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.

Finding The Leaden Heart – The Tin God

Tom Harper is returning very soon – just over a month from now – but it’s impossible for me to look ahead to The Leaden Heart without glancing back at The Tin God.

the tin god 4a

I’m immensely proud of this book, not only for what it is, but the things it spawned. It celebrated real history, women being able to vote and stand as candidates in some local elections, an event that was the first real step on the road to the democracy we understand these days. And Annabelle Harper was at the heart of it, running to be a Poor Law Guardian for the Sheepscar ward. She was one of seven working-class women around the city running to be Guardians.

But there was a man who would do anything to keep women out of politics. Anything at all.

That didn’t stop Annabelle giving speeches – like this one.

The clues the man left at every scene were snippets of folk songs, so Harper consulted a local song collector, a real name named Frank Kidson. Out of this book came this article I wrote on the man:

And, of course, a playlist of music he’d collected that featured in the book.

For once, Annabelle really did take centre stage, even if it was Tom and his men who had to solve the crime. She had to try and be fearless, not easy when someone was trying to kill you.

The book was launched at an exhibition called The Vote Before The Vote. I was incredibly proud to be involved with it, celebrating those Victorian Leeds woman who were working for the vote and women’s rights before the Suffragettes appeared in 1903. I was even more proud that Annabelle had her own board as part of it. From fiction, she’d stepped directly into Leeds history. She’d have been over the moon.

That launch even sparked a film of its own, a glorious mystery from film maker Daisy Cale.

The book was a gift. It came to me in a flash when a historian friend – who actually curated The Vote exhibition – said ‘Why doesn’t Annabelle run for office?’ After that it was all so clear.

I did my only blog tour for the book, and it received some glowing reviews – and even a wonderful review in the Morning Star. These are some snippets or click here to read more.


It left me with a problem, however. How do I top it? Can I top it?

The Leaden Heart is my attempt at doing just that. You’ll be the only ones who can judge whether I succeed. And you can do it soon – even pre-order the book…


The Holy City: An Annabelle Harper Story

Leeds, Summer 1898


No rest for the wicked, Annabelle Harper thought as she picked up the post. A card on top with a view of Masham. Jotted on the back: Staying here tonight. There’s a brewery, it smells like when I worked at Brunswick’s! Beautiful weather, we’ll come home brown as berries. Love, Tom. And underneath, in a careful hand: And Mary.


She smiled and placed it on the mantlepiece with the other two. One a day, exactly as he’d promised. High summer, 1898, and her husband had taken their daughter on holiday to the Dales. He had a week’s leave, school had finished. But no chance for a Poor Law Guardian to take a little time away.

Three people had needed assistance yesterday, two the day before, five on Monday. That was always the worst day. Wages spent, everything worth even a couple of pennies hauled off to the pawnshop. Some she’d been able to help. Others she’d had to turn away, hurting at the hopelessness on their faces. Things were always bad in Sheepscar. Worse in other parts of Leeds, she knew that. But a year of this work had shown her that not everything was possible. She’d learned to steel her heart; sometimes she had no choice.

But she was the won who’d wanted to run for the position. She’d won the vote, and now she had to do the job. A pile of papers sat on the table needing her attention. Reports from the workhouse, minutes from the last Guardians meeting. And barely a minute to read them. She glanced at the clock, then strode over to the mirror, pinning her hat in place before she wrapped a light shawl around her shoulders.

Downstairs, the bar at the Victoria was quiet. A couple of older men ekeing out the boredom of their days by playing game after game of dominoes and cribbage while they sipped at halves of mild. A quick word with Dan the barman, a pull of the door and she came out into the clatter and din of Roundhay Road. Already warm, the sky hazy, the streets heavy with soot and dust and all the stink of industry.

Annabelle had barely started walking when a man called her name. She turned, seeing Reverend Fletcher hurrying to catch up to her. He looked like a figure of fun, a large man with a red, florid face above the dog collar and a belly that wobbled as he tried to move quickly. But he was a good soul, doing what he could to help the poor in his parish. She couldn’t help but have a soft spot for him.

