Women, the New Poor Law and the Long Road to Emancipation

Baroness Burdett-Coutts, by York & Son, after Francis Henry Hart, for Elliott & Fry (1882) © National Portrait Gallery Collection, London, Reproduced under Creative Commons License 3.0

This week’s blog is a little off the beaten track for In Their Own Write. Rather than the lives of paupers, it looks at the issue of women’s fight for emancipation and equal treatment by the state and under the law. No doubt by now everyone is aware that this year marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act (1918), which, for the first time enfranchised women over the age of 30 and paved the way for all women to get the vote. The Act was the culmination of more than 50 years of committed protest and agitation by Suffragettes and Suffragists, often involving hardship and considerable danger. But in this special anniversary year, and with the growing #MeToo movement demonstrating just how much further women have to go to achieve real parity, it is worth reflecting that disenfranchisement is just one of the many personal and legal obstacles faced by women throughout history.

In particular, as Steven King has demonstrated elsewhere, despite their hard work on behalf of the poor behind the scenes in the nineteenth-century, it took a very long time for women to gain the right to actually hold public office under the New Poor Law (King, 2006). Other than the usual property qualifications, there was nothing in the original legislation which officially disbarred women from standing as Guardians in their local unions. But the question of whether or not this could actually happen in practice was hotly debated, and the official view was summarised by the Poor Law Commission in 1850 when it stated that: “The objections to the appointment of a female [guardian]…are so manifest, that the board cannot readily suppose that the question will become one of practical importance in the administration of the Poor laws” (Brown, 1875: 240). Yet, despite this trenchant view, it only took a few years for a serious challenge to be mounted.

In 1869, the name of Miss (later Baroness) Angela Burdett-Coutts appeared on the nomination forms for the West Ward of the Bethnal Green Union. As far as we know, this was the first time it had happened under the New Poor Law. Unsurprisingly, the union moved swiftly into action, and alongside her name on the voting forms the brief note was added: “It is the opinion of the [Union] Clerk that Miss Angela Burdett Coutts is not qualified to serve as Guardian, being a female” (TNA MH12/6859).

Handbill 2 - detail
Baroness Burdett Coutts’ entry on the voting form for Guardians of the Poor, Bethnal Green West Ward, 1869 (MH12/6859, reproduced courtesy of The National Archives)

Yet despite the official view, Burdett Coutts polled fifth out of nine candidates; and as such she had been elected by the ratepayers to serve as the first woman guardian of the poor in Britain: a sensation was brewing, history was about to be made!

Unfortunately, despite the bold move of the ratepayers in electing her, they never got the chance to fight for Burdett Coutts’ right to actually sit on the Board. It transpired after the election that she had been nominated without her knowledge, and in the event she never actually served. Those who have mentioned this footnote in the history of women’s emancipation in their work have accepted the official view that she refused to take her place precisely because she had not been consulted over her nomination. But the correspondence of the Poor Law Board (TNA MH12/6859&6860) makes it clear that she was kept fully informed of the situation following her election, and there are indications that she was willing to serve as a Guardian had the local Ratepayers’ Association (which had nominated her in the first place) agreed to it.

Sadly, the Poor Law Board made it clear that, had she attempted to do so, this would have prompted a costly law suit which the ratepayers were unable (and, presumably, the fabulously wealthy Baroness was unwilling) to enter into. As Robert Atkins, the secretary of the Ratepayers’ Association, wrote to the Board: “Law is proverbially a very expensive article; and Bethnal Green is proverbially very poor. It seems almost like a mockery to refer the ratepayers of Bethnal Green to a court of Law; where justice is kept in deep wells, and none but those with long purses may draw therefrom” (TNA MH12/6860).

In the event, it took another six years before a female Guardian of the Poor would take her place in Britain. Her name was Martha Merrington, and she served on the Board of the Kensington Union (Richardson, 2013: 97). The name of Baroness Burdett Coutts’ did not, after all, go down in history as one of the key emancipators of her age. But amidst all the celebrations of what has been achieved since women first gained the vote 100 years ago, and all the soul-searching over how far we have really come in the struggle for parity, perhaps we should spare a thought for an unheralded, though slightly reluctant, servant in the fight for female emancipation: Angela Georgina, 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts.

Further Reading

  • W.A. Brown (ed.), The Poor Law Magazine and Parochial Journal (Edinburgh, 1875), 240
  • S.A. King, Women, Welfare and Local Politics, 1880-1920: ‘We Might be Trusted’ (Brighton, 2006)
  • S. Richardson, The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain (New York/Oxford, 2013)


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