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The Dairy Princess of Leeds 1960 and I grabbed a station cab to Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills last month to see the Queens of Industry: From Loom to Limelight exhibition there.

Celia Gledhill was lugging a holdall full of what the exhibition curator, John McGoldrick, would value as an archivist’s dream: ceremonial sashes, press clippings, correspondence, and glossy 10” x 8” photos.

We were going to enjoy learning about Wool Queens, Gas Queens, Coal Queens, Railway Queens. From the 1920s to the 1980s these grass-roots human beings were units in advertising campaigns to boost consumer consumption in their industries. Celia had been the National Milk Publicity Council’s Dairy Maid of Huddersfield 1960. She rose to become the 1960 Dairy Princess of Leeds, where her roles included milking a cow on Leeds Town Hall steps and opening the Wimpy Bar in Halifax. Judges elected winners on the basis of ‘the most healthy appearance, natural attractiveness, speech and personality, and will take into consideration any association with, or knowledge of farming or the dairy industry’ said the publicity flyer.


Fig 2. Dairy Princesses at Woburn Abbey, 1960. Celia is the second seated person on the right. Image courtesy of donor.

Now, six decades later, Celia was being royalty again, for the day. When she arrived at Armley Mills Industrial Museum a friendly woman on reception gasped ‘Oh, you’re the princess we’re expecting’. In the canteen staff members tried on the time-worn green and gold sash, as I too have done. Wearing it does make you feel, well, queenly. Times have changed. Celia was videoed last week; no such digital equipment existed when she was 18. And her family’s dairy farm in Kirklees is now Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s community farm and educational resource:

Going around the exhibition I heard Celia’s angle on what was publicly displayed back then, by comparison to the relatively private and low-key experiences she’d had. How blingy the Coal Queen’s 1980s jewelled sash was, by comparison to the 1960s milk equivalent. How fancy the tailored outfits modelled by the Wool Queen were, whereas Celia and colleagues had to supply their own (flowered) afternoon dresses.

I found:

1) Her public duties had to be fitted around the daily yoke of farm work. Celia’s absence meant a worker had to be hired in, with no compensation for the family’s expenses.

2) Being a dairy princess wasn’t a Miss World-type culture. No swimsuits were needed and no ‘vital statistics discussed. The most sexualised thing that happened to Celia was when a photographer got her to push her puff sleeves off the shoulder and pose with her hand on her hip. The figures she was interested in were, rather, milk yield per cow and the number of debtors on the milk round.

Fig 3. Celia in that dress at a cheese promotion event, 1960. Image courtesy of donor.

3)Celia was told she hadn’t reached the very highest stages because her strong Yorkshire accent was against her. It was a time when everyone on the BBC still spoke RP. She had neither time, money or interest in elocution lessons – or reaching another echelon.

4) Celia was praised as one of the only contestants who really understood the whole milk-producing process from pasture through to doorstep pints. One of the finalists had no connection with the industry whatsoever.

5) ‘Royalty’ like Celia gained opportunities to travel and meet new people at a time when access to mobility was still restricted by gender. Had she become Dairy Queen, Canada would have awaited her.

Fig 4. The beckoning flyer, 1960. Image courtesy of donor.

This princess’s story

I feel very honoured to have been part of connecting this real woman with an exhibition about an aspect of her context. Queens of Industry: From Loom to Limelight really impresses me as an oblique, and therefore telling, angle on working life. It’s about the appropriation of young women’s physical appearance and the way such gendered usage was naturalised.

Were they star-struck Hollywood fans? Theda Bara lookalikes? Maybe, but Celia had just done it casually and obligingly, because her mum bribed her with a dress. Glory? No, ta.

She seems to be the only woman still alive and able to answer questions about her subjective position as industry royalty. I hope someone in search of a project will write Celia’s history more fully. Do contact me if you want to follow her up:

The free exhibition ends on 29 September 2019.

Jo Stanley writes about gender and the sea. No, Princess Celia didn’t go on to become Pirate Celia. They met and became friends after Jo interviewed her for an off-piste project on Kirklees dairy farming history.