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The Mistresses of Dulwich High School

14 September 2018

This month, Dr Mari Takayanagi looks at a rare surviving original women's suffrage petition from the Parliamentary Archives

The survival of petitions to Parliament

Although thousands of women's suffrage petitions with millions of signatures were presented to Parliament between 1866 and 1918, of which the largest was the ‘Special Appeal' of 1896, very few of the original documents survive.  In this period, petitions to the Commons were logged by the House of Commons Select Committee on Public Petitions, with details published in their reports such as the date, name of MP presenting, subject and number of signatories. The full text of a select few petitions was printed in the appendices to the reports, which gave the first three names of signatories, at most.

The petitions were then destroyed, meaning that sadly it is impossible to look at the original records to see the full lists of signatories today. Sometimes the petition promoters would keep their own records, such as the first mass suffrage petition in 1866 where the promoters printed their own full list of signatories, but these are not held by Parliament.

However, a few original women's suffrage petitions to Parliament do survive– about a dozen – and this was because they came to the House of Lords rather than the House of Commons. These petitions were noted in the Lords Journal, and although the documents were then usually destroyed, some were preserved and can be found in the Parliamentary Archives in series HL/PO/6. One of these was from the Mistresses of Dulwich High School in 1884.


The Dulwich suffrage petition

The petition was presented to the House of Lords on 3 November 1884. It asks for votes for women – but not all women. The petition stated that Parliament was discussing a measure to extend the franchise to more working-class  men – this was the Third Reform Bill, which was passed in December that year – which would give the vote to ‘millions of the least educated section of the Community'. It was therefore unjust that well-educated and intelligent women would be excluded. The petitioners specifically made the point that, ‘the servants of a Lady, living in houses for which she paid rent and taxes, would have the vote … while she herself, though the head of the household, would have no vote.'

Today when we assume that virtually all adult men and women should have the vote, it may seem strange to read such arguments based around property, taxes and education. However, this was a common position for many women's suffrage campaigners in the 19th and early 20th centuries, who argued for the vote on the same terms as enjoyed by men. It's not surprising that a group of professional working women such as school mistresses – likely to be well-educated, owning or renting property, paying taxes  - would make such arguments.


The school mistresses – and masters

There are 23 signatures on the Dulwich suffrage petition, the first being Mary Alger, the Head Mistress. The ‘Jubilee Book of the Girls' Public Day School Trust' explains that Dulwich High School for Girls opened under her leadership in 1878 with 47 girls, expanded rapidly, and had more than 400 pupils around the time of this petition in 1885. Mary Alger died in post in 1894, so never saw women achieve the Parliamentary vote. The school closed in 1939 but there is still a school on its site today.

As well as Mary Alger, there are another 20 names of women on this petition; and although the petition declares itself to be from ‘the Head Mistress & Assistant Mistresses of the Dulwich High School', there are also names of two men! These are William Mann and Humphrey Stark. Stark can be identified as he describes himself as ‘Mus Bac Oxon', an Oxford graduate of music. ‘Alumni Oxonienses' reveals him to be Humphrey John Stark from Reading, Berkshire, who matriculated at New College in 1873 aged 19, and graduated with a B.Mus in 1875. The ‘Englishwomen's Review' described him lecturing women students on harmony and composition at Trinity College London in 1878, and reporting that the ladies progress was ‘in every respect equal to that of the male students of the College.' It's gratifying to see him supporting women's suffrage by signing this petition a few years later.


Voice and Vote Exhibition

You can see the Dulwich suffrage petition on display in ‘Voice and Vote: Women's Place in Parliament', Parliament's major public exhibition marking 100 years of votes for the first women. Open until 6 October 2018. Book your tickets on the Parliament website.

Dr Mari Takayanagi is Senior Archivist in the Parliamentary Archives and Co-Curator of the Voice and Vote Exhibition.

Image: Petition from the Mistresses of Dulwich High School, 1884. Parliamentary Archives HL/PO/6/11A.
© Parliamentary Archives