Tuesday, May 5, 2020

From Schoolteacher to 'Sheffield City Mother': Gertrude Wilkinson (born 1884), the trailblazing teacher who helped shake up Sheffield City Council Chambers 100 years ago…

The current makeup of elected members of Sheffield City Council is fairly diverse and broadly reflective of the community it aims to serve: a mixture of males and females of different ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, etc. It was a very different picture 100 years ago when Sheffield City Councillors were almost exclusively middle-aged, wealthy, white males from largely privileged backgrounds, many of whom drawn from families who had played prominent roles in business and public life in Sheffield for generations.

Group of Sheffield City Councillors (including Gertrude Wilkinson), 1921
(www.picturesheffield.com ref. u09742) 
The accompanying photograph from Sheffield City Archives and Local Studies Library’s 'Picture Sheffield' collection shows a group of Sheffield City Councillors in 1921. At a glance, it appears to be a typical scene from the time which could be replicated in municipal councils across the country - an assembly of smartly dressed Caucasian middle-aged male members. A closer look at the photograph however reveals the unusual presence of a single female figure sat on the front row. Who was this lady who managed to penetrate the traditionally steadfast male world of Council chambers a century ago? It turns out she has quite a story to share - helping to build the foundations for a fairer Sheffield before setting sail for a new life in South East Asia.  

Some of the newly elected members of Sheffield City Council in November
1919 including the first female councillors Eleanor Barton and Gertrude
(Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 3 Nov 1919 p. 5)
The lady in question is Mrs Gertrude Elsie Wilkinson (nee Clarke) one of two females serving as Councillors in Sheffield a century ago. The other was Mrs Eleanor Barton (1872-1960). Barton, who grew up in Manchester, was the wife of fellow socialist Sheffield City Councillor Alf Barton (1868-1933). Eleanor Barton stepped down from the Council in June 1922 to focus on a bid to contest the seat of King’s Norton in Birmingham in the General Election later that year (which ultimately proved unsuccessful). Barton’s life is well documented elsewhere but, up to this point, not much has been written about her fellow female pioneer councillor Wilkinson so we thought it worth delving into the archives to try to discover more about this intriguing individual.
Sheffield City Council election flier for
Eleanor Barton, 1920
(Sheffield Local Studies Library:
MP 1809 S, available on
www.picturesheffield.com ref. y13310)

Together, Gertrude Wilkinson and Eleanor Barton became the first women to win seats in Sheffield’s Council Chambers, both in November 1919: Wilkinson elected as a Labour Party Councillor for the Walkley Ward and Barton as a Cooperative Party Councillor for the Attercliffe Ward. The municipal elections in Sheffield in 1919 (the first held in six years) brought about a significant shakeup of the old guard. Towards the end of the First World War, in 1918 the voting franchise in Britain was finally extended to women (albeit only those over 30 who met certain property qualifications) as well as to all men over 21. The newly empowered female and working-class vote saw sweeping gains for younger, progressive, left-wing parties in the 1919 Sheffield municipal elections, leading to an influx of new Labour Party, Cooperative Party and Discharged Soldiers Party Councillors at the expense of the traditional ‘establishment’ Conservative and Liberal Party representatives.

In winning her Walkley seat for Labour, Wilkinson, a 35-year-old schoolteacher, defeated former Sheffield Lord Mayor and longstanding Liberal Councillor Walter Appleyard (1851-1930) who had served on the Council for some thirteen years. In the run up to the election, Appleyard had enlisted the support of the hugely successful and well-respected businessman and fellow Liberal Party Councillor J. G. Graves (1866-1945), who described Appleyard in a pre-election speech as “exactly the right sort of man for the City Council, exactly the kind of man the city could not afford to scrap” (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 31 Oct 1919, p. 8). Despite Graves’ endorsement for the former Lord Mayor, Wilkinson won over the Walkley voters, campaigning on a platform of greater equality and improving life chances for those who had least in society. During the election campaign, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph described Labour candidate Wilkinson as holding “very strong views on education”. Highly critical of the education system in Sheffield at the time in her campaign speeches, Wilkinson argued: “The poor man’s children at present are denied the same chances as those within the reach of the rich man’s child”. On the subject of rising tram fares, Wilkinson asserted “these were raises not to pay the lower-paid employees more money but to make further large advances to the already too well-paid higher officials”.

