1870 Education Act

After the passing of the 1867 Reform Act, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Robert Lowe, remarked that the government would now "have to educate our masters." As a result of this view, the government passed the 1870 Education Act. The act, drafted by William Forster stated:

(a) the country would be divided into about 2500 school districts;

(b) School Boards were to be elected by ratepayers in each district;

(c) the School Boards were to examine the provision of elementary education in their district, provided then by Voluntary Societies, and if there were not enough school places, they could build and maintain schools out of the rates;

(d) the school Boards could make their own by-laws which would allow them to charge fees or, if they wanted, to let children in free.

The 1870 Education Act allowed women to vote for the School Boards. Women were also granted the right to be candidates to serve on the School Boards. Several feminists saw this as an opportunity to show they were capable of public administration. In 1870, four women, Flora Stevenson, Lydia Becker, Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett were elected to local School Boards. Elizabeth Garrett, a popular local doctor, obtained more votes Marylebone than any other candidate in the country.

Primary Sources

(1) The 1870 Education Act enabled women for the first time to vote and to stand for election to local School Boards. In 1870 four women stood as candidates. Flora Stevenson in Edinburgh, Lydia Becker in Manchester, Emily Davies in Greenwich and Elizabeth Garrett in Marylebone. Elizabeth Garrett wrote a letter on 24th October 1870, explaining how she became a candidate.

This morning I had a deputation from the Working Men's Association…. I dare say when it has to be done I can do it, and it is no use asking for women to be taken into public work and yet to wish them to avoid publicity. Still I am very sorry it is necessary, especially as I can't think of anything to say. The first of these trials is to be next week. It is a tough and toilsome business.

(2) In her book Women's Suffrage published in 1911, Millicent Garrett Fawcett described the School Board elections in 1870.

In the first School Board election, which took place in London in November 1870 Miss Elizabeth Garrett and Miss Emily Davies were returned as members. Miss Garrett was at the head of the poll in her constituency - Marylebone. She polled more than 47,000 votes, the largest number, it was said at the time, which had ever been bestowed upon any candidate in any election in England. In Manchester Miss Becker was elected a member of the first School Board, and was continuously re-elected for twenty years until her death in 1890. In Edinburgh Miss Flora Stevenson was elected to the first School Board, and was continuously re-elected for thirty-three years until her death in 1905.

(3) Philip Snowden, An Autobiography (1934)

After the passing of Mr. Forster's Education Act, a few progressive persons in the village started an agitation for the adoption of the Act. The Act was adopted, and the school I attended was taken over by the newly formed School Board. Steps were taken at once to build new school premises. A trained master was appointed, and a new era in child education in the village was opened up. I was between ten and eleven years old when this change took place. It brought me into a new world of learning. We were taught in a new schoolroom, which by comparison with the dingy old place we left seemed like a palace to us. The walls were covered with maps and pictures. Our curriculum was extended to include grammar, geography, history, elementary mathematics, and the simple sciences. We were not troubled with the religious question, for, in order to avoid all controversy, the Board from the beginning banished the Bible from the school, not because they were irreligious, but because they believed that the teaching of religion was best carried out by the sects in their own Sunday Schools.