Over the next few months, interns and volunteers on the Reflections project will write a few blog posts to discuss their experience working on the project and some of the research materials they have uncovered. This time volunteer and Newcastle City Guide Pat Stevens
I came to the “Reflections of Newcastle 1914-18” project as a Newcastle City Guide with an interest in women’s history, having put together a walk about the suffragettes in Newcastle. During this I discovered Lisbeth Simm, one of the few working class women documented during this period. She was born Elisabeth Dodds, the daughter of a miner in Cramlington, which was then a mining village. She became a teacher through the pupil teacher route, marrying a local Labour man from the same pit village, Matt Simm. She wrote a column for the Labour newspaper the Northern Democrat under the name of “Ledron” that focused on the social conditions in the North East and tried to encourage women to take an active part in politics. She was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) but disliked the middle class element of the movement, and became an organizer for the Women’s Labour League (WLL). This movement existed between 1906 and 1918 and Lisbeth recruited women throughout the North East. She was passionate about involving women in politics and improving the lives of working people. Her commitment was to the welfare of women and children.
In the North East there were around 20 local branches of the WLL in communities from cities like Newcastle to mining villages like Crook, most as a result of Lisbeth’s work. When war broke out Lisbeth must have had conflicting feelings, she was not a pacifist, but she was an internationalist and a socialist. She was concerned firstly for the welfare of families left when men were killed, and later for the feeding and care of the children of women working in the munitions factories. The WLL certainly opposed the war and the actions of the government. In 1915 the NE conference voted to affiliate with the Union of Democratic Control, a cross party organization which, although not pacifist, questioned the reasons for the war. One speaker said, “Talk about fighting for our country. We have no country to fight for; we can hardly live for people getting rich out of the war and plundering the poor dependents of those who are fighting.” (Newcastle Daily Journal Feb 9th, 1915)
In 1918 the WLL was amalgamated into the Labour Party. Of the four women who stood for parliament in 1918 two had WLL connections. Lisbeth Simm might have been expected to stand, but the death of her daughter Edna in September 1918 seems to mark the end of her involvement with women’s politics. However in 1919 she is sent to Australia to look at the opportunities for migrant women.
The 1915 meeting of the North East WLL was held in the William Morris club in Newcastle, something that sent my research off in another direction as sometimes happens.