Eliza Dickinson: A Forgotten Woman Of Leeds

In 1894, something momentous happened. A change in the laws allowed all rate payers to vote in local elections. The rates were the equivalent of today’s council tax; everybody paid them. So, working-class, middle-class, male and – above all -female had a local voice, even it if would take more than twenty years before some women received the franchise nationally.

The change opened the way for more women to stand for election to some offices too. Rural and parish district councils, and also as poor law guardians, the people who were responsible for outdoor and indoor relief, that is, benefits, as we might call them, and admission to the workhouse and overseeing conditions there.

A few middle-class women had been elected as guardians (by men). To qualify, they needed to own property worth £15, but it was primarily a job for men. With the change, however, working-class women did run for the office, truly breaking boundaries.

The Leeds Mercury reported from the Conference of Women Workers stating that “A paper was read on “Women in Local Government”. “Owing to the removal of the marriage and rate-paying disqualifications, many women of leisure could now become Guardians, and bring to their work that practical knowledge of the care of the poor which almost every woman with heart and head possessed.

While women Guardians were in favour of severe discipline for able-bodied paupers, they would remove the stigma of pauperism from the innocent children by boarding them out. Workhouse children had not even a piece of string they could call their own. Women Guardians should advocate the employment of paid women inspectors for children and lunatics, and they would be able to look into matters quite beyond the province of men.

Women as Guardians had special qualifications. They brought practical experience to the work. Many of the Guardians were tradesmen and tried to promote the interests of a clique, while women sat supremely apart and judged the case on its own merits.

On a Board composed exclusively of men, they had spent an hour discussing the matter of buttons versus hooks-&-eyes, which the dressmaker eventually decided for herself.”

 In my novel The Tin God, I have Annabelle Harper, a working-class woman from Sheepscar in Leeds, running to become a guardian. That’s fiction, but a woman named Eliza Ann Dickinson became a real pioneer. She was one of three working-class women seeking election.  Mrs Woodcock, who lived on Beeston Road, not far from Hunslet workhouse, was elected, too. However, a female candidate from the Labour/Independent Labour Party was defeated in the Holbeck South Ward.

Eliza Ann Beardsall was born in Headingley on February 14, 1851.

Her father was a forgeman, and it seems the family moved to Hunslet.

Young Eliza with her mother and brother

In September 1873, at St. Jude’s church in Hunslet, she married James Dickinson, a miner.

The couple had four children, one of whom died. At some point, she worked at Temple Newsam house.

What prompted a miner’s wife to stand to become a poor law guardian? Her descendants don’t seem to know, but she was inolved in a miners’ strike, and very likely her husband was one of the miners, so she’d have experienced how families suffered.. However, the letter urging her to stand in 1894, and the election poster (with her name misspelled) are wonderful.

Letter urging Mrs Dicksinson to run

She won a position on the Hunslet board of guardians, and is pictured here with the other board members, notably all men. Mrs Dickinson was re-elected three years later, and for a third time in 1901.

In 1911, the daughter, Amelia Jane, and granddaughter were living with the couple.

James Dickinson died in a mining disaster in 1919, still working at the age of 68. The note mentions that Eliza had been a guardian for many years.

By 1922 she was on the electoral register, living on Coggle Street in the Rothwell Haigh ward. She died in 1930.

Outside her own family, hardly anyone knows about her. Yet Eliza Ann Dickinson was a remarkable woman, someone who represented ordinary people on the board of guardians. She would have understood poverty, unemployment, injuries from working; they’d all have been evident in her neighbours. That’s apparent from this 1901 census.

The board was, as the 1894 letter states, dominated by “moneybags.” Someone like Eliza Ann Dickinson was needed to assess relief and look after the workhouse. She deserves far more than to be forgotten.

I’m grateful to historian Vine Pemberton Joss for making me aware of Mrs. Dickinson, and to Denise Morgan and her family for giving me information and supplying all the documents and photographs.

The Oldest Photos Of Leeds

The Internet is full of rabbit holes. For me, bits of Leeds history can start me burrowing, and I only emerge, blinking, a few hours later. The Leodis site, with its wonderful old photos of Leeds, is like a little warren, an Aladdin’s cave, a place to lose myself for hours.

And inside there’s plenty of treasure. Like these, the oldest photographs of Leeds. We’re so used to seeing images that it’s easy to forget that the science of photography isn’t even 200 years old yet. The very first picture taken with a camera dates from 1826 or 27. The first to include a person? 1838.

