Gulielma Harlock: ‘Private Secretary and Jack of all Trades’

Welcome to our second blog post researched and written by Catherine Hindson, Professor of Theatre History at the University of Bristol. Catherine’s research focuses on how theatre helps us understand societies past, and incorporates topics including celebrity, heritage, ghosts, and well-being. Catherine’s first blog post ‘Brynhild Benson: Star of the Cocoa Works Stage’ can be found here. 

Miss Harlock of York

In 1906, Joseph Harlock – temperance campaigner, local Liberal Party leader, and ‘one of the oldest and best-known inhabitants’ of Finedon village in Northamptonshire – died. Several local newspapers published accounts of his life that celebrated his public service and kindness. What is of great interest as I write this blog, is that the longest of these obituaries for Joseph devoted as much space to discussing the achievements of two of his daughters, as it did to his own life and works. ‘Two of Mr Harlock’s daughters have achieved fame in different directions’, the lengthy paragraph in the Northampton Mercury began.[1] These two women were Sarah Anne and Gulielma Harlock. Born into one of Britain’s most well-known, extended Quaker families in the middle of the nineteenth century, both had followed career paths that led them into leadership and activism amidst the worlds of social reform, public health, and education.

Like so many early-twentieth century women who were instrumental in political and social reform, Sarah Anne and Gulielma’s histories have remained hidden. Recovering the stories of such lives requires researchers to scratch insistently at the surface of other stories, to explore the backgrounds of other sources, and to investigate references that often lay buried in other evidence. So, while it might seem peculiar to open a blog post about a professional, high-profile woman using her father’s obituary, it is sources like this that helps us to tell untold stories. This blog tells the story of Gulielma, her work with the Rowntree family, and her management of New Earswick village.


New Earswick Folk Hall, 1907
From originals held at the Borthwick Institute for Archives.  


Gulielma – or Gulie – Harlock was born in 1863. Following five years as a boarder at the Quaker Ackworth School in West Yorkshire, she moved to the West Midlands. By 1891 she was governess for the industrialist Frederic Impey’s family. Impey was a Liberal leader, progressive industrial thinker, and a fellow Quaker. Gulielma’s role went beyond looking after the family’s children. She became a member of several welfare and recreation committees at Impey’s new factory, including the entertainments committee. At the time the firm were planning and constructing their first purpose-built entertainment hall to stage staff concerts and performances. Gulielma’s involvement gave her useful experience that she would draw and build on later in her career at York.

Working at Impey’s offers us a characteristic snapshot of Gulie Harlock’s life. She had an extraordinary ability and desire to spin many, many plates at the same time. In December 1896, she qualified as an Inspector of Nuisances (a term for the new profession of public health inspectors) at Bedford College for Women. She went on to do East End settlement work in London’s slums, and to lecture on public health at schools for Worcestershire Health Society. In 1901 we find the first references to her working in York, as a Private Secretary for Seebohm Rowntree. It is important to recognise that by the time she arrived she was a well-qualified, professional woman who brought specialist skills, training, education, and wide experiences to her new role. These were skills that she was to diversify and develop over the next eighteen years in the city, and that were to benefit the Rowntrees’ activities hugely. Gulie Harlock was to become a key employee, close friend, and confidante of the family.

During Harlock’s first months in York Seebohm Rowntree was engaged in writing Poverty: A Study of Town Life (1901). As his assistant, Gulie brought a wealth of academic and practical training to the project. She had direct experience of dealing with the complexities of understanding human beings and their problems. Crucially, she was also trained in conducting and recording the interviews that Rowntree’s work depended on. The significance of her contribution was acknowledged by Seebohm Rowntree in the book’s introduction. Poverty’s publication led to a series of country-wide public-speaking engagements for Harlock. Reports of these tell us she was confident on stage in front of large audiences, and that she skilfully communicated the research and its outcomes to rooms of people that numbered up to three hundred. She also published her own writing on social work and public health. In 1902 she had given a talk entitled ‘Preparation for Effectual Work’ at the Quaker Society of Friends Women’s Yearly Meeting, which was later published as an article for The Friends Quarterly Examiner. It opened with a call for the professionalisation of social work, in which Harlock told her readers that ‘it is now well recognised that to make a useful social worker training as well as gifts is necessary’. That ‘the time-honoured philanthropy of our grandparents has given way to the science of social work, and surely it is the highest science, as it deals with complex human beings’.[2] In her work with Rowntree, her public appearances, and her writing, Gulielma Harlock confidently asserted herself as a representative of a new social science and profession. As an expert in her field.

Private Secretary and Jack of all Trades

During the first two decades of the twentieth century Gulielma continued to take public speaking engagements, conduct research for Seebohm Rowntree and others, undertake charity work, and estate manage New Earswick village. In 1909 the government’s Poor Law Commission report was published. Harlock was one of the professional investigators commissioned by Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and the named author of one of its reports. At the same time she was hard at work at New Earswick, Rowntree’s housing community project that she had run since its inception in 1902. Correspondence and business records held in the Rowntree Family Archive at the Borthwick Institute (University of York), reveal that she was involved in financial and practical planning, calculating rents and planning both housing and public buildings.[3] Harlock oversaw the village and its residents, developed recreational, public spaces, and ensured provision for village theatre.

