recorded on the Archdale-Pankhurst (WSPU) schedule no fewer than forty-eight female visitors, names unknown (plus one anonymous male visitor, the newspaper reporter), and there were also some WFL evaders in the city too.

Next, investigating occupations, we found that a large number of those who felt able to boycott were professional women or those living on independent means or involved with the worlds of theatre or art – like painter Mary Sargent Florence who designed the WTRL banner; and Laurence Housman, who complied himself, but made his Kensington studio available to four female evaders.

However, we have so far struggled to find even a handful of census boycotters among women’s major paid occupations – domestic service, textiles, the clothing trades. In most cases it is impossible to detect the absence of a servant (although we came across examples where the woman of the family evaded and ‘took’ her servants with her). We felt on more certain ground when investigating the northern textile areas – basing the search for names in Yorkshire on Jill Liddington’s Rebel Girls: their Fight for the Vote. This allowed us to map patterns in, for instance, Huddersfield where an earlier WSPU minute book helped identify local suffragettes. Here we found that the great majority of those who had previously been active in the WSPU now complied. For instance, rug weaver Elizabeth Pinnance had in 1907 been imprisoned in Holloway after taking part in a WSPU deputation in London; but despite this past ordeal she – and virtually all her fellow textile workers locally – decided against boycotting the census.79

Among the professions, women scientists might be expected to be particularly sensitive to the ‘crime against science’ accusation. Certainly Edith How Martyn took exception to Sadler’s condemnation; and electrical engineer Hertha Ayrton, the most notable woman scientist, wrote defiantly across her schedule: ‘How can I answer all these questions if I have not the intelligence to choose between two candidates for parliament?’ (The enumerator incidentally failed to record over forty evaders to whom Ayrton gave shelter that night.)80

It is easier to assess responses among larger professional groups, notably teachers. Teaching had expanded rapidly as a field for women, with over 125,000 employed in local authority schools. However, although many such teachers actively supported suffrage, we found few census boycotters among them.81 Charlotte and Amy Mahony, WLF members in Middlesbrough, both taught in county council schools: with the enumerator on the doorstep, a fully compliant schedule was handed over.

Finally, while we were often able to tease out census resisters, it could be frustrating to search for evaders, elusive women who were determined to escape the enumerator – and so the historical record. We could look for possible evaders only when we knew at least a name. How could we find the campaigners of whom we knew almost nothing? How could we estimate the total number of evaders? Like Donald Rumsfeld, we mused on the complexities of the ‘unknown unknowns’.


Our initial database of 572 names suggested higher rates of census compliance than our reading of suffrage literature had led us to expect. Even on our Main database, evasion and resistance was patchy; for Local names, it was still more sporadic, with incidence of compliance higher. Other sources, notably some local press, did suggest something of the scale of mass evasions in towns (naturally with names unknown). But elsewhere evasion figures reported were lower than expected – even in a major city like Leeds which had an active WSPU branch.

So from the evidence of our database it is difficult to challenge John Burns’s claim that the boycott’s effect was ‘negligible’. We have certainly not discovered Nevinson’s or Housman’s hundreds (nor even tens) of thousands of suffrage boycotters. Should we then concur with the demographic historians’ claim that the effect of the census boycott was indeed statistically slight?82

* * *

Despite our database analysis, we retain a real sense of the significance of the census rebellion. It faced stiff odds. With Lloyd George’s National Insurance reforms promising improved conditions for working-class families, and with Sadler and Scott publicly claiming the moral high ground, it was very impressive that any woman – except those confident of independent incomes – had the fortitude, daring and indeed chutzpah to evade the enumerator on census night, let alone to resist. This was especially so outside London and major city centres. We now know they were not to be dragged through the courts to face a £5 fine. They did not know this. Particularly in working-class communities this fear was likely to persuade ‘waverers’ not to evade. Additionally, the arguments of adult suffragists, strengthened by the narrowness of the Conciliation Bill on which women’s suffrage hopes were pinned, must have further sapped the determination of local suffragettes to rebel.

