Laura Annie Willson (1877-1942)

Laura Annie Willson (1877-1942)

Born: Laura Annie Buckley

Sector: Construction

Laura Annie Willson had an extraordinary life. She went from part-time worker in a Halifax mill aged 10 to property mogul by the age of 60 via a couple of short spells in prison, a visit to Buckingham Palace and the Presidency of the Women’s Engineering Society along the way.  ‘To my mind there has been no age like the present one,’ she said in The Sunday Times in 1927.  ‘To be able to carve out a career for oneself without the feeling of a sex barrier is a joy and a delight.’ 

Laura Annie Willson (1877-1942).  Suffragette, engineer, house builder.
Laura Annie Willson from ‘The Vote’ 1/1/26
With thanks to the British Newspaper Archive

Laura Annie was born on 15th August, 1877 in the Skircoat district of Halifax, the third child of Charles Buckley, a wool dyer, and his wife, Augusta.    Like many families in Yorkshire, the economic well-being of the Buckleys was tied to the mills, where the dying, spinning and weaving of wool, for clothing and furnishings, kept hundreds of thousands of men, women and children employed. Under the Factory Act of 1874 children could work six half days a week from the age of ten.  Laura Annie and her sisters all started as ‘half-timers’ as soon as they were legally able.  Based on other accounts from this time, their routine would have been brutal, with up to six hours of work and three hours of school every day and household tasks on top. 

Laura’s headmistress, who must have seen her potential, was keen to keep her in school for as long as possible, but with lessons having to be paid for and fewer hours in the mill translating into a smaller household income, Laura Annie staying in school would have cost the family twice over. She finished her formal education at thirteen and started full time work.   Soon she became involved in the union movement and funds for a country-wide tour promoting socialism to women. 

In December 1899, aged 22, she married George Willson.   Three years older than her and an ardent socialist, he had started a business in 1897 with two other men making lathes in a warehouse cellar in Ovenden, two miles from the centre of Halifax. Theirs was a happy and enduring marriage: they were colleagues and partners in work and play.  George made Laura Annie a director of the lathe-making business and they had their first child, a boy, in October, 1900.  In 1902, George joined the local school board and in 1904 and 1905 Laura Annie supported him in two bids to become a town councillor.  Although he was unsuccessful, she gained valuable campaigning experience and the couple became well-known locally. 

The fight for the vote
When Emmeline Pankhurst came to Halifax to speak at the local Independent Labour Party (I.L.P.) meeting in September 1905, Laura Annie was in the chair.  Six months later she made one of her first public speeches about women’s suffrage. In August, when Halifax tram drivers went on strike, she joined with a friend, Mary Taylor, to initiate a series of outdoor demonstrations in support on the basis that women also suffered if the household income was reduced.   Hundreds of people turned up for the first event and Laura Annie quickly got used to addressing loud, boisterous groups.   

In January 1907, she was elected secretary of the newly-founded Halifax branch of the WSPU. A strike by weavers in nearby Hebden Bridge provided an immediate opportunity to drum up support for women’s suffrage. On the 29th January, Laura Annie and Mary joined Emmeline Pankhurst for an evening of marches and speeches.  A couple of days later, Laura Annie was back on the stage of the local hall with Jennie Baines, Adela Pankhurst and Mary Gawthorpe.  Asked by a policeman if she was Mrs Taylor, she retorted ‘There is more than one determined woman in Halifax’.  The demonstrations spilled out of the hall and into the street, becoming raucous and rowdy, and in the melee, she and Jennie were arrested.

Laura Annie was accused of using inciting language and making a speech of ‘violent and inflammatory character’.  She demanded to be tried by a jury of women and represented by a woman, both pointless requests as she well knew, and ended up conducting her own defence.   She could have escaped with a fine but she refused to pay up or agree to keep the peace for six months so on 8th February she and Jennie, her fellow refusenik, were sentenced to fourteen days in Armley Gaol in Leeds. Jennie would go on to be one of the most militant suffragettes, imprisoned 15 times and eventually smuggled out of the country to Australia in 1913 where she continued with her militant activity.

