Skip to main navigation
Skip to main content
Weaver to web

The Role and Influence of Women in Calderdale

Until comparatively recent times woman played a minor role in Calderdale, as elsewhere in the country. It was never recognised that a woman was in any way equipped for duties outside the home. Within the home and in its environs, her work was multifarious and often heavy. She was wife, mother, cook, washerwoman, cleaner and in many cases her additional chores in earlier times included spinning wool, sometimes weaving cloth and caring for livestock and a garden. She had little time to relax and it is small wonder that although she must often have been exhausted she had no time to ponder her fate and to decide upon the kind of work she would prefer to do given the opportunity. Generally speaking this kind of lifestyle was the lot of a woman throughout many centuries, partly because men, at least, could see no reason for change and partly because both women and men could not appreciate that woman could actually aspire to much more. It was certainly ridiculous from a man's point of view that a woman could carry out any of man's more demanding tasks. They just could not see that any woman was capable of doing administrative work or running even a small business and the idea that woman could have any understanding of politics was laughable.

Only a few women had the opportunity to give the lie to this and they had to be wealthy, independent and well-educated. The fact that few women received any real education ruled out the last provision in most cases and equally there were few women who were both wealthy and free to make their own plans and decisions. In spite of the many obstacles that society put in their way, Calderdale is still home to a number of influential women.

Anne Lister (1791-1840)

Anne  Lister moved to Shibden Hall in Halifax to live with her Aunt and Uncle in 1815. She began managing the estate and  following the death of her uncle James in 1826 and eventually inherited the Shibden estate in 1836.

Anne wrote a detailed diary of her life and left behind diaries of over 5 million words plus numerous letters and travel journals.  The diaries give a great insight into her life as a landowner, traveller and lesbian.  She was a keen traveller and climber and undertook the first ascents of Mount Perdu in the Pyrenees in 1830 and Mount Vignemale in France in 1838.  Anne was incredibly  intelligent and highly educated.  She studied everything from languages to anatomy to history.

Much of her diaries were written in code and detail her affairs with women. She secretly  married Ann Walker (by taking the sacrament together and exchanging rings), a wealthy heiress from the neighbouring  Cliffe Hill and Crow Nest Estate, who came to live with her at Shibden Hall in 1834.

In 1839 Anne and Ann set off on a two year expedition. They travelled to Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and finally Georgia where Anne Lister sadly died in September 1840.

Ann Walker (1803 -1854)

Much of what we know about Ann Walker is through Anne Lister’s diaries., which are not always flattering! Following the death of her parents and brother Ann, along with her sister Elizabeth inherited the expansive Cliffe Hill and Crow Nest Estate. This made her an incredibly wealthy women and an excellent marriage prospect. However despite objections from her family she refused to marry and moved in with Anne Lister at Shibden Hall. They travelled together and following Anne Lister’s death in Georgia, Ann brought her body home to Shibden. Ann Walker  was left the Shibden Hall estate and lived there until she was forcibly removed by her brother in law and taken to an Asylum in York. She died at her family home of Cliffe Hill in 1854.

Violet Mackintosh (1866 – 1932)

Violet Mackintosh (nee Taylor) was born in Halifax in 1866. As a young woman she worked as a confectioner’s assistant and in 1890 married John Mackintosh. In the same year, with their joint savings of £100, they opened a pastry shop in King Cross. In the early years, Violet ran the shop whilst John worked in a cotton mill.

Whilst running the shop Violet developed a recipe that combined brittle English toffee and soft American caramel. The first batch of toffee was boiled by Violet in a brass pan over her kitchen fire. Violet and John named it ‘Mackintosh’s celebrated toffee’. It was immensely popular and allowed the business to expand to manufacture and wholesale. By 1914 they were employing over 1000 people.

Violet held the welfare of her employees in high regard. Following John’s death, she built a number of almshouses, the John Mackintosh Memorial Homes in Savile Park. Violet died in 1932 and is buried at Salterhebble Cemetery.

Laura Anne Willson MBE (1877 – 1942)

Laura started work aged around 10 as a half time worker in a textile factory. As an adult, she had a great concern for women’s welfare and became an active member of the suffragette movement, in which she was a powerful speaker.

During the First World War, she organised and managed a department for women workers at Smith, Barker & Willson, in Ovenden, a company then given over to munitions, where her husband was a partner. The department became a model for companies in other parts of the country. At the same time, Laura introduced one of the first works canteens, offering workers substantial food at reasonable prices. In 1917 she was awarded an MBE in recognition of her war work.

After the War, Laura was a founder member of the Women’s Engineering Society and in 1925 was appointed president. She set up an electrical engineering company to address supply to rural areas and also became involved with building high quality, modern housing for working people in Halifax, an example of a street being Forest Crescent in Ovenden. In 1926 Laura was elected the first woman member of the National Federation of Housebuilders.

Lavena Saltonstall (1881 – 1957)

Lavena was born and grew up around Hebden Bridge; where she worked long hours in a fustian clothing factory. At around the age of 23, Lavena moved to Halifax and took a job as a weaver. Here she joined the newly-formed Women’s Labour League.

Despite only a basic education, Lavena was a talented writer. She wrote numerous letters to the local papers about women’s suffrage, as well as other working-class labour movements and strikes.

She became increasingly involved in the suffragette movement and regularly travelled to London to take part in protests. She was arrested in 1907 and served 14 days in jail and again in February 1908, when she refused to be bound over to keep the peace for 12 months and was sentenced to 6 weeks’ imprisonment.

Lavena later became involved in the Workers’ Education Association. Here she studied economics and wrote a WEA corner column for the Halifax Guardian.

back to historical themes