How Lilian And Clara Nickson Nearly Became TV Stars

Intriguing title, isn’t it? And I’ll get to that in just a moment.

First, the lovely people at the Light on Leeds podcast had me on their blog, witting about Leeds. If you want to listen, just click on this link

A couple of months ago I areceived an email from production company  making a series of documentaries about Victorian shop girls. They hoped to do one episode  in Leeds. Somehow, when they were searching online they came up with my name and dropped me a line. Did I know the stories of any shop girls in Leeds during that time?

Well yes, I did. Almost.

My tale was just that wee bit later, from the Edwardian era, regarding Clara Nickson and her two daughters, most paprticularly the oldest, Lilian.

Clara was born Clara Amelia Buckroyd on August 8, 1852, to George and Mary Ann Eliza Buckroyd on Lincoln Place. He is listed as a warehouseman.

Clara birth

By the 1861 census, however, the family is on Reuben St, and George is a grocer.

Clara 1861 census

By 1871 they’re at a different address on the same street. George is still a grocer, but Clara is making her living as a weaver, and probably also helping in the shop.

Clara 1871 census

On January 1, 1877, Clara enters the Nickson family, when she marries Robert Hewson Nickson. Like his father George, who died 10 years earlier, Robert is a painter and decorator. His mother has successfully run the business since his father’s death, and the 1871 census shows her employing seven men and a boy; no mean feat for a woman in Victorian times. The year Robert and Clara were wed, his mother remarried and he took over the business.

Clara wedding

Clara gave birth to three children. George came into the world in 1878 and died the following year. Lilian was born October 1880. The 1881 census shows the family living on Stamford Street in Sheepscar.

stamford-street

Stamford St.

This would be a plain terraced house. But the business was doing well, as they had a servant, 12-year-old Edith K. Simmons. Another daughter, Irene, arrived in 1885.

Clara Irene baptism

Clara Lilian 1881 census

Robert had his work premises in Lonsdale Yard, on the Lowerhead Row in the centre of Leeds (also known as Bradley’s Yard). He died in 1893, leaving £331.19s.5d – the equivalent of £40,000 in today’s money, a very respectable sum for a working-class man.

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Lonsdale Yard

Like her mother-in-law before her, Clara ran the business after her husband’s death, and she’s listed as a painter and decorator with her premises at 5 Lonsdale Yard in a trade directory.

The 1901 census shows her living at 4, Beecroft Grove in Chapeltown, and still continuing the business. Notably there was no longer a servant in the house.

Lilian Nickson 1901 census

By this time, Lilian is 20 and working as a restaurant waitress, while Irene is 15 and a clothier and saleswoman – very likely working in a clothing shop.

It must have been a year of big changes. By 1902, Clara no longer has the painting and decorating business. Instead, she’s now a boot maker and dealer and draper (with a sideline arranging servants for families), and her premises are at 204 Roundhay Road in Harehills.

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Roundhay Rd

204 Roundhay Rd today

At that time, much of Harehills was relatively new, a mix of good villas for clerks, terraced and back-to-back housing. She probably sold the decorating business as a going concern and possibly used some of what her husband had left as capital for her new venture.

Clara kept the business going for several years, although she did move. By 1907 she was living at 17, Dorset Road. This was a through terrace at the top end of Harehills on the new Hovingham estate, a definite upward move from Sheepscar.

Dorest Rd

Both Lilian and Irene are with her. Both have been working with Clara in the shop. Irene, of course, already had retail experience, But in 1909 she married a man from Chorlton, near Manchester and moved there.

By the 1911 census, Clara had sold her business and moved to 4, St. James’ Square. The street is now demolished, but it stood on the site of what became the Civic Hall. At 58 she was retired and keeping house for Lilian.

St james sq

St. James’ Square

Her daughter had used the real experience well and at 28 had become a “manageress, retail branch of boot trade.” At this time, Leeds was the biggest maker of boots in the country (as opposed to shoes, where Northampton had the title). Working men wore boots, as did many woman, along with clogs. They were big business.

