Alice Maria Mackley: Tonbridge Labour Activist and JP

In celebration of the centenary of the legislation which allowed women onto the magistrates’ bench, I will be profiling some notable women Justices of the Peace (JPs) from the county of Kent over the next few months. The subject of this post is Alice Mackley, a working-class suffragist and magistrate.

When I was researching for my doctoral thesis, I was often asked whether all the early women JPs were from the middle- and upper-classes. My observation was that while this was true of the majority, there was a substantial minority of working-class women, most of whom were recruited through the Women’s Co-operative Guild (WCG) and the Labour Party. Changes in the selection of JPs brought in by the Liberal government before the First World War when the need for some ‘balance’ in perceived political affiliations became an important factor, together with the rise of the Labour Party to the status of governing party by the 1920s, ensured that some Labour women (many from working-class backgrounds) were appointed among the first women magistrates.

Mrs Mackley (1871-1951) of Tonbridge is an excellent example of this trend. Moreover, the evidence shows she was also an activist in feminist-inspired women’s political organisations and campaigns.

Born Alice Maria Fulcher in Drayton, Norfolk, the future Mrs Mackley was the daughter of a fireman in a steam powered corn mill. Other male members of her family worked as agricultural labourers. She was educated at the local Church of England elementary school. In 1899 she married fellow Norfolk resident, George Edward Mackley and the couple moved to Tonbridge, where they were living in Mill Crescent at the time of the 1901 census. George was a gas-fitter who later rose to become a district gas inspector. He was also a Labour activist, serving as chairman and secretary of the Tonbridge Trades Council and Labour Party and as a local councillor. The couple had five children by 1911: four sons and one daughter, and census records show that they also took in lodgers, presumably to augment their income.

A newspaper profile of Mrs Mackley, published when she retired from the bench, claimed that ‘although not a militant member of the suffrage movement, [she] participated in several processions… through the town’ (Kent and Sussex Courier, 7 May 1948). This is very significant, not only as an indication of her support for women’s suffrage, but also because it is actually mentioned in a mid-twentieth century profile. I often find that suffrage activities were omitted from newspaper report, especially obituaries. Perhaps the reason for its mention is that Mrs Mackley was still alive, and may have proudly reported her suffrage activity to the journalist. Perhaps she was one of the women photographed in the parade through Tonbridge by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies ‘Pilgrimage’ in July 1913.

She certainly became an enthusiastic member of the Women’s Citizens Association (WCA) which was formed in Tonbridge after the First World War. In 1924 she nominated her fellow WCA member, Florence M. Fayerman, for election to the Tonbridge Urban District Council (TUDC). Coincidentally, Alice’s husband, George was also a candidate on that occasion (Sevenoaks Chronicle, 21 March 1924).  Among the socialist/feminist causes Mrs Mackley espoused was the campaign for the ‘endowment of motherhood’ (family allowances). However, her main political affiliation was to the Co-operative and Labour movement, especially the WCG, of which she was local president.  She was also president of the women’s section of the local Labour Party and a local organisation called ‘the sisterhood’.

During the First World War Mrs Mackley was fully involved in the civic life of her adopted town. In 1914 she was outspoken on the need for soldiers’ dependents to receive adequate allowances (Tonbridge Free Press, 25 December 1914).  Later in the war she served on the local food control committee and on the war relief committee. In 1922 she stood unsuccessfully for a position on the Tonbridge Board of Guardians which was responsible for the workhouse (later hospital) at Pembury. It is worth noting that WCG women were strongly encouraged by their organisation to put themselves forward for election to local authorities and for selection as JPs (see my blog on Edith Abbott).

In 1926 Mrs Mackley was elected to TUDC on behalf of the Labour Party. She served for nine years, retiring for health reasons in 1935 (Courier, 1 March 1935). She was particularly interested in housing policy. In a public address in 1929 she outlined her views about housing in a town to which so many people were moving for work, and gave a rare insight into her political outlook. She did not believe in ‘Tonbridge housing for Tonbridge people’, she said, because ‘men had to go where they were told to go and where they could earn their “bread and butter”’. She expressed special concern for wives who were forced to ‘live in rooms’. On the council committee they were forced to prioritise families with children, which she felt was unfair to those young couples who were ‘decent enough’ not to have children while ‘in rooms’ (Courier, 22 November 1929).

Mrs Mackley was made a JP for the County of Kent in 1927, having been nominated by the Trades Council and Labour Party (Courier, 8 April 1927). She continued to serve on the bench until her retirement in 1948. Newspaper reports show that she was a regular attender in court and – like many other women magistrates – did a lot of work in the juvenile and matrimonial courts. On many occasions her WCA colleague, Florence Fayerman was sitting beside her on the bench.

After an active life of public service, Mrs Mackley died in 1951. As well as being a pillar of the local Labour movement, it is fair to say she was something of a feminist, although she may well have not used that word herself. However, she did praise in print ‘the strong, self-reliant girl of today, who can wrestle, argue and take part in industry [and who] is more fitted to be the comrade of man, and is certainly an improvement upon the clinging, timid, shrinking creature of the Victorian age’ (Courier, 7 July 1920).


Anne Logan


Thanks to Pam Mills.


Census, birth, marriage, death and baptism records via Find My Past

Kent and Sussex Courier (image: 8 April 1927)

Sevenoaks Chronicle

Tonbridge Free Press

John David Swarbrick and Pam Mills, The History of Tonbridge and its People in the Great War (forthcoming, 2019).