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Extraordinary women of Liverpool

Bob Edwards is the author of the book Liverpool In The 1950s and created the website which currently has in excess of 2.3 million viewers worldwide. In this column Bob aims to bring you some of the wonderful history of our great city along with some photographs that illustrate our past, we hope you enjoy it!

ORIGINALLY known as International Working Women’s Day, the 8th March now commemorates the women’s rights movement with International Women’s Day. The special date celebrates women’s achievements all around the world, with organised conferences and rallies, networking events and marches.

This article takes a look back in history at just a few of the many Liverpool women who have made a significant contribution to our city in the past. It is true to say that listing all of the women who fall into this category would fill a book.

Bessie Braddock

To the working class of Liverpool she was “our Bessie”, but to the media she was “Battling Bessie”. Throughout her life, Elizabeth Braddock campaigned tirelessly, and without restraint, to improve conditions for her home city’s under-privileged. Yet, it is not her work for mental health reforms, the barrow girls or prison conditions for which she is most famously remembered; instead it is her larger-than-life political tactics and frequent clashes with the press. Whilst growing up, she was exposed to the inequality and poverty of the city from an early age. Her mother, Mary Bamber, was committed to social reform and to helping the poor of Liverpool. At three weeks old, Bessie was taken by her mother to her first political meeting; in her autobiography, ‘The Braddocks’, Bessie recalls helping her mother on the soup lines in Liverpool:

Bessie Braddock (Bessie Bamber) was born in Liverpool in 1899. Her mother, Mary Bamber, was a left-wing political activist committed to social reform and Bessie followed in her mother’s footsteps. After becoming disillusioned with the Communist Party, she joined the Labour Party in 1926. Her husband John ‘Jack’ Braddock was also a member and later became leader of Liverpool City Council.

She was elected as a Member of Parliament for Liverpool Exchange in the post-war 1945 election, she was also a member of the Labour Party National Executive Committee and in 1968 was vice-chairman of the Labour Party. She fought for better housing and conditions for the people of Liverpool and when eventually the Council built a new modern block of flats “The Braddocks” they were named in her honour.

She died in November 1970 seven months after being made a freeman of the city of Liverpool in recognition of her work for her home city. In 2003 Bessie Braddock was voted eighth in a BBC poll of Greatest Merseysiders.

Lucy Cradock

Lucy Cradock, the first woman doctor to practise in Liverpool, she established and ran a surgery at 52 Huskisson Street in the city and lived at 29 Catharine Street. Lucy also worked at the dispensary of the Victoria Settlement. Only woman doctor associated with The Liverpool Medical Institute at 114 Mount Pleasant, one of the oldest medical societies in the world.

Lucy was Liverpool’s earliest female physician and in October 1888 the council of the LMI debated whether to allow her, a woman, membership. Lucy had written a humble letter, acknowledging possible objections to her attending meetings and reassuring that she would only attend if papers of great interest were to be presented, and that she was ready ‘to take a hint’ and leave if her presence hindered discussion. Cradock was elected, despite some opposition, although she was kept to the periphery at the beginning at least.

Alongside her private practice based in Huskisson Street, Lucy Cradock served as Medical Officer to the Female Staff of the Liverpool Post Office, became House Physician to the Women’s Hospital in Shaw Street and served on the Dispensary Board of the Victoria Settlement.  She was also a medical attendant to the School for the Blind, and medical officer to the women students of the University Training School. She remained in Liverpool until her death in 1903, at the age of fifty-three.

Eleanor Florence Rathbone

Eleanor Florence Rathbone was born on 12 May 1872 she was the daughter of the social reformer William Rathbone VI and his second wife, Emily Lyle. Her family encouraged her to concentrate on social issues. Eleanor went to Kensington High School, London, and later studied in Somerville College Oxford.  However, she was not allowed to graduate as graduation was not allowed for women at Oxford until after October 1920. She began working alongside her father to investigate social and industrial conditions in Liverpool until William Rathbone died in 1902. She was without doubt one of  Liverpool’s foremost pioneering daughters, campaigning to improve the lives of other women she was  a self confessed “whole-hearted feminist”, is one of six women to appear on a commemorative set of stamps. She represented Granby ward for 25 years, from 1909 to 1934 and her family home, Greenbank House, is now marked with a blue plaque bearing her name.

