A Brief History of Leeds #9: The Early 20th-century, part 2

Part nine of a series exploring the history of Leeds, using books and other stock resources held in the Leeds Libraries collections. For all the entries in this series, see our dedicated page.

In our last entry, we finished with the words of Colonel T.W. Harding at the opening of the 1908 ‘Old Leeds’ exhibition of historical material. The committee tasked with organising that exhibition largely comprised men like Harding – the city’s elite – but not everyone in Leeds saw themselves reflected in that rather complacent and privileged vision of the city; the broader visions of Nation and Empire it was contained within.

In fact, that same year of 1908, just a few months later, Leeds witnessed an event capturing that urgent sense of exclusion and alienation from such narratives of progress: two large groups, one of Suffragettes and one of unemployed men, converged on the Coliseum in Leeds during a speech by the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, and attempted to forcibly enter the venue, only to be pushed back by mounted police. Stones were thrown, a window was broken, and various people were arrested – including Bertha Quinn, who was to become a Councillor for Leeds during the inter-war period.

Quinn was not the first woman elected as a local councillor in Leeds, however. That honour went, in 1921, to two other women: Gertrude Dennison, for the Conservatives, and Maud Dightam, for Labour.

Maud Dightam

Maud Dightam was probably present at the 1908 Coliseum protest. She was certainly active in local socialist and suffragette movements during the same period; indeed, Maud and Bertha Quinn were co-signatures to a letter published in the Yorkshire Post in 1916, calling for the Council committee administrating the Naval and Military Services Pensions Act to substitute the five women of the “leisured classes” on the committee for working women.

At the Central Library we were very fortunate a few years ago to make contact with Maud’s grandson, Peter, who very generously donated us originals and copies of family documents telling us more about, not just Maud, but also her descendants down to Peter himself.

Collectively, the documents are a fascinating record of one Leeds family’s journey through the tumultuous 20th-century, but specifically for our purposes they capture traces of very localised activism in the first two decades of the 1900s.

Of particular interest is a small notebook belonging to Mary Dightam, Maud’s daughter. Mary used this book to collect the signatures of visitors to the Dightam’s home during the 1910s, capturing a visit to Leeds by Sylvia Pankhurst in 1916; most likely during Sylvia’s overnight stay at the Dightam’s home while in Leeds for the 1916 Labour Party demonstration on Woodhouse Moor.

In a similar way to the book Hans Sloane gifted Ralph Thoresby, this signature places Leeds in a broader national and international context of activism and intellectual debate.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. ian craven says:

    I like seeing old Leeds on this site and the history of Leeds city as it was years ago secret Leeds news letter are very good for information about our past.

  2. MoiraG says:

    Very interesting post. Good to see yet more than I’ve read in the past (in other places) about Leeds women in political life, with references to non-elites.

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