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Coalpit Pin-Ups: Leeds Museum in West Yorkshire, England Pays Tribute to Queens of Industrial Age

 

 

By Helen Pidd and Beatrix Willimont


November 4, 2017 - They were ordinary young women who had never left their mill towns and pit villages when they were swept from the factory floor and plucked from their looms for a life of unimaginable glamour.


Now the queens of industry, the name given to the good-looking grafters who were given the job of representing some of the UK’s most important economic sectors in an industrial golden age, will be celebrated in an exhibition at Leeds Industrial Museum in West Yorkshire.


Among the objects on display, in what was was once the world’s largest woollen mill, is a fabulous tiara belonging to the last reigning cotton queen, Elsie Kearsley, who was crowned in 1939.


Also on show is a glamorous gown worn by the railway queens and a letter written to Yorkshire’s Doreen Fletcher from a fan in Soviet East Berlin.

 

Doreen Fletcher in a glamorous three-piece suit

Photo by Leeds Industrial Museum


The exhibition will demonstrate that the queens of cotton, wool, coal and railways were far more than just pin-ups or dolly birds but smiling weapons of soft, perfumed power deployed by industry to raise morale in ever harder times.


The initiative went on until the 1980s. Deborah Tate, whose old tiara and sash will be also part of the exhibition, became one of the last industry queens at the age of 19 when she was chosen as the Northumberland Coal Queen in June 1982.


“It was a competition, it was a beauty competition in a way, but what they were looking for was a representative from the mining community to be a pin-up, a PR person,” she said. “When I was little my dad always used to point to the coal queen in the newspaper, or whenever there was anything that came up, and he would say “when you’re a big girl, you can do this”.


She said she played a role in ensuring miners were aware of health and safety initiatives. “You know it’s much easier to get their attention if it’s a young female there rather than a middle-aged bald guy telling them to look after themselves when they’re underground, it works much better if you’ve got someone else to talk to,” she said.


The exhibition features historic photos and films that explore the story of the handful of women from across the UK whose lives were changed forever.


The concept of industry queens first came to prominence in the 20th Century, inspired by the idea of traditional rose queens and May queens in local villages and towns as well as by real regal coronations.


The first railway queens were elected in the mid-1920s and the last coal queen was crowned in the early 1980s, in the height of the miners’ strike, with those expected to represent their industry internationally, attend high-profile events and even meet heads of state.


The queens travelled the world as industrial ambassadors. Blackpool’s Audrey Mossom, the queen of the railway in 1936, was sent on a train to Moscow aged just 15, where she met Joseph Stalin.


John McGoldrick, Leeds Museums and Galleries’ curator of industrial history, said: “She was introduced by Lazar Kaganovich, a key acolyte of Stalin, who as minister for the railways organised the purging of of thousands of railway officials.


“We have been loaned this great picture of Audrey at a mass meeting of railway workers, with a huge image of Stalin behind her. It’s surreal to see this young girl from Blackpool being thrown into the lion’s den like that.”


Many of the exhibits have never been displayed before, with others on loan from UK museums and private collectors.


Frances Lockett, the first cotton queen, met the former prime minister David Lloyd George in 1930. He asked to touch her cotton dress and said he would get some material for his daughter, McGoldrick added.

 

Deborah Bramley, the Northumberland Coal Queen

Photo by Leeds Industrial Museum

 

The queens were not just decorative mascots. Most had worked in the industry they were chosen to represent, or had a brother or father down the pit or on the railways.


They took their ambassadorial duties seriously. Marjorie Knowles, a machinist from Brieffield in east Lancashire, who was the cotton queen from 1932-33, had the job of raising spirits in a time of mass unemployment, when Lancashire cotton was no longer king.


“I appeal to the so-called weaker sex to show we can be stronger than the men in more ways than one, by doing all that is possible to help cotton,” she said in a rallying cry. “The press are anxious to help our district, and if we back up their efforts to the best of our ability we shall help to reduce the number of idle looms.”

 

Coal queen Deborah Bramley in a mine

 

Photo by Leeds Industrial Museum


About 10,000 people turned out to welcome Knowles back to Lancashire after her coronation. “It all seemed like a dream,” she later recalled. “People cheered and waved in Preston, Blackburn and Accrington, but at Burnley the police must have found it very difficult to control the huge crowd.”


It was then that she realised life would never be the same again. “No more machinery – no more early mornings with hurried breakfasts – no more weary looks at the clock, wishing for closing time; at least not for 12 long months.”


Tate said that the job - and particularly going underground at Ellington colliery, the last deep mine in Northumberland - helped her see the work of the miners in a different light.


“Nothing can prepare you for what it’s like being underground,” she said. “With Ellington, it was seven miles out into the sea and a mile down. It really put it into perspective what these men did. It changed my life from that point, it made me appreciate what tens of thousands of men had done to help make our country great.”


Queens of Industry runs until September 2019. Entrance to the exhibition is part of normal admission to the museum.