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Willson [née Buckley], Laura Anniefree

(1877–1942)
  • Henrietta Heald

Willson [née Buckley], Laura Annie (1877–1942), suffragette, engineer, and businesswoman, was born at 1 Elmwood Street, Skircoat, Halifax, Yorkshire, on 15 August 1877, the second daughter and third of the four children of Charles Buckley (1836/7–1899), dyer’s labourer, and his wife, Augusta, née Leaver (1838/9–1907). The family were Unitarians and attended Northgate End chapel in Halifax.

By the age of ten, Laura Annie was working as a ‘half-timer’ in a textile mill. She later recalled that it was common practice for children of that age to work thirty hours a week in the mills for 1s. 6d. per week (Woman Engineer, vol. 2, no. 8, September 1926, 152). From her early days, she was involved in the local trade union movement, which was striving to improve working conditions for women, and she later found herself at the heart of the struggle for female suffrage. She was described as a worsted coating weaver on her marriage, at Halifax register office on 16 December 1899, to George Henry Willson (or Wilson) (1873/4–1945), iron turner; he was the son of George Willson, basket maker. The Willsons continued to live in Halifax and had two children, George William (b. 1900) and Kathleen Vega (b. 1910).

As an active member of the Women’s Social and Political Union and the Women’s Labour League, Laura Annie Willson took part in a weavers’ strike at Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, in early 1907 and was arrested on a charge of ‘violent and inflammatory speech’. Appearing at a local magistrates’ court, she challenged the legitimacy of the court on the grounds that it consisted of men only. She was found guilty and locked up in Armley prison, Leeds, for fourteen days. ‘If they could sentence me for thinking, I would have been sentenced for life,’ said Willson on her release. ‘I went to gaol a rebel, but I have come out a regular terror’ (Halifax Guardian, 23 Jan 1907).

On 20 March 1907, Willson was one of seventy-five women arrested after a suffragette rally at Caxton Hall, Westminster, which ended with an attempt to gain access to parliament. Found guilty of disorderly conduct, she was sentenced to fourteen days in Holloway prison, London. On their return to Yorkshire, she and others who had endured the same fate were welcomed as heroes, and the suffragette campaign resumed with renewed vigour.

George and Laura Annie Willson were joint directors of Smith Barker & Willson, a lathe-making factory in Halifax, which was dedicated during the First World War to the production of munitions. Most of its workers were women, trained and supervised by Mrs Willson. Realizing that some of the mothers were going without food so that their children could eat, she set up a works canteen to ensure that the women were properly nourished. The idea was soon adopted at other factories around Britain with large numbers of female workers. The Willsons were so successful at recruiting and retaining women that they were asked by the Ministry of Munitions to give advice on the subject to machine-tool manufacturers in Birmingham and elsewhere in the English Midlands. In 1917, when the Order of the British Empire was created, Laura Willson was made an MBE in recognition of her war work.

Like many others, Willson was angered by the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act 1919, which banned the employment of women in those industries where they had not worked before the war. When Smith Barker & Willson tried to challenge the ban, they were found to have acted illegally. This continuing hostility to women workers brought Willson together with like-minded pioneers in 1919 to found the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). She later became a leading member of the Electrical Association for Women.

In 1925, at the International Conference of Women in Science, Industry and Commerce, Willson highlighted the vital work done by female factory inspectors to improve the conditions of women workers. Later that year, she was appointed president of the WES, a position that she held for three years. In her first presidential address, on 3 September 1926, she said the great improvement in living standards in the past twenty years had been due largely to the use of engineering products and inventions, particularly electrical appliances. Meanwhile, conditions in the factories had improved beyond measure: ‘Wages are higher and hours are shorter. Child labour has been abolished’ (Woman Engineer, vol. 2, no. 8, Sept 1926, 152). She spoke of a ‘new spirit’ (ibid.) in the world of industry and a recognition that ‘higher wages bring greater production’ (ibid.). She then turned to her ambition to create high-quality housing for working people, describing housing as ‘very much a woman’s question, and a form of engineering of the domestic kind’ (ibid., 153).

Willson had recently launched a scheme in Halifax to build sixty-four houses designed by herself and equipped with many labour-saving appliances, as well as ‘communal greens for bowling, tennis, etc’ (Woman Engineer, vol. 2, no. 5, Dec 1925, 109). Within two years, more than 230 such homes were built or in the process of erection, and in 1926 Willson was elected as the first woman member of the National Federation of Housebuilders. She initiated similar schemes at Englefield Green and Walton-on-Thames in Surrey. She was also a founder of Electrical Enterprise Ltd, set up in 1927 to take advantage of the opportunities in rural electrification offered by the Electricity (Supply) Act 1926 and ‘to provide openings for women in the business of electricity supply’ (Woman Engineer, vol. 2, no. 12, Sept 1927, 248).

In her farewell speech as WES president, Willson talked of being at the start of ‘a golden age’ for women, especially those entering the business world: ‘Industry has become fascinating and profitable to women, and we want to play a full part in that new life’ (Woman Engineer, vol. 2, no. 16, Sept–Oct 1928, 308).

Laura Annie Willson died on 14 April 1942 at Walton Grove Mansions, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, and was cremated at Woking. At the time of her death, she possessed 185 houses in Halifax, Englefield Green, and Walton-on-Thames, most producing rental income, and reckoned to be worth a total of £71,380. She was survived by her husband, George, and her two children and their spouses, several of whom continued the family’s engineering tradition.

Sources

Archives

  • corres. and papers on building work at Walton-on-Thames and Englefield Green, Surrey HC

Likenesses

  • photograph, repro. in Woman Engineer (June 1942)
  • photograph, with Margaret Partridge and Caroline Haslett, 1920s, Inst. ET

Wealth at Death

£72,893 12s. 5d.: probate, 21 Sept 1942, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

marriage certificate
birth certificate
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]