The Manchester Mechanics Institute

The Mechanics Institute began with a meeting between William Fairburn, Thomas Hopkins and Richard Roberts, who agreed to each contribute £10 towards the foundation of an Institute to teach young men the application of science to manufacturing and art. Fairburn was a noted engineer, born in Scotland, who had come to Manchester in 1813 where he made mill-machinery before moving into making boilers and ship-building. Roberts was also an engineer, born in Wales, who came to Manchester about 1815 and made his money in manufacturing high precision machine tools and also through inventions such as the self-acting spinning mule. All three men were members of the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society, at which Hopkins had contributed a number of papers.

Following this initial meeting, a public meeting was held at the Bridgewater Arms public house on High Street on 17 April 1824, chaired by Benjamin Heywood, the banker. Those present resolved to set up an institution to be known as the Manchester Mechanics Institute with the object of delivering lectures on the various sciences and their application to the arts and also to establish a reference and circulating library. Sufficient funds were pledged to allow land to be purchased on Cooper Street, where a building costing £7,000 was put up.

Control of the Institute was firmly in the hands of Manchester’s self-made manufacturing class who firmly rebuffed any suggestions for change from the working people attending the lectures. In March 1829 Rowland Detrosier led a breakaway group who founded their own Institute. Detrosier had been abandoned as a child and brought up in Manchester by Charles Barnes, a member of the Swedenborgian church. He worked as a clerk and also lectured at the Swedenborgian Sunday school. For a time he was connected with the Stockport Bible Christian church.

Although Detrosier moved to London where he lectured and became secretary of the National Political Union, he retained his links with Manchester and on 25 March 1831 he gave a lecture at the New Mechanics Institute which was later published as a pamphlet entitled On the Necessity of an Extension of Moral and Political Instruction among the Working Classes with the assistance of Francis Place, one of his London friends.

Lacking the funds of its wealthy parent, the New Mechanics Institute was based in a joiner’s shop in a timber yard near the top of Brazenose Street. It was run on democratic lines and had a small library. This group of working people appears to have connections with the Owenite movement for they were amongst those who encouraged the Owenites to build the Hall of Science in Campfield. The New Mechanics Institute appears to have lasted ten years and it seems likely that once the Hall of Science was opened they transferred their classes and library to the new building which survived until 1844.

The original Institute held regular classes in music , French and German, nature study, art appreciation and science. In 1837 it was agreed to hold classes for women for, as one of the directors pointed out, “much good would arise from the proper cultivation of their minds”. Victorian notions of the proper place of women were much in evident, however, for their classes included how to make wax flowers and household management. In addition to classes for adults the Institute also ran a school for boys and girls from 1834, which was attended by several hundred pupils.

In August 1847 a meeting was held in the Institute to set up the Lancashire Public School Association with the aim of “promoting a general system of secular education”. At this time there was no state education, only private schools which few could afford. There were religious schools but, of course, these naturally promoted the particular religion they were affiliated to.

The Institute was able to attract well-known personalities including the actors William Macready (famous for his Shakespeare performances) and Fanny Kemble (who was active in the anti-slavery movement) and Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Institute eventually outgrew its original building and a new building was constructed on Princess Street (then called David Street), costing £20,000 which opened in 1857. The architect was John Edward Gregan. It opened with a major exhibition which thousands visited.

In June 1868 the Institute was used for a congress of trade unions, the first such meeting to be held and which annual meeting continues to-day

In 1870 the government passed an Education Act which for the first time made education compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 12, establishing elected School Boards were set to build and run the new schools. This made some of the work of the Mechanics Institute unnecessary as basic provision for children was now under the aegis of the School Board. In September 1883 a Technical School was opened in the building by Oliver Heywood (son of Benjamin, who was continuing his father’s charitable work and whose statue can be seen in Albert Square). It was absorbed into the Manchester education system in 1892.

In 1910 a Day Training College was opened in the building to train teachers properly for there had been complaints for many years of the poor standard of teaching in schools., especially by pupil teachers who often had no formal training at all.

In 1917 another change took place when the building was designated the Municipal High School of Commerce. It ran day and evening classes for those hoping to pursue careers in business and included foreign languages in the curriculum. It moved out of the building in the 1960s.

By the mid 1970s the Institute was in a very bad state of repair although registered as a grade 2 listed building. Concerned trade unionists set up a campaign called MANTUC with the aim of restoring the building and re-opening it but after several years work this was not successful.

Another attempt succeeded some years later when, as the building neared collapse, a Trust was formed with backing from the City Council and the trade unions which restored the building and re-opened it as a trade union centre with meeting rooms, a main hall and a bar. The restoration included a meeting room set out with furniture, wallpaper and portraits in the style of 1868.

In 1990 the National Museum of Labour History moved its labour history archives into the ground floor of the building. (The galleries were in the Pumphouse). The official opening was on 7 May 1990 when the opening address was given by Jack Jones, former general secretary of TGWU and chair of the museum’s Trustees. In his speech he said

“I strongly believe that this gem of a museum is going to prove of great benefit to Manchester and the North of England, because of its special interest to trade unionists, members of the Co-operative movement and activist in the cause of women’s equality and progress will attract visitors from Germany, France, the other European countries and America as well as people from all parts of these islands.One of our prized possessions in Tom Paine’s table on which he wrote important parts of his famous work The rights of man. This writing of his made an enormous contribution to the American revolution and had some influence on the French revolution….

The many colourful and unique items on show to-day and others which we will be exhibiting will, I believe, demonstrate the real history of working people and their efforts to rise out of their poverty. This, I suggest, is much more important and educational than the drearysome recounting or reciting of dates of Kings and Queens and battles of the past.

All of us have a responsibility to cherish and preserve the essentials of historical development. It would be foolish to and indeed criminal to ignore and neglect that responsibility. Instead of respecting our past all too often very many objets of considerable historical value have been wantonly or inadvertently destroyed in the past by trade unions…It surely behoves both sides of industry and citizens generally to assist in avoiding the destruction of significant relics of people’s history.”

