Women of Steel: Celebrating the history behind some of Sheffield’s most influential women
Each month, Heritage Sheffield’s founder Richard Phipps picks an intriguing facet of the city’s culture and delves into the history behind it. This month, ahead of tomorrow night’s Women of the Seven Hills gig at the Leadmill, Richard explores the history behind some of the city’s most influential women and the integral role they’ve played in Sheffield’s illustrious past.
When the Women of Steel statue was unveiled in 2016 to celebrate the contribution of women in the city’s factories during both World Wars, it brought to the forefront the desire to learn about the icons of Sheffield’s past. Whether it’s the wives, sisters and mothers who filled the void left by the enlisted steelworkers or the pioneering scientists, businesswomen or those who fought for humanitarian changes, the women of the Steel City have undoubtedly helped forge a future that the current generation can be proud of. This article will hopefully give you a snapshot of the impact Sheffield’s women and those whose stories are intertwined with the city have had.
There have been many strong willed women whose paths have led them to Sheffield. Maud de Lovetot, through marriage, witnessed the passing of the lordship from the de Lovetots to the de Furnivals which resulted in the building of Sheffield’s stone castle, it brought a charter to hold a market and it gave the tenants freehold over their property. Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned in the township, predominantly in Sheffield Castle and Manor Lodge between 1570 and 1584, an event poorly publicised today but one that must have excited the townsfolk in the 16th century. This period also brought Bess of Hardwick to Sheffield whose ambitious building projects have created some of the UK’s greatest Elizabethan treasures. She was married, for the fourth time, to the Earl of Shrewsbury, the unlucky soul tasked with guarding the Scottish Queen. Bess’ houses included the forerunner to what is now Chatsworth House and both Hardwick Old and ‘new’ Hall. These women, all of high standing, gave Sheffield women through the ages a glimpse of female power and drive, characteristics that would be adopted by those closer to our time.
Perhaps the most significant event to affect the lives of women in the UK was the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918 which permitted women the right to vote. Sheffield played its part in this historic event for in 1851 Anne Kent and Anne Knight, a well-known abolitionist, along with a fervent backing from the local female populous, founded the Sheffield Women’s Political Association (SWPA), the first official organisation in the country dedicated to the suffrage movement. This momentous gathering took place at the Temperance Hotel on Queen Street but many other venues have provided the arena for the suffragettes’ struggles. Norfolk Barracks on Edmund Road and the Albert Hall which stood on the present day site of John Lewis attracted large protesting crowds.
The former saw 10,000 women descend on the venue which was to host Prime Minister Asquith in 1909 and the latter brought Lady Harberton to the city, a founding member of the Rational Dress Society. Perhaps the most publicised activists to come to Sheffield were the Pankhursts’. Adela, the youngest daughter of the Women’s Social & Political Union’s (WSPU) founder Emmeline, resided here for a short time and certainly stamped here mark. She chaired the Yorkshire branch of the WSPU, opened a suffragette shop at Chapel Walk and continued the fight for women’s rights. She even infiltrated the 285th Cutler’s Feast dressed as kitchen maid with the intention of causing a ruckus before being swiftly escorted out by the police. More than a century on and the city still remembers these inspirational figureheads. Adela is immortalised with plaques at 45 Marlborough Road, her Broomhill home, and 26 Chapel Walk. A new student complex close to the University Square roundabout recognizes the founder of the SWPA’s contribution and is affectionately named ‘Knight House’.
Five years prior to the Representation of the People Act you’d be right to assume that the upper echelons of higher management were dominated by men. However, it was also the year that Ella Gasking was made managing director of the family business on the passing of her father. At only 22 years old, with her brothers at war and her mother unable to work, the Brightside born Ella seized the opportunity and made Batchelor’s Foods a household British name. She inherited a company of 50 employees that had grown steadily throughout the years but upon the return of her two brothers she was able to travel to the United States to research canning production. She brought back a method that would ultimately make Batchelor’s famous.
Her canned mushy peas were a hit and she opened a new processing factory above what had previously been Henry Bryars’ stables beside Lady’s Bridge in 1930. It wasn’t long before production had outgrown the Castlegate site and a larger state of the art factory was opened at Wadsley Bridge only 7 years later. Production at this point was booming. Turnover was just under £1 million and they were canning more peas that any other company on the planet. The Wadsley Bridge factory was the UK’s largest, Batchelor’s had branched out to produce other tinned items such as soups, vegetables and fruits and was employing 1,000 workers at the onset of the Second World War. The war would ultimately lead to an OBE for Ella as her company was one of the principal providers of food to the British legions. When Ella retired in 1948, Batchelor’s were employing close to 3,500 workers. She had taken a modest family business and created a food giant and she was recognised as one of Britain’s leading businesswomen but above all she was known for her kind nature and hard work, a true Sheffield trait.
