The speech ended with a simple but effective message: “wash your hands regularly with soap and water”. But this was not the British Prime Minister at a Government coronavirus briefing in 2020; it was public health campaigner Catherine Buckton addressing an audience of one hundred working-class housewives and children in Leeds in 1871.
As the daughter of an infectious-disease doctor, Catherine had witnessed first-hand the devastation and misery caused by an outbreak of cholera in her childhood home town of Bridgend during a nationwide epidemic in the 1830s. A combination of ignorance, poverty and unsanitary housing had caused thousands of preventable deaths and Catherine would make it her life’s work to tackle this deadly trio.
In 1848, Catherine moved to Leeds having married cloth merchant, Joseph Buckton. Catherine devoted herself to the cause of education as a member of the Leeds Ladies’ Education Committee and an advocate for the Yorkshire School of Cookery and Leeds Girls’ High School.
One of the many campaigns to which Catherine lent her considerable support was for the establishment of free, compulsory, and non-religious education for all children which the National Education League was advocating in the 1860s.
This campaign led to the passing of the Education Act 1870 which in turn resulted in the establishment of local school boards, presided over by officers elected by public vote. The first Leeds School Board election was held in November 1870 and was the first public election in Leeds in which women were entitled to stand as candidates. It was natural that Catherine – and fellow Leeds Ladies Education Committee member Lucy Wilson – would stand in that election.
Predictably, the idea of female candidates provoked strong opposition from some quarters. A Leeds Mercury columnist wrote that women were ill-suited to the “hard work and business habits required” and that they would prove to be “inefficient members”. This prompted a searing response from one anonymous correspondent to the Mercury known only as ‘M’ whose letter concluded:
“Hard work and business habits are required. In our town, there are thousands of women who carry on business for themselves. Many of these are widows, who, perfectly untrained, are suddenly placed at the head of a business, and have, in addition, the responsibilities of a family to weigh them down, and yet the number of female bankrupts is curiously small. If we measure efficiency by the results obtained, what estimate should we form of the efficiency of men? They have had the education of the nation in their hands for centuries, and, at this moment, we are driven by the barbarism – the increasing barbarism – of our masses to pass our first Education Bill. If possible inefficiency is a reason for withholding power from one class, proved inefficiency in another class should surely not be allowed to command a monopoly of that power.”
Nevertheless, the opposition to female candidates proved too strong and an all-male board was elected. In fact, Catherine had reluctantly withdrawn her candidacy on the eve of the election following allegations that her proposer had unlawfully nominated two candidates.
Undeterred, Catherine continued with her public health campaigning and held a series of lectures aimed at working-class women and children in Leeds and Saltaire in which she taught basic physiology and the importance of good food hygiene and personal and domestic cleanliness. She dispelled myths and exposed bad practice in the treatment of those with infectious diseases. Among the many areas of ignorance that she encountered was a general lack of knowledge of the importance of washing with soap and this was the focus of much of her teaching.
So popular were her lectures that she published the transcripts of them in 1873 as Health in the House: twenty five lectures on elementary physiology in its application to the daily wants of man and animals delivered to the wives and children of working-men in Leeds and Saltaire.
Catherine’s reputation soon spread beyond Leeds and attracted the attention of Prime Minister William Gladstone and Princess Louise who was a supporter of the early pioneers of women’s medicine and a friend of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor).
In 1873, Catherine was duly elected to the Leeds School Board becoming the first woman to hold public office in Leeds. She was a highly effective and diligent Board member and clashed repeatedly with the vested interests of religious and private school institutions.
Catherine’s lessons on cookery were incorporated into the curriculum and she enthusiastically promoted the health benefits of fresh air and the natural world to those living in inner-city slums. Among her many innovations was a window-box planting competition in which children were provided with pots, compost and seeds and taught to appreciate the joy of nurturing plants to grow and to flower. This formed the subject of another of her popular books, Town and Window Gardening.
Catherine moved with her husband to London in 1882 but continued to commit her ideas to paper, publishing several more books including Our Dwellings: Healthy and Unhealthy and Comfort and Cleanliness.
Catherine died in 1904, aged 75. An obituary in the Hull Daily Mail described her as “a pioneer of much that is now esteemed as most useful and practical in the education of girls.” The Sheffield Daily Telegraph described her as “a lecturer of considerable power”.
At this time of infectious disease and household confinement, her promotion of personal hygiene and the benefits of enjoying nature close to home still resonate.
About the blogger
James Rhodes is a self-confessed Leeds obsessive. He regularly writes, blogs and tweets about the city’s history, people and sports teams and is the author of ‘On This Day In Leeds’. For more of James’ writing, you can follow him on Twitter @Rh0desy or on his blog, https://rhodestothepast.com/