In March 2010 the labour history archives were moved out to a new home in the extended People’s History Museum (as the NMLH had by now rebranded itself). The Mechanics Institute remains open for meetings and other functions. For information on facilities offered in this historic building, please visit their website.

Article by Michael Herbert

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Peace and Antiwar activities in 1930s Manchester

In the decade before the outbreak of the Second World War there was extensive campaigning by a number of organisations in Manchester on the issues of peace and opposition to war.

The experience of the slaughter of millions during First World War (“the war to end all wars”) had led many to believe that war was not a solution to international conflict, indeed it might lead to the complete collapse of civilisation. The establishment of the League of Nations after the Paris Conference had appeared to offer hope that new system of international accord might prevent future conflicts. Its aims, as stated in its Covenant, included preventing war through collective security and settling international issues through discussion and arbitration. By 1935 it had 58 members, but not the United States, which refused to join despite the best efforts of President Woodrow Wilson.

Despite some successes, the League was revealed as powerless and ineffectual when countries ignored it and embarked on wars of aggression. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria (then part of China), in 1935 Italy attacked Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia), in 1936 Franco and other generals launched a coup against Spain’s Republican government, aided by Italy and Germany, in 1937 Japan launched a full-scale war against China. In each of these cases the League was unable to act effectively. Coupled with the accession to power of the Nazis in 1933 and their rapid re-armament of Germany, the worsening international situation appeared to portend that another world conflict was inevitable, a prospect many people found almost unbearable when memories of the last war were still so raw.

This public mood was crystallised by what became known as “the King and Country debate” at the Oxford Union on 9 February 1933. A motion stating “That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country” was proposed. It was moved by Kenelm Digby, who told the packed chamber that , “It is no mere coincidence that the only country fighting for the cause of peace, Soviet Russia, is the country that has rid itself of the war-mongering clique. The justification urged for the last war was that it was a war to end war. If that were untrue it was a dastardly lie; if it were true, what justification is there for opposition to this motion tonight?” “. The motion was passed by 275 votes to 15.

The debate and the result caused enormous public controversy and contributed to the emergence of a new peace movement. In 1934 the Peace Pledge Union was founded by Canon Dick Shepherd and attracted tens of thousands of members. The PPU joined with the Women’s Co-operative Guild to promote the wearing of the White Poppy on Remembrance Sunday, which the Guild had started selling in 1933.

A survey conducted in 1934 by the Manchester and District Anti-War Council listed the following organisations in Manchester. Some had been started in response to the Great War, others founded more recently.

Manchester & District Anti-War Council:
This had been formed in 1933 and was a coalition of about fifty mainly working-class and left-wing organisations such as Co-operative Guilds, trade union branches, Labour Parties, ILP, Communists and youth organisations. It carried on regular propaganda work, including public meetings, producing leaflets and posters, contacting the press and holding monthly meetings. On occasions it worked with the Women’s International League and the Society of Friends. The officers were listed as Louise Bell of Daisy Bank, Manchester 10 and Cicely M. Marsh of Granville Road, Fallowfield.

Anti-War Group, Manchester University:
This University society was affiliated to the British Students’ Anti-War council. Student members, which were estimated at about one hundred, pledged themselves not to take part in war and to work actively against wars. The Secretary was P. Chantler.

Fellowship of Reconciliation:
This was an international Christian pacifist society founded in 1914. The Manchester branch was willing to collaborate with any organisation whose views did not conflict with those of FOR. The Secretary was Frank Adey, of Lower Broughton Road.

Manchester & Salford Joint Disarmament Council:
This had been formed in 1931 and was established for the purpose of co-ordinating the work of some thirty local organisations in preparation for the Disarmament conference. This conference was organised by the League of Nations and took place in Geneva from 1932 to 1933. It broke down when Hitler, on coming to power, withdrew Germany from the conference and also from the League of Nations. By 1934 this Council seems to have ceased to function.

League of Nations Union:
This had been established as a national organisation in October 1918 by the merger of the League of Free Nations Association and the League of Nations Society, with the aim of working for the support of the League of Nations amongst the people. Membership in Manchester and near-by districts was claimed to be around 25,000, organised into 72 branches. The LNU issued literature and provided speakers for public meetings and schools. The Secretary was C E Clift and the LNU had an office at 53 Barton Arcade.

Manchester Peace Players:
This drama society was formed to produce Peace Plays only and to perform these plays to churches, Co-operative Societies and Peace organisations. The players had about 25 acting members and 40 supporting members. The secretary was Helen Savage of York Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy.

No More War Movement:
The NWM was the British branch of the War Resisters International, founded in 1921. Members signed a declaration not to support any war, international or civil, and to work for the establishment of all caused of war, and the establishment of a new social and international order, based on co-operation for the common good. Membership was estimated at about 330. The Secretary was W Bingham, of Stretford Road.

Society of Friends:
The Friends Peace Committee actively sought to bring about a better understanding and co-operation between all peoples and collaborate where possible with other bodies in education for world peace. It issued literature and held public meetings and had been prominent in the activities of the Manchester and Salford Joint Disarmament council. The Secretary was Joseph Pennington, of Chestnut Avenue, Walkden.

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom:
On April 28, 1915, despite many obstacles, a group of a thousand women met in an International Congress in The Hague, Netherlands to protest against the First world War. The organisers of the Congress were women who had been active in the International Suffrage Alliance, and who saw the connection between their struggle for equal rights and the struggle for peace.
The Congress led to the formation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The WIL branch in Manchester was active in organising public meetings, providing speakers and protesting against military displays. It had 540 members and the Secretary was Audrey Bullough. They had an office at 1 Princess Street

Peace and anti-war activities

1935

The Manchester Anti-War Council organised an exhibition which took place in the Friends Meeting House between 14-19 January 1935. It was opened by George Sutherland, principal of Dalton Hall, with E C Whitaker in the chair.

