Miss Elsie Jane Walker of Neyland (1851-1930): School Teacher, Socialist and Councillor

By Simon Hancock

The centenary since the passing of the Representation of the People Act of 1918 whereby women over the age of 30 received the vote is a true democratic milestone in our history and the occasion to reflect on the political, social and economic progress made by women over the past 100 years. The focus of historical research is now firmly on the lives of women whereas before their lives and stories were infrequently and patchily told, especially if they were from the lower social classes. One of the local women who received the vote in 1918, one of over 17,000 so enfranchised, was a diminutive, assertive and kind-hearted Irishwoman, Miss Elsie Jane Walker, an infants’ school headmistress who went to live in Neyland in 1903. Miss Walker, whose name was often spelt as Eliza in school records and in censuses, was a socialist and one of the earliest women to be elected to public office in the county in the early 1920s. She was also a dedicated community worker and kind-hearted philanthropist.

Miss Elsie Jane Walker was born at Maryborough, Queen’s County, Ireland in 1851. Following the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921 the name was changed to County Laois, named from the medieval kingdom of Loigis. Maryborough is now known as Portlaoise and is the county town. Miss Walker became a school teacher and sometime during the 1870s she moved across the sea to England to pursue her career.[1] In 1881 she was living at 26, Mill Road, Blofield, Norfolk. The other resident at that address living with the 30-year old single certificated school mistress was Eliza M. Woolner from Loddon, Norfolk, herself an assistant mistress. Miss Walker seems to have had a very peripatetic career, moving around the country and we do at least have some idea of her movements thanks to the decennial census.  Ten years later, in 1891, Elsie, or Eliza as she is recorded, was a lodger at Rutland Terrace, Stockton-on-Tees where she was still described as a certificated teacher. Miss Walker did enjoy a degree of career progression, since, by 1901 she was described as the headmistress of a Board School while she was living at High Street, Odiham, Southampton.

Within two years Elsie was living in Pembrokeshire, arriving at Neyland in early 1903, possibly after a brief residence at Amroth although this is not certain.  On 27 December 1902 the members of the Neyland School Board (it was a Board School since it was run by a local school board elected by and paid for by local ratepayers) offered Miss. E.J.Walker the post of headmistress of the infants’ department at the school. Four days later Miss Walker wrote thanking the members for the appointment which carried with it a salary of £96 but she asked whether the board could improve the terms offered and put their staff in as a good a position as possible before the school boards disappeared to be replaced by the Pembrokeshire County Council Local Education Authority.[2] Also, by this stage the 51-year old teacher was vastly experienced, having held a number of countrywide appointments. The offer must have been increased since Miss Walker duly became the infants’ headmistress at Neyland.

Neyland Council School in John Street, c1914. The school was built in 1874. Miss Walker taught here from her arrival in town in 1903 until her retirement in 1916.

Despite her long experience Miss Walker was always keen to expand her own knowledge and impart that to her pupils. In May 1904 she was awarded a horticultural scholarship at Aberystwyth University worth £5 and this was her second successful application since she had secured a scholarship the year before.[3] In the days of less prescriptive curricula, teachers could, with the permission of their Local Education Authority, substitute some subjects which their pupils studied. In 1906 Miss Walker was given permission to substitute Welsh for nature study.[4] Elsie was a member of the Pembrokeshire County Association of Teachers and attended meetings of that body, as for example in January 1907, when they met at St. Martin’s Girls School, Haverfordwest. [5]

The staff at Neyland Council School in 1906-7.

The Headmaster, William George Aswell, is seated in the centre of the front row while Miss E.J.Walker stands in the second row, fourth from the left.

