Introducing ‘Red’ Emma
This is the first of five blog posts that tells the tale of Emma Sproson, Wolverhampton’s first female Councillor. Many thanks to Heidi McIntosh from Wolverhampton City Archives for allowing me to publish this material.
Emma Lloyd was born on April 13th 1867 at Pikehelve Street, West Bromwich, one of seven children of John Lloyd, canal boat builder, and his wife, Ann. Her father drank heavily and she had a childhood of extreme poverty. She recounts her childhood in the unpublished autobiographical notes that are kept in Wolverhampton City Archives. When she was about 5 years old she started school at Coseley then when she was about 8 the family moved to Wesley Street, Monmore Green in Wolverhampton. Emma remembers that here ‘the family settled down in great poverty’. She writes ‘my father’s work was very precarious. He was reputed to be a very clever workman by his mates, and despised the gambler, but Bacchus was his passion, and it was clear that the union was very unfortunate, so much so, that in my early days, seeing what my mother had to suffer, I had a contempt for marriage’.
She went to the St Matthew’s branch school on the Bilston Road but says ‘I was not fond of school. I was too anxious to earn money to relieve my mother’s burden’. Emma, like many children of the period, started work young; she picked coal from the pit mounds, or iron or any other saleable goods, and would run errands for the local cobbler, in her words ‘anything to earn a few coppers’. At age 9 she found regular work looking an after an old woman, Mrs Windsor, who was bed-ridden with dropsy; Emma would give her tea, washed her and did her hair and sang to her. Emma was paid sixpence a week for her services but lost this work when Mrs Windsor died. She then got another job working for Mrs Jones, the milk woman, and this time Emma lived in with her employer, which she was glad of because of the overcrowding at home. At aged 13 Emma got work in a shop in North Street, she did all of the housework and served in the shop and was paid 15 pence a week for it. This job was by no means ideal however and Emma had to sleep in the attic, which was open to the sky, and she suffered toothache. Her job after this one also came with problems, of a much more disturbing nature; the brother of the mistress made sexual advances on her one evening when they were alone in the house together. Emma managed to escape by picking up the poker by the fireplace and threatening to smash the windows. Unfortunately the mistress believed her brother and Emma was forced to leave ‘without a character’ (which would have been problematic). Emma writes ‘however, this young man was trained and went for a Minister, so perhaps he reformed his debauchery’.
After this incident Emma left Wolverhampton and moved to Bolton in Lancashire. She became a Sunday-school teacher and also joined a debating society, where she gave her first public speech. She describes this episode as ‘the most happy part of my early life’. She then moved to Southport and it was here that her first encounter with politics occurred. Emma attended a meeting held by Lord Curzon, Parliamentary candidate for Southport. When the Chairman asked for questions, Emma, in her own words ‘to the great astonishment of all present’ asked a question, but the candidate declined to answer it because she was a woman and had no vote; Emma writes, ‘and from that time I have been a keen feminist’. She then returned to Wolverhampton.