“If they could sentence me for thinking, I would have been sentenced for life”

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!

Sources:

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mattedgar

Product strategy and design leadership in web and mobile media. Before that I was a newspaper journalist and history student

5 thoughts on ““If they could sentence me for thinking, I would have been sentenced for life””

  1. Hi Matt

    Laura Annie Willson was actually my Great Grandmother so it was interesting to find a new article about her achievements.

    She died before I was born so I never actually knew her but she has always been a dominant presence in our family and a person about whom I am constantly fascinated.

    Thankyou for remembering Great Granny it’s very much appreciated.

    Emma Goldspink

    1. Hi Emma,

      Thanks for the comment. I hope I’ve given an accurate account of your great grandmother. She certainly seems to have been a remarkable woman, and a fitting subject for my Ada Lovelace Day post. Her story deserves to be better known.

      Matt

      1. Hi Matt

        Yes I thought it was a very fitting description of my great grandmother. I was interested to see the photograph of her on your blog as my aunt has that photo framed on her wall.

        There are various family stories about Laura Annie’s activities but after many years we’re never quite sure which of them are true! She most certainly was in prison at least twice and was released the second time as she was pregnant with my grandmother. Apparently all the inmates would sing The Red Flag at night time.

        Thankyou for choosing Laura Annie for your Ada Lovelace Day blog, I think that I will set up a reminder for me to check out who you choose next year.

        Best wishes

        Emma

  2. Hi Matt
    I am writing an article about Laura Annie Willson, so I was very interested to come across your blog. Where did you find the photo of her in the three-wheeler? I should be very grateful indeed if you could put in touch with Emma Goldspink.

    Thanks
    Henrietta

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