This Ada Lovelace Day I’d like to introduce you to Laura Ann Willson of Halifax.
The way into this tale, the loose thread that first attracted my attention, is a 1920s advertisement. But tugging that thread a little, Laura Willson’s story just gets better and better. Her achievements, it seems, are so diverse that no one website has hitherto woven them together in one place.
The ad shows a property developer with keen interests in engineering and the conditions of working class life. Laura Wilson combined these passions by providing affordable homes, ready-made for the latest gas and electricity-powered labour-saving devices.
These were homes fit for heroes. Some of the houses still stand today, plain and solid, nearly 90 years on: “modern, attractive, durable”, planned and priced to bring the garden city ethos to ordinary working families.
Besides being the very first woman member of the Federation of House Builders, Laura Willson was one of seven founder subscribers, and served as President, of the Women’s Engineering Society.
The WES still exists with the following aims:
to promote the education of women in engineering sciences and other skills, the better to fit women for the practice of engineering;
to advance the education of the public concerning the study and practice of engineering among women; and
to relieve poverty amongst women who are or have been professional or technician engineers or technologists in allied sciences or educated in science or technology or in the art and techniques of engineering and allied sciences or in other disciplines considered by the Council to be complementary, their dependants and (if they are deceased) their former dependants.
If these aims appear now to be uncontentious, remember that at the time of the society’s foundation in 1919, they were highly incendiary. Laura Willson and her co-founders were making a stand for their right to remain in trades previous reserved for men – only briefly opened up to them by the crisis of the First World War.
Because when Laura Willson saw an opening, she took it, bringing her comrades along with her. Note the “MBE” on the property advertisement, one of the first ever awarded. The 1917 citation reads: “Organiser of Women’s Work in Munitions Works in Halifax”.
In a time of crisis the women of Yorkshire answered the call of their country to take up the dirtiest, riskiest jobs, including the filling of shells with live explosives. The number who lost their lives went unappreciated for many years because factory accidents were hushed up to maintain morale.
Here’s Laura Willson pictured in happier times, circa 1912, with her husband, George, also a self-made engineer, and their young daughter.
But rewind just a few more years and we find the same Laura Willson in a different context, her organising talents not always so welcomed by the authorities.
In 1907, as a member of the Women’s Labour League and the Women’s Social and Political Union, she took part in a weavers’ strike and was arrested on a charge of ‘violent and inflammatory speech’.
Given the choice of two weeks’ imprisonment or a 40 shilling fine, she picked prison, becoming one of the first two suffragettes to be locked up in Yorkshire. On leaving Leeds’ Armley Prison, Laura Willson said:
“If they could sentence me for thinking, I would have been sentenced for life. I went to gaol a rebel, but I have come out a regular terror”.
Contrary to the common picture of the genteel suffragette, Laura Willson did not come from middle class stock. She lacked formal education, having started work aged just 10 as a “half-timer” in a West Yorkshire textile mill.
Yet she went on to be an effective and celebrated labour organiser, war hero, engineer, house-builder and pioneer of new technology. Any one of these achievements would make a person noteworthy. This amazing Yorkshirewoman combined them all.
Happy Ada Lovelace Day!
- Cheryl Law’s Women, a modern political dictionary
- English Heritage Architects, Builders and Garden Cities
- Jill Liddington’s Rebel Girls
- Finding Lizzie Le Prince – my post from Ada Lovelace Day 2010
- “Embellish your Country with useful inventions & elegant productions” – my post from Ada Lovelace Day 2009
- Why I took part in Ada Lovelace Day – a subsequent post about, erm, why I took part in Ada Lovelace Day