Home » Historical Figures » Who Led Leeds? Case Study #1: Maud Dightam

Who Led Leeds? Case Study #1: Maud Dightam

  • by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library
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Maud Dightam

Many readers will be familiar with the name and the achievements of Alice Bacon, the first woman elected as an MP in Leeds. And some of our readers will doubtless be in attendance at this week’s talk by Rachel Reeves MP, author of a new biography of Alice. Alongside that talk, we’ll be offering a glimpse from our Collections into the life and work of other local individuals involved in the Labour movement during the first half of the 20th-century. That display will include extracts from one of the Central Library’s most significant Treasures: Alf Mattison’s Collection of news cuttings, journals and ephemera.

Alongside the Mattison material will be a smaller, but no less significant, section dedicated to the memory of Maud Dightam. That’s a name unlikely to be known to most readers, or even to those with an interest in local political history. Maud, however, deserves to be known by a far wider audience: as the joint-first woman elected as a Leeds City Councillor, an accolade Maud shares with the Conservative candidate, Gertrude Dennison – an achievement which, of course, makes Maud the very first woman elected as a Labour Councillor in Leeds.

That’s not the whole of Maud’s story, however. She first came to our attention after a simple, single-line, enquiry from a member of the public – Maud’s grandson, Peter, in fact – who was wanting a few news articles about her initial success for his family history album. Further correspondence with Peter led to us finding out much more about Maud, her life and her work.

Maud Rose was born in Leeds, in 1876. At some point between then and her first appearance on a Census Return, in 1881, her family had moved to Wales, where her father, George, worked as a Leather Dresser. However, by the time of the next Census, in 1891, Maud had returned to Leeds, where she was now living with her Uncle and Aunt. At some point, one of Maud’s brothers joined her in Leeds for work – and also for politics; it was this brother who first interested Maud in the theory and practice of Socialism, though those efforts only bore fruit after he left Leeds for Lancashire, leaving his collection of radical literature in the hands of his sister.

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The 1881 and 1891 Census Returns, showing Maud with her mother, father and siblings in Wales (top), and then with her Uncle and Aunt in Leeds (bottom). Images taken from Ancestry.com

Maud moved quickly and eagerly into the circles of radical Leeds life, becoming a key figure in the local political movement through her role in forming the Leeds Women’s Labour League and the East Leeds Socialist Sunday School. She was active in Suffragette circles and present during a 1913 visit of Philip Snowden to Leeds, joining “members of the Women Social and Political Union and of the Women’s Labour League in heckling Philip Snowden when he visited Leeds ‘on the grounds that the Labour Party had fallen away from its ideals in refusing to support sex equality.'” Her contacts and colleagues can be glimpsed in an autograph book kept by her daughter, Mary, entries of which contain the signatures of some well-known figures, locally and nationally.

Article from the Leeds and District Weekly Citizen (13.04.1914), showing the ten precepts of the Socialist Sunday Schools in Leeds

Article from the Leeds and District Weekly Citizen (13.04.1914), showing the ten precepts of the Socialist Sunday Schools in Leeds. Clicking on the image will provide access to a zoomable version 

Autograph of Sylvia Pankhurst, written after she stayed at Maud Dightam's house in 1916

Autograph of Sylvia Pankhurst, written in Mary’s book after she stayed at the Dightam’s house in 1916

Maud’s husband, Ernest, a draper, was no less committed in his political beliefs, glimpses of which can be found in newspaper articles reporting his presence at suffragette demonstrations just prior to the First World War.

Maud, Mary and Ernest Dightam (no date)

Maud, Mary and Ernest Dightam (c.1913)

Ernest’s politics, in fact, led him to take a position akin to that of a conscientious objector during the First World War, believing that British workers and German workers had more in common than did those people and their respective leaders. It was a war of “three kings”, he thought – the British, the German and the Russian – and a distraction from the class-based political struggles that should unite the workers of those nations. Ernest was arrested and jailed for his beliefs; in his discharge paper, seen below, we see the final verdict of the State: “An insubordinate conscientious objector.”

Extract from Ernest Dightam's entry in the British Army WW1 Pension Records: 1914-1920. Taken from Ancestry.com

Extract from Ernest Dightam’s entry in the British Army WW1 Pension Records: 1914-1920. Taken from Ancestry.com

In the 1921 council elections, just three years after woman over thirty years of age and with property qualifications got the vote, Maud chose to stand as the Labour candidate for the East Leeds ward. There, she faced opposition from an Independent Labour candidate, Walt Wood, who was able to claim the support of two MPs, Jack Jones and Will Thorne. Maud, however, could count on the support of the MP for Leeds South East: James O’Grady.

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‘Two Sound Men for the Leeds City Council,’ Yorkshire Evening Post, 25.10.1921, page 5

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‘Women Councillors,’ Leeds Mercury, 03.11.1921, page 4

It is of little doubt, however, that what happened next owed far more to Maud’s own qualities and vast experience in local politics than the support of any one individual: elected as a Councillor with a majority of more than 1,000, Maud wasted no time in setting out her priorities – “I hope to be on those committees dealing with maternity and child welfare,” she told the Leeds Mercury, adding that “I do not wish to be regarded as a women’s candidate, but purely and simply as a Labour representative.”

In doing so, Maud was able to effectively navigate a path between being narrowly defined – thus, easily dismissed – as a “women’s candidate”, while still bringing a much-needed voice from the margins into a political centre otherwise dominated by what Dennison called “the old washer-women of men of the Council.”

You can read more about Maud’s election and subsequent political career in Sylvia Jane Dunkley’s Women Magistrates, Ministers and Municipal Councillors in the West Riding of Yorkshire: 1918-1939 (1991). The context for that election is explored in Michael Meadowcroft’s excellent article ‘The Years of Political Transition, 1914-1939,’ available in A History of Modern Leeds (ed., Derek Fraser, 1980). Further Central Library material on women in Leeds can be seen in our research guide.

Maud was a tireless worker for the causes she so strongly believed in – opposing, for example, the introduction of charges for dental and medical treatment for children – and a popular public speaker, whose efforts sadly took their eventual toll. Ill for more than a year, Maud died in December, 1932. It is a measure of the high regard in which she was held that her sister-in-law, Ellen Hainsworth, wrote the following poem on Maud’s death:

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An obituary of Maud can be found on page 4 of the Yorkshire Evening Post, on the 28th of December, 1932.

The Dightam story does not end there, however. In fact, Peter – Maud’s grandson, and the original enquirer that sparked this research – has very kindly donated copies and original documents that trace the family history from Maud’s parents through to his own life story in more recent times. That group of materials – which includes school reports, autograph collections, certificates, passports, photographs, mortgage books and more – has all been collected together and added to the stock in Local and Family History as a self-contained set of archival material. This collection will prove invaluable to social historians of the future, as well as providing a concrete example of how such a valuable family archive can be put together in practice.

Maud’s story is also a practical example of how anyone can use the resources available in the Local and Family History department – newspapers, Census returns, etc – to put together an initial biography of the often-forgotten public servants of Leeds. That, in fact, is the aim of an extremely valuable new project – “Who Led Leeds?” – which we reported on recently. If you’re interested in contributing to that project and helping us to uncover more stories like Maud’s, do please get in touch.

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