One name that should inspire the current generation is Helen Sharman. The space age is still in its infancy but with recent commercial flights to the limits of our atmosphere eagerly broadcast it’s picking up pace. It seems apt then to remember that the first Briton (not just women) in space was from Grenoside. Helen was selected from 13,000 applicants following rigorous trials to test not only her medical and psychological wellbeing but also her ability to withstand a high G-force and motion sickness, her practical and logical abilities and her language skills. She would embark on a joint British-Soviet mission that would see her undergo 18 months of intensive training in Star City, the Moscow base for cosmonauts, before launching in to space for 8 days.
She would dock on Mir, the Soviet space station on the 18th May 1991, where she was tasked with carrying out experiments in her temporary otherworldly home. As a graduate of chemistry at the University of Sheffield, Helen trialed chemical, medicinal, agricultural and material tests, as well as documenting her observations of Earth during her eight days in space. There were also regular live TV interviews and a personal correspondence with Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. Upon her return she was presented with an OBE, she is a Chartered Chemist & Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and was made a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George (CMG) in 2018 amongst many more accolades, both British and Russian. Helen continues to work for Imperial College London as a UK Outreach Ambassador. Here in Sheffield she was awarded a plaque in 2006 outside the Town Hall and another recent student development on Broad Lane is named in her honour.
Another momentous event in British history was the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833. Similarly to the suffragette movement, Sheffield had its part to play and its lead campaigner was Mary Anne Rawson. Mary was born on Green Lane, Kelham Island but is most associated with Wincobank where she lived most of her life and founded the district’s first school, now the Upper Wincobank Chapel. Mary was the chair of the Sheffield Female Anti-Slavery Society and tirelessly championed her cause. She distributed pamphlets, spent hours talking of the immorality and horrors of the trade and persuaded many Sheffielders to boycott sugar based products.
Even with the passing of the Act in 1833, Mary was unsatisfied and soon formed the Sheffield Ladies Society for the Universal Abolition of Slavery. She penned many anti-slavery letters and reports including ‘The Bow in the Clouds’, a collection of prose that documented the affairs at that time. She was also one of a handful of British women to attend the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London and was captured on canvas by renowned painter Benjamin Haydon. She would continue the fight throughout her life. Even in her final years she was raising money for the Thompson Normal School in Jamaica, one of the first teacher training schools on the globe. Mary is buried in the Zion graveyard in Attercliffe, a chapel her family had attended since she was a young girl. Outside the Cutlery Works there is a mural dedicated to Mary Anne Rawson and the visit of Frederick Douglass, a former slave and campaigner, who met Mary in her Wincobank home following at the old Quaker Meeting House.
As we have discovered the First World War came at a time when women were in a nationwide fight for the same rights as their male counterparts. The Great War would prove, although it was not acknowledged until decades later, that for the British to triumph the factories had to keep producing and the lack of ‘manpower’ was counterbalanced by recruiting local girls and women to fill their boots. Between 4-5 million soldiers were recruited to the British Army over the duration of the war and consequently 2 million women filled their roles at home. The hours were grueling, the work was dangerous but the output was vital to the war effort. In Sheffield the factories produced Spitfire crankshafts, artillery shells, tank treads and munitions for the front line. Yet women were often resented by their male colleagues despite being paid a mere pittance for their graft.
When the returning soldiers returned from overseas the working female population were simply given their final paychecks and told of their redundancy. This was set to repeat itself once more a few decades later. A campaign launched by Nancy Fielding in 2009, a reporter for The Sheffield Star, to have a statue erected to remember those who kept the forges burning during the Second World War was realized in 2016 when it was unveiled in Barker’s Pool. With the help of public subscriptions more than £150,000 was raised to depict two steel workers, one carrying a pair of riveter tongs and the second holding welders gauntlets adorned in a boiler suit. 400 commemorative medallions were also made and hallmarked by the Sheffield Assay Office and given to the surviving Women of Steel or their families. These were the ordinary Sheffield people making an extraordinary difference.