Celebrating Women’s Suffrage in my Mother’s Family’s Home City!

It was an emotional occasion when I visited the Bradford Local Studies Library on March 10 to join with others in learning about and celebrating women’s suffrage in my mother’s family’s home city!

I had travelled from Shropshire to hear Helen Broadhead’s illustrated talk on The Bradford Suffragettes and to look at some of the records held by the Library. It was particularly moving to see the historic 1918 Electoral Registers containing the names of my maternal grandmother, great grandmother and great aunts as first time registered electors for Parliamentary Elections. Also listed for the first time were my grandfather and great uncles. All of them qualified either in their own right or through their husband’s property occupation qualification. It felt momentous and of course it was.

I wanted to learn from Helen what sort of activities my grandmother Maud Brear might have taken part in, since, before her marriage in 1912, Maud had been an active supporter of the WSPU in Bradford.


Maud Brear on her wedding day Aug 1912 at Tong Parish Church to Edward Williamson combing overlooker at Joseph Dawson’s Mill.
Maud who worked at Cawthra’s Mill until her marriage, made her own outfit including the hat. She had taken dressmaking and millinery evening classes. 
They set up home together in Blanche Street, Laisterdyke, where Maud lived until her death in 1963.

She was not one of the heroines who were arrested or imprisoned, not an organiser or a speaker at meetings, probably not one of the activists who poured purple dye into the Chellow Dene reservoirs or daubed the green, white and purple of the suffragette’s flag onto the green of Bradford Moor Golf Club (No Votes No Golf!) or set light to letter boxes; but, rather, a young woman who felt sufficiently strongly to risk the disapproval of her neighbours and employers and support events as a rank and file member. One such event, her most daring, was to join a march in the centre of Bradford with a girl friend. She carried hidden in her clothing a brick wrapped in a Votes For Women poster, intending to lob it through the window of Hulme’s Department Store (later Brown Muffs).  Until recently I believed that she HAD thrown the brick, running away to evade the police; but barely ten years ago my mother put me right. In fact when she saw the police presence in the area, Maud lost her nerve, quietly put down her brick and quickly walking away! So a myth was exploded!  But clearly the window smashing action was pre-meditated, probably organised by the local branch of the WSPU and at least for a while she was prepared to contemplate risking arrest. We have not yet found a newspaper report of the march so further research is needed to confirm my grandmother’s story.

Almost certainly Maud attended some of the many rallies and meetings organised in Bradford and the surrounding area.   So she probably heard Emmeline and Adela Pankhurst speak at the Shipley Glen mass rally on “Yorkshire Suffrage Sunday” in 1908. Her fiancée’s family were Pudsey ILP members and friends of the future ILP MP for Bradford Fred Jowett, so she possibly was at the meeting in Pudsey in 1908 where Adela Pankhurst and other speakers were barracked and pelted with rotten oranges!   On many of these occasions Maud was joined and encouraged by her brother Fred, listed in the 1901 Census as  ‘a hewer in a coal mine’, a life long socialist who  ‘took the Daily Worker all his life’. She took up the wider causes of the women’s movement of vegetarianism and healthy living, attending lectures and reading pamphlets. She retained a thirst for knowledge and education all her life.

Yet hers wasn’t a good beginning. Born in Bradford in 1885, starting as a half timer aged 11 in a woollen mill, the first 15 years of Maud’s life were hard in the extreme. Her mother Hannah, born in Bradford in 1863, was a worsted spinner and single mother at the age of 17. She had a further 2 children: a single parent and juggling work and child-care, she was frequently moving. A disastrous marriage to a petty thief, more often in than out of prison, left her with a fourth child. But she soon found herself abandoned altogether, with 4 children and no support.  So bad was it that she had to turn to the Bradford Union Workhouse and suffered the humiliation of it being reported in the local paper. Up till now my husband and I had painstakingly uncovered the details of the family using online resources but at this point we enlisted the help of Local Studies Library staff member Sarah Powell who searched the records of the Bradford Union and concluded that Maud probably received Out Relief: there being no record of Hannah and her children being admitted to the Horton Workhouse. Sarah was also able to also confirm our fears that Hannah’s mother had not been so lucky and had entered the Union on at least four occasions eventually dying in the Horton Workhouse.

Hannah went on to have two more children alone before eventually finding stability and ‘respectability’. The 1901 Census lists what appears to be a typical working class family unit of husband and wife and their six children aged 3-20.  But Hannah had reinvented herself. The ‘’head of the household’ was not the father of the six children and Hannah was not his wife (divorce being unaffordable for working class women, she was still married to the thief). And they all took the surname Brear!!  The 25 years from 1901 until her death in 1926 were the most stable of her life. My great grandmother became a respected member of the Cutler Heights working class community in Tong: acting as unofficial midwife, medical herbalist and layer-out of bodies for her neighbours. The 1911 Census records her as head of the household and a ‘widow’. How wonderful, therefore, to see her name recorded in the Electoral Roll of 1918 qualifying in her own right through renting a house valued in 1910 at £6 !!

Hannah Brear

Hannah Brear   1920’s.  She died in 1926 aged 63

Thank you to the staff of the Local Studies Library who are friendly, welcoming, efficient; generous of their time, expertise and resources. Not easy in these days of ‘austerity’.

Ann-Marie Hulme

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