Ask the average person (always assuming that such a being exists) when women got the vote in Britain, and I reckon they'd say the 1920s or thereabouts. Nothing wrong with that answer; until a recent visit to Newham Archives I'd have said the same, and then I'd have scurried off to look up the details in a reputable reference book: I'd have found the 1918 Representation of the People Act (certain women over 30) and then ten years later the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act (all women over 21, irrespective of property ownership). Job done.
But documents at Newham Archives - while not exactly overturning the conventional wisdom - tell a slightly different story that is worth repeating here, if only to drive home once again the point that the past is rarely straightforward. Who among us, has ever heard of the 1869 Municipal Franchise Act and the even more prosaic-sounding Local Government Act of 1894? Dull but worthy legislation no doubt, but it enabled my client's great-grandmother Caroline Meredith to vote in municipal elections. I'd found a few gleanings about her and her husband Donald on my visit but had given up finding anything else, when a helpful member of staff flourished a 1908-09 electoral register for West Ham Ward no. 7 and there was Caroline at 31 Stratford Road, presumably entitled to vote in local elections as a property owner and ratepayer.
I must say that seeing her name in this source rather floored me, as when it was suggested that I check it I immediately dismissed the idea with a complacent conviction that turned out to be totally misplaced - a rather chastening experience for me (my reaction brought a wry smile to the face of the archivist). Now I'm not suggesting that voting in local elections in any way counts as 'the vote', but the fact that Caroline did at least have a very minor stake in the system in the early twentieth century is something. And it's also a reminder that with history the devil is always in the detail; no matter what the subject, it's bound to be more complicated than we think - the past always has a habit of springing surprises on us.