Extraordinary Women on Blue Plaques
This International Women's Day Leeds Civic Trust highlights the women celebrated on our blue plaques. Leeds is built on the success of women who have been instrumental in the development, enlightenment and prosperity of this city. From culture to education, activism to sport, these great women have paved the way for future generations. Often unsung in their own era, their foresight, determination and strength of character has often seen them challenge traditional gender stereotypes.
A fifth of the Trust’s plaques commemorate women. We would like to see more and have already received nominations for other extraordinary women who will be honoured with blue plaques in the future.
Ellen Heaton (1816–1894) was a philanthropist and art collector, best known for her patronage of art and friendships with members and associates of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the influential art critic. John Ruskin. She was the daughter of Leeds bookseller John Heaton, whose bookshop was part of her childhood home on Briggate. Ellen’s brother, John Deakin Heaton, is also commemorated with a Blue Plaque on Clarendon Road. As a young girl she found herself discouraged from continuing to study due to the prevailing societal opinions about the higher education of women but she found ways to continue her quest for knowledge by becoming a patron of the arts and joining the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, of which her brother was President for a time.
Swarthmore Education Centre, 6 Woodhouse Square
Unveiler: Ms. Rommi Smith – Poet, Performer, Teacher
Sponsors: Friends of Swarthmore Education Centre and Little Woodhouse Community Association
Suffragette born in Leeds, bodyguard to Emmeline Pankhurst and leading figure of the British suffrage movement. She was most famously arrested for smashing a glass case containing royal insignia at the Tower of London in protest against the government’s position on a woman’s right to vote. In later protests she went on hunger strike. She lived to the age of 105, enabling her to contribute to the Second Wave of Feminism more than 90 years after her birth. Cohen was the first female president of the Yorkshire Federation of Trades Councils and the following year became one of the first female magistrates, eventually earning herself an OBE for services to public life.
2 Claremont Villas, Clarendon Rd
Unveiler: Mr. Michael Meadowcroft – Chairman of the Electoral Reform Society, 1989-1993
Sponsors: Various Individual Sponsors
Gertrude Maretta Paul
One of the founding members of the Leeds West Indian Carnival and the first black head teacher in Leeds. She also founded the Leeds International Women’s Group, the Afro Asian Organisation and the United Caribbean Association. She was born in St. Kitts and came to England in 1956 where she went on to teach at Cowper Street School in Chapeltown. 20 years after arriving in England she was appointed as head teacher of Elmhurst Middle School. She has since become recognised as one of the most influential women in the city’s history.
Bracken Edge Primary School, Newton Rd, LS7
Unveiler: Heather Paul
Sponsors: Chapeltown Heritage Advisory Group
Born in Leeds as Elizabeth Bland, Neilson was the daughter of an actress. Her childhood and early youth was spent in poverty and menial work. In 1865 she appeared in Margate as Julia in The Hunchback, a character with which her name was long associated. For the next few years she performed at several London theatres. In 1872 she visited America, where her beauty and talent made her a great favourite, and she returned there on many subsequent occasions. During her stage career she played no fewer than 6 of Shakespeare’s leading female characters and achieved true celebrity status years before ‘celebrity’ was an established term.
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Quarry Hill
Unveiler: Josephine Tewson – Actor
Sponsors: Prof. Neville Rowell
Social reformer, suffragist and writer. She became a public speaker and wrote pamphlets on issues related to socialism, feminism and worker's rights. After becoming concerned with the rights of female mill workers at an early age, Ford became involved with trade union organisation in the 1880s. A member of the national administrative council of the Independent Labour Party, she was the first woman to speak at a Labour Representation Committee (which became the British Labour Party) conference.
Adel Grange Residential Home, Adel Grange
Unveiler: Frank Ford – Representing the Ford Family
Sponsors: Adel Grange Residential Home
Baroness Ryder of Warsaw
Sue Ryder was a humanitarian dedicated to the relief of suffering. Her work started in WWII, helping people displaced from their homes as a result of war. After the War she widened the scope of her work, supporting people with complex needs and life-threatening conditions across the UK and internationally. The Sue Ryder Foundation (now simply named ‘Sue Ryder’) was founded by Ryder in 1953 and currently has roughly 500 charity shops in the UK and over 80 homes worldwide. She received a peerage in 1979 to become Baroness Ryder of Warsaw.
Scarcroft Grange, Wetherby Road, Scarcroft
Unveiler: Elizabeth and Jeromy Cheshire – Daughter and Son of Sue Ryder and Leonard Cheshire
Sponsors: Sue Ryder Prayer Fellowship
Image: Copyright National Portrait Gallery/Lord Snowdon/Armstrong Jones
Born in Holbeck, Benson was a saxophonist and bandleader, who led an all-female swing band. She learned her trade from her musical father who played the trombone in the Leeds Symphony Orchestra. Benson and her band, who had formed in London in the 1930s, rose to fame in the 1940s and went on to headline variety theatres and top the bill at the London Palladium. Benson’s band became the BBC's resident house band in 1943, they were the first entertainers to be invited to perform at the VE celebrations in Berlin in 1945 and in the same year they played live on BBC Radio on Christmas Day immediately after the King’s speech. Benson’s successful career was crowned in 1948 when she performed with her band at the London Olympics. The Band continued until the early 80’s, Benson was also a recipient of a ‘This is Your Life’ book.
