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.

lonsdales-yard

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.

clara-bootmaker

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”

large old paper or parchment background texture
old paper or parchment

 

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Eating at the White House

Last week, heading out to the tip, I drove along Wetherby Road in Leeds and passed a restaurant called The White House. These days it looks like a chain pub centred around food. But many years ago it was quite a classy place. And therein hangs a tale…

It was, as the song title goes, the summer of ’69. I was 15 and spending the summer holidays working at Laws Supermarket. It was the first summer I could legally work full-time and I had plans for the money I’d make. It would go in the bank for some big thing, to be decided in the future.

Of course, things didn’t work out that way. By then I was playing bass in bands, a youth for whom books and music were the fundamentals of life. So my days off were filled with trips into Leeds to spend my hard-earned wages on in bookshops and record shops, filling out my sparse collection of Penguin Classics and poetry and anguishing over which LP to buy.

And it was the summer I became interested in a girl. In the evenings I’d walked a mile to meet up with friends. We spent an hour or so on a bench in front of a shopping parade, just talking and acting the fool. A girl would come along sometimes, long blonde hair, that slightly ethereal look that was so typical of the late Sixties. I was smitten. But shy.

I came up with a plan. I’d impress her. Take her out to dinner. I’d never done that before, but I could scrub up a bit and act politely in public. It would be a costly do, I knew that. After all, you can’t impress without spending. So I saver my money for a fortnight, and one evening, just as she was leaving the bench, I took her aside and asked her out.

She looked more shocked than anything. Still, she agreed. On the night, we met and caught the bus to Oakwood, followed by an awkward stroll to the place. I tried to keep an insouciant, sophisticated front in the restaurant, to seem adult and worldly, and probably failed miserably. We ate, made a little small talk and left to catch the bus home.

The spark simply wasn’t there. We were both nice people, but…

Money wasted? I thought so at the time, and I certainly didn’t want my parents to find out about it and how much I’d spent. I kept the bill in my pocket and next day, walking the dog in the park, I buried on a hillside. Out of sight, although I took a little longer to be out of mind.

Not too long after I did take up with a girl, a romance that lasted nine months, an eternity in teenage terms. But that’s another story. One I don’t want to tell.