YESTERDAY was International Women’s Day and a blue plaque was unveiled by mayor of Darlington on the home of the town’s first female councillor.

Clara Curtis Lucas spent a lifetime campaigning for equality for women. She was a leading suffragist, bravely touring the region, speaking in favour of women getting the Parliamentary vote and suffering abuse from her opponents. She was one of the first women to be elected to run the town’s schools and then, as the rules were relaxed, she became the first to win a seat on the council.

And then she came up with one of the best put-downs ever heard in the Darlington council chamber. The windbaggery of the 27 male councillors and aldermen dragged out her first council meeting for so long that she said at the end: “If we’re going to be here all this time every month, I’ll bring my knitting.”


The Northern Echo:

Clara (above) was born in Thirsk in 1853, the daughter of railwaymen. She was educated at Darlington’s Polam Hall School which, in those days, was a Quaker boarding school and something of radically-minded hotbed of female equality. Quakers believe that all people are equal before God. Therefore, if men had the Parliamentary vote, so should women. The founding headmistresses of the school, Jane and Elizabeth Proctor, were two of only three women in the Tees Valley to sign the first petition, in 1866, calling for this equality.

In 1882, Clara became the founding honorary secretary of the Darlington Women’s Liberal Association, which was one of the first female political organisations to be set up in the whole country. It campaigned for female equality in all spheres.

Then she became chairman – yes, chairman – of the Darlington Women’s Suffrage Society, and she toured the region delivering passionate speeches. When the vote was won in February 1918, she chaired the first meeting of the society, and announced that, rather than giving up now the fight was won, the new goal was to get equal pay for female and male teachers.

Education was another of Clara’s passions. After leaving Polam, she ran nightclasses in her bid to spread educational opportunity.

The Northern Echo: Clara Curtis LucasThe 1894 School Board election is called

Even though women could not vote in Parliamentary elections, they were allowed to participate in local affairs, and in 1894, Clara was elected onto the Darlington School Board. This was heated election, not because of the gender of Clara and the other female candidate, Sophia Fry, but because they represented the “Unsectarian and Progressive Party”.

The School Board, formed after the 1870 Education Act, had to ensure education for children aged five to 10. The Anglicans and Catholics on the board wanted ratepayers’ money to go to their churches’ schools; the nonconformists on the board, like Clara who was a Unitarian, wanted to support a non-denominational Christian education.

The Northern Echo: Clara Curtis LucasThe result of the 1894 school board election with Miss Fry and Miss Lucas elected

As the divide broke largely along political lines – the “churchmen” were usually Conservatives and the “unsectarians” were usually Liberals – this was a contentious issue that Clara forced herself into, especially as one of the members of her group was labelled by a local right-wing newspaper as a “New Labour and Socialist propagandist”.

The Northern Echo: Clara Curtis LucasClara's thank-you advert from The Northern Echo after her election in 1894

The schools board, though, was as far as Clara could go until August 1907 when the Qualification of Women Act enabled women ratepayers to stand for the local council. Clara put herself forward in 1915 as Darlington’s first ever female candidate, in the Cockerton ward. A man topped the poll with 588 votes, but Miss Lucas came third with 483 votes which gained her the last place on the council.

After reading the results from the steps of the town hall in the market place, the mayor, Councillor JG Harbottle, “specially congratulated her as being one of the few women in England who was privileged to sit at the council table”.

The Northern Echo: From The Northern Echo of 1915 as Clara wins her seat

Clara then took to the top step to make her victory speech which was, said the Echo, “well received”. “She felt it a huge honour and privilege to represent the Cockerton Ward. She thanked those who had worked and voted for her, and she hoped they would never have cause to regret sending a woman to the Darlington County Council.”

She took her place on the education committee and was vice-chairman of the museum and library committee, although as the chairman was away on active service, she was effectively in charge.

Sadly, Clara’s time on the council was limited.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Jan Cossins and Clara Curtis LucasCllr Jan Cossins and members of the Bradshaw family, Kate, Sam and Viveca, outside Clara's home in Abbey Road. The family owns Clara's former house

We must presume that in December 1918 in the first general election after the first women had been given the vote, she joyfully exercised her newly-won vote, but then she fell ill and was confined to the newly-built house – Fieldhead in Abbey Road – which she shared with her spinster sister, Alice. She appeared to recover, only to suffer heart failure at 12.30pm on April 14, 1919. She was 65.

In its obituary, The Northern Echo said Clara was “a woman of strong personality”.

It said: “Holding advanced and independent views, she was essentially a pioneer, and in her advocacy of the woman’s cause had to meet with a considerable amount of opposition which, however, only strengthened her determination to win for her sex equal rights with those of men.”

It is fascinating to read between the lines and wonder what the Echo meant by “considerable amount of opposition”, because there are accounts of peaceful women’s suffrage campaigners, like Clara, in the North East being abused and even stoned.

Clara was a pioneer, and so it is appropriate that the home the she built should be marked in this way. Hopefully, the blue plaque is the first in a series that will be placed on Darlington’s historic walls.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Jan Cossins and Clara Curtis LucasThe unveiling of Clara's plaque. Picture by Pat Blewitt


The Northern Echo: Sophia Matilda Fry (1865-1945). Picture courtesy of the Darlington Centre for Local StudiesSophia Matilda Fry (1865-1945). Picture courtesy of the Darlington Centre for Local Studies

IT has always been said that Clara Lucas was Darlington’s first elected woman when she took her place on the Schools Board in 1894, but Memories’ research shows that another woman, Miss Sophia Matilda Fry, was elected to the board in 1891.

Sophia was the daughter of Darlington’s MP, Sir Theodore Fry, and the grand-daughter of Edward “Father of the Railways” Pease.

Sir Theodore was from the Bristol family of chocolatiers and came to Darlington to run the Rise Carr Rolling Mills. He joined the Schools Board in 1871, became mayor in 1877 and was MP from 1880 to 1895.

His wife, Lady Sophia, was a passionate promoter of education, setting up a centre for cookery classes for poor people in Darlington. Lady Sophia was a national figure as the founder of the Women’s Liberal Association, which campaigned for women’s equality.

When Sir Theodore became MP, their eldest son, Sir John Pease Fry, replaced him on the Schools Board, and when Sir John’s business interests grew, his sister, Sophia, took his seat on the board.

Sophia was born in the family mansion of Woodburn, which used to stand next to Elm Ridge. Unlike Clara who was very much her own person and made her own speeches, it feels like Sophia was part of her family – her ‘victory’ speeches were made on her behalf by either her father or brother.

In 1895, Lady Sophia and Sir Theodore were involved in a carriage accident at Lake Maggiore in Italy – Lady Sophia was thrown into the lake and Sir Theodore was dragged underneath the carriage and broke a rib. They never fully recovered, and Lady Sophia died two years later, aged 59, while staying at the Grand Hotel in Biarritz.

When Sir Theodore remarried in 1902 – his new wife was 40 years his junior – he shut up Woodburn and moved to Caterham in Surrey, effectively ending the family connection with Darlington.

Sir John took on the family’s country residence of Cleveland Lodge at Great Ayton, while Sophia went to live comfortably in Buckinghamshire, where she died in 1945. Her obituary in The Northern Echo tells us nothing interesting about her life after Darlo, and doesn’t even mention that she was the town’s first elected woman – unless we ever find someone who pre-dates her.