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Leicester Special Collections

Dr Elizabeth Wilks

Dr. Elizabeth Wilks

Dr Elizabeth (Lily) Wilks (1861-1956) Courtesy of H. Kirkland

Elizabeth and the struggle for women's right’s

Dr Elizabeth Wilks was a famous female Doctor of Medicine and Suffragette (1861-1956). Elizabeth, also known as ‘Lily’, was brought up into a privileged household of the Bennett family as the fourth child in the family.  When Elizabeth was young, she was sent to a Boarding School in Edgbaston. In 1894 at the age of 33 she qualified as a doctor having practiced for many years before in the East End of London. This would have been an extraordinary achievement for Elizabeth due to the struggle for the right for women to become doctors (it was only in 1892 when women were allowed to become doctors). Subsequently in 1895 Elizabeth earned the letters MD and in 1896 a Bachelor of Surgery from the University of London.

The Bennett Family, 1870 Courtesy of H. Kirkland

Elizabeth was close with her younger sisters Mary Ellen (known as Nellie) and Martha Louise (known as Pattie). These sisters supported each other, especially in the many struggles throughout the Suffragette campaign. In 1896 Elizabeth married Mark Wilks (1861-1945) who was a London school teacher. Elizabeth and Mark seem to have a happy partnership and adopted a daughter named Helen.

Mark Wilks (1861-1945)

Mark Wilks (1861-1945) Courtesy of H. Kirkland

Elizabeth is mainly known for her involvement in the suffragette movement in her refusal to pay income tax in 1907-09. The authorities responded by seizing her property of furniture and jewerelly. The goods were auctioned at a well-publicised meeting in which her friends purchased the goods so it could be returned to Elizabeth.

In 1909 the Women's Tax Resistance League (Suffragist organisation) was founded on the precedence 'no vote, no tax',  Elizabeth was elected treasurer. In 1909-10 the authorities attempted to recover the tax by seizing £40 worth of property. Elizabeth objected to this as the furniture did not belong to her. Under the Income Tax laws it was the husband’s duty for their tax payment even though he could not enforce it. This meant that in 1910 Mark Wilks was sent the first application payment which he could not fill in due to lack of knowledge of his wife’s affairs.

Bennet Family, 1890 courtesy of H. Kirkland

Elizabeth at this time was a medical officer to the Board of Education, a clinical assistant at Royal Free Hospital and Evelina Hospital. It is therefore assumed that Elizabeth would have had a bigger income than her husband (as Mark was a teacher). In 1912 Mark Wilks was arrested and thrown into Brixton Gaol. This received public outcry led by Thomas Smithies Taylor (Nellie’s husband) and public figures such as George Bernard Shaw. This case received alot of national press and publicity, due to Mark's unfair treatment.

Shortly afterwards a torchlight procession was held in Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park. Over 3,000 teachers signed a petition objecting to Mark's treatment. After two weeks of imprisonment Mark was released. This must have been a very stressful time for Elizabeth as her sister Nellie Taylor was arrested in 1912 for breaking windows with a hammer and incarcerated in Holloway Prison. 

The Bennet Family, 1918 Courtesy of H. Kirkland

This would have a profound mental impact on Nellie as she was released on medical grounds on the 27th April. Nellie was again arrested in 1913 (for trying to protect Emmeline Pankhurst from being arrested after a WSPU meeting) under the alias Mary Wyan and was discharged after becoming dangerously ill. This would have been difficult for Elizabeth as she was close to Nellie . It shows the lengths of what Elizabeth and Nellie would have gone through to fight for their rights.

In 1918 there was a worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic, as Elizabeth was a doctor at this time this is something that she would have experienced first hand. It was something that doctors were unsure how to treat it at the time. People in some areas were told to wear masks, avoid shaking hands and stay indoors. This is something we can relate to today during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

After their daughter Helen died in 1919. Mark and Elizabeth moved to Headley Down, Hampshire. In 1932 Elizabeth was concerned of the poor housing conditions in the area and set up the Headley Public Utility Society for families in need of rehousing. Elizabeth died here, aged 95. Elizabeth left in her will that her house would go to a needy local person and a 10 acre nature reserve.

Garth Smithies Taylor

Garth Smithies Taylor 1896-1916

Elizabeth’s donation to the University

In 1922 Elizabeth donated £5 to the University and is featured in the Golden Book for her contribution. It could be suggested that she donated money in memory of her nephew Garth Smithies Taylor, son of Nellie and Thomas Smithies Taylor who died in 1916 from a sniper. In 1934-1937 Elizabeth donated £60 per annum for three years to fund scholarships for the University College. This shows how Elizabeth thought that higher education was important for the Leicester community even though it was only shortly after her fight for women's rights.  

Page curated by Josephine Barnes 

References

Dixon, S & Bridger, K. (2018) 'Let us offer higher education as our war memorial': the philanthropic origins of the University of Leicester. Available at:

https://leicester.figshare.com/articles/_Let_us_offer_higher_education_as_our_war_memorial_the_philanthropic_origins_of_the_University_of_Leicester/11815323

Frances, H (2004) 'Wilks (nee Bennett), Elizabeth' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 

Golden Book, University of Leicester Archives, ULA/HIS/FOU/1, p.17

History. (2020) 1918 Flu Pandemic. Available at:https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/1918-flu-pandemic

Jenkins, J. (2010) 'The Smeeton Westerby Suffragette', Trans. Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, 84, pp.251-277.

Leicester, Leicestershire, and Rutland College Reports and Accounts (1921-22), University of Leicester Archives, ULA/P/AR1, p.4.

Memorial Portraits Book, University of Leicester Archives, ULA/HIS/FOU/2, p.18

Murphy, G. (2020) 'The prison letters of Alice Ker and Mary Ellen Taylor': suffragettes and mothers, Women's History Review, pp.1-15. 

The Guardian. (2016) 'No scrubs: how women had to fight to become doctors' Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/sep/26/no-scrubs-how-women-had-to-fight-to-become-doctors

University College Prospectus (1934-35), University of Leicester Archives, ULA/P/PS/13, p.16. 

White, B. (1999). 'The influence of Dr. Wilks on Headley', Headley Miscellany, 1, p.5-7.