 

Frustratingly we have no account of Miss Walker’s nature or personality and no photograph other than the staff photograph of the Neyland Council School in 1906-7. Miss Walker was short and very soberly dressed and probably did not tolerate fools, if the few snippets which have come down to us can be relied upon. We can imagine her to be a very matter-of-fact, straight talking Irishwomen who did not brook the pompous or self-important. Miss Walker reached the age limit for staff in 1916 and she retired from teaching. Around this time Miss Walker was living at 29, John Street, Neyland. Education was very far from being her only interest. In fact she really took her adopted community to heart and immersed herself in many aspects of the community. One was her membership of the local Wesleyan Methodist Church of which she was a loyal member. Appropriately enough, in the competitive meeting held by the Wesley Guild in January 1913 Miss Walker was the adjudicator in spelling.[6] Around this time there was a widespread debate in Neyland as to what would be the future of the community. The loss of the steam ferry service to Ireland in 1906 had been a body blow, only partly compensated for by the creation of a local fishing industry in 1908. In February 1912 a public meeting was held to take into consideration the practical steps to make Neyland a summer holiday resort. The advantages of the locality, fine walks, fresh air and Promenade or Esplanade which the local urban district council had built in 1909-10 were discussed and a committee of 24 ladies and gentlemen appointed to take the suggestions forward. One idea was to lease a field adjacent to the Promenade on which to erect a bandstand and amusements.[7]

Miss Walker was one of the members of the committee and it was mentioned at the meeting how she had long run a holiday bureau for teachers encouraging them to stay at Neyland. In the years leading up to the First World War the Neyland Town Improvements Association was very active, holding events like the Whit Monday fete and tea with sports to which 1,200 people paid for admission.[8] That year the association had the useful sum of £83 7s. in the bank. Their most ambitious project was to produce the very first town guide for Neyland in 1913 and printed by Messrs. Ed. J. Burrow & Co. Ltd. It was No. 620 in The Borough Guide series and the work of compiling articles about the history of the locality, walks and information for visitors fell to Miss Walker who did a first-rate job. The guide proved to be extremely popular and cost the Neyland Town Improvements Association, under whose auspices it was published, £18 18s. to print.[9]

The front cover of the first guide to the town of Neyland, printed by Messrs. Ed. J. Burrow in 1913 under the auspices of the Neyland Town Improvements Association.

Written by Miss E. J. Walker, the booklet is her enduring legacy to her adopted town

The coming of the First World War challenged British society in every conceivable way and it is not surprising that there were sweeping political changes, especially the eclipse of the old Liberal Party and rise of the Labour Party. There were short-lived local Labour branches in Pembrokeshire before the war, at Haverfordwest in 1907 for example, but they did not seem to last long.  In the summer of 1916 the Pembrokeshire Labour Party was established thanks to the efforts of key individuals like Mr. E. P. Harries of Pembroke Dock, dockyard workers and the local trades councils. Teachers were prominent amongst the early membership and included Miss E. J. Walker who was also a member of the Neyland branch of the movement which was also established in the same year.  At the party conference held at the Temperance Hall, Pembroke Dock in August 1917 Miss Walker was appointed joint auditor.[10] This was a role she continued to perform into the 1920s. She was again appointed at the party conference held at the Oddfellows Hall, Neyland on 9 June 1923 when she was one of the three Neyland representatives who attended.[11] Miss Walker was one of the most prominent local Labour women and such individuals were able to bring their own gendered class understanding into local politics as they pressed for an improvement in local services.[12]

With the growth of bureaucracy during the First World War, vastly new functions were often delegated to existing local district and county councils and it was in this context that women often obtained their very first opportunity to take part in public affairs. District councils, urban and rural, were required to establish Food Control Committees in 1917 to regulate food prices and implement national rationing schemes. Miss E. J. Walker was one of three women appointed on the Neyland committee and she also did secretarial work at the food control office. In fact these new committees had designated places both for women and organized Labour. The Neyland Food Control Committee had two Labour representatives, namely John Thomson and T. Phillips, who attended the inaugural meeting of the committee on 20 August 1917.[13] The success of Britain’s food control of staples like milk, bread, butter, sugar, grain and other commodities maintained the stability of the home front as a vital component of final victory.

