Ellen Tooley and women’s rights in Eccles

On the November 1st 1933 Ellen Tooley made history by becoming the first woman councillor in Eccles. Although she wasn’t particularly fond of her new title as the first woman councillor in Eccles, she lived with it all her life and it no doubt it helped inspire many other women to play an active role in local politics.

Women in Eccles had been trying to get elected to the Eccles Town Hall without any success since 1919, yet in 1933 the town voted in two women councillors. Ellen Tooley was first to be announced as the winning candidate for the seat of Winton; literally minutes later, Mary Higgins was elected as the councillor for Barton. Veronica Trick, the granddaughter of Ellen Tooley, describes the night in an article titled The Power to get Things Changed! Ellen Tooley, Eccles’ First Woman Councillor:

“The teams counting their [Ellen Tooley and Mary Higgins] votes began to count as fast as they could, competing to be the first to count a woman councillor in. In spite of having 500 more votes to count than the other team, Ellen’s team finished first so that she became the first councillor for Winton just two or three minutes before Mary Higgins became the councillor for Barton. So it was purely because her team were faster one that my gran acquired her title.”

Veronica Trick, who published the journal on Ellen Tooley which forms the basis of this article, decided to find out more about her grandmother when she stumbled across newspaper cuttings and poll cards whilst sorting through her mother’s belongings. “When we were growing up my cousins and I were all very proud of our famous grandmother, Ellen Tooley, who was the first woman councillor for Eccles, although we had only the vaguest ideas about what that meant,” writes Trick. She decided to do some digging and what she discovered was that her grandmother had worked hard and overcome many obstacles to become Eccles’ first woman councillor.

Born into Poverty

Ellen Tooley was born in Plymouth in 1875/6 to a mother who was a laundress and an Irish father who was a private in the army. Her father was an Irish Republican sympathiser and his influence is credited with Ellen’s subsequent commitment to the Republican cause as well as her interest in politics. Despite a steady income, the family which consisted of five children must have been quite poor and this gave Ellen her first experience of poverty. At the age of 15 she was working as general domestic servant in Exeter, although an incident in which a small pile of money was left out by her employers – a common practice at the time to test the honesty of servants – angered her and she left in protest. At some point between 1891 and 1899, she ran away from home and came to the north.

Her father made several attempts to bring Ellen home but she resisted and finally settled down and married a widower named William Tooley who was a Protestant. As her father was a Catholic, this marriage was seen as the ultimate betrayal and he never spoke to Ellen again. Over the next ten years, Ellen had six children and they lived in various addresses in Ancoats and Greengate. Although her husband William was a skilled worker, the family struggled to make ends meet as William was fond of ‘The Demon Drink’ and would drink away his wages. Many of the houses they stayed in were appalling and the final house they lived in before moving to Eccles was a back-to-back house in Salford with a one upstairs room, one ground floor room and cellar. Twenty-six families had to share a row of six outdoor privy lavatories.

Influential Women in Eccles, Suffragettes and Co-op Guilds

The move to Eccles seemed to have marked a new period of stability and success in Ellen’s life. Their home was much bigger with its own garden and private lavatory and Ellen was inspired by other local women to get involved in local politics. Even so, Ellen never forgot her earlier experiences of poverty and she worked tirelessly to improve housing conditions and welfare provisions during her political career.

Although Eccles was, and remains, a small town there were many influential women who managed to make their mark on local politics and served as role models. Influential women from Eccles include Sofia Roe, who founded an orphanage on Green Lane in the 19th century and Kathleen Lyttleton, the wife of the Vicar of Eccles, who founded the Eccles Branch of the Co-operative Women’s Guild in 1895. Two women’s suffrage organisations- the non-militant North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage and the more militant Women’s Freedom League- also had local branches and their meetings were well attended by women in Eccles.

