These are some of the women who feature a lot in Where There’s Muck, There’s Bras (ably embodied by Joey!).
Born on February 1908 in Farnworth, near Bolton, Hylda Baker was educated at Plodder Lane Council School. She didn’t stay in school for very long however because by the time she was 13 she was already earning a mammoth £25 per week, as a headline variety act.
Hylda Baker was very tiny at 4ft 11inches but had tremendous energy and she worked her way up the entertainment ladder via the Music Halls, where she played a fast-talking gossip, aided by her gormless on-stage ‘stooge’ Cynthia (always played by a man). She developed a string of catch-phrases such as ‘She knows, you know’, “You big girl’s blouse’ and ‘Be soon’, and she became a master of the malapropism and double entendre – such as “I can say that without fear of contraception” and “You haven’t had the pleasure of me yet”.
In 1955 she made a very successful appearance on TV’s ‘The Good Old Days’ and this took her on to greater heights, including a couple of “serious” film parts in 1960. In both ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and ‘Up The Junction’, Hylda Baker played a back-street abortionist. In 1968, her show ‘Nearest and Dearest’ became a huge hit, running for seven series until 1973.
A follow-up series ‘Not On Your Nelly’ was less successful but by this stage Hylda Baker was already suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and on a downward spiral. She was struggling to remember her lines (and unfortunately her stress and anxiety caused her to alienate many of her friends). But before she departed the scene she had a remarkable swansong: At the age of 73 she made her final TV appearance – on BBC TV’s ‘Top of the Pops’ – duetting (in black leather gear and blonde wig) with another oldie, Cockney comedian Arthur Mullard. Their 1978 send-up of Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta’s hit from Grease, ‘You’re The One That I Want’, was a great success (reaching number 22 in the UK singles charts). The act earned her numerous bookings on the gay circuit, however these soon dried up as her ill health became more and more obvious.
Hylda Baker spent the last few years of her life in a nursing home in Epsom, Surrey. She diedat the age of 81 on May 1st 1986. There was hardly any media coverage of her death and 7 people attended her funeral.
HILDA OF WHITBY
Hilda was born in 614 in Northumbria at a time of immense political and religious change. She was the great-niece of the Northumbrian king, Edwin, and she and her sister Hereswith were raised in his court after their father was murdered.
Hilda lived a secular life until the age of 33, when she became a nun. She became the abbess of Hartlepool and in about 657 she founded the monastery at Whitby. In Hilda’s time the abbey was a double monastery, home to both monks and nuns.
Bede praises Hild for implementing a monastic regime that required strict observance of ‘justice piety, chastity’ and ‘particularly of peace and charity’. In her monastery, ‘no one there was rich, and none poor, for they had all things common’. Under Hilda’s tutelage and guidance, several members of Whitby’s monastic community became important and powerful clerical figures. Five of her monks became bishops – Bosa, Aetla, Oftfor, John of Beverley, and Wilfrid – and one of the monastery’s lay brothers discovered he had a special gift for poetic verse. Hilda pronounced his gift divine and he subsequently became the first English poet whose name we know: Caedmon. Hilda and her monastic rule became so respected, Bede says, that even kings and princes sought her advice. Hilda was Abbess during the Synod of Whitby, the hugely important meeting called to resolve the date of Easter. She also had a lot of input into feverish discussions about monks’ hairdos.
There was no official canonisation of saints at this time but these recollections of wonders and visions, recorded by Bede in 731, suggest that Hilda’s cult started early. She became the patron saint of 14 medieval churches and her name was later given to St Hilda’s College, Oxford, founded in 1893.
To avoid attending Church of England religious education classes, which conflicted with her parents religious beliefs, 11-year old Liverpudlian Hilda James was assigned to swimming classes at the Garston Baths.
Five years later, Hilda was Great Britain’s best female swimmer and left for the 1920 Olympic Games with high expectations. Unfortunately in Amsterdam, the USA women completely dominated, sweeping the gold, silver and bronze medals in the 100m and 300m freestyle, the only individual swimming events for women at the 1920 Games.The following day Hilda cheekily asked the American coach, Lou de B. Handley, to teach her the American Crawl; in 1922 she visited the USA for the summer racing training season and brought the front crawl back to the UK, earning her the nickname “The English Comet”.
By 1924, Hilda held every British and European freestyle record from 100 meters to the mile, and a handful of world records as well. She easily made the 1924 Olympic team, and it was widely believed that she would return from Paris with a handful of medals. However when Hilda’s mother insisted she accompany her daughter as chaperone, and the British Olympic Committee refused, Hilda’s mother refused to let her go. Unfortunately, Hilda was not yet 21, was under the care of her parents – and had to obey.
Hilda turned 21 shortly after the Olympic Games and, likely in reaction to her overbearing parents, a job with the Cunard Shipping Company, traveling the world as a celebrity spokesperson and “swimming instructress”.
