Marjorie Lees, Oldham

Marjorie Lees was born in the Werneth area of Oldham, Lancashire

Marjory Lees was born in the Werneth area of Oldham, Lancashire. She and her sister grew up there with their mother and father, both of whom were noted philanthropists. Charles Lees was the head of a family firm of cotton-mill engineers, and when he died in 1894, the little family was left extremely well off. Marjory doesn’t appear to have had much formal education but from 1902 she was involved with the Manchester University Settlement at Ancoats Hall. The Settlement was modelled on Toynbee Hall in London, where university staff and students worked for the social welfare and education of the working-class residents of the area. She was elected a Poor Law Guardian – as so many active suffragists were – in 1904, at the age of 26.

Marjory, her sister and her mother Sarah were all members of the Oldham Women’s Suffrage Society, affiliated to the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). When Sarah was elected Mayor in 1910, Marjory was appointed her consort, her Mayoress. In early 1913 the two of them travelled to Budapest with NUWSS leader Millicent Fawcett and nine other British delegates to take part in the seventh annual congress of the International Suffrage Alliance. Both were heavily involved with their local suffrage society as well as the National Union for Women Workers, and though busy women, could obviously afford the money and the time to take a proactive part in the struggle for the vote.

In June-July 1913 Marjory took a prominent part in the Great Pilgrimage, travelling in her own horse-drawn caravan – the Ark – from Oldham to London. Sarah joined her for the last few days. It’s ironic that when votes for women were eventually won in 1918, Marjory couldn’t vote herself, as she had neither a husband (to qualify her automatically) nor any property of her own, still living at home with her mother at the time. 

Afterwards she continued to do what she could for local causes, particularly anything connected with realising one’s potential for the good of society. She donated heavily to Ashburne House, a hall of residence for women at Manchester University, where a wing of the building still bears the Lees name and there’s an Entrance Scholarship endowed by Marjory. Their house still stands on the Manchester Road, donated by Marjory with the surrounding parkland to the townspeople of Oldham in memory of her mother Sarah. 

Taking part in the Pilgrimage meant so much to Marjory that members of Oldham Women’s Suffrage Society decided to present her with a souvenir album in September, 1919. Inside is the story of the Pilgrimage, told in newspaper cuttings, photographs, official NUWSS reports, and programmes. There’s a hand-coloured photo of the Oldham banner, a portrait of Marjory beaming through her steel-rimmed spectacles, and an exquisitely-illuminated dedication from her suffragist friends. Marjory died at the age of 91 in 1970. The Lees family is still fondly remembered in Oldham, but Marjory has not yet received the national recognition she deserves. 

 

Primary Sources: 

Oldham Local History and Archives (M90/6/7/3/13). 

Women’s Library, London School of Economics (2OWS/1 & 2 and D.Lee/301).

Contemporary newspaper reports (http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk and http://www.news.google.com/newspapers).

 Ashburne House archives, University of Manchester.

The Common Cause (NUWSS newspaper, partly digitised on http://www.news.google.com/newspapers or available in hard copies at the British Library).

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