University of Portsmouth's History Blog

The 1911 census: the government and the suffragettes have a conversation

A 1911 census form provides evidence of the ways in which the suffragettes challenged state authority.  This piece was written by second-year UoP history student Ashleigh Hufton for the second-year module, Danger! Censorship, Power and the People.

Forms articulate conversations between two parties, argues Dobraszczyk, in an article on the Victorian census. [1]  A 1911 census return form is a useful document to view when analysing the relationship between the liberal government and individual social actors. [2]  This was the first census to be completed by the homeowner, allowing individuals to choose what information the government attained.[3] The suffragettes utilised this power to challenge state authority through their “census boycott”. [4] Analysis of a suffragette’s census return demonstrates how state control was challenged in 1911, and the political rivalry between the suffragettes and the Liberal government. [5]

The “No Vote No Census” poster on the return form reflects the conflict between the suffragettes and the government.  Henry Asquith, the Prime Minister, used his state power to block the suffragettes from enfranchisement, fuelling the political rivalry between the suffragettes and the government.[6]  The “No Vote No Census” poster demonstrates the political response from the suffragettes, to being declined the right to vote.[7] The individual is challenging the instruction of higher authority by not only refusing to complete the census, but also by using this poster to mask over questions regarding woman’s fertility and marriage.  White argues that this was because suffragettes were angered by a state who refused women’s enfranchisement, yet wanted those same women to provide their private information.[8]  The phrase “No Vote No Census” links this individual to the broader movement of the “No Votes No Census” campaign, led by the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) and Women’s Political and Social Union (WPSU).[9]  This campaign asked suffragettes to boycott the census and undermine government authority, until they granted women the right to vote.[10]  By vandalising the form instead of providing information, this individual is acting in accordance with this campaign.  This underlines the power of agency, the suffragettes, when united against higher authority, the Liberal government.  This return is a significant source to study when looking at the challenges to state power during 1911.

Votes for Women front page showing the head of the census department kneeling in front of a suffragette.

Source: Ulysses Ed.07/Fundação Ulysses Guimarães


The individual handwrites “No Persons here only women”.[11]  The adverb “only” implies mockery towards the government’s decision to refuse women the right to vote and citizenship.[12] This phrase reflects the individual’s anger and upset towards the denial of women’s enfranchisement, and treatment from the state.  The placement of this phrase at the centre of the form, and the fact that it is handwritten, suggests a personal connection to the words written.  In 1910 women marched towards parliament in protest due to being denied the vote and were brutally beaten by police – this was known as Black Friday.[13]  The government made it clear on this day that women were not accepted or treated as citizens. The above phrase on the census return is the suffragette’s response to this treatment.  Liddington highlights that the thought amongst suffragettes, in writing on their census forms was that ‘if women were not classed as citizens, they should not provide information like citizens’.[14]  This census can therefore be placed within a broader context of the suffragette ideology, as other women reacted similarly to the individual vandalising this census form.[15]  Mayhall underlines that by uniting in their response to the census, women demonstrated their ability to challenge the boundaries of state control as a collective.[16]

The protester uses the “census meeting” stickers to further vandalise the form.[17]  On April 1st, the night before the census, the WFL and WPSU led a rally to assist women in boycotting the census.[18]  These stickers are evidence of how the suffragette movement was rising, despite opposition from the state.  Waters argues that meetings were key to success for the suffragettes, as they helped spread the word of the boycott.[19]  The stickers reflect the challenge to state authority, as the suffragette movement was clearly still meeting despite the government’s opposition.

The South Wales Argues reports on the Women's Freedom League mass meeting on the 3 April 1911

Source: National Library of Wales, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalassemblyforwales/26822502678

Atkinson, Crawford and White highlight that the “census boycott” did not only consist of vandalising census forms.[20]  Suffragettes also challenged government authority by evading the census completely.[21]  Thus the census return reflects only a section of the overall movement. Despite this, the return still offers an insight into the influence of state power within society.[22] “Domestic servant” is written in green ink and written in a different handwriting to the protester.[23] This implies that the protester did not write this and is useful in demonstrating the levels of state authority within society.  Whoever wrote “Domestic servant” was abiding by state control, without the consent of the protestor.  Crawford and White underline that when suffragettes refused to complete the census accurately, enumerators or husbands would complete the form on their behalf.[24]  This implies that a third-party intervened and undermined the suffragette’s demonstration of power, by completing her occupation. The census return is clearly useful when looking at the balances of power within society, and how individuals chose to either comply or resist state control.

