We are currently cataloguing the Yorkshire Post Studio photography archive which is held at Abbey House Museum. Amongst the bonny babies, long forgotten musical hall turns and very young men in military uniform (often with an equally young bride) there appears some very interesting local characters.
One glass negative dated May 1938 simply states that it is a Mrs Gertrude Bray of Bray Homes. The only other information we hold on Mrs Bray is that she was a councillor with an address in Whitkirk. When I delved a little deeper I found that Gertrude was indeed a Labour councillor for the Mill Hill & South Ward & served on the housing committee, which was apt, as she is described as ‘one of Britain’s first women builders’and as ‘The Home Specialist’ who was ‘Leeds best and busiest builder’.
Mrs Bray designed and built modern labour saving homes in new estates including the Pendas Fields ‘garden village’ in Cross Gates area and also houses on Selby Road, Halton, around Temple Newsam and the Vesper Gate Mount estate, in Kirkstall. By the outbreak of the Second World War she had built 650 small houses in Leeds.
An advertisement for Gertrude Bray homes which appeared in the Leeds Mercury on 8 April 1939 stated that they were ‘Houses of distinctive design and superior finish’ and showcased a Maisonette costing £385 which was described as ‘Ideal for bachelors, spinsters and the elderly. A unique design by Gertrude Bray, containing stainless steel sink and refrigerator. Something entirely new’.
It would seem that Gertrude’s interest in making life easier for women went beyond building houses with ‘mod cons’. The Daily Mirror on 14 March 1940 used the headline ‘Woman Builder is Snag Solver’, describing a typical scene on one of the sites built by Bray Homes:
‘[At] No. 11 on the housing estate at Crossgates, Leeds, is young, attractive Mrs. Gertrude Bray. In her little office she listens patiently while women sometimes twice her age ask her advice on domestic worries…[!]’
And there’s more! Gertrude was a prolific speaker & conference delegate. From municipal engineering to equal rights for women, she held robust opinions based on personal experience. In 1948 she spoke at an educational conference in London on equal pay where she said that she had experienced prejudice against her in her career because she was a woman. She gave an example of a builder who tried to encourage a supplier to refuse to trade with her, but further stated that she thought her sex was often an asset. In her speech she stated ‘How often do we get the position where a woman in a good job, commanding a good salary, has to be twice as good as a man to get his salary?’. A view which would not be out of place today.
In the Yorkshire Evening Post (1953) she expounded on banking her family allowance in her children’s names as ‘nest eggs’ for their futures & was awarding a trophy in her name for the best garden in Halton! She also held very modern views on childbirth which she explained in an interview with the Daily Herald on 7 September 1945:
‘Speaking of her own experience of painless motherhood. Mrs. Gertrude Bray pleaded that the veil of mystery about child-birth should be lifted. The scientific energy which goes to thinking out and manufacturing atomic bombs she said, should be put into making childbirth painless.’
I’d love to find out more about Gertrude who was obviously a great woman with a very modern approach to both business and family life. I know she had at least three children but have no more information about her family, education or how she became a true socialist, feminist, a visionary; as well as very practical enthusiast, politician & successful businesswoman!
By Stella Knox, Volunteer