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 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.


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.


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.


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


The Reality Of Victorian Leeds

I write crime novels set in Leeds. Historical crime.

That’s hardly a revelation, I know.

The crimes are the spine of my books. But I try to put a little more meat on the bones. The relationships between the characters and the changing face of Leeds itself.

It fascinates me, I try to make it a character in itself, and I find it vitally important. Nowhere is that change more apparent than in the late Victorian series with Detective Superintendent Tom Harper and his wife Annabelle

He’s grown up with the changes in Leeds. By 1890, when Gods of Gold is set, the first organised slum clearance was already underway, a number of the yards and courts between Briggate and Lands Lane already demolished to make way for Thornton’s Arcade and Queens Arcade. Before that, things had simply gown in the space, the original plots built over, the poor crammed away, out of sight.

duftons yard

Many of the places where he’d walked a beat when he started out as a constable had vanished by the time he was a Detective Inspector. The city – and it did finally become a city in 1893 – had a better water supply, the laws across England had changed to give children a little more education before they were sent out to work (although families still had to pay for any secondary education, something most could afford). That same year, Leeds was described as “a great hive of workers…whose products have the whole wide world for their market…her nine hundred factories and workshops, monuments of the wealth, industry and mercantile prestige.”

The workers who created those products saw little of that wealth, of course. They worked long hours for very little money. Few benefits, and any semblance of compassion depended on the owners of the factories. Between them textiles and engineering employed around have the workforce in Leeds – men and women.

It was a place with 23 tanneries and 200 cabinet makers. Leeds was changing, but for many, that change was happening slowly. Not many years before, 50 dead animals were pulled out of the river every single day. A Royal Commission heard that “hundred and thousands of tonnes per annum of ashes, slag, cinders, refuse from mines, chemical works, dyeing, scouring and fulling, worsted and woollen stuff, shin cleaning and tanning, slaughter, house garbage and sewerage from towns and houses” ended up in the Aire. Only around 3,000 houses in Leeds had flushing water closets. For everyone else, there was the midden.

cherry tree yard

That was the reality of the Leeds Tom and Annabelle Harper knew as they grew up, even when they were adults. The grand buildings – the Town Hall, the Corn Exchange –  might have been the public face of Victorian prosperity. Peek behind the curtain, though, and the reality, quite literally, stank.

No surprise, perhaps, that contagious diseases were rife. People died of typhus, whooping cough, diptheria, smallpox, diarrhoea – things we barely recognise today. Advances in public health, in sanitation and some of the housing were greatly lowering those figures by 1890, but they still existed.

A new Leeds was beginning to emerge. But it would still take many years to finally arrive.

The average wage for workers was a little over £42 a year by 1900, up from £34 in 1874. That’s an average; many, especially in unskilled jobs would earn much less, and women far, far less. Half the country’s income was taken home by one-ninth of the population, the kind of disparity still prevalent today.

The cost of living for the working-class is perfectly encapsulated in the broadside ballad “How Five-And-Twenty Shillings Are Expended In A Week”. It’s humorous, but it makes its point sharply. So many people lived hand-to-mouth. Every week, every month, every year.

five and twenty

The very poor relied on outdoor relief (benefits) or the workhouse when they couldn’t look after themselves or their children. That’s the world Annabelle sees when she runs to be a Poor Law Guardian in The Tin God, the sixth book in the series. From 1873-1896, there had been a global economic depression, felt hard in Britain, especially in the industrial centres of the North. Poverty was rife, competition for jobs.

This was their Leeds, their reality. I’m still trying to grasp its essence. Maybe one day I’ll succeed.


When You’re Muck – From Mill To Maid

For working-class girls in Victorian Leeds, there were two options, mills or maids. It wasn’t an easy life, there were no luxuries.

For Annabelle Harper, the mill was purgatory. Maybe becoming a maid might be better. Her experience was that of so many girls. This is a fragment of her story. To know more, come and see The Empress on the Corner.