The President of the Council was John Jagger, who was a trade unionist, President of the shop workers’ union the NUDAW, and was elected as MP for Manchester Clayton at the general election in November 1935. The exhibition comprised eight sections which looked at the causes, conduct and aftermath of the Great War and how preparations for another war were being made. The exhibition programme included an advert for anti-war literature at Books & Books, 54 Victoria Street.

1937

In July 1937 there was a Manchester & Salford Peace Week organised by an umbrella council, whose Presidents were the Lord Mayors of Manchester and Salford. The Peace Week appears to have been closely connected with the LNU as the Secretary of the council was C E Clift, who was also the Secretary of the LNU. The events included a Peace Exhibition at Central Hall, Oldham Street; a Peace shop on Deansgate (corner of Blackfriars); a Peace Shop and Exhibition on Wellington Street, Gorton; a performance of the anti-war play The Miracle of Verdun by Hans Schlumberg; and Peace Films at the Tatler Theatre, Oxford Road . There were also processions and meetings in many parts of Manchester and Salford, including meetings at the Friends Meeting House where on Monday 5 July Dr Herbert Gray spoke on “What Makes Nations Dangerous” while on 7 July Professor C E M Joad spoke on “The Coming of the World State”. On Wednesday 7 July there was a Women’s Day whose main event was a procession of one hundred women’s organisations from All Saints to Platt Fields where the speakers included Ellen Wilkinson MP.

The week concluded with a mass meeting in the Free Trade Hall , chaired by the Lord Mayor. The speakers were Norman Angell and Phillip Noel Baker MP. Norman Angell was Labour MP for Bradford 1929-1931 and active an international issues, including opposition to fascism. He was the author of many books. Philip Noel Baker (1899-1982) was from a Quaker family and during the First World War led the Friends Ambulance Unit which was staffed by conscientious objectors. He was MP for Derby 1936-1970 and later served in the House of Lords.

During the week there was an office for selling tickets at 53 Barton Arcade.

1938

In January 1938 the Manchester & District Ant-War Council hosted the Cambridge Anti-War Exhibition at the Burlington Café, Oxford Road (11-14 January) and then at the Friends Meeting house (15-19 January). The exhibition was opened by Maurice Dobb, a lecturer on economics at Trinity College Cambridge University. He was a member of the CPGB.

The art and lighting direction was by E G Barlow, who lent six of his own drawings. The design and mounting was by Misha Black who was an architect and designer, joint founder of the Artists’ International Association in 1933, and later professor of industrial design at the Royal College of Art from 1959-1975, and by Barbara Nixon (about whom I have not been able to find more information).

The mystery of Guernica

Guernica is Pablo Picasso’s most famous painting, created in response to the bombing of the Basque town by German and Italian warplanes at the behest of the Spanish Nationalist forces on 26 April 1937. The Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso to create a large mural for the Spanish display at the Paris International Exposition at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.
On completion Guernica was taken on tour around the world in an attempt to bring the situation in Spain to public attention. In January 1939 Guernica and the studies were exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in the East End. Intriguingly there is a persistent rumour that in February 1939 Guernica was exhibited in Manchester for two weeks in a vacant car showroom opposite the Cathedral, before it was returned to France and from there to the USA where it stayed for 42 years, only being sent back to Spain after the death of Franco. Enquiries are ongoing to establish the truth of this.

Article by Michael Herbert

Unicorn Grocery – 15 years of Fresh Food, Fairtrade & Organic Farming

In 2011, Unicorn Grocery, based in Chorlton, is celebrating 15 years of trade in organic, fairtrade, low-carbon and ethical produce.

Set up in 1996 by a small group of people interested in sustainable food, Unicorn Grocery has flourished over the years and now has a turnover of almost £4 million. Selling everything from local vegetables to Palestinian olive oil, the grocery has become a sustainable alternative to supermarkets. “I think what we wanted to do was to run a shop that sold the kind of things we wanted to buy,” states Debbie Clarke, an environmental campaigner who has worked at Unicorn for 10 years. “[A shop] that had an ethical outlook, that was sourcing things carefully in terms of provenance and nutrition.”

Inspired by a co-operative wholefood shop called Daily Bread in Cambridge, which is run on an ethical and Christian ethos, one of the founders of Unicorn Grocery, Adam York, decided to establish a similar grocery in Manchester. “Although he wasn’t a Christian, he saw value in the way that they were running things and also that it was replicable,” explains Debbie. “He took it on with a secular perspective and looked around for people who were interested in the project in Manchester. There were two people originally, which grew to six, and it took a couple of years planning for it and finding premises, money as well a doing a bit of market research to see if there was an appetite for it.” Finally, in 1996, the Unicorn Grocery Co-operative opened its doors to the public.

As a co-operative, most of the people that work at Unicorn own and run the business – everyone has a flat pay and makes an equal contribution in the running of the business. “I suppose there are loads of reasons why you would want to run a business as a co-op, some are political reasons such as having control in the hands of the workers to more practical reasons because it’s a really good business model,” states Debbie. “For example, the people that are making the decisions are the people that have to put everything into practice- there isn’t that chain of command where you have a distant head office which is barking orders at you when they have no idea how things work on the ground.”

This means that those stacking the shelves aren’t poorly paid workers but rather well-informed members of the co-op who know and understand the policies and ethics of the grocery. Even so, Debbie explains that they do have casual staff to give them a buffer for the fluctuations in how busy they are during the day, week and also the year. “We did try for a little being fully mutual, which means that everyone that worked there was a member, but it left us vulnerable to fluctuations so we have between 5-10% of our hours from casual staff although it’s not something that we want the business to be based around.”

As with all co-operatives, a certain level of compromise and creative tension is also inevitable. Unicorn embraces lots of principles such as vegan and vegetarian lifestyles, a focus on local food, fairtrade and organic growing but sometimes priorities need to be set and difficult decisions made. For example, Unicorn has decided not to have any boycotts in place and they don’t refuse to stock products from any country. Therefore they sell products from China, they occasionally sell products from Israel and they sell some fairtrade products from Zimbabwe as well as products from Iran.

