1911 UK census: the secret suffragettes who refused to be counted

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A mass protest by women campaigning to be allowed to vote has finally come to public attention, almost a century too late to make a difference. Hundreds of suffragettes risked prosecution in 1911 by spoiling their census forms in a coordinated revolt.

But the full impact of their boycott has not emerged until today because of secrecy rules. Census information is usually kept secret for 100 years, but the 1911 documents have been released three years early because the rule was not enshrined in law until 1920.

The documents show how women refused to fill in their names and left comments in the margins. One suffragette taking part in the boycott arranged by the Women’s Freedom League wrote: “If I am intelligent enough to fill in this paper, I am intelligent enough to put a cross on a voting paper.”

Another glued a poster over the form stating: “No votes for women, no census.” A piece of paper stuck to the form suggests that the women stayed away from households where the census was taken to attend a protest in Trafalgar Square.

The public protest was reported in The Times on April 3, 1911, but its full extent remained hidden to the public. The report, headlined “A suffragist ‘campaign’ of resistance”, observed that almost all of those present at the Trafalgar Square protest were men. Women were granted the right to vote seven years later, although they were not given equal voting rights until 1928.

The 1911 census is the most revealing to be published because it includes the handwritten entries from the heads of each household. In earlier surveys the only surviving documents were the summaries produced by professional enumerators, who excised any attempts at humour.

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