St. Helens, Mersyside
Lilian “Lily” Parr played for St Helen’s football team in 1919, and was scouted by Preston’s Dick, Kerr’s Ladies team, which mainly consisted of female munitions workers who worked for the factory of Dick, Kerr & Co. The team became hugely successful.
Lily was almost 6ft and reputedly had a harder shot than any male player. She played in the first recognised international women’s football tournament between England and France in 1920, partly held at Deepdale Stadium. This wave of success soon stopped, as the Football Association banned women from playing on their member grounds. (This ban was upheld for over 50 years.)
Lily continued to play for Dick, Kerr Ladies team (renamed Preston Ladies). She totalled over 900 goals from 1919 until 1951. AND as well as playing football, Lily trained to be a nurse and worked in the Whittingham Mental Hospital until her retirement. She lived openly with her partner Mary and became a LGBT rights icon. She was included in the English Football Hall of Fame at the National Football Museum in 2002, the first female player ever.
Knaresborough, North Yorkshire
Mother Shipton was born Ursula Sontheil in 1488, during the reign of Henry VII, father of Henry VIII. Although little is known about her parents, legend has it that she was born during a violent thunderstorm in a cave on the banks of the River Nidd in Knaresborough. Her mother, Agatha, was just fifteen years old when she gave birth, and despite being dragged before the local magistrate, she would not reveal who the father was.
With no family and no friends to support her, Agatha raised Ursula in the cave on her own for two years before the Abbott of Beverley took pity on them and a local family took Ursula in. Agatha was taken to a nunnery far away, where she died some years later. She never saw her daughter again.
Ursula grew up around Knaresborough. She was (apparently) a strange child, “both in looks and in nature”. She was taunted and teased by the local people and so spent most of her days around the cave where she was born. There she studied the forest, the flowers and herbs and made remedies and potions with them.
As well as making traditional remedies, Mother Shipton had another gift. She (possibly) could predict the future. Soon she was known as Knaresborough’s Prophetess, a witch. She made her living telling the future and warning those who asked of what was to come. After a long life, she died in 1561, aged 73.
Since the mid-17th century there have been more than fifty different editions of books about Mother Shipton and her prophecies, some purporting to tell her life story in considerable detail. Although we can’t be sure how much of the legend is true, what is certain is that 500 years ago a woman called Mistress Shipton lived in Knaresborough and that when she spoke people believed her and passed her words on.
Honley, West Riding of Yorkshire
Dora Thewlis was one of seven children of a working-class family in West Yorkshire. Her parents were socialists and proud of her curiosity and integrity, her mother Eliza describing her in glowing terms: “Ever since [Dora] was seven, she has been a diligent reader of newspapers and can hold her own in politics”. In her teens, Dora joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, an organisation campaigning for women’s right to vote.
In 1907, Dora travelled to London to take part in a political march. She and a group of other suffragettes were arrested for attempting to rush the House of Commons where Dora’s defiance and spirit captured the public’s imagination. A photo of her arrest appeared in newspapers and on postcards, often labelling her “Baby Suffragette”. (She hated this nickname, incidentally. When approached by a journalist, she declared, “I am not a baby. In May next year I shall be eighteen. Surely for a girl, that is a good age?”)
She emigrated to Australia before the start of the First World War, therefore never seeing the passage of women’s suffrage in England, and in 1918 married Jack Dow. She died in 1976.
Dawdon, Co. Durham
Despite not learning to swim until she was 11, Charmian Welsh from Dawdon qualified as a diver for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics at the age of 15. Her father, a former junior rugby international, was a local colliery manager and wanted her daughter to be coached in the United States, but women’s swimming wasn’t a priority for the ASA. Instead she did her training in an open-air swimming pool known locally as Dawdon pit pond, near Seaham Harbour, Co. Durham. It had thick black mud at the bottom, due to its close proximity to the local mine.
Charmian finished fifth in the springboard event at Helsinki and competed in her second Olympics in Melbourne four years late. However, her moment of glory was to came at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff in 1958, where she became a double gold medallist, winning both the springboard and platform events. Less than two months later she won the springboard silver medal in the European Championships at Budapest. Charmian also represented Durham at both fencing and shooting and later became a teacher. She continued to coach young divers in Durham and in 2013 was honoured with a lifetime achievement award by British Swimming for Outstanding Contribution at Club Level.
ELLEN WILKINSON (“RED ELLEN”)
Trade unionist and politician, Ellen Wilkinson read history at Manchester University and became the national woman organiser of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers in 1915. She served as Labour MP for Middlesbrough East (1924-31) – the only female Labour MP in that parliament and elected when she herself did not qualify to vote – and for Jarrow (1935-47). She was Chair of the Labour party 1944-45 and Minister for Education 1945-47.
She was one of the leaders of the the Jarrow March and spoke at every public meeting along the way. The marchers reached London on 31st October 1936, and on 4th November Wilkinson presented their petition at Parliament.