“The question is that if we start cutting out products from countries would we stop selling things from the US?,” asks Debbie. “We don’t think that whole-scale boycotts of countries are the way to deal with poor human rights records or political activity. What we would try and do is focus on the products from those countries that we know are well sourced. For example, we work with an organisation called Kitchen Garden, which consists of small-scale organic farmers from Zimbabwe which we try to promote as part of our recommended range.” Unicorn also sells Palestinian olive oil from Zaytoun, a UK-based not-for-profit company which imports certified Fairtrade olive oil from Palestinian farmers.

“I think the interesting thing is that although we all have different perspectives, we have these guiding principles which say what – fundamentally – the ethics of the business trades on. Everyone respects those and although there are sometimes discussions about what to prioritize, generally we all come to a compromise and use [the guiding principles] to make a decision without causing too much conflict.”

And it’s these guiding principles that have allowed Unicorn to grow over the years. Debbie states there is no way that the shop would have grown to the size it has or accessed the number of customers that it does if they only sold local produce or only fairtrade. “We do compete with supermarkets on price and that’s part of our business model, but to do that you have to work out where that balance is,” says Debbie. Whilst Unicorn Grocery doesn’t air freight any of its stock, they do buy bananas, pineapples, tomatoes and oranges all year round because they accept that it’s what people want and there’s only so much you can do before people just go to Tesco instead. “We do try to focus on local food and push it where possible and we try to educate our customers about seasonality so we can sell seasonal veg from local growers,” adds Debbie.

In 2008, Unicorn bought 21 acres of land to improve their local supply of veg and cut their food miles. They have tenant growers who work the land with the support from Moss Brook Growers and funding from Making Local Food Work. “We did some crop trials in the first year, last year we did more small-scale crops and this year is the first year that has made it into major production. They were funded for the first couple of years but now they have to make it work financially- I’m sure they’ll manage it!”

Unicorn also works with the Kindling Trust which is working to develop a group of veg buyers called Manchester’s Veg People as well as the Glebelands Trust which is an urban market garden based in Sale. They also contribute to the annual Chorlton Food & Drink Festival which promotes the independent food and drink sector.

Indeed, there is a growing appreciation of local, fairtrade and organic food with lots of supermarkets now stocking such products. When I ask Debbie if this means more competition for Unicorn or more customers, she replies that it’s a bit of both. “The supermarkets may sell organic and fairtrade but their business models are inherently unsustainable. A lot of it is based on unfair trade and intensive and unsustainable agriculture so people are aware that we are still a better option. The landscape has changed a lot but over that fifteen year period, the pattern [for Unicorn] has very much been growth. Our turnover started off as something like a couple of thousands and now it’s approaching four million.”

Looking ahead to the future, Unicorn is hoping to build a commercial kitchen to expand on the current small kitchen they have behind they deli where salads are prepared and baked goods are made. “The great thing about that is that it also cuts food miles,” says Debbie. “Instead of bringing in products we can make them ourselves and we can also use gluts to make value-added goods. So if we have too many courgettes in, we can make use of them to make a couple of things.” The grocery is also planning to double-glaze all the windows and is working with the Carbon Co-op to install solar panels which will then sell electricity back to the grid. Clearly, the radical roots of Unicorn are still alive and will continue in the future. As Debbie states, “I hope that we will continue to be challenged to become more sustainable and that we in turn can encourage our customers to become more radical.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Contraceptives, Clinics and Working Class Women: Salford & Manchester Mothers’ Clinic

In 1926, the second birth control clinic outside of London opened its doors to women seeking free family planning advice. Located in the impoverished Greengate area of Salford, the clinic provided birth control information to working class women who weren’t able to pay for private advice from a doctor. The controversial clinic faced opposition from the Catholic Church and the medical profession but fought on and continued to offer its services to women until birth control advice was widely and freely available in the 1970s.

Unlike the suffragettes’ attention-grabbing campaigns to secure women’s rights to vote, the local-level and grinding work of women who worked to improve women’s right to birth control in the 1920s and 30s has gone somewhat unnoticed. Whilst they never marched on parliament, they worked day-in, day-out, through blitz, blackouts and at personal risk, to provide women with the knowledge to exercise control over their own bodies. For many of the women, providing birth control was an important factor for the improvements in women’s health and also the emancipation of women who had previously relied on men to limit the size of their family.

At the turn of the 19th/20th century, birth control was a very controversial issue to discuss in public although in private, many middle/upper-class women had access to such family planning information through their doctors. As such, it was working class women who couldn’t afford to pay for a private doctor who were denied birth control information and who were at the centre of the campaigns for free birth control advice. As Dr Clare Debenham, who has written a thesis entitled ‘Grassroots feminism: a study of the campaign of the Society for the Provision of Birth Control Clinics, 1924-1938’ which forms the basis of this article, points out, many middle class women felt guilty about this inequality and went on to argue that all women should enjoy control over their own bodies no matter their place in society.

Contraception as Emancipation

The birth controller saw contraception as a form of emancipation for women and the clinics therefore focused on empowering the women by giving them the information, rather than men which was the normal practice at the time. “The clinics were really into female contraception and wanted to give the control to the women rather than having to rely on the men,” explains Clare Debenham. The shocking rate of maternal death also focused women’s minds on the more sinister aspects of withholding birth control information. Between 1911 and 1930, maternal death was second only to tuberculosis as a major cause of death amongst married women, and based on the death rate it was argued giving birth was more dangerous than working in the mines.

In 1924, the Society for the Provision of Birth Control Clinics (SPBCC) was established to campaign for municipal birth control clinics that were free and easily accessible to working class women. In the mean time, voluntary clinics were set up across the country to bridge the gap until their goals were realised. Although the SPBCC and many birth controllers have been overshadowed in the history books by the flamboyant Marie Stopes of Married Love fame, the society was able to set up clinics across the country and provide women with birth control advice.

The SPBCC was also more autonomous and a lot less autocratic and confrontational when compared with Marie Stopes’ clinics. “A lot of the women involved in the birth control clinics, unlike say Marie Stopes, just worked hard with little drama. There was no dramatics,” says Debenham. “If someone had got thrown into jail than maybe we’d know more about it but it was all very low key.”

