Mervyn Edwards is a well-known local historian working in North Staffordshire, a former tutor with the Workers’ Educational Association and the author of sixteen books. He is a familiar voice on Radio Stoke and has also appeared on television’s The One Show. He is passionate about working class history and is presently a Branch President with the GMB.
North Staffordshire Women is one of Mervyn Edwards’ most popularly-requested illustrated talks. The presentation gives entertaining histories of a group of very different females whose stories tell us much about the way in which the role of women in society has changed over the last 250 years.
REMEMBERING FANNY DEAKIN (1883-1968) by Mervyn Edwards
The politicians I most admire are those that don’t give two hoots about toeing the party line if there is a battle to be won. Independent spirits, chancers and mavericks who are prepared to be unorthodox in supporting a deserving political cause.
Some of these folk are often variously derided as enfants terribles, raving firebrands, single-issue zealots, protest politicians or bilge-spouting fruitcakes.
You’ll find such loose cannon in every political party, rubbing people up the wrong way here and putting their feet in it there. However, I reckon that good intention doesn’t always present itself to us wrapped up in silk ribbons and sprinkled with lavender water.
Fanny Deakin of Silverdale, near Newcastle-under-Lyme, North Staffordshire, was one of the area’s most memorable politicians. I am too young to have known her, and I suspect I may not have liked her – but that wouldn’t have dissuaded her from fighting for me if she believed in my cause.
Fanny Deakin was born Fanny Davenport in Silverdale in 1883 and lived all her life in the village. She spent much of her childhood on Spout House Farm, kept by her father. She seems to have been a rebel from an early age, as was noted by her Dad.
In 1901, Fanny married Noah Deakin, a local collier. Shortly after, their first child, James, was born, though he only lived a few weeks. In 1903, their second son arrived, and he was named Noah after his father – he was their only child to survive into adulthood.
Noah senior, like many Kent’s Lane Colliery miners at this time, suffered dreadful conditions underground. What made things worse is that the coal owners decided to make their employees work their shifts – nine hours – without a break. This triggered the so-called snapping-time strikes of 1910 and 1911. The men argued for a twenty-minute break and there were disputes. Fanny doesn’t appear to have been actively involved in the dispute, but with her husband being a miner, she was inevitably on their side.
During the 1926 General Strike, she was actively involved in campaigning for the miners, as was her son, Noah. They distributed a miners’ newspaper called The Wedge and they fly-posted propaganda material round the local collieries, pasting leaflets on colliery windows, walls and wagons. She recorded in her notebook that on average, she walked twenty miles a day at this time in order to meet miners’ leaders in distant pit villages such as Smallthorne and Norton. She didn’t have transport, and was lucky if she could cadge a lift. She came to be recognised as the accepted leader of the mining community, which was remarkable for a woman in 1926. She led processions and is remembered as one of the speakers at a huge gathering on Wolstanton Marsh during that year.
It’s no wonder that she was sympathetic to the cause of the miners. In 1931, her husband Noah was involved in an horrendous accident at the Fair Lady Pit in Leycett. By the time he was discharged from hospital, he had lost his sense of balance and struggled to walk even with a stick. For much of the time, he was confined to bed, and never worked again. He received a meagre sum in compensation from the colliery, and so Fanny had to fight the colliery for better terms. She eventually got them, but their standard of living fell dramatically.
Fanny had become involved in local politics in 1917, but in 1923 she became the first woman ever to be elected to the Wolstanton Urban District Council, which in those days embraced Silverdale.
In terms of party politics, Fanny had been a member of the local Labour Party in Silverdale, but she became a member of the Communist Party around 1925. She remained so for the rest of her days, and it did not have an adverse effect on her support in Silverdale. People voted for her as a person and for what she did for them, not for her politics. Letters from Russia, addressed to “Red Fanny” were often received in Silverdale. There was a big Communist meeting at the Victoria Hall, Hanley, in 1928, and Fanny was in the chair. She twice joined trades union delegations on visits to Russia.
She also campaigned for better maternity care for women and free milk for babies – indeed, these had been her primary aims when she had first entered politics. She was part of a deputation of working people who met prime minister Ramsey MacDonald at Downing Street, in 1931, and she petitioned him for one pint of milk a day for pregnant mothers and free milk for children up to five years. She succeeded. She also successfully campaigned for local clinics. However, the pinnacle of her achievements was the establishment of a maternity home at Chesterton in a large house at Farcroft. The maternity home opened in 1947, and bore her name. At the time, she was Chairman of the Maternity and Welfare Committee in Newcastle.
I’ve only covered a few bullet-points in her variegated political life. But how is she remembered? Even today, Fanny still divides opinion in Silverdale whenever her name is mentioned. Some people did not like her politics, and others didn’t approve of the fact that she was sharp-tongued and called a spade a spade. Some folk were brought up to walk on the other side of the road when passing her front door. However, to other people, she was a bigger Christian than many church-goers because if she could help anybody, she would. She’d fetch the doctor for people, or deal with the police – though sometimes, she’d be exasperated by the inability of people to stand up for themselves, and would say to them, “Kick, you buggers, kick!”
She was remembered in 1991 when a play entitled Go See Fanny Deakin was held by the Silverdale Community Play Association at Knutton Recreation Centre. This was planned and staged by local people and I went to see it. It was one of the most vibrant theatrical experiences I have ever seen, and fitting tribute to Red Fanny!