Mary Latchford Kingsmill Jones, 1877–1968

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2018), Volume 26

The Irishwoman who became the first female lord mayor of Manchester almost 70 years ago.

By Arnold Horner

Born in 1877, Mary Latchford Jones grew up in an upwardly mobile Protestant family that migrated across suburban Dublin. Her father, Percival Jones, had spent his early years assisting in a Capel Street china and earthenware shop before starting his own business, first in partnership during the early 1870s and later on his own. His shops operated over a 40-year period, first in Westmoreland Street and later in Grafton Street, frequently promoting the then-fashionable Belleek china. A member of an Orange lodge and an active Mason, he was elected to Rathmines urban district council in 1902, serving as a councillor until his death, aged 60, in 1906. He was described at his funeral service as having been ‘a consistent supporter of Irish manufacture’, and his commercial success is reflected in the family’s house moves, from smaller to larger terraced houses on the North Circular Road in the early 1870s and 1880s, and then to a large, recently built, detached house in Orwell Park, Rathgar, in the early 1890s.

Above: The Jones family in Orwell Park, Rathgar, c. 1914. Mary and her twin sister Suzie are second and third from the right in the front row. On the left (holding the dog) is her brother Kingsmill, whom Mary followed to Manchester in 1914, and who died by a sniper’s bullet on 2 August 1918 near Ypres.

Conventional Protestant upbringing

Mary and her twin sister Suzie had an upbringing that was probably typical for a well-to-do and fairly conventional Protestant family in late nineteenth-century Dublin. Percival was a subscriber to St Paul’s parish on the north side, and later attended Zion Church of Ireland, Rathgar, where he was for a time churchwarden. The family was, it seems clear, conservative unionist in outlook, yet it was also consciously Irish in identity, to the extent that, in both the 1901 and 1911 censuses, Percival’s wife, Margaret, and her two daughters indicated that they spoke both Irish and English. The two older brothers, Percival junior and Kingsmill, attended Wesley College in St Stephen’s Green. The two girls went to Rutland School at the junction of Granby Row and Rutland (now Parnell) Square, and later, after the move to the south side, to Alexandra College in Earlsfort Terrace. Two of the children continued to third level: Kingsmill graduated in medicine from Trinity College in 1901, and Suzie took the exams of the Royal University, which, unlike Trinity, had already embraced the idea that women might be as able as men. Mary’s other brother, Percival junior, who might have been expected to take over his father’s business, died at the age of 21 in 1894.

Above: ‘Miss Kingsmill Jones’—with bulldog—campaigning as the Conservative candidate in the 1929 general election. She lost narrowly.

It is not clear what Mary did after leaving school. Her family certainly had sufficient means to allow her, like many better-off young women at the time, not to engage in full-time work, and in both the 1901 and 1911 census returns a blank is left in the occupation column opposite her name. After her father died in 1906 she may perhaps have lent a hand in the family business; her mother evidently took over its operation and is listed as a ‘china and glass merchant’ in 1911. A year later, however, when Mrs Jones was aged 65, and perhaps when it had become clear that the next generation did not wish to be involved (Kingsmill was by then ten years into a career as a doctor and Suzie had married a substantial farmer near Kanturk, Co. Cork), the shop of Percival Jones at 43 Grafton Street closed.

Brother Kingsmill moves to Manchester

After training at Sir Patrick Dun’s in Dublin, and spells at Cork Street Hospital and in Swansea, Kingsmill had moved to Manchester in 1909, joining an established practice in the inner-city district of Ardwick. He had evidently made an immediate impression locally and in 1912 had been co-opted as a Conservative member of the city council. He had also joined the Territorial (reserve) Army, serving with the East Lancashire field ambulance unit. It was in this capacity that, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, Kingsmill was called to full-time duty as an army doctor, being attached to the ‘Buffs’, the East Kent regiment that in September 1914 was abruptly transferred from Fermoy, Co. Cork, to help bolster the British expeditionary force in Flanders.

Kingsmill was to act as a captain with the British Army Medical Corps, serving with the Buffs and the 6th Division for almost four years, tending to countless casualties. Known as ‘over-the-top Jones’ for his bravery in retrieving the wounded from no man’s land, he was awarded the DSO in February 1915 for his actions in clearing the wounded from a huge blast crater at Hooge, near Ypres. Later he was at the Somme and was gassed. Yet, apart from short leave periods and a spell recovering from the gas attack, he remained at the front line for much of the war—until on 2 August 1918, some four years after the start of hostilities and just three months before their end, he suffered the fate of hundreds of thousands of others in the conflict, being killed near Ypres by a sniper’s bullet.