Manchester & Salford Mothers’ Clinic Opens in 1926

In 1926, the Manchester & Salford Mother Clinic located in Greengate opened and was run by Mary Stocks, Charis Frankenburg and Flora Blumberg. Mary Stocks was a Fabian who saw birth control as strongly linked to a women’s right to self-determination and she also campaigned for the removal of the marriage bar for female teachers in Manchester. Charis Frankenburg, a former midwife, was a Jewish Conservative whose respectable family ran a factory in the area. Flora Blumberg was also a Conservative, which was unusual as most of the support for birth control came from Labour supporters. Even so, motherhood was an inevitable aspect of many women’s experiences at the time so it was an important issue which united many women across political and class divisions.

As Debenham points out, “It was quite odd that there was such Conservative support as most of the people at the clinics would have been Labour supporters but there was a lot of diverse people involved in the birth control issue. I mean Mary Stocks was a Liberal, Charis Frankenburg was a Conservative and the receptionist at the clinic was a Communist! Of course there were occasions when people disagreed but on the local level there really was a cross-section of people involved.”

The clinic was ideally located above a pie-shop which provided an ideal cover for women who wanted to be discreet about their visit to the centre. The clinic was part of the Society for the Promotion of Birth Control and was rather successful – Charis Frankenburg calculated that in their first eight years they had seen over three thousand two hundred patients. In fact, gynaecologist Sir John Peel calculated that by the end of 1927 nine SPBCC birth control clinics had collectively seen 23,000 patients.

Local feminist councillors such as Shena Simon (Liberal) and Cllr Annie Lee (Labour) supported the clinic and there was significant support from the Women’s Co-op Guild, which was made up of a lot of working class women. For example, Mrs Hescott who was the secretary of the Manchester branch of the Women’s Co-op Guild was also a founding member of the clinic. In fact, the WCG overwhelmingly passed a resolution during the 1923 Annual Congress supporting the dissemination of birth control information, making it the first women’s organisation and the first working class organisation to formally support birth control.

“Cursed, Distrusted and Despised”

The clinic in Salford did, however, attract some opposition. As Clare Debenham has written, according to Mary Stocks, the birth controllers were “cursed by the Roman Catholic Church, distrusted by the Church of England and ignored by the medical profession.” In Salford, the clinic faced opposition from the local Catholic church which saw the clinic as a direct challenge to its authority. Dr Henshaw who was enthroned as Bishop in 1925 was quick to denounce the clinic and its methods in the Catholic press: “Horrible things, strange filthy things… The powers of evil have refined their methods and unsavoury subjects are clothed with scientific names… one of these centres had been opened up not far from the Cathedral.” (Article reproduced in the Manchester Guardian (22.3.1926) from the Catholic Federalist cited in Debenham, 2010, p125).

The following month Henshaw was quoted using equally colourful language about the clinic’s methods: ‘Birth control, an abomination in Catholic eyes is infinitely worse than the unnatural vices of Sodom and Gomorrah. Filthy knowledge is not less filthy because it is imparted in a “clinic”, or “centre” (Evening Chronicle (10.4.1926) cited in Debenham, 2010, p125).’

Furthermore, despite the initial support of the Women’s Guild after 1923, “the Guild leadership took no significant initiative on family endowment, birth control, or any other issues of concern to working class women that did not have prior approval of the Labour Party.” (cited in Debenham, 2010, p170). Some feminists were also opposed the birth control campaigns which they saw as a distraction to their cause and felt that talk about such matter involving sexual relations was not respectable.

The backing from the Labour party which the movement had expected or thought it would get also didn’t materialise. “Because it was a controversial topic, many regarded it as a vote loser and so didn’t they didn’t really give it any public support,” explains Debenham. “A lot of the Labour MPs relied on Catholic voters and so they were worried that showing support for birth control would lose them the Catholic vote.”

Legislation and the Future of Birth Control

Legislation was passed in 1930 in the form of a memorandum 153/MCW which allowed birth control advice to be transmitted to women via municipal clinics on the grounds of health. However, the birth controllers quickly realised that this memorandum was quite restrictive (and wasn’t mandatory) and so many continued to keep open their practices to serve women who were not accounted for under the new legislation.

Very few local authorities were willing to take on board the new legislation and by 1931, only 36 authorities had taken advantage of the provisions of the Memorandum. As Debenham states: “If the municipal clinics in 1930 were made compulsory than it would haven been job done for the birth controllers but the fact was that there were only voluntary and a lot of councils didn’t do a single thing to improve birth control after the bill was passed.”

By 1939, only 84 local authorities had taken any action to establish municipal birth control clinics – in other words, two thirds of all local authorities had taken no action at all. In contrast by 1939, the number of voluntary clinics had grown to 66 and so to some extent they were making up for the lack of progress by the local authorities. For example, the success of the Salford clinic meant that in 1933 it had to move to larger premises in Manchester. “I initially thought that after the legislation was passed that it would be the end of the birth control clinic but in fact many carried on and it wasn’t really until 1972 that the work of the clinics was taken on by the department. So until that time it was up to the voluntary sector to provide the service to the women…” remarked Debenham.

It took a long time for attitudes towards contraception and birth control to move on from connotations of being associated with dirty magazines to something which all couples had to deal with and it wasn’t until 1972 that birth control provision became part of the NHS. The early birth control clinics of 1920s and 1930 no doubt played an important role in making birth control more respectable and also bringing the debate into the public sphere. As Debenham declares, “It was local action empowering local people – what the women working in those early birth control clinics did really does deserve a lot more recognition.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

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

Leonard Tilsley – Stalybridge’s noted socialist councillor and World War One Mutineer and Gertie Tilsley – feminist and community activist

In this article, Leonard and Gertie Tilsley are recollected by their grand-daughter Lesley Wade, interviewed by Aidan Jolly:

Leonard & Gertrude Tilsley, 1921


“My name is Lesley Wade, I’m a Lecturer in the School of Nursing at Manchester University. My grandparents were Mr and Mrs Tilsley: they lived at 99 Ridge Hill Lane and had lived there since approximately 1923. They lived with my granddad’s father Ellis Tilsley and Ellis and Leonard were notable Aldermen of Stalybridge and ultimately my grandfather became Mayor of Stalybridge in 1956. I spent many evenings and many holidays with these two charming people and of course in doing so they did reflect about the house they lived in, the nice new Hague estate and the people they’d met and the sort of conditions of Ridge Hill and they looked at it with optimism.

