A unique project has documented the lives of 100 extraordinary women who helped shape the York we know today.

“Over the past 100 years many brave, spirited women have inspired and effected change in York,” says the HerstoryYork community project.

“These women have made a difference to every aspect of life in York by their work in the community, the arts, business, education, health, law and criminal justice, politics, religion, science, sport, media and charitable organisations. But, up until now, their stories have not been told or have only been partially told.”

Herstory.York has set out to change all that.

A group of volunteer researchers have put together the biographies of 100 women who have helped to shape the modern city.

You can read about them all on the Herstory website, herstoryyork.org.uk

But here are just a few, to get you started…


Mary Hughes, Co-founder of York Refugee Committee (1886-1953)

York Press:

In November 1938, with war threatening, Mary Hughes co-founded the York Refugee Committee, part of a nationwide network of volunteer groups offering homes and financial support to Jews and political refugees escaping occupied Europe.

The Committee was very successful and by May 1939 there were 118 refugees living in York. Two employment bureaus were set up, along with sports and social clubs. Many of those who were settled in York during the war chose to stay after 1945.

Mary speaks in her letters of her work for the Committee: “I begin every day by a cablegram . . . the post is enormous and leaves a morning’s work after which I go out and see people who might be persuaded to give hospitality and talk and talk and put cases before them."

One major challenge was providing financial guarantees for refugees. Mary worked tirelessly to raise a fund, including contacting Jews in New York and in Leeds.

Mary was married to John Hughes. The couple had a daughter, Barbara, and a son, also John – who described the work his mother did in a letter. “Mum is working against appalling difficulties but every now and then bringing off a miracle,” he wrote. “She knew of a young man in Leeds who had been in one of the most awful of the concentration camps and had got free. His brother is in C.Slovakia and in danger of being sent back to Germany. Could we get him out? Mum was rung up about him on Saturday morning and then later on the young man came over himself. Mum then went to Mr Smyth who is the treasurer and most sympathetic and the two of them worked out a guarantee for the young man’s brother."


Marion Paton, Code Breaker (1923-2016)

York Press:

Marion was born in Aldborough, near Boroughbridge and came to York when she was thirteen. She went to Mill Mount Grammar School and was eighteen when she was called up as a Foreign Office civilian drafted in to decipher coded messages from U-Boats and warships.

Marion’s daughter, Barbara Hagyard, wrote: “Marion was chosen by the Foreign Office because she achieved one of the highest scores in the country in her Maths exam and her abilities were needed for the decoding work."

Marion was taken to Bletchley, where she was put to work in Hut B, the Naval Unit. "She was taught to look for certain words or phrases in the many coded messages they intercepted,"Barbara wrote. "This was all the more difficult as they were in either German or Japanese."

Marion only worked at Bletchley for one year as she had to come home to nurse her mother, who was dying of tuberculosis.

“Mum carried on working as a bookkeeper until the age of 85 and had 6 grandchildren,” Barbara wrote. “(She) signed the Official Secrets Act and never really told her family the details of what she had done during the war."


Edna Annie Crichton, York’s first woman Lord Mayor (1876-1970)

York Press:

Edna came to live in York at the age of 25. A Quaker, she stood for election to York City Council in 1919. She sat as an Independent councillor and for 15 years was the Chairman of the Housing Committee.

War broke out in 1939 and two years later Edna was elected by her colleagues to be York’s first woman Lord Mayor.

In the early hours of April 29, 1942 York was bombed by the Luftwaffe. More than 70 people were killed, 190 injured and 9,500 homes destroyed or damaged. The medieval Guildhall was hit by an incendiary bomb and burned for most of the next 24 hours. Lord Mayor Edna Annie Crichton, whose own son had died as a prisoner of war only months before, toured the city the next day, speaking to the bereaved and visiting the wounded in hospitals.

At her memorial service she was described as ‘a little woman with the heart of a lion’.


Violet Rodgers Wloch, Curator, York Castle Museum (1914-1978)

York Press:

Violet began working for Dr John Lamplugh Kirk in 1938, at the age 24. Dr Kirk, from Pickering, was an avid collector of ‘bygones’. His collection, opened as York Castle Museum in 1938, has since been visited by more than 32 million people.

Violet once said: ‘When I came in 1938 the doctor was beginning to get rather uneasy. He had a weak heart and a wary eye on the progress of Hitler. In almost his first conversation with me he said “I’m going to die soon, girl, and there’s going to be a war. If I don’t get my museum opened first it will never be opened. We’ve got to hurry!”‘

It is not clear how Dr Kirk and Violet met or how she came to work for him, but in January 1938 Kirk wrote to J. B. Morrell (a fellow collector and supporter of Kirk’s vision) that ‘Miss Rodgers is promising’ and requested that she be paid £1 a week ‘until such time as your committee can confirm her status’. Dr Kirk died in 1940 and Violet ran the museum during the Second World War and into the late 1940s as Deputy Curator.

After the war, Violet was forced to take a pay cut because a new male curator was appointed. She married Wladyslaw Wloch in June 1947. That same year, Violet left the museum for a new life in Poland. She became a Curator at the Historical Museum of Krakow and was awarded the Polish Cross of Merit for her work.

Iris Lemare, conductor (1902–1997)

York Press:

Iris was the first professional British woman conductor, and the first woman to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra, in 1936, and 1937 - an event which caused a stir in the press. Educated at the Royal College of Music, she attended conducting classes by Sir Malcolm Sargent, who apparently largely ignored her as the only female student.

In 1940 she conducted the Northern Philharmonic Orchestra and subsequently moved north to York, living in Copmanthorpe for the next 30 years. She founded the Lemare Orchestra in 1949 and, with Iris as conductor, they performed at various venues across the city, including the Minster and the University of York.

From 1970 to 1984 she was the conductor of the Durham County Opera and Opera Nova. Her later years were spent as a lecturer, an adjudicator at Music Festivals, and an examiner. She died at her home in Askham Bryan in 1997.