This year marks the Representation of the People Act which granted some women the right to vote in British Parliamentary elections for the first time, so I asked one of the library archivists what information they had on the suffragettes. He showed me to a draw with a book and rolls of film. I was expecting to see the name Emmeline Pankhurst but was surprised to see the name Lydia Becker. I must admit I had never heard of her. I decided to research her life and find out how she had contributed to women’s emancipation. A quick search on Ancestry bought up baptism records and a death record for Geneva Switzerland. (British Consulate BMDs).
I thought the British Newspaper Archive might have some information about her death. There are 2 ways to access these records: on the British Newspaper Archive Website or on Find My Past. There is a charge to look at the original images on the British Newspaper Archives but if you have an account you can look at the articles for free at the library. You can also look at them for free on Find My Past at Central Library. It is easier to find your search words on the British Newspaper Archives as they highlight them with a colour. On Find My Past they highlight the area where the name appears and sometimes it can be difficult to find.
Putting in a search for Lydia Becker there were over three thousand results and the first one was a report in the Yorkshire Gazette announcing her death from diphtheria while staying abroad in Geneva. What surprised me was the date 1890. I had always associated the Suffrage movement with the beginning of the 20th Century.
You can narrow the search results by using the filters on the left hand side of the page:
On Find My Past
By Article Type
On British Newspaper Archive
By Country: England Scotland Wales Ireland
By regions: South West North West etc
By Place: London Manchester Dublin Aberdeen etc
By Type: article advertisement family notices illustrated
So knowing that Lydia died in 1890 I narrowed the search by date clicking on the option given 1850 to 1899. You can limit the date search even further if you wish so if I wanted to find articles specifically about Lydia’s death I could limit the search to 1890 and I could narrow it even further to the month when she died.
I wanted to find articles from Manchester Newspapers so I clicked on the filter by newspaper and then on the letter M in the alphabet. I put a tick in the boxes of all the Manchester Newspapers, and then clicked on apply filters. Searching through these I found an excellent article in the Manchester Courier (21 July 1890) giving a detailed insight into her life. Here’s a small extract:
The announcement of the death of Miss Lydia Ernestine Becker created painful surprise and intense regret when it became known in this city on Saturday. Although the deceased lady had attained the age of 63 years she to the last appeared strong and vigorous. She was present at the May meeting of the School Board. For some months before she had been suffering from a rheumatic affection that had compelled her to use a stick, while when she came down to the city from her residence in Shrewsbury Street she did so in a cab. Early in June she left England for the continent accompanied by a maid intending to take the waters………….. On Friday afternoon an alarming telegram was received by her brother in Manchester from Miss Becker herself saying ‘I am dangerously ill of diphtheria. Meet me with my brother Arthur at Geneva’
The article gives the names of her two brothers, Wilfred and Arthur and gives Arthur’s occupation, professor of music at the Charterhouse School in London. The details contained in this article are things I would never have found out about if I had just carried out a search on Google. The article continues with a quite detailed account of her life, first some details of her family:
Miss Becker was born on 24th February 1827 in Cooper Street, Manchester. She was the eldest daughter of Mr Hannibal Leigh Becker, by Mary, daughter of Mr James Duncroft, cotton spinner of Hollinwood. Her parents had 15 children. As she grew up she displayed a remarkable aptitude for literary work and she received a good education.
One thing not mentioned in the article was that her family home at one time was Foxdenton Hall, Chadderton and the house has a blue plaque to commemorate her.
The article continues to detail her work for Women’s Suffrage which I found particularly interesting as it was written in 1890.
She was one of the pioneers of the movement for women’s suffrage and bravely championed the cause during the years of universal opposition and derision through which it had to elbow its way. As an eloquent logical and entertaining speaker she took part in public meetings not only in Manchester but all over the country in support of the cause and her pen was never idle in the same service. Twenty years ago the movement had got so far that most politicians knew there was a small body of men and women who were seeking the emancipation of the female sex. But very few then contemplated the idea except to look upon it as a wild and foolish dream. Now the principal is practically conceded and Miss Becker lived to see the triumph of her life work although the parliamentary franchise has not yet been granted.
I think the reporter was being a bit optimistic here! It would take many more years of struggle for all women to get the right to vote. The article goes on to list her many achievements including:
Founder of the Women’s suffrage Journal which she edited until her death.
She helped to focus the Elementary Education Act of 1870 to contain a provision enabling women to be members of school boards. She took advantage of this standing as an independent candidate for the city of Manchester. She held her seat on the board from that time until her death.
She was the secretary for the National Society for the Promotion of Women’s suffrage and as a speaker of great repute addressed meetings in all parts of the country.
Other articles about her from around the country gave more details about her work.
Royal Cornwall Gazette 16th July 1868
The Enfranchisement of Women: Miss Lydia Becker the secretary of the Manchester National Society for Women’s suffrage announces that the society is satisfied that under the representation of the People Act all women who have paid their rates are by law entitled to be placed on the Parliamentary register. The society is actively engaged in taking the necessary steps to enable such women to vote at the next election.
Whistable Times 3 December 1870
The first contested election for a school board under Mr Forster’s Act has taken place in Manchester. Miss Lydia Becker has secured one of the seats receiving 15,249 votes.
This article that appeared in the Maryport Advertiser on the 18th August 1871 resonates with articles that have appeared in the news this year!
Miss Becker in her paper, read before the Economic Section of the British Association, stated that it was a rule of almost universal application that when men and women engage in the same occupation, the remuneration of women was fixed lower than that of the man.
On a visit to Emmeline Pankhurst’s house I read in one of the books on display that she was 14 when she went to her first Suffrage meeting. Returning from school one day she had met her mother just setting off for a meeting and she begged her to let her go along. Her mother agreed. She said the speeches interested and excited her especially the address by Miss Lydia Becker. She described her as a splendid character and a truly eloquent speaker. Her mother was a subscriber to the Women’s Suffrage Journal which we know Lydia edited. Emmeline said she left this meeting a conscious and confirmed suffragist, so Lydia must have made a big impression on her.
There are many more articles about Lydia too numerous to mention here but they paint a picture of a quite amazing women.
Finally looking at articles printed after her death I found this in the Women’s Franchise 5 May 1907
The beautiful memorial of Lydia Becker subscribed for soon after her death in 1890 by friends and admirers is now being offered by its trustees to the city of Manchester with the desire that it may be placed in the Town Hall of her own city.
So using the Newspaper Archives can give you a real insight into people’s lives. Obviously Lydia Becker was a public figure so there are bound to be many articles about her but it’s always worth doing a search for your ancestors, you never know what you will find. A lady who came into the library this week searched for information about a relative who had died in the First World War. She knew when he had died and eventually found a notice about his death. She was so pleased because he had never married but the article mentioned his sweetheart!
The newspapers also helped me while researching my daughter-in-law’s family. I had found her great grandmother with her children on the 1911 census with her two children living in Matlock Derbyshire, she had put herself as married but there was no sign of her husband. I found someone who fitted his details exactly living in Manchester but he had a different family so I dismissed this record. Later I decided to do a newspaper search and found a wonderful article which explained the situation. His wife was charging her husband with deserting her and was also applying for a maintenance order. Her husband had run off eight years earlier with an Irish dairymaid, it was at first thought they had gone to America but he had now been found living in Manchester. So that solved the mystery and it was her husband with the dairymaid living in Manchester as man and wife. So give it a try you never know what you might find.
By Carol Wells MLFHS