One key part of this role was her oversight of the development and building of the Folk Hall in 1907: a new multiuse space that was designed to house a range of community events and pastimes, including village stage productions. The importance of staging theatre at the hall is clear from the design of the building. As part of her research, Gulielma had sought advice from her peers, writing to Roger Clark of Clark’s – the shoe-making firm based in Somerset. Clark’s was another Quaker-guided firm, but one remained antitheatrical and still did ‘not allow theatricals’ in their hall. The Folk Hall at New Earswick doubtless benefitted from Clark’s advice in his four-page reply, but it had one distinct difference. The Folk Hall had a large stage, stage curtains, stage trap, and dressing rooms. It was equipped for fully staged theatre, and this was a feature that was foregrounded and celebrated in the newspaper coverage that surrounded the opening event. Village council minutes from the years following its opening reveal that both the scale and regularity of theatrical production increased over the following years, with the new space both enabling and endorsing theatre as a pastime.


Folk Hall Plan (Stage Area), 1934
Ref: JRF/4/1/12/1/7: From originals held at the Borthwick Institute for Archives


By the second decade of the twentieth century Gulie Harlock was very much the public face and professional representative of New Earswick. Henry Aldridge’s manual for town planners, published in 1916 recorded that, ‘the work of administration at New Earswick is in the hands of Miss Harlock, whose sound common sense has found expression in many interesting experiments in the designs of the houses and the distribution of the internal space’.[4] A Sheffield Daily Telegraph reporter who met her on a tour of the village described ‘a very capable lady, who knows all there is to no about village communities and who is an enthusiast on her subject’.[5] The memories of Celia Willey, whose husband worked at the Rowntree’s factory, and who lived at 19 Sycamore Road in the village for 55 years offer us a little more of an idea about Gulielma Harlock’s character. Celia recalled approaching her to apply for housing, and her 9am Monday morning rent-collecting visits when she would look around ‘quick’ and ‘birdlike’ to make sure there were ‘no nails in walls’![6]

Gulielma Harlock’s self-written entry in the 1911 census describes her occupation as ‘Private Secretary and Jack of all Trades’, employed at Rowntree’s Earswick estate. It is very clear that this confidently asserted statement of professional identity was no exaggeration. Gulie was a professionally trained health inspector, skilled in early sociological research methods, author of an expert study for a government paper, public speaker, author, and a respected, authoritative figure in the worlds of housing reform and estate management. She retired in 1918, an event marked by the presentation of a beautiful album of photographs from her friends in the village and the trust that ran it. After finishing work, she returned to her family home in Finedon, where she died in 1941. Her ashes lie in an unmarked plot in the village’s Quaker burial ground.


Photo Album dedication: (New Earswick) Photograph Album Presented to Guiliemia Harlock from friends at New Earswick in remembrance, 1902-1918
Y914.2846: Reproduced from an original held by City of York Council/Explore Libraries and Archives Mutual, York



Gulielma Harlock’s fascinating history lay – in many ways – behind the scenes. For a woman whose working life spanned so many professional areas, led her to encounters with so many groups and individuals, and placed her in public roles as estate manager and public speaker, she is largely absent from the record. To date, I have been unable to find a clearly identifiable photograph of her. Her importance to the history of New Earswick and to women’s leadership roles in industrial culture remind us that the stories we have told, been told, or can easily uncover, are never the full picture of history.

Catherine Hindson Biography

Catherine Hindson is Professor of Theatre History at the University of Bristol and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Her research focuses on how theatre helps us understand societies past, and incorporates topics including celebrity, heritage, ghosts, and well-being. She is the author of three books, Theatre in the Chocolate Factory: Performance at Cadbury’s Bournville, 1900-1935 (2023), Female Performance Practices on the fin-de-siècle stages of London and Paris (2007), and London’s West End Actresses and the Origins of Celebrity Culture, 1880-1920 (2016). She is currently working on women leaders in early twentieth century industry and their connections with arts and creativity, and with the Rowntree Society, Port Sunlight Village Trust, and Unilever archives to share her research with wider communities.

[1] Northampton Mercury, December 14 1906, p.3 and p.5.

[2] Gulielma Harlock (1902), ‘Preparation for Effectual Work’ Friends Quarterly Examiner, 36 (143), pp. 359-65: p. 359.

[3] JRF/4/1/9/8/1; JRF/4/1/9/2/1/2; JRF/4/1/9/2/1/4

[4] Henry R. Aldridge (1916) The Case for Town Planning, A Practical Manual. London: The National House and Town Planning Conference

[5] Sheffield Daily Telegraph, October 9 1918, p.2

[6] ‘Memories of New Earswick from 1915’, Borthwick Institute NE/21/7e

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