Engineer of the Week No.33: Laura Annie Willson (nee Buckley)MBE (15th August 1877-17th April 1942)
Today we remember Laura Willson, trades union activist, engineer and housebuilder, on the 77th anniversary of her death. She was also a Founder of the Women's Engineering Society.
Laura Annie Willson was a Yorkshirewoman to her boots and lived and worked in Halifax most of her life. Born in 1877 to a working class labourer, Charles Buckley, she and her sisters were all sent to work half-time in the textile mills from the age of 10, only getting a very basic education in the afternoons, as was normal for poor families then. At the age of 22, a worsted weaver, she married George Henry Willson who was a machine tool maker. Together they established, Smith, Barker and Willson,a successful engineering works in Halifax and she would become one of its directors. She was a member of the Women’s Labour League and the Women’s Social and Political Union and in 1907 was arrested twice and imprisoned for her partin a weavers’ strike on a charge of ‘violent and inflammatory speech’. During the Great War the family’s company works expanded and she organised all the women munitions workers they had to take on, including setting up a canteen when she realised how many of them were malnourished. She was one of the first women to receive an MBE, in 1917, for her war work. In the 1920s she became interested in the application of industrial efficiency ideas to housebuilding for ordinary workers, and in 1925 became the first woman member of the Federation of House Builders. She built several low cost housing estates in the Leeds area. She was also active locally in founding and supporting networking organisations for businesswomen, becoming the first President of Soroptimists International’s Halifax branch in 1928.
She was a founding member of the Women’s Engineering Society in 1919, member of its first council and co-founder of the Electrical Association for Women in 1924. In 1926-28 she was the president of WES and remained active almost until her death in 1942.