Lydia Becker (1827-1890), the feminist you’ve never heard of

Miss Lydia Becker courtesy LSE Women’s Library

To misquote Hilaire Belloc, son of a suffragist but anti-suffragist   himself , the following excerpt from an  Ode to Lydia Becker will make you stretch your eyes.

In 1867, women had no vote but Lydia campaigned to remedy the situation and was one of the first women in the UK to speak in public.  In response to her campaign,  a self-styled ‘author’ penned this.

Oh, maiden with a charming name,

But with a most unseemly mission,

Why to the franchise lay a claim

When marriage should be your mission?

Women their province best fulfil

When prompt to soothe, and not defy, men

And, shy of trusting Mr Mill,

Rather repose their faith in Hymen.

Women were expected to stay home.. Even daughters of wealthy businessmen had a rudimentary education.  A husband legally owned his wife,  her possessions before marriage became his, and should they separate, the children remained with him.  Not only this, but women never went to public meetings except church and she certainly couldn’t speak at one.

Lydia Ernestine Becker, a chemist’s daughter from Manchester (he owned a vitriol works at Middleton Junction on the outskirts of the city), home schooled by a governess and self educated, was amongst the first women in the country to speak in public. And on a political platform no less.  Scandalous!  From her first venture as orator, she travelled the country speaking on female issues at venues as prestigious as the Mechanic’s Institute, Leeds, and Manchester’s Free Trade Hall.

The Second Reform Act was passed in 1867 permitting ‘persons‘ who owned property to vote.  Taking the Act at its word,  Lydia persuaded 5,000 eligible women to enter their names on Manchester’s electoral register.  Sadly, most were weeded out before election day but a handful of names slipped through.   Lilly  Maxwell, a Scottish born widow, was one. She cast her vote for Jacob Bright, the candidate espousing women’s suffrage.    Remember, this was fifty years short of official female enfranchisement.  As soon as the by-election closed, the government reworded the Act and women were banned from voting until 1918.

As can be expected in a world when women were powerless, Lydia was treated with contempt and ridicule for daring to speak in public  especially in support of women’s rights.  Subject to a barrage of vitriol (I couldn’t resist referring to daddy’s trade) she became adept at rebuffing hecklers.

As evidence of how far women have travelled since the 1860s, I have copied part of William Gaspey’s Ode to Lydia Becker published in the Cumberland Pacquet and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser on 20th October 1868.   Originally  from London, Gaspey was a bookseller and author living in Keswick.  His wife, Jane, was fourteen years his junior and I’d love to know if she agreed with his ideology.  I didn’t have the heart to copy the entire doggerel; at six stanzas, it was patronising to a fault.

This is how it continues…

Few of the fair sex who are blest

With husbands care a pin for voting:

No dream of suffrage stirs the breast

Of tender wives, or mothers doting:

More prescient than ‘strong minded’ dames,

To them far nobler nursery morals,

And joining in their children’s games,

Than dabbling in election quarrels!


Helpmeet for man was woman made,

To cheer him with her love and beauty,

But when a demagogue’s her trade,

Vanish both modesty and duty.

On platforms, she is out of place,

And meets from law no recognition –

Sweet Polly loses all her grace

Transformed into a POLLY-tician!

and  on and on and on….


Postcode Lottery; the hidden life of a Manchester street

Molyneux Road, Levenshulme, Manchester, is one of those nondescript drive-past-and-you-miss-it turn-of-the-century terraces seen around the country especially in the North West. This is a social snapshot of families living there just after the houses had been built.

The 1908 Ordnance Survey map shows the neighbouring streets but no sign of the nascent 22 houses eventually constituting Molyneux Road: except this map was out of date because there were already six houses, numbers 1 to 11 forming their own little self-contained block (RG13/3692/0228-0229) and enumerated in the 1901 census.

Molyneux Road . Nos 1-11 in foreground. © Adèle Emm

Although they are quintessentially two-up two-downs, the houses here have gardens not backyards and nor did the front doors lead straight onto the street; this was a desirable address.   The residents had ‘cut above’ jobs too.   In 1901 Robert Jamieson at number 1, George Atkins at 3 (still living there in 1911) and John Booth at number 11 were clerks (insurance or mercantile); a retired widower and his family lived at number 5, and a warehouse porter and stone mason at 7 and 9.

By 1911, the road was complete with houses from 1 to 43 just as today.  Living at the far end at 43, perhaps the last house to be built, were three single women; sisters, Annie (53) and Elizabeth Smith (46) and their lodger, assistant teacher Mary Dixon (21), who worked for Manchester Corporation.  Elizabeth was in the up-and-coming communications industry, a GPO telegraphist.  Their house, slightly larger than the others, had five rooms (not including kitchen, scullery or bathroom) so each had her own bedroom sharing living space downstairs.  What struck me most was that hardly anyone in the road worked in the cotton industry.

43 Molyneux looking towards industrial Levenshulme at the far end of the street. © Adèle Emm

I don’t need to remind anyone that this was three years before the devastation of World War One when Molyneux’s young men must have been desperate to join the fray.   In 1911, 12 year old Horace Statham lived at number 5.  Next door but one, at number 1 lived 11 year old Reginald Harry Bembridge with mum, dad and siblings.  Reggie was their eldest son.   There’s no way these lads couldn’t have known each other;  were they friends, did they play footie in the street and attend the same school?   Horace joined up, aged 20, in September 1918. He still lived at number 5, was a turner by trade, 5 ft 4 inches tall, with light brown hair, blue grey eyes and a mole on his left cheek.   Reggie’s family had moved round the corner to 199 Broom Lane. Tragically, a month after Horace joined up and a few days before Armistice, his pal  died of wounds, 24 October 1918. Private R H Bembridge is buried a long way from Manchester at St Aubert British Cemetery, France.

Another participant in WW1 was George Edward Dunn from number 31 at the other end of the road. He, too, was 11 in 1911, and probably knew the others as they were the  same age.  When he signed up in May 1917 aged just 18, he was a titch of a lad at 5 ft 3 with a 33 inch chest and expansion of only 3 inches, fresh complexioned, grey eyes and auburn hair. Most of his ‘theatre of war’ was in the reserve but a note  shows him forfeiting 8 days pay.  What happened?  He was given 14 days leave (17.8.19 to 9.9.19) to travel back from somewhere in the Rhine to the UK via Calais.   I bet he went to visit mum, widowed during the course  of the war and he was eight days late returning to base.   Ominously, the note reads ‘disciplinary action taken; but, unlike poor Reggie, George survived.

This link is to the National Library of Scotland map for 1894 clearly showing field boundaries, local works, dye, print and wire-mattress makers. The area was still relatively rural; the houses that would mushroom up but a twinkle in the builders’ eyes.