Kitty Wilkinson

Catherine “Kitty” Wilkinson became the superintendant of the first wash-house for poor people in Liverpool (and Britain) on Upper Frederick Street in 1842.

Kitty was born Catherine Seaward in Londonderry, in 1786. When she was only a few years old, her working class parents took the Irish ferry to Liverpool in order to better themselves. Dubbed ‘the Saint of the Slums’, Kitty Wilkinson was responsible for saving many lives, in 1832, during a cholera epidemic, Kitty took the initiative to offer the use of her house and yard to neighbours to wash their clothes, at a charge of 1 penny per week, and showed them how to use a chloride of lime to get them clean. She was supported by the District Provident Society and William Rathbone. In 1832 a cholera epidemic was sweeping Liverpool , Kitty and Tom Wilkinson were in the fortunate position of having the only hot water boiler in their street so they invited their neighbours down to their cellar to wash their clothes and bed-linen, hoping to offer some measure of protection against the cholera.

When the cholera epidemic passed, there were many fatherless motherless children who were neglected and even living rough. Kitty took in twenty of them every morning and read stories to them and taught them hymns in her bedroom. They enjoyed themselves so much that Kitty was forced to hire a room and employ another woman to teach them.

Kitty lost her husband Tom who died in 1848.  She outlived him by twelve years and died aged 73.  This was considered to be a great age, in a time when people did not live far beyond their 40th birthday.

Sarah Clayton

Sarah Clayton, was Liverpool’s most famous woman merchant, she was born in the city on 26 August 1712. Her father was Alderman William Clayton (died. 1715); he was one of the greatest of the Liverpool merchants during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Mayor of Liverpool in 1689 and an MP for Liverpool in six parliaments between 1698 and 1715. William Clayton died when Sarah was only three years old, at which time her mother Elizabeth assumed responsibility for the family’s affairs; these she managed with great skill until her own death in 1745. Almost immediately thereafter Sarah Clayton, who never married, turned her attentions to business. She successfully merged a Clayton family interest in the coal trade with that of her brother-in-law’s family, the Cases of Redhasles, until she presided over a considerable tranche of mines fortuitously situated with access to the Sankey Canal and became, during the late 1750s and 1760s, one of the most important coal dealers in Liverpool. It was of course quite unheard of for a woman to assume the place of a captain of industry in the mid-eighteenth century, and Sarah Clayton remains a most extraordinary figure, perhaps unique at that early date. Records of her business dealings show her engaging with all the vigour of her exclusively male rivals in business partnerships, price wars and competitions for transport and emerging with considerable success.

Clayton enjoyed a rich lifestyle and apparently lived a quite luxurious existence and exhibited a pretentious display of wealth. In the early 1750s, she was one of only four Liverpool residents to own her own coach. As early as 1752, Clayton began to map out her famous landmark in Liverpool – Clayton Square – named after her family.

She died at the house of her niece Elizabeth Case, in Liverpool, on 1 May 1779 and was commemorated by a small stone on the wall of St Nicholas’s Church, next to the splendid monument erected in memory of her father. From the dizzying heights of her achievements and the lifestyle she had so conspicuously embraced, hers was a very steep fall indeed. Ultimately it may be that Clayton lived life as a woman too far ahead of her times to have fared well in the end, and she may to some extent have been a victim of her own precociousness, but her story such as it is known is a fascinating glimpse into the under-recorded world of female commercial endeavour in the 18th century.

Dame Rose Heilbron

Dame Rose Heilbron DBE QC (19 August 1914 – 8 December 2005) was an outstanding English barrister of the post-war period in the United Kingdom. Her career included many “firsts” for a woman – she was the first woman to win a scholarship to Gray’s Inn, one of the first two women to be appointed King’s Counsel in England, the first woman to lead in a murder case, the first woman Recorder, the first woman judge to sit at the Old Bailey, and the first woman Treasurer of Gray’s Inn. She was also the second woman to be appointed a High Court judge, after Elizabeth Lane.

