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Monday, 8 March 2021

Women of Cheshire

You will go back a long way to find your first significant woman in Cheshire history and Aethelflaed, Saxon Lady of Mercia, rebuilding Chester in 907, but to make it onto our list you need to find their stories in our archives...


Cooking the books

Elizabeth Raffald honed her skills in domestic service for 15 years. Her final job was housekeeper at Arley Hall in Cheshire before she married and went on to be a formidable businesswoman with a keen eye for an opportunity in 18th century Manchester. 

Portrait of Elizabeth Raffald

She ran a cookery school, domestic staff agency, delivered high end dining to Manchester’s new money homes, used the information she collected to publish Manchester’s first trade directory listing businesses, services and potential clients. And in 1769 published the first cookbook in English of original recipes – 800 of them – we made and loved eating her Herb Pie.

Elizabeth Raffald Society

For the record

Women appear equally in official records but these are bare glimpses and hints at lives lived. Take Parish registers recording baptisms, marriages and burials since the 1500s. In Taxal in 1707 there is a record of Hannah Wright and Anne Gaskill marrying, and in 1750 in Middlewich Maria Sproston marries Sarah Richardson 'commonly called Peter' – of course we will never know the whole stories, but this doesn’t make them any less fascinating.

We have managed to put some flesh on the bones of the life of a woman whose headstone has become famous in Overleigh Cemetery in Chester. Mary Jonas ‘the mother of 33 children by one husband’ - this note appears with her final contribution to the parish registers when she died aged 85.

Parish record noting Mary Jonas is 'The mother of 33 children by one husband'

Dear Diary

Women’s voices are hard to hear in official record-keeping but diaries are where lots of women have found their voice in recording their lives, experiences and feelings. Frances E. Crompton goes on to become an author and her diary is written in a way that you can imagine she was looking forward to telling her friends and family tales of a honeymoon gone wrong. There is lots to relate to … reality not living up to expectations … and that impractical and uncomfortable new frock that you love anyway.

Aged 22 in 1686 Sarah Savage began keeping her ‘spiritual diary’ and she kept writing until her death aged 87. And we have the first tiny volume of fewer than 100 pages, with such small writing and so many words. Yes, there is lots about sermons, her faith and life events, but there is so much more. In 1716, the person closest to her, Jane Hunt dies unexpectedly, and Sarah keeps her alive in conversations with her through her diary-keeping. Evidence of enduring best friendship.

Diaries in our collections have one thing in common. We know all about the authors because we can ask questions when people offer them to us. But this one came to us via a secondhand shop, the only clue to the writer's identity is an entry on her birthday. We can tell that she had Warrington connections and was nursing during the Second World War in Morecambe. The diary is intimate, full of detail, she is a complicated woman living through extraordinary times – one day we will perhaps discover who she was and what happened to her. We had to use our imagination and images from magazines to picture her. Or perhaps she would prefer to remain a mystery?

Women in politics and activism

We can't put together a blog celebrating the women of Cheshire without mentioning some of the inspiring women leaders and activists who have shaped our county. 

In 1894 a 24-year-old tailor named Ada Nield was sensationally dismissed from the Crewe clothing factory Compton Brothers clothing factory. Her offence? Inciting female co-workers to unite and demand a “living wage” instead of their current “lingering, dying wage”. For weeks Ada’s anonymous letters, signed “A Crewe Factory Girl”, had been printed in the Crewe Chronicle, garnering support from men’s unions as well as the local MP. As a result of these letters she had to leave Comptons, but working arrangements were improved.
Example of the letters that Ada wrote

Her letters attracted the attention of the Independent Labour Party, who offered her employment when her identity as the Crewe Factory Girl was eventually discovered. Ada became active in the ILP and by the end of 1894 she has been elected as a Nantwich Poor Law Guardian (one of the very first working-class female Guardians). In the years leading up to the First World War, Ada (now married as known as Ada Nield Chew) became an active supporter of the movement for women's suffrage.

Councillor Alift Harewood MBE was born in Anna Catherina, a sugar planting village in Guyana, in 1934. She trained as a nurse and midwife before coming to the UK and settling in Macclesfield. 

Alift worked as a nurse for 59 years, and during that time became very politically and socially active within the Macclesfield community. In 2012 she became the town's first Black mayor, and was re-elected again in 2016. She remains active in local politics and is a passionate advocate for gender equality. 

Alift shared her incredible life story with us in 2011 as part of CHAWREC's Journeys to Cheshire oral history project. 

Home front

We are all aware of the impact of turbulent world events on women’s lives. The First World War was the first global conflict to have a ‘home front’ and arguably accelerated change in women’s roles in society generally and some women’s lives were changed forever. In the ICI collection you will find inspirational photos of women working in Brunner Mond’s chemical works at Northwich that captivate with their camaraderie. Kept with them is a newspaper clipping – Florence Gleave died aged 20 and was a ‘canary girl’ – women turned yellow as working with TNT caused toxic jaundice.

Women at the Winnington Works, c. 1914

See them in West Cheshire Museums' Working Women online exhibition

You will find women in our ‘First World War Servicemen’s Index’ … a project that we named without realising that women in nursing units were still serving abroad in 1919, and of course that women over 30 had just got the right to vote. Search ‘nursing’ in Unit Keyword to find five women.


What has she got to do with Cheshire?

So Eleanor Ormerod wasn't born or, as far as we know, ever spent time in Cheshire – but, bear with us, if her father had not produced his ‘History of Cheshire’ she may not have had the skills or means to follow her own path as an insect expert in Victorian England. Her impact on farming was global as she reported on 'injurious insects'. Not that her father was impressed, his papers only record his sons' achievements. He surely would have been if he knew she keeps remarkable company with Darwin in having a ‘self-replicating manufacturing machine’ or free 3D printer model named after her! (And there is a Cheshire connection, her assistant was Robert Newstead, first curator of the Grosvenor Museum in Chester.)

Watch an interview with George Ormerod's biographer discussing Eleanor here

You can find all these women in our archives - and millions more - who would you add to the list?


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