Pyrford and Chertsey

Emilia, Lady Dilke
by John Carpenter

In 1885 Emilia Francis Strong (1840-1904) married Sir Charles Dilke following the death of her first husband, the 70 year old academic and Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford Mark Pattison. Widely travelled, cultured, she was an accomplished artist, writer, critic, politician, trade unionist and noted feminist.

She first met Dilke aged nineteen when they both attended (separately) communion at Brompton Church. They maintained their friendship maintained mainly by correspondence, even crossing swords on occasion over issues such as funding for female scholarships at the Royal Academy or women’s franchise. Though both were strong advocates of the latter, Emilia thought Charles’s then view of limited suffrage would never be adopted and that women should work towards complete enfranchisement. The voting question was to reappear after their marriage albeit at a more local level. Sir Charles had purchased and built two properties in the early 1880s; at Dockett Eddy on the Thames near Chertsey, and a second at Pyrford Rough near Woking when it was clear Mark Pattison was dying and marriage to Emilia a real possibility. Built ‘in clear air and on dry ground so that she might have somewhere to go in the winter that would not affect her arthritis’, it would become Lady Dilke’s when she purchased it from him in 1886.

Emilia Francis (née Strong), Lady Dilke. by Pauline, Lady Trevelyan (née Jermyn), and Laura Capel Lofft (later Lady Trevelyan). Oil on millboard, circa 1864. NPG 1828a.

Spending the summers at Dockett Eddy and, from December 1885 when the house was finished, the winters amongst the fir trees at Pyrford Rough, the house was noted as being ‘unashamedly hideous’ which was perhaps the reason Lady Dilke began a series of alterations and enlargements, adding in 1888 adjacent freehold land and where, as a freeholder/ratepayer, the overseers of Pyrford had placed her name on the list of persons entitled to be registered as county electors but not as Parliamentary voters. In 1889 Lady Dilke allowed her name to be struck off without objecting as ‘she did not personally care to exercise the right of vote, supposing that she possessed it.’

In 1890 however her name reappeared and when the list came before the Revising Barrister Mr J Raymond during Court in September it was objected to ‘on the ground that she was a married lady’ and not therefore ‘a person in the eye of the law.’ Lady Dilke had, in the meantime, been advised that ‘some high legal authorities took the view that married women holding property as ‘femes soles’ since the passing of the last Married Women’s Property Act (that of 1882) were not now in any disability as regarded the municipal franchise’ and that it was desirable to raise the constitutional point involved as it had an important bearing on the position of married women under the 1882 Act. She did just that and, after various legal tussles, four years later municipal voting rights for married women were finally acknowledged with the passing of the Local Government Act. Lady Dilke’s stand, though not widely reported at the time, shows that but for the actions of this Surrey resident and many others like her, the story of female municipal enfranchisement may well have been very different.

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