The Freedom of the City is an honour that has been bestowed on a wide variety of political, civic and cultural leaders. From Ulysses S. Grant to local lad Johnny Giles, the honour has been granted to only eighty individuals to date.
On occasion, proposals for the honour have sparked protest.During the Second Boer War in South Africa, nationalists in Dublin Corporation attempted to have the Freedom of the City awarded to Paul Kruger, President of the Transvaal who was at war with the Empire. Kruger’s name never made it to the roll, but a quick glance just throw up some unusual outsiders. How many Dubliners have heard of Margaret Sandhurst, the first woman to be awarded the honour in September 1889?
The decision to honour Sandhurst was shaped by outside political affairs. A suffragist from a middle class Norfolk background, Sandhurst (who had been married to an administrator of the British Raj before his death) was an active member of the Women’s Liberal Federation, and a committed philanthropist in the British society of the late nineteenth century.
In 1889, Sandhurst stood for election to the London County Council, at a time when women were still locked out of the British parliamentary system. Local government elections became a battlefield for suffragists, who believed that victory there could lead to further political reforms. She was one of a number of Liberal female candidates to stand, and succeeded in taking a seat, defeating two Conservative opponents decisively.
Among the women who campaigned for Sandhurst was Constance Wilde, the wife of Oscar Wilde.Oscar was editor of The Woman’s World from 1887 to 1889, and had printed an address by Sandhurst in January 1889, in which she expressed sympathies for the Home Rule cause in Ireland, asking “have we, from first to last, ever made a persistent effort to govern Ireland for her good? Have we given up anything for her?….Can it be right to tyrannise over any nation committed to our charge?”
Unfortunately, while Sandhurst was elected to the London County Council, her election was challenged by anti-suffragist Beresford Hope, with the Beresford Hope vs Sandhurst cage resulting in the judgement that the defeated male candidate should be given the seat. It was a scandalous decision, which rightly infuriated the women’s movement of the day.
The awarding of the Freedom of the City to Sandhurst received international press attention. It was reported that the honour was presented to her “in token of gratitude for the beneficent influences she has exercised in public life”, and Sandhurst spoke before the Lord Mayor and elected Councillors in Dublin. To loud cheers, she told an audience during her visit that “the women of England, the progressive and enlightened women of England, were with the Irish cause.” Her political sympathies with the Irish cause were perhaps the primary motivation in presenting the honour to her; her name was appearing in the Journal of the Home Rule Union long before her visit to Dublin.
Lady Sandhurst died in London on 7 January 1892. The city which honoured the suffrage campaigner so publicly in 1889 would later elect the first woman to the British House of Commons, with Countess Markievicz taking a seat for Sinn Féin in the 1918 General Election. Yet, as Una Mullally recently observed in The Irish Times, only four women have been presented with the Freedom of the City since Sandhurst’s time.