Meet the Yorkshire group fighting for blue plaque parity for men and women

The Forgotten Women of Wakefield project wants blue plaque parity for men and women. fluential females. Members Susan Hawksley, Shannon Wishon, Amy Charles and Sarah Cobham.
The Forgotten Women of Wakefield project wants blue plaque parity for men and women. fluential females. Members Susan Hawksley, Shannon Wishon, Amy Charles and Sarah Cobham.

Members of a project in Wakefield want to make the city one of blue plaque parity for men and women - and are already having an impact, just one year in. Laura Drysdale reports.

Though she campaigned tirelessly for equal votes for women right up until her death, the achievements of suffrage leader Florence Beaumont were little known in her hometown of Wakefield a year ago. But next week Florence, who founded the city’s branch of the suffrage movement in 1910, going on to represent the women’s voice at the League of Nations 18 years later, will be recognised with a permanent honour.

She is one of four influential females for whom The Forgotten Women of Wakefield project will have helped to secure a blue plaque by the time of next week’s International Women’s Day. The scheme, which launched in the centenary year of the first women being given the vote, is working to unearth and share stories of women that members say have been erased from the city’s history and celebrate their efforts. “We want blue plaque parity,” says Sarah Cobham, director of social enterprise company Dream Time Creative, which is running the project. “We want to be the first city in the UK to have the same amount of blue plaques for women as there are for men - and we will get it.”

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They aim to achieve their goal by 2028, 100 years since the Equal Franchise Act that granted equal voting rights to men and women - and in just 365 days, they have already made significant progress.

When the group started the project, Wakefield Civic Society had around 30 plaques either dedicated solely to men or referencing them in the telling of a building’s history. Just four women were commemorated: sculptor Barbara Hepworth, writer and boarding school headteacher Richmal Magnall, children’s author and teacher Constance Heward and First World War nurse Nellie Spindler.

The remainder of its 50 blue plaques were principally for buildings and, though president Kevin Trickett says other organisations had installed plaques not included in the numbers, he was not aware of any recognising the achievements of women.

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“Most of the nominations we receive for blue plaques from members of the public are either for buildings or for men,” he says. “That we receive so few nominations for women is partly a product of how our shared history has been recorded and partly a reflection of how society was organised in the past. It was easier for men to make their mark in the world and more likely their achievements would be written about.”

The Forgotten Women project’s work to redress the balance saw the dedication of a blue plaque for Yorkshire’s first female MP Alice Bacon on International Women’s Day last year. The plaque for Alice, who helped to create the welfare state and played a pivotal role in the introduction of comprehensive schools, was unveiled in Wakefield city centre, before being moved to her birthplace of Normanton, in the district, last June.

In September, a plaque, supported by the civic society, was unveiled at the city’s Hepworth gallery for watercolour artist Louisa Fennell. According to the Forgotten Women researchers, from 1876, Louisa’s work was exhibited with the Royal Society of British Artists, a group so exclusive at the time that it had only 50 members.

“The investigative research being carried out by the Forgotten Women of Wakefield Project is uncovering some really interesting facts about how the women of Wakefield played such an important part in shaping the rich political and cultural life of our city,” says Mr Trickett. “We unveiled the first of our joint blue plaques last year and we look forward to unveiling many more in the future. This project will bring these women out of the shadows – they will be forgotten no longer.”

Florence, who led over 6,000 people on a women’s suffrage march to London, will be the next woman to receive a blue plaque honour, hers funded by the Wakefield Soroptomists. It will be unveiled on International Women’s Day next Friday, alongside a plaque, funded by Wakefield Girls High School, for Gertrude McCroban, a former headmistress at the school, who was instrumental in introducing sport to the district’s curriculum and emphasising the teaching of art, music and science.

The plaques will be revealed following the performance of a play, featuring the stories of both women alongside other influential females the project has been exploring. “It’s called Difficult Women? because the question is were they difficult or just trying their best to create opportunities for themselves and other women?” says Sarah. “It’s a theme for our times now and way back then.”

The play follows the character of Liam Dent, a fictitious politician who sparked protests by claiming problems such as closing the gender pay gap aren’t pressing issues. He bumps into a voice from the past in the form of Florence, who shows him the lives of some of Wakefield’s women. It has been written by project member Steven Williams, alongside Paul Bateson of Wakefield-based theatre company Cuckoo’s Egg, whose main focus has been the scenes with Gertrude. “As a teacher, reading about Gertrude I was pretty surprised to see some the innovations and advancements in education she pioneered and championed are still talking points in education today, 100 plus years later,” he says.

“There are currently many protest movements in education - against cuts, narrow curriculum and strict behaviour policies, several of things Gertrude herself spoke out about. I wanted my section to ask the question had anything changed?”

“The play isn’t about making the case for why we should remember these brilliant women,” Steven adds. “They make the case themselves through their own stories. It is rather to challenge why they were forgotten in the first place.”

Ticket sales from the production will help the Forgotten Women project to continue its blue plaque work, funding recognition for another woman - Phyllis Lett. Group researchers say she became one of the leading contraltos of her day and was awarded a gold medal for her services to music by the Worshipful Company of Musicians.

A blue plaque unveiling is planned for her in September, as well as plaques for Gissing sisters Margaret and Ellen, who ran a boys preparatory school in the city, philanthropist Edith Mackie, who founded a nurse training centre, and Clara Clarkson, a practicing Unitarian who kept a series of journals shedding light on what it meant to be a woman who didn’t conform to social standards of the 19th century. Next month, a plaque will also be unveiled for pioneering cookery writer Elizabeth Moxon, who lived in Pontefract.

“All these women were extraordinary,” says Sarah. “And they are just the top of the iceberg. Wakefield produced some of the most active, passionate trailblazers in social reform, education, health and culture in the UK, during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. It is those women we will continue to honour as part of the blue plaque scheme.”

International Women’s Day celebrations

The Difficult Women? play will take place on Friday, March 8, at 7pm, in Wakefield’s Mechanics Theatre.

Directed by Lois Naylor of Rhubarb Triangle theatre company, it will include Wakefield College students as performers.

The project group will also host a celebration of women’s stories event on the Saturday from 10am until 4pm, also in the Mechanics Theatre.

It will honour the women through talks and exhibitions, film, lectures, poetry.

Craft workshops will also take place during the day and Forgotten Women researchers will be dressed in character to answer questions.

To purchase tickets for either of the events, or for more information about the project, visit forgottenwomenwake.com