Election 1893, Foremothers and Political Statements

The political campaign for Election 2011 could hardly be described as lack-lustre. Voting-age New Zealanders could hardly be unaware that tomorrow, Saturday, 26 November, is polling day. But how many, I wonder, are aware that New Zealand women went to the polls for the first time on 28 November, in 1893. Rather than wait until the actual anniversary next Monday, when there’s likely to be much post-mortem ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’, I’m posting this blog today – to provoke your thoughts on women’s suffrage in New Zealand and, in particular, how the fore-mothers in your family and mine responded to Election 1893: their first democratic opportunity to engage as political equals.

I couldn’t possibly comment about my readers’ foremothers, but I can about my own. Of the four descent lines I’ve inherited from my parents, three of them stretch back into New Zealand’s 19th century political landscape. So, who were they and how did they respond to that evolving landscape?

Mary Dellow

One Great-great-grandmother, Mary Dellow, married to Isaac Dellow, arrived with husband and seven children to Canterbury in 1859. Another Great-great-grandmother, Ann Ellis, arrived as a three-year old to Otago in 1860; she later married Robert Telfer. And Great-grandmother Mary Barkle who arrived as a 12 year-old to Canterbury in 1874 later married Luke Coleman.

Mary Coleman

Enrolling to vote in the 1893 Election is arguably one of the most definitive political statements our New Zealand foremothers made. However, they needed to act with some haste because the Electoral Act 1893, signed into law by the Governor, Lord Glasgow, on 19 September meant they had just 10 weeks to enrol before the 28 November election.

I’m both proud and relieved to find the names of all three foremothers, Mary Dellow, Ann Telfer and Mary Coleman, on that Electoral roll. Had they and their families not emigrated from England, Scotland and Cornwall, respectively, they and their daughters and grand-daughters would have been denied political equality until 1928.

Neither Ann Telfer nor Mary Coleman had daughters over the age of 21 in 1893. But Mary Dellow had six surviving daughters and three daughters-in-law; all except one daughter enrolled. Two of those daughters, Emma (married Charles Ford) and Martha (married John Tonkin) signed the Suffrage Petition.[i]

Although Ann Telfer in Dunedin did not sign the petition, her elder sister, Elizabeth Wragge did, together with their step-mother Mrs Ellen Ellis and half-sisters Lucy and Ellen. Another of Ann Telfer’s elder sisters, Isabella (married John Cable) and half-sister Christina (married James West) also enrolled to vote. Given that Isabella and Christina lived next door to each other in Harrington Street, Port Chalmers, it’s difficult not to picture these two celebrating their new-found suffrage by going to the polling booth together.

Sadly their father, blacksmith John Ellis, died earlier that year, on 1 February, aged 73. Would he have approved or supported the cause? Were he still living, would his wife and two unmarried daughters, both still living at home, have signed the petition? It is interesting to note that three of his four married daughters living in the Dunedin area appear not to have signed the petition although they did enrol.

I’m saddened my Great-grandmother Jane Emmett’s name is not on the electoral roll, given her mother, Mary Dellow, her five living sisters Mary Stackhouse, Elizabeth Jackman, Charlotte Wykes, Martha Tonkin and Emma Ford, together with her three sisters-in-law, Australia Jane, Jessie and Elizabeth Dellow, had all enrolled. One can’t help but wonder what influences she may have been subjected to, beyond those of her mother and sisters.

Certainly, it would have been hard to avoid the issue. Canterbury and Otago are strongly represented in the Suffrage Petition: of the nearly 24 000 signatures, these two regions together account for almost half that number – 7 471 from Otago and 4 432 from Canterbury (including Christchurch but excluding South Canterbury).[ii]

About 84% of New Zealand adult women (over 21), a total of 109 461, enrolled. On 28 November 1893 our foremothers turned out in force when 90 290 of them cast their first votes – an impressive 82% turnout. They exceeded their eligible male counterparts by 12%.[iii]

In researching my New Zealand foremothers’ response to both the Suffrage Petition and the political equality it delivered, I’ve discovered much more than I anticipated. How did your foremothers respond? The footnote links are a useful starting point to find those answers. Let’s not forget them next Monday, whatever the aftermath of tomorrow.