Moreover, Edwardian women possessed multiple identities: suffragette or local citizen, wife or daughter, teacher or doctor. Individual motives for resistance, evasion or compliance were often mixed; yet the census questions permitted no complex response. This is crucial to remember as we re-examine schedules that puzzled us. In Stockport, did Jenny Baines (WSPU) comply because not only was she a suffragette, but also a mother, two of whose five children had died? Near Huddersfield, did Elizabeth Pinnance comply because her husband was an active trade unionist and because she too had a child who had died? In Middlesbrough, did Charlotte and Amy Mahony (WFL), teachers in county schools, both comply out of economic fear, unwilling to risk attracting the notice of their local authority; because they too had three siblings who had died; and because their father was local Co-operative hall-keeper (and probably an adult suffragist)? In such tight-knit communities, the chances were that your family would be ‘known’ to the enumerator, and having your name in the local paper would cause embarrassment. In Middlesbrough WFL, determination to boycott the census seems to have fizzled away. The schedules show that of a dozen branch members, only two rebelled – both of them married to prosperous businessmen.83 The Mahony sisters’ behaviour was typical within their community.

* * *

The 1911 census gives us, vividly and directly, the precise words that each ‘head of family’ (usually male) wrote on his schedule. It gives us a unique opportunity to peer into the domestic heart of an Edwardian home on census night as the form was completed and signed. However, what we glimpse in the schedules are the results of family census discussions. With precious few exceptions, we never get to eavesdrop on the conversations that preceded census-night form-filling. We rarely overhear what a woman, keenly aware of her disenfranchisement, really thought – as her schedule was completed for her by her ‘head of family’. Without the evidence of diaries and letters, it remains very difficult to reconstruct the precise thinking of individual women, pulled this way and that during spring 1911. Nevertheless, in two revealing examples which have recently come to light the ‘head of family’ holding the pen may not have accurately recorded a woman’s census behaviour or intention.

The few diaries we have identified tend to record defiance rather than confusion.84 By chance we came across those of Katharine Frye, working as an organizer in East Anglia for the small New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage. Writing up her journal in dreary digs in Essex on census night, she recorded: ‘And I did not go down on the Census’. She was opposed to militant action but wanted to boycott, thinking this an effective protest against the Government. However, ninety-eight years later we discover that her name had nevertheless been added by the enumerator, presumably from information supplied by her landlady. Without having fortuitously stumbled across her diary, how would we ever have known that she had aimed to evade?85

A more dramatic discovery is of Eleanora Maund of West Kensington, wife of a prosperous African explorer turned businessman. Eleanora’s name is crossed through on the schedule, and then below is scribbled (probably by the enumerator) ‘Wife away’. But her husband must have intercepted it, and in red pen tetchily appended:

My wife unfortunately being a Suffragette put her pen through her name, but it must stand as correct. It being an equivocation to say she is away. She being always resident here and 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

He thus left a rare insight into one discordant marital conversation on census night.86

* * *

So while every schedule cannot be taken as a wholly accurate record, the census does offer historians a unique snapshot of suffrage organizations in 1911, big and small, across the length and breadth of England, with their resisters, evaders and compliers. Their citizenship arguments touched distant branches, isolated communities and unknown individuals. As no previous census had, the 1911 census revealed the family home as a political space, politicized most acutely and dramatically on census night – transforming the domestic and private into the public and political. Indeed, the 1911 census not only caused, but now reveals, the sharp collision between two rival concepts of citizenship, democracy and the state. Government ‘by the people’ came up against government ‘for the people’; with Emmeline Pankhurst, Charlotte Despard and Laurence Housman championing one model, and John Burns, Michael Sadler and C. P. Scott the other. Two rival concepts, battling it out – up and down England. For one, democracy worked and offered vital welfare reforms; for the other, it denied full citizenship and did not work. Many suffrage campaigners, like the Women’s Co-operative Guild, found themselves caught in between – and opted for statistical accuracy to strengthen the reform agenda. The lower than expected number of rebels reflects the intensity of this ‘battle for the census’, rather than the real strength of the suffrage movement in 1911. Indeed, just weeks later, in the Women’s Coronation Procession through London on 17 June, 40,000 women marched together, constitutionalists and militants joined in a spirit of optimistic and determined co-operation.87 This was further strengthened that November in the outraged protest against Asquith’s threat of manhood suffrage – which not only triggered a wave of WSPU window-smashing, but also persuaded the NUWSS to form a labour-suffrage election alliance against Liberal by-election candidates.88 Had the census been taken in spring 1912, the results might well have been very different.89