‘Mrs. Harper. I’m glad I caught you.’ Just ten yards and he was already out of breath, she thought. He lifted his straw hat and panted.

‘Pleased to see you, too, Reverend. If there’s something you need, you’d better walk with me, I’m already late.’ She nodded towards the distance. ‘I’m due at the workhouse in a quarter of an hour.’

‘Of course.’

She kept a brisk pace, nodding at shopkeepers and folk she saw on the way to the junction with Enfield Street. He had to move quickly to keep pace.

‘There’s someone I’d like you to see, if you’d be so good,’ Fletcher said.

‘One of your flock? Is the family having money problems? Out of work?’

He hesitated before answering, just long enough to make her turn her head and stare.

‘No, it’s nothing like that. He’s only been in Leeds for a few weeks now, still has a pound to his name.’

She stopped, hands on her hips.

‘I don’t understand, then. What do you need with a Guardian?’

‘He’s staying at the Vicarage. With his wife and children.’ A shy smile crossed Fletcher’s face. ‘If you could call around later. Just for a minute or two. I’d be very grateful.’

Annabelle narrowed her eyes. ‘You’re being very cagey. What’s it all about?’

Fletched tightened his mouth, then shook his head. ‘I’d rather you made up your own mind. Shall we say this afternoon?’ He raised his hat again, turned and strode away.

Always someone, she thought as the made her way through the back streets and up the hill to the workhouse.

annabellefrom book_3

By the time she walked back out into the air, she was fuming. The same thing as ever: the sheer ignorance of the male Guardians. No clue what women needed when they had their monthlies. Half of them probably didn’t even know such a thing existed; if they ever found out, they’d be terrified.

She breathed deeply, standing until she could feel the pounding in her chest slow down, then crossed the street to Beckett Street Cemetery. The only piece of green around here. A moment or two by Tom Maguire’s headstone, thinking of the man, wondering what he’d make of her now. Then to a bench that nestled in a spot of sunlight.

maguire stone

A few minutes and she was composed again, all the anger tamped down for another few days. Until the next time she visited.

Annabelle stood, dusted off her gown and started to walk home. A quick stop at a bakery for a tongue sandwich and a fancy to go with her tea later. It was only as she strolled down Rosebud Walk, brown paper bags in hand, that she remembered she’d agreed to go and see Reverend Fletcher’s visitor. Pushed into it, more like.

Well, that was the afternoon going through the pub accounts up the spout.

annabellefrom book_3

St. Cuthbert’s sat in the sun. The hall had been rebuilt after last year’s bomb. She only had to look at it to remember the noise that filled her head that evening, all the smoke, the stink of gunpowder, and the broken body of Mr. Harkness, the caretaker.


Annabelle straightened her shoulders, trying to put the past to the back of her mind, and brought her hand down on the knocker of the vicarage.

‘Hello, Mrs. Harper, luv,’ the housekeeper said with a warm smile. ‘He said you might be dropping in. Always a pleasure to see you.’

‘He asked me to come and meet your guest.’

‘Yes.’ The woman’s face clouded. ‘Well…’

‘A strange one?’ Annabelle asked.

‘You could say that.’ She frowned as stood aside, wiping her hands on her apron. ‘Come on through, luv. He’s in the back parlour.’

‘What about his wife and children?’

‘Child,’ the woman corrected her. ‘They’re out,’ she said darkly.

annabellefrom book_3

Annabelle blinked in the bright sunlight and started to walk down the street. She stopped, half-turned, then carried on towards home.

Well, she’d certainly never met anyone like that. Even when she was sitting upstairs at the Victoria with a cup of tea, she still didn’t have a clue what to make of him. Who on earth would walk all the way from London because God had told him to bring the light to the people of Leeds? If he’d come alone it would be bad enough, but to drag a wife and two-year-old boy with him…

annabellefrom book_3

His name was Harry Walton. He was small, shifty, not much to him, probably no taller than five feet three, skin and bone from weeks on the tramp. But there was an intensity to his eyes that worried her. In his voice, too. He spoke with the kind of certainty she’d heard before in con men with something to sell. But he didn’t seem to want anything.

