Elizabeth Rowley Frisby (1877-1946)

Elizabeth Rowley Frisby (1877-1946)

Elizabeth Rowley Frisby portrait c1895
(Photo: Leicester, Leics & Rutland Records Office)

Elizabeth Rowley Frisby lived at ‘Stoneleigh’, Knighton Park Road 1895-1905 and intermittently at ‘The Cedars’, London Road between 1906 and her mother’s death in 1921.

Elizabeth’s father Joseph was born in Frisby on the Wreake, the eldest son of an agricultural labourer and the 1861 Census shows him aged 13 working as a ‘farm servant’ for their neighbour, John Bryans, who farmed 221 acres and employed 5 men and 2 other boys.

In 1871 he married Harriet, the Wisbech-born daughter of master carpenter William Robert Rowley and moved to 16 Samuel Street, Leicester, where he worked as a tobacconist. By 1880 he had become a boot and shoe factor and over the next two decades he built up one of the first chains of boot and shoe shops across England which continued under his son’s stewardship well into the twentieth century.

Elizabeth inherited her father’s energy and single-mindedness but, after attending Wyggeston Girls School, found herself chafing at the limited options available to her. The death of her father in 1902 probably removed the main constraint to her living independently and may also have provided her with an income.

Joining the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1910 gave her a focus. Although her militant suffragette activism brought her home in 1913 (not least to help burn down Blaby railway station) and she also returned on the outbreak of war in 1914 to organise a clothing depot for the families of reservists, for the next decade she lived mainly away from Leicester. In addition to voluntary work at the WSPU HQ in London, she attended lectures and classes at the London School of Economics and joined the Women’s Police Patrols.

In January 1916, with members of her family, she donated funds for a Y.M.C.A. hut in the training camp at Seaford, Sussex, and, together with her sister, took charge of it, becoming the first woman to gain permission to live in a military camp. After the Canadians took over the camp her work for the Y.M.C.A. continued at Luton, Margate, Parkeston and London and in the 1918 New Year Honours list it was recognised by the award of an M.B.E..

Elizabeth returned to South Leicester to live with her brother and his family, continuing to dedicate herself to voluntary work and public service. She formed a branch of Young Britons – an organisation to teach citizenship and encourage patriotism and love of Empire among young children – and further branches were formed under her Chairmanship of the Division and Vice-Chairmanship of Midland Area.

She joined the Conservative Association and became an active worker in Knighton Ward and in 1927, after being appointed a Justice of the Peace, she was elected to the City Council as a Conservative; the first woman to achieve the feat. In the coronation year 1937 she was appointed High Bailiff, again the first woman to hold the office.

She subsequently became Chairman of The Women’s Central Council (Leicester), Honorary Divisional Secretary of South Leicester, Chairman of Knighton Ward Women’s Association, President of the local Branch of the National Council of Women, and Chairman of Leicester and District Girls’ Training Corps Administrative Committee.

Finally, in 1940 she was elected the first female Lord Mayor of Leicester with her sister Jessie as Lady Mayoress. For the first 18 months of the war she did much work for evacuees, organising the first Salvage Campaign in the city and also joining the W.V.S.

Elizabeth Rowley Frisby died in 1946 and was buried in the churchyard of St Cuthbert’s, Great Glen where she lies with her two sisters and next to her brother, his wife and their two sons.