ATT Press release: Hope for greater recognition of tax rights campaigners

There is hope that the unique and largely unknown role of the Women’s Tax Resistance League in the suffrage campaign will be better recognised as a result of the inclusion of three of its members on the plinth of the Millicent Fawcett statue, to be unveiled in Parliament Square today. The new statue coincides with the centenary of The Representation of the People Act 1918.

Founded in 1909, the Women’s Tax Resistance League was part of the suffrage movement and campaigned on the subject of tax – under the slogan ‘No Vote No Tax!’ League members felt keenly the injustice of paying tax on their income, homes and servants when they lacked a parliamentary vote.

Association of Taxation Technician (ATT) Technical Officer Helen Thornley has given a number of presentations on the League around the country, based on her extensive study of the League’s archives held at the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics.  She is also due to speak about the League at an international tax conference in Barcelona in June. Thanks to support from the ATT her latest talk has been recorded and made available to view on the ATT website.1

Helen Thornley, Technical Officer for the ATT, said:

“The efforts of the Women’s Tax Resistance League deserves wider recognition as we celebrate 100 years of the first women to be granted the vote.

“Members of the League included Ethel Ayres Purdie, the first women admitted to a professional accountancy body who provided members with tax advice, Clemence Housman, the sister of the poet A E Housman who was imprisoned as a result of her tax resistance and Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. The Princess is commemorated on the plinth of the new Millicent Fawcett statute in Parliament Square.

“League members who refused to pay their taxes would have their goods distrained and taken to auction. The League used these auctions as political theatre, protesting in and outside auction houses. Tax resisters and their husbands also risked imprisonment, with school teacher Mark Wilks being imprisoned for two weeks as a result of his wife Dr Elizabeth Wilks’s tax resistance.

“The League campaigned for married couples to be taxed separately as, at the time, married women were classed under tax law in the same category as ‘infants, lunatics and the insane’.  Assisted by the tax skills of Ethel Ayres Purdie, the League was able to take cases to Court to highlight inconsistencies between tax law and the Married Women’s Property Acts of the late 1800s. The League even met with then Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George to press their case.”

The League’s main achievement was to realise that the position of ‘no taxation without representation’ was so just and reasonable that it was difficult to oppose. When League members such as Clemence Housman or Mark Wilks were arrested, the Government had the power to inflict life sentences for unpaid tax, but in the end chose not to impose such stern sentences and both were released without paying their tax debts.

Other members of the League also commemorated in Parliament Square include Edith How-Martyn and Charlotte Despard.

Jane Ashton, ATT Executive Director, said:

“Helen has spent considerable time studying the League’s archives and the ATT is pleased that we have been able to support her talks on the League, and help her to bring the League to wider notice in this centenary year.” 

Notes for editors

1. Helen’s full presentation to the Women in Tax network to mark International Women’s Day can be found here. The presentation was held at the offices of Mazars LLP, London, hosted by the Women in Tax networking group to celebrate International Women’s Day 2018.

2. Excepts from the presentation covered:

  1. Tax resistance and the suffrage movement
  2. Ethel Ayres Purdie
  3. Princess Sophia Duleep Singh resists her licences
  4. The Imprisonment of Clemence Housman
  5. The Taxation of married women

3. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 granted the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification.  The same Act gave the vote to all men over the age of 21.

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