‘Leeds is the holy city. The Lord told me that.’ He stared straight at her as her spoke, unblinking behind his spectacles.

‘The holy city?’ Annabelle asked. ‘What’s that supposed to mean? I’ve lived here all my life. Take it from me, there’s nothing holy about it.’

‘The people here will be saved if they rid themselves of evil. God told me. That’s why He sent me here, to reform them.’

Round and round for more than half an hour, until she felt overwhelmed, her head spinning.

‘What about your family?’ she asked finally.

‘They go where I go.’ He spoke the words with absolute finality, as if they’d been ordained. Maybe he believed they had.

Time to see about that, Annabelle thought as she finished the cup of tea and carried it through to the kitchen. See what the woman felt about it all. The pastry sat, barely touched on the plate. Too dry, no flake to the crust. If Mary had been here, she’d have wolfed it down. That girl had an appetite like a gannet.

annabellefrom book_3

This time the reverend answered the door himself. He looked surprised to see her, recovering his manners after a second.

‘Come in, Mrs. Harper. Come in. Forgive me, the housekeeper told me you were here this afternoon.’

‘I was,’ she answered with a soft smile. ‘I’ve come back to see the man’s wife.’

‘Ah,’ Fletcher said. ‘And what did you make of the gentleman?’

‘Honestly?’ she said. ‘Happen he believes everything he says. But holy city and cleansing the place, reforming it? I think he’s got something up his sleeve that we haven’t seen yet. Either that or he’s a bit touched.’

‘Men of God have often been viewed that way.’

‘Is that what you think he is?’ she asked.

Reverent Fletcher spread his hand, palms upwards.

‘I wish there was a way to know. But he’s right that we need to be rid of sin here, isn’t he?’

‘What? Like drinking?’ She had a twinkle in her eye. He knew exactly what she did for money.

He laughed. ‘Wine is there in the Bible, Mrs. Harper. Jesus even changed water into it at a wedding feast.’

‘He’d be welcome at the Victoria to do that any night he wants, although they’d prefer it was beer,’ she said, and suddenly realised she might have gone too far. ‘No offense, Reverend.’

‘None taken. I’ll have the lady attend you here, if that’s fine.’


One minute stretched to two, then five, before the door opened and the woman entered.

Not a woman, Annabelle thought. A girl. She had to be thirty years younger than the man. Probably not a day over seventeen, looking shy and cowed.

‘Come on in and sit yourself down.’

Stick legs under a thin cotton dress. Boots with worn soles and woollen stockings she’d darned too many times. Hands as rough as sandpaper.

‘I’m Mrs. Harper. The Reverend asked me if I’d have a word with you and your husband.’ Not quite the truth, but close enough. ‘What’s your name?’


‘That’s a pretty name. I like that. My mother lumbered me with Annabelle. I’ve always thought it sounds like it should be the name for a flower.’

The girl was too timid to respond.

‘How long have you been married?’

‘Two years,’ Julia answered. ‘Just after Samuel was born. He’s my son.’ She had the same rounded London vowels as her husband, so strange and out of place. But there was nothing educated about either of them.

‘The reverend said you had a child. A bonny little lad, I bet.’

‘He is.’ Her face came alive. ‘He takes so much time. And he’s always so hungry.’

Annabelle smiled. ‘It doesn’t get any better. My daughter’s six and she has hollow legs.’ She paused for a second. ‘Do you mind if I ask your age, Julia?’

A small hesitation. ‘I’m nineteen.’

That was a lie, Annabelle thought, but she’d let it pass.

‘How do you like being on the tramp?’

‘I don’t.’ Her mouth turned down at the corners. ‘My feet hurt all the time. This is the best place we’ve been since we left London. But I know we’re going to have to find somewhere else soon.’

