As Women’s History Month draws to a close, we want to shed light on the unsung Manchester heroes that you may not have heard about. We have compiled a short list of some iconic figures who we believe played a part in making Manchester what it is today.
Dr Eleanor Schill MBE
Eleanor Schill, born in Withington in 1904, utilised her privileged position as a platform to help others, dedicating her life to philanthropic charity and social work. A UoM alumni, Schill graduated in 1927 and became one of Britain’s first female doctors. A decade later she further embellished her academic portfolio, gaining a Diploma in psychological medicine. As a physician, Schill worked almost exclusively in the most deprived areas across Manchester.
Many of Schill’s endeavours were centrally focused on working with and advising women, at a time when access to such aid was scarce. Examples include her role on the committee for the McAlpine Home for unmarried mothers in Fallowfield, and on the board of the Manchester Girls Institute. Schill was a founding member of the Marriage Guidance Council (now known as Relate) specialising in advising women on being in education before and within marriage. Awarded an MBE in 1995, Schill will be remembered as an iconic figure for women’s economic and educational independence and liberation.
Beatrice Shilling deserves an honourable mention, as one of the less-known historical figures – she should be honoured this Women’s History Month for her contributions to the war effort and women’s empowerment.
Shilling was an Aeronautical engineer who studied electrical engineering at the University of Manchester, and had a master’s in mechanical engineering. After working as a research assistant at the University of Birmingham, she worked for the Royal Aircraft Establishment. Most famously, she helped create the RAE Restrictor, improving the engines of the planes as they would often nosedive. As a result of this, Shilling received an OBE for playing an instrumental role in WW2, particularly in the airforce.
Shilling was also a motorbike and sports car racer with her husband and became the second woman to lap the Brooklands Gold Star circuit at over 100 miles an hour.
Louise Da-Cocoida MBE
Louise Da-Cocoida immigrated to Britain from Saint Catherine, Jamaica in 1955, aged just 21, as part of the government’s overseas recruitment drive to staff the newly formed NHS. Being part of what is now known as the ‘Windrush Generation’, Da-Cocoida was subject to racial discrimination from colleagues and patients. Triumphant in the face of prejudice, she was appointed as Assistant Superintendent of District Nurses just eight years into her career.
This made her one of Britain’s first Black senior nursing officers, and the first in the whole of Manchester. Even in her position of seniority, she was subject to racial prejudice, as such, she took on roles on several governing boards and committees such as the Commission for Racial Equality in 1966.
As a committee board member Da-Cocoida handled complaints made under new anti-discrimination laws. Da-Cocoida’s passion for the promotion of equality for Manchester’s inner-city residents drove her to found and steer several community enterprise schemes. For example, the Cariocca Education Trust (which has now been renamed the Louise Da-Cocoida Education Trust to commemorate her legacy). She focused on housing, education, and employment in particular and was deservedly awarded an MBE in 2005.
Another influential woman of Manchester is Elouise Edwards, who campaigned against racial discrimination in Moss Side and worked on housing projects, medical programs, and increased art exposure.
Born in British Guiana, Elouise Edwards moved to Levenshulme in 1961. As a first-generation immigrant, Elouise noticed many instances of racial discrimination and hostility towards the West Indian community. Finding suitable housing was not an easy task for immigrant communities, with many white landlords rejecting West Indian families as tenants.
Edward’s home became a meeting place for the West Indian community in Manchester and focused on how to help the younger generation alongside developing economic and social programs for the community. Edwards legacy is glittered with her role as a social worker to help families in Moss Side and several female-led groups to improve education and housing opportunities. Significantly, Edwards helped form what is known today as the Manchester Sickle Cell and Thalassaemia Centre. She died in 2021, but her activism in Manchester still has a resounding legacy.
Julia Grant was an LGBTQ+ rights activist and trans pioneer, born in Lancashire in 1954. In 1974 Grant moved to London and began working as a drag queen for the BBC, however it was during this period that Grant discovered she was not a homosexual male, and wanted to live as a woman.
Grant began receiving treatment at the Charring Cross Hospital and agreed for BBC director David Pearson to film her experience to be chronicled on mainstream television. Pearson became closely acquainted with Grant and even chose her name. Grant faced much hostility, adversity and scrutiny both in the tabloids and from psychiatrists.
Despite setbacks, Grant knew how important it was to share her journey to educate the general public, and for members of the LGBTQ+ community to see representation. Her series, A Change of Sex, was broadcast in 1979 and the first episode amassed almost nine million views and received much public support.
In the late 90s, Grant was living in Manchester where she ran the Hollywood Show Bar amongst other cafes and bars in Canal Street, Gay Village. During this time Grant allowed a further BBC documentary to document an account of her life, was active in establishing local LGBTQ events, and counselled young people who were thinking about transitioning. Up until her death in 2019, Grant helped to improve trans care services in Britain such as the NHS’s Nye Bevan Academy.
A lesser-known name that deserves more credit is Olive Morris, who campaigned for squatters’ rights and was an activist in the black feminist movements in the seventies. Born in Jamaica, Morris moved to England and eventually went on to study for a master’s at UoM.
Olive Morris was inspired by the civil rights movement, and the Black British activists, who challenged the racial environment of England. She took the opportunity to reaffirm her Caribbean background and soon became a fearsome activist.
In an infamous incident, Olive Morris confronted the Metropolitan Police, to defend Nigerian diplomat Clement Gomwalk (he was stopped and searched). She was beaten and arrested, and the mistreatment she faced by the police formed a key role in her political activism.
Morris joined the British Black Panthers in the 1970s and aimed to improve local communities. The group picketed the trial of the Mangrove Nine, in solidarity, and Morris would later help form the Brixton Black Women’s Group in 1973. She later went to Manchester to study and co-found the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group (until its collapse) and travelled to China for the Society of Anglo-Chinese Understanding.
Morris had an immeasurable impact on the Black feminist national campaign and her work to improve local communities still has an impact today. Olive Morris is remembered in 2023, by BAFTA nominated short film, The Ballad of Olive Morris, decades after her death in 1979.
Monuments and buildings can be found around the city honouring these influential women and are open for visitors. Manchester would not be what it is without these six icons.