Leeds woman’s
diary published

Winnie Rhodes's story of hardship unearthed and to be published by Unite

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Winnie Rhodes was born into a middle class family but that did not prevent her and her sister from being “unpaid skivvies, nannies and governesses” to her 14 younger siblings. Yet when she wanted to become a pupil-teacher at her school in Leeds, her father prevented her, saying her bad back would not allow her to stand up in front of pupils for most of the day.

Born in Cleckheaton in 1880, Rhodes’s hardships are detailed in her autobiography, a 170,000 word handwritten manuscript and a remarkable achievement for someone with her responsibilities. And now her story is set for a wider audience as the manuscript is about to be published as a book.

Winnie lived most of her life in Leeds, until she died in 1955. She wrote the autobiography in her latter years when her back injury, for which she never received adequate treatment, confined her to bed.

Her father was a boot and shoe manufacturer, an employer of labour who was well respected and a staunch Methodist. Her mother was a cold woman from a very comfortable background.

Beaten and exploited

Winnie was educated at a private school until she was 10, when her father’s business went bankrupt and the family moved to Leeds, where she began attending the local board – or state-run – school.

At 15 she was asked to take up teaching by first becoming a pupil-teacher, which involved studying on a Saturday morning and two or three evenings a week for three or four years. Her father’s decision to prevent her from doing so was all the more cruel because she was already standing for much of her day – her mother had forced her and her elder sister Mary to do most of the domestic chores.

This included the childcare for 14 younger siblings, four of whom subsequently died – two in Rhodes’s arms.
“We were unpaid skivvies, nannies and governesses to our younger family,” she wrote.

Their mother hit them and denied them sufficient food. Although both grandmothers were content to spoil them, Winnie’s life became increasingly intolerable and she followed Mary, who had left home to start work without telling anyone, by finding a job in an office at a Leeds garment makers.

Unable to cope

Nevertheless, each night after work she was still expected to care for her younger siblings. Unable to cope, Winnie was taken in by her grandmother before finding rented accommodation and a new job, both of which she sought to keep secret from her parents. For the rest of her life, Winnie was to work in the tailoring industry, generally as a seamstress, combining factory work with paid washing, sewing and childcare at home.

On 1 September 1898 Winnie married William Brotherton, whom she had met at work, at St Bart’s Church in Armley. The wedding infuriated her parents, who thereafter sought, often successfully, to prevent the couple finding work. They were forced to move to Goole, where William initially found work on the docks before having to travel even further afield. The Brothertons’ struggle to maintain themselves and their children remains constant throughout the rest of the book. Poverty and starvation were never far from the surface.

Winnie still had her pride and she eventually found work once more in Leeds, despite her parents’ efforts. She became active in the women’s section of the Tailors and Garment Workers’ Union, successfully mobilising women in fighting pay stoppages for lateness, wage deductions for the flimsiest of reasons, unsanitary working conditions and poor pay.

Fascinating read

It is now thanks to a modern day union, Unite, that the autobiography is set to be published. The work was handed down to Winnie’s great granddaughter Pat Henderson, who had it typed up. A copy was given to another of Winnie’s great granddaughters, Sarah Brummitt, who is a Unite member.

“I was fascinated when I read it,” she said. “Winnie can certainly write and has skilfully captured how hard life was for women of her generation, who lived in a highly patriarchal era where you had to be strong to survive and overcome a lack of a decent healthcare system, children dying at an early age, poor housing, domestic violence and terrible pay and working conditions.

“At the same time there is a lot of friendship, love and comradeship in the book as people strive to help each other.

“When I heard that Unite wanted to know if any of its members might have documents written by their descendants I thought Winnie’s story might now get published and so I have passed it on.”

Jim Mowatt, director of education at Unite, said: “This is a truly unique piece of work. Women like Winnie did not write their autobiographies and so it is very exciting to be given this piece of work.

We shall either be publishing this ourselves or seeking out a publisher of some substance. I am sure many people will enjoy reading Winnie’s story. I have.”

Photo: Sarah Brummitt and husband John Bradshaw. Brummitt submitted her great grandmother’s diary to Unite

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