‘I came and talked to your husband this afternoon, but you and your lad were out. Taking a look around?’

The girl shook her head. ‘Harry sends us out to beg. He says a woman and child bring in more than a man.’

Well, she though, he might have his eyes set on a holy city, but he kept a thought for bringing in the brass.

‘Do you make much?’

‘No,’ she answered. ‘Most of the time a rozzer will come and move us on. I was arrested once, when we were in Birmingham.’ Her face fell at the memory. ‘Seven days of hard labour and they almost took Samuel away from me.’

‘You must love your husband to do all this.’

‘He says it’s a wife’s duty to obey. A woman has to follow a man’s desires.’ She sounded as if she was repeating words she’d heard far too often.

‘How did you end up marrying him? There’s…’

‘I know. He’s a lot older.’ The deadness came back to her. She looked around, as if someone else might have come in and be hiding in the corner, listening. ‘Harry used to play cards with my pa. They worked together.’ Annabelle felt the first prickle up her spine, the sense that she knew exactly what was coming. ‘My pa had a losing night, so he told Harry he could have a poke of me and they’d all be square.’

‘How old were you?’


‘What about your mam? Where was she?’

‘She left when I was ten,’ Julia said. Her shoulders slumped. ‘Everything was good when she was still there.’

‘You and Harry…’ Annabelle said.

‘He got me…’ She blushed and lowered her gaze. ‘My pa told him he had to marry me to make it right. And pay a him a…something, I don’t remember what.’

‘A dowry?’

‘Yes. I think that was it.’

Annabelle sat quietly, thinking, then asked: ‘Tell me something, luv. Are you happy with Harry?’

‘Happy?’ Julia said, as if she’d never heard the word before, never considered the idea.

‘Do you love him?’

She shook her head, moving it quickly from side to side like a little girl.

‘Not like I loved my mother.’ She leaned forward and her voice softened to a whisper. ‘He hurts me when we…you know… and he hits me if I do something he doesn’t like.’

So much for any kind of holy man. Had his feet near the devil, like so many of them.

‘What do you want? For you and little Samuel?’

‘Want?’ She frowned, confused. ‘I don’t know. No one’s ever asked me that before.’ A moment passed, then she started to answer, voice like a child wishing for the Christmas presents that would never arrive: ‘A place we didn’t have to leave. Enough to eat. Not to ache from walking all the time. Things to make Sammy smile.’

Hardly reaching for the moon. Things any mother wanted. Yet Annabelle knew half the women she saw every week didn’t have them. They turned up to see her, clutching their sorrows close, hiding the bruises they claimed came from walking into doors and filled with the same of asking for something.

Annabelle knew how she must appear to the girl. A grand lady in an elaborate frock and big hat. A Poor Law Guardian with all sorts of power. But Julia was a stranger here, lost in an unfamiliar place. A stranger in her own life, really. She’d never had a chance to grow up the way a child should.

‘Have you ever worked before? What can do you?’

‘I was in a match factory for two years. But it was making me ill so I had to stop. I kept being sick. My pa belted me for that. He didn’t see the use of me if I couldn’t bring in money.’

‘Anything else?’

She blushed hard and stared down at her feet again.

‘Harry had me on the game for a little while. I had to stop when I started to…’ She curved a hand around her belly.

‘I want to ask you something.’

‘You’ve already been asking me things, missus.’

‘I know, but this is…well,’ Annabelle smiled and softened her voice. ‘It won’t go past these four walls, word of honour. If you had your druthers, would you stay with him?’

The girl looked up, pain showing in her eyes.

‘What else could I do? There isn’t anywhere me and Sammy could go.’

‘If someone could find a place. Somewhere safe. Would you stay with him then?’

Julia didn’t hesitate. ‘No. But I can’t go back to my pa. I won’t do that.’

Of course not; he’d beat her and sell her all over again.

‘I know. Look, I can’t make you any promises, but let me see what I can do.’ She took out her purse and counted out three pennies. ‘You buy your little lad something with that. And don’t let your husband know you have it.’

