QUEENS OF INDUSTRY
John McGoldrick tells the story of the 20th-century ‘industry queens’, the ordinary girls who became national celebrities
John McGoldrick tells the story of the 20th-century ‘industry queens’ who became national celebrities
Anewspaper reported in 1932: “The queen raised her hand to the people on one side of the street. ‘Now to the right!’ I loudly whispered. ‘Look at those dear old women frantically waving at you!’ So to the outskirts of Burnley, where there was a mob and the police had to be busy to keep a clear way. There were the excited folk who waved handkerchiefs and shrieked. I liked the men who raised their hats to the little queen. At Nelson, so great was the excitement that some members of the crowd tried to storm her car.”
So Sir John Foster Fraser wrote in the Daily Dispatch of 25 June 1932, recalling how he accompanied Marjorie Knowles, Great Britain’s newly elected Cotton Queen, in an open top car on her return home to the textile towns of East Lancashire, a day after her crowning at a glittering ceremony in Blackpool. The queen’s first duty was to deliver a rousing speech.
“I appeal to the so-called weaker sex to show that we can be stronger than the men in more ways than one, by doing all that is possible to help cotton,” she told the gathering. “The press are anxious to help our district and if we back up their efforts to the best of our ability we shall help to reduce the number of idle looms.”
Campaign for cotton
Shrinking export markets for British cotton in the decades after the First World War and a failure to modernise processes and machinery had had a devastating effect.
In response, the Daily Dispatch, selfstyled ‘National Newspaper of the North’, with a circulation of more than 400,000 in 1929, heralded a vigorous high-profile ‘Cotton Queen Quest’ to find a suitable female figurehead for the industry. The campaign was covered in most of the north-west printed press, along with paid advertising. The paper even produced special badges for each district, which bore the ‘cotton worker’s arms’ of shuttle, spindles and the red rose of Lancashire.
Frances Lockett, a 20-year-old weaver at Newton Moor Mill, Hyde, became the very first Cotton Queen of Great Britain in 1930. In a recording held by Tameside Local Studies and Archives, Frances related how she was nominated for the Glossop District Cotton Queen competition.
“The first thing I knew about it was when my little brother came running upstairs. ‘Fran,’ he says, ‘Your photograph’s in the paper.’ … It seems my father had sent the photograph of me unknown to me… and it snowballed from there.”
Frances represented Glossop in the final at Blackpool’s Tower Circus before some 2,500 spectators. A Daily Dispatch souvenir illustrates the highly ritualised ceremony. Twenty finalists in full-length cotton dresses, adorned with sashes indicating their place of origin, flank the mock gothic throne which was reputedly modelled on the one at Westminster Abbey. Frances was the judges’ choice to represent the nation’s cotton trade for the next year. Her prizes included a silver dressing table set and a portable gramophone.
Into the limelight
Following her coronation, Frances promenaded in the town’s Pageant of Progress wearing her Daily Dispatch crown emblazoned with a cotton boll, an ermine cloak and a wrap of golden gauze. Such was the national impact of the Cotton Queen phenomenon that film impresario Joe Rock rushed out the Elstree comedy film Cotton Queen. In a bizarre instance of reality meeting fiction, the Burnley Express reported on reigning Cotton Queen Vera Greenwood’s attendance at a local showing of the film.
In the search for a star of a rather different kind of film, Doreen Kerfoot, a 19-year-old weaver from Batley, found herself on a trajectory from loom to limelight.
In 1947, the Wool and Allied Employers’ Council commissioned a recruitment film as part of a government-backed campaign to encourage more workers, especially women, to consider working in the woollen industry. Its exports, especially to the USA, were a valuable source of income to post-war Britain and the Labour government set production targets for manufacturers. That meant attracting more workers to what was seen as a declining and grubby employment option.
The film-makers needed a star with authenticity, ideally someone who worked in the industry. The Employers’ Council organised qualifying rounds in the textile districts of the West Riding of Yorkshire to find women textile workers who could represent their locality as Yorkshire’s Wool Queen. Doreen Kerfoot progressed to the final event held at Lewis’s department store in Leeds and was selected as Yorkshire Wool Queen and the star of Three Piece Suit. The film was shot at United Motion Film Pictures studio in London and on location in Bradford and at Newsome’s Mill in Batley.
Doreen starred as herself, the weaver who sees her creative idea for a white three piece suit through from concept to completion. The film (no copy is known to have survived) was premiered at Bradford and toured the West Riding of Yorkshire with the ‘Story of Wool’ exhibition. Doreen only returned to weaving briefly. The Three Piece Suit exposure opened doors for her in pantomime, fashion modelling and as a talented soprano.
