When I was researching The Tin God, I came across a yellow, crumbling old newspaper. Turning the pages very carefully, suddenly I stopped, almost fizzing with excitement. Right there, in front of me, was an interview with Annabelle Harper from 1897, just as she was preparing her campaign to be elected as Poor Law Guardian for the Sheepscar Ward. I had no idea this even existed. Definitely a thrilling find, and I thought it was worth sharing. The original was impossible to scan. Instead, I’ve transcribed it all, word for word.
Reprinted from the Yorkshire Factory Times, October 1, 1897
As our regular readers will doubtless be aware, local elections will be happening in Leeds next month. For the first time, seven working-class women will be running to become Poor Law Guardians, under the sponsorship of the Leeds Women’s Suffrage Society and the Leeds Women’s Co-op Guild. It’s a bold challenge to the establishment, where the Board of Guardians is dominated by Tories and Liberals, but do they have a chance of success. I was able to speak with Mrs. Annabelle Harper, one of the candidates, in her lovingly-appointed, cosy home above the Victoria public house in Sheepscar, where she is the landlady.
How did you decide to run for this office?
Mrs Harper: I’ve been a speaker with the Suffrage Society for three years now, and I’ve lived in Sheepscar for a long time. It’s a poor area. Where I grew up, on the Bank, is ever poorer. I know the lives these people live, I see it every day. The change in the law three years ago has made this possible. Not only can all ratepayers vote in some elections for the first time, which marks a huge advance for women and also for the ordinary working people round here, but women can also run to be Poor Law Guarians and Parish Councillors, as well as the School Board. When Miss Ford [Miss Isabella Ford, one of the leaders of the Suffrage Society] announced that they intended to sponsor candidates, I wanted to become involved in this ward. I was lucky enough to be selected around Leeds, along with six other women who are probably even more worthy.
What do you feel you and the other women offer as candidates?
Mrs. Harper: Speaking for myself, I know round here like the back on my hand. I know the people well, and they know me. I’ve been a campaigner for the vote, and for women. I think people know that. Since the law changed in 1894 and so many more people can vote, especially among those who don’t posses anywhere near as much wealth, I think I can fight for them. We can look up the hill and see Leeds Workhouse. It’s a shadow that looms over us every day. I know people who’ve had to go in there, and it’s a tragedy when that happens. If we offered more outdoor relief that kept people in their homes, it would save money in the long term. As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve heard about the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. That seems wrong. No one wants to be poor. No one wants to go into the workhouse. They’re all people, they should be treated that way, whether they have work or not. I believe the other women have similar ideas.
Some might feel that’s quite radical.
Mrs. Harper: What’s so radical about wanting to help people when they need it? It just seems like human kindness and common sense to me. Who knows when we might need help ourselves? It’s a community round here, folk help each other this. That’s all I’m doing.
Yes, but what can a woman offer that a man can’t as a candidate?
Mrs. Harper: We raise families. I have a daughter of my own. I run a business. I know the value of every farthing, the same as any woman around here. A woman candidate can offer that sympathy. We’re the ones who nurse the poorly, feed the family. In Sheepscar, it’s not just the men who work. Women are in the factories and mills, too, they need the wage. Same with the children. I’ve done it myself, I started out as a doffer girl in Black Dog Mill when I was nine. If times are rough here and there’s not much work, about half the people here don’t have any savings. They’re always on the edge of the workhouse. I know that. I don’t believe the men who serve on the Board, however good their intentions, have any direct experience of that. Not one of the male candidates for this ward has ever lived in Sheepscar.
You mentioned yourself that you’re a Suffragist? Does this connect to that campaign, do you believe?
Mrs. Harper: If I’m elected, I think many of my votes will come from women. They’ll have the chance to exercise their rights. I feel that makes the two connected. Obviously, we don’t have the Parliamentary franchise yet. But everything helps. It all builds.
You mentioned that you’re a mother. If elected, so you feel your obligations would interfere with your duty as a parent?
Mrs. Harper: Of course not. Don’t be so daft. I’m a woman, we can do two things at once. Three, if we put our minds to it. All of them round here do it. Yes, we have a few foremen in Sheepscar, and a number in steady work. Most of them, though, it’s the whole family that grafts, children too, as soon as they’re old enough. And the women who don’t work, half of them go to the pawnbroker every Monday morning so they have enough to last the week. It’s like a procession, I’m surprised there aren’t grooves in the paving slabs. Does that seem like a fair way to have to live to you? It doesn’t to me. Women want a roof over their heads, they want to be able to feed their families. There are feckless men, we all know that, but it’s women who hold the home together. I’m lucky, I have a good husband. But I know what it’s like for those others. If they can manage it all, so can I.
You’re married to a policeman, I understand.
Mrs. Harper: I am, and very proud to be. He’s a Detective Superintendent, started out on the beat. He grew in the Leylands, not half a mile from here, and it’s every bit as poor as Sheepscar. We weren’t born with any silver spoons in our families.
Doubtless a number of people will feel that a woman’s place is in the home, not in politics. How would you answer that assertion?
Mrs. Harper: I’d say that a woman’s place is everywhere. I’ve heard it all over the years, that’s we’re not strong enough, that we can’t understand the political process. We’re strong enough to bring up plenty of children, to do the cooking and the cleaning and the washing, and probably a factory job, too. Politics will be a comfort after all that. It’ll be hard, yes, but no harder than the rest. I believe woman can do anything men are capable o doing. We’ve waited a long time for any chance, and we’re going to take it. We had a woman on the School Board here more than 20 years ago, Mrs. Buckton. It’s about time we had more women talking sense to the men.
How do you plan to conduct your campaign?
Mrs. Harper: I’m having posters printer to go up all over Sheepscar. I’ll go door-to-door and speak to people, to try and spark their interest, and I’ll be giving out leaflets. I intend to undertake as many speaking engagements in the ward as I can. I want people to know I’m doing this, to make them want to vote for me. There will be the hustings, of course, two of them. I’ll go up against the male candidates. But I do have to point out that I’m only one of seven female candidates. Each of the others can do just as good a job as me if elected, maybe even better.
Our interview was almost over, but I wanted to conclude with a final question, so I asked Mrs. Harper, who has turned out to be a most gracious lady, with no ‘side’ on here, as people say here, why the people of Sheepscar should vote for her to become a Poor Law Guardian.
“If they’re not convinced after they read that, I’m not sure what else to say. But I’ll fight for them and I’ll try to make sure that the poor here, everyone here, is treated with respect and dignity. I’ll be in their corner. I live right here, I’ll always be available to them. I hope that will make up their minds.”
The Tin God is published in the UK on March 30.