Surveillance photographs of suffragettes showing Jennie Baines at no.17
‘Surveillance Photograph of Militant Suffragettes’ by Criminal Record Office
bromide print mounted onto identification sheet, 1914
NPG x132847© National Portrait Gallery, London
– Jennie Baines is no. 17

On the night of Laura Annie’s conviction, George joined Adela Pankhurst to address a large gathering in Hebden Bridge, publicly supporting his wife.   A few days later he visited her in prison, an experience he shared with the local paper under the emotive headline ‘Interviewed through Iron Bars’.  Laura Annie’s supporters joined the press outside the gaol on the morning of her release to greet an energised and unrepentant Prisoner D24.  ‘I was a bit of a rebel before but I am ten times a bigger rebel now’, she declared.

In early March she and Mary Taylor took to the stage of the Theatre Royal in Halifax in early March alongside Emmeline Pankhurst and Annie Kenney.  By now she was right at the heart of the suffragette campaign. Within a few days she was off to London to join another large demonstration.  On the 20th March, fiery speeches turned into physical battles which lasted into the evening.  Many women were seriously injured and Laura Annie was again arrested and imprisoned, this time in Holloway. Ever-loyal, George made the journey to London to visit her was alarmed at how ill she looked.  He persuaded her to pay her fine and get out of jail by appealing not to her health but to her political engagement: if she stayed in prison, she would miss the upcoming I.L.P. conference. 

However, Laura Annie’s passion for securing votes for women started to conflict with her political loyalty.  She was more interested in supporting candidates who were in favour of the suffrage agenda than those representing a particular party. She gradually distanced herself from formal party politics and although she campaigned and raised funds for the Labour party over the next seven years, her commitment to women’s suffrage and social issues came ahead of any specific party affiliation. She spoke at large events with Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethwick-Lawrence and Adela Pankhurst in Huddersfield, Leeds and Halifax during 1907 and 1908, facing down rowdy opposition and trite heckling comments to ‘go home and mend your husband’s socks’.   Fights often broke out during these crowded, heated debates and it was no safer being on the platform than in the audience.   

Public sessions addressed by leading politicians were also turning riotous.  In January 1909, organisers went to great lengths to ensure no troublesome women were in the audience when Richard Haldane, the War Secretary, spoke at the Victoria Hall in Halifax. Tickets were printed in two colours to make forgeries harder, issued only to those known as ‘peaceable subjects’ and if a woman bought one, her name was written on the back. Laura Annie had no problem circumventing these measures and claimed a seat near the stage unchallenged just before the meeting started.  She and six other ‘voteless ladies of the strenuous type’ stood up and interrupted Haldane at various points, each one summarily ejected.  Laura Annie was last, thrown out with hat askew and hair dishevelled. George, who had been sitting separately but close by, followed her out and whisked her off to reconvene with her fellow rebels.   

In June 1910, Laura Annie and George had another child, a daughter, Kathleen Vega. As she was nursing her baby, the WSPU was waging a nationwide campaign of bombing and arson and Laura Annie became more selective in her engagement.  She still appeared on the platform at large events in 1911 and 1912 but when she and Mary Taylor had to run from the stage of a local meeting in June 1913 after eggs and stones were hurled, she stepped back from the fray.  She started to turn her attention to other social and political causes, such as workers’ access to insurance and the abolition of half-time labour.  When war broke out in September 1914, all the major suffragist groups abandoned their campaigns and redirected their energies towards supporting the war effort.

Supporting the war effort
By now Smith, Barker and Willson was employing over 200 men in a large site in Ovenden and was theirs was one of thousands of factories repurposed for munitions work. Laura Annie’s day-to-day involvement in the business rapidly increased as she set up a new department staffed by women.  She took a hands-on approach and her ideas on workforce management were decades ahead of its time.  Smith, Barker and Willson was the only munitions factory in Halifax to operate an output-linked bonus system during the war.   She set up a canteen, providing ‘substantial prices that are marvellous in their reasonableness’.  In her view this was a sensible business decision: cooking at scale reduced the cost of food and employees with a proper meal inside them were healthier and happier.  She also introduced a creche, making it less likely that women with children would have to miss work due to child-care challenges.   The Ministry was so impressed with her results, a productive and motivated workforce, that they asked her to spend two months in the Midlands applying her experience to factories there. 

Munitions work during the First World War - women at the National Filling Factory in Chilwell, August 1917
National Filling Factory, Chilwell, August 1917 Copyright: © IWM Q 30023

When the Honours for War Work were announced in August 1917, a week after Laura Annie’s 40th birthday, she was awarded an MBE. ‘The honour will give great satisfaction in Halifax where her disinterested work for women for so many years, her known wide sympathies and her gifts as a speaker have won her general regard and esteem’, trumpeted the local paper.  And in February 1918, there was more to celebrate when the Representation of the People Act gave nearly 6 million women the vote.