Ella’s arrival was greeted by a guard of railwaymen in the fighting dress of Vikings
The idea for queens of the wool and cotton industries was not a new one. The railways were the first of the large industries to choose annual queens. In 1925 the recently amalgamated ‘Big Four’ railway companies joined forces to celebrate the centenary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway. The 1920s were generally a time of effective collaboration between unions and management, with railway workers enjoying relatively good living standards and working conditions compared with those in comparable heavy industries. To promote the coronation of the Railway Queen, the Railway Employees’ Committee organised a grand Centenary Carnival at Belle Vue Park in Manchester. Titled the ‘Railway Centenary Queen’, Ella Wootton of Kingswear, daughter of a Great Western Railway employee, was elected.
In one of her larger engagements at the Goole Railwaymen’s Day in July 1926, Ella’s arrival by train was greeted by a salvo of ‘ fog signals’ (explosive detonators) on the tracks, two page boys, six maids and a guard of railwaymen “in the fighting dress of Vikings… one of whom was mounted” before being presented with a sheaf of lilies on behalf of the Railway Ladies’ Committee.
The queen was then introduced to what must have been a bewildering array of exclusively male railway managers. A procession through Goole ensued, featuring 13 Dutch railwaymen’s children singing national songs, a 25-strong Railwaymen’s Pipers Band from Glasgow and a replica of Stephenson’s Rocket preceded by a horseman with a red flag.
The central role of trade unionism in the Railway Queen arrangements caused a hitch for 13-year-old Patricia Clark, however. Patricia had been selected for the role in 1931, yet last-minute enquiries revealed that her father, a porter with the Southern Railway, was not a paid-up union member. In a statement, John Bromley, Labour MP and secretary of The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, protested that as soon as it became clear “that Porter Clark is not a member of his trade union… I promptly refused to have anything to do with the crowning of the Queen or any other functions surrounding it”.
In the spirit of international industrial co-operation, many of the Railway Queens were sent overseas to meet their counterparts and observe how railways abroad were run. In one of the more daunting foreign adventures, 15-year-old Audrey Mossom from Blackpool was sent on a goodwill mission to Russia in 1936, where she shared the platform with Stalin at Moscow’s Grand Opera House to celebrate Women’s Day. Stalin’s close associate Lazar Kaganovitch rose to shake her hand and introduced her to the audience. Kaganovitch, an enthusiastic supporter of Stalin’s purges, was at the time serving as Minister for Railways and organised the arrest of thousands of railway managers and officials as supposed saboteurs. During the Great Terror from 1936 his signature appears on 188 of 357 documented execution lists. Members of the coal-mining community started electing Coal Queens in the early years of the National Coal Board ( NCB) following the end of the Second World War. The competitions mirrored the structure of the industry, with coal-mining areas electing queens who went on to divisional competitions and thence to the national final. These competitions tended to be open to the wives, mothers, daughters or sisters of coal industry employees. Occasionally, eligibility was extended to ‘sweethearts’.
Boosting industry morale
The competitions, beginning in 1947, were against the backdrop of the productivity drive of the 1950 Plan for Coal. As with the railways, unions and management were looking for new ways to cement relations and improve morale.
More than any of the other major industries, arrangements for Coal Queen
competitions were closely connected to the chief trade union, the National Union of Mineworkers, and by extension to the Labour Party. The Morpeth Herald & Gazette for 26 March 1954 reported in detail the deliberations of Blyth Division Labour Party with the headline “Coal Queen to be Restricted to Families of NCB Employees”. The meeting, held in a miners’ hut, was told: “charming girls of Bedlingtonshire whose parents are not connected with the National Coal Board” would not be permitted to compete.
The competitions reflected changing trends and tastes over time, with queens in the 1970s and 1980s wearing swimming costumes and winning their own bodyweight in Babycham. Coal Queens, local, regional and national, continued until the early 1980s. Deborah Tate, the penultimate Northumberland Coal Queen, was elected in 1982, declaring, “I don’t have blood in my veins, I have coal dust.” Deborah is now the marketing manager at Woodhorn Museum, formerly the colliery where her father, grandfather and great grandfather all worked.
The creation of queens for Britain’s great industries created such waves of enthusiasm among contemporary press, public and employees that it is perhaps surprising how little-remembered they are today. Queens of industry played key roles in promoting and cementing unity in their sectors. Their rich history may be fragmentary, but it is there. You only need to scratch the surface.
John McGoldrick is a curator at Leeds Industrial Museum
I don’t have blood in my veins, I have coal dust
Frances Lockett is fêted at the mill where she was a weaver after becoming the first Daily Dispatch Cotton Queen in 1930
A pageant in Blackpool celebrates the crowning of Britain’s first Cotton Queen, Frances Lockett, in 1930
Weaver Doreen Kerfoot, the 1947 Yorkshire Wool Queen, in a still from the film
Machinist Marjorie Knowles was elected Cotton Queen in 1932
The 1982 Northumberland Coal Queen Deborah Tate underground at Ellington Colliery