On the Secret Library this week we hear from Local and Family History’s Josh Flint who in celebration of International Women’s Day writes about the first women to be Mayor of Leeds, Jessie Beatrice Kitson and examine how she is represented in the Local and Family History Collection. This pioneer was part of the famous Kitson family of Leeds and became Lord Mayor of Leeds in 1942 in incredibly strange circumstances. Kitson’s pioneering life and legacy will be explored in this article. This article forms #19 in our People of Leeds series.
Jessie Beatrice Kitson was born in Leeds on the 24th May 1876 and was the daughter of John Hawthorn and Jessie Kitson. Here we have Jessie’s Baptism at the Holy Trinity Church on Boar Lane on the 10th July 1876.
The Kitson family was one of the most well-known and powerful families in Leeds during 19th and 20th Century Leeds. Jessie’s grandfather James Kitson was the Mayor in 1860 and 1861 and her uncle Sir James Kitson was the first Lord Mayor of Leeds in 1897. The Kitson family owned the Airedale Foundry in Hunslet and the Monkbridge Iron and Steel Company building locomotives for the burgeoning railway industry.
Jessie’s father John Hawthorn Kitson continued in the family business by being a successful engineer in Leeds. The 1891 Census has John’s occupation as a Locomotive Engine Maker at the Hunslet Foundry. Jessie’s mother Jessie Ellershaw/ Kitson raised substantial amounts of money for nurses and was responsible for the addition of the District Nurses Home on Lovell Street. Jessie had two siblings Ethel May and most notably Robert Hawthorn. Robert became a very successful painter and shortly after their father’s death in 1899 decided to move to Sicily because as a gay man Britain was a difficult place to live, especially after the Labouchere Amendment was passed in 1885, which made it easier to prosecute gay men.
During Jessie’s early adult life she worked with numerous children’s charities and wanted to help Leeds in any way that she could. Jessie would be an independent councillor in local government, representing Headingley on the Leeds Board of Guardians for thirteen years until 1913. On the 1911 Census Jessie is shown to be living with the Cockcroft family in Ilkley. This lifestyle of helping charities and raising important social issues was supported by the Kitson’s family wealth as the Census states that Jessie lived by ‘Private Means/ Wealth.’
The winter of 1919 and the summer of 1920 was a turbulent time for Jessie as she contested but was ultimately defeated in the election to become a Headingley local councillor in November 1919, interestingly, Jessie contested the election as an independent candidate because she did not want to be associated with a political party.
Then on the 1st September 1920 Jessie and three other Leeds women; Jane Ellen Arnott, Rachel Agnes Talbot and Beryl Katherine Gott were announced as the first Leeds women to become magistrates. They were sworn in by the Lord Mayor of Leeds T.B Duncan in September 1920 who welcomed the appointment stating;
‘The time opportune for such an appointment in view of very unsettled state not only of this country but of the world.’
T. B. Duncan Leeds Mercury 1st September 1920
Duncan seems to be stating that the post First World War world and the question of women’s suffrage had created an unstable society and that Leeds was moving with the times and the rest of the world by appointing their first women magistrates and thus giving women more political power. On this appointment Jessie stated
‘We all appreciate the responsibility of the magistrate position.’
Jessie Beatrice Kitson, Leeds Mercury 1st September 1920
This was a great honour for Jessie and showed how she was a true pioneer for women in local politics. Over the next twenty years Jessie would frequently preside over the Juvenile Court and was the Chairman of the Probation Committee. As well as being a magistrate, Jessie was a member of the Council of the Yorkshire Federation of Women’s Institutes and president of Meanwood Women’s Institute. Finally, as a passionate Christian, Jessie was a member of the Church of England Moral Welfare in London. Jessie’s growing role in Leeds can be seen by her prominent position at the Leeds Armistice Day Memorial in 1926.
By 1939 Jessie was living at Stonegates on Stonegate Road, Meanwood and had been reunited with her brother Robert Hawthorn Kitson. Robert by this stage had returned to Leeds and became a passionate funder and member of the Arts and Libraries Committee in Leeds. Their household was supplemented by household workers; Anne Lowe, Elizabeth Faddes and Mary Purvis. Jessie was in November 1942 elected as a trustee of the patronage of the Leeds Vicarage.
In 1942 Jessie ran in the Leeds Mayor Election beginning the series of strange and unfortunate events that would elect her as the first woman to be Mayor of Leeds. Jessie again ran as an independent candidate as she was still unwilling to join a political party.
