Election 1893: how our foremothers voted.

In this second part of my ‘Election 1893’ blog, I attempt to gain some understanding of how my foremothers might have voted 118 years ago, on Tuesday 28 November, 1893. Unless we have documentary evidence about their political involvement, or the oral process has preserved some clues as to their political leanings through anecdote, we’re unlikely to know who they voted for in 1893 and, more importantly, why. Given the detail which has been preserved, it is possible, however, to indulge in some historic re-creation of how these women went about exercising their new-found equality.

In my previous ‘Election 1893 …’ blog I creatively imagined the half sisters Isabella Cable and Christina West stepping out together, from their Harrington Street homes in Port Chalmers. Exactly where were they going to vote, how far away was the polling booth and how might they have got there?  The Otago Daily Times of Wednesday 29 November 1893 informs that there was just one polling booth in Port Chalmers – in the Municipal Council Chamber – and further reports “ … the ladies – young and old – came forward in solid numbers to avail themselves of their newly-gained privileges; indeed, so many of the fair sex have not been seen together in the streets of the little seaport town for a considerable time past, and their presence from first to last made the proceedings exceedingly cheerful and lively.”

Did Mrs Cable and Mrs West walk the 1 kilometre or so from Harrington Street via Burns Street then along Wickliffe Street to George Street where at its northern-most end stands the Municipal Council building? And did they then, as we must now, recognise the relevance of these street names to the history of the Presbyterian Free Church settlement of Otago? Rev Dr Thomas Burns was the spiritual leader of the pioneer settlers and founding minister of the First Church of Otago. The ‘John Wickcliffe’ arrived on 23 March 1848 with the first ninety or so settlers, thereby establishing the date of Otago Anniversary Day, celebrated ever since. Or, perhaps they took an alternative route, along Harrington Street connecting with Magnetic Street, then down Grey Street to the corner of George Street where the handsome Municipal Council building had been completed just four years earlier.

Port Chalmers Municipal Building

Then again, did Mesdames Cable and West accept a ride on one of the “… several vehicles [which] were provided to convey ladies and others from the upper part of the town to the polling place”?  Clearly, some effort was made to ensure the newly-enfranchised participated. In the same Chalmers electorate, Isabella’s and Christina’s sister, Ann Telfer, would likely have voted at Pine Hill. It is reasonable to assume the polling booth was at Pine Hill School, established 1872 and probably the only public, or government, building on Pine Hill.

Mary Dellow and her youngest daughter, Emma Ford, both lived in Crescent Road (now Trafalgar Street), St Albans and would likely have voted at St Albans School, just a few blocks distant. Enrolled in the Christchurch Electorate, they were required to vote for three of eleven candidates, two of whom were ministers of religion – the Congregationalist Rev C H Bradbury, and Anglican Rev J O’B Hoare – and both of whom were prohibitionists.

Mary Coleman lived in the Avon Electorate, on a small farm in Hills Road, Marshland. The most rural of my voting foremothers, her nearest Polling Booth was the recently-built Marshland School near the corner of Marshland Road and Prestons Road – a good 45 minute walk away.

Marshland School opened 25 June 1888

And who took care of the four children, Harry (5), Tom (4), Tottie (2) and seven month-old Caroline? Or did Luke drive them all in one of the farm vehicles – the milk delivery dray or maybe a dog cart?

As we follow these women to their respective polling booths, what political issues might have influenced the way they voted? Beyond the principal decision whether or not to return the Liberal Government of the previous three years, there were two hotly-debated issues, both of which directly concerned the women of New Zealand: prohibition and education.

Women of Mary Dellow’s age were more likely to support the return of the Liberals, for old age pensions were in the offing. However, given her family’s significant commitment to the Weslyan Methodist Church whose stance on prohibition was immutable, she was more likely to favour the Prohibitionist candidates, Revs J O’B Hoare and C H Bradbury, whose campaigns were widely and publicly endorsed by such Wesleyan clergy as the Rev Len Isitt.

For Mary Coleman, whose own education was seriously compromised by the depressed Cornish tin-mining economy of her childhood, the Liberal policy of free, secular and compulsory education must surely have appealed. Moreover, she was casting her first vote in the very school where her eldest son, Harry, was either already attending or soon to attend. In his acceptance speech upon re-election to the House of Representatives the Liberal member for Avon, Mr W W Tanner, could for all the world have been speaking  directly to Mary Coleman when he said, “I thank the women for looking after the interests of their children.”

Special thanks to the current Marshland School Principal, Jacqui Pascoe, for permission to copy this photograph from the school’s website.

1 thought on “Election 1893: how our foremothers voted.

  1. What brave and forthright women to take the opportunity to vote in a supposedly homogeneous society. Very thankful that my genes derived from fore mothers like those.
    What part do you suppose the men had in their influence or support of the womenfolk’s vote?

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