Report on Gertrude Wilkinson's successful election to Sheffield
City Council in November 1919
(Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 3 Nov 1919 p. 8)
After the results for the Walkley Ward were declared at St Mary’s Schoolroom (where the ballot boxes were counted) with Wilkinson triumphing over her older and better-known rival with a majority of 1,174, she addressed a large crowd assembled outside with a stirring speech. She stated how: “in the past they had heard a lot about the City Fathers, but now Walkley had the honour of returning the first City Mother”Wilkinson also pledged to “do her best to watch the interests of the women and children, and to represent the interests of all the people of Walkley”.

So what was the background to this remarkable young lady who managed to defy convention and surmount the substantial barriers facing women at the time to become, in her own words, the first “City Mother” for Sheffield?

Wilkinson came from modest family circumstances: she was born Gertrude Elsie Clarke in Sheffield in 1884, second daughter and one of four surviving children of John Thomas Clarke (1848-1915), a railway porter (who would end up dying in the Ecclesall Bierlow Union Workhouse) and his wife Annie Susanna (c.1859-1923). The family lived at Houghton Street in the industrial Brightside district at the time of the 1891 census but later settled in the Upperthorpe district of Sheffield.  

Gertrude Clarke trained as a teacher, beginning her career as a 'pupil teacher' at Red Hill Wesleyan School in 1899 before teaching at the Lancasterian Council School and later Neepsend Council School in Sheffield. An avowed socialist, as a young teacher she began campaigning against inequality and pressing for greater rights for the working classes and women as evidenced in letters she had published in the local press. In 1907, she joined the newly formed Sheffield Fabian Society and became the organisation’s secretary.

Councillor Gertrude Wilkinson, pictured in
Sheffield Year Book 1920
(Sheffield Local Studies Library: 032.74 SST)
Having resigned from her teaching post at Neepsend Council School at the end of August 1911, on 2nd September 1911, Gertrude Clarke married Cuthbert George Wilkinson (born 1886), a mining engineer, second son of Rev. Christopher George Wilkinson (1855-1929) of Launceston, Tasmania. The couple set up home on Priory Terrace in the Sharrow district of Sheffield and the marriage enabled the new Mrs Wilkinson to step away from teaching and focus fully on her interests in socialism, workers’ and women's rights and local political campaigning.

During the First World War, Wilkinson became chair of the Sheffield Branch of the National Federation of Women Workers, where she fought for fairer wages and better working conditions for women, calling for pay parity with men who undertook the same work. She also represented women munition workers at sittings of the Sheffield Munitions Tribunal during the war and helped those who had been mistreated/dismissed unfairly by their employers gain compensation.  

Other posts held by Wilkinson, which helped bring her into the public eye, included becoming secretary of the local branch of the Women’s Labour League, vice president of the Labour Party in Sheffield and a prominent member of the Sheffield Trades and Labour Council (becoming the organisation’s president by 1919) where she continued to press the case for greater workers’ rights and fairer pay. She helped oversee the amalgamation of the two key Labour bodies: the Sheffield Trades and Labour Council and the Sheffield Federated Trades Council and she was elected first president of the newly inaugurated body, the Sheffield Federated Trades and Labour Council, in July 1920, despite being the only female officer on the Council.

After her election to the Sheffield City Council in 1919, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (11 November 1919 p. 6) reported how Wilkinson “will go down in history as the first lady member of the Council to speak in the Town Hall”. According to the report, her speech, which took place in front of a packed public gallery, was delivered “with a quiet charm and refinement that showed that the debating power of the Council has been strengthened”. Later that same day, Councillor Eleanor Barton followed Wilkinson with a speech of her own at the Town Hall. Although praising the efforts of both new female members of the Council, the Telegraph rather patronisingly reported how veteran Council alderman and Liberal leader Sir William Edwin Clegg (1852-1932) “went out of his way to win the hearts of the ladies by paying them a pretty compliment on their speeches”, an illustration of the challenges the women faced in order to get taken seriously in the Council corridors of power.

