“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!


See also:


Announcing the first Service Design Drinks in Leeds

Businesses and organisations the world over are seizing the chance to re-imagine the way we do everyday things, to make them more accessible, enjoyable and productive for everyone. The tools and techniques they’re using vary widely, but some of the best fall under the umbrella of service design, and its flashier cousin design thinking.

This growing interest in service design is a Good Thing. Services are important. Better ones can and should be consciously designed with the customer and user at their centre, rather than left to emerge by default.

And as interest grows it is important that practitioners, advocates and other interested parties join together in communities of purpose to share their stories, find common ground and challenge each other. It helps if this process includes beer.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying, I’m really excited to announce that we’re bringing Service Design Drinks to Leeds.

Why Leeds? Well, in addition to my employer, we reckon the city hosts a critical mass of big businesses in the telecoms, retail and financial services sectors that are, or will soon be, waking up to the potential of service design. Add to this the strong public sector presence in our city, countless smaller agencies and service providers, academics and other interested parties throughout the wider region.

Some people who remember the North’s proud industrial past look down on the service sectors, as if it were morally superior to labour down a mine or on a production line than in a hospital, shop or call centre. I think they’re wrong.  Surely it was in our cities, where people were first pressed together in great numbers, that our ancestors first faced the challenges of delivering good services – both commercial and social – repeatably and at scale.

So if Leeds, Yorkshire and Northern England are to claim a leading role in the future of the service economy we need to be building a strong and confident service design community.

The first Service Design Drinks in Leeds will take place on June 22nd at 6pm, at the Midnight Bell in Water Lane. Credit is due to Nick Marsh for creating the independent service design network and the already-successful London events. Also to Kathryn Grace and Tero Väänänen for working to bring it up the M1.

We’re aiming for an informal and lively get together open to everybody who is interested in Service Design and Design Thinking, in having inspiring conversations and in connecting with like-minded people while having some drinks.

By everybody, we mean everybody. Hope to see you there!

More info here.

There now follows a Public Service Announcement from the Department of Giant Walking Robots

Last September I posted about the amazing preserved walking dragline excavator at St Aidan’s, near Leeds, which I discovered through the Heritage Open Days scheme.

If you missed that opening, there’s another chance to explore it this weekend, from 2pm to 4pm on Saturday 17 April 2010. More details on the website of the Friends of St. Aidan’s BE1150 Dragline.

You should go. After all it’s not every day you get to climb inside a giant walking robot and this one, according to the volunteers who look after it, is the largest of its kind in Western Europe.

[It’s hard to appreciate the scale from a photo on a blog. For comparison, I include the profile image of @miniexcavators, who started following me the other day after I mentioned the open day on Twitter. Nice try, guys, but not even close.


Shameless plug #2 – Yorkshire Food Blog

My sister Katharine is blogging again – this time on the subject of Yorkshire food. She promises:

…tips, recipes and links to favourite producers, restaurants and shops, and describing delights and disasters of food in Yorkshire.

Go to yorkshirefood.blogspot.com – it does what it says on the tin :)