‘I won’t, missus. I swear.’ She clutched the coins in her fist as if they were the most precious gift she’d ever been given. ‘Thank you.’

‘I’ll come and see you tomorrow.’

annabellefrom book_3

Reverend Fletcher closed the front door behind them, staring across at the church.

‘All this talk about the holy city,’ Annabelle began. ‘It’s a con. He’s no more got religion that I have.’

‘But…he sounds so sincere.’

‘That’s his game. Do you want to know the truth. He won that lass from her father in a card game, he’s had her out on the streets.’ She saw him wince. ‘He’s happy to have her and their lad out begging to support him. Does that sound like a man of God to you?’

‘No,’ Fletcher admitted. ‘I suppose I’m gullible. He must have seen it. But what do you want me to do? Throw them all out on the streets?’

‘Give me a day,’ she said. ‘I’ll see what I can come up with for her and the boy. But I’ll tell you this – I won’t lift a finger to help him. If I were you, once they’re gone, I’d toss him out on his ear. Let him find a proper job.’ Her face turned grim. ‘If he doesn’t, I’ll have one of Tom’s men run him in for vagrancy.’

annabellefrom book_3

An evening of bustling around, feeling like she was shuttling from pillar to post and back again. The books would have to wait for another day.

She didn’t sleep well, thrashing around and throwing the covers off in the summer heat. The bed felt too big without Tom here, and the morning was empty of all the bustle of her husband and Mary. Cooking breakfast just for herself seemed like a chore. It left her lonely. She rushed through it, washed the pots and was out of the door by seven. Another postcard from Middleham waiting on the mat. Home on Sunday written on the back. Not long now, she though as she put it in her reticule.

postcard middleham

The problem was finding a place for the girl and her son to live, and someone to look after the boy. There were jobs out there, maybe nothing much, but enough to keep body and soul together.

By dinnertime she’d talked herself hoarse, wheedled, pulled in favours from people she’d helped in the past. Finally she secured the offer of a room for Julia Walton and her son. Just for a month, but the woman in the house was willing to look after Samuel. That would give her the breathing space to find a job and come up with somewhere else to live.

Annabelle paid the month’s lodging. It seemed only fair. She was the one encouraging the girl to leave her husband; this might be enough to help her take that step. All too often she’d seen the way women with no money were too scared to go. God knew she couldn’t help them all, but even one…it was a start. Didn’t matter that she wasn’t from round here. Perhaps it was more important because she was a stranger in Leeds, with no family or friends to turn to. Being alone brought desperation.

One final stop. The tram down to Millgarth police station, a few words and a laugh with Sergeant Tollman on the desk, then through to see Inspector Ash. It seemed strange to see someone else behind her husband’s desk, as if he might never return, instead of due back in a couple of days. He rose, looking confused, as she entered the office.


‘Has something happened to the Superintendent?’

She ginned. ‘Don’t worry. You’re not likely to be stuck there past this week. I’ve come to ask a favour. Can you check the past of someone I met? He’s come from London…’

Home. She treated herself to a cup of tea and settled in the chair, unbuttoning her boots and wiggling her feet. Absolute. Just having the chance to sit, a few minutes to herself, seemed like luxury after all the rushing about.

Then the knock on the door, and a young bobby who’d hardly started to shave was standing there.

‘Inspector Ash asked me to bring you this and wait for a reply.’

‘Come in,’ Annabelle told him. ‘There’s still some left in the pot.’ He waited, shifting nervously from foot to foot, not daring to pour himself a cup of tea. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.’

She unfolded the note. Ash’s copperplate was a joy to read, so much better than her own scrawl.

Harry Walton has a record as long as your arm. Currently wanted in London for passing altered cheques. They asked if we could arrest him. Do you know where he is?

No wonder he’d wanted to vanish. She sat at the table, a piece of paper in front of her, and dipped her nib in the inkwell.

St. Cuthbert’s. Best if it’s first thing tomorrow morning.  He’d find out just how holy this city could be.