We end on the significance and compelling symbolism of the census rebellion – for the suffragettes in 1911, for historians and the broader public in 2011. It was the first time that women had been faced in a census by the political dilemmas outlined here; and the first time that a sizeable group of the disenfranchised had defied the government and refused to be counted. As the census centenary nears and in recognition of the courageous stand certain women took over that fundamental of democratic citizenship – no government without the consent of the governed – we end with the words Dorothy Bowker, a WSPU organizer, wrote on her schedule:

No Vote – No Census. I am Dumb politically. Blind to the Census. Deaf to Enumerators. Being classed with criminals lunatics & paupers I prefer to give no further particulars.

We are grateful to the Institute of Historical Research, London, (IHR) for a Scouloudi Historical Award 2009 towards research costs. We also thank Dave Annal (The National Archives) for assistance in our more elusive searches; Professor Pat Thane (IHR) for considerable help; Professor Brian Harrison, Angela John and Jacqueline de Vries (US) for all their scholarly comments; and Sally Alexander, Anne Summers and Anna Davin for editorial support. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Women’s History Network Conference (Oxford); at Leeds University and at the IHR Women's History Seminar and we are grateful to participants for discussion and suggestions.


1 Census Schedule for England and Wales, 1911; capitalization omitted.
2 Edward Higgs, Making Sense of the Census Revisited: Census Records of England and Wales, 1801-1901, London, 2005, p. 18, notes that, after further centralized checking by census clerks, the household returns were apparently destroyed.
3 We are grateful to Malcolm Chase for confirming that Chartists had not boycotted the census in this way.
4 Hilary Frances, ‘“Pay the Piper, Call the Tune!”: the Women’s Tax Resistance League’, in The Women’s Suffrage Movement: New Feminist Perspectives, ed. Maroula Joannou and June Purvis, Manchester, 1998, p. 66.
5 Laura E. Nym Mayhall, The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930, New York and Oxford, 2003, pp. 33-5; Sandra S. Holton, Suffrage Days: Stories from the Women’s Suffrage Movement, London, 1996, p. 167, noting also that Quaker Alice Clark resisted payment of taxes, 1907.
6 The Suffrage Annual and Women’s Who’s Who, ed. A. J. R., London, 1913, p. 114; A. E. Metcalfe, Woman’s Effort: a Chronicle of British Women’s Fifty Years’ Struggle for Citizenship (1865-1914), Oxford, 1917, p. 170.
7 Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story, London (1914), 1979, pp. 190-1.
8 Annie Kenney, Memories of a Militant, London, 1924, p. 168; Evelyn Sharp, Hertha Ayrton, 1854-1923, a Memoir, London, 1926, p. 231; Ray Strachey, ‘The Cause’: a Short History of the Women’s Movement in Great Britain, London (1928), 1978; E. Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement, London, 1931; Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, My Part in a Changing World, London, 1938; Christabel Pankhurst, Unshackled, London, 1959, apparently written at this time but only published posthumously.
9 Margaret Wynne Nevinson, Life’s Fitful Fever, London, 1926, pp. 229-30.
10 Laurence Housman, The Unexpected Years, London, 1937, pp. 286-9.
11 Mayhall, Militant Suffrage Movement, pp. 136-7, on the role of the Suffrage Fellowship, formed in 1926 to ‘keep alive the suffrage spirit’.
12 For the Women’s Freedom League’s adoption of passive resistance, see Clare Eustance, ‘Meanings of Militancy: the Ideas and Practice of Political Resistance in the Women’s Freedom League, 1907-14’, in Women’s Suffrage Movement, ed. Joannou and Purvis, pp. 58-9.
13 Holton, Suffrage Days, pp. 173-4; Eustance, ‘Meanings of Militancy’, in Women’s Suffrage Movement, ed. Joannou and Purvis, p. 59.
14 Mayhall, Militant Suffrage Movement, p. 61; also Frances, ‘“Pay the Piper”’, pp. 65 ff. on the Women’s Tax Resistance League argument that it was not just the right of women to resist taxation, it was also their duty.
15 For example June Purvis, Emmeline Pankhurst, London, 2002, p. 159.
