‘The lady Liberal agent’

‘The lady Liberal agent’: Bertha Fischer (1875-1920) and Ellen Pocock (1854-1943)

Guest post by Kathryn Rix

In July 1902 the ‘Ladies’ Column’ of the Dundee Evening Telegraph ran an article on ‘Novel professions for women’, featuring ‘The lady Liberal agent’, Bertha Bowness Fischer. She had recently passed the professional examination held by the Society of Certificated and Associated Liberal Agents (SCALA), becoming the first woman to qualify as a Fellow of that body.

Given that women were excluded from the parliamentary franchise until 1918, and from the comparable profession of solicitor until after 1919, it is rather surprising to find them joining the ranks of the professional agents, who handled the work of registering voters, managing election campaigns and running party organisations in the constituencies. Only one other woman emulated Fischer in becoming a qualified agent prior to 1918: Ellen Pocock, who passed the examination as a Fellow of the SCALA in 1908. The corresponding Conservative body, the National Society of Conservative Agents, did not admit any female members in this period. While women served as paid organisers with other political bodies, notably within the women’s suffrage movement, Fischer and Pocock were remarkable as the only women appointed to posts within the formal structures of the Liberal and Conservative party organisations.

Parties, Agents and Electoral Culture in England, 1880-1910

The rise of the professional agent

The decades after the major electoral reforms of 1883-5 – the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act, the Franchise Act and the Redistribution of Seats Act – were critical ones for the development of party organisation, as politicians adapted to the challenges of harnessing the support of a greatly expanded electorate. The work of registration and electioneering had previously been undertaken largely on a part-time basis by solicitors, as a sideline to their legal practice. From the 1880s local constituency associations increasingly turned to full-time professional agents to manage party organisation all year round. Keen to improve their status, both Liberal and Conservative agents set up their own professional bodies, founded on a national basis by the Liberals in 1882 and by the Conservatives in 1891. These aimed to train this new breed of organisers, holding examinations, exchanging ideas at regular meetings and publishing their own professional journals, The Tory (later the Conservative Agents’ Journal) and the Liberal Agent.

Bertha Fischer’s political career

Like many of her male colleagues in the SCALA, Bertha Fischer began her political career through voluntary political work. Her father, Colonel Henry James Bowness Fischer, had retired to England after serving in the Indian Staff Corps, living in East Sussex and later at Southsea, where he was actively involved in local Liberal politics. Born in India, Bertha began to study the social questions of the day, especially those affecting women, after leaving school. Although the first political meeting she attended was organised by the Conservative-supporting Primrose League, she was, like her father, a committed Liberal.

Inspired by a talk from Melie Stanbury, the secretary of the Women’s Local Government Society, Fischer took an active role in local political work, serving as honorary secretary of the Southsea Women’s Liberal Association and on the Executive Committee of the Portsmouth Liberal Association. Although excluded from the parliamentary vote, women could qualify to vote and even to stand as candidates for some local government bodies. In 1900 they made up nearly 14% of the local government electorate, and there were 270 women sitting on School Boards, around 200 female district councillors and over 1,000 female Poor Law Guardians. Among them was Fischer, who in 1900, aged 25, was elected as a member of the Portsmouth Board of Guardians. She was re-elected in 1903, when a former chairman of the board praised her as one of the best guardians he had known.

Fischer also went further afield to assist with political work, helping Liberal registration efforts at Hastings. Prior to 1918, the political parties played a major part in the compilation of the electoral register, lodging claims to vote on behalf of their supporters and making objections to opposition voters. Rather than being confined to activities such as canvassing, Fischer felt that, as ‘the day will come when women will have the franchise’, it was important for them to learn more about ‘the legal aspect of elections’. She voiced concern that ‘if women do get votes there are very few who would know anything about registration’. (Portsmouth Evening News, 3 July 1902; Dundee Evening Telegraph, 10 July 1902)

Her prowess in this sphere prompted the Liberal agent for Hastings to encourage Fischer to take the SCALA examination. This qualification helped her to secure an appointment as Liberal agent for the Fareham division of Hampshire in January 1905. However, she left the profession in July 1905 when she married Captain Thomas Howard Foulkes, an officer in the Indian Medical Service. Tragically the couple were killed in 1920 at Kohat (then in the North-West Frontier Province of India), when their bungalow was attacked by Pathan tribesmen. Foulkes was shot dead on 15 November; Bertha and their daughter survived the initial attack, but Bertha succumbed to her injuries on 6 December 1920.