Even before the war ended, Laura Annie was looking for new challenges.  In March 1918 she became secretary of the Halifax branch of the National Council of Women, an organisation established to co-ordinate women’s voluntary work.  This brought her into the orbit of Rachel Parsons, Cambridge’s first female student of engineering, who in March 1919 wrote an article for The Queen condemning the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act, which forced women out of the industrial jobs they had been doing for the last four years. This was a topic close to Laura Annie’s heart: she wanted to keep employing the women she had trained up in her Halifax factory.

On 23rd June 1919, Rachel and her mother, Lady Katherine Parsons, established the Women’s Engineering Society (W.E.S.) with five other founding members including Laura Annie.  Its aims were to promote the study and practice of engineering among women and to make it easier for women to meet, exchange ideas and publish information on these topics.   The new Society’s administrator was Caroline Haslett, a 23 year-old electrical engineer, who would become a good friend of Laura Annie’s.

The W.E.S. suffered an early setback when it failed to prevent the introduction of the Act, which received Royal Assent in August 1919, Smith, Barker and Willson still refused to dismiss the 21 women working for them and in November, they were taken to court.  George and Laura Annie fought all the way, taking their appeal to the London Law Courts in February 1920 after they lost their case at the local Munitions Tribunal.  In the end they were forced to comply and fined.  

New ventures: houses and electricity
In November 1924, a W.E.S. member, Mabel Matthews, presented a paper laying out a scheme to popularise the domestic use of electricity.  A month later, the Electrical Association for Women was established with Caroline Haslett as its director and Laura Annie as one of its founding members.  The organisation aimed to emancipate women from household drudgery though Lady Astor, the first president, commented that the most difficult thing in a house to deal with was a man and there were limits to what electrical equipment could do about that.  Indeed, vibrators would not start to appear on the market until the late 1960s.  In the meantime, a washing machine would have to do. 

In parallel, Laura Annie started to explore the business potential in a related area: housing. After the First World War, Britain found itself desperately short of houses and while the 1919 Housing Act was meant to make it easier for councils to support housing development, its numerous restrictions deterred private entrepreneurs.  Councils were given further powers to fund development projects in 1924 and Laura Annie decided to build houses for workers on company-owned land next to the Ovendon factory. 

This was not a philanthropic venture but it was purpose-led. The first scheme was relatively modest in scale but well-thought out, with sixty-four houses arranged in two horseshoes around two tennis courts and a bowling green.Laura Annie incorporated a host of labour-saving devices into the houses’ kitchens, installed plenty of cupboards and put an open hearth in the sitting room, for warmth and appeal.  She gave her contracts to local builders and insisted on using local materials – Lancashire brick for the walls and slate for the rooves.  

The 1924 Housing Act made it easier for primary mortgages to be accessed via the council but often the value lent was only 75% of the property value.  The houses were affordably priced at £400 each but Laura Annie knew many families would still not be able to find the remaining 25%. So she also offered additional financing, personally underwriting a second mortgage, usually at a slightly higher rate than the primary mortgage, to bridge the gap between the sales price and the primary mortgage amount. 

Discussions with her contractors started on 22nd July and work started in the summer of 1925.  By the end of November some houses were ready for occupation.  She began to develop another scheme in nearby Nursery Lane where she named a road Vegal Crescent after her daughter.

Advertisement for Laura Annie Willson's first housing scheme in Ovenden, Halifax, 1925
Advertisement for Laura Annie Willson’s first housing scheme.

She still remained busy with the W.E.S.  As well as her work on various committees, she was part of the advisory committee for the third annual conference of Women in Science, Industry and Commerce, convened by the W.E.S. in conjunction with a range of other industrial women’s organisations and held at Wembley in June 1925.  Opened by H.R.H. the Duchess of York, chaired by Lady Astor and with Millicent Fawcett and Lady Rhondda among the speakers, it had an all-star cast.  Laura Annie took to the platform on the first afternoon, chairing a session on a topic championed by Emma Paterson fifty years earlier, industrial welfare and factory inspection.   

In December 1925, her dedication to the W.E.S. was rewarded when she was elected President. The position and particularly the annual conference each September gave her a platform to express her views which she was only too happy to use.  After years of confronting rowdy crowds hurling verbal and physical abuse, the well-behaved audiences at W.E.S events held no fears for her.  Her opinions and positions moved with the times and her experience.  The confrontational Laura Annie who marched through Halifax in 1906 in support of the tram drivers was a world away from the one who in 1926 ‘deplored’ the UK’s industrial disputes.  Now she was more likely recommend that employers and workers collaborate to create substantial earnings in the first place before arguing about who got what.    