16 Hansard, 5 April 1911, Oral Answer, pp. 2194-5; also Written Answers, 30 June 1911, pp. 774-5.
17 However, mention was made of various difficulties in the taking the census. It was stressed that ‘Sex Proportions’ 1901-1911 stood unchanged at 1,068 women per 1,000 men (minor variations being entirely due to other factors such as men being away on military service), ‘Census of England and Wales 1911’, Vol. I, Administrative Areas, p. xxvi, July 1912. The Reports can be accessed at www.histpop.org which also includes lucid introductory essays by Edward Higgs.
18 Changing Family Size in England and Wales: Place, Class and Demography, 1891-1911, ed. Elidh Garrett, Alice Reid, Kevin Schurer and Simon Szreter, Cambridge (2001), 2006. Their emphasis on geographical ‘communication communities’ is helpful for mapping patterns in the suffragette census boycott.
19 Edward Higgs, ‘The Statistical Big Bang of 1911: Ideology, Technological Innovation and the Production of Medical Statistics’, Social History of Medicine, 1996, pp. 413, 417-18; Higgs, ‘The Rise of the Information State: the Development of Central State Surveillance of the Citizens in England, 1500-2000’, Journal of Historical Sociology, 2001, pp. 183, 192. Also Higgs, The Information State, London 2004; Higgs, ‘Fingerprints and Citizenship: the British State and the Identification of Pensioners in the Interwar Period’, History Workshop Journal 69, 2010.
20 For historians concerned to examine the Edwardian middle ground, see Lucy Delap, The Feminist Avant-Garde, Cambridge, 2007, n. 76.
21 Peter Christian and David Annal, Census: the Expert Guide, London, 2008, pp. 1, 8, 82. The 100-year rule was introduced by the 1920 Census Act, making 1911 census early access unique. In 2007-8 we began investigating the 1911 census, but access remained limited and the expense entailed deterred us from further searches.
22 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine; there was also fascination with this as the last pre-war generation.
23 The image probably predates the census boycott and is unrelated to it.
24 Guardian and The Times, 13 Jan. 2009. Elizabeth Crawford interviewed on Radio 5 Live.
25 Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a Reference Guide, London, 1999.
26 The ten columns of the databases also include one for the person’s age and one noting details of anyone else present in the house on census night.
27 This was supplemented by names in Crawford, Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland: a regional survey, 2006. For this ‘Local’ database we did not search rigorously for NUWSS members, as our Main database had revealed that most suffragists complied (and searches were then costly).
28 In addition, of course, we might add figures (though usually not names) given for mass evasions. As noted, the enumerator occasionally included the numbers of evaders estimated to be spending census night under a particular roof, although none of the individual women would give information. For details of our more intensive study of two regions, London and Yorkshire, see pp. 118–9; n. 77.
29 Votes for Women, 7 April 1911, p. 440. There is a note on the return for the hotel saying ‘see letters attached’; these may have related to Mrs Pankhurst, but, unfortunately, they are no longer present.
30 See The Times, 4 April 1911 and other press reports. She was in fact counted twice, her London landlady having also put her name down.
31 Women’s Library (henceforth WL); suffragist branch minutes include those for Cambridge, Cambridgeshire Archives.
32 On the campaign by duchesses and their housemaids that they would never lick stamps for Lloyd George, see his DNB entry. On state intrusion, see José Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870-1914, London (1993), 1994, pp. 207–8.
33 The criterion was independent occupation of a property, even part of a house, thus a residence qualification: Harold Smith, The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign 1866-1928, London, 2007, pp. 61-2.
34 Women’s Tax Resistance League Minute Book, 22 Oct. 1909, Women’s Freedom League collection, WL; see also Frances, ‘Piper’, pp. 66-7.
