Meet the 'forgotten woman' behind the beginnings of Wakefield's St John Ambulance

A play exploring the life of Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell, a champion of social justice in early 20th century Wakefield, is due to be staged later this year. Laura Reid reports.

Sarah Cobham of the Forgotten Women of Wakefield project.
Sarah Cobham of the Forgotten Women of Wakefield project.

Champion of social justice. That’s how Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell has been described by a group of researchers who have been delving into her rather impressive life as part of the Forgotten Women of Wakefield project.

Born in 1856, Lady Catherine spent much of her life supporting the health, education and well being of Wakefield’s poorest communities.

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Shortly after arriving in Yorkshire as a new bride from her home in Shropshire, in the 1880s she set about supporting women and children less fortunate than herself.

According to researchers, she established what was called the Guild of Pity, which provided free milk to children in workhouses and distributed clothing to poor families and those of wounded soldiers.

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She was also instrumental, the group say, in setting up a scheme which placed orphans in foster homes rather than leaving them to the workhouse.

Sarah Cobham, who leads the Forgotten Women project, designed to shine a light on those who played influential roles in the city’s past, picks up more of her story.

“By 1891 Lady Catherine was an established published essayist exploring the complex lives of women which were, unsurprisingly, received with some hostility by a male dominated press,” she says. “By the time of her death in 1935 she shared the same publishers as George Gissing and the Bronte Sisters and had published nine books and a host of articles and essays.”

Lady Catherine, who was awarded The Order of St John - a royal order of chivalry, also played a role in medical care in Wakefield. According to the Forgotten Women research, it was she who founded the Wakefield-based division of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade in 1911, which during the First World War delivered care at the city’s former Clayton Hospital.

“At [the division’s] registration, 70 men and 27 women wore their uniforms with pride,” Sarah says. “This uniform was provided by Lady Catherine and funded from the sale of Alpine plants grown in her garden.”

Lady Catherine, who died in 1935, was also among the first women to become A Justice of the Peace.

“The tenacity and grace that Lady Catherine shows is really impressive,” says Sarah. “Despite being faced with abject poverty within Wakefield, I can literally imagine her rolling her sleeves up and getting stuck in.

“I can really relate to her strategy which seemed to be to ‘find a way’ despite everything placed in front of her. This attitude clearly came from her mother, who was one of the first suffragists and advocates of women’s rights.

“What has become clear, through reading the research provided by Antonia Stephenson and Helga Fox, is that Lady Catherine worked alongside many of our other Forgotten Women. Once again, then, as now, it’s groups of women that are working together to support change for themselves, and others.

“I continue to be incredibly proud of the achievements of the women from our past and continually impressed with the skills, commitment and passion by the women in our present that continue enable the Forgotten Women of Wakefield project to flourish.”

Sarah has written a play - Lady Catherine - to be staged in December, alongside a talk on Lady Catherine’s life by Antonia. It will be part of an exhibition by the group - 1888 Supressed Suffragists: 2020 Visible Visionaries - that is due to take place at Wakefield Library from October.

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