Work experience student, Kathryn Mersey
I’ve been on my second Work Experience placement at West Sussex Record Office this week; after being so inspired by my first, in 2015, I couldn’t wait to come back!
On my first placement I was introduced to some of the diverse and mysterious departments behind the scenes, like Screen Archive South East (SASE) and the conservation workshop. The mobile shelving in the strongrooms seemed particularly glamourous to me as I’d only ever seen it in films and documentaries and never expected I’d be able to operate one in real life!
I’ve been interested in history for a long time and the longer I spend here, the more I appreciate that a huge portion of the history we see from day to day (books, articles, news reports, dramatisation) relies entirely on the meticulous work of archives like WSRO, who ensure that even those without the power or money to enforce their own place in history are not forgotten.
For example, I’ve spent most of my time this week cataloguing a scrapbook kept by the Liberal/Radical women’s advocate Jane Cobden between 1888 and 1891. I’ve been absolutely astounded by the intensity of her work in this short space of time and put through some degree of emotional turmoil at the complex and, to a modern reader, outrageous challenges that she and her political allies faced.
Jane Cobden and Margaret Lady Sandhurst were elected to the County Councils of Bromley and Brixton respectively after an apparent oversight in the Local Government Act of 1888, which didn’t explicitly disqualify women from acting as County Councillors. They and several other women across the country (including Emma Cons, who became an Alderman for the London County Council) were urged to stand for the Council by their constituents who knew them, and loyally supported them, for their philanthropic work.
Lady Sandhurst was removed from her seat by a petition, which was organised by the candidate who lost to her, Mr Beresford-Hope. I was surprised to find that many mainstream newspapers condemned or at least vaguely disapproved of his actions, including the Star whose headline read “Beaten Beresford-Hope Tries to Win in Court What He Cannot at the Polls”!
Although in this case the court decided that women could not qualify to act as County Councillors, and so Mr Beresford-Hope replaced Lady Sandhurst, the 1882 Municipal Corporations Act (which the Local Government Act amended) stated that an elected Councillor could not be removed from their seat if it went unchallenged for twelve months. Since Jane Cobden and Emma Cons had been lawfully elected, they did not take their seats at Council Meetings for twelve months; acting instead as visitors (advising but with no voting power) so they were not committing a legal offence. The scrapbook contains several pages of newspaper cuttings from as far afield as New York and Milan celebrating and congratulating them when they were finally able to take up their seats safely. This surprised me again, as without such a collection of newspaper articles it would be difficult to say whether the first female Councillors received significant public support.
In 1890, however, their fellow Council Member Sir Walter Eugene de Souza took Jane Cobden and Emma Cons to court, fining them each £250 (equivalent to around £30,000 today) for acting as Councillors when they were legally disqualified from doing so. They were forced to stop acting on the Council by the threat of another £25 (£3000) fine for each vote at each of the Council’s weekly meetings. Jane Cobden kept a great array of press reaction to the case, almost all unequivocally denouncing de Souza’s actions (particularly as he was able to keep half of the money for himself). One of my favourite pieces is a satirical cartoon from the Pall Mall Gazette’s weekly magazine, which contends that Beresford-Hope and de Souza could not hope to replace the invaluable work that Jane Cobden and Emma Cons had been so staunchly committed to. In defending their work, the Daily Chronicle remarked that de Souza was “not himself a brilliant member of the County Council”!
In a statement in one of the articles, Jane Cobden explains that she wanted to refuse to pay the fines and would have let the government confiscate her property to do so, but then de Souza would have had the opportunity to declare her a bankrupt, which would disqualify her from holding any position in public office in the future. Although it can be wearying to read about these senseless barriers that Jane Cobden and her allies faced, her optimism and determination is inspiring. The rest of the scrapbook would suggest that although barred from office (leaving Bow and Bromley unrepresented for the next eleven months), she was still politically active in groups including the National Liberal Federation, National Reform Union, Bow and Bromley Women’s Liberal and Radical Association and National Society for Women’s Suffrage, with posters and flyers for many meetings and events that she chaired and spoke at. There are more scrapbooks which suggest that alongside Liberal and Radical reform and universal suffrage, she also advocated animal rights and Irish political autonomy.
I really enjoyed all of the tasks I was able to shadow or help with during my week, which included retrieving 17th century wills for enquires, cleaning glass film negatives and even learning a little about smuggling – but I feel I’ve become quite invested in Jane Cobden and her friends and I plan to return to the Record Office as a volunteer to help catalogue the rest of her scrapbooks.