It was quite a while later that the camera came to Leeds, at least from images that remain. This would seem to be the oldest, dating from 1866. Leeds Bridge as it was then, before it was replaced by the new iron bridge in 1870. This structure dated from the 1730s, and that had replaced an older one. It’s still an immediately recognisable view.

leeds bridge 1866

A year later came this view of Lower Briggate, with the rise of Holy Trinity Chruch in the background. All these buildings on the street are long gone now, as are the two women talking, or the mother and son walking along the pavement (the picture looks as if it might have been taken from a room in the Royal Hotel, which started life as a coaching inn in the 1690s).

lower briggate 1867

From the same period is this one of Briggate, with the old Corn Exchange in the middle of the road, as the Moot Hall had been before it. By then, the Corn Exchange we all know had been opened, and this building was awaiting demolition. What’s remarkable is how empty Leeds’ busiest street was. It’s eerie. Just what time of day were these shots taken?

Briggate 1867

Bridge End, just by Leeds Bridge, is where this photograph was taken in 1869. There’s life here: people walking and starting to move into the frame, the blur of mother and child behind the window. There’s a barber’s pole by the shop, the neat display of goods in the window, and the archway for carts and deliveries. It’s worth noting the discolouration of the brickwork, covered by a few generation of soot from the factories and mills.

Bridge End no30 1869

1870, Rotation Yard, taken from the entrance. The photographer must have climbed a ladder to take the picture and frame it this way. More people, mostly men, but also a shopkeeper’s wife standing next to her husband. There’s a mix of working men, on the right of the picture in their caps and battered bowlers, a pair of youths, and a few more who look eminently respectable. The small street is clean, well-cobbled, a reminder that not every court in Leeds was home to the poor. For those who know Leeds, this is now part of New Market Street.

Rotation office yard now New Market St 1870

It’s impossible to know it now, but this is Lands Lane in 1881, with a very different selection of shops compared to today’s ‘retail offering.’ It would have been part of Tom Harper’s beat in those days; at that time he would still have been a constable.

lands lane 1881

Across the river to Hunslet, and a reminder that Leeds did once have a formidable pottery company in Hartley, Green & Co., whose premises were on Jack Lane. Taken in 1883, this is two years after the pottery closed for business. The office is the squat building to the left, and the conical structures are all kilns.

leeds pottery

Political meetings drew huge crowds throughout the 19th century, and well into the 20th. This gives an idea of the vast scale. Taken in the courtyard of the Mixed Cloth Hall (which stood where the NW corner of City Square is today) in 1880, it shows the yard filled to its capacity of 20,000, all gathered to listen to William Gladstone, who’s on the platform in the distance.

Roundhay Road in 1889, with workmen laying track for the tram. This view looks north – the first street going off to the left in Gathorne Street. The very first electric tram in Leeds, travelling from Sheepscar to Roundhay Park, appeared in October 1891. At the end of the third Tom Harper book, Skin Like Silver, Annabelle Harper wangles an invitation for herself and Tom on the inaugural trip.

roundhay raod 1889

Those are the old photos. To go back further, we need sketches. This 1834 panorama of Leeds, probably sketched just downriver from Fearn’s Island, show the effect of industry. Factory chimneys rise like awful fingers, leaving a pall of smoke; you can almost taste the soot. The Parish Church stands tall, four years before it was completely rebuilt. It’s a Leeds that’s beginning to look familiar to us today.

leeds 1834

The oldest illustration I’ve found, though, is far uglier in its own way. It dates from 1694, an image from Mabgate, found in the Leeds Corporation Court Books, showing a woman being dragged to the ducking stool by Lady Beck (or Sheepscar Beck). We even know her name: Anne Saule, the wife of Philip Saule. According to the record, several complaints had been that, stating she was “a person of lewd behaviour, a common scold and daily maketh strife and discord amongst her neighbours, it is therefore ordered that the said Anne Saule be ducked.” In fact, she was one of three women receiving the same punishment that day. The others were Jane Milner and Elizabeth Wooler, both of Mill Hill. At least we’ve moved on from that. But it’s the only old image of Mabgate that I’ve ever seen.

1694 ducking see leodis

Breaking The Old Bonds

Fortunes could change quickly in Victorian England. In a single generation some men could leap beyond tradition. And some women could find power and independence.

It’s hardly a secret that most of my books are set in Leeds. But my family, on both sides, goes back generations here. Leeds and family are pretty much the same thing to me. But how did those ancestors of mine live?

Its turns out to be a question with a few surprising answers.

My great-great-great-great grandfather Isaac Nickson was born in 1785 and arrived in Leeds from Malton somewhere around 1826/7, with his wife Jane and six children (two more would be born here). In 1823 he’d been listed in the Malton trade directory as a butcher, with premises on Newbiggin, a trade he carried on in Leeds. How much he made of himself is debatable, at least from his shifting addresses: East Bar, a shop and house on Timble Bridge, 43, Marsh Lane, Garland’s Fold. By 1840, Jane had left him, moving to Rothwell with two of his daughters.

 

 

                          By Timble Bridge, late 19th century

1841 census_1

But things grow more interesting with the next generation.

