Female Entrepreneurs In the 1920s

Who Do You Think You Are? came up with the goods on successful business women of the past yet again last week with the story of the ancestors of William Roache. Yes, he of Ken Barlow off Coronation Street.

Bill Roache is now 80 years old and holds the title of the longest serving soap opera actor in the world. As he said, he never planned it, he just wanted to work well and continuously.

A trait which he seems to have inherited from his grandmother, Zillah Woddacor.

zillah was married to a violent drunk but that does not seem to have stopped her from being an extremely successful businesswoman – with the help of her father in law.

We don’t know exactly how Zillah came to marry Albert Waddicor, an ices and temperance beer seller with premises on the front at Blackpool. But the rest of her life started there.

How an ice cream stall holder became a leisure industry entrepreneur

The shop was little more than a large hut but it was in a prime position and they made enough money for her to be able to rent several rooms in the big house at Alton Towers, when the Earls of Shrewsbury finally had to sell up and downsize.

In those days, Alton Towers was famous for the house and gardens, which local investors had spruced up to provide a venue for daytrips for factory workers in the area who suddenly found themselves in possession of half day Saturdays – thanks to the intervention of the Trades Unions.

The possibility of weekend breaks had arrived and special trip trains were run by some employers because they felt that visits to local historical buildings was self improving for their workforce.

Alton Towers saw around 250,000 visitors each summer and Zillah’s cafe could accommodate 1000 diners in various sittings each day.

The times had changed since my previous post about widows in the Victorian era who became successful business women did not remarry so that they would not have to lose their property and wealth to a husband.

The suffragettes and the First World War saw women given the vote in 1918 but the return of the soldiers from the fighting meant that many women were forced to return to housewifery. There were rules called marriage bars which said that married women were excluded from employment in certain occupations. The number of married women actually working gradually fell to an all time low of just 14%.

However, the Married Women’s Property Laws meant that wives were now able to hold property and money in their own right. Family businesses were the one way that married women could actually earn and keep their own money. Zillah made the most of this.

Eight years after she first rented out the rooms at Alton Towers, she was also renting the Old Mill, a cafe immediately opposite the station at the village in Alton – the platform of which had recently been extended to accommodate the increased numbers of passengers visiting the attraction.

Zillah was one of the leading leisure entrepreneurs of her generation at a time when there were very few women in business.

There were photographs of Zillah, her daughters and various female companions on luxury holidays in Europe – never with Albert – so she clearly enjoyed the benefits of her hard work.

She had obviously impressed her father in law at an early age because, when he died, he left her and his wife as his executors. The Will itself left all this property in trust for Albert and Zillah’s daughter, May, whilst Albert was allowed only the income from those properties.

It allowed him to live the life of a gentleman, rather than having to work but prevented him from being able to squander away his father’s fortune on alcohol – rather odd when he had begun his career selling temperance beer, the old fashioned word for soft drinks.

But it also gave him his own income and kept him out of Zillah’s hair when she was building and maintaining her own successful business.

It was an extraordinarily uplifting programme for any woman who has her feet firmly set on achieving the same and Bill’s pride in his grandmother was immense.

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