How women led reform in Yorkshire’s West Riding

Author Gaynor Haliday has explored a 100-year period of struggle and suffrage in Wakefield as part of a women’s history series that covers West Riding. Laura Drysdale reports.

Author Gaynor Haliday with her new book 'Struggle and Suffrage in Wakefield'. Picture Gerard Binks
Author Gaynor Haliday with her new book 'Struggle and Suffrage in Wakefield'. Picture Gerard Binks

Considered to be the first modern lesbian in a time when homosexuality was generally regarded as abhorrent, Anne Lister was bold and independent, pursuing female love unashamedly and living true to herself in the face of adversity.

But whilst the tale of the Halifax diarist and landowner is capturing the interest of millions through the ongoing broadcast of television series Gentleman Jack, the stories of many more pioneering women across Yorkshire remain little known, buried in archives and all but forgotten to the passage of time.

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The book explores the role of women in Wakefield's past.

In the century following Lister’s death in September 1840, the county’s women were blazing a trail, working, often in collaboration, to reform opportunities and improve lives, particularly for the vulnerable and for those of their own sex.

A book series launched in the centenary year of the first women in the UK being given the vote has now documented their efforts, with six recently-published editions focusing on struggle and suffrage in the communities of the historic West Riding in the 100 years from 1850.

“The books are written about West Riding women by West Riding women authors,” Gaynor Haliday says. She has penned the edition exploring women’s lives and the fight for equality in Wakefield. “Over the 100-year period covered by this book, the women of Wakefield acted collaboratively, both locally and nationally, to improve the lives of other women, whether that was in schools, the home, raising children, looking after women’s health and wellbeing or improving opportunities in the workplace and fighting for better pay and conditions.”

Centre for administration

Though it was not until the Local Government Act of 1888 that Wakefield officially became the county headquarters, in the years prior, the city had been established as a centre for commerce and administration, with positions of authority filled by men.

Its wealth is evident in the proportion of women listed in historic census data and trade directories as gentlewomen and nobility and there were far fewer women in work compared to the woollen districts of neighbouring Halifax, Huddersfield and Bradford.

“Wives, widows, sisters and daughters of wealthy men, these were capable and educated women with time on their hands,” says Gaynor. “They provided employment for women by engaging cooks and maids to help run their extensive households.

“But unwilling to be merely decorative hostesses, furthering their menfolks’ commercial enterprises, many turned their attentions to voluntary work, where they could make a difference to the lives of the less fortunate.”

Influential women

Lady Catherine Milnes-Gaskell, who was married to lawyer and Liberal Party politician Charles, was one such woman. She was particularly influential during the First World War, not only promoting, amongst farmers, the employment of women in agriculture, but also supporting Field House auxiliary hospital in Bradford and Clayton Voluntary Aid Detachment in Wakefield, as vice-president of both.

In appeals in the Yorkshire Post, she requested donations of cash and foodstuff for wounded soldiers, getting stuck in herself in bottling gooseberries. “She wasn’t one who just thought I’ll ask everybody else,” says Gaynor. “She was really prepared to roll her sleeves up.”

When she passed away in 1935, Lady Catherine’s obituary cited her wartime charitable and welfare work - and she was not the only one to leave a legacy. The book references a woman known only as Mrs Hamer, a Wakefield philanthropist who was the instigator, in 1848, of Wakefield’s Refuge for Discharged Female Prisoners. It existed in various forms right until the 1980s, providing refuge and training to support girls to become fit for employment.

Mother and baby health

The work of Marguerite de Flemyng Boileau was also influential. With the infant mortality rate meaning that, by 1900, one in five babies in Wakefield died before the age of one, the area’s Sanitary Aid Society agreed to appoint Miss Boileau as its first health visitor. They decided a woman’s touch was required, says Gaynor. “Her arrival in Wakefield heralded a turning point in the health of babies and their mothers.”

The society was funded by subscriptions so her salary was paid for by interested benevolent parties. “It was women who were paying for this... women who had wealthy husbands but who had some independence to use the money as they saw fit.”

Miss Boileau made 6,000 visits to 900 babies in her first two-and-a-half years. She asserted the main culprit for the death rate was not neglect but “crass ignorance combined with devoted affection”, pointing out that mothers believed the only reason their babies were crying was through hunger and many were overfed.

Newspaper reports suggest in one case she had found a four-day old baby being given tomato and other young babies with everything from soup to rhubarb pie.

Miss Boileau worked with “patience and tact” to persuade mothers to lengthen intervals between feeding, but it was not the only impact she had. Concerned a lot of families were unprepared for having a child, she founded Wakefield’s Babies Welcome, a society which encouraged pregnant women to save a modest weekly amount to use on newborn provisions after birth.

The first of its kind in the country, the society was also supported by a team of Wakefield ladies who extended its activities to supply food and clothing. Other towns followed suit and Miss Boileau’s work was highly commended in the London Times.

“She was a real example of women helping other women,” says Gaynor, whose great grandfather was born in Wakefield.

Family history

Now living in Holmfirth, the author was born and raised in Bradford and despite her career for many years being in sales and marketing in the food industry, she has taken an interest in social and family history for much of her life.

After starting a creative writing course back in 2013, Gaynor had tales of her ancestors published in a family history magazine and in 2017, her first book Victorian Policing, inspired by research into her great-great-grandfather, who was one of the longest-serving constables in Bradford, was published by Pen and Sword, the company behind the Struggle and Suffrage series.

In her research for this latest book, she says she uncovered how much work women did in the background to overcome challenges and improve the lives of generations that followed.

“They were really pushing and campaigning for things and particularly to bettering the lives of other women because they knew the circumstances that other women were facing and their trials and tribulations.”

Struggle and Suffrage series

More than 15 books have been published by Pen and Sword as part of the women of history Struggle and Suffrage series.

The first were released in 2018, coinciding with the centenary of the first women in the UK - those over the age of 30 who met a property qualification - being given the right to vote.

There are currently six books that focus on women’s lives in the historic West Riding. The first, published in October, looks at Sheffield and other editions focus on Huddersfield, Halifax, Bradford and Leeds between 1850 and 1950. Gaynor’s edition on Wakefield is the latest of the Yorkshire-focused books and was published earlier this year.

To purchase any of the books, visit