Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Harriet Ann Kidd of Leek and the Cooperative Womens Guild

I came across a very interesting tale in the archive of the Leek Post and Times of a formidable woman who perhaps deserves far more recognition in her home town than she gets. The story came from an article in the Post and Times dated January 31st 1980 and is headlined Harriet Ann- a dedicated woman.

It is a very interesting tale, which I will restate augmented by addition information from the Internet gathered in the 30 years since the article was written.

Harriet Ann Kidd was born in Leek in 1865 and at the age of 10 went to work in the silk mills of Leek as a "skeiner" She then went on to become a "marker", that is someone who ties cottons round the bands to indicate the different colours and qualities needed and in the opinion of the dyers was highly thought of for her abilities.

It seems apparent that she was a very determined woman a quality that shines through her as I will describe. It is written of her that she had a fiery temperament, which evidenced itself in a concern for the welfare conditions of the workers employed in the mills

The article does say that Harriet came from a family that was interested in politics and discussions took place around the kitchen table. Her grandfather was a passionate supporter of Home Rule for Ireland and the story has it that he was expelled from Ireland for his republican sympathies.

One defining moments in her life was a meeting she attended in Stoke where she argued for workers rights for the mill girls with an unidentified MP who bested her in argument, her inexperience led to her being publicly humiliated by the MP
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She was determined to get her revenge and she studied at night for some months before deciding to confront the MP again. She was resolute in her persistence and walked to Liverpool from Leek for another chance to confront the man. (I think that the map would have been George Melly MP who was MP for Stoke on Trent in the late 19th century and was also a Liverpool merchant)

This time Harriet won the argument and the views of the MP were swept aside. After the meeting she was approached by a friend of Emmeline Pankhurst and urged to become more involved in the campaign to get woman the vote. When this person heard also that Harriet had walked the 50 miles to Liverpool she gave her the train fare back to North Staffordshire
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When she was 17 Harriet learnt the way in which the young women were treated in the mills by the owners. She was raped by a factory owner and gave birth to a son. The lot of a lone parent with an illegitimate child in late 19th century Leek must have been extremely harsh and cruel Harriet continued to work in the mill and joined the Co-operative Women’s Movement in 1897. She was a very active Secretary and was able to progress in the Guild .She also built up the trade union movement in the textile industry which quickly reached 2,000 members and was elected its first President.

She also sought a position in one of the few public offices open to women at that time as a Poor Law Guardian polling 484 votes. The first time any woman in the town had stood for public office and a worthy effort given the local prejudice that existed against woman seeking the vote at the time. Some years after the Suffragette campaigner Charlotte Despard spoke in the town and the meeting was broken up by local Tory rowdies
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She continued her political activity in Leek and by the dawn of the 20th century she was a fervent Socialist and connected with some of the progressive individuals in the town such as Larner Sugden. She was involved with the William Morris Labour Church where she acted as a caretaker for a period. She had known William Morris personally.

During this period she must have met many of the speakers that came into Leek during the late to address members of the Labour Church such as Keir Hardie the first Labour MP, Edward Carpenter, Ramsey McDonald the first Labour Prime Minister and WT Stead the campaigning journalist who was to die on the Titanic.

Between 1899- 1901 she was active in the anti Boer War movement which was centred on Larner Sugden.
Her activity eventually led to a full time paid position in the Co-operative Women’s Guild firstly working in the north and then at its headquarters in North London a job, which she combined with working for Women’s Suffrage
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She contracted a fatal illness in 1916 and supported by friends nationally and in Leek she succumbed to her illness in 1917. Her funeral took place at Golders Green Crematorium on July 10th 1917 a headstone was donated by the Guild in recognition of her unstinting work for women and working class issues over many years.

Her friend the writer Virginia Woolf said of her into in the book "Life, as we have known it"
"One could not enter the Guild Office go upstairs without encountering Miss Kidd. Miss Kidd sat her typewrite in the outer office. Miss Kidd, one felt had set herself as a kind of watchdog to ward off the meddlesome middle class wasters of time who come prying into other people’s business. An extra share of the world’s grievances seemed press on her shoulders. When she clicked her typewriters, one felt that she was making that instrument transmit messages of foreboding and ill-omen to an unheeding universe"
And later

"And nothing perhaps embittered us more at the Congress than the thought of this force of theirs, this smouldering heat which broke the crust now and then and licked the surface with a hot and fearless flame, it is about to break through and melt us together, so that life will be richer and books more complex and society will pool its possessions instead of segregating them- all this is going to happen inevitably to Margaret Llwellyn- Davies, Miss Harris and Miss Kidd- but only when we are dead"

Harriet Kidd’s son Arthur Kidd known as "Lew" spent his life participating in promoting local football and cricket and particularly in encouraging young and promising sportsmen in Leek

Harriet Kidds’s life and achievements seem to have passed by her hometown and I feel that it an oversight. The issues that she campaigned for the rights of workers, women’s issue and addressing the structural failings within British Society as evident now as they were a century ago