Curator John McGoldrick shares the story of Mary Wood, Dewsbury’s Wool Queen from 1931-32, through the memories of her daughter Kath Greaves.
Shortly after our Queens of Industry exhibition opened, I was contacted by a lady called Kath Greaves who had seen the coverage of the opening on BBC Look North. After the exhibition had opened, I went to visit Kath and hear her memories of her mum Mary Wood, who was Dewsbury Wool Queen in 1931-32. Mary’s was a remarkable story of an unassuming weaver who was plucked from relative obscurity to become the figurehead of the Yorkshire wool industry at the time. Unfortunately, there wasn’t space in the exhibition to include Kath’s images, but I thought that I would share them with you in this blog.
Yorkshire was not to be outdone by long standing rival county Lancashire, who were first to initiate a Queens competition in 1930. As was the case with Lancashire’s Cotton Queen Quest -which was the brainchild of the Daily Dispatch Newspaper – Dewsbury’s Wool Queen competition was vigorously organised and promoted by the Leeds Mercury. The competition was also widely reported by the press in the woollen districts of Yorkshire, including the Dewsbury Reporter.
Born in Leeds, Mary grew up in Walsall but moved to Dewsbury when her father’s tannery relocated. Mary worked as a warper at Walker’s Mill in the Ravensthorpe district of Dewsbury. She left the mill in 1945 to get married – taking the married name Fawcett – and start a family, but returned and continued to work there until she was 60. Mary had gone to the local grammar school and done well in her exams so it was a surprise to all who knew her when, aged 16, she chose to take a job in one of the local woollen mills. For many women, becoming a queen of their industry could be a life-changing experience, opening up opportunities for social mobility, travel and creative expression. However, Mary had a very level-headed approach to her year as Wool Queen and was content to return to her work mates, family and community.
Mary later related her experiences of attending the selection event for the Dewsbury Wool Queen to the Dewsbury Reporter in 2003. “I rushed home from work, had a quick bath, brushed my hair and slipped into a plain black dress. All the other girls wore beautiful dresses with silver shoes and some even wore tiaras, and most of them arrived by taxi but I walked there”.
Mary had literally pushed in to the competition, with a neighbour sending her photo into the Leeds Mercury, the competition organisers. At the judging of the final eight, Mary had been on the point of turning on her heel and walking out, declaring “I’m not going in there!”, only for the friend accompanying her to push her in, insisting, “Oh yes you are!” “I fell in head first”, Mary recalled, “and I was so embarrassed. I felt like a bit like Cinderella really and didn’t think I stood a chance, especially after my undignified entrance.”
Mary was crowned Wool Queen on 3rd October 1931 on the steps of Dewsbury Town Hall in front of a crowd of 10,000 locals. A contemporary press report quoted Mary’s observations on her experience as a working class woman being catapulted into the limelight, “A young girl builds castles in the air – but rarely does she see herself as a queen.” Mary’s costume was even more elaborate than that of the Cotton Queens and was strongly Tudor in its inspiration. It is not known if the costume or any of the Wool Queen paraphernalia still survives.
During her year as Dewsbury Wool Queen Mary performed a vast range of duties to promote the town and its wool trade. These varied between presiding over the kick-off of a high profile local rugby league match between Dewsbury and Rochdale Hornets to taking a flight in a bi-plane as part of an Air Circus organised by Dewsbury Chamber of Trade. Another important element of Mary’s duties was to make joint appearances with other Queens of Industry; she made appearances with queens including Lois Heath, the then Cotton Queen of Great Britain and the somewhat less celebrated Silk Queen of Great Britain.
By John McGoldrick, Curator of Industrial History
If any of your family were Wool Queens (or Queens of another industry) or were involved in the competitions in any way, we would be very interested to hear from you. Please email John McGoldrick, Curator of Industrial History or call Leeds Industrial Museum on 0113 378 3173.
Queens of Industry exhibition is running at Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills until September 2019.