Listen to Liberal Democrats make speeches and there are frequent references to historical figures, but drawn from a small cast. Just the quartet of John Stuart Mill, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, David Penhaligon corner almost all of the market. Some of the forgotten figures deserve their obscurity but others do not. Charles James Fox’s defence of civil liberties against a dominating government during wartime or Earl Grey’s leading of the party back into power and major constitutional reform are good examples of mostly forgotten figures who could just as well be a regular source of reference, quotation and inspiration as the traditional quartet. So in this occasional series I am highlighting some of the other figures who have been unjustly forgotten.
In the case of Margaret Wintringham, the first female Liberal MP, her obscurity can at least be partly put down to her not being the first female MP, especially as that accolade is split between the first woman to be elected and the first woman to take up her seat.
Bertha Bowness Fischer, however, has a claim that transcends parties. She was not only the first formally qualified female Liberal Party election agent, she was also the first formally qualified female election agent regardless of party. In a party that highly rates its campaigning tradition, her name is one that deserves better remembering.
Increasing electoral regulation in the late 19th century, motivated particularly by the fight against corruption, led to both the main political parties of the time – Conservatives and Liberals – to establish their own formal training and qualification schemes for election agents. The Liberals got there nine years ahead of the Conservatives with the creation in 1882 of the Liberal Secretaries and Agents’ Association. This split a year later, resulting in the formation of the Society of Certified and Associated Liberal Agents (SCALA) which wanted to take a more thorough and formal approach to agent qualifications.
In 1902 Bertha Bowness Fischer was the first woman to pass its exam and become a Fellow of the SCALA. Although the first political meeting she attended was of the Conservative-supporting Primrose League, she had got stuck into local Liberal Party organising, serving both the Southsea Women’s Liberal Association and the Portsmouth Liberal Association. She won election herself in 1900 – to the Portsmouth Board of Guardians (one of the local government bodies open to women candidates earlier than Parliament).
Her first agenting experience after passing the SCALA exam was for Fareham, Hampshire but her appointment only lasted for half a year before marriage to an officer in the Indian Medical Service and her departure from the agenting profession. She did not recommence agenting before her death in 1920, but she was still the first of many female Liberal and then Liberal Democrat election agents.
For more about Bertha Bowness Fischer’s career and the female agents who followed here, see Kathryn Rix’s research, including her book Parties, Agents and Electoral Culture in England, 1880-1910.