He was a noted Socialist Councillor and that was part of his philosophy as a very young man. My grandmother was a Manx woman, she came from quite a big farm had a very tragic life because her mother died when she was 13: she brought up 5 children. Leonard went to Coneyman’s Camp on the island, on holiday, and they were introduced by her cousin as they walked along the prom in Douglas. He went to the First World War and they wrote beautiful letters to each other for at least 6 or 7 years, and the first thing he did when he came out away from Cyprus was to get a new pair of clothes, go with Ellis Tilsley’s father and go and marry Gertie Kennaugh.

My grandparents were very much average working class people who were Socialists and they insisted about education, education, education: so that my grandmother had insisted, unusually for that time, that her daughter would also get, if she wished, to go to the grammar school. If she was able, they would make sure she went, so they sacrificed a great deal for both of them. There was nothing in the house of real value except books, I remember that even in 1962, 63, but everything was valued regarding education so of course my mother had done very well at what was called the Nursing School then, and she’d said she was determined she wasn’t going to give up her profession. She became the Assistant Director of Nurse Education at Ashton-under-Lyne Hospital.

I remember I was even then able to distinguish that my parents’ house in Denton was quite a modern house with all relatively modern amenities but my grandparents’ house had stayed as though the Second World War had just not even finished. There was little money in the house because my grandfather was a committed Socialist, he was a grocer and he had quite a few shops in Stalybridge. Castle Hall was one of his first shops and ultimately he had the grocers shop in Hanover Street and then in Melbourne Street as well, so he was well known in Stalybridge and he was the manager of the Co-op in that part of Stalybridge. Everybody in Stalybridge knew them that was quite amazing. Just one reflection is that if we had to go in to town, which we did every Thursday and Friday, you had to dress up. I used to polish my granddad’s boots and I loved it because I loved them but Rosie and I (that’s my sister) used to raise our eyebrows because they wouldn’t have got outside the door without people coming to talk to us and ask Leonard about problems, what could we do, could we help them and it was like a procession into Stalybridge. He’d be very nice and directing people, and he’d retired by then, but we’d always end up in the Stalybridge Reporter office. I don’t know why, we always did that and with one of the chief reporters and I think he’d sometimes ask Leonard what he thought about different things. It was great for me because I’d be sitting there as a young girl about 6 or 7 or 8 but it was quite a learning experience I suppose.

Leonard was quite left wing and had said after the First World War he had contemplated going into the Communist Party and then he thought he’d go into the Salvation Army, he was very annoyed and disturbed by things he’d seen. He wasn’t in France he was in Palestine and Basra but he was very annoyed at the class differences. I’ve just read his war record and amusingly it says something like ‘memory very intelligent, writing very intelligent’ and at the bottom it says ‘very intelligent for a working class man’. It was signed by this Lieutenant; whoever was his Officer – he said he actually got on very well with his Officer. The reason was because the troops that were sent to Palestine obviously thought, at the Armistice, that they were going to go home in 1918. As they got on the boat, the boat went left not right. Leonard, who was probably a spokesperson politely asked his Officer excuse me sir why we’ve turned the wrong way, he said ‘because you my boy are going to Cyprus’. He said ‘the new treaty has changed and we’re occupying Cyprus for 2 years’. They got to Cyprus and there’s two things about Cyprus, Grandfather said it was absolutely beautiful and for a boy from Stalybridge in the north of England to be taken to a Greek island like that, if you had some imagination, it was great. But after 2 years they got a bit annoyed and one day they rebelled and they threw their arms down: I only realised that you could do this after I watched ‘The Monocled Mutineer’. They went out on parade and they just put their arms down and said ‘we’re not continuing’. Leonard thought ‘God we’ve really done it now’, I think there were 3 men, Leonard was one of them, and the Officer in charge took them into the office and he listened to them, and he said ‘why did you do that’. Leonard said ‘well we’ve been here 2 years we want to go home and we want to marry our sweethearts’ and the Officer said ‘indeed and so do I so we’ll say nothing of this matter’. So he was lucky.

If you asked me was my grandmother Socialist, I’d say no she was Liberal, but I also suspect that my grandmother was very keenly an early feminist. She was a Manx woman and as you know the Isle of Man had given the vote to females in 1867. She was an educated woman: my grandmother was the real educator, tremendous reader, very quiet lady and she didn’t socialise outside the house except as the Mayoress. She really kept herself to herself, but she used to make some key points to me. ‘Never forget, never forget Churchill wouldn’t give us the vote, he promised he’d give us the vote and he didn’t and it was only until 1928 that people of England could vote’ she says and that was the most shocking thing when she came to Lancashire, was the fact that she felt really annoyed that she couldn’t vote.

They were very much within a working class culture: the free libraries, Stalybridge Library, was the big boon to them – they used to use the library an awful lot. They were stalwarts of the community: to some extent it was a hard act to follow, and I suppose as my mother said, particularly Gertie was quite Victorian in a way but now reflecting on it I’d say Victorian in a good sense. Of course she was very strict but in the sense that there was an expectation of what you did and you just did not misbehave in any way your voice was never raised, there was never any swearing ever in the house and it was a very genteel atmosphere to be brought up in.

I felt I was growing up in a household where you could ask questions. Every evening in 99 in the parlour, Leonard would have these grey envelopes and they were always from Stalybridge Town Hall and Chester, because he used to go to Chester a lot (that was the centre of administration for Stalybridge) and he’d be working till 11 at night on the papers, never paid for anything but worked till eleven at night, until he was about 70.