35 This was the second Bill devised by the Conciliation Committee and modified the 1910 bill (for example tightening up provisions against ‘faggot voting’).
36 Committee on the Census 1911, RG19/48B, 20 Oct 1909 to 10 Nov 1910, the National Archives (henceforth TNA).
37 See Anna Davin, ‘Imperialism and Motherhood’, HWJ 5, spring 1978; for the numbers of his siblings who survived or died, see biographies of John Burns.
38 See ‘Documents relating to the preparation of 1911 census’, Local Government Board Memorandum, Feb. 1910, p. 2.
39 ‘Instructions to Registrars’, 17 Nov. 1910, p. 13: ‘You should caution your Enumerators to be very careful to avoid giving offence when putting any questions that may be necessary’ for the marriage and children columns. Beyond a general admonition to be courteous and conciliatory to the occupier, the enumerators were given no special instruction as to how they should deal with women required to state the number of their dead children. For contemporary feminist debate, see Cicely Hamilton, Marriage as a Trade, London, 1909 and her 1911 novel, Just to get Married, also on theme of marriage.
40 ‘Memorandum upon the possible utilization of Census records of duration of marriage and number of children born to marriage’, RG19/185, TNA.
41 In debate on women’s right to work, note Olive Schreiner, Woman and Labour, London, 1911.
42 Andro Linklater, An Unhusbanded Life: Charlotte Despard, Suffragette, Socialist and Sinn Feiner, London, 1980, pp. 141-2; Mayhall, Militant Suffrage Movement, p. 37.
43 WFL Executive Committee Minutes, 20 June and 31 Oct 1910, 2WFL/1/01-15 (Box FL054), WL. Neither then, nor at a subsequent minuted 1910 discussion of the census boycott, was there any suggestion that WFL National Executive was aware of the new questions to be put about married women.
44 ‘Race Suicide’, Mrs Edward Francis (NEC address, Caxton Hall), The Vote, 21 Jan. 1911.
45 WFL Executive Committee Minutes, 6-7 Jan. and 30 Jan. 1911, 2WFL/1/01-15 (Box FL054), WL; Middlesbrough WFL Branch Minutes, 10 Jan. 1911.
46 The Vote, 11 Feb. 1911.
47 Votes for Women, 17 Feb. 1911; and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence’s leader, 24 Feb. 1911 on how to evade or resist.
48 Fawcett correspondence, 28 and 29 Sept. 1910, Manchester Central Reference Library; NUWSS Exec. Committee minutes (unconfirmed), 5 Jan. 1911, WL.
49 The Vote, 11 Feb. 1911.
50 Middlesbrough WFL Branch Minutes, 10 Jan.-17 March 1911.
51 The Times, 13 Feb. 1911.
52 The Times, 14 Feb. 1911.
53 C. P. Scott worked on the Conciliation Committee, was a major donor to NUWSS and was friendly with Helena Swanwick, editor of Common Cause.
54 The Times, 16 Feb. 1911; ARCS: Associate of the Royal Chemical Society. Likewise Housman in The Vote, 18 Feb. 1911.
55 Common Cause, 16 March 1911.
56 London Society for Women’s Suffrage (LSWS) lobbied by M. Parkes (WTRL), LSWS, box 154/3 (Philippa Strachey file), 19, 22ff., Feb. 1911.
57 LSWS, as above: WFL (Edith How-Martyn), box 154/4, 20-21 Feb. 1911 and 15 March 1911, WL.
58 Halifax Evening Chronicle, 31 March 1911.
59 Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 20 and 22 March 1911.
60 Co-op News, Jan. – 8 April 1911, Marian M. A. Ward and Annot Robinson. The Women’s Co-operative Guild, with about 27,000 members, mainly married working-class women, was lobbying Lloyd George about maternity benefit in his health insurance scheme; see also WCG, Maternity: Letters from Working Women, ed. Margaret Llewelyn Davies, London (1915), 1978.
61 North-Eastern Daily Gazette, 29 March 1911.
62 Manchester Guardian, Mon. 3 April 1911, Evelyn Sharp (Kensington) and Maud Joachim (Chelsea); the next day Scott furiously accused suffragettes of ‘ineptitude’, and a grave ‘offence against knowledge and civilization’.
63 Metcalfe, Woman’s Effort, p. 171.
64 Daily Mirror, 28 March 1911; Times, 1 April 1911. Afterwards, on 10 June 1911, the press, TUC and schools (via LEAs) were officially thanked for the ‘invaluable aid’ they had given towards a full and accurate census.
65 The Times, 3 and 4 April 1911; Daily Mirror, 3-5 April 1911.
66 Daily Sketch, 4 April 1911, Maud Arncliffe Sennett cuttings coll., British Library.