The Mayoral Election was held on the 9th November 1942 with Liberal candidate Arthur Clarke being announced as the victor by the Leeds City Council Committee. At midday Arthur Clarke’s Mayoral Ceremony took place. After arriving in Council Chamber at the Civic Hall, Clarke was sworn into office and gave a rousing ten minute speech which was said to have been with ‘clarity and force’ while accepting the Mayor Chain of Office. Clarke then, during the warm applause for his speech, collapsed on the Lord Mayor’s Chair and died almost instantly of a heart attack. The Yorkshire Post states that no longer had half an hour elapsed from when the 64 year old Clarke entered the room to when he unfortunately died.
The tragic death of Arthur Clarke posed the question of who would replace him as Mayor and how would this decision be made? The Conservative and Labour Party’s agreed that the Liberal Party should nominate the replacement Mayor. Many hoped that the candidate would not be from a political party, with Conservative Mayoral candidate Alderman Boyle stated;
‘The opportunity should be given to a non-political party candidate because they would not normally be able to be elected as Mayor.’
Alderman Boyle, Yorkshire Evening Post 10 November 1942
The Liberal Party decided to nominate Jessie Beatrice Kitson to be new and first female Mayor of Leeds on the 13th November 1942. The nomination was unanimously approved by a private meeting of the Council Committee at the Civic Hall. Both the Labour and Conservatives agreed that Jessie would be a great choice with the Labour Party stating that her knowledge of the working classes gave her the experience to become a great Mayor. The role of Lady Mayoress would be given to long-time friend Elinor (Ella) Gertrude Lupton. Together Jessie and Ella were a powerful and caring team. Ella famously said that she and Jessie were two of the worst dressed women to ever live in Leeds.
Jessie’s Mayoral Ceremony on the 18th November 1942 was much less dramatic and tragic than Arthur Clark’s ceremony. Though Jessie was happy to wear the gold chains of office, she refused to wear the traditional Lord Mayors hat and would make one from her own design. When asked why she was unwilling to wear the ceremonial hat and whether it was because it was too cumbersome, Jessie responded with;
‘No, it’s too foolish, there has never been a Lord Mayor yet who hasn’t looked foolish wearing that hat.’
Jessie Beatrice Kitson, 18th November 1942
At the ceremony Jessie spoke about how thankful she was to be continuing the line of Mayors from the Kitson family and that one of her top priorities was to create a housing policy that the people of Leeds deserved.
Jessie Beatrice Kitson was Leeds Mayor mid-way during the Second World War from 1942 – 1943. The city of Leeds, like the rest of Great Britain, was living under austerity to pay for the war and there was much discussion as to improve the lives of the people of Leeds and how the city should rebuild itself after the war. One of these discussions was over the housing for the people of Leeds. As the ‘slum’ clearances were commencing it had to be decided whether they should be replaced in the city centre with tower blocks to house multiple families or with singles houses. Jessie would prefer the idea of the single houses stating that;
‘People should not be content to live like bees in a hive.’
Jessie Beatrice Kitson, 18th November 1942
Whether you agree with Jessie or not in it very interesting to see how these conversations over housing and whether to live in a city centre or travel in from a local town were just as important in the 1940’s as they are today.
One of Jessie’s last acts as Leeds Mayor came in November 1943 when Jessie and her ever faithful friend and Mayoress Ella Lupton joined with Marina, Duchess of Kent and presided over the final march past salute at the end of the Festival of Youth.
In 1944 Jessie’s work in public and political life was rewarded with an Honorary Degree as a Doctor of Law by the University of Leeds.
After her time as Mayor Jessie would continue to be an active part in the Leeds politics, continuing her role as a magistrate and a member of the Council of the Yorkshire Federation of Women’s Institutes. Finally, Jessie would die on the 29th March 1975 while living in Reading.
Jessie Beatrice Kitson’s life and legacy cannot be underestimated. Jessie was a pioneer for women’s politics in 20th Century Leeds, from being one of the first women magistrates to eventually becoming the first female Mayor of Leeds. Jessie was greatly respected by her peers, which cannot be understated at a time when women were still the exception in politics. Though Jessie did have the benefit of being from the wealthy Kitson family, her desire to use the opportunity that the wealth gave her to help with people of Leeds is a testament to her character.