In our post on women in local government, we said that the history of women on Abingdon’s Town Council started in 1950 with Agnes Leonora Challenor. However, that is not the whole story. In this post we present the remarkable life of Edith Reynolds and her role on the Borough Council and in the public life of Abingdon.
The following was written by Jackie Smith, the Honorary Town Archivist, and originally appeared in the Abingdon Herald, shared here with kind permission of the author.
Mrs E C Reynolds nee Sandys (1844-1932): Abingdon’s First Female Councillor
Edith Claudia Reynolds was elected to the Abingdon Borough Council in November 1919. She was then aged seventy-five but by no means daunted by the prospect ahead of her. This was in no small part due to her social background and education. She was born in December 1844 in Belgaum, India, the second youngest of four daughters of the Rev. Claudius Sandys, a military chaplain in the Honourable East India Company’s Service (HEICS) in the Bombay Presidency. Her family had a long tradition of service in India. Her grandfather, Lieutenant Col. William Sandys had served in the HEICS Bengal Establishment before returning to the family estate in Cornwall. According to census records her mother Helen, or Ellen, was born in Malta.
In 1848 her father died and her mother took her four daughters to live in France for a time before returning to England. The 1861 Census records Ellen Sandys, as she is styled, and her four daughters in Pittville Cheltenham. Ellen is described as a “fundholder”; the two oldest daughters Laura and Florence have no occupation, Edith and Julia her younger sister are “scholars”. Julia is known to have been a pupil at Cheltenham Ladies College so it is extremely likely that Edith also attended this new educational establishment for young ladies. The Ladies College had been founded in 1854 and in 1858 a new Principal was appointed, Miss Dorothea Beale, whose ideals of female empowerment undoubtedly influenced both Edith and Julia.
In 1871 Edith married the Rev Samuel Harvey Reynolds, a graduate of Brasenose College Oxford and one of the first scholars at Radley College when it opened in 1847. Following an academic career as a classicist Samuel had taken holy orders and was appointed to the living of East Ham by Brasenose College. In addition he was for many years a leader writer on “The Times”. Edith became immersed in the pastoral work of the parish, especially the St Hilda’s East Settlement, Bethnal Green, of which she became Warden. Samuel suffered from indifferent health and in 1893 he resigned the living and moved to Abingdon where they lived at The Gables in Bath Street “to be near enough to the Bodleian for study, and not near enough Oxford for society.” Their two domestic servants made the move with them. Four years later Samuel died in Biarritz.
Mrs Reynolds continued to maintain contact with her husband’s old parish in Essex. She also became involved in parish affairs in Abingdon, particularly the Girls’ Friendly Society and Infant Welfare. In April 1915 she had been elected to the Board of Guardians and was a member of the Board for 15 years. She was also Lady Almoner at Abingdon Cottage Hospital, which at that time stood almost opposite her home in Bath Street. During the Great War she privately financed the ploughing of land near what was then the town rubbish dump in Marcham Road to increase local food production. The formation of the Abingdon Pig Club was also the beneficiary of her support.
In 1919 she stood for election to the Borough Council. In the previous year the number of electors on the register stood at 2,628 but the Representation of the People Act (1918) extended the franchise to women over the age of thirty meant that in 1919 the number of eligible voters rose by forty-two. Mrs Reynolds faced stiff opposition: a fellow candidate was Arthur Edwin Preston, a former borough accountant and Berkshire County Council Alderman. Preston, in his election address in the North Berks Herald, referred to the electorate “strengthened by a notable influx of women voters”. Edith’s address made a direct appeal to the “working women”. She saw herself as their representative and referred to her record of social work in town, her support of the allotment movement, and her interest in education. Preston topped the poll with 1,201 votes and Mrs Reynolds received the second highest number of votes among the other candidates, thanking her “843 friends” in her short post-election address in the local paper.
Her council duties included membership of the Free Library Committee and a position as representative manager of the National Schools both of which reflected her interest in education. At the end of her three-year term, however, she failed to be re-elected. She was a staunch Conservative, serving as Hon Secretary of the Abingdon Women’s Constitutional Society from 1920-1930. At the age of eighty-five she felt obliged to retire from this post. Over 700 members of the Women’s Constitutional Association from Abingdon and North Berks gathered in the Corn Exchange where her cousin Lady Norman, President of the Society, officiated at a special presentation to Mrs Reynolds – their gift, an armchair which she declared to be “very comfortable.”
She died in Abingdon on 3rd May 1932 aged 87. The North Berks Herald described her as “First Woman Councillor and Local Philanthropist.” Miss Beale would have been proud of her!