Agnes E Slack

Agnes Slack (1858-1946)

Ripley may not be known for its rejection of alcohol, but at one time in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a thriving temperance movement in the town. It was needed: the miners and ironworkers drank freely, and the town was stuffed with pubs.

Out of this background came one of the most remarkable people the town has produced. Agnes Slack was born into a fairly well-off family living in Greenhill House, on the road known first as Coppice Lane, then Station Road and now Peasehill. Her father Thomas owned a brickmaking business. He and his first wife Elizabeth were childless, but when she died in 1856, he remarried and had three children whilst in his fifties. Agnes’ brother, John Bamford Slack, was a solicitor who eventually became an MP and was knighted. The children were brought up to be confident, well-educated and strictly temperance.

Greenhill House

Agnes went to school to the age of 14 at Miss Fletcher’s Academy, in Greenwich House on Nottingham Road. “Miss” Fletcher was actually Mrs Mary Ann Fletcher, the wife of brewer Henry Edward Fletcher, the son of one of Ripley’s first doctors, William Henry Fletcher. She was also her husband’s second wife, the first being her sister Elizabeth who died in 1864. She married Henry in 1869, and had three children in the following five years before Henry died in 1874.  Mary was left with 7 children to look after, as well as the school which had been started sometime in the 1860s and took half a dozen boarders as well as day pupils like Agnes. Miss Fletcher must have been pretty remarkable in her own right. In her biography of Agnes, Aelfrida Tillyard comments that “in a time when schools were often of the Gradgrind type, Miss Fletcher believed in making the children love their work and enjoy coming to school…she inspired her pupils to wish to learn and discover and think for themselves.”

One of the few memories of childhood recounted in the biography was that of the children running from their house to watch trains on the railway: “The line to Derby was a single line, and the place for turning round the engines was just at the foot of the Slack’s fields. “Come on, Aggie, there’s a train!” John would cry, and then the three children would dash across the field, climb the fence and sit astride, kicking their heels joyously, whilst the heavy engine was swung mysteriously round.” The turntable can clearly be seen on maps of the time.

It is also interesting to note that just up the road on Peasehill was a brick works, possibly Agnes’ father’s. Greenhill House was also very close to Station Terrace, a row of badly built slum houses which were one of the worst areas of housing in the town and whose inhabitants were often before the courts. Their home may have had lawns with peacocks strutting around, but the children could not have been unaware of the poverty surrounding them.

Agnes’ life in Ripley would have centred around home, school, and the Wesleyan Chapel in Church Street, where she played the organ, as well as sports and horse-riding. She also, at 13, ran a Sunday School class for little girls in the Chapel. At 14, her mother, who by now was running the household as Thomas was in ill health, decided that Agnes should go to a boarding school in Lincoln and be prepared for the Oxford Junior and Senior Local examinations, which at the time was still fairly unusual for a girl. Agnes passed them easily, and also took organ lessons from a Mr Young, the organist of Lincoln Cathedral. The school was old-fashioned and religious : pupils went to church or chapel twice on Sundays and then had to write an account of the sermon! She later took Summer Schools in Bible Studies at Oxford and Cambridge.

She returned from school to Ripley, and threw herself into chapel and charitable work. She ran a girls’ Sunday School and organised a Monday afternoon Mothers’ Meeting, a clothing club, summer outing fund and banking fund. The women, most of them colliers’ wives, were invited to tea at Greenhill House and played rounders, an experience very different from their everyday lives. There were also Bible classes, of course. She visited women in their homes, and saw poverty at close quarters. She discovered, according to her biographer, that many of the women dreaded the effort (and the drunkenness) of Christmas, so organised a Christmas Day’s party for them and their husbands, giving up her own Christmas day to do so. Tillyard does not mention what happened to their children, or how keen the women were to spend their Christmas in the company of the straight-laced Miss Slack.

Gradually, during her twenties and thirties, she became more involved in wider political circles, and especially those connected with temperance, having apparently “taken the pledge” at a meeting in 1883 whilst staying with a friend in London. In 1893, apparently at the suggestion of Frederick Strutt (a Liberal and a teetotaller), she stood for election to the Board of Guardians. She took the challenge seriously, putting out an address to ratepayers and speaking at a public meeting. She was elected, beating Marshall Hooper, the doctor and local dignitary by 899 votes to 361, an astonishing victory. She was the first woman to take a seat on a public board in Derbyshire. One of the first things she did was to persuade the Board to stop the customary issue of beer to workhouse inmates on festive occasions, substituting money. She also had a habit of visiting the workhouse (in Belper) before each meeting of the Board.

At some point in the late 1880s or early 1890s she managed, through the intervention of Walter Foster, the local Liberal MP (Ripley was in the Ilkeston constituency) to visit local prisons, especially womens’. Here she again came across the effects of alcoholism, since many of the prisoners’ convictions were for being drunk and disorderly. Her biographer tells a story of her meeting one woman under 30 who had been convicted ninety-five times for drunkenness. When she spoke to a magistrate about the woman, he admitted that there was little they could do: they jailed her to keep her away from the drink. There was, of course, little sense that alcohol was an addictive substance at the time.

By 1895, she was heavily involved with both the Ripley and the Derbyshire Women’s Liberal Associations. That year she was persuaded by Lady Henry Somerset to take on the role of Secretary of the British Womens Temperance Text Box:  Association, and then at the urging of the American Frances Willard, also the role of secretary of the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She gave up her role as organist at the Wesleyan Chapel, and all of her work in Ripley, as she would from then on spend much of her life travelling in the cause of temperance.

Although most of her work concerned trying to persuade people to give up alcohol, encouraging prohibition, and dealing with the effects of alcoholism, Agnes shared many of the views of Lady Henry Somerset and Frances Willard on women’s suffrage and other issues, and was a powerful public speaker and campaigner. She also supported W.T. Stead in his campaign to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16.

She travelled across the world, spending much time in the USA and in India. The claim was that she travelled 200,000 miles across four continents in the cause of temperance. 

In 1926, Aelfrida Tillyard produced her biography of Agnes, and in the same year Agnes became the first woman to preach at Wesley’s Chapel in London. She married in 1943 at the age of 85, and died three years later in Kettering.

Agnes Slack and her Biographer

In her 1926 biography, Aelfrida Tillyard describes herself as Agnes’ “niece”. Search though I may, I cannot find any family relationship between the two. So why the pretence? It may be that “niece” just meant “younger friend”, or that Aelfrida thought that a family relationship might add weight to her account.

Aelfrida Tillyard in 1913 aged 30

The families were both reasonably well off, from commercial backgrounds, as brickmakers and hop merchants. There, however, the likeness ends. Agnes came from a Midlands working-class town and had a strict Wesleyan upbringing; Aelfrida was also strongly non-conformist but was born into a university town and her father was a scholar and newspaper editor. She was educated by academics, whilst Agnes attended Miss Fletcher’s school and a boarding school in Lincoln. They both taught children in Sunday School, though this was normal for intelligent young women in non-conformist churches.

They shared a commitment to temperance and the improvement of women’s rights, and could have met through the Temperance movement; another possibility is that they met whilst attending Bible Studies summer school in Cambridge. They shared a Liberal viewpoint in politics.

 In 1905 Aelfrida published an article in the “White Ribbon” magazine, to which Agnes also contributed. By that time Agnes was Secretary of the WWCTU and the BWTA and was travelling widely. Having accompanied her diplomat husband on various foreign postings from 1907-10, Aelfrida was living in Cambridge after her divorce in 1921. She had a disastrous marriage and two children; Agnes was a lifelong spinster.