Of his five sons, four became painters and paper hangers. It was a theme that would continue for some of the men into the 20th century. Others had similarly unskilled occupations – heeler and boot repair, tailor’s cutter. Poor men, in other words. My father and his brother were the first to have secondary education, in the 1920s, purely because they won scholarships.

Isaac’s oldest son, also named Isaac (b.1815), and younger brother George (b.1820), were in business together, with premises in Birch’s Yard, 4, Lowerhead Row, advertising themselves as House and Sign Painters, Paper Hangers, Marble Painter Manufacturers.

1848 Issac and George

George, who married Mary Caroline Hewson (known as Caroline) in 1839, was at Crimble Row, close to Camp Road.

crimble street

Crimble Row, 20th century

Another brother, William Isaac (b.1824), was also a painter, as was youngest sibling, John (b.1827), who lived first on Lower Brunswick Street, then Vandyke Street, off Regent Street, and had his premises at Ship Inn Yard, off Briggate

ship inn yard

Ship Inn Yard

George and Isaac seemed to go their separate ways before George’s death in 1867. Caroline took over George’s business, very rare for a woman in those days, and in the 1871 census she’s shown as employing seven men and two boys – obviously a successful woman. She was living at 200, North Street, and had one servant, 15-year-old Elizabeth Strafford. George was buried at Beckett Street Cemetery, plot 5932. In 1877, Caroline married George Heuthwaite, a widower of Hunslet Road who made his living as a dyer, and she died in Hunslet 20 years later.

birchs yard

Entrance to Birch’s Yard on left, past Dobson’s

Caroline 1868

caroline 1871

North Street

North Street

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Gravestone for George and Caroline’s son, Thomas. Beckett St. Cemetery

Caroline’s son, Robert Hewson Nickson, probably took over the business and made it pay well, with premises in Lonsdale Yard on the Lowerhead Row (later known as Bradley’s Yard).

robert lonsdale

lonsdales yard

Lonsdale Yard

On his death in 1893 he left £331 19s 5d over £40,000 in today’s money, a staggering figure for a working-class man. Yet they still lived in an ordinary terraced house on Stamford Street, although they had a servant, Edith K. Simmons, aged 12.

stamford street

Stamford Street

In 1901, Robert’s widow, Clara, is listed as a painter and decorator, so she took over the business, although two years later she’d sold it and had a boot making business on Roundhay Road.

 

Isaac obviously as well as his brother, because in 1868, still living on Wade Lane, he was on the electoral roll, owning property worth more than £50, a large amount. In these days of a universal franchise, it’s difficult to believe how restricted the vote was in the 19th century.

Isaac voter 1868

wade street

Wade Street, 20th Century

Isaac Jr.’s son William Robert was yet another painter. Born in 1837, he learned the trade properly, and the 1861 census lists him as a journeyman painter, so he’d obviously completed his apprenticeship. At that point he was living on Wade Street with his father (although in the census he’s shown as a servant, strangely, and his uncle William is also shown there, again as a servant, although he has his own census listing with his family on Elm Street). But by 1868, he, too, was on the electoral roll.

1861 census2

WR voter 1868

William Robert had his business premises in Wheatsheaf Yard, off Briggate.

entrance to wheatsheaf yard

Entrance to Wheatsheaf Yard

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Grave of William Robert and three of his children, Beckett Street Cemetery

He died in 1890, but the 1891 census shows his widow Anna (or Hannah) Elizabeth living on the very respectable Ramsden Terrace and running the painting and decorating business – not bad for someone, it was noted, who could not write.

Ann1891

ramsden terrace top of pic

Ramsden Terrace at top of picture

Her son (yet another Isaac) lived with her, following in his father’s footsteps as a painter and decorator.

These are just a few instances, of course. But they show that in Victorian Leeds, it was possible for working men to make the leap across the class barrier to wealth and property. Yet what strikes me as remarkable is the fact that not once, but three times, women took over the businesses, and very male businesses at that. They didn’t give up, didn’t immediately sell them off. And they did it all successfully. In a time when that wasn’t a woman’s role, they showed that women could do it, and do it well. It was possible, for some, to transcend their origins and traditional roles.

Of course, not all the brothers did so well. William Isaac, my great-great-great grandfather, married Charlotte Berry in 1844. They had two children, John William and Martha, and lived on Elm Street, just off York Road in the Bank.

elm street

1871 census

William died in 1883, with no money for a funeral, not even enough for a guinea grave. He’s buried in an unmarked plot at Beckett Street Cemetery. Charlotte moved in with Margaret and her husband in Louisa Street in Hunslet. She died in 1889, and is also buried in a pauper’s grave at Beckett Street.

So, to those who have occasionally expressed surprise that Annabelle Harper in my Victorian series of books would be able to run a business so well, all I can say is that the precedent is right there. No wonder I see it as natural; it’s in the family.

All street images from Leodis.