Lilian Nickson 1911 census

Lilian was working in the city centre, so moving to a more central location made sense. However, mother and daughter moved on from there. 1914 saw them at 14 Oakwood Drive, in the very leafy suburb of Roundhay, very close to Roundhay Park. The area had only recently become part of Leeds, and it was only in the previous decade that it had started to be developed. The street stood about 200 yards up Oakwood Lane from Oakwood Clock and the lodge at the entrance to the park.

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Oakwood Clock, 1914

They would be moving again, as Lilian married in September 1914, just five weeks after the beginning of World War I. Her husband, Henry Corrigan Smith, was 35, a tailor who lived in Southport. By now Lilian was 33, quite old for a woman to marry, although war, as always, changed everything. On the marriage certificate Lilian is shown as not working; this could mean that she’d already left her job to marry.

Henry was getting a package, not just a wife, but also a mother-in-law; Clara lived with the couple in Southport until she died in 1919. Henry passed away in 1929, but Lilian survived until the end of the 1950s.

Sadly, I have no photos of Clara, Robert, Lilian, or Irene. All I have is admiration. Retail was part of their lives, but Clara did much more than that, managing a very masculine business for almost a decade when times were not kind to women, then opening a shop and going into retail – which must, in some way, have taken her back to her childhood.

But by the time she stopped working, Clara had achied something quite remarkable for a women essentially on her own – she’d ascended from the working-class to the middle-class.

And, of course, since you’re here, please don’t forget this. It’s been getting wonderful reviews, the best I’ve ever had, with trade magazines in the US calling it “superlative” and my “best”

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old paper or parchment

 

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Looking Ahead For Tom And Annabelle Harper?

It’s ironic, really. I always swore I’d never write a crime novel set in Victorian times. There era was overdone, with Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins – even Dickens – and all who’ve followed in their footsteps. And now I have six of them out there, plus a seventh just completed.

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It still makes me shake my head. Especially the reviews that have come in so far for The Tin God. I’ve created something that people seem to love…

Actually, it all began with a painting by Atkinson Grimshaw, the Leeds artist. A woman standing by the canal, holding a bundle. The water is almost empty because of a strike, the smoky skyline of Leeds tries to peer through behind her. She’s alone, just staring.

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She was Annabelle. That’s how she came into my life. It simply grew from there. A short story at first. Then, after reading about the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890, a novel. An event where the strikers won in three days, even as the Council Gas Committee imported strikebreakers? I had to commemorate that.

So Annabelle came back. She told me all about it and introduced me to her husband, Detective Inspector Tom Harper and his assistant, Sergeant Billy Reed. Out of that arrived Gods of Gold.

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The books are unashamedly political. No apologies for that. But they’re also crime novels, the two intertwined in a heart around Leeds. The newest, The Tin God, is the most political of all, and one where Annabelle finally takes centre stage.

In fact, she doesn’t, although the plot revolves around her bid (along with six other women) to be elected as a Poor Law Guardian in 1897. Trying to stop the man who doesn’t want women in politics is the core. But the heart, the linchpin, is Annabelle trying to win in the Sheepscar Ward.

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The Tin God was a book that seemed to write itself. I was simply the conduit. And over the last few years, Annabelle (in particular) and Tom have become every bit as real to me as friends I meet. I know them, and they know me. They’re family, in a way.

I’d like to say that I have plans for them, but the truth is, they have plans for me. To tell their story to the end of the Great War. Whether that will happen or not remains to be seen. But I’d like to do it. Although the books themselves aren’t planned out, I know what happens in their lives, and in their daughter Mary’s, too.

The book I’ve just finished writing will actually be my last Victorian (assuming my publisher likes it, of course). No, I’m giving nothing away about it, except it’s set in 1899. If another follows, that will be after 1901, and we’ll be into the Edwardian and George V eras. There’s plenty of Leeds material – the 1908 Suffragette ‘riot,’ the start of the war, news from the Somme in 1916, the Leeds Convention of 1917, and finally, finally, the Armistice a year later.

That will prove interesting. I’d certainly never imagined writing an Edwardian crime novel. Or even given a second through to George V. But I have a strong impression that Annabelle and Tom will guide me through it all.

In the meantime, I’d be very grateful if you read The Tin God. And the other books in the series.

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