Bernard Atha’s term of office as Lord Mayor of Leeds has been marked
by a succession of distinctive and extraordinary women acting as his
consort. Helen Hutchison reports on the Lady Mayoresses of Leeds.
BERNARD Atha has become used to sharing the spotlight in the past year.
He may have been Lord Mayor Of Leeds, but what people really wanted to know was, is ‘Our Vera’ with him?
The flamboyant Labour councillor broke with years of protocol and tradition when he announced he was sharing the role of Lady Mayoress among a group of high-profile, well-known Yorkshire women.
Chief among them was Leeds-born actress Liz Dawn, star of long-running soap opera Coronation Street. TV news anchorwomen Christa Ackroyd of Calendar and Clare Frisby of BBC’s Look North also took the honours.
And West Yorkshire Playhouse director Jude Kelly, writer and director Kay Mellor and Leeds International Piano Competition founder Fanny Waterman were called to service.
But Coun Atha also drew his Lady Mayoresses from a broad spectrum of public life, including charity and community workers and ordinary working women and mothers.
He appointed Susan Pitter, a community worker from Chapeltown in Leeds, who became the city’s first black Lady Mayoress; Armley prison governor Stacy Tasker; breast care nurse Belinda Archer; creator of Meanwood Valley Urban Farm Sue Reddington; honorary Alderman Sheila Gill, of the Friends of Leeds Civic Theatre; Hawkswood community worker Pat Oddy; restaurant owner Martha Mazzella; Coun Frances Jones, who helped to establish Morley Town Council, and Susie Armitage, the chief officer of Yorkshire Arts Marketing.
Eighteen women have worn the chain of office. “I have been very privileged to have such supportive, able and quite brilliant women as my Lady Mayoress,” said Coun Atha. “I chose them because each was significantly different from the others but all do extraordinarily good work in their professional or other lives and are splendid role models.
“The first and foremost was Liz Dawn. People responded to her immediately, right across religious and cultural barriers. Going around with her was like being with Nelson Mandela. She had an amazing impact. She worked so hard. She must have carried out 30 engagements.”
Others included Anne Wheatley, of Cottingley Towers, Leeds, who is 100 years old. Paying tribute to her energy and drive Coun Atha said: “She acted as Lady Mayoress three times with great grace and was very articulate.”
Heather Clark acted as Lady Mayoress during Princess Anne’s visit to the Middleton Park Equestrian Centre run by the Riding for the Disabled Association in Leeds last November.
She was a Thalidomide baby and has been severely disabled since birth, but Coun Atha described her as a highly intelligent women who had developed her own career, drove her own car and loved horse riding.
Bridie Duggan became a celebrity in her own right after taking on the role of Lady Mayoress. Irishwoman Mrs Duggan was a kitchen assistant in the Civic Hall for more than 27 years.
She arrived in Leeds speaking only Gaelic and encountered terrible prejudice, said Coun Atha. But after her role as Lady Mayoress she was feted in Ireland and a TV documentary was made about her life.
Sylvia Wright is a charity worker who dedicated her life to working with poor and ill people in India. Coun Atha said: “I couldn’t have been more honoured when she agreed to be Lady Mayoress. She gave up her life in Leeds to go to India. She is a quite saintly woman.”
The full list of Lady Mayoresses is: Liz Dawn, Christa Ackroyd, Clare Frisby, Heather Clark, Susan Pitter, Sylvia Wright, Stacy Tasker, Bridie Duggan, Anne Wheatley, Pat Oddy, Martha Mazzella, Fanny Waterman, Coun Frances Jones, Jude Kelly, Kay Mellor, Sue Reddington, Sheila Gill and Belinda Archer.