The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson

Margaret Watson.
Margaret Watson.

IT IS exactly 75 years since a women’s club with a strange sounding name –“The Soroptimists” – was started in Dewsbury, and its first meeting was in the Playhouse Cafe, a beautiful building, sadly demolished some years ago to make way for a store called Wilkinsons.

Most people will remember the Playhouse as the poshest cinema in Dewsbury, so where better could those early Soroptomists have chosen to hold their meetings than inside this locally famous edifice?

MIRFIELD PARTY: Members and guests of the Dewsbury Soroptimist Club pictured at the group's 20th birthday party at the Marmaville Club, Mirfield in 1962. Pictured second from the right, front row, is Mrs Joan Cave, a former president wearing her chain of office.

MIRFIELD PARTY: Members and guests of the Dewsbury Soroptimist Club pictured at the group's 20th birthday party at the Marmaville Club, Mirfield in 1962. Pictured second from the right, front row, is Mrs Joan Cave, a former president wearing her chain of office.

For the next 18 years, the Playhouse management allowed the ladies to hold their meetings in the Playhouse Boardroom, but explaining to local people what their unusual name meant was always something of a problem.

When I was a young journalist attending their functions in the early days, I was told by someone in the office that their name came from the Greek word meaning “Sisterhood”.

This wasn’t so as I was quick to learn when I attended my first meeting.

The word soroptimist is taken from the Latin words “soror” meaning sister and “optima” meaning best, which, loosely translated, means “Women at their Best”.

And this is what the Soroptimists of Dewsbury have been doing for the last 75 years – and doing it well – helping their fellow sisters be the best they can be.

The first Soroptimist Club was launched in America in 1921 at a time when women were being given more of a say in things and being encouraged to take up positions in public life.

Three years later, the first club in Britain was formed in London, followed by Manchester in 1926, Glasgow and Edinburgh in 1928 and Dewsbury in 1942. It soon became a world-wide organisation for women in management and the professions, a global voice for women, and this was years before equal opportunities was talked about.

One of their early members, the late Mrs Joan Cave, who had a hairdressing salon in Halifax Road, Dewsbury, once told me how she had turned up at her first meeting in the Playhouse Cafe in 1952 not wearing a hat.

All the other ladies were sitting there in their hats and furs, and Joan began to think she had arrived at a very “upper crust” meeting.

All the members addressed each other formally, first names never being used, and at first Joan thought it wasn’t really the place for her.

She couldn’t have been more wrong. Once she had settled in she felt at home and became an important part of the organisation, eventually becoming president in 1961-62.

Over the years the club has met at a variety of venues, but they currently meet in the Oakwell Centre in Dewsbury District Hospital, once a month.

It is impossible to mention all the worthwhile projects they have been involved in both at local and international levels over the last 75 years, or the vast amount of money they’ve raised for charity, or the organisations they have supported.

But I doubt if there is any aspect of local life which they haven’t touched upon, which they haven’t been involved with or which they haven’t supported.

Some of the objects they have always worked towards include; the advancement and status of women, high ethical standards; human rights for all; equality, development and peace through international good will, understanding and friendship.

Some 30 years ago I helped set up a local charity for women – Dewsbury District Women’s Health Group – but sadly it was forced to close this year due to lack of funding.

One of the first groups which helped us when we first began was the Soroptimists who did everything they could to help and support us.

I was delighted therefore this week when they invited me to take part in their 75th anniversary celebrations this coming weekend when they will be visited by Soroptimists from other countries.

They have asked me to show their visitors the ‘Dewsbury Tapestry’ which I rescued and restored and presented to Dewsbury Minster Church some years ago.

The tapestry was created over 150 years ago by Sarah Ann Imeson in memory of nine of her children who died in infancy between 1855 and 1871. Their names and where they were buried (most of them in Dewsbury Minster churchyard), are embroidered on this unique piece of art.

There have been many twists and turns in the life of the Tapestry (it once nearly ended up in a jumble sale) but I believe it has now returned to where Sarah Ann and her husband Christopher would have wanted it.

The tapestry will be on display at the front of the church in Dewsbury Minster and I will be giving a talk on its history and the woman who created it.

Any readers who would like to join us are invited to attend the talk which starts at 10.15am on Monday 24 July.

At a time when hundreds of women’s organisations in Dewsbury are now closing, like my own, It is comforting to know that there are still one or two who have survived, especially the Soroptimists, who continue to raise the profile of women and raise money for charity.

Perhaps some of our readers may feel encouraged to become a member of this group (they don’t all wear hats these days) and they take part in a wide variety of social and educational events.

I’m sure if you come to the event on Monday they will be delighted to tell you more about their group, and you will also have the opportunity to inspect the tapestry more closely.

You can also contact them by email sidad1942@gmail.com or http://sigbi.org/dewsbury and you can find them on Facebook and Twitter.