Huddersfield - The wonderful women who make the town tick

Marsh Ladies Choir (c) Christopher Marsden

Marsh Ladies Choir (c) Christopher Marsden - Credit: Christopher Marsden

The town has had more than its fair share of female pioneers. Martin Pilkington meets some of the women continuing the trailblazing tradition

Anna Williams

Anna Williams - Credit: not Archant

It could be something in the water, or more plausibly it could be the town’s industrial heritage, but there’s no denying that Huddersfield has produced its fair share of pioneering women. And it continues to do so.

Local historian and author Vivien Teasdale favours the idea industry brought opportunities: ‘A lot of the workers in Huddersfield’s mills were women,’ she says. ‘Once you start getting your hands on some money you can do much more. This started things like, say, looking how they could separate from violent husbands, or keep some of the money they earned for themselves, as prior to that they couldn’t. Gradually they pushed for changes to the law and once that happened it made a big difference.’

Her book Struggle and Suffrage in Huddersfield tells the stories of women famous and otherwise, and their fight for equality. ‘Some women getting the vote a hundred years ago was the pinnacle, but the fact is there were lots of women who were pioneers in their own way before and after that, women who fought for and took opportunities in the first place, like being the first women councillors, or solicitors; or helped lots of other women to see they could do it as well.’

The town has a contemporary organisation that similarly sees women supporting women, in its case in the field of business. On the first Tuesday of the month the local section of the nationwide Women in Business Network meets at 315 Bar in Lepton for lunch, and to exchange information, leads and ideas in a carefully structured two-hour gathering guided by a facilitator.

Professor Adele Jones, University of Huddersfield

Professor Adele Jones, University of Huddersfield - Credit: not Archant

Yorkshire regional director Paula Grizzard said: ‘We focus on being advocates for one another, it’s like a business club effectively. We’re keen to encourage collaboration and partnerships, joint ventures even, and you get to build strong relationships with other businesses in different sectors. There’s some informal peer-to-peer mentoring, and the members get to know people and gain confidence in how that person does business and the culture they work in.’

Best-selling Huddersfield self-help author, businesswoman and NLP coach Rebecca Lockwood likewise has a mission to empower others, founding The Female Entrepreneurs Network to do just that. ‘We have a programme to help people with an idea for business that they are passionate about, to do something they love doing,’ she says. ‘Everyone thinks business is difficult and confusing, but actually, if you pull the layers back, it’s really simple.’

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Rebecca struggled at school, but started her first business, blazed a rapid trail in the telecoms world, and was headhunted by competitors several times all before she was 22 – at which point she decided on a total life change, and established a range of her own enterprises.

The central one today helps others on their journeys and she adds: ‘I do a lot of work with local colleges and schools now. When I was at school I couldn’t see the opportunities and found it quite difficult. I feel if I’d had the support then it would have helped me hugely.’

Professor Liz Towns-Andrews (c) Paul Cooper

Professor Liz Towns-Andrews (c) Paul Cooper - Credit: Paul Cooper

Hotelier and restaurateur Sara Presley is another Huddersfield businesswoman definitely not averse to risk. What is now Manor House, an 11-room hotel in Lindley complete with three restaurants and four bars, was until recently a dilapidated shell. ‘I’d often go past and stare at the building from the street, this poor yet once beautiful structure going to ruin,’ says Sara. She imagined it as a thriving hotel and events centre, and with vision and passion went for it. ‘Four years on and it has surpassed our expectations, and now offers opportunities for the local community and the talent within it.’

Manor House has been open for over a year now, with the accommodation already granted five AA stars, and the sumptuous interior recently winning Best Hotel Interior at the Northern Design Awards. There’s no stopping these Huddersfield women.

Since it was established in 1955 there has been no stopping Marsh Ladies Choir either. ‘Over the years it has grown and developed,’ says Helen Clayton, the chairwoman. ‘We’re still thriving, with a lot of younger members as well, which is encouraging.’

Run as a charitable trust, the 40-strong choir rehearses every Thursday evening in Salendine Nook Baptist Church and performs concerts throughout the region, and since 2008 when they sang in Estonia, overseas too; a trip to Tuscany is a part of their 2020 schedule.

Sara Presley outside Manor House

Sara Presley outside Manor House - Credit: not Archant

In keeping with that supportive Huddersfield spirit, the choir backs a different charity every year – this year local mental-health group S2R. Like a crowd of Huddersfield’s female role models dating back to Mary Sykes and Mary Blamires and others who went before them (to misquote the Eurythmics) they’re sisters doing it for other people.

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