Rachel Cornes, Museums Manager at Tameside Culture, talks about the very first Cotton Queen, Frances Lockett, a mill worker from Hyde who won the competition in 1930
Frances Lockett, a girl from Hyde who worked as a weaver in a local cotton mill was the first Cotton Queen in 1930, when the competition was first launched in the North West towns.
In the late 1920s and 1930s the cotton industry was in decline so the mill owners got together with the Daily Dispatch newspaper to try and give the industry a boost. They were looking for something to promote it, bring a bit of glamour to it and try and give it a lift during a global downturn. So they came up with the idea of having a Cotton Queen competition and opened it up to any woman who worked in the cotton industry who was between the age of 16 and 26.
more like this
In Hyde there was the cotton industry, the hatting industry and the gloving industry, which all employed large numbers of women and girls. By the 1930s they were still big local employers even though textiles were beginning to decline.
All of the cotton towns in the North West put forward girls that they thought would be suitable and these went to the newspaper as a vote. All the local winners then went to Blackpool for a three-week event in which one of them was eventually chosen as the national Cotton Queen in a ceremony at the Tower Ballroom. The very first winner was Frances Lockett. She was nineteen years old.
Frances lived in a typical two up two down house, her father was a policeman and she had left school at the age of 14 to begin working at Newton Mill in Hyde.
Five years later she was thrust into a celebrity lifestyle, like an A-list celebrity of the time. It was a very prestigious role and certainly very glamorous for a cotton mill worker from Hyde who had been used to working on the machines every day. Suddenly she was out of the mill, travelling the country with a chauffeur and a chaperone, going to different department stores being filmed and photographed promoting cotton products.
If you look at the photos in our archive there were speeches to be made, fancy lunches and public launches to attend, a Cotton Ball at Covent Garden and she even went for lunch at the House of Commons. She met Ramsay MacDonald and Lloyd George, so it was a complete contrast to her previous life.
But by all accounts she coped with being thrust into the limelight and everyone knowing her, really well. She did lots of interviews with various newspapers at the time and these give the impression that she was quite an articulate and intelligent lady who wasn’t ‘just a pretty face’ fronting all this. She was chosen because she was able to talk really well, speak up for the industry and be a good advocate for it.
The archive photos also show how very tall Frances was – she towered over most people she met. Maybe that helped her present herself and gave her the confidence to cope with the thousands of people who sometimes turned out to welcome her.
But I think her year as the Cotton Queen must have been really hard work, travelling all over, staying in hotels and being expected to do talks and constantly meet and greet.
You have to remember that Cotton Queen fever really seized the public imagination, there was after all little else to cheer. There was even a popular song, the Waltz of the Cotton Queen, which celebrated Frances’s success and the sheet music for it sold really well.
‘She walked the pace in stately form
So graceful and serene
And Hyde is proud of such a lass
Britain’s first cotton queen.
All England hopes our Cotton Mills
Again will run full time
And we shall see a smile again
Upon all faces shine.’
It’s perhaps hard to believe now, but it seems like there was no cynicism among people – most thought it was a lovely idea and everyone seemed really, genuinely happy she was picked.
As well as the song sheet we also have Frances Lockett Cotton Queen promotional merchandise such as postcards and a cotton handkerchief from her factory, which has her printed image in on it and the words: “Queenetta fabric as made by Britain’s first Cotton Queen, Miss Frances Lockett.”
We also have her Cotton Queen dress, which she wore when she was crowned in Blackpool. It’s beautiful and of course it’s made of cotton with lots of lovely beadwork – an elegant evening gown, it’s quite slim fitting, flared at the bottom and it hangs off the shoulder.
It’s on display at Portland Basin Museum in our industrial gallery, which tells the story of cotton. We’ve got spools of cotton, a cotton loom, weaving tools, clocking in and out machines, a wages chest which would have had all the individual wages in, cotton spinning machines for measuring out the spools of cotton. All in all textiles were pretty big locally.
Frances’ dress is in its own case and I think it’s one of our best objects in terms of the story it tells.
The Cotton Queens lasted from 1930 to 1939 until the war intervened and then they didn’t really persevere with the idea after that. As for Frances, following her year as the Cotton Queen she went back to the mill and at some point worked at J and J Ashton’s in Hyde. Sometime later in 1937 she got married to a local policeman, James Burgess, and the whole of Hyde apparently turned out for her wedding.
She later stopped work at the mill but carried on being a local celebrity until she died in 1993. For years she was always called upon for openings and fetes and that kind of thing and her name is still well known locally.
Frances never had any children but I met her niece a few years ago, she lives in Liverpool and I went along to her house where she had Frances’s suitcase. Inside were photo albums, press cuttings, books and all kinds of stuff that Frances had kept about the cotton queens. I think she was very proud of it, that’s the impression I got from her niece and her niece was obviously very proud of her auntie as well.
Rachel Cornes was speaking to Richard Moss
Explore the local history image archive of Tameside Museums at http://cms.tameside.gov.uk/history/archive
Portland Basin Museum
Portland Basin is an award winning museum housed in a reconstruction of the historic 1834 Ashton canal warehouse. Discover the life and work experiences of the people of Tameside. Explore a typical Tameside street of 1928 with its shops, houses, school, chapel and doctor's surgery - all brought to life…