Leeds nostalgia: Loiner who championed women’s rights

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Leeds Civic Trust is to unveil a blue plaque on the former home of Leeds-born suffragette and political activist Mary Gawthorpe (1881–1973). The plaque has been generously sponsored by members and friends of Leeds Civic Trust and the Bramley ward councillors.

The plaque will be unveiled by Dr Jill Liddington, an eminent historian, writer and Royal Historical Society Fellow. Dr Liddington has published many books, including Rebel Girls – Their Fight for the vote, Vanishing Vote as well as co-writing the influential One Hand Tied Behind Us: Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

Born in humble circumstances in a back-to-back house in Woodhouse, Leeds, Mary began her career as a teacher. With a growing passion for socialist politics and trade unionism, she grew increasingly interested in the women’s suffrage movement. Inspired by Christabel Pankhurst, she became an organiser for the Women’s Social and Political Union. Arrested several times for political activism and imprisoned in Holloway, Mary and her fellow suffragettes helped secure women’s right to vote.

Lynda Kitching, Chair of Leeds Civic Trust, said: “Mary Gawthorpe from humble beginning was a remarkable activist and organiser working closely with women of much higher social status in the suffrage movement. This plaque is an important addition to those we already have for influential Leeds women such as Leonora Cohen, Ellen Heaton, Isabella Ford and Gertrude Paul.”

Mary Gawthorpe was born at 5 Melville Street (a demolished Woodhouse back-to-back) in January 1881, the third of five children. Her father was a leatherworker at Jackson’s Tannery and also worked as an election agent.

At the age of 13, Mary, took the examination for a high school scholarship. She was awarded a two year scholarship but no maintenance money. Her family could not afford this expense, so she became a pupil-teacher – a student one day and a pupil-teacher the next.

She studied late every evening during her four years in this role. In 1899 she passed the Queen’s Scholarship, and won a place at college, but could not afford to go, she decided to teach by day and study by night. She became an Assistant Mistress at St. Luke’s Boys School, Beeston Hill (demolished 1970s). She passed her final training certificate in 1902. Now 21 she rented a house in Beeston Hill – at 6 Southmount Terrace. Initially her alcoholic father came too but soon announced that he was going back to Woodhouse, Mary saw this as a definitive break and rented a smaller house in Fulham St with her mother and brother.

Freed from the burden of formal study, she joined the Labour Church on Dewsbury Road – it later became the Socialist Institute and was affiliated to the Independent Labour Party. Mary became engaged to Tom Garrs –shift printer at the Yorkshire Post – he influenced Mary’s interest in socialist politics, and introduced her to the theosophical and occult world. Mary wrote a women’s page for the weekly “Labour News” – and leading light R B Edwards persuaded Mary to make political speeches - “The Child Under Socialism” and “Modern Pariah – plea against the making of criminals”. Mary said “the labour movement was my faith and my religion”.

In 1904 Mary spoke out at a meeting of the Leeds Children’s Relief Fund, and was appointed to the Funds Central Committee – an important first step into practical politics and committee work. The most significant speaker there was Christabel Pankhurst, in 1904, who spoke on; “Political Enfranchisement must precede social regeneration.”

After three years at St Luke’s, Mary transferred to Bramley. She and her mother rented a house at 9 Warrel’s Mount.

Introduced to the Leeds Arts Club by her fiancé –lectures and groups awakened new interests in Mary. During 1904 - 1905 Mary was active in her union, the National Federation of Assistant Teachers, and spoke at open air meetings in central Leeds and Bramley Park.

Then happened the event that changed the direction of Mary’s life. On 13 October 1905 as parties prepared for a general election, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney were arrested for making a disturbance at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. Mary, recalling Christabel’s speech, “answered that call instantly by writing to Miss Pankhurst in Strangeways Prison, saying that if it was necessary to go to prison in order to win the vote, I was ready”.

At that time Suffragette activity was concentrated in London and Manchester, so Mary started to act alone, writing letters to the Leeds press in December 1905 and thrice in January 1906. She began her long association with Isabella Ford and the Leeds Women’s Suffrage Society (non-violent campaigning) at meetings in Leeds and the West Riding during the election campaign. Her first article was published in the Yorkshire Weekly Post, earning £2.

In June 1906 she was elected secretary of the new Women’s Labour League, and resigned from her school post to concentrate on politics. Then, in August 1906, she was asked to become a national organiser of the W.S.P.U, and accepted, sending home half her £2 wage each week.

The next stepping up of the Suffragettes’ campaign was a big demonstration at the opening of Parliament on 23 October 1906. Mary and a large group of women had gathered in the central lobby (many more outside). When they learned the government would not support a suffrage bill, Mary leapt on a chair and began to address those in the lobby. The police arrived and bundled the women into the streets, where the protest continued. 10 arrests were made and the women were bailed to appear in court the next morning. Mary was sentenced to two months imprisonment and found out about the appalling conditions in Holloway Women’s Prison. After five weeks the women were all released, because of the by-election pending in Huddersfield, where it was realised that the imprisonment of women demanding the vote was electorally embarrassing. The Liberals just held on to the seat. On their release Mary and Annie Kenney spoke to a huge crowd gathered to acclaim them, and there was a big banquet in honour of the ex-prisoners at the Savoy Hotel.

The action against women’s demonstrations became increasingly violent, and Mary was so badly injured by stewards at a meeting in February 1907 that she was too ill to appear in court. The internal injuries that she suffered were one cause of a great deal of ill health that she suffered on and off thereafter. Not necessarily connected was the appendicitis for which she was operated on at the New Hospital for Women in London – by Elizabeth Garret Anderson – the first woman to qualify as a doctor – in August 1907.

These were hectic times with fierce protests. Herbert Gladstone was “howled down” on two occasions in Leeds in November 1908, Earl Grey’s meeting at The Coliseum in August 1908 was disrupted. There was said to be 100,000 at a Suffragette meeting on Woodhouse Moor in July 1908, four huge meetings in the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1908 and 1909, and three meetings in the London Albert Hall. Mary’s only propaganda publication “Votes for Men” was published in 1908 – in it she sets out the militant actions of men to extend the franchise and contrast it with the Suffragettes’ similar actions.

Mary’s health continued to be poor and in 1910 she resigned as W.S.P.U organiser, though continued to be active in Suffragette action. In February 1912 she broke a Home Office window in protest at the forced feeding of William Ball a supporter of the Suffragettes. She was briefly imprisoned again.

By this time Mary was linking the issues of votes with the wider question of female emancipation. She also connected the attempts to stifle women’s protests with a threat to free speech generally on which she wrote to Labour politician George Lansbury.

She wrote articles for Freewoman, Alfred Orage’s New Age paper and for The Labour Woman. Her health continued to be poor despite five months convalescence in Italy in early 1914. She eventually emigrated to America with her brother on 29 December 1915. She continued to be active in women’s suffrage and labour politics in America.

Mary Gawthorpe was a remarkable woman. “The bonniest of the young women who fought for the vote. She was tiny, shapely with bronze hair, hazel eyes and classical features. She looked the highly intelligent woman she was” Sir Linton Andrews, then Editor of the Yorkshire Post.

The plaque will be unveiled on Thursday April 30 at 11.30am at 9 Warrels Mount, Bramley.