THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Ina Kitson Clark (nee Georgina Bidder) 1864-1954
Campaigner, Activist, Artist
When Ina Kitson Clark was given an honorary doctorate by Leeds University in 1928 she was described as a practical idealist with the active spirit of the crusader, the gift of stirring speech, and a woman’s power to take direct action. The award recognised the important part she had played in the city’s life during her fifty years in Leeds, in improving infant welfare, in furthering women’s rights, and in art and culture.
She came from a talented background, her grandfather an eminent civil engineer, her father a wealthy and successful London QC. Family life at Ravensbury Park in Surrey fostered her interest in art, archaeology, literature, and social issues. She studied at the Slade, travelled abroad, and worked with the Kyrle Society which aimed to ‘bring beauty to the people’, through green spaces and artistic decoration (her forte) of workhouses, hospitals, schools, in the slums. A founder member of the National Union of Women Workers, promoting equal rights, she was a modern woman – look at her bobbed hair in this era of lavish tresses!
In 1893 on a voyage to Naples she met Edwin Kitson Clark, the classically educated engineer who managed Kitson’s great Airedale Foundry in Leeds. Over the next four years they exchanged a multitude of letters (still surviving – a lost art now?): a long, slow courtship which led to marriage in 1897 and a deep and enduring partnership. So to Leeds. After a period in Hyde Terrace, she and Edwin moved in 1904 with their young family to ‘Meanwoodside’, a fine house in wooded surroundings (now Meanwood Park). It was to be their home for the rest of their lives.
Ina soon found her feet. She joined the influential Yorkshire Ladies Council of Education, and for 21 years was their Hon. Secretary. This formidable group of women had pioneered initiatives in education, health and welfare and now focussed on the alarming rise in infant mortality: by 1900 it had peaked at 163 deaths in the first year of life for every 1000 live births. Coincidentally recruitment for the Boer War revealed how many men were unfit through childhood disease and malnutrition. In Leeds the problems were acute in the heavily industrialised areas where one in five babies died early and stunted growth and limbs deformed by rickets (‘Leeds legs’) were commonplace. Ina attended conferences, visited welfare schemes in Denmark and Belgium, and led the campaign for infant clinics in the most deprived areas. In 1909 the first ‘Babies Welcome’ clinic was opened in a house donated by Henry Barran: mothers could have their babies weighed, get advice, see a doctor – and chat over a cup of tea. Ina was President for the next 19 years and saw the clinics multiply and a children’s hospital established at Wyther.
She had duties too of course as Edwin’s wife: balls, garden parties, civic societies – he was a distinguished man. But she still found time for her painting and sculpting, exhibited regularly at the Leeds Fine Arts Club, and was its President for an astonishing 40 years, promoting the role of art in the city’s life. Some of her portraits and charming hand-drawn Christmas cards still survive. Writing was another pleasure – poetry and plays, some later published, some written for the Meanwood WI which she founded in 1917. She remained active on the National Women’s Council, supported a local Loan Fund to help women into training, and a campaign for more women in local government. A member of the Leeds Women’s Suffrage Society, she signed the 1907 Leeds petition and in 1918, with Edwin, spoke to urge women to use their hard-won vote.
In the First World War Edwin went to the Front (Lt. Col.), but after being wounded was based relatively safely at Harfleur. At home Ina organised supplies for the troops, and had the job of finding lodgings for incoming women munitions workers. Post war she was a delegate to the International Women’s Conference at the Hague promoting international understanding, and embraced a number of official roles and causes – the ‘go-to’ woman for committees and appeals, an effective organiser and a powerful speaker.
In 1943, in the midst of another war, Edwin became seriously ill: he wrote her a last loving letter before his death. She remained at Meanwoodside, still active, painting and exhibiting, until finally a fall led to her death in 1954, aged 89. There was an outpouring of appreciation for all she had achieved in her long life in Leeds.
Meanwoodside and its grounds were bought by the Council for £8500 for a public park, with the house as a possible trailside museum, but the plan was rejected and the house demolished. A plaque records Ina and Edwin and their ‘unstinted service to Leeds’.