My nan said that the new houses on Ridgehill were much better than the terraced houses lower down in Stalybridge and the Brushes estate. They were very optimistic about what socialism could do, but I’m not too sure that at the end of his life granddad was actually as optimistic, because he once sat down with me, bought me a book on the TUC, and said ‘we’ve gone all wrong Lesley, all gone wrong’.

I think both my grandparents and my parents maybe, but particularly my grandparents, they actually lived for the future and they were optimists. The old days were not halcyon days, they were difficult days for people to operate as in a humane way. My granddad died in the early 70’s, Nan lived till she was 94, very articulate still, and she said ‘my God’, when I was doing my A-Levels, she came and collected me, and we walked down into Stalybridge, she said ‘this town has been ripped apart, it used to be so wonderful, the Library, the shops were nice, the streets were lovely’, she said ‘there’s nothing, nothing here’, and that was again the late 70s, early 70s, and that was one thing, the actual decay, the loss of civic pride, very very important to them.”

Aidan Jolly adds:

This story inspired me to write this song, which focusses on Leonard’s WW1 experiences. It’s sung to an adapted version of a Cheshire tune called ‘The Rambling Royal’. This tune also tells the story of a man who deserts (several times) rather than fight other people’s wars – notably, he refuses to go and fight in Ireland. Its roots are in an 18th Century Ballad called ‘The Bold Belfast Shoemaker’. It’s unusual in that it takes the side of a deserter rather than a recruited man, and also in that the soldier’s girlfriend encourages him to desert and shelters him, rather than encouraging him to join up. I’m grateful to my friend Roy Clinging (www.royclinging.com) for the use of his research.

The allusion to Tipperary is there because the song ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’, which became a soldiers’ song of WW1, was written by Stalybridge Music Hall Artist Jack Judge in 1912.

Leonard Tilsley
My name is Leonard Tilsley
I’ve a shop in Melbourne Street
My sweetheart’s Gertie Kennaugh
Who in Douglas I did meet
Now I’m called to do my duty
Not for me the Wipers mud
I’m to stand upon the Holy Land
And baptise it with my blood

We fought the Turk in Basra
Advanced the British Line
Left Mr Lawrence and the League
To settle Palestine
I wrote a letter to my sweetheart
Said “We’re on a steamer back”
But Aphrodite’s Isle was calling us
The ship began to tack

Chorus:
And it’s a way to Tipperary
And it’s even further home
And a man gets tired of putting up
When he’s weary to the bone
So I asked too many questions
And refused to let things stand
And they marked my card as
“Intelligent, for a working class man”

So I put it to my officer
As on deck he took the air
And he told me of a change of course
In Government affairs
“My boy, we’re bound for Cyprus
Its beauties to behold
It’s our duty to the Empire
To do as we are told”

Well 1919 came and went
While Russia it turned red
And by Christmas 1920
I was longing to be wed
We came out one day on parade
And said “we can’t go on”
The Armistice is two years old
We laid our rifles down

Repeat first Chorus

Well they could have called it mutiny
And we’d have all been shot
But the C.O. he was tired too
And let the matter drop
I came back home to Stalybridge
Picked up where I’d left off
Married my sweet Douglas lass
In a suit of Sunday Cloth

Chorus:
And it’s a way to Tipperary
And I was seven years from home
And the land that’s fit for heroes
Is yet distant and unknown
So we’ve kept on asking questions
We’ve refused to let things stand
I’ve kept the card they marked for me
To remind me who I am

So come on all you working folk
When slaughter is your school
When next they ask for cannon food
Don’t heed the butcher’s call
You serve your fellow workers best
With ploughshares not with swords
We’ll bring down the ruling class
Not with rifles but with words

Mary Stott, journalist and editor of the Guardian’s women’s page 1957-71

Mary Stott was a journalist for a number of Manchester newspapers before becoming editor of The Guardian’s women’s page from 1957-197. After retiring she was active in an organization called Women and the Media and wrote two volumes of autobiography as well as editing an anthology of writings from the Guardian women’s page.

Mary Stott was born in Leicestershire in 1907. The smell of newsprint was in her nostrils from birth as both her parents and her uncle were journalists. She later recalled in her autobiography Forgetting’s No Excuse:

When as small child I told my dolls “I have some copy to write now , I was only imitating my journalist parents, not indicating my destined future. That future was to be working in newspaper uninterruptedly for almost half a century, but it was also to be a human being with affections, passions and pursuits, and a child of my times. The strands of my life cannot be separated out; it is their interlocking, heredity and environment, work and home, that makes a pattern. Being a journalists’ child made me a journalist; having a working mother made me expect to go on working myself; being born female hindered me from becoming a the kind of newspaper journalist I would have liked to be; being a wife and mother probably made me a more effective women’s page editor.

Her parents were active Liberals and one of her earliest memories was of riding around in car wearing a green ribbon during the 1911 general election.

Aged just 17 she started work on the Leicester Mail as a temporary copyholder in April 1925, though the union would not let her join because she was a woman. She progressed to the reporters room and was then at the tender of 19 given the women’s page. She also learned the craft of sub-editing and layout.

In 1931 Mary was sacked from the paper as the economic slump deepened, but she got a new job just a few weeks later at the Bolton Evening News, reporting on meetings and writing a weekly “women’s diary”. After two years she moved to the Co-operative News in Manchester where she edited the Women’s Co-operative Guild pages as well as Women’s Outlook, the monthly children’s magazine Our Circle, the monthly Co-operative Youth and finally Sunshine Stories for very small children:

…I loved and venerated the women of the co-operative movement, whose courage persistence and loyalty seemed to me often heroic, for though most of them were under-educated and many were scarcely above the poverty line, they learned to speak in public, go on deputations, organize and preside at great conferences. To me the most remarkable thing about the Women’s Co-operative Guild was the training it gave in the art of government, its completely democratic structure.

