Untold lives blog

25 June 2013

Sir Lewis Pelly, supporter of women’s suffrage

On Easter Sunday 1892 Sir Lewis Pelly and his wife Amy were reading an article from a journal The Nineteenth Century.  This was to be the last thing that Sir Lewis read before his death five days later on 22 April 1892.

The article, written by Clara Elizabeth Collet, was entitled ‘Prospects of marriage for women’. Clara Collet (1860-1948) was a feminist, social economist and statistician who championed women’s education and employment through her positions with the Board of Trade and her influence with government committees. She was the daughter of Collet Dobson Collet a radical journalist and campaigner for freedom of press who counted Karl Marx among his friends, and Clara was for many years a close friend of Marx’s daughter Eleanor.

Sir Lewis Pelly (1825-1892) was an army and political officer in India. His private papers are held by the British Library and are currently being digitised as part of the Gulf History Project. Pelly joined the East India Company’s Bombay Army in 1840 and rose through the ranks serving in India, East Africa, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, his longest serving appointment being as Political Resident in the Persian Gulf 1862-1872. He retired from the Indian Civil Service in 1877.

Pelly’s interest in the women’s suffrage movement was most likely influenced by his wife. In 1878 he married Amy Henrietta Lowder, the daughter of Rev John Lowder, British chaplain in Shanghai and step-daughter of the diplomatist Sir Rutherford Alcock, the first British consul-general in Japan. In 1885 Pelly was elected as the Conservative Member of Parliament for North Hackney and began to use his position within the House of Commons to assist the movement in campaigning for a Women’s Suffrage Bill. His intention was to ensure that enough MPs would support the bill’s passage through the House of Commons.

Cover of pamphlet for National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies
Noc   National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies from BL,8413.k.5 Pamphlets and Leaflets (London, 1909).  Images Online    


In 1886 Pelly attended the AGM of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. He not only occupied a seat on the stage alongside Mrs Fawcett and other leading female campaigners but also spoke of his desire “to see the question of Women’s Suffrage brought before the Houses of Parliament as soon as possible” (London Standard, 16 Jul 1886).

The choice of reading material on that Easter Sunday suggests that his interest extended beyond simply supporting the Women’s Suffrage Bill to wider matters of women’s education, work and marriage prospects. Clara Collet’s article looked at census figures and other statistical information regarding unmarried women in England and Wales, their actual prospects of marriage based on their age, and their long-term work based prospects should they remain unmarried. Her investigations into these questions raised some interesting issues in relation to women’s welfare ranging from the role of trade unions in protecting young girls from overwork in factories to the need for young women of middle class families to accept they might not always be able to marry and to start insisting on more suitable levels of pay in order to sustain themselves in life.

Clara Collet also had links to India and the Indian Civil Service. Her 3x great uncle was Joseph Collet (1673-1725), President of Madras. After discovering his notebooks about his time in Madras she lectured in India on his life and saw the notebooks published in 1933.

Karen Stapley
Archival Specialist, Gulf History ProjectCc-by

Qatar Digital Library

Further reading:
Lewis Pelly Private Papers IOPP/Mss Eur F126/28
British Newspaper Archive
Biographical information on Clara Collet taken from The Women’s Library Special Collections Catalogue


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