Harry Tolmie-Thomson, student in History of Art with Cultural Studies, reveals some of the pioneering activities of Florrie Mattison.

As an art history student, it is all too common to hear about the lives of side-lined women. In almost every historical context the voices of women are lost, usually in favour of their male counterparts. One such side-lined figure exists within the University of Leeds’ Special Collections, Leeds socialist campaigner Florence “Florrie” Mattison. Amongst the Mattison Collection, named after her more recognised husband Alf, sits Florrie’s scrapbook, ‘My Visit to Russia, 1929’. However, it documents so much more than a single trip. Almost an entire lifetime of work is recorded through cuttings and photographs. Suffragist, political candidate, public speaker, traveller, and, in later years, controversial figure. She has, until now, existed in the shadow of her husband.

Leeds born Florrie joined the Labour movement in 1897. She was a peace campaigner and an active member of several social organisations, including the Leeds Education Committee and the National Council of Women. She stood four times as a Labour candidate, losing to a Conservative each time. A dedicated Suffragist who wrote extensively on the Women’s Rights movement; she also travelled with the purpose of broadening her horizons and educating herself on other socialist movements. It would be Florrie’s two visits to the Soviet Union which would become most significant.

People on ship
The delegation of cooperatives on their journey to the Soviet Union in 1929. BC MS Mattison/1/3. Image credit Leeds University Library

In 1929, with a delegation of co-operatives, she visited with the purpose of exploring life and working conditions under Soviet rule. The Leeds Weekly Citizen newspaper gave Florrie the opportunity to document her trip in weekly articles. She focused her attention on policies for education and women. For the former she found a multilingual nation who were on the way to abolishing literacy. For the latter she saw ‘…the complete emancipation of women’. Women receiving the same rates of pay as men, working in construction, and holding positions of power. On her return she lectured extensively about her findings.

press statement
press statement
Press statement after Florrie’s 1952 trip to the Soviet Union. BC MS Mattison/1/3. Image credit Leeds University Library.

It would be a second trip to the Soviet Union in 1952, during the Cold War, which would have the greatest impact back home. Florrie was amongst twelve women from the National Assembly of Women who travelled on, what they hoped, was a peace mission. They released a press statement that claimed that the Soviet project had been a successful one and the nation posed no threat to Britain. However, the Labour Party felt that Florrie had become too radical, too Communist, and removed her from the party. Florrie polarised people during her lifetime and will polarise people today.

However, scrapbooks do not provide a rounded life to research, so many unanswered questions remain. Though what we do know is that, as one newspaper cutting states: ‘…what the lady has done she has done knowing and believing in the right of what she was doing; leading where many could only hesitate to follow.’ This is a life story that needed to be told.