Born on 2nd December 1883, Fanny Rebecca Davenport spent her early years at her parent’s farm on Farmers Bank. On leaving school, she worked on the farm where her family lived but she was long associated with Silverdale, a mining village near Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire, which is today near to Keele Golf Course. One of the first branches of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) was established at Silverdale in the 1890s by her brother Arthur and she joined, too.
She is believed to have married Noah Deakin in 1901, when her address was “Racecourse Back Lane, Silverdale”. She and her husband seem to have moved to Wolstanton, today on the north side of Stoke-on-Trent. The average weekly wage of a miner was 18 shillings and the men were on almost continuous short time working.
The fate of her family was also typical of her class; of her six children, one died aged eight, another died as a baby and one was still born. Twins died at eight months, only Noah survived and he contracted TB in the mines. Fanny would later painfully recall how she helplessly watched the twins dying, knowing that “milk and proper medical attention would have saved them”.
After the split in the SDF over imperialist war occurred, Fanny joined the ILP. In 1917, she was elected to Wolstanton and Stoke Board of Guardians and joined the fight against the hated Poor Law. In 1919 was a leading spirit in the founding of Silverdale Labour Party.
In 1921 a local Communist Party branch was established when Billy Brain and Tommy Jackson came from Birmingham at the invitation of Fanny’s son, Noah, to help launch it. Soon after, Fanny was elected as a Co-operative Communist councillor for Wolstanton Council, the first woman ever elected, although she did not formally join the Communist Party until 1923. Throughout her public life, she was noted for her campaigns for better nourishment of young children and maternity care for mothers.
During the General Strike in 1926, she was a major figure in local activity in support of the miners. One observer recalled seeing her “coming up past St Giles Church in Newcastle-under-Lyme at the head of these miners, 200 or 300 miners …Fancy, one woman – and she’s leading them!” The march was accompanied by 14 brass bands on its way through Wolstanton and it was led by by A J Cook and Fanny herself. The miners’ leader stayed at her house.
She herself used to say: ‘I’m fighting for the mothers. If she had a coat of/arms they’d put it in Latin: Fighting for the mothers.” In 1927 she retained her seat, this time dropping the Co-operative label and standing just as a Communist. She was very popular with local people, who nicknamed her “Red Fanny” after she visited the Soviet Union in 1927 and 1930.
Of her five children only one survived into adulthood. In an era of high infant mortality she campaigned for better maternity care of women and free milk for children under five. Along with unemployed miners, she went to Downing Street to see Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald to demand that local councils give free milk to pregnant mothers and children up to the age of five.
Her selflessness was displayed when a comrade was found guilty of supposedly inciting a riot of the unemployed, Fanny gave him an alibi but found herself charged with perjury and spent nine months in Winson Green Prison. It only seemed to help her electoral chances!
In 1931, she led a National Unemployed Workers Movement delegation to No 10 Downing Street, where she was photographed.
In 1933 she was elected as a Communist to Staffordshire County Councillor. “Fanny recalled with pride that of the first three reforms she set her heart on when elected, all were achieved. These were, to raise public assistance to the highest in the country instead of second from the bottom, to raise the level of wages of council workmen and to make every councillor with a hospital in his area a member of the Hospital committee.” (1)
Re-elected to the now merged Newcastle Council in 1934, again as a Communist, she became a County Councillor. She played a key role in several committees relating to maternity and child welfare. During the war years she could be seen working with others in the Catholic Church showing children how to put on gas masks. In 1941, she became the first Communist in the country to be appointed an Alderman, in this case for the Newcastle under Lyme borough, with the honour being extended to Staffordshire county level in 1946.
The following year, she achieved what most local people remember her for when a maternity home was opened bearing her name for use by the women of the Borough. Her advocacy of mother and child welfare issues was marked by the naming of the Fanny Deakin Maternity Home in Chesterton by the Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council, the only hospital in Britain to be named after a Communist. She is still popularly remembered through the many children born there and also due to a GP ward named after her in a local hospital.
In the 1950s right wing Labour councillors stopped her being elected as an Alderman of Staffordshire County Council.
Although Fanny died on 24th March 1968, she is still regularly remembered locally. In 1991 Joyce Holliday wrote “Go See Fanny Deakin!”, in which Fanny Deakin appears as heroine in a play centred on the mining community of Silverdale. It was subsequently broadcast by BBC local radio. Joyce Holliday also wrote “Silverdale People” which includes a biography of Fanny Deakin.
Sources include: Comment 25 May 1968, Fanny Deakin’s papers in Newcastle Library, including mss autobiographical notebook written in 1966-7.
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