‘Give that to him with my thanks, will you?’

‘Yes, missus,’ the lad said, blushing as he corrected himself. ‘Mrs. Harper.’

annabellefrom book_3

The same room, the woman in the same thin, faded dress. The only difference was the boy sitting on the floor, spinning the reverend’s globe again and again, mesmerised by it.

‘That’s it,’ Annabelle said as she finished. ‘It’s yours if you want it.’

‘I don’t know what to say,’ Julia told her.

‘You don’t have to say a word. Just put your things in a bag and come with me.’

‘Why, though?’ She stared at Annabelle with suspicion. ‘Why me? Us.’

‘Because you need it. I know, there are plenty who do. All I did was talk to a few folk. It wasn’t much.’ She stood and held out her hand. ‘Ready?’

‘What about Harry?’

‘Believe me, you won’t need to worry about him.’

As the vicarage door closed behind them, the light was starting to drift from afternoon into evening.

‘I’m scared,’ Julia said. Samuel marched beside her, clutching tight to her fingers. ‘I’ve never had to look after myself before.’

‘Seems to me you’ve been doing that for most of your life,’ Annabelle told her. She looked down at the boy and stuck out her tongue until he giggled. ‘This time will be better.’


I hope you liked it. This story takes place the summer after the vents in The Tin God, and a year before The Leaden Heart (out next March).

Remember, books make great gifts, and I’ve had three out this year – The Tin God, The Dead on Leave, and The Hanging Psalm.




How Annabelle Changed Me

A couple of things have surprised me about The Tin God. Of course, I’m over the moon about the reviews it’s being receiving, far better than I could ever have expected.

I set out to write a crime novel, a continuation of the Tom Harper series. And really, that’s what I did. But what people seem to see as the heart of the book is Annabelle’s fight to be elected as a Poor Law Guardian. That astonished me, but also gladdened my heart. It’s important, it’s vital, and it means, perhaps, that I’ve written something that reaches out beyond genre to deal with something bigger. As a writer, I don’t think you can ever aim to do that. If it happens, it’s serendipity.

The book has also changed me a little, made me more aware, more vocal on issues. And since I completed it, I’ve been assisting the curator of an exhibition called The Vote Before The Vote, about the Leeds Victorian women who worked for equality and the Parliamentary franchise, perfectly apt for the centenary of some women receiving the vote. Most of these figures are unknown, written out of suffrage history, and they deserve so much more than that. The exhibition runs for the month of May in Room 700 at Leeds Central Library, and there will be a website with all the information.

Exposter final 1

I’m very, very proud to be involved with this. I feel I’m contributing something to the history of my city. Happy, too, as the official launch for The Tin God takes place during the exhibition. And especially because Annabelle has her own board there as part of it all, melding fact and fiction. Emblematic of the working-class women who were involved in the long struggle. She’s become a part of history in a very tangible way, and I suspect that somewhere, she’s beaming with pride, although she’d never admit it.

annabellecard 200_1

On that note, I’ll give you a little from one of her election speeches, and hope it makes you want to buy the book. If you’re anywhere close to Leeds on Saturday, May 5, between 1-2 pm, come to the launch. There may well be more than you expect – and you’ll have the opportunity to see an important exhibition.

book launch

This takes place after someone has set fire to a hall when Annabelle is set to give a speech. Instead, she addresses the crowd out on the street.

