Emmeline Christabel Sylvia

This is the second blog by members of the Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society in celebration of our female ancestors in the centenary year of the Representation of People Act.

This blog looks at how we can use the 1911 census to find out more about our female ancestors and also how women in our area used the census to protest against their disenfranchisement.

What can we find out about our female ancestors from the 1911 census?

In 1911 the population of England and Wales was about 36 million and life expectancy for women was 54. The Liberal Government of that time was concerned about the falling birth rate, emigration and the poor health of the nation. Britain needed to continue to develop as an industrial nation and this prompted the government to ask questions in the 1911 census to address these concerns.

The census was taken on 2nd April. It is important for us as family historians as it gives us much more information about our female ancestors than previously thus making it easier for us to build up a picture of the lives of women in 1911.

For the first time the census was filled in by the head of the household. We can discover what type of house our ancestor lived in as he or she was asked to say how many rooms were in the house.

This census is often called the fertility census as it asks married couples three questions. Firstly, how many years they have been married, secondly how many children have been born in the marriage and finally how many have died. These questions are useful for the family historian. From this information the year of marriage can be worked out. This would then lead to a search to find the marriage on a site such as Lancashire BMD or in the GRO records which would then reveal your ancestor’s maiden name. It also alerts the family historian to the existence of children who have died and who can be then traced through birth records and death records. It can also point potentially to earlier marriages if the age of children listed exceeds the number of children listed or if their age is more than the years the present marriage has lasted.

The 1911 census also asked about birthplace and, for the first time, nationality. One lady living in Bolton wrote very precisely where she was born – ” Abercalder near Fort Augustus in the parish of Bolesking Invernessshire.” Then she, helpfully, for the family historian, adds “resident in England 57 years.” In the nationality column she proudly writes “Scotch for generations.” This is a piece of very useful information as she tells exactly when she moved to England but also conveys a bit about her in that she is proud of being Scottish but maybe also that she is suspicious of the authorities motives in asking her where she was born.

Finally, the census asks for details of any conditions or illnesses of family members. This could give us an insight into the life of our ancestor especially if she had a disability or if any of her children had one.

“If Women Don’t Count, Neither Shall They Be Counted”

At a time of political activism and demands for votes for women the 1911 census can also reveal the views of our female ancestors.

As part of her campaign for universal suffrage, Emmeline Pankhurst called on women to boycott the census to protest against the Liberal Government‘s reluctance to give women the vote declaring that, “If women don’t count, neither shall they be counted.” The exact number who evaded the census isn’t known but it was thought to be about several thousand. So, if you can’t find your ancestor on the 1911 census, it could be that she was one of the women who disappeared on census night.

Census Lodge

In Manchester a group of suffragettes spent the night in a large house, now the Chinese Embassy, in Victoria Park. The protest was organised by Jessie Stephenson of the WSPU. The house became known as Census Lodge. Jessie had taken the house a few weeks before and fitted it up with temporary accommodation including beds all laid out in the upper rooms.

A reporter from The Manchester Courier was allowed to spend the night there reporting that it “resembled an overcrowded boarding house where guests were arriving at all hours.” He reported that the night was spent with concerts, whist, speeches and bridge.

The next morning Jessie Stephenson filled in the census form writing, ” No vote, no census. My house is crowded with men and women but I decline to answer any questions.” The enumerator has written on another form “suffragists here to avoid the census” and has recorded 52 males and 155 females as being in the house. Soon after the guests left the house in twos or threes to return to their homes.Suffragettes_boycotting_1911_census MCRSuffragettes gather in Manchester Census Lodge to boycott the 1911 Census.
Author Johnny Cyprus, Creative Commons Attribution – ShareAlike


Other women refused to give information like Springhead born Annie Kenney, living in Clifton, Bristol in 1911. Her census form merely states “Annie Kenney, Suffragette” and “information refused.”

Many filled their form under protest like the women of the Darlington family of Trafford. Dorothy Darlington’s occupation is stated as an organiser of a suffragist society. The head of the household, her widowed mother Annie, has written at the bottom of the form, “Filled in under strong protest.” Whether deliberately or not Annie has listed the ages of her two sons, John and Thomas, in the female column which has been corrected by the enumerator in red ink.

The 1911 census also shows that some women suffragists had the support of their husbands like Emily Farmery, née Heald, living with her husband Arthur, a paper merchant, two children and her brother James in Moss Side, Manchester. Arthur wrote that the occupation of his wife was a suffragette and in the infirmity column he wrote that she was “mad for the vote.”


Other leading supporters of women’s suffrage complied with the census making no comment about suffrage, including Gibbon Mitchell and his wife Hannah Maria Mitchell who was a well-known leader in the suffrage and labour movement. They are found living at Ingham Street, Newton Heath in 1911 with their son, Frank.

Was the boycott of the census successful?

It is thought that the success of the boycott was negligible as many boycotters were in fact counted. However it did focus the attention of the public on the campaign for votes for women. Eventually in 1918 women over the age of 30 who were either householders or married to a householder or who held a university degree were enfranchised.

Written by Sue Forshaw

Useful Hints and websites:

The 1911 census can be searched for free at the Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society Help Desk on the Ground Floor Manchester Central Library.

To search for census protestors I used words such as “suffragette” and “suffragist” in the keyword box and “Manchester” in the box marked “Lived in” which gave me matches for ladies who had protested against the census.

I also used the British Newspaper Archive, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/, also available at Manchester Central Library, to find the Manchester Courier April 4th 1911 which related the events of the census night in Manchester and around the country.

Other Useful links: