The Cotton Town Girls by Leah Fleming - book review: aAn engaging and moving exploration of an important milestone in the nation's political history

Two young Lancashire women from opposite sides of the tracks join forces to fight for female suffrage'¦ a cause that will bring suffering, conflict and vilification.

Thursday, 1st November 2018, 3:02 pm
Updated Thursday, 1st November 2018, 3:08 pm
The Cotton Town Girls by Leah Fleming
The Cotton Town Girls by Leah Fleming

One hundred years after women won the right to vote, Lancashire-born Leah Fleming brings us the drama-packed story of a group of determined friends who pay a high personal price in the tumultuous days of the Suffragette movement.

First published in 1996 as Days of Bread and Roses under the author’s original name, Helene Wiggin, The Cotton Town Girls is an inspirational and heartwarming celebration of the bravery and resilience of ordinary northern women who became caught up in what became a bitter battle for women’s rights.

Blending fictional characters with famous names from the Suffragette movement like Manchester-born Emmeline Pankhurst and her three daughters, Sylvia, Christabel and Adela, Fleming reminds us of the brave women who dared to use civil disobedience as a weapon against the Establishment.

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In 1887, two schoolgirls Sophia Seddon and Grace Thompson would seem to be poles apart. Adventurous and reckless, Sophia is a member of the notorious Seddons of Plover Street but she is the brightest pupil at the local board school and teacher Ada Norris hopes that the child will escape being forced into work at the local cotton mill and instead stay on to achieve her potential.

The other girl is Grace Thompson, a quiet, reserved girl and the widower vicar’s pampered only child who attends a smart school in the town. But when they meet at a church gathering, they form an unexpected and strong friendship, and soon Sophia – dubbed ‘Sophie’ by Grace because it is ‘less stiff and starchy’ – and Grace have formed their own two-member Bread and Roses Society.

Their hopes of eternal friendship are dashed when Sophie is left with no choice but to work at the mill when she is twelve, leaving little time to keep up her studies in the afternoons, and Grace’s father forbids his daughter to see the mill girl.

But in 1901, fate works to bring the two girls – and other faces from their Lancashire childhood – together again in Manchester when they find themselves fighting a common cause… the fight for women’s suffrage.

Through danger, violence and heartache, the friends will be tested to the limit… can they – and the bonds that unite them – stay the course?

Fleming is at her storytelling best in this fascinating and exciting story which opens amidst the prejudices and hardships of a small Lancashire cotton town in the late 19th century and moves on to the bigger national stage of the Suffragette movement.

The conflict and violence are portrayed beautifully through the prism of a close female friendship group which refuses to give up the struggle for women’s votes and which proves to be more powerful than the class boundaries that once would have contrived to keep them apart.

The spirit of these tough Lancashire lasses is the driving force behind this engaging and moving exploration of an important milestone in the nation’s political history, and a fitting tribute to all those who fought the first crucial battle on the long road to women’s equality.

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)