Heilbron was born in Liverpool, the daughter of a Jewish hotelier, Max Heilbron. She attended The Belvedere School and Liverpool University, where she became one of the first two women to gain a first class honours degree in law, in 1935. She was awarded the Lord Justice Holker scholarship at Gray’s Inn in 1936, and she became one of only two women to hold a master of laws degree in 1937. Two years later she was called to the bar, and joined the Northern Circuit in 1940

Rose Heilbron and her husband had moved from Liverpool to London when she was appointed a High Court judge. She died in a nursing home in Islington, of pneumonia and cerebrovascular ischaemia, survived by her husband and daughter. A biography of Rose Heilbron by her daughter Hilary was published in 2012.

Margaret Beavan

Margaret Beavan,  (1875–1931), was born at 28 Bowring Street, Toxteth Park, Liverpool, on 1st August 1875, she was the eldest daughter of Jeffrey Beavan, a bookkeeper and later fire insurance manager, and his wife, Ellen Catherine Williams. The Beavans were a close family who lived in comfortable circumstances. The family did at one time briefly emigrate to the United States, however, the climate proved unsuitable for the younger children. Margaret herself suffered from bronchitis and they returned home. Margaret regularly attended Sefton Park Presbyterian Church.

Margaret Beavan worked at the Liverpool Victoria settlement. The settlement was looking for a teacher to run small classes for disabled children who had no formal educational provision in the city, and Margaret was persuaded to undertake this work. The community centre, founded in 1897, crossed all the age boundaries with its community work and was still going strong up to the 1970s. Set in an elevated position between York Terrace, Hobart Street and Melbourne Street, its main buildings were originally old merchants’ houses dating back to the late 1700s. The centre began its work at a time when Everton had some of the worst slums in the North West and pioneered many developments in social work. But it always saw its main priority as a focal point for community development in Everton, reaching out to the families in those steep terraced streets in one of the most densely populated areas of the city. In the early days its, the Settlement concentrated on poverty relief for the people living in squalid conditions, including the provision of food and medical attention.

Margaret eventually stood as a council candidate and was elected in 1923 as a Coalition Liberal, although she quickly switched to the Conservatives. Her high public profile and attachment to children’s causes made her a popular figure in the council chamber, and in 1927 she was selected as Liverpool’s first woman lord mayor serving the year from 1927 to 1928. However, despite her popularity she was a less than successful politician. She rejected the option taken by Eleanor Rathbone, Liverpool’s first female councillor, to stand as an independent, but in council she continued to fight for single issues with little regard for party lines or her new position as a Conservative representative.

She died, unmarried, after an attack of influenza, with chest complications, on 22 February 1931 at the Hospital for Children at Leasowe, which she had helped to found, and was buried at Childwall parish church, Liverpool. Her death allowed for some rehabilitation of her reputation at a large civic memorial service. However, the achievements of her public life have never been fully separated from the mistakes of her final years, and she remains an obscure historical figure in Liverpool, despite her dedication to the people of the city and her prominence in Liverpool life.

Lizzie Christian

Born in the Brownlow Hill area, and the eldest of twelve; ‘Lizzie’ brought up seven children and was a legendary flower seller in Clayton Square trading six days a week. Lizzie Christian was a legend in Liverpool for more than 60 years, her pitch in the city centre was as well known as Owen Owen or Lewis’s. She was there from 9 to 6, six days a week, and on Sundays you would also find her outside the old Newsham General Hospital, in Belmont Road.

Lizzie was born in Hawke Street, Brownlow Hill, the eldest of twelve; she married at 20, and brought up seven children. She supported her family by scrubbing steps, then by selling flowers from a big basket, to “posh” people in the suburbs of south Liverpool, and then from her famous flower stall in Clayton Square. Lizzie Christian was a tiny woman, with her trade mark headscarf, boots coat and shawl, working in rain, hail, snow or sunshine.

Lizzie’s place in street trader folklore was chronicled in Mike Kelly’s book, Mothers of the City, in which he picks out 20 outstanding women from Ethel Austin to Liverpool’s first female judge, the beautiful Dame Rose Heilbron.





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