THIS week has marked the 100th anniversary of the first women receiving the vote, a long struggle for suffrage which began in earnest in 1866, when 1,499 women from across the country signed the first petition demanding a ballot.

It was such a controversial petition that it had to be hidden in an apple sellers cart outside Parliament for the radical MP John Stuart Mill to find and take into the Commons.

Nearly all of the signatories came from fashionable metropolitan places such as London, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh and Newcastle, but four were from our area.

Two that stand out are the Proctor sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, who founded Polam Hall School, a Quaker boarding school for girls in Darlington that runs like a thread through the local history of women’s fight for the vote.

The Quaker faith was unusual at the time in allowing its daughters to be educated in the same way as it schooled its sons, and the Proctors appear to have believed that this equality should apply to politics, as well.

The petition was drawn up by the women of the Kensington Society, in London, who circulated it among their family and friendship circles. Quite a few teachers signed it, which must be how the Proctors came to be canvassed.

There must be a Proctor family connection with the third local signatory on that petition: Sarah Jane Richardson of Langbaurgh Hall, near Great Ayton. The Richardsons were Quakers, and 24-year-old Sarah was the eighth child of farmer and tanner John and his wife, Jane, whose maiden name was Proctor and came from North Shields. Indeed, when Jane had died in 1843, John so loved the Proctor family that he married her sister, Hannah.

The Quaker Proctors of Polam and the Quaker Proctors of Shields must have been related.

The Darlington Proctors were at a meeting in the town’s Central Hall in 1880 attended by many leading townswomen. It was addressed by Alice Scratcherd, a touring suffragist from Leeds who addressed meetings from Durham to Stockton to Saltburn, drumming up support for the cause – although, as our marvellous poster from Darlington library shows, she went under her husband’s name.

The last of the Polam Proctors died in 1882, but their suffragist influence lived in. Helen Bayes became school principal in 1892 and she – a woman of extraordinary energy and sporting inclination – was listed as the secretary of the Darlington Women’s Suffrage Society and the Friends League for Women’s Suffrage into the 20th Century.

But probably the greatest disciple of the Proctor sisters was Clara Curtis Lucas, the daughter of a Thirsk railwayman who was educated at their school around 1870. Clara became the chairman – yes, chairman – of the Darlington Woman’s Suffrage Society, and was described as an “earnest and zealous advocate of votes for women”.

In 1894, she became the first woman to be elected to Darlington’s education board, and in 1915, she was the first to be elected to the town council – although her victory was because her opponent George Zissler spoke with a thick German accent which lost him votes during the First World War.

Because of the windbaggery of the 27 other male councillors, she said at the end of her first meeting: “If we’re going to be here all this time every month, I’ll bring my knitting.”

Clara, the queen of Darlington’s suffragists, died in 1919 aged 65, at her home, Fieldhead, in Abbey Road.

Although there doesn’t seem to have been much violent militancy in our area as the suffragettes of Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union grabbed the headlines in the first decade of the 20th Century – there were window-breakings and pavilion-burnings in the Newcastle area – a local man probably played an enormous part in getting the Act before Parliament.

He was Arthur Henderson, the Labour MP for Barnard Castle who in 1903 had been Darlington’s youngest mayor. Henderson backed universal suffrage – votes for all – and when he stood in the January 1910 General Election in Barney, his campaign became a national focal point for suffragists.

In 1915, he became the first Labour minister in a British government when he joined the all-party coalition under the Liberal HH Asquith to prosecute the war. In early, 1916 he threatened to resign from the Government if the proposed Parliamentary reform Bill did not include women’s suffrage. To avoid embarrassment, Asquith added the measure so that when the Representation of the People Act received Royal Assent on February 6, 1918, it gave the vote to all men over the age of 21 and, for the first time, to 8.4m property-owning women over the age of 30.

The stories of local women involved in this struggle seems very under-researched. For example, one of the leaders of the Darlington Women’s Suffrage Society was Maria Swanson, of Waverley Terrace, about whom we know nothing. Likewise, the secretary of the Darlington Church League for Women’s Suffrage, Elsie Luck, of Stanhope Road.

If you know anything about these women, or about any other local suffragists or their campaigns, please email

From the Darlington & Stockton Times of February 10, 1968

THE headline “Six vehicle pile-up, lorry ran over a bomb” catches the eye in the D&S Times of 50 years ago, especially as this motorway-style pile-up happened on Barden Moor, near Leyburn, which even today is not especially heavily trafficked.

And then you learn that the lorry drove a live bomb which had tumbled from the back of an army ammunition LandRover.

The peculiar incident happened when a lorry from Leyburn spun in ice and ended broadside on the road. The ammunition LandRover, carrying seven soldiers, crashed into the lorry, spilling its bombs across the road. An empty coach, belonging to R Handley of Middleham, then crashed into the crash.

A lorry heavily laden with tarmacadam was flagged down “several hundred yards from the scene” but because of the ice was unable to stop. It ploughed through the bombs, going over the top of one explosive, and smashed into the stricken vehicles.

“The bomb fortunately did not explode,” said the D&S.

A second tarmacadam lorry joined in the melee followed by a small van. Three soldiers and two civilians were taken to Catterick Military Hospital but were released unhurt.

From the Darlington & Stockton Times of February 8, 1868

HEAVY rain had caused the region’s rivers to rise 150 years ago this week. In Richmond, the Swale was at its highest for 50 years, although the only victim was William Carter who lost a “fine crop of turnips”.

At Hurworth, the Tees was at its highest for 11 years, and the road was 2ft 3ins deep in water – presumably this is the A167 outside the Comet hotel.

The biggest drama, though, was at Barnard Castle where “a large part of the Waterman Island has been carried away by the flood”.

The D&S explained: “The Waterman Island itself was formerly part of the Yorkshire shore, and was detached in a flood during the last century, the river bursting into a quarry worked by a man named Waterman – hence the name of the island – and ever after pursued its new channel.”

The majesty of the natural scenes in both Swaledale and Teesdale had brought tourists flocking.

“The High Force presented a sublime scene, the water being augmented tenfold, and the spray rising in clouds from the basin of the fall, while the roar of the descending water could be heard for miles,” said the D&S.