‘This happened because someone is scared of women. Not just as Poor Law Guardians or on School Boards. He’s afraid of women. Frightened of half the population. What is there to worry him? Do you know? Because I’m blowed if I do. Just three years ago there were fewer than two hundred women as Poor Law Guardians in the whole of England. Two hundred out of a total of thirty thousand. It’s not exactly taking this over, is it? We want to increase that number here. People believe we should. Important people. The Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, thinks there should be more of us. I’ll tell you what the Secretary of State for India said: “No Board of Guardians is properly constituted when it is composed entirely of men. Having regard to the fact that so large a proportion of the population of our workhouses are women and children, it seems vital to me that women should take their part in Poor Law administration.” Even the men at the top of government and the church think we belong. The one who set fire to this place – to your hall – he’s swimming against history. Women are running for the offices they can hold, and some of them are going to be elected. If not this time, then next, or the one after. We’ve started and we’re not going to stop. That tide he’s swimming against, it’s going to drown him.’ Harper watched as she looked around the faces, her breath steaming in the air. She was smiling. ‘I’ll tell you something else. You vote for me, and you can help send him packing. More importantly, you’ll be electing someone who wants to help the poor, not punish them. You there, John Winters, Frank Hepworth, Catherine Simms. You all know me. You know where I live. Maybe the Temperance people might not like the landlady of a public house holding office. Yes,’ she told them, ‘I’ve heard that grumble. But you know that when I start something, I do it properly.’ She paused and drew in a breath, straightening her back so she seemed taller. ‘You’re ratepayers. You can vote. I’m asking you to put your X next to my name. Thank you.’

And remember. vote for Annabelle Harper!

annabelle election poster texture

The Real Annabelle Harpers

The Tin God has finally appeared in print, and damn, the reviews have made my heart soar.  As a number of the writers have mentioned, the central figure of book is Annabelle Harper, a working-class woman running to be elected as a Poor Law Guardian in 1897.

annabellefrom book_3

“I absolutely adored this book, right from the very first chapter. I loved the setting, I loved the characters, and I loved the gritty feel of Victorian police work. But more than anything, I was in love with the plucky and persistent Annabelle Harper, and with all the women like her who moved mountains with regards to women’s rights today… the show was definitely stolen by one, little, pub-owning woman who had the nerve to run in an election.”

“Nickson drops us straight onto the streets of his beloved Leeds. We smell the stench of the factories, hear the clatter of iron-shod hooves on the cobbles, curse when the soot from the chimneys blackens the garments on our washing lines and – most tellingly – we feel the pangs of hunger gnawing at the bellies of the impoverished.”

A change in local government law three years before made it possible for someone like her to run for office. But were there really working-class women in Leeds fighting for equality and representation?

Of course there were.

Three years before Annabelle’s campaign, a woman named Mrs. Eliza Dickenson of 4, School Street in Stourton, a miner’s wife “much involved in the recent colliery strike,” received the second-highest number of votes in her ward and was elected as a Poor Law Guardian for the Rothwell Ward. A perfect example. That same year, Mrs. Woodock of Beeston Road, very close to the Hunslet workhouse, was also elected, for the East Ward.

Mrs. Ann Ellis was a power-loom weaver from Batley (not Leeds, but close). Along with two icons of the 19th century Leeds Suffrage movement, she arranged protests against the Factory Acts that were intended to limit the ability of women, especially married women, to work. Mrs. Ellis was instrumental in setting up branches of the Women’s Trade Union League across West Yorkshire, and in 1875 led a six-week strike of women weavers in Dewsbury.

Ann Ellis (standing behind Alice Cliff Scatcherd)

Mrs. Ann Ellis, standing

The most famous example, perhaps, is Mary Gawthorpe. She grew up in Meanwood, the daughter of a factory foreman (and Tory election agent) and a textile worker. A bright child, Mary won a scholarship to secondary school. But as that only covered the school fees – secondary education wasn’t free at that time – her father refused to let her take, and she became a pupil-teacher at her primary school, teaching younger children in the day and receiving her own lessons in the evening and on Saturday. When she qualified, a little before her 21st birthday, she moved her mother and siblings over to Hunslet to take them away from her abusive father.


By that time she was already becoming active in the Labour Party, the National Union of Teachers, and was a member of the Leeds Suffrage Society, quickly developing a reputation as a public speaker. Labour’s inaction over women receiving the vote took her to the WSPU, and more militant action. In 1909 she was severely beaten after heckling Churchill at a meeting. Six months later she was assaulted again, and a judge threw out the case when she tried to press charges against her attackers. The accumulated injuries made it impossible for her to continue with her work.

