Suffrage Stories: The 1866 Suffrage Petition – And The Geyser

PetitionBack in the days when the world was young, there was no internet, and antiquarian booksellers – as well as the layman/woman book-buyer – had to search their quarry among the stacks of brick and mortar bookshops, my time, when not engaged in child care, was spent touring London and the market towns of southern England in search of the books and ephemera with which I and my customers might resurrect the women that were famously ‘hidden from history’.

These days have long passed away – now we need only sit at home and search internet book-selling sites,  trawling through the print-on-demand dross in the increasingly forlorn hope of finding the odd nugget of treasure. The corollary, of course, is that there are now precious few brick and mortar bookshops selling second-hand/antiquarian books.

In those olden days I even thought it occasionally worthwhile to take a tour down Portobello Road on a Saturday morning, not something I have  done  for a long time, now that Portobello’s landlords are handing the antiques arcades over to fashion chain stores. But that particular Saturday-morning visit was memorable because it was in a bookselling alcove in the warrens that stretch behind Portobello Road that I came across one of the most interesting finds of my bookselling career – a copy of the pamphlet edition of the 1866 women’s suffrage petition.

The petition itself comprised  a long scroll onto which were pasted the signatures of the (circa) 1500 women who, in the spring of 1866,  were prepared to put their names to a request (it was certainly not yet a demand) that women who met the requisite  property qualifications , as set out in the Reform bill then under discussion, should be able to cast a parliamentary vote alongside men. The petition had been organised by a group of women who formed themselves into a small informal committee – among their number being Barbara Bodichon, Bessie Rayner Parkes, Elizabeth Garrett, and Emily Davies.  John Stuart Mill, for whom they had campaigned when he had contested – and won – the Westminster parliamentary seat the previous year, had agreed to present the petition.

Emily Davies was the businesswoman of the group and it was she who decided that the names of those who had signed the petition should be printed in pamphlet form and sent to  the weekly papers so that, as she wrote on 18 July 1866 to Helen Taylor (Mill’s step-daughter), ‘ in case they take any notice, they make know what they are commenting on.’  Copies of the petition pamphlet were also sent to members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The copy of ‘my’ 1866 petition pamphlet is, as you see, addressed to Earl Cathcart –  the 3rd Earl, Alan Frederick Cathcart. I suspect he was not overly interested in the rights of women.

I did sell the pamphlet almost as soon as I found it but, before parting with it, had the sense to take a photocopy. That sounds nothing extraordinary, but back in those days photocopiers were not the casual desk accessory that they are today and in order to process the petition’s 38 pages I had to visit the machine in the local library. How glad I am that I bothered to do so. For having easy access to those 1500 names allowed me not only to build up the pattern of political and friendship networks supporting the suffrage campaign that lies at the heart of The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guidebut also provided a starting-point for researching The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a regional survey, in which the part each region, county and town played in the campaign is detailed.

Some of the names on the petition are well-known, but it is the unknown that I find particularly interesting. For example, Fanny Maughan of 214 Goswell Road, London EC  attracted my attention because that address is a very close to where I live. Although Fanny’s house has long been swept away to make room for a high-rise housing estate, I wanted to know how her name might have come to be on one of those petition slips.

She was born Fanny Elizabeth Seamer in Hackney in 1838, when her family was living in Down Terrace, Clapton. Her father, a hairdresser, died when she was young and her mother remarried John King, a piano maker. The ‘new’ family lived in Bishopsgate and Fanny acquired half-brothers, one of whom was named John Lovett King.   In 1863 Fanny married Benjamin Waddy Maughan in Islington and three years later signed the women’s suffrage petition.

How did Fanny Maughan come within the orbit of the petition gatherers? Well, there is a tiny possible clue in her half-brother’s middle name, from which I would guess that her step-father was connected to the circle surrounding William Lovett, chartist and artisan radical. More to the point her father-in-law, John Maughan, born into a non-conformist (Wesleyan) family, became a friend of William Lovett, an associate of George Holyoake, and a member of the London Secular Society. The men in these circle were all supportive of John Stuart Mill – and the petition – and someone must have suggested that a visit should be made to 214 Goswell Road, to request Fanny Maughan’s signature.

Although Fanny Maughan has left no discernible trace other than that signature on the petition, we have good reason to think daily of her husband. For 1n 1868 Benjamin Waddy Maughan invented the first domestic water heater that did not rely on solid fuel. His invention – which he called The Geyser – used gas to provide a constant stream of hot water.

Maughan's geyser  By 1881 he and Fanny were living at Heydon House, Quarry Road, Hastings and Benjamin was described on the census as ‘Gas Engineer Fitter, employing 28 hands’. However, by 1887, when Fanny died, the couple were back living in Islington and Benjamin had a factory at Gloucester Road in Hackney, just off Hackney Road.

Alas, all did not go well for Benjamin Maughan and the 1911 census shows him, described as ‘formerly house painter’, as an inmate of the Islington Workhouse, with a note that he had become deaf when he was 63 years old. I cannot even with certainty find a record of his death. But how interesting that the geyser, an invention that, in time, did much to unshackle women from household chores, should have been so closely associated with the 1866 women’s suffrage petition. I sincerely hope that Fanny Maughan – and the cook and the housemaid that the family were able to afford in the 1880s – were able to benefit from Benjamin’s invention.


All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere are my copyright. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without my permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement.


Ann Dingsdale also researches the 1866 petition –  access her thesis here and her blog here


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  1. #1 by artandarchitecturemainly on May 14, 2014 - 1:32 am

    I am impressed with the early date (1866) of the the petition, and with the large number of signatures of women who asked that women be able to cast a parliamentary vote alongside men. They must have been brave souls…even their granddaughters in 1910 did not think that they would succeed.

    That copies of the petition pamphlet were also sent to members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords shows they were sophisticated petitioners.

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