ON OCTOBER 16, 1830, the Leeds Mercury printed its usual selection of readers’ letters.

Commenting on subjects ranging from art exhibitions to poetry about the British oak tree, they were typical, with one exception.

In the middle of the page, sat a letter entitled ‘slavery in Yorkshire’. It was written by Parliamentary campaigner Richard Oastler and passionately described the working conditions experienced by factory employees.

‘Scenes of misery, acts of oppression, and victims of slavery, even on threshold of our homes!...thousands of little children, both male and female, but principally female…daily compelled to labour from six o’clock in the morning to seven in the evening…compelled, not by the cart-whip of the slave driver, but by the dread of the equally appalling thong of the overlooker.’

Saltaire-based author Helena Fairfax highlights this excerpt, from what she says is one of the ‘most incendiary’ letters ever sent to the paper, in her book Struggle and Suffrage in Halifax. ‘Its wording still has the power to shock today,’ she writes.

The letter drew attention to the harsh conditions and backbreaking nature of mill work in Halifax, which, like neighbouring Bradford, was the main source of employment for both men and women .

For females, an alternative was domestic service, but domestic staff were often ‘isolated and vulnerable’, could suffer abuse and ‘be in dire straits if forced to leave without a reference.’

A disproportionate number of prostitutes in the 18th century has previously been domestic servants.

Helena’s book examines women’s lives between 1800 and 1950, looking at issues including employment, child labour, education, health, domestic lives and politics.

“The histories of Bradford and Halifax have been linked for centuries, and as close neighbours they have much in common,” she says. “Both thrived during the industrial revolution, and their textile mills flourished through the labour of women and their children.

“It was after visiting John Wood, a wealthy mill owner of Horton Hall near Bradford, that Richard Oastler wrote his famous ‘Slavery in Yorkshire’ letter in which he compared the labour of children in the mills to that of slaves in the West Indies. This was the start of a long campaign to reduce the hours worked by women and children to ten a day.”

An author of women’s fiction, women’s lives are at the heart of Helena’s stories. She came to address the subject of female suffrage after learning through a friend in the Romantic Novelists’ Association that the publishers Pen & Sword were planning a series of books on women’s lives to coincide with the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act and the first women getting the vote.

Helena thoroughly enjoyed researching the book. “ When I started the project, I went through a stage of panic, wondering if I’d be able to do justice to the women involved. I began to wonder if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. But as I dived deeper into their lives, I was surprised by my emotional response to the stories I uncovered and the sense of affinity with women who had lived so long ago,” she says.

“I also came across some heart-rending stories which don’t appear in my book. In 1837, for example, the Bradford Observer told the story of ‘a poor Irish woman’ who had begged a man if she and her children could spend the night in his barn. The man admired her ‘healthy and prepossessing children’ and asked if out of the many she could spare him one. The next day the woman moved on, leaving behind ‘a little, curly headed girl of about eight years old’, after giving her a kiss goodbye. I wanted to know what happened to this poor child, torn apart from her siblings. What did this man want with her? What about the mother, who must have been desperate and thought she was giving her daughter a better life? It was a terrible tale, and yet the paper reported it as some sort of joke.

Stories such as these brought home to me how powerless women were, and still are.”

The book covers sexual harassment in the workplace. In the 1830s, Oastler told a parliamentary committee that in the mills there were ‘instances of the grossest prostitution amongst the poor creatures who are victims of the system, and in some cases are the objects of the cruelty and rapacity and sensuality of their masters.’

J.B. Priestley, who worked in Bradford before the First World War, spoke of the ‘cynical whoring’ of mill masters, ‘who were obdurate if the mill girls wanted another shilling a week (but who) could be found in distant pubs turning the prettiest and weakest of them into tarts.’

Priestley used his experience of this as part of his play, An Inspector Calls, set in 1912, in which a young woman in a manufacturing town commits suicide.

With mills continuing to be part of the west Yorkshire landscape, Helena feels a sense of what took place in those days. “Fifteen years ago I worked at Hield Brothers in Bradford. There were people employed then who remembered the mill in its heyday, when the whole of the industry in Bradford was still bustling, when the stone staircases were full of people running up and down, and there were wagons going in and out of the yards every day to collect the finished pieces. When I pass deserted mills I think about all that camaraderie and the livelihoods that are now lost. It’s hard to believe all that bustle has gone within a generation.”

An experienced researcher, finding information proved far more difficult than Helena had anticipated

“It was an eye-opener to find just how little there is about women’s lives in the history books,” she says. “ I had to put away all my ideas about research and start from a new angle. Looking through a pile of old school brochures, for example, gave me an idea of women’s changing concerns through the headmistresses’ reports and the topics they discussed at Parent-Teacher Association meetings.

“When researching the first women building society clerks, I travelled to Edinburgh to visit the archives of Lloyds Banking Group. Women were rarely mentioned in the formal building society minutes, because in the period I’m writing about they weren’t able to progress beyond being a senior PA. Instead, I read through boxes of old staff magazines, where the women came to life, and it was evident just how much they contributed to the running of the organisation. I also found old memoirs and diaries gave far more insight into women’s lives than history books, which are generally written from the male perspective.”

Working-class women across Yorkshire had a significant part to play in the fight for the vote and many were imprisoned, Helena reveals. “Their imprisonment caused great hardship as it meant a loss of wages and sometimes the loss of their jobs.”

In 1911 many women boycotted the census in protest. Nine women in Bradford spent the night at 68 Manningham Lane - the Bradford Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) office.

Women were active supporters of Chartism and the fight for the vote to be extended to all men aged over 21. Women were excluded, but hundreds still took part in a march of thousands from across the north, to Halifax.

Adds Helena: “The women I write about in my book weren’t famous, but they changed our lives and they made a tremendous difference to the lives of the people around them. It was important to me to bring these women back to life and give them a voice.

"I tried to do justice to all the women who spent their lives working as domestic servants or in the mills, the women pioneers in the provision of birth control, and the first women in banks and in public office. The odds were always stacked against them and it’s astonishing how much they were able to achieve. It’s important to remember how difficult life was for women just a generation ago and to remember the women around the world who still don’t have a voice today."

Helena is giving a talk - ‘An Unequal Struggle’ - at Halifax Central Library, Square Road, Halifax HX1 1QG, on Thursday May 16 at 2.30pm.

Entry is by ticket only, available free of charge from the library’s local studies department, Tel: 01422 392631 or via TicketSource (search unequal struggle)