Search for a Halifax suffragette

From left, Jill Liddington with descendents of Mary Taylor (above), Jan Woodward, Ellie Woodward-Webster, Beth Woodward, Sarah Wickham and Jenny Woodward, at Mary Taylor's former home in Skircoat Green, Halifax. (Picture: Simon Hulme).
From left, Jill Liddington with descendents of Mary Taylor (above), Jan Woodward, Ellie Woodward-Webster, Beth Woodward, Sarah Wickham and Jenny Woodward, at Mary Taylor's former home in Skircoat Green, Halifax. (Picture: Simon Hulme).
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During my research into Yorkshire’s suffrage campaigners, I have been fortunate enough to get to know many of the descendants of these pioneering women.

During my research into Yorkshire’s suffrage campaigners, I have been fortunate enough to get to know many of the descendants of these pioneering women.

Yorkshire suffragette Mary Taylor.

Yorkshire suffragette Mary Taylor.

But for one of the most memorable women of that time, Halifax’s feisty suffragette Mary Taylor, that was not the case – until recently at least. Mary was one of the campaigners in my 2006 book, Rebel Girls: Their Fight For The Vote, which looked at her determined commitment to the cause.

Her husband, Arthur, was a blacksmith-cum-engineer and the couple and their only child Hilda lived in congested housing on Halifax’s Pellon Lane, where textile jobs were plentiful.

I also knew that Arthur and Mary became key members of the rising labour movement. Arthur had been secretary of the local engineering union, had even lost his job due to victimisation, and became a Labour councillor. And when Hilda was eight, Mary was elected a Poor Law Guardian and was soon busy with the Halifax Workhouse.

Then in 1906, Halifax tram drivers went on strike over victimisation. A local Women’s Labour League sprung up. Mary “walk and win” Taylor played a central role. “We shall walk barefoot, boycotting trams,” she said at the time. “I’ve been told scores of times that I ought to be locked up… If they lock me up, there are 600 or 700 women left.”

Mary’s words were prophetic. A Halifax branch of the Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed at New Year 1907, with Mary a founding member.

Then in February, the WSPU invited suffragettes down to Westminster for a ‘Women’s Parliament’. Mary went, and was among those arrested. Like the others, she refused to pay her fine – and was sentenced to 14 days in Holloway Prison. However, I still knew less about Mary than about other suffragettes arrested then.

During my research, I had been fortunate enough to meet Susan Pankhurst Hogan, granddaughter of Adela Pankhurst, organiser of the WSPU in Yorkshire; also the elderly daughter of suffragette Dinah Connelly: Laura Mitchell, a Labour councillor who became Mayor of Halifax.

Virago published Rebel Girls in 2006. Afterwards, a few other descendants contacted me – including those of Halifax suffragette Laura Willson. But not Mary Taylor’s.

That, I thought, was that. No more family history surprises, surely? And from 2009, I busied myself with the just-released 1911 census, which provided more information about suffragettes like Mary.

It recorded that she and Arthur had moved from smoky Pellon Lane, to picturesque Skircoat Green, further out of Halifax.

I could now track suffragettes who had boycotted the Government’s 1911 census. Emmeline Pankhurst herself came up, addressing a crowded meeting in Halifax’s Mechanics’ Institute. Councillor Arthur Taylor proposed the resolution, supporting a Bill to give women the vote. Mrs Pankhurst, in a spectacularly powerful speech, incited women, all still voteless, to boycott the census.

So, in Halifax on census night, who boycotted? Well certainly Mary Taylor of Skircoat Green. Arthur, 46, blacksmith, unperturbed, stated he was married for 26 years – but with a mysteriously missing wife. (So intense was suffrage politics, Dinah Connelly put down her occupation as ‘slave’.)

Such census evidence formed part of my new book, published in 2014, Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census.

However, last November, while I was busy with plans for Vote 100 events in 2018, out of the blue I received an email from a Jenny Woodward of Bingley about her Halifax ancestors. Jenny told me about the exciting discoveries she and her mother Jan had just made.

Jan was born in 1943 and lives in Bedfordshire. So it’s time to take up her story: of the detective chase for her great-grandmother, Mary Taylor. Hilda, Mary’s daughter, had had no fewer than nine children. Jan’s father was the youngest, and his eldest sister was called Amy. In about 1980, just before Auntie Amy died, Jan paid her a visit.

Jan recalled how Auntie Amy provided the ‘beacon and bridge’ to her suffragette great-grandmother. She says this visit was the first time she really got to know and “meet” Mary Taylor. Her aunt even got down a wrapped brown parcel from the top of her wardrobe which contained a portrait of Mary for her to take home.

Afterwards, curiosity about their suffragette ancestor never left Jan Woodward and her daughters, Beth and Jenny. Though far away, new technology shrank the distance between Bedfordshire and Halifax.

With Rebel Girls now out, information about Mary Taylor could be found on the internet. So, Jan said her four children grew up knowing her story – or at least some of it. Then last November, Jan, staying with her daughter Jenny in Bingley, decided to track down Arthur and Mary’s grave.

The Skircoat graveyard was totally overgrown but the gravestone was discovered with difficulty. Arthur died in 1923 and eventually, they unearthed Mary’s inscription, showing she had died in 1934. Jan’s family collated their research into an album which they gave to her as a Christmas present.

In spring, Jan emailed me a scan of the family album and at long last, I was able to fill in gaps in my knowledge about this impressive Halifax suffragette. The album told me Mary was born in 1863 in Halifax, and in 1885, already pregnant with Hilda, married Arthur. The scrapbook focuses on Mary’s arrest in February 1907. News cuttings include The Yorkshire Post’s ‘Suffragettes in Court’, while The Leeds Mercury even published photographs of the imprisoned suffragettes, including Mary. The Halifax Courier reported her release, when a crowd of hundreds waited at Halifax station to greet their local heroine.

Mary, as a married woman aged over 30, finally won the right to vote in 1918. In 1920, aged 57, she was appointed a magistrate, one of Halifax’s first three women JPs, the scrapbook proudly notes. She had gone from being a criminal in the eyes of the law to upholder of the peace in little more than a decade.

Earlier this month, I was delighted that five descendants of Mary Taylor, including Jan and Jenny, joined me on a ‘Suffragettes and Slaves’ walk in Halifax, although we were still unsure of the precise location of her old house in Skircoat Green.

Then just before the walk, I had another surprise email from Jan. A cousin living in Norway had passed on some more of Mary’s suffragette memorabilia on to her.

This included a drawing that Mary had done when in Holloway prison in 1907, for her two-year-old granddaughter Amy, nicknamed Dolly. At last, I could be certain of Mary’s home on Skircoat Green.

On the day, standing in front of this house, I held up the drawing to the assembled walkers, and read out 
Mary’s poignant words: “32 Skircoat Green, Halifax. Home, sweet Home. There’s no place like home, is there? I don’t like Holloway. My little Dolly. 31 Holloway Jail.”

A giant step on the way forward

When the Representation of the People Act became law a century ago, it was hailed as a landmark moment, for it meant women over the age of 30 who owned property, or were married to a man who did, were entitled to vote.

This empowered roughly 8.5 million women, which may sound quite a lot, but it still only amounted to around 40 per cent of Britain’s female population at the time.

So even though women had worked tirelessly in factories, and 
in some cases given their lives for the war effort, this still wasn’t deemed good enough to earn them all the same rights as their husbands, fathers and brothers – for that they would have to wait another 10 years. But it was suffragettes such as Mary Taylor who paved the way forward.