59 Cemetery Road, LS11
Unveiler: Cllr. Angela Gabriel
Sponsors: Beeston & Holbeck Ward Councillors, Adam Ogilvie, David Congreve and Angela Gabriel; and Ivy Benson fans Jenna Bailey, Veronica Lovell and Doug Sandle
English racing cyclist who dominated the sport in the UK and abroad, winning more than 90 domestic championships and seven world titles and setting numerous national records. For over twenty years Burton was the British Time Trials Best All Rounder and was twice the World Road Racing Champion. The national records she set for 10, 25 and 50 mile distances all stood unbeaten for over 20 years and her 12-hour record stood for an incredible 50 years. Burton’s domination of the sport led her to be invited to compete at the Grand Prix des Nations in 1967-68 against her male counterparts, a feat so rare that it is recognised in the history books of the event. Her sporting success and contributions to British cycling were acknowledged with the award of an OBE in 1968.
Beryl Burton Gardens, Queen Street, Morley
Unveiler: Maxine Peake
Sponsors: Morley Town Council, Morley Town Centre Management Board and Leeds City Council Outer South Area Committee Well-being Fund
Lady Betty Hastings
Philanthropist and benefactor. She saw education as key to the future and built a boarding school for girls at Ledsham and founded schools at Aberford, Collingham and Thorp Arch. She was also a major benefactor to religious and other charitable causes. Known for giving away half of her considerable yearly income, she was largely responsible for the erection of Holy Trinity Church, Boar Lane, Leeds. On her death, Hastings left her Wheldale estate near Wakefield to Queen’s College, Oxford in order to help support any northern students of the College.
Holy Trinity Church, Boar Lane
Unveiler: Dr. Ingrid Roscoe – Lord Lieutenant of West Yorkshire
Sponsors: Land Securities
Image: Courtesy of ‘The Provost and Fellows of The Queen’s College Oxford’
Born in Woodhouse, Gawthorpe was a British suffragette, socialist, trade unionist and editor. She was also active in the local branch of the National Union of Teachers. She became increasingly involved in women's suffrage and worked for the Women's Social and Political Union in Leeds. She spoke at national events including a rally in Hyde Park in 1908 attended by over 200,000 people. Gawthorpe was imprisoned on several occasions for her political activities; on one occasion in particular she was badly beaten and suffered serious internal injuries after heckling Winston Churchill in 1909.
9 Warrel’s Mount, Bramley, LS13
Unveiler: Dr. Jill Liddington
Sponsors: Members & Friends of Leeds Civic Trust and Bramley Ward Councillors
Agnes Logan Stewart
Born in London, Stewart moved to Leeds in 1871. A member of the Sisters of Mercy, she bought three houses in St Saviour’s Parish, knocked them through into one and opened an orphanage early in 1872. Maintaining the orphanage at her own expense, the following year she opened a girls’ school and an infant school, followed by St Hilda’s Boys School. Stewart died in 1886 and was buried at Seacroft churchyard but her legacy of £40,710 secured St. Saviour’s orphanage until the 1930s and later the building of Agnes Stewart High School.
Bridge Community Church, Rider Street, Mabgate
Unveiler: Paul Slater – The Bishop of Kirkstall
Sponsors: Jointly by Diocese of Leeds and Leeds Minster
Yorkshire Ladies’ Council of Education
Yorkshire Ladies’ Council of Education (YLCE) was established in 1875 by a group of prominent Yorkshire women who recognised the need to help other women living in overcrowded and unhealthy conditions in the industrial areas. They also advocated for improvements in educational opportunities for girls and were influential in the opening of the Leeds Girls High School.
18 Blenheim Terrace, LS2
Unveiler: The Lady Grimthorpe DCVO – Past President, Yorkshire Ladies’ Council of Education
Sponsors: Mr. and Mrs. Peter Hartley, Hillards Charitable Trust
Alice Bacon MP CBE
Leeds' first female MP. Elected Leeds North East MP in the 1945 General Election, before representing Leeds South East from 1955 until her retirement in 1970. Born and raised in Normanton, she defied the odds to be elected Labour MP for Leeds North East in the 1945 General Election gaining the seat from the Conservatives with a 22% swing. Famed in her home town for her unlikely love of sports cars, she was a much-respected, no-nonsense, hard-working representative in Westminster.
As a minister in the Home Office in the 1960s she oversaw the introduction of substantial societal changes, including the abolition of the death penalty, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the legalisation of abortion. As Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science between 1967-1970 with responsibility for the introduction of comprehensive schools. Rachel Reeves MP has written a biography of Alice Bacon entitled “Alice in Westminster: The Political Life of Alice Bacon” in 2017
Corn Exchange, LS1
Unveiler: Rachel Reeves MP
Sponsors: University of Leeds & Rushbond