Recurring themes were the importance of free competition, the case for payments based on results and the joys of entrepreneurship.  At 49, with a wealth of varied experience, she was self-confident and happy to share her opinions. In 1926, the national press commended her for telling some ‘home truths about industry in general and house-building in particular’. She enthused about the possibilities for all women in the world of business: in her view, a full life meant having a career of some description and she wanted women to take advantage of what she saw as an age of opportunity.  

Laura Annie’s housebuilding successes featured heavily in the stories about her appointment.   ‘The provision of adequate quantities at reasonable cost and within the shortest possible time is one of the gravest problems facing the country’ commented one paper, a problem they felt Laura Annie had solved.   By April 1926 two more schemes were being planned in Halifax, in Pye’s Nest and Warley Wood.  At the first annual meeting of the Electrical Association of Women in London in June, her housing development business was held up as an example of what women could achieve in the field of engineering.  Laura Annie added a fourth site in Calder Valley in July and in September 1926 confirmed she had now bought 13 acres of land.  In December 1926, Laura Annie was elected as the first woman member of the National Federation of Housebuilders.  She now had 200 houses built or underway.   She confessed that there had been some sleepless nights when she had first decided to build houses, but she was ‘well pleased’ with the result.   

By early 1927, she was working on a new housing venture in Surrey.  In March, she purchased the first of four tranches of land in Englefield Green, in Egham, where she would eventually build 210 houses, ranged along roads she named Laurel Avenue, Willson Road and, again, Vegal Crescent.  An architect, W.A. Ross, developed the master plan, ensuring roads, footpaths and access to drainage were all properly integrated.  The sales agent wrote to Laura Annie’s solicitor one Saturday in May, asking for 100 printed booklets.  From the sound of his letter, he was worried about being trampled to death by a stampede of buyers: ‘Mrs Willson will no doubt have told you that the Englefield Green Estate is going like hot cakes…I am frightened of what Monday and Tuesday will bring.’  By June the first 34 bungalows and houses were being erected and the work was going at such a pace that the layout plan, with all the plots marked, could not keep up with the completion and sales of the properties, leading to some difficulties later reconciling house and plot numbers. 

These last years of the 1920s were a whirlwind of activity as Laura Annie juggled her commitments to the W.E.S. with her full-time job as a housebuilder.  For a while she had an assistant and George was always close by, providing support and an extra pair of hands as needed.  Later her daughter helped out with the accounts.   Boxes of paperwork and folders thick with letters typed on flimsy blue carbon paper, interspersed with numerous hand-written missives from Laura Annie and George, testify to the work involved in building and commercialising these new housing developments. 

There was constant to-ing and fro-ing between Laura Annie, her architect, her solicitors, prospective buyers, Egham council and their solicitors.  Issues that needed addressing ranged from the relatively small – a missing decorative frieze, the wrong colour tiles used – to more complex problems.  One buyer moved into a house and then decided it was not big enough so asking for a different one.  

To read Laura Annie’s public speeches and interviews during this period, one would think that housing development was the easiest job in the world.    A month after her 50th birthday in August 1927, she told the W.E.S. annual conference in Olympia that over £140,000 worth of building work was completed and nearly all sold, equivalent to a turnover of £9m today.  She was praised for her success in carrying out building schemes ‘satisfactory to investor, builder and occupier alike’ and relished her role as a businesswoman, providing jobs for men and women and dealing with finance on a large scale: ‘It has been and still is a glorious adventure’, she declared.    

Archive correspondence, however, reveals some of the challenges.  By the summer of 1928, relationships with Egham Council were frayed.  Laura Annie was frustrated by their slow approval of primary mortgages.  The Council, as the escalation point for any unresolved building issues, saw complaints that made them question the quality of the work.  A letter from the Council’s solicitors to Laura Annie’s in July focused on one case that had clearly been dragging on for some time without resolution: ‘a number of matters are still necessary for completion of the house in accordance with the very dogmatic undertaking given by Mrs Willson.’