The Liberal agents’ society and the admission of female members

Although the SCALA accepted Fischer as a member in 1902, the Liberal agents had rejected earlier applications (in 1895) from women to join their professional body. In 1905 Maisie Rivers, who was deputising for her father Frederic as editor of the Liberal Agent, noted that ‘some Liberal agents are not at all partial to admitting the “fair sex” into their ranks’. This may have stemmed from the fact that, while many Liberal agents supported female suffrage, the profession was divided on the question. When, as part of an overhaul of its rules in 1910, the SCALA specifically confined membership to men, only 16 of the 90 members present at its annual meeting opposed this change.

Ellen Pocock’s political career

This placed one woman in a rather difficult position. In 1908 Ellen Pocock had become the second female agent to qualify by examination as a Fellow of the SCALA. By that date, she had served as Liberal agent for the Strand division in London for nine years. Unlike Fischer, Pocock’s path into political work is not clear. Her father, Lewis Pocock (1808-1882), was a noted amateur artist, but earned his living as an insurance underwriter and a merchant. One of twelve children, Ellen was described on the 1881 census, when she was resident at 70 Gower Street, London, as an ‘art needleworker’. However, by the time of the 1901 census, she was the ‘political secretary’ of the Strand Liberal Association.

With Fischer having left the profession, newspaper reports in September 1905 described Pocock as ‘the only woman political registration agent in the United Kingdom’ (Yorkshire Evening Post, 12 Sept. 1905). Less accurately, given that Pocock had been appearing to defend her party’s registration claims and objections since 1900, the Edinburgh Evening News recorded that the 1905 registration courts in the Strand division were

the first occasion upon which any political organisation has had the temerity to entrust the care of its political fortunes in the making up of the register to a member of the gentler sex. (Edinburgh Evening News, 9 Sept. 1905)

It felt that the presence of a woman helped to soften some of the ‘asperities’ often found during the fiercely fought battle over the electoral register, and added that Pocock ‘did her work uncommonly well’.

As these remarks indicate, the unusual role which Pocock performed – defending the rights of men to qualify for a franchise from which she was herself excluded – made some contemporaries rather uncomfortable. More open-minded, however, was the Liberal candidate for the Strand division at the January 1910 election, Leonard Costello, who employed Pocock as his election agent. In 1913, not only did Pocock represent the Liberals in the registration courts, but she was accompanied by ‘a lady assistant’. In the same year she stood unsuccessfully for the London County Council as the Progressive candidate for the Strand division. In 1914 she succeeded in her lobbying to be reinstated as a member of the SCALA, following an appeal to the body’s Examining Board. Unlike Fischer, she lived to see full female enfranchisement in 1928, dying at Charing Cross Hospital on 16 October 1943.

Female agents after 1918

Following the partial enfranchisement of women in 1918, the SCALA put its opposition to female political agents firmly behind it, admitting women to follow in the footsteps of Fischer and Pocock in autumn 1918. Two of them – Mrs. E. Smith, of East Dulwich, and Florence Morton, assistant secretary to the Yorkshire Liberal Federation – were honoured with biographical profiles in the Liberal Agent to mark the event. The acceptance of women as professional colleagues proved more divisive for the National Society of Conservative Agents, which denied them entry. This prompted the formation of a separate National Association of Conservative and Unionist Women’s Organisers in 1927. With the parties keen to win votes from newly enfranchised female electors, the number of female political organisers increased. When agents were listed for the first time as a separate category on the 1921 census, cementing their status by including them among the ‘professional occupations’, there were 1,159 male and 243 female ‘political association officials’ in England and Wales.

Kathryn Rix

Dr. Kathryn Rix is assistant editor of the History of Parliament’s House of Commons 1832-1945 project. You can find her on Twitter @KathrynRix or blogging for www.victoriancommons.wordpress.com. Her book on Parties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910, which examines the development of the agents as a profession, was published in December 2016 by Boydell and Brewer.