Although by now in her seventies, Miss E. J. Walker continued her sterling services to the community.  In February 1925 she was appointed a Justice of the Peace for the County of Pembrokeshire, building on the remarkable success which she achieved at the ballot box the previous year. In April 1924 Elsie was elected to Neyland Urban District Council, polling 208 votes, alongside her male colleagues John Davies, James Griffiths, Nathaniel James and Albert John.[14]  She was one of the first women elected to district councils in Pembrokeshire and in this respect she was a true trail blazer. Apparently during meetings she did not hesitate to call upon the chairman to curtail the speeches of some of the more verbose members of the council although she does appear to have been regarded with affection and respect by the other members. When an attack of bronchitis prevented her attendance at a council meeting in January 1926 the chairman said they would miss her and a letter was sent from the council wishing her a speedy recovery.[15] Miss Walker became a member of the Pembroke Board of Guardians and she was elected chairman of the managers (or governors) of the Neyland Girls Council School. In July 1927 she presented the silver cup and prize for the children’s choir, won by the pupils of the school at the recent Neyland Eisteddfod.[16]

In the triennial elections held for Neyland Urban District Council in April 1927 Miss Walker sadly lost her seat by the agonizing margin of a single vote. She polled 250 votes, whilst the retired postmaster Frederick Lloyd Hall polled 251 to take the fourth available seat on the council.[17] By that time Miss Walker was 76 years of age and perhaps the reduction in her commitments proved to be a blessing in disguise. Elsie was still active. On 13 December 1928 she planted a tree at the Memorial Gardens in Neyland along with other members of the Town Improvements Association in an area of parkland intended for the town’s war memorial.[18] The memorial was duly unveiled on 17 December 1930 but sadly Miss E. J. Walker did not live long enough to see it since she died, aged 79, on Saturday, 1 November 1930 at her home, Penrice House, 3, Lawrenny Street.

Miss Walker was indeed a remarkable woman. For 27 years she had lived in Neyland, longer than any other home she had known and she had done a great deal for the community. Her teaching career was fondly recalled as hundreds of children passed through her care and they returned her instruction with affection and respect. When she was a Poor Law Guardian she would walk to Pembroke and back and she was assiduous when investigating claims for relief, sometimes providing immediate temporary relief out of her own pocket. Elsie did a great deal of private charitable giving and she was popular, except with the class who enjoy hearing no one’s voice but their own. It was said she was a great worker who gave her share ‘in helping to make the world better for those who follow.’[19] Elsie’s house and furniture were sold off in September 1931 and she left an estate valued at £1,976 6s. 6d. with probate granted to William George Dodd, a retired civil servant. Miss Walker was buried at Neyland cemetery, the chief mourners being Miss Cobb (niece), Colonel Colby (brother-in-law) and Miss Griffiths (a close friend).

For her role as a political activist and local originality in standing for elective office Miss Elsie Jane Walker richly deserves to be remembered. More parochially her pocket guide to Neyland was her chief local contribution and ‘an imperishable monument to her wonderful ability.’  The local sage and columnist, John Griffiths, writing in the 1930s thought that as long as a copy of that guide existed ‘Miss Walker’s name will not fade from the memories of the grateful inhabitants.’[20]

Notes

  1. Jane Rendall, The Origins of Modern Feminism: Women in Britain, France and the United States, 1780-1860 (Basingstoke, 1985), p.133. Women were well represented in elementary education where some 46%, or 15,224 of pupil-teachers were female by 1859; G.R. Searle A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918 (Oxford, 2003), p.56 discusses how teaching was one of those middle-class posts which saw considerable female advances before the First World War. By 1901 75% of the 230,000 teachers across the country were women.
  2. Pembrokeshire Herald, 9 January 1903.
  3. Pembroke County Guardian, 2 June 1904.
  4. Ibid., 3 August 1906.
  5. Ibid., 1 February 1907.
  6. Haverfordwest & Milford Haven Telegraph, 5 February 1913.
  7. Ibid., 28 February 1912.
  8. Ibid., 3 June 1914.
  9. Ibid., 30 September 1914.
  10. Ibid., 29 August 1917.
  11. Pembrokeshire Telegraph, 20 June 1923
  12. Sheila Rowbotham, A Century of Women. The History of Women in Britain and the United States (London, 1997), p.127
  1. Pembroke County Guardian, 24 August 1917.
  2. Pembrokeshire Telegraph, 9 April 1924.
  3. Ibid., 7 January 1926.
  4. Ibid., 28 July 1927.
  5. Ibid., 7 April 1927.
  6. Ibid., 20 December 1928.
  7. Ibid., 6 November 1930.
  8. West Wales Guardian, 11 September 1931.