Presentation of a "gold wristlet watch"  to retiring Councillor Gertrude
Wilkinson in June 1923 as thanks for her services to the city of Sheffield
(Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 21 Jun 1923 p.5)
From the time of her election as Sheffield City Councillor in November 1919 onwards, Wilkinson served on the Council’s Education Committee. Having worked as a teacher in Sheffield for over a decade, Wilkinson brought valuable first-hand classroom experience to the Education Committee and was committed to educational reform to help the most disadvantaged in society. She also served on the Council’s Health, Hospitals and Distress Committees. Her knowledge, drive and desire to make a positive difference for the people of Sheffield won her widespread admiration from colleagues on the Council on all sides of the political divide. 

In June 1923, still only 39, Wilkinson’s Sheffield City Council service came to a premature end when she had to resign her seat due to having to relocate to 'Siam' (modern day Thailand) where her husband had been posted as a mining engineer. Wilkinson’s departure from the Council was widely lamented and she earned glowing tributes from colleagues - even from Council stalwarts outside the Labour Party such as Sir William Edwin Clegg (1852-1932) - which is testament to her personality and political acumen. When paying homage to Wilkinson, fellow Councillor and Labour MP for Attercliffe Cecil Henry Wilson (1862-1945) is reported as saying how “he did not think the Labour Party appreciated what Mrs Wilkinson’s presence in Sheffield had meant to them” and how “she had laid the foundation upon which a greater movement than the one that existed would be built up” (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 21 Jun 1923 p.5).

Following her departure to South East Asia in the summer of 1923, Wilkinson’s future fate remains something of a mystery. Evidently remaining overseas, she largely disappears from available historical records. Occasionally, for intermittent years between the 1920s and early 1950s, she crops up alongside her husband in surviving UK outgoing ships’ passenger lists, bound for places like Singapore and Australia, indicative of short trips the couple made back to England to see family and friends. By the late 1920s, Gertrude’s husband Cuthbert George Wilkinson is known to have ended up as manager of the Rantau Tin Dredging Co. in the Federated Malay States (present day Malaysia). 

Councillor Gertrude Wilkinson pictured after news
of her retirement from Sheffield City Council was
announced in June 1923
(Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 13 Jun 1923 p.5)
The last record we have been able to track down which relates to Gertrude Wilkinson with any certainty is a ship’s passenger list, which shows her sailing back from a visit to England to Sydney, Australia in November 1952, aged 69, alongside her now retired mining engineer husband, with her occupation recorded as “housewife”. It is believed that Gertrude and Cuthbert George Wilkinson ended up settling in Sydney later in life which is where Cuthbert’s family eventually relocated, having first moved out to Australia in 1890 (with Cuthbert’s father Rev. Christopher George Wilkinson becoming headmaster of the Launceston Church Grammar School in Tasmania).

Regardless of what happened to Gertrude Wilkinson after swapping Sheffield for South East Asia, it is clear that she left her hometown a much better place. She had defied the odds, rising from humble origins to break into the elitist and male dominated world of local politics, overcoming ingrained sexism and prejudice at the time, to become a successful Sheffield politician, advancing the cause of equality and justice and helping to blaze a trail for others to follow.

Universal suffrage in Britain (with men and women given the right to vote on equal terms - over the age of 21) was eventually introduced in 1928, five years after Wilkinson left these shores. The following year, in the November 1929 municipal elections in Sheffield, seven new female Labour Councillors won seats, bringing the total number of female Sheffield City Councillors to 10. Wilkinson would no doubt have rejoiced at this greater representation of women on the Council although she would have recognised there was still some considerable way to go to achieve the equal society she craved.

A century on, it seems an opportune time to remember the first “Sheffield City Mother”, the pioneering teacher who helped to make Sheffield a fairer place and whose life offers a lesson for us all. 
Group of newly elected female Labour Sheffield City Councillors, November
1929, who 
followed in the footsteps of Councillor Gertrude Wilkinson
(www.picturesheffield.com ref. s12604

Note: Further information about the life and political career of Gertrude Wilkinson and her fellow Sheffield City Councillors can be found in collections held at Sheffield City Archives and Local Studies Library (for example in local newspapers, Sheffield Year Books, Sheffield Education Handbooks, Sheffield City Council minutes, Sheffield City Council election fliers/posters, etc.).

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