Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Influential women of North Staffordshire

Woman over the centuries have made a considerable impact on the community life of North Staffordshire. In a wide range of areas women have contributed greatly to improvements in Health, Education, Social Services and the world of work. This is an involvement that stretches back through the centuries linking an Anglo Saxon Princess and an ardent Communist, an aristocrat and a mill worker.

But first a Saint! Saint Werburgh who was born in Staffordshire early in the seventh century and died at Trentham, 3 February 699. Her mother was St. Ermenilda, daughter of Ercombert, King of Kent, and her father, Wulfhere, son of Penda the fiercest of the Mercian kings. This royally connected dedicated her life to reforming convents around the country including Trentham. She was also endowed with the gifts of prophecy and of reading the secrets of hearts knowing how devoted her different communities were to her. St. Werburgh one of the best known and loved of the Saxon saints and after her death through fear of the Vikings and in order to show greater honour to the saint, the body was removed to Chester Cathedral.

The Wedgwood men had a great deal of influence on the development of North Staffordshire after the 18th century but the Wedgwood women were equally strong minded characters and of certain opinions. Charles Darwin’s Aunt Sarah, daughter of Josiah used the considerable inheritance of her father to support humanitarian causes such as Etruria’s needy but her great cause was Anti Slavery and she launched North Staffordshire Ladies Anti Slavery Society in 1828. At the first meeting in Newcastle papers were read to the group and the women resolved to boycott sugar from the Caribbean. A recent biography of Charles Darwin puts the case that the “Sacred Cause” of anti slavery learned from his aunts and cousins lead Darwin to a belief in a common human ancestor and expounding his theory of evolution.

Not too far away from Maer where Sarah Wedgwood lived was Trentham Hall the home from one of the most remarkable women of the area Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland. Millicent came from a life of privilege and was acknowledged a great beauty, but her views differed radically from most society ladies. Pottery owners called “Meddlesome Millie” for her attempts to raise issues such as the effect of the poison lead on pottery workers where she lobbied members of the Liberal Government that she knew personally. It was alleged, a claim repeated by her biographer that the Duchess acquired he Socialist opinions after attending a Labour Church meeting in Leek. Millicent was also interested in the health of children and was the mover behind the establishment of North Staffs Cripples Aid Society which later lead to an establishment of an orthopaedic unit at North Staffs Royal Infirmary. She also tried her had at writing producing a number of serious documents to support her belief in attempting to improve the workers lot and novels that stressed the problems that local workers suffered from Her 1899 novel “One hour and the rest” concerned itself with on the conditions of the mills in Leek and largely written in dialect. It was not well critically received. In the First World War she ran a Red Cross Hospital in France and received the decoration the “Croix de Guerre”.

A close colleague of the Duchess was another woman born to some ease Dora Twyford (1880-1924). Born in Biddulph to a Pottery manufacturer Dora helped to found Twyford Hall in Hanley – a centre for Guides and Scouts. She worked with Millicent with local handicapped groups and like Millicent was involved with the special centre for the handicapped in Hanchurch. She also founded the Hanley Infants Welfare Centre in Bath Street and was President of the local Red Cross and involved with the local hospitals.

Of a different class was the redoubtable Fanny Deakin (1883-1969) She was born into a mining community in Silverdale and was a member of large but poor family. Interested in politics she was first elected as a Labour Councillor, but after 1927 was a Communist Councillor. She was a popular with local people, who nicknamed her "Red Fanny" after she visited the Soviet Union in 1927 and 1930. In an era of high infant mortality she campaigned for better maternity care of women and free milk for children under five. In 1941 She became the first communist to be appointed alderman in Newcastle. And later in the decade a maternity hospital, which bears her name, was opened in the area.

The early years of the 20th century saw many doughty fighters who struggled to get women the recognition they deserved especially those courageous women who fought to get the vote before the First World War.

 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.

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.

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.

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 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. She was involved with the William Morris Labour Church where she acted as a caretaker for a period. She had known William Morris personally.

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

Florence Farmer (1873-1958) left her position as a head teacher of a Longton School to work with her brother to establish a laundry business. Eventually she became a director of the company by 1927. She was active in the Labour Party and became the City’s first woman councillor. She was active in health matters and a supporter of Hanchurch Open Air School. A keen supporter of local voluntary organisation was elected the City Councils first mayor and also became the first female magistrate.

Where Florence lead other Councillors followed and as a young Councillor myself I met with three women who made a considerable impact on community life in the City during the 1960s and 70s. Mary Bourne had her power base firmly in the Longton area and amongst the Catholic community 
She attended UNESCO as a representative of the Catholic Church and was a member of the Union of Catholic Women’s League eventually becoming its President. One abiding interest of Mary Bourne was the elderly and she remarked herself at the age of 83 at a community meeting in Blurton “that we must do something for the old people”. She was also active in a number of blind charities. She became Lord Mayor in 1971. 

Another Councillor for the south of the City was Doris Robinson who lived to the great age of 99 and was something of a formidable operator. Her father Sam Clowes was MP for the City in the 20s and her brother was a leading Councillor in the post war years. Doris interest was very much the health service and she called in an interview given in the year she became Lord Mayor that one of her first acts was to sell cakes and sweets which realised £20 which she donated to the building fund of the local hospital. The esteem in which she was held was shown by her appointment to the local hospital committee after the NHS was established in 1948. She was for many years the Chairman of North Staffordshire Community Health Council and she maintained an interest in the Health Service throughout her long life. I did visit her on one occasion at her Lightwood home and I was given a tour in which she showed me many photographs of royalty, Prime Ministers and other notables that she had met in 70 years of public service.

Mary Stringer was a Tunstall Methodist who described herself as a 'backroom worker' when speaking at her mayoral inauguration in 1979.
She worked for the Worker’s Educational Association for 38 years and maintained it was attending lectures by the late Hanley MP Bob Cant, which made her stand for the council.

Both Mary Bourne and Doris Robinson were fervent believers in the NHS and the same applies to another local fighter- Dot Griffiths. Dot from Hartshill started the campaign to improve access to the cancer drug Heceptin after finding out that the drug was not given to women in the early stages of breast cancer. She felt outraged that many women who could benefit that a group that could benefit from Herceptin were denied it. She contacted the local oncology department and began to raise awareness of the issue firstly locally and then nationally a campaign that took her to the steps of Downing Street as well as appearances on Women’s Hour on Radio 4 and BBC Breakfast programme. Sadly Dot died in April this year but her indomitable spirit lives on 

I have saved the most intriguing North Staffordshire woman who made an impact on the lives of others but remains the only North Staffordshire person to have a feature named after them. Mary Blagg (1858-1944) was born in Cheadle to middle class parents. She seemed to be a retiring sort and lived in the town all her life. Her fame rests principally in her work in astronomy and in 1905 was appointed by the new formed International Association of Academies to build a collated list of all features of the moon. After the publication of several research papers for the Royal Astronomical Society she was elected as a fellow in 1916. She was the first woman to be allowed entry into that society. Her other interest was voluntary work she cared for refugee children during the First World War.

The crater Blagg is named after her.