When you’re muck, you’re muck. Soon as they see you, everyone knows it and they don’t forget it. Not them upstairs, the ones who pay for it all. I mean down in the servants’ hall. Got a pecking order so strict you’d think Moses had handed it down himself. And right at the bottom was muggins here. Scullery maid. Up before anyone to lay a fire, put the kettle on the range and make tea, and God help you if you’re late. Scrub the pans after every meal. But not the good china, because I can’t be trusted with it. Can’t even eat with the other servants. Dish the food out to them, clear it away when they’re done, then skulk away in a cubbyhole with whatever’s left. Mills or maids? When you’re muck it doesn’t seem to make much difference. I found that out soon enough. Kitchen maid, downstairs maid, it’s like climbing a ladder. You go up rung by rung. But very slowly. The lass who replaced me in the scullery lasted a fortnight. Can’t say I blame her. If I’d an ounce of sense I’d have done exactly the same thing. But I was bloody-minded. I wasn’t going home with me tail between me legs. I wasn’t going to give me da the satisfaction. They could have set me to shovelling the sewers and I wouldn’t have left. Sixteen and I’m finally an upstairs maid. Polish the glass on the windows, look out and there’s the whole world in front of you. Out towards Otley, that big valley just spread there, all green. I used to gaze out at that every minute I could get. Didn’t matter the season. Because that looked like freedom. The little farmhouses with the smoke curling up to the sky. I used to think if I could just live in one of those places I could be happy for the rest of me life. My brain must have been addled. As if a life in the back of beyond with mud and pigs and cows would ever be anything for me. Then the housekeeper would come along, all silent because the rugs were so thick. She’d give me a clout and tell me to get back to work.

I turned seventeen and I was used to the job. I should have been by then, five years there. That house had become my world. Half day off every other week. Walk into Leeds to see me da and me family. An hour sitting in silence, then the walk back.  Maybe visit a lass or two I knew who worked at Black Dog. Didn’t tell them I was still sharing a bed with one of the other maids up in the attic. Or that the second son of the house had started noticing me. Some things you’re better off keeping to yourself. He had hands everywhere. Didn’t think he had to take no for an answer. Wasn’t too bad at first. I threatened to tell his ma and he left me alone for a few weeks. But all I had was empty words. I knew that and he realised it soon enough. After that he didn’t care. Why would he? I couldn’t do anything. Pinched my bum until it was black and blue. His family owned mills. They had the money, they had the power. I was just muck. I knew what was going to happen. Might as well have been written right there on the wall. I knew, but that didn’t mean he was going to get it easy. I’d make damn sure he’d never want to come for me again. I fought him. I made him pay. I bit, scratched, shouted. Went for his eyes. Hurt him. For all the good it did. He was always going to win. His kind always does. Once he started it wasn’t even a minute and he was done. I’ll never forget the sneer on his face as he buttoned himself up. I told him that if he ever came back and tried that again I’d slide a knife across his throat and let him bleed like a pig at slaughter. I spat in his face. I wasn’t going to let the tears start while he was there. I wasn’t going to let him see me weak. He might have got what he wanted but I wasn’t going to give him any bloody satisfaction. Then he was gone and I was lying there, crying my eyes out, pushing my face into the pillow. Did anyone come? Course they didn’t. I hurt right enough. Not just in my body. Here. And here. And when I was cried out I wiped my eyes and I had to make the bed where he’d had me, as if nothing had happened. Had to make it the next day, too, and all the ones after, and pretend nothing had happened there. But I’ll tell you what, he never tried it on with me again. I kept a knife in my pocket, just in case. I’d have hung for him, I’d have done it without thinking. I thought I’d hated people before that, but it didn’t even compare. I wasn’t about to leave, though. That would be running. Instead he was going to have to see me every day, to have his guilt staring him in the face. I was going to be there to remind him of what he’d done. He didn’t come sniffing round me and he didn’t bother any of the other girls. That was something. It wasn’t ever going to be over, of course. As long as I saw him, as long as I had to clean that room, it was like ripping the wound open again every day. But I’d do that, I’d grit me teeth and change the sheets and put on a smile for as long as it took to throw it all back at him. When you’re muck, though, nothing goes right. Six week later and I hadn’t come on yet. I knew what that meant. Up the spout, bun in the oven, whatever you want to call it. Not that I was going to say a word. Soon as the mistress heard she’d be throwing her hands up in horror, telling me how wicked I was. They’d have me out on me ear before you could say Jack Robinson, and not a word of a reference. Problem is, you can only go so long before people can tell. A question or two from the housekeeper and that was that. Didn’t even get the pleasure of telling the mistress it was her precious boy who’d caused it. Not that she’d have believed me or done owt about it. If you had money you were untouchable. I was on my way, wages paid, everything I had wrapped up in a shawl. God, it were like something from one of them penny novelettes. Should have seen my da’s face when I turned up on the doorstep. “Got the sack, have you? Don’t be thinking you can loll around here all day.” Aye, that’s the sort of welcome a daughter needs. He was always on at me. Put money in for me keep. Cook for him. Wash the pots and the clothes. I did me bit. He was down the pub when it happened. Where else would he be of a night? I’d just finished all the jobs and I was going to put me feet up. All of a sudden I had a pain like someone was trying to tear my insides out. Couldn’t hardly stand. I looked down and I saw blood. I didn’t know one body could have that much of it inside and it was all coming out. I knew what was happening but it didn’t matter. All I could think was ‘I’m going to die.’ I must have started screaming blue murder. I don’t know, I don’t remember. The next thing I knew old Mrs. Riley from next door was there. Sixteen stone if she was an ounce and a voice that could strip paint. But she looked after me. Got a pair of women in to help, then bullied a doctor into coming to Leather Street. That might have been a first. Stayed with me until me da rolled back and told him to take care of me or else. I’d lost the babby, of course. For the best, that’s what I reckoned. Didn’t stop me crying like a little lass, though. It kept coming back, that empty feeling like something had been stolen from me. And all the time me da was saying I had to get myself well and find some work. That let me know how welcome I was. And soon as I could, I started looking. Anything that got me away from him. Then I ran into Mary McLaughlin when I went for a quarter of tea to the shop. She told me they were looking for someone to work at the Victoria in Sheepscar.

