We have always marked International Women’s Day in Crewe Library with book displays about inspiring and important women. In 2018 we made a successful bid to the Sylvia Pankhurst Gender and Diversity Research Centre for funding a small exhibition celebrating the centenary of some British Women gaining the vote in 1918 and International Women’s Day.
The resulting exhibition Women Educating Cheshire in the 20th Century has been an exciting collaborative project between Margaret Roberts, associate researcher from the Cheshire Sports and Leisure History Research Team (SpLeisH) and myself to research, write and put the exhibition together. The funding from the Sylvia Centre paid for poster frames and the printing of collages of archive material. We don’t have the facilities to display fragile documents in Crewe Library, so reproducing images of what the campus holds was an effective solution.
We focused on women who studied and worked at the then Cheshire County Training College at Crewe. The only criteria we bore in mind was that our women had to have left more than just a trace in the archive or a name in a college register. We eventually examined the lives of eight very different women.
We chose three Crewe students. Sybil, Ellen and Elsie experienced life at College before and during the First World War. Sybil was the first of her family to enter higher education in an echo of the university’s First Generation campaign. While the College originally accepted male and female students training to be teachers (it went wholly female in the 1940s and 50s) their experiences were very different and driven by gender expectations.
Ellen and Elise experienced life in the Women’s Hostel on campus, unlike their male contemporaries who stayed in lodgings in town. While the male students could go off to the local theatre, the female students had to be in bed by 9:30 pm or 10:00 pm if they were on teaching practice. Their skirt lengths and hairstyles were all regulated and any deviation corrected. The physical education drill yards were separated by sex with a brick wall between both spaces.
In 1913 the Crewe students staged a mock parliamentary election. There were three male candidates, a conservative, liberal and socialist. The fourth candidate was one Laura Collins who stood for the Women’s Party. The student electorate voted on an equal basis with no property qualifications, but to discover who ‘won’ this ‘election’ you will have to visit the exhibition to find out.
Aside from our politically engaged students, our most exciting discovery was Mary Watt Pedder Vice-Principal at Crewe 1927-29. She linked the campus to those important female educational campaigners of the nineteenth-century. As a young girl she attended the famous North London Collegiate School for young girls founded by Frances Mary Buss, and this imbued her with a clear feminist sensibility. Margaret traced her after she left Crewe when she became a popular speaker on women’s education and independence.
Each woman we researched proved fascinating. Our student Rose from the Alsager campus (closed in 2010) went off to teach English in Franco’s Spain. One Crewe lecturer who taught biology and rural science became even more interesting when we discovered she had planned the post-war Crewe campus grounds and gardens. Our last subject was the impressive Bronson Ward (d. 2012). She had been severely injured in the Farnborough Air Show disaster of 1952. Despite life-changing injuries this did not prevent her having a successful career in education. She was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a CBE. She oversaw the amalgamation of Crewe with the then Manchester Polytechnic, now Manchester Met.
The exhibition has proved a popular point on agendas at programme committees, and teaching colleagues and support staff have popped in and visited. The exhibition has been used as inspiration by groups of Education students and Masters students from Exercise and Sports Science; both have to plan and execute their own subject-specific exhibitions. Enquiries have come from alumni and retired teaching staff and Margaret will be speaking about the exhibition at a local Women’s Institute event in a couple of weeks. We can safely say that the exhibition is beginning to buzz and we hope the women we have included would be pleased.
This has been an inspiring collaborative project between staff from Crewe Library, SpLeisH and the Sylvia Pankhurst Gender and Diversity Research Centre. We hope this will be a catalyst for future projects. If you have time do try to visit the exhibition and learn more about some of Manchester Met’s remarkable and inspiring women.
Women Educating Cheshire Exhibition in the 20th Century runs from Monday 5th March until Friday 30th March at 4:30 pm in Crewe Library on the Cheshire campus.
Sarah Webb – Senior Assistant Librarian, Crewe Library