History of Local Taxation & Women's Votes

Like many issues in local government, the history of taxation is a long and complex one.

Although the roots of local taxation that go back to pre-medieval days, it was Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries that brought about the ‘Laws for the relief of the Poor' (the Poor Laws)’ in 1601.  Before this, those who were unable to work depended upon the charity of the monasteries.   The Poor Laws specifically placed a duty to raise taxation for the sole purpose of supporting the poor.  By the time of the Industrial revolution it was clear there had to be a change in the operation of the law as there were large scale movements of the population from rural areas to the industrial cities. Whilst this was the genesis of the workhouses movement it marks an important issue that challenges all systems of local taxation:- the transient nature of both the population and the local economy.

When Could Women Vote?

Sarah Richardson notes that:

This question appears straightforward. Many would point to the Representation of the People Act in 1918 which extended the parliamentary franchise to women over 30 years of age. Others may cite the Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 which enabled female ratepayers to vote for local municipal councils (although a court case in 1872 restricted this right to single or widowed women). In fact, women had the right to vote and to hold office in a range of local and parish institutions from their foundation.

The reason that women were able to vote was due to the fact that many local franchises were based upon payment of poor rates, irrespective of the sex of the person paying those rates. This was effectively a household franchise, and single or widowed women who owned or rented eligible properties were able to exercise the vote. The organisation and powers of local government had arisen from immemorial custom and incorporated elements of the common law as well as combinations of by-laws and private and public parliamentary acts. Thus Beatrice and Sidney Webb termed local government ‘an anarchy of local autonomy’.  However, this local autonomy allowed a high degree of public participation.

In theory, women could also vote in parliamentary elections before 1832 as county, and many borough, franchises were based on property ownership. The Great Reform Act, however, specified for the first time that the right to vote was restricted to ‘male persons’. In 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act also excluded women, disenfranchising many who had previously voted for town councils. The focus on these two significant pieces of legislation has led many to conclude that the early to mid nineteenth century witnessed a masculinisation of the public sphere. The emphasis on the parliamentary and municipal electorates also means that it is easy to overlook the fact that women continued to vote and to hold office for a range of local bodies, including overseers of the poor, surveyors of the highway and constables, as well as for parish servants such as sextons and beadles.

Ian Briggs

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