Cicely Lucas: Early Life and an Interest in Women's Suffrage

Westwood Heath School
Image supplied by Christine Cluley, courtesy of the family of Cicely Lucas

Cicely (pronounced Size-ly) Lucas’s story is the fascinating record of a woman who overcame a troubled childhood, stood up for women’s rights, and achieved her ambition to become a teacher who could make a real difference to her pupils’ lives. She was outspoken, a woman of strong principles and opinions, sometimes overpowering in her manner and often admired rather than liked, but she inspired love and respect from her students and was well regarded in her local community.

Early life in Westwood Heath

She began her life in Westwood Heath, then a rural hamlet near Coventry, where her father, Edwin Neale, was the headmaster of Westwood Heath Elementary School, which educated children up to the school leaving age of 13. His wife, Sarah, also worked at the school as a sewing mistress and Cicely, too, soon found herself as an inexperienced and put-upon teacher in charge of a class. The Neales had four children but Cicely was the only daughter and, as the ‘girlchild’ in a family of boys, she became very aware of the inequalities of family life, describing her role as that of ‘unpaid skivvy’. It made her resentful but also nurtured a life-long interest in women’s rights.

A scandal

When Cicely was still in her teens, the family was broken apart by scandal. Her father was dismissed from the school because of a liaison with a female colleague. Disgraced, he moved back to Dorset, the place of his birth, taking his youngest son with him but leaving the rest of his family behind. The School Managers showed some compassion and allowed Mrs. Neale to stay on as temporary headmistress until Cicely’s eldest brother, Cecil, who was then away at Teacher Training College, should be able to take on the job of headmaster. It was clearly a very traumatic experience for Cicely, who remembered it vividly even in later life, but she found comfort in her studies, which allowed her an escape from the family crises around her.

By this time, Cicely had already decided to become a teacher and, even as the domestic storm clouds surrounded her, she applied successfully for a place at Derby Training College for Women Teachers. In order to gain admission, she had to achieve marks for art and so, in addition to all her other duties, she walked four miles each way to and from Coventry School of Art during the winter evenings. The marks were gained and so too was a friend, one of the very few in Cicely’s lonely and isolated youth. The friend was Ernest Lucas and he would later become her husband.

Although she was at times a cantankerous and opinionated student, Cicely was awarded a double first at the Training College. Her first professional teaching job was as a Trained, Certificated Assistant Teacher at Highfield Road, Saltley, Birmingham and she continued to work in several schools in the area, each new post bringing a promotion. By this time, her parents had become reconciled and Edwin Neale returned home from Dorset. But, as her eldest brother Cecil had now become head of Westwood Heath Elementary School and her mother was not very well, Cicely bought a house in Mary Road, Yardley, Birmingham, and brought her parents to live with her.

Becoming a suffragette

Cicely was a proficient seamstress and, to increase her income, after she finished her school day she taught sewing at evening classes for women. During these lessons she became aware of the suffragette movement, which was gaining momentum in the first decade of the 20th century, and her passionate interest in women’s rights was aroused. Her early experience as the only girl amongst three brothers, and the later repercussions of her father’s affair, sharpened her interest in a political movement that was taking up the fight for women’s equality and recognition in a man’s world. It seems likely that in 1911 she joined the Suffragettes’ boycott of the census. The return for her house in Mary Road lists only her father, Edwin, and the comment ‘Daughter a Suffrgette’ (sic) written across the form. There are four objects in the care of Warwickshire Museum that illustrate her time as a fierce and outspoken suffragette.

Her life, however, was to become more complicated.

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