This census return was recorded from “Kensington”.  Upper-class areas such as Kensington and Chelsea were rich in suffragette ideology.[25] Crawford and Liddington suggest that Kensington’s easy access to London encouraged stronger suffragette beliefs.[26]  Waters argues that areas close to London were more active in suffragette campaigns.[27]  Yet Liddington highlights that even areas outside of London, such as Nottingham and Staffordshire, experienced resisters.[28]  This adds to the value of this source, as it reflects the widespread influence of the boycott movement in challenging government authority.

This census return form is significant in demonstrating the conflict between the state and the suffragettes.  The form underlines a link between this individual and the broader movements of the WFL and WPSU through the “No Votes no Census” campaign, and the support for the “Census Meeting”.  This connection is important in considering the power of agency when united against a higher authority.  It is a useful insight into how the government attempted to control society, and the responses to this by the suffragettes and other individuals. This significant piece of evidence is important in understanding how women fought for their enfranchisement by challenging state control.

[1] Paul Dobraszczyk “Give in your account: Using and Abusing Victorian Census Forms”, Journal of Victorian Culture, 14, no.1 (2009): 1.

[2] National Archives, “Example of a non-militant protest in the census for South Kensington, London, 1911” Catalogue ref: RG14-118, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/suffragettes-on-file/census-boycott/ last accessed 30/3/2020.

[3] Elizabeth Crawford and Jill Liddington. “Women do not count, neither shall they be counted’: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the 1911 Census”, History Workshop Journal, 71, no.1 (2011): 98-99.

[4] Crawford and Liddington, “Women do not count”: 99. ; Michael Waters, “The Campaign for Women’s Suffrage in York and the 1911 Census Evasion”, A Review of History and Archaeology in the County, 90, no.1 (2018): 178. ; Ian White, “No Vote-No Census: an account of some of the events of 1910-1911”, Population Trends 142, no.113, (2010): 35.

[5] Crawford and Liddington, “Women do not count”: 122.

[6] Diane Atkinson, Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 186.; Laura E. Mayhall, The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 186.; White, “No Vote-No Census”: 35.

[7] National Archives, “Example of a non-militant protest’.

[8] White, “No Vote-No Census”: 38.

[9] Crawford and Liddington, “Women do not count”: 112.

[10] White, “No Vote-No Census”: 38.

[11] “Example of a non-militant protest”.

[12] Waters, “Campaign for Women’s Suffrage”: 178.

[13] Atkinson, Rise Up Women, 187; Jill Liddington, Vanishing for the vote: suffrage, citizenship and the battle for the census (Manchester; Manchester University Press, 2014), 2.; White, “No Vote-No Census”: 42-5.

[14] Liddington, Vanishing for the Vote, 72.

[15] National Archives, “Example of a non-militant protest”.

[16] Mayhall, The Militant Suffragette Movement, 62.

[17] National Archives, “Example of a non-militant protest”.

[18] Atkinson, Rise Up Women, 188. ; Crawford and Liddington, “Women do not count”: 115. ; Liddington, Vanishing for the vote, 153 ; White, “No Vote-No Census”: 46.

[19] Waters, “Campaign for Women’s Suffrage”: 188.

[20] Atkinson, Rise Up Women, 186.; Crawford and Liddington, Women do not count”: 100.; White, “No Vote- No Census”: 46.

[21] Atkinson, Rise Up Women, 186.; Crawford and Liddington, Women do not count”: 100.; White, “No Vote-No Census”: 46.

[22] Crawford and Liddington, “Women do not count”: 98.

[23] National Archives, “Example of a non-militant protest”.

[24] Crawford and Liddington, “Women do not count”: 108, 122; White, “No Vote-No Census”: 50.

[25] Liddington, Vanishing for the Vote, 145-6.

[26] Crawford and Liddington, “Women do not count”: 120.

[27] Waters, “Campaign for Women’s Suffragette”: 181.

[28] Liddington, Vanishing for the Vote, 126-130.

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