The Power of Politics
Oldham Suffragist: Dame Sarah Lees 1842 – 1935
Dame Sarah Lees was born in Mossley, Greater Manchester, in 1842. She married Charles Edward Lees in July 1874 in Oldham. Her husband died in 1894 and Sarah Lees was determined to use money left to her from her husband for the good of the local community:
"I feel it my bounden duty to spend for the good of the town where it was made, and for the benefit of those by whose labours it was acquired".
From this she supported various causes in Oldham such as commissioning recreational grounds, supporting the Nursing Association, Oldham Hospital and scholarships for Grammer schools. She acquired her first public role on the Education Committee in 1902. In 1907, aged 65, Lees became the first woman Councillor elected in Lancashire, representing the Hollinwood Ward as Liberal. This was after the Qualification of Women Act which was passed in the same year. In 1909 she was the first woman to receive the Freeman of Borough of Oldham and then in 1910 Lees became Mayor of Oldham, only the second woman to be installed with that title in the United Kingdom.
One notable event during her tenure as Mayor was after a Tram strike had been resolved Lees drove the tram herself through Oldham to ensure that the trams were in the right place and the right time once the service resumed.
Lees was very critical of the violent methods adopted by the suffragettes:
"I am convinced that anti-government policy in Oldham would seriously injure the suffrage cause".
At the start of the First World War, Lees presented the Oldham branch of the St John Ambulance Society with a fully equipped ambulance destined for the war, which she named ‘The Oldham Suffragist’. In recognition of her work during WWI, Lees was honoured with a Dame of the British Empire in 1917.
Lees died in 1935 and left her former home of Werneth Park to the town.
Her daughter Marjorie Lees also became very active in the suffragist movement and shared her mother’s critique of the violent methods used by some suffrage groups. In 1910 she helped form the Oldham Women’s Suffrage Society, a branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and became Mayoress when her mother became mayor.
She lead the Oldham contingent in the 1913 National Union of Women’s Suffrage march in the North West region starting from Carlisle, where the group were subject to missiles of rocks and rotten fruit being thrown by onlookers. Following the Representation of the People Act, she continued her philanthropic activities including donating heavily to Ashburne House, a hall of residence for women at Manchester University.
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