THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Lucy Wilson (1834-1891)
Campaigner for women’s rights and for civil liberties
There were some formidable women in Leeds in the 1870s and 80s, women who stood on platforms, addressed sometimes hostile crowds, wrote letters to newspapers, braved criticism and ridicule, and toiled tirelessly behind the scenes for the causes they held dear – for the right of women to be educated, to have the vote, to keep their own property when they married, to work on equal terms with men. They were a powerful force in opposing laws they saw as unjust and inhumane, or violating personal rights. Lucy Wilson, ‘Miss Lucy’ as she was known, was one of this redoubtable band.
She had a favoured upbringing. Born in 1834, she was the third child and only daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Wilson of Banks Hall, near Barnsley. Her father owned a colliery there, but when he took the post of auditor of the Aire and Calder Navigation the family moved to Leeds, first to Crimbles House in Camp Road and later to 2 Hillary Place (now part of Leeds University campus). Thomas Wilson was an educated and cultured man, a Liberal, a leading figure in the Philosophical and Literary Society and the Mechanics’ Institute, active in many good causes. Many distinguished visitors came to the house, and Lucy and her five brothers grew up in a thoughtful and intellectually stimulating atmosphere.
Lucy was lively and good-looking but she did not marry – marriage, she said, was an institution wholly for the benefit of men. Nevertheless she had to take on a traditional female domestic role. As an unmarried daughter, she spent some years looking after her father after her mother died. While her brothers travelled and had professional careers, notably her brother Edmund, an eminent solicitor and Leeds councillor, those doors were closed to her.
Energetic, competent and forceful, she dedicated herself to improving women’s lot. Her first focus was education, as women were still barred from university and higher level study. For a time she was secretary to the Leeds Ladies Educational Association and took a leading role in organising local University examinations and extension lectures. Relationships with her colleagues were not easy as she could be unbending and domineering, but she was totally committed. In 1870, when the Leeds School Board was set up to provide elementary education for all children, and women had their first chance to stand for public office, she stood (unsuccessfully) as a candidate alongside one other woman, in an election fraught with religious and political controversy. She later gave strong support to the establishment of the Leeds Girls’ High School in 1876.
She was deeply engaged in other issues too. She was a member of the national executive committee working for the amendment of the Married Women’s Property Act to give married women the right to own and manage their own property and earnings, a goal achieved in 1882. In 1875 she was the main speaker giving evidence in Leeds to a Royal Commission on factory reform, arguing for women’s right to work on the same basis as men. Alongside other notable women she promoted women’s suffrage, serving on the Leeds Suffrage committee, and speaking at public meetings around the region, with sharp words for those who felt women’s place was in the home and not in public situations which might ‘endanger their delicate sensibilities’.
Through the 1870s and 80s she was a prominent member of the campaigning Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, led by Josephine Butler. These Acts, designed in the 1860s to control venereal disease in garrison towns, sanctioned the forcible surgical examination and imprisonment of women believed to be prostitutes, and there was pressure to extend powers to the northern industrial towns. The Ladies’ Association (alongside many men) fought a powerful, outspoken campaign for repeal, citing the cruel injustice of punishing the female victims of vice while leaving the men free to re-infect, and condemning the violation of the personal rights of the women subjected to such degrading treatment. The Acts were finally repealed in 1886.
In 1876 Lucy’s father died and she inherited a trust fund which gave her independence. After a visit to her brother in New Zealand, she settled in London where from 1881-86 she edited and wrote for the journal of the Association for the Defence of Personal Rights. She was an ardent individualist and defender of civil liberties, passionate on many fronts – a vegetarian on moral grounds, anti-vivisectionist, and a believer in ‘rational dress’ (no tight corsets).
She died in 1891, aged 57, from heart disease. Her friends remembered her for her judgement and intelligence, her passion for natural justice, and her unshakable belief in the rights of the individual.