Celebrating York's First Female Lord Mayor #IWD2018

By Mansion House Team - 08 March 2018

By Anne Grant

‘A little woman with the heart of a lion’ was how Edna Annie Crichton was described at the memorial service held to celebrate her life in 1970. She was York’s first woman Lord Mayor and provided inspirational leadership to the city during one of its most shocking events – the major air raid of 1942.

Once her children were settled at school, Edna Crichton became a leading figure in the Women’s Citizen’s Association, a nonpartisan organisation urging the case for election of women to municipal office. She was elected to York City Council in 1919 as an independent councillor. She firmly believed that women were more knowledgeable than men ‘in such questions as housing, education, maternity and child welfare’ and had no wish to involve herself in party politics.

Edna was particularly concerned with housing reform. By the time she was elected chair of the reorganised Housing Committee in 1931, 2,482 council houses had been built in York or were under construction. The major development was the Tang Hall estate on which 1,650 houses were built.

In April 1939, the Housing Committee reported that 5,063 houses and flats had been built and well over 1,000 slum properties had been demolished. In his report Poverty and Progress: a second social survey of York, 1941, Seebohm Rowntree wrote approvingly that in the case of ‘all the worst slums which existed in 1900 … most of [the demolition has taken place] since 1933’. It was said that Edna visited every house to be taken down.

In the pre-dawn of 29th April 1942 there was little warning of incoming German bombers. The official alert was sounded almost simultaneously as incendiaries were dropping. The Luftwaffe’s primary target was York’s railway station, the carriage works and the main lines (vital for the movement of troops and goods between London and the north of England.) Unopposed for much of the raid, once their bombs had been dropped, the German aircrews dive-bombed ordinary streets, strafing them with machine gun fire.

When incendiaries set the Guildhall ablaze, York’s Civil Defence Control and Telephone Room – situated next to the Guildhall – had to be hastily evacuated. The Civil Defence staff reconvened in the Mansion House where “Mrs Crichton was very calm and resourceful and the mainstay of the whole operation.”

The destruction continued. All telephone lines were dead by 03.30 and despatch riders became the only means of communication. By the time the All Clear sounded, it was apparent how badly the city had been hit: over 70 people had been killed outright, with 90 more seriously injured. There were 9500 destroyed or badly damaged houses out of a total of 28,000.

Mrs Crichton toured the city with C.J. Minter, York’s City Engineer before breakfast, visiting the bereaved and the wounded. She made an appeal through the press for sightseers to stay away from the city, to allow rubble and broken glass to be cleared away unhindered, and for bomb craters to be made safe. The Evening Press said that she had been ‘an inspiration to citizens … working untiringly for about 18 hours…(especially) alleviating distress among victims’ (Yorkshire Evening Post, 30 April 1942).

When Edna Crichton had completed her year as Lord Mayor, she was elected an Alderman, again being the first woman in York’s history to achieve this eminence. She continued to serve the city as a councillor for 10 years after the war. This was an extremely difficult time, when the acute demand for housing and shortage of building materials made for frustration and disappointment. During angry protests from council house tenants in 1954, Edna had to be escorted through the crowd by the Chief Constable.

After completing her final term as a councillor, in 1955, Edna Annie Crichton was awarded the honorary freedom of the City of York. In this she was only the second woman to be honoured, the first being Mary, Princess Royal, in 1952. Notwithstanding that, she was an extraordinary woman, and a Lord Mayor of whom the city was, rightly, extremely proud.