‘Miss Kingsmill Jones’

For his family, confronted by that death, news of which was relayed in a terse telegram two days later, it can scarcely have been much consolation that Trinity College named a prize after him, or that on his death the flag over Manchester town hall flew at half-mast in a brief tribute to a former councillor. For Mary, however, that death had a far-reaching personal impact. Shortly before the war she had moved to Manchester, to support her brother and his medical practice. She was 41 when Kingsmill died in 1918. With his death, a new career unexpectedly emerged. Already committed to voluntary social work, she became a justice of the peace in 1920, and a year later followed in her brother’s footsteps by being elected a Manchester city councillor. Astutely, by adding her brother’s first name to her own, she gave herself a distinctive ‘brand’, henceforth being identified as ‘Miss Kingsmill Jones’. She was to be on the council for the next 45 years.

Financially independent, Mary Kingsmill Jones was able to pursue the development of a career as a public representative during the 1920s. She contested the Ardwick division of Manchester in the Conservative interest at both the 1924 and 1929 general elections, each time losing narrowly. Until 1918 Ardwick had been Conservative, but with the widening of the franchise it had become a ‘natural’ Labour seat, and Mary did well to gain over 13,000 votes. Had she been sent to parliament, we can only speculate as to what might have been her impact. Instead, her energies became focused on Manchester and on the city council, a place where—as in almost all British cities of the period—it was still unusual to find a woman.

Yet the diligence and fairness of Mary Kingsmill Jones clearly impressed her male colleagues, with the result that she became the first female to chair various council committees: public health (1929), library services (1934–8) and education (1939–42). On each committee she left her mark, supporting the opening, on health grounds, of birth control clinics, overseeing the completion of the magnificent Manchester Central Library and, while on the education committee, visiting and supporting schools that were badly damaged and demoralised from wartime bombing raids. Throughout the war she was active as a regional officer in the Red Cross. She also supported the ‘Women for Westminster’ movement, which sought to advance the political role of women at a national level.

Lord mayor

Above: This painting of Mary Kingsmill Jones in her mayoral robes, by Ethel Leontine Gabain (1883–1950), was funded by women’s organisations in Manchester. (Manchester Town Hall)

Evidently well regarded by voters, she was elected a city alderman in 1938. Six years later, despite expectations and much to the indignation of her female party colleagues and of women’s organisations in Manchester, the Conservative Party council group chose an alternative male candidate for lord mayor. It was only in 1947 that she finally attained that office. For an exceptional eighteen-month period (longer than usual for administrative reasons), as Britain struggled to recover from the war, Mary Kingsmill Jones acted with energy and distinction as the first woman lord mayor of Manchester. She did not beat the Dublin precedent (where Kathleen Clarke, widow of 1916 signatory Thomas Clarke, had been lord mayor in 1939–41), nor was she the first female lord mayor in England (a woman held the office in Liverpool in 1927 and in Sheffield in 1936, for example). Nevertheless, she was undoubtedly among the pioneers, being elected some 35 years before the first female to be lord mayor of London.

Though very conscious of her distinction as a woman lord mayor, Mary Kingsmill Jones does not appear to have seen her mayoral role as heavily gendered. She saw herself primarily as being a representative of her city, a task that did not need to be heavily biased towards either male or female, or indeed in party political directions. Among her many duties, she welcomed Manchester United captain Johnny Carey, a fellow Dubliner, and his team on their return to the city after winning the FA cup in April 1948. Apparently lacking any exceptionally strongly felt political ideology, her life as a public representative appears to have been guided by what might now be termed a sense of social inclusion. Her main priorities, outlined in her inaugural address, were directed primarily towards a concern for the less-well-off, focusing on the post-war housing shortage and education improvement. Her personal commitment was evident also in her involvement over many years as president of a section of the Red Cross. Such was her contribution that she was in 1956 made an honorary freeman of Manchester, only the second woman to be so honoured. She was recognised nationally by being named a DBE, the female equivalent of a knighthood.

Mary Kingsmill Jones, who never married, continued to act as a public representative into her late 80s. She died, aged 90, in 1968, and was said to have never lost her Irish accent. Her name is unlikely ever to appear on a list of the more outspoken feminists, yet in her own way she was a trail-blazer, with both the aptitude and the drive to become a first citizen. On her death, and almost 50 years after it had similarly respected her brother, the flag over Manchester town hall was flown at half-mast. In a committee room of that building her portrait now hangs as a permanent testament to her pioneering contribution as a woman politician in England’s second city. Had she remained in Ireland her life might have been quite different. It was Manchester and perhaps a desire to carry on the work of her cut-down brother that belatedly brought this conservative yet generally progressive Dubliner to public prominence 70 years ago.

Arnold Horner formerly lectured in Geography at University College Dublin.

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