During the early 20th century Hebden Bridge (known locally as “Fustianopolis”) was an isolated town with its own distinctive accent, different even than nearby Mytholmroyd. At the time it was a woman's lot in life to leave school at an early age (10-12 years) to become a fustian clothing manufacturer.
Lavina Saltonstall was born in Hebden Bridge. Dissatisfied with the suppressed way a woman had to live her life she became a loud voice in the local suffragette movement.
With the opening of the tramlines from Halifax to Hebden Bridge she moved to Halifax. After the death of a man in a tramway accident in Halifax in 1906, she wrote a scathing letter to the local newspaper. This sparked off the Halifax tram workers strike.
In Hebden Bridge 1906, the fustian weavers strike began where local workers took violent measures against the local employers and the ‘knobsticks' – scab workers, who were drafted in to keep the looms working.
New Year 1907 saw Mary Gawthorpe in Halifax outlining the aim of the WSPU (Women's Social and Political Union) and the militant methods they used. It was here that the Halifax branch of the WSPU was formed with 17 women enrolling. They used local opportunities for suffrage propaganda and the six-month-old Hebden weaver's strike provided the growth of the early WSPU.
Monday 28th January 1907. 400 striking weavers and a brass band filled the centre of Hebden Bridge. Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, a leading member of the WSPU stood on the wooden steps outside of Bridge Mill and gave a rousing speech of support for the striking weavers and of how the women's vote could be used to help get a labour government in power which be help both the workers and women. The Hebden Bridge Times wrote that Mrs Pankhursts address “created scenes unparalleled in the history of Hebden Bridge”.
On the evening of 1st February the striking weavers met at the Co-operative Hall and as a large crowd gathered miss Adela Pankhurst and Mary Gawthorpe gave another speech. They then took the lead of this riled up crowd and marched up to the house of William Thomas one of the local employers where Adela encouraged the crowd to ‘hoot Mr Thomas'. They then marched up Heptonstall road to Mr Roger Shackleton's house, another employer of the weavers. Police had surrounded the house in an attempt to protect the family inside but the crowd was large and as the suffragettes appealed for hooting, stones were thrown and windows smashed.
Local girls Jennie Baines and Laura Wilson were arrested and appeared at Todmorden court. Jennie Baines was accused of ‘watching and besetting' the homes of Thomas and Shackleton and was sentenced with a forty shilling fine or 14 days imprisonment. She chose imprisonment.
Laura Wilson was accused of ‘violent and inflammatory speech' and given the same sentence. She too chose imprisonment. These were the first suffragettes to be incarcerated in a Yorkshire prison after being taken to Armley Gaol in Leeds. On leaving prison Laura Wilson said to a reporter “If they could sentence me for thinking, I would have been sentenced for life. I went to gaol a rebel, but I have come out a regular terror”.
It was about this time that the Hebden Bridge WSPU was formed with joint secretaries Edith Berkley and Louie Cobbe. Within weeks WSPU branches sprang up all along the Calder Valley.
The Hebden Bridge weaver's strike finally ended in December 1908 when their union told the striking weavers that the strike pay would end and they would have to live by their own resources.
For more information about the strike please visit this link:
During the suffragette attack on the House of Commons in March 1907 a quarter of the women arrested were from the West Riding. Of these Lavina Saltonstall, Laura Wilson, Lizzie Berkley and Lillian Cobbe were from Hebden Bridge. They were given the choice of a 50-shilling fine or 14 days in Holloway prison. They all opted for prison. A year later after a second spell in Holloway prison, Lavina Saltonstall was brutally attacked after a suffragette meeting in Halifax which was set up to welcome her home.
During the First World War the WSPU agreed to cease their militant activities and assist with the war movement. After the war in 1918 women over 30 were given the right to vote but it wasn't until the Representation of the People act in 1928 that women over 21 were given the right to vote on the same terms as men.
For more information about the women's suffrage movement and in particular the West Riding involvement we recommend the book “Rebel Girls – Their fight for the vote” by author Jill Liddington.
Compiled by Nycola Simpson 2008