67 Manchester Guardian, 3 April 1911.
68 Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 3 April 1911; Portsmouth Evening News, 3 April 1911.
69 The government’s handling of the problem was astute. On 28 March 1911 Burns had written to the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill: ‘The Registrar-General who is responsible for the Census does not propose to force matters unduly and will be satisfied if he can obtain an estimate of the number of persons who congregate in the buildings referred to’ [i.e. places suffragettes designated for mass evasion], Randolph Churchill, Churchill, vol. ii part 3, London, 1969, p. 1,471. For the banner, of which no trace remains: The Vote, 17 June 1911.
70 Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s house schedule, completed by the enumerator, listed only two servants. We established from her Aldeburgh Barclays bank book that she withdrew £30 on 4 April; the previous cheque was drawn on 27 March, suggesting she was near home on 1 April.
71 Local database figures in particular should be treated with caution, as identities then were often fluid; memberships joint (or even multiple); and branch minutes around 1911 scanty; see note 79.
72 Miss Cummin, (1910) WFL branch secretary, W. Sussex.
73 Plus a small number in more modest circumstances.
74 See n. 27 above. Plus many ‘unknowns’ especially in Local database.
75 Possibly she took an adult daughter with her, and other female servants.
76 Enumerator’s pages, Redhill, Surrey. On state intrusion, see Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit, pp. 196-218 and 228-50; also Delap, pp. 162-72 on feminist suspicions of an overweening state.
77 Identifying sample regions is of course problematic. However, experience of the detailed background information required for local searches persuaded us that the regions selected must be areas with which we were closely familiar – hence Yorkshire and London (1911 populations: London, 4,522,000; Yorkshire 3,980,000; England, 34,000,000). The economic and social structure of London is of course atypical. Nevertheless, the three Ridings of Yorkshire, about 160 miles from London, include agricultural, commercial, industrial and seaport communities and offer a more balanced profile.
78 Local WSPU membership by 1911 is difficult to estimate due to scanty evidence; some seemingly had dropped their earlier WSPU membership or were now merely sympathetic (see n. 79).
79 Sadly, this minute book ends in February 1909, two years beforehand: Liddington, Rebel Girls, 2006, p. 188; even the branch contact listed in WSPU 1911 Annual Report, well-to-do Bertha Lowenthal, complied.
80 Significantly, among women doctors, the pattern of compliance and boycotting was mixed.
81 128,000 women teachers (England and Wales) were employed by local authorities. Teachers in independent schools and training colleges (who were fewer) were less constrained.
82 After merely one year spent searching, we must in part leave the question open – while noting the extremely high incidence of compliance; considerable scope remains for further detailed local research.
83 Nine members of Middlesbrough branch and two of neighbouring West Hartlepool branch; Alice Schofield Coates and Marion Coates-Hanson were sisters-in-law. The branch experienced tensions and also financial worries. See Eustance, ‘Meanings of Militancy’, pp. 59-62.
84 For an example of uncompromising mass evasion, see Ms diary of Dr Alice Ker, Sun. 2 April-Mon. 3 April 1911 (Hew Stevenson Collection).
85 Katharine Frye diary, 2 April 1911, includes a cutting reporting Burns’s ‘mercy’ and ‘magnanimity’ speech; Elizabeth Crawford’s collection.
86 We are most grateful to Dave Annal, TNA, for this discovery.
87 Lisa Tickner, The Spectacle of Women, London 1987, pp. 122-31; even LSWS came round; and Middlesbrough WFL bought a new banner for the procession.
88 Vital here was the role of the ILP’s ‘Political Equality Campaign’ in lobbying Labour leaders.
89 The extent of under-enumeration in 1911 was much smaller than in the 1991 census at time of poll tax, estimated at over a million, especially of young city-centre men: thanks to David Lawrence for this reference.