These are just a very few examples. There were dozens, maybe hundreds, more. Not just in Leeds, but everywhere. Your town, your city almost certainly had one or two. Ordinary women, without wealth or status or privilege, who felt compelled to act, to do something. They’re the real heroines.

I love Annabelle dearly. To me, she’s completely alive. But a part of me knows that to some degree that I’m the one who controls her destiny. She’s emblematic of the real women who truly did risk everything for equality. I hope you’ll support her in her campaign to be elected.

When I sat down to start The Tin God, I was there to tell a crime story. That’s what I hope I’ve done. But, in my head, it’s become something bigger, a book that opens a window on a time when women were pushing and struggling to become accepted as full citizens, even if there was little prospect of success. I feel as if I’ve tapped into something bigger – but I may be entirely delusional on that. Of course, I’d love for you to buy a copy of the book. But if you can’t, please order it from the library, and if they don’t have it, ask them to buy a copy. Not just because it’s my book, but because it might give a little understanding of what all those real Annabelle Harpers had to endure. And please, honour those who really did put it all on the line. They were the pioneers. They deserve it.

Early Reviews…And Listen To Annabelle Speak

It’s’ just over a week until The Tin God is published. I’m hugely proud of this book, it feels as if it’s taken on greater resonance that the crime story I set out to tell – but readers will judge that more objectively than I ever can, of course.

I’m pushing this book hard. Among other things, there’s going to be a blog tour to coincide with publication, and that includes giving away a copy of the novel. So please, keep your eyes on the blogs listed below or follow on Twitter.

Meanwhile…here are a few reactions from early reviewers:

“Chris Nickson is an amazingly skilful author with a love of Leeds, its varied and deep history, and demonstrates it with each book he writes.”

“The whole story has such resonance with today’s current affairs that it makes you realise how much there is still to do regarding social attitudes, as well as how far we have come.”

“I like the strong sense of characterisation in the novels. Annabelle is a suffragette, looking to make things easier for her daughter, Mary, in her path through life. She is, however, no airy fairy dilettante being strong, capable and practical with her feet planted squarely on the ground. I cheer at her every move. She is supported in her efforts by her husband, Tom…He is another strong character. He’s not as enthusiastic about being Superintendent as he might be as the paperwork and meetings take him away from investigative work but this threat to his wife and family gives him the opportunity to roll his sleeves up and get stuck in.”

“There’s a particular talent here with this author’s fine-tuned ability to thread actual historical events into his fiction. This one is quite thought-provoking in reflecting upon those who initially paved the way for women’s rights and those, yet today, who stand tall in the face of current roadblocks. This still grows curiouser and curiouser…”

“The author Chris Nickson is Leeds born (as am I ) and it’s clear that he loves his home city and its place in history, as one of the leading lights of industry. He brings the Leeds of 1897 very much to life both in terms of actual historical events of the time and in the sights, sounds, and smells of this great city. I really enjoyed this particular storyline as it demonstrated the struggle that women had, ( and some would say, still have) to be recognised and valued as legitimate candidates for office, and to be considered equal to men.

I make no bones about it – I love Chris Nickson’s books – love Tom and Annabelle – love the sense of old Leeds with its cobbled streets, the houses huddled together against the chill whipping off the River Aire, the friendly community, and the good old fashioned policing.”

“I always enjoy the sense of period that Mr Nickson evokes and The Tin God is no different. Annabelle’s campaign speeches resound with the possibility of change but don’t ignore the terrible blight of poverty prevalent in the fictional Sheepscar ward.”

And with that mention of Annabelle’s campaign speeches, through the miracle of technology (and the superb voicing of Carolyn Eden), I’ve been able to find one. Take a listen and see if it convinces you….

After that, wouldn’t you vote for Mrs. Annabelle Harper?

annabelle election poster texture

Perhaps you need to discover The Tin God for yourself. I know an author who’d be very grateful…it’s out March 30 in the UK.