It’s Annabelle’s World…

…but she’d like you to come and visit.

A few years ago (Four? Five?) I was looking at one of my favourite paintings, Reflections On The Aire: On Strike, 1879, by Leeds artist Atkinson Grimshaw and a story came to me, fully formed, out of the ether.

That was my introduction to Annabelle. Annabelle Atkinson, she was then, sitting and looking at the picture with me, telling me how it came about that she was in it, looking back a decade to that days she stood on the banks of the river to be sketched.


We met again when I settled down to write Gods of Gold, set during the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890. She was Annabelle Harper then, freshly married, flushed with happiness but with her feet firmly planted on the ground. With a flourish of her silk gown as she sat, she pushed me over on the chair.

‘I was there, luv,’ she told me. ‘I saw it all happen. Come on, I’ll tell you about it.’

Since then, we’ve spent quite a lot of time together. She’s in three of my published novels – Gods of Gold, Two Bronze Pennies, and Skin Like Silver. The fourth, The Iron Water, comes out in July, and I’m working on the fifth. I’ve shared the way Annabelle has blossomed. She’s the emotional centre of the novels in so many ways. She’s become a canny, successful businesswoman and a member of the Leeds Women’s Suffrage Society – and one of its speakers.

It was one of her Suffragist speeches, brought to breathing, passionate life by Carolyn Eden at the launch of Skin Like Silver, that was the catalyst for the play The Empress on the Corner.


‘That’s her,’ Annabelle told me the day after the launch. ‘She’s the one to be me. Now, you, you’d better start telling my story. Are you listening? I’ll begin.’

I didn’t have a choice – when you have someone like Annabelle, she dictates what will happen. And so I wrote her story. Or perhaps I simply wrote down what she dictated.

The presentation is still a work in progress, and it will be sections of the complete play, not the entire thing. But it’s the story of growing up in a poor Irish family on the Bank in Leeds in the mid 1800s. Of having two choices in life, mills or maids. Of luck, of taking the chance to use her good mind. Of understanding that there’s more, that she can raise her voice for others.

It’s a Leeds story. It’s a political story. It’s a love story. But above everything, it’s Annabelle’s story.

And she reckons you need to come and see it. Believe me, I’ve learnt, you don’t argue with Annabelle, she’ll win in the end.

So you’d better go here to buy your ticket and we’ll see you on June 4, 2.30 pm at Leeds Central Library. It’s part of the wonderful Leeds Big Bookend festival.

Annabelle has her ticket. She’ll be on the side of the front row, with a big grin on her face, pleased as punch. Say hello to her after they play.