For International Women’s Day 2023 we’re going to delve into the Leodis photographic archive and look at a woman who followed her own path, regardless of social conventions, and while doing so left a mark on the collective memory of Leeds residents.
The undated image shows a woman who was once a very familiar character in and around the city centre. Described as a ‘Lady Tramp’ she was generally known by the nickname ‘Woodbine Lizzie’. She protected herself from the elements in several layers of old coats and an assortment of hats, including an old tram conductor’s hat which also earned her the name of ‘Tramway Lizzie’.
The Woodbine reference came from the fact that she regularly begged Woodbine cigarettes from passers-by and was reputed to have shown her temper if refused. Other people have recollected that she was sometimes seen selling cigarettes from a box hanging on a string around her neck.
Woodbine Lizzie started life as Alice Porter, born in Stanningley in 1887. Her parents were Frederick Porter, a labourer in an iron foundry, and his wife, Priscilla, and she had an older brother and sister, Harry, and Elizabeth. The family lived at number 9 Eastwood Buildings in Stanningley (1891 Census). From the age of 12 Alice worked part-time in a mill and by the age of 13 she was earning 3 shillings and 6 pence working full-time as a worsted spinner. When she was 18, in 1905, Alice married James Richard Hartley at St. Wilfrid’s Church in Calverley (Yorkshire Birth Marriage & Death records) and following their honeymoon in Hull the couple set up home in Pudsey.
Over the next few years they had six children, five of whom were boys. During the First World War, after 12 years of marriage, Alice and her husband split up and went their separate ways. From 1919, Alice lived with her parents at Kirkstall. She went into service in Headingley but at the age of 38 decided to change her lifestyle completely by living on the streets as a ‘vagabond’ – as she described herself. At one point she walked to London but was not impressed and returned to Leeds the following week.
Lizzie became addicted to tobacco during the First World War when she started smoking a pipe. She would begin her day at 5.30 am at a coffee stall in Boar Lane. Much of the day she would rest in parks or stand for hours in one of her usual haunts like the passageway leading to The Whip public house off Duncan Street. Her nights were often spent on Woodhouse Moor or at the back of the Seaman’s Mission just off The Calls.
Women were not allowed in The Whip until the 1970s sex discrimination laws came into effect, and once they did, female toilets had to be installed.
Alice Porter, ‘Woodbine Lizzie’, died in 1947 in the Stanley Royd Hospital in Wakefield. She was about 60 years of age. A white line around the man suggests that his image has been added to the photograph and is not part of the original, he has been identified by Leodis users as ‘Little Titch’.
Various people report having a copy of the photograph at home in family collections, suggesting the image was in production at one time.
Below is a selection of memories of Lizzie from Leodis.net users, some comments have been edited for clarity.
“This picture looks very much like it was taken as in the description ” in the passageway leading to The Whip public house”. I’ve always wondered what makes someone choose that kind of lifestyle. I know some people don’t have the choice, but it seems that she did choose “to live on the streets as a vagabond.”
“I remember seeing Woodbine Lizzie when I was probably about eight years old. I used to go with my Grandfather on Saturday mornings to Leeds Market and we, now as I remember, used to walk along Duncan Street, so I can only think she was standing in the Whip Yard entrance.”
“I have a copy of this photo which belonged to my mother. On the back is written “Woodbine Lizzie on Boar Lane Leeds”. The photo probably belonged to my grandparents originally. I have no idea why they would have it as, although my mother often mentioned Woodbine Lizzie, as far as I know there was no family connection. I assume that the photo was originally sold as a sort of souvenir, perhaps marking her death.”
“I remember Woodbine Lizzie well I lived on Quarry Hill and went to the old Parish Church School in 1938. So the City centre was our playground my friend lived in the Seamans Mission on the river side and Woodbine Lizzie would cook sausages as you say round the back and sometimes sleep there. We would tease her and as I go into my 81st year I know it was wrong.”
“Any Leeds child born up to and including the 1950’s will remember hearing tales of Woodbine Lizzie. I never saw her, as far as I remember. My Gran was of the same generation as Alice Porter and was also called Alice – and she smoked Woodbines, too, so you can guess what the family called her! I wonder if Woodbine Lizzie was mentally ill, or was she a woman ahead of her time, a free spirit doing what she wanted to do and to hell with the restrictive conventions of the day, which would probably have labelled her as feckless. I can’t help wondering what happened to all her children, who would have been adults by the time she decided on her ‘tramping’ life. Anyone know?”
“Strange, but I remember my mother and some of her neighbours’ shedding tears over the death of Woodbine Lizzie.”
“My Dad’s job involved visiting various commercial premises in the City Centre in connection with damage claims against the Railway. He was not a zealously religious man but believed firmly in “proper” conduct and behaviour. As a youngster in Ilkley I used to meet him from his train home, and one teatime he was very annoyed and almost distressed and told me that he’d been accosted again by “that Woodbine Liz”, and when he’d declined to give her a cigarette he’d received a tirade not fit for a little lad’s ears!!”
“I remember seeing Woodbine Lizzie in Kirkgate market when I was about 8, which must have been not long before she died. She was dressed in a heavy navy coloured coat and a tram conductors cap. As children, we all heard stories about this lady, and I couldn’t wait to get home to tell my friends that I’d seen her.”
“During the mid-1940s, when I was about 10 years old, my grandad used to take me to Leeds Market to do a bit of shopping. Afterwards he would often call in The Whip for a pint. Woodbine Lizzie was usually outside the pub begging for Woodbines. As my grandad smoked Woodbines, she was always given one. He told me, if I recall correctly, that the husband she’d left was a doctor, and quite well off, and that he used to have her picked up and taken away periodically to have a bath. My grandad told me all sorts of tales, as grandads do, so I can’t vouch for the truth of the story.”
“I was told when I was growing up that Woodbine Lizzie slept on Woodhouse Ridge in one of the ‘Old Man’s Shelters’”
“I have a print of this photo which we found amongst my late father’s possessions when he died in 1977. I have just come across it again whilst sorting through old photographs which I’m going to scan into my family tree album. The content of the photo is exactly the same, with the added gent, but is in a bit better condition. Whilst in the area shown I remember a war veteran newspaper seller near the Star & Garter at the corner of Duncan Street. I was only a nipper then, only 6 years old in 1950 but I remember this chap always used to say “wotcher titch” to me, and my dad (who was a tram driver then and saw this bloke every day) told me to say “wotcher tosh” back to him. Does any one else remember him?”
“I remember my mum (born 1933) telling me about woodbine Lizzie….as a young girl she saw her in Leeds whilst out shopping with parents… She seemed to think she was wealthy when she died …bless her!”
“I remember her in town – near the market – when I was a child in the 1940s. My mother always stopped and talked to her and would give her something.”
3 Comments Add yours
As a child, I remember seeing her now and then; I seem to remember that she was also called Cigarette Lizzie. Those were the days!
A very interesting article. The
” ordinary ” men and women tell the story of our city just as well as the Becketts,Kitsons and Tetleys.