In August, Laura Annie was summoned to a council meeting.  She did some astute stakeholder management, setting up a pre-meeting where there was surprise when she revealed the extent to which she was personally invested in the scheme through the second mortgages she offered.  The subsequent formal meeting went smoothly. ‘I appeared before them on Tuesday and they really didn’t appear to have a case at all,’ she later wrote.  She blamed a jealous local builder who had just got onto the council for the bad-mouthing.  Although there continued to be issues, for example, arguments about who should be installing street lighting (‘the council cannot light private roads though, mark you, with 180 inhabitants, there doesn’t seem much private about it,’) the project continued.

Remarkably, Laura Annie still found time to explore other commercial ventures.  In September 1927 she joined with Caroline Haslett, Margaret Partridge and three men to create a new company, Electrical Enterprises, to employ women in generating and distributing electricity in rural districts of England. 

Laura Annie Willson, Margaret Partridge and Caroline Haslett, founders of Electrical Enterprises in 1927
Laura Annie Willson, Margaret Partridge and Caroline Haslett in ‘The Vote’ 23/9/1927. Courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive

She also continued to make time to bring business women together:  she set up a branch of the Electrical Association of Women in Leeds; in April 1928, she became Chair of the local Venture Club in Halifax which later amalgamated with the Soroptimists Clubs; and in March 1929, six months after her W.E.S. Presidency ended, she became President of the Efficiency Club.   

By now Laura Annie was spending much more of her time in the south of England.  Initially she used a completed house in Englefield Green as her base but in 1929, she and George moved to Chertsey and in 1931 they settled in Walton-on-Thames.  This possibly contributed to the rapid slide in Laura Annie’s profile.   Both she and George were very well-known in Halifax and from the early 1900s onwards, the Yorkshire papers regularly reported on their activities and achievements.  When they moved south, they were both in their 50s and Laura Annie was coming to the end of her run of high-profile roles in societies and on committees.  She was less well-known in Surrey and her housebuilding exploits were less newsworthy. 

By the early 1930s Laura Annie’s name had almost disappeared from the press, not that she would have noticed. She was too busy managing her private loan book, which by 1930 stood at £19,000 spread across 215 properties, and completing her final scheme in Walton-on-Thames.  There she built over 160 houses, with some larger four-bedroom properties.  She eventually sold over 500 houses in Yorkshire and Surrey. 

In the late 1930s, Laura Annie began to suffer from serious ill-health but she did still find the energy to support the W.E.S. to which she remained loyal right to the end of her life.  On 4th March 1940 she took her place at a grand celebration of its 21st anniversary when, despite the war-time rationing, 300 people sat down to lunch at the Park Lane Hotel.    By 1940, there were over 9,000 members across 85 branches.  She was still scrutinising the organisation’s finances in 1941, remarking on the fact that it was running at a deficit and mobilising her network to fill the gap. 

Laura Annie died in April 1942, leaving a portfolio of real estate which was still generating income more than 30 years later.   You can still see many of her houses today, in real life or on Google Maps.  They are nothing special to look at; no architecture fans will be travelling to photograph them.  But nearly a century after their construction, they are still standing and still lived in, fulfilling the purpose for which they were built.  Together with the roads in Yorkshire and Surrey bearing the names of Laura Annie and her daughter, they form a lasting testament to this impressive woman who worked her way up from the factory floor to leadership roles in business and society nearly a century ago.

Laura Annie Willson’s company archives are held at the Surrey History Centre in Woking. I would like to give special thanks to the very helpful team for opening the archives last summer and making large parts of this research possible. 

Other sources include:

Labour Leader 29/09/05; 08/04/06; Halifax Evening Courier 29/11/06; 23/02/07; 21/01/08; 19/01/09; 25/08/17; Manchester Guardian 08/02/07; Leeds Mercury 21/02/07; Todmorden Advertiser and Hebden Bridge Newsletter 22/02/07; Yorkshire Evening Post 18/12/25; Perthshire Advertiser 20/01/26; The Guardian 4/9/26; Staffordshire Sentinel 21/09/27; The Vote 23/09/27; Sunday Times 25/9/1927; The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 25/02/27; 19/4/29; 20/4/42; Woman Engineer journals Volumes 1-5

‘Memories of a Militant’ by Annie Kenney (1924); ‘About Myself’ by Ben Turner (1930); ‘The Doors of Opportunity’ by Rosalind Messenger (1967)

‘Rebel Girls: Their Fight for the Vote’ by Jill Liddington (2006); ‘Those Magnificent Women in their Revolutionary Machines’ by Henrietta Heald (2019)

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