John McGoldrick tells the story of the 20th-cen­tury ‘in­dus­try queens’, the or­di­nary girls who be­came na­tional celebri­ties

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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.

Rail­way ‘roy­alty’

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

Three Piece Suit

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

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