There was no money for contributions, so Mary and her colleague Nora Crossley wrote practically everything themselves, including some of the fiction. They copied recipes from cook books and borrowed illustrations from other magazines. They also made-up the pages themselves, becoming experts in fitting in text and pictures. Mary was the obvious candidate to get the editor’s job when it became vacant, but her gender counted against her even in the progressive Co-operative movement.

In 1945 Mary went to work for the Manchester Evening News as a news sub-editor, She loved the job, writing later that: “I got to rather good at this swift cutting and piecing, this remorseless battle with the clock”. However, she was sacked in 1950 to allow a man to take the job. She devoted herself to looking after her daughter Catherine before going back to work for the Co-operative Press again as editor of Woman’s Outlook.

In 1957 the new editor of the Manchester Guardian, Alastair Hetherington, asked her to edit the newspaper’s women’s page, at the time called Mainly for Women.

The page had started in 1922 when it was edited by Madeline Linford. As Linford later recalled in a piece written for Mary in 1963, she had been the only woman on the staff of the newspaper and had been instructed by the editor C P Scott to start a women’s feature on six days a week. “…My briefing was lucid and firm,” she recalled. “The page must be readable, varied and aimed always at the intelligent woman… I saw her as an aloof, rigid and highly critical figure, a kind of Big Sister, vigilant for lapses of taste, dignity and literary English.” Madeline had recruited a talented set of contributors which included Vera Brittain, Leonora Eyles, Winifred Holtby and Evelyn Sharp.

During her stewardship of the page Mary also relied on contributions from readers, receiving upwards of fifty unsolicited manuscripts each week: “I reckoned myself a Guardian woman through and through so that my range of interests was likely to be shared by a fair proportion of women readers.”

The page led directly to creation of women’s organizations. In February 1960, for instance, Mary published a letter from Maureen Nicol living in Eastham, Cheshire, who wrote that “perhaps housebound housewives with liberal interests and desire to remain individuals could form a national register, so that whenever a one moves one contacts like-minded friends.” She received 400 letters in one week in response and led to her set up the National Housewives Register. Other organizations that the page acted as a midwife to included the Pre-school Playgroups Association, Invalids at Home and National Council for the Single Woman and Her Dependents.

Fiona McCarthy arrived in Manchester in 1964 to work as Mary’s assistant. She later wrote:

Mary set out to create a page which “depended mainly on warmth, sincerity and personal involvement”. With extraordinary speed, it established its identity, reflecting, to an uncanny degree, the attitudes and personality of Mary herself. I can think of no other editor who built up such direct rapport with her readers, or who saw such possibilities in them as contributors. At a time when feminism in Britain was just dawning, Mary was acute in her judgment that what women cried out for was the sharing of experience, the sense of real people writing on her page…… Mary established her own power base, an influential and idiosyncratic female sub-state. She knew from her own experience the struggle women had in balancing love, family and their professional lives, and she ran her page with a dogged sense of purpose in opening out the possibilities for women, forming supportive networks, creating solidarities.

In the late 1960s and early 70s the women’s page reflected the emerging women’s movement. Jill Tweedie, who started working for the paper in 1969, later wrote that to be “young, female and a hackette when the Women’s Movement was getting into high gear was very heaven, the icing on the Sixties cake, which for all its excitements , hadn’t done much more for women than shove us into bed with a lot of stoned hippies playing rotten guitar.”

In March 1971 Jill reported for The Guardian on the International Women’s Day march in London, which was a key event in the emergence of the new movement:

“All demonstrations are fleshed-out polemics, happenings that have more to do with reinforcing solidarity within the ranks than luring spectators from pavement or box – conversion will come later, as fall-out comes. And so it was with the Women’s Lib demo on Saturday. I went, unreasoningly fearful that me and my friend Ivy would be alone stomping down Regent Street, running the sneering gauntlet of Saturday shoppers. But there they were at Hyde Park Corner, all the lovely sisters, giggling and shivering, and bawdy and prim and I turned and turned again, gloating at the numbers before and behind, my motley, frost-defying sex.”

As well as her journalism Jill also wrote the fictional Letters from a Fainthearted Feminist which, with a nod to the nineteenth century epistolary novel, took the form of a series of letters between Martha and her younger and more liberated sister, Mary. This was later adapted for TV by Jill and Christopher Bond and broadcast by Channel 4 in 1984 with Lynn Redgrave as Martha and Sarah Neville as Mary.
Jill worked for The Guardian until 1988. She died from motor neurone disease in 1993. She is commemorated in a group portrait at the National Portrait Gallery with fellow Guardian Women’s Page contributors Mary Stott, Polly Toynbee, Posy Simmonds and Liz Forgan.

Mary Stott retired in 1971 and was given an honorary fellowship by Manchester Polytechnic, now Manchester Metropolitan University. She remained active after retirement, helping to found Women in the Media, for instance. In February 1973 Mary led a march by the organisation to 10 Downing Street. They were not received but the duty policeman, Sergeant Garnham of Cannon Row, said that two of them could deliver a written message. The women had pens but not a sheet of paper between them. The sergeant tore a page from his notebook and they left a note for Ted Heath.

Mary wrote two volumes of autobiography, Forgetting’s No Excuse (1973) and Before I Go (1985). She also edited an anthology from the women’s page covering the period 1922-35 and 1957-71 called Women Talking, which was published in 1987.

Mary Stott died in 2002 aged 95. Lena Jager in her obituary of Mary in The Guardian in September 2002 wrote:

“Part of her strength – and perhaps why so many men read her page – was her belief that discrimination, in any form, was a total sin. She cared about poverty, unemployment and disability, wherever lives were diminished. She tried hard to win equality for women, but not as an isolated problem. She could be combative in all her campaigns, but never a bigot.”

In July 2007 the Guardian introduced the Mary Stott prize to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the women’s pages, and the centenary of Mary Stott’s birth, the Guardian women’s page. Anyone aged 18 or above can enter – the only requirement is that entrants have plenty of editorial ideas for Guardian women. The prize is a week spent editing the women’s pages in the Guardian’s London office commissioning and editing features, choosing the pictures and writing the headlines.

Article by Michael Herbert