Ellen Tooley, who was five feet tall with red hair and a temperament to match, joined the Women’s Co-operative Guild and Independent Labour Party in 1916. The Independent Labour Party was strongly pacifist at the time and this suited Tooley’s anti-war stance. By 1918, her brother had been killed in the war and her husband and two sons were conscripted into the war effort. In fact Tooley’s first publically recorded speech was as one of the main speaker at an anti-war demonstration.

In 1919, the first women ever to stand for election in Eccles were Mary O’Kane and Louisa Mathews, who were both members of the Co-operative Guild. As Veronica Trick explains, the Co-operative Guild gave many working women an opportunity at education and also the confidence and skills they would need to succeed in local politics. Although both women candidates had failed to get elected, this didn’t stop other women from trying to influence local politics through other routes – namely local committees. The number of women on these local committees in Eccles went up from 9 in 1920 to 17 in 1925.

Local Committees, Working Class Women and Birth Control

Although women were increasingly present in local politics, working class women were still struggling to make their mark in the same way that upper/middle-class women had. Ellen Tooley noted in the Eccles Journal in 1925: “There are women in Eccles amongst the workers who are capable of serving the community equally as well as those co-opted, with a knowledge of conditions gained by practical experience which is after all ‘the best teacher’” (cited in Trick, The Power to get Things Changed, p23). There was one committee, however, where the presence of a working class woman was mandatory and this was to be the first committee Ellen served on.

The 1918 Maternity and Child Welfare Act had set up the Maternity and Child Welfare Committees, influenced by campaigns by the Women’s Guilds, and Ellen was appointed in 1920 to serve on the Eccles committee. As such, Ellen Tooley played an important role in the mother and child clinics which improved contraceptive advice to women- particularly working class women who could not afford to pay a private doctor for contraceptive advice.

The orphanage originally built by Sofia Roe in 1880 was refurbished under the committee and set up as a Mother & Baby Clinic with significant success. “Six years later the Medical Office of Health was able to proudly report to the committee that infant deaths in Eccles were only 47.2 infant deaths per 1,000 births. The only urban district which had performed better was Nelson with 44.9, Manchester, in contrast, had 83.0 and Salford 103.2.” (cited in Trick, page 22)

TB, Death and Disease

The relative success of Ellen’s political career was, however, tainted by a string of personal tragedies during the same period. After Ellen’s husband returned from the war he had become more abusive and violent towards her, particularly whilst drunk, and during one incident in 1921 Ellen’s two older sons attacked their father and forced him out of the family home. One son joined the army to escape prosecution whilst the other, Edward, moved away for a year.

In 1922, Ellen’s daughter Eveline was diagnosed with TB and her other daughter Dora, who was Veronica Trick’s mother, developed a bone disease in one of her knees and was confined to a special bed-chair. Eveline did recover for a while in 1923 but died a year later in 1924. In May 1926, Ellen’s son James died of TB and in the same month her husband died of bronchitis and a cerebral oedema in Hope Hospital.

Election Success

In 1924, Ellen Tooley was nominated for the first time to run for election. However, it was widely acknowledged that she had been allocated a seat (Irwell) that would be very difficult for a Labour candidate to win and indeed she failed to secure the seat. In 1927, she was a delegate to the Labour Party’s annual conference in Blackpool and stood, again without success, for the Barton ward. In 1930 she stood as the Labour candidate for the Winton ward along with Mary O’Kane who was nominated at the Co-op candidate for Patricroft – they both failed to secure their seats. For the next two years there were no women candidates in Eccles. Finally in 1933, Ellen stood once more and managed to win her seat in Winton along with Mary Higgins who became councillor for Barton.

The two women formed a formidable alliance and became members on committees related to health, libraries and schools, as well as working to improve child welfare and provide work for the local unemployed. Although Ellen tried to get re-elected in 1938, local elections were suspended due to the outbreak of World War Two and by the time the war had ended, she was 71 and her health was beginning to deteriorate. Ellen died in April 1955 at the age of 79 and was buried on the 2nd of May. The title as the first woman councillor of Eccles, which Ellen shrugged off as pure chance, was chiselled on her gravestone.

By Arwa Aburawa