In 1835 the Municipal Reform Act was passed by Parliament. As a result 178 boroughs were granted permission to allow the townspeople to have their own councils. Over the next thirty years other boroughs were given permission to have elected town councils and gradually these bodies took over the control of local services such as street lighting, housing and education.
In 1869 Parliament passed the Municipal Franchise Act. This legislation extended the vote to women rate-payers in local elections. This act also enabled women to serve as Poor Law Guardians. Several suffragists, including Marie Corbett, Emmeline Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard took this opportunity to become involve in local government.
The County Council Act of 1888 also gave them the right to vote in County and Borough Councils. However, it was not until an act was passed in 1907 that women were permitted to be members of County and Borough Councils. Women now became active in local politics and in 1908, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first women to be elected mayor when she was chosen for the post in Aldeburgh.
The leaders of the Liberal Party advised women to prove their fitness for the Parliamentary franchise by serving in municipal offices, especially the unsalaried offices. A large number of women had availed themselves of this advice, and were serving on Boards of Guardians, on school boards, and in other capacities. My children now being old enough for me to leave them with competent nurses, I was free to join these ranks. A year after my return to Manchester in 1894 I became a candidate for the Board of Poor Law Guardians... I was elected, heading the poll by a very large majority.
When I came into office I found that the law was being very harshly administered. The old board had been made up of the kind of men who are known as rate savers. They were guardians, not of the poor but of the rates… For instance, the inmates were being very poorly fed.
I found the old folks in the workhouse sitting on backless forms, or benches. They had no privacy, no possessions, not even a locker… After I took office I gave the old people comfortable Windsor chairs to sit in, and in a number of ways we managed to make their existence more endurable.
The first time I went into the place I was horrified to see little girls seven and eight years on their knees scrubbing the cold stones of the long corridors. These little girls were clad, summer and winter, in thin cotton frocks, low in the neck and short sleeved. At night they wore nothing at all, night dresses being considered too good for paupers. The fact that bronchitis was epidemic among them most of the time had not suggested to the guardians any change in the fashion of their clothes.
I also found pregnant women in the workhouse, scrubbing floors, doing the hardest kind of work, almost until their babies came into the world. Many of them were unmarried women, very, very young, mere girls. These poor mothers were allowed to stay in the hospital after confinement for a short two weeks. Then they had to make a choice of staying in the workhouse and earning their living by scrubbing and other work, in which case they were separated from their babies. They could stay and be paupers, or they could leave - leave with a two-week-old baby in their arms, without hope, without home, without money, without anywhere to go. What became of those girls, and what became of their hapless infants?
My mother visited the local Uckfield Workhouse and was appalled by the conditions in which orphaned and abandoned children were living in wards with the old and mentally afflicted. She stood for election as Poor Law Guardian, and became one of the first women in the country to be Guardian and Rural District Councillor. She reformed conditions in the workhouse, and gradually removed all the children, whom she boarded out with village families… When she had emptied Uckfield Workhouse, she took children from Eastbourne Workhouse and from a London borough. When she died, many of these former inhabitants of the workhouse wrote to me… and they all used the same phrase: "She was my best friend."
The State keeps 22,483 children in workhouses. Here is a description of a Government nursery: "Often found under the charge of a person actually certified as of unsound mind, the bottles sour, the babies wet, cold and dirty. The Commission on the Care and Control of the Feebleminded draws attention to an episode in connection with one feeble-minded woman who was set to wash a baby; she did so in boiling water, and it died."
"We were shocked," continues the Report, "to discover that infants in the nursery of the establishments in London and other large towns seldom or never get into the open air. "We found the nursery frequently on the third or fourth story of a gigantic block often without balconies, whence the only means of access even to the workhouse yard was a flight of stone steps down which it was impossible to wheel a baby-carriage of any kind. There was no staff of nurses adequate to carrying fifty or sixty infants out for an airing. In some of these workhouses it was frankly admitted that these babies never left their own quarters (the stench was intolerable) and never got into the open air during the whole period of their residence in the workhouse nursery. In some workhouses 40% of the babies die within the year."
I doubt if there exists in print a better plea for the urgency of Woman's Suffrage that that embodied in this Report of the latest English Poor Law Commission… What it reveals is an incompetence and legalised cruelty in the treatment of the poor… that thousands of innocent children are shut up with tramps and prostitutes; that there are workhouses which have no separate sick ward for children, in spite of the ravages of measles, whooping-cough, etc.
Men have talked about these evils for seventy-five years. We see now that until the portion of the community standing closest to the problems presented by care of the old and broken, the young children and the afflicted, until women have a voice in mending the laws on this subject, the inadequacy of the laws will continue to be merely discussed.