Local History Society Report
Laura Annie Willson – suffragette, builder, engineer.
Speaker: Anne Kirker
Thursday, 3 December 2020
Working class women from Halifax have often lived and died without leaving any mark, but Anne Kirker, local and family historian, recounted a fascinating story to an online meeting of Hebden Bridge Local History Society of a woman who is justly seen as quite extraordinary.
Laura Annie Buckley was born to a poor working class family in Halifax and went to work as a half-timer in a local textile mill. This was the common fate of girls of the time, and the education she received would have been basic. However she must have had a keen sense of curiosity about the world, and an even stronger sense of injustice and a desire for a more equal society with a voice for women in decision making.
Her marriage to George Willson, machine tool maker and partner in Engineering company Smith, Barker and Willson, gave her the grounding she needed to support her growing desire to fight for social justice. Her background as a trades unionist and member of the Independent Labour Party all contributed to her political education and she took on organisational roles, including as first secretary of the Women's Labour League. She supported two notable local bitter strikes involving the Halifax tram drivers and the Hebden Bridge fustian weavers.
The Halifax branch of the Women's Social and Political Union, fighting for female suffrage, gave a focus to her activism, and her conviction for 'unlawful assembly' in Hebden Bridge led to 14 days imprisonment in Armley gaol. Something of her character emerges from the reports of the trial when she demanded a female lawyer and the right to be tried by her peers (i.e. women). She claimed when she was released that she went to gaol a rebel but came out 'a regular terror'. She was arrested a month later in London and spent another 14 days in Holloway. She remained a prominent local leader of suffragettes in the Halifax area who knew that her ideas were inflammatory, admitting 'if they could sentence me for thinking I would have to be sentenced for life.'
Laura Annie's beliefs about female equality took a practical form, as from 1912 her involvement in her husband's engineering firm increased. Here she could prove her point about the abilities of women, and she was responsible for recruiting women as highly skilled workers. She herself learnt each job to prove that women could indeed cope with factory work. Her principles were still strong – she introduced innovations such as paid holidays, well maintained lavatories and a canteen shared by all employees, providing 90 dinners a day. The wartime necessity for female skilled labour in making machine tools was such that Laura Annie and George Willson were seen as exemplars of what needed to be done.
In 1917 Laura Annie received one of the first of the new honour of MBE in recognition of her work. This might suggest that Laura Annie was now part of establishment, but a newspaper report of the company appealing against a fine for resisting the 'Restoration of pre-war practices Act' which would replace the women with men is good evidence that her spirit was still rebellious.
In the post war years Laura Annie continued in her ground breaking activities, being a founder member of the Women's Engineering Society to try to protect the rights of women in engineering jobs. She spoke in what seem startlingly modern terms against stereotyping and the right of a woman to work at job to which she is suited. She strongly believed that willing co-operation with a workforce led to better outcomes and better wages. Her practical approach to improving women's lives, was seen in the motto (Emancipation from Drudgery) of the Electrical Association for Women of which she was also a founding member.
All these achievements seem enough for any one person, but Laura Annie Willson went on in the 1920s to pursue another career, also rooted in that belief that people deserved better lives. The most practical way to improve life was by improving housing, and her final identity as 'a builder of considerable prominence' has left its mark on the landscape of Halifax. The first woman member of the National Federation of Housebuilders was responsible for houses in Halifax (at Well Head) Ovenden (Laurel Crescent and Vegal Crescent) Luddenden Foot (Throstle Mount) and on the Pye Nest Estate at Sowerby Bridge. These followed her principles of well planned, well-built and affordable housing, with innovative electrical power, bathrooms and gardens. Later when Laura Annie and George moved to Surrey, she built houses in Egham and Walton on Thames.
It was fascinating to hear of a woman of such humble origins whose pragmatic principles took her to success in so many areas which were seen as out of the reach of women. Anne's research has been enhanced by contact with Laura Annie's grand-daughter, who was able to provide photographs and family stories to confirm the impression of Laura Annie as a truly magnificent woman.
The final Zoom webinar of 2020 will be on Wednesday 9th December at 7.30 when Professor Angus Winchester will talk about Common Problems: the history of common land in northern England. Angus Winchester is a recognised authority in the history of upland landscapes. Visitors are welcome.
With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report