Richard Pankhurst was born in the May of 1836, in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire to Henry Francis Pankhurst and Margaret Marsden. He was educated at the Manchester Grammar School and following that, Owens College, Manchester. In 1959, Richard graduated from the University of London with an LLB (with honours) and then an LLD. He had always been an active and somewhat radical socialist, so perhaps by the time he married Emmeline, he was the perfect husband. He was after all the author of the first bill attempting to get women’s rights, which became the Married Women’s Property Act 1882.
In 1867, Richard was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn, where he became a practising barrister, joining the Northern Assizes circuit. Pankhurst was also a member of the Bar of the County Palatine of Lancaster Court. Pankhurst was likely to be a key legal authority of his time, publicly showing his support for women’s rights and other equalities. Shortly after qualification for example, he founded the Manchester Liberal Association. Pankhurst was at one point the legal advisor to Lydia Becker and the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage.
In 1868, Pankhurst was junior counsel the case of Chorlton v Lings (1868) L.R. 4 C.P. 374, with Sir John Coleridge QC as his senior. This was the first of the appeals brought in the Court of Common Pleas by women who had been struck off the voters register simply for being women. In this case, the court decided that women legally had no right to franchise. Byles J said in his judgment: ‘I think it clear from the words of the Act 30 & 31 Vict. c. 102, that the word “man” in s. 3 does not include a woman but is confined to a man in the ordinary and popular signification of that word.’
Pankhurst was a very active member of the political world, as well having established a career as a lawyer. Nicknamed the ‘Red Doctor’ for his controversial and incredibly liberal views, he found it difficult to succeed in politics. Despite campaigning for two seats in the House of Commons: one in Manchester in 1883 and one in Rotherhithe, Kent in 1885, he failed to win either. These failures in politics were not reflected in his legal life and did not dull his passion for campaigning, as he famously said, ‘Every struggling cause shall be ours’.
Although Richard pre-dates the campaign for women to become lawyers, his contribution laid the essential ground-work for what was to happen next at the hands of his wife and daughters. He was a male lawyer, who supported equality endlessly, arguably paving the way for the recognition of women in the legal profession, perhaps evidenced by his role in the establishment of the Women’s Franchise League in 1889. He campaigned for some of the main social issues which dominated his lifetime, including universal free speech, the nationalisation of land and even the eventual disestablishment of the House of Lords, which he famously described as ‘a public abattoir butchering the liberties of the people.’
Richard Marsden Pankhurst died suddenly on 5 July 1898, aged only 64.
Written for First 100 Years by Niamh Bowyer, Second Year LLB Student, University of Worcester