You’ve won first prize - a date with Stalin

Doreen Kerfoot works at a loom
Doreen Kerfoot works at a loom
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IT WAS the sort of impossibly glamorous prize to which a self-respecting working woman of the 1930s could hardly say no - a trip to Russia and a date with Stalin.

Audrey Mossom was a rail guard’s daughter from Blackpool when she was elected in 1936 to serve as Railway Queen - a position inspired by the Rose Queens and May Queens of the period, whose holder would be a standard-bearer for her industry end help grease the wheels of industrial harmony.

Cotton Queen Marjorie Knowles

Cotton Queen Marjorie Knowles

“She probably didn’t know what she was letting herself in for,” reflected John McGoldrick, as he put the finishing touches to an exhibition in Leeds celebrating the short but glittering careers of Miss Mossom and her comrades in crowns and sashes.

The practice of holding competitions to find queens of industry was rife in northern England before and just after the war, with wool, cotton, rail and coal the leading courtiers.

The mining industry kept the tradition going as late as the 1980s, when the pit strike finally killed it off, but Lancashire’s cotton trade was already on the wane when war broke out in 1939.

“They weren’t beauty queens - they were ambassadors for their industries,” said Mr McGoldrick, whose exhibition, Queens of Industry, opens today at the Leeds Industrial Museum.

A meeting of Cotton and Railway Queens in 1930. Picture: Tameside Local Studies and Archives

A meeting of Cotton and Railway Queens in 1930. Picture: Tameside Local Studies and Archives

Miss Mossom’s reign as Railway Queen was one of several to come with the promise of exotic foreign travel.

“They ran a special train when she crossed the Russian border, and she was taken to a theatre in Moscow with Stalin and all his acolytes,” Mr McGoldrick said.

“It was the time of the Stalinist purges and potentially quite a dangerous visit, but she did her bit for international goodwill and peace.”

The practice was to select a winner following a series of heats in different factory towns, followed by a grand final. The cotton and wool queens were required to work in the trade, but the rule was relaxed in the rail and pit trades, whose workforces with were almost entirely male.

In Dewsbury, Doreen Kerfoot was 19 and a weaver at Crabtrees Mill when she entered a competition run by the Wool and Allied Employers Council.

She posted a picture of herself and was summoned to Lewis’s department store in Leeds, where she won a place in the final and, eventually, the crown of Yorkshire Wool Queen, 1947.

Her first job was to appear in an industrial film about textiles, shot in colour and called The Three Piece Suit, and it led to a brief modelling, acting and singing career.

“It was out of this world to me,” she recalled later. “Suddenly I was staying in this grand hotel in London.”

Her fame spread so widely that she was written about by a newspaper in the upstate New York town of Schenectady. It reported: “To date, she has had one marriage proposal, five boxes of chocolates and, from a nine-year-old admirer, a home-made Christmas card.”

Now 90 and known as Doreen Fletcher, she has contributed some of her papers to the exhibition.

They reveal that the proposal came from a young German man in the Soviet-occupied sector of eastern Germany.

“Her records note that she did not reply,” Mr McGoldrick said.

The practice of electing industrial “queens” dated from a time when Britain’s production base led the world.

It’s is a chance to look back at what was a truly extraordinary era for Britain and for the lives of these women,” said Mr McGoldrick.

“Stepping out of their day-to-day jobs, they were given a remarkable opportunity to fly the flag for industries that were traditionally male dominated, and in many ways they became celebrities, trailblazers and an inspiration for other women who wanted to forge their own careers.”

As well as foreign travel - one Coal Queen won a trip to Africa - prizes included hard-to-get consumer goods like a silver dressing table set.