Saturday 6 July 2024

Votes a feature of a talk and a screening at Willesden Green Library in July

 Guest post by local historian Philip Grant


I hope that you voted in the General Election on Thursday, whoever you chose to vote for. The right to vote is something that our ancestors had to fight for, and using it can sometimes change things for the better. By coincidence, two free Brent Libraries, Arts and Heritage events at Willesden Green Library this month both involve voting in their stories.


Although free public libraries have been under threat, because of the squeeze on spending by local councils since 2010, we do tend to think of them as a normal public service, but that wasn’t always the case.  Acts of Parliament in Victorian times did allow free public libraries to be set up, but only if an area’s residents requested a referendum (or poll) on the subject. This would actually be a vote by local ratepayers on whether they were willing to pay an extra amount (one penny in the pound) to be used to fund such libraries.


You might think, when political parties at each election seem to promise not to raise taxes, or even to cut them, that taxpayers would never vote to pay more! But when the Local Board (the official name of the Council for Willesden Parish in 1891) held a poll of ratepayers under the Public Libraries Acts, they voted in favour by more than two to one.


 From the “Willesden Chronicle”, 27 February 1891.
(Source: Brent Archives – local newspaper microfilms)


Only around 3,300 people voted, out of a population in Willesden of more than sixty-one thousand at that time. This was because not everyone, not even every adult man, had a vote. Only ratepayers, people who paid local land taxes on property they owned, were allowed to vote. This would mainly be men, but if a woman owned property in her own right, and was a ratepayer, she could vote in local elections at that time.


If you would like to come to my illustrated talk, “The Willesden Green Library Story”, in the original Victorian section of the library on Thursday 18 July from 6.30 to 7.30pm, you can reserve your free seat HERE.


Mary Ann Diaz was a property-owning woman who had the right to vote in local elections in Kingsbury, where she lived from 1889 onwards. However, even in local voting, women were not always equal with men. Mary Ann had married José Diaz, a Spaniard who had come to England to run his family’s sherry business here. He was also a ratepayer and voter, and by 1905 he was the Chairman of Kingsbury Urban District Council.


Fears over the number of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, stoked by certain national newspapers, led to a Conservative government passing the Aliens Act of 1905, the first British law aimed at restricting immigration. One restriction it introduced was that “aliens” were not allowed to vote, and José Diaz had not managed to submit his naturalisation papers before the “voters list” for Kingsbury was next reviewed. His opponents on the Council took the opportunity to challenge his right to vote.


Extract from the “Hendon & Finchley Times”, 6 October 1905.
[Source: Barnet Local Studies and Archives Centre - local newspaper microfilms]


Having successfully removed José Diaz from the list of people eligible to vote, his opponents then challenged his wife’s name. Although Mary Ann Diaz owned property, and was a ratepayer herself, her name was also removed from the list, the Barrister saying that ‘...this followed as a matter of course’, because she was married to a man not qualified to vote!


Most of us know something of the struggle in this country for “Votes for Women”, and how the suffragette movement succeeded in getting the law changed in 1918, so that women (aged over 30, until equal rights were introduced in 1928) could vote in Parliamentary elections. One of the “forgotten women” of that struggle was Asian, and her story is told in a film being shown at Willesden Green Library on Thursday 25 July from 6.30 to 8pm.


You can find more on Sophia Duleep Singh, and the film about her, and book your free ticket to the screening HERE. We owe our votes to people like her!


Philip Grant.


Philip Grant said...

Just a passing thought.

Although we had met briefly before, it was the community's fight with Brent Council to retain, rather than demolish, the remaining Victorian section of Willesden Green Library in 2012 which first brought Martin (and what to me was a "new fangled" thing called a blog) to my attention.

The rest is history!

Paul Lorber said...

A very interesting history of Sophia Duleep Singh - Daughter of the last Maharaja of Punjab and brought up in the UK as the Brits exiled her father as a teenage boy and stole the famous diamond. More info here....

Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh (b. Elveden Hall, 8 August 1876; d. Hilden Hall, Tylers Green, 22 August 1948) was a prominent suffragette in the United Kingdom. She is best remembered for her leading role in the Women's Tax Resistance League, but she also participated in other women's suffrage groups including the Women's Social and Political Union.

Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh and his first wife Bamba Müller, and Sophia combined Indian, European and African ancestry with an upbringing among the British aristocracy. Duleep Singh had been the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire in Punjab and was exiled from India by the British at the age of fifteen, while Müller was of mixed German and Ethiopian descent. Sophia's four brothers included Frederick Duleep Singh, while among her four sisters was the suffragette Catherine Duleep Singh. Sophia inherited substantial private wealth from her father upon his death in 1893, and in 1898 her godmother, Queen Victoria, granted Sophia a grace and favour apartment in Faraday House, Hampton Court.

Sophia marched at the head of the Black Friday deputation to parliament in 1910, alongside Emmeline Pankhurst, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Dorinda Neligan. Sophia obtained particular prominence through the Women's Tax Resistance League, appearing in court several times due to her refusal to pay taxes, and remarking, "When the women of England are enfranchised I shall pay my taxes willingly. If I am not a person for the purposes of representation, why should I be a fit person for taxation?"

Sophia's public life was mostly spent campaigning for women's rights, although she also supported the interests of lascars.