Pupils meet votes campaigner

Edwardian teacher and women's rights campaigner Miss Isabel Cleghorn (Gertie Whitfield) with pupils of Beck Primary School, Sheffield
Edwardian teacher and women's rights campaigner Miss Isabel Cleghorn (Gertie Whitfield) with pupils of Beck Primary School, Sheffield

Pupils at Beck Primary School in Shiregreen have been learning about the centenary of the women’s right to vote by ‘meeting’ a pioneering woman campaigner.

The school applied to the Women’s Centenary Fund to celebrate the importance of the legal rights given to women during 1918, when the first women were given the rights to vote and to stand for Parliament.

Gertie Whitfield as Sheffield educationalist and women's rights campaigner Isabel Cleghorn

Gertie Whitfield as Sheffield educationalist and women's rights campaigner Isabel Cleghorn

Some 180 children and 40 members of the community met and questioned local hero Isabel Cleghorn, who lived through these momentous events 100 years ago, as portrayed by Gertie Whitfield from city theatre education company Whitworks.

Miss Cleghorn spent 39 years as headmistress of Heeley Bank Girls School from 1879 to 1918. She devoted herself to making her school an excellent start in life for her girls.

As mentioned in the school logbooks, which are held by Sheffield Archives: “The girls are taught to think for themselves, and express themselves clearly.”

Not content with improving her school, Miss Cleghorn sat on many education committees locally and nationally. She was a Poor Law Guardian and active trade union member.

The 1911 NUT trade union conference, when Sheffield school headteacher Isabel Cleghorn was president

The 1911 NUT trade union conference, when Sheffield school headteacher Isabel Cleghorn was president

In 1911, Miss Cleghorn became the first female president of the National Union of Teachers. Despite this, her motion for the union to support female suffrage was defeated in 1911, 12, 13 and 14.

As she said herself, these defeats just made her more determined. A formidable woman who worked hard to improve life for women through the channels open to her, she campaigned for pensions, fair pay for married teachers and healthier schools.

Beck Primary School worked with Gertie, who has undertaken a great deal of research into the era, looking at school logbooks and home front history. During her research, Gertie uncovered this impressive and largely unknown local woman.

Gertie created a short scheme of work to increase awareness of the centenary of women’s suffrage and the context in which it happened for Beck’s teachers to deliver. It celebrated the work of the men and women who fought for the right of women to vote.

The school’s art leader Becky Stroud said: “It was exciting to give pupils the opportunity to question a historical figure in ‘real life’. The buzz of concentration when Miss Cleghorn glided into the classroom was palpable: her presence really held their attention when asking questions and listening to her responses.”​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​