Annabelle Harper. A successful woman, with the Victoria public house at the bottom of Roundhay Road and three bakeries, all of them making money. Respected all around Sheepscar, she’s become the empress on the corner, and happily married to Detective Inspector Tom Harper.
And then a political awakening. But simpler to let her tell you herself. Better yet, come down this Saturday and here her tell it to you. You can get tickets here.
I’m going to tell you a story…
I still can’t quite believe it happened, although I know it did. We had a coalman who used to deliver to the pub. He retired and a new one showed up. Cocky little devil. Thought he could fob me off with stuff that wasn’t worth the money. When I told him I wasn’t standing for it, he told me that maybe my husband needed to give me a clout or two. I picked up a shovel and I swear I’d have gone for him if he hadn’t turned and run off. I needed to take a walk to try and calm myself down. I ended up by the outdoor market – couldn’t even remember getting there. I must have looked a sight because this woman came up, a little old dear, and asked if I was all right. “Looks like a man’s got to you,” she said. She put a pamphlet in my hand. Votes for Women. All I did was glance down at the title, couldn’t have been more than a second. Blow me down if she didn’t disappear. Like I’d dreamed her up. But I had the pamphlet. Took it home. A fortnight later and I had the parlour full of books. I wanted to know it all. Those words I read…it was like someone had looked into my head and put everything I’d thought down on paper. It made sense. Me, I’d hardly read a book in my life. Who had the time? Once I was done with school, I was too busy working. Now I was sitting there going through them like the pages were the most important thing in the world. And Tom, bless him, he took it all in his stride. Didn’t even blink when I started going to the suffragist meetings. I was worried what the police might think, an officer’s wife involved in all that. He told me to go ahead, to do what I felt was right. I did. I listened. I liked what they had to say. But most of them, they’d never needed to do a day’s graft. They’d never had to try and feed a family on a mill girl’s wages. Course, it wasn’t long before I was up on my hind legs, saying this or that. Putting me two pen’orth in. That was how I met Miss Ford. She was in charge of it all. She’d worked with the unions, helped with strikes. People respected her. Mind like a razor, sharp as you like, and a heart as big as Yorkshire. She sat me down. Told me I could make a good speaker for the Suffrage Society. I thought she was joking, that it was her way of gently telling me to shut my mouth. But she was serious. I didn’t know which way to look. And she made me think that I did have something to give. Something different. I said yes, then I wished I hadn’t. My mind was whipping backwards and forwards like nobody’s business: I was going to back out. I was going to do it. Then everything I tried to write sounded so false. Be yourself, Tom told me. Who was I? A jumped-up piece of muck from the Bank whose husband had left her a pub. What did I have to tell anyone? It wasn’t as if I knew any answers. Even when I was up on that podium I wasn’t sure I could go through with it. My teeth were chattering so hard they must have heard it in London. Then someone was saying my name and people were looking at me and it was too late to run away.
Well, now I know what it must be like to be on the halls. I feel like I should sing a song or something. You don’t know me. No reason you should, really. I run a public house in Sheepscar. Nothing grand but it pays the bills. And I grew up on the Bank, on Leather Street. I know what they say: you grow up on the Bank and you’ll never amount to anything. I’ve heard it all my life. I started out in the mills when I was nine. It’s a hard life, I can tell you that right now. Moved into service a few years later because it paid better and it wasn’t as dangerous. I’m still not above scrubbing a floor if it needs it, or giving something a cleaning. Most of the girls I played with ended up doing the same. Maids or mills. If I ever see them now, the ones who are married have five or six children and husbands who bring in next to nothing every week. They survive, and that’s all they do. It’s down to the pawnbroker with the good clothes of a Tuesday morning so they can last until their men are paid. Redeem everything Friday evening. Do you know what they wish for when they’re walking down the street holding everything of value that they own? That their little ones will have something better. But they won’t. Do you know why not? Because there’s no one to speak up for them. They live, they die. Probably half of the girls I played hopscotch with when I was in pinafores are in the ground now. I’m not saying having the vote would put everything right. I’m not a fool. Men will still run things, same as they always have. There’ll still be more poor people than you can shake a stick at. But at least we’ll have a say. All of us. That’s the women on Leather Street, where I grew up, as much as anyone here. Maybe they need it even more than us. I’ll tell you something else. Every day, every single day, I see women with all the hope gone from their faces. It’s been battered away long before they’re old enough to work. And we need hope. That’s why every woman needs the vote. Every man, too. The only way those men standing for Parliament will ever do anything is if they need our votes to win. Half their promises will still vanish into thin air. Of course they will, they always do. And they still won’t do anything more than they absolutely have to. (Pause) But for the first time they’ll have to listen to us.
And that was it. I couldn’t believe I’d said it all. Couldn’t believe I’d made that much sense. At least I wasn’t shaking anymore. And to see their faces and hear them clapping, well, it didn’t seem like that could be for me. But Miss Ford must have liked it – she wanted me to start speaking regularly. I had to take a deep breath before I said yes. As soon as I agreed to that, she started talking about having me on the committee. Give them an inch and they want a mile. I said no. All that travelling hither and yon. Not when I had the pub and the bakeries. And…
I was up the duff. Couldn’t be. That’s what I thought at first. After all, I hadn’t caught before. I thought the miscarriage meant I couldn’t. So I wasn’t about to say anything till I was sure. Not tempting fate. And I was older, not one of the young lasses popping them out. Tom, he was over the moon. (Smiles) Once he picked his jaw off the floor, any road. From the way he tried to look after me you’d think no one had ever had a bairn before. You have thought I was the best family china. How do you think you got here, I asked him finally? And your ma, and all those before her. It’s nature. That shut him up and he let me get on with things. There was work to do. I tell you what, nature decided to make hard work of me in the end. It had the last laugh. The best part of twenty-four hours in labour. Sweating and cursing and screaming. I was holding the midwife’s hand so hard I’m surprised I didn’t break her fingers. But it was worth it. Called her Mary, after Mary McLaughlin I grew up with on Leather Street. That’s right, I’m talking about you. Bit over a year now and into everything when she’s awake. Daren’t take your eyes off her for a moment. Talk to her da and you’d think butter wouldn’t melt. He’d learn quick enough if he spent all day with her. She won’t want for anything, I’ve already made sure of that. She’s lucky. I have the brass. Not like most round here, where the hunger never leaves the eyes. But I’m going to make sure she knows what the world is really like outside the door. She needs that. I owe her that. I’ve not forgotten all those years when I was muck. Scratch me hard enough and it’s still under there. I want my Mary to have the things I never did. The vote. Rights. A life that doesn’t have to depend on a fella. The things that matter. Might as well wish for the moon, eh? It’s like having a tiny hammer and chipping away at a big block of stone. You keep doing it and nothing seems to happen. But you keep believing that one day the stone will just fall apart. Maybe I can get in a few blows. Do my bit. Yes, I speak at meetings. Maybe it helps, I don’t know. I sold the bakeries. Miss Ford asked me to be secretary of the Suffrage Society. No going out of Leeds, she promised. Aye, I thought, I can do that. But there weren’t enough hours in the day to do everything, not with this one scampering around. The shops gave me what I needed. But maybe I didn’t need that any more. I’ll never get rid of this place, though. The Victoria, it’s home. Don’t want anywhere else. They’ll have to carry me out of here in a box. Won’t be for a long time yet, not if I have anything to do with it. Too much to do. And here I am, barely started. Up from the muck and still a long way to go. What I’ve learned: you do what you have to do. You get on with it.