This post can also be found on the TUC Library‘s Collection Blog pages. Thanks to Jeff Howarth for allowing me to reproduce it here. Given the many hours of my life spent at the TUC Library, it feels good to be able to share this here and to contribute something in this, the Library’s centenary year.
Winding down for the weekend and scrolling through Twitter last Friday afternoon, my attention was suddenly grabbed by a tweet from the TUC Library. It announced a brand-new acquisition to its Collections and was accompanied by two images which stopped me in my tracks. These were the opening pages of a hand-written minute book belonging to the pre-First World War Newcastle on Tyne branch of the National Federation of Women Workers. My heart skipped a beat, flipped over entirely and neither it nor my mind settled down until I had seen the document for myself a few days later.
I learned that the book was found by a daughter who was clearing her mother’s house after her death. I understand all too well what that this entails, having just finished sorting and emptying my own mum’s house. It seems likely that the book belonged to her grandmother. My thoughts and emotions are, then, not just ones of excitement but also of empathy and gratitude that this has now been passed to the TUC Library. Such finds are the very stuff of the history of working people’s lives and they are priceless.
I know there are hundreds of historians who long for such discoveries. It is rare occasions such as these that make searching for them so worthwhile, especially as there are inevitably so many garden paths to go up as well. I have been researching and writing about the extraordinary trade union that was the National Federation of Women Workers (Federation) for well over a decade. In 2014 Palgrave Macmillan published my history of the Federation, founded in 1906 by the charismatic Mary Macarthur (1880-1921). The research for the book was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and provided me with the funds to work with national collections and to travel (there were a lot of train journeys, a lot of meal deals in hotel rooms and a lot of soreness in my arms, back and neck from lugging laptop and books all over the place) to local archives and local studies’ libraries.
This small all-female trade union, which nonetheless punched well above its weight, existed for just 15 years, between 1906 and 1921, before merging with the larger and mixed gender National Union of General Workers. Thanks in large part to the endeavours of Gertrude Tuckwell of the Women’s Trade Union League, under whose guidance and protection the Federation operated, an extensive and valuable collection of annual reports, newspaper cuttings, pamphlets and notices relating to the union (and more broadly on women and work) is available for consultation at the TUC Library in London. What was harder to find – and of course what I then wanted so much to find – was detailed information about just how the union operated at the grassroots level. This I tried to knit together, albeit with many frustrating gaps, by looking at newspapers and at the records of other organisations, such as local Trades Councils, which supported the Federation in its attempts to protect women industrial workers and improve their often appalling pay and conditions.
How I longed to find more than a brief branch report submitted to and published by the Federation’s newspaper, Woman Worker, or included within its Annual Reports. At the end of my book, I included a substantial appendix giving brief outlines of all the branches I had managed to identify. My frustration at its almost certain incompleteness is there for all to see in the note I added at the start indicating that ‘this is not a comprehensive list but is included here to encourage and facilitate further research’ (my fervent hope). Here I included, where they emerged, the names of branch secretaries, treasurers and presidents and of the industries in which women in the different regions of Britain were employed. The book chapters also pay attention to