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Evans [née Webb], Matilda Maria (1843/4–1909), local politician and social reformer, daughter of Richard Webb, herald chaser, emerged from an obscure background. Nothing is known of her early life, but on 17 March 1870 she married Henry Evans, a photographer's publisher. She was widowed by 1881 and returned to live with her mother, Rachel Webb, at 53 Sidmouth Street, St Pancras, London. She had children from the marriage and earned her family's living as a photographic publisher and print seller from commercial premises at 4a Duncannon Street, in the Strand, London. The earliest reference to any political activity on the part of Matilda Evans relates to the 1886 election for the Strand poor-law union, in which she polled 813 votes, finishing eleventh in the contest for the ten positions as guardian for the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields. She contested the election again in 1887, this time with success: she became the first woman guardian on the Strand board. Attending her first meeting on 19 April, she was elected to serve on the finance committee and general purposes committee and soon became a high-profile figure in London government, one who was especially interested in the need to ensure sound financial management of the ratepayers' money and the welfare and training of girls. Indeed, by 1893 Louisa Tempe Mallet (member of the inner circle of the Women's Local Government Society) was quoting her example in an article promoting women's work in local government written for the Women's Herald. According to Mrs Mallet, ‘everybody knows the story of the Strand workhouse school, where the first woman guardian discovered that one bath, with water unchanged, was considered adequate for the ablutions of sixty girls, and one brush and comb for their toilet’ (Mallet, 10). In 1889 Mrs Evans was joined by Emma Stevens, a fancy goods importer, and Margaret Painton.

Apart from her poor-law work, in 1888 Mrs Evans also stood as an independent candidate for Westminster in the triennial election for the London school board, but finished at the bottom of the poll. Unlike most of those serving on the board she was not relying on the support of any association, political or otherwise, neither did she enter the fray as a supporter of free education or free school meals. In fact, her main concern was to avoid excessive expenditure. Consequently, in the autumn of 1888 the feminist Women's Penny Paper paid tribute to her sound business ability as a guardian and her ‘eagle eye’ for abuses: ‘To the pauper children she is an invaluable friend, and, if returned to the larger Board, the interests of the rising generation will be safe in her hands’ (Women's Penny Paper, 1). Despite her lack of success, it was in the same year that she was approached by Annie Leigh Browne of the newly established Society for Promoting the Return of Women as County Councillors (which became in 1893 the Women's Local Government Society) to allow herself to be nominated as a candidate for the London county council, an invitation which she refused. In 1891 she was again unsuccessful in the elections for the school board, but three years later was invited to join the vestry for St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Oddly enough Mrs Evans had attended vestry meetings regularly for ten years owing to her misgivings about the over-assessment of her rates. Indeed she told the 1896 conference of the Women's Emancipation Union that the driving force behind her interest in municipal affairs was a sense of injustice, reinforced by anger at her subsequent treatment by the male judiciary and local vestry (Ignota, 387–9). Initially excluded from all committees except the housing of the working classes committee, hard work and consistent attendances at vestry meetings were rewarded when on 28 May 1896 Mrs Evans was elected to serve on the works and general purposes committee, the finance committee, the improvements committee (dealing with issues arising from the Strand Improvement Bill), and the lighting committee. By 1899 she was serving on all vestry committees except one; the most important of those on which she acted was the works and general purposes committee, which determined the planning implications of road works, gas and water pipes, new sewers, and electric and telephone wires.

Down to the turn of the century Matilda Evans devoted herself to her work as a vestrywoman and poor-law guardian until she was unseated as a result of a petition lodged against her in July 1899 by an unsuccessful candidate, John Theodore Audy, for a technical infringement of the Corrupt Practices Act. In the event she was found guilty of illegal practices under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1882 (because she paid a certain F. Barrow 10s. for the conveyance of electors to and from the poll at the election on 15 May) and her election was declared void. It seems that the decision not only caused much local indignation but precipitated much comment in the press concerning the severity of the penalty imposed by comparison with other election petitions. By the judgment of the commissioners Mrs Evans was compelled to resign her seat on the Strand board of guardians, and in the opinion of the Women's Local Government Society, the ‘withdrawal of her able and disinterested work as Guardian, as member of the Vestry, and as Overseer, is a very serious loss in the local administration of the Strand’ (WLGS report, 1899–1900, 17). In 1909 she was an unsuccessful candidate for the London county council. She committed suicide at 17 Panton Street, Haymarket, London, on 14 June 1909. Her work illustrated both the difficulties and the achievements of women entering local government in the late nineteenth century.

Jane Martin

Sources  

Ignota [L. E. Wolstenholme Elmy], ‘Women in local administration’, Westminster Review, 150 (1898), 387–9 · L. T. Mallet, ‘The work of women in workhouses and on county councils’, Women's Herald (28 Jan 1893), 10 · St Martin-in-the-Fields vestry minutes, 1894–1900, City Westm. AC · Strand board of guardians minutes, 1887–1900, City Westm. AC · Women's Penny Paper (24 Nov 1888) · Englishwoman's Review (15 Feb 1881) · Englishwoman's Review (15 Aug 1887) · Women's Local Government Society minutes, LMA: 9 Nov 1888, 17 Nov 1888, 6 Dec 1888, 10 Dec 1888, 13 Dec 1888, 20 Dec 1888 · Women's Local Government Society reports, LMA: 1893, 1899–1900 · d. cert. · census returns, 1881 · 1870 marriage registers index, freebmd.rootsweb.com [March 1870, St Giles, 1b.553] · m. cert.

Archives  

LMA, Women's Local Government Society MSS


Wealth at death  

£2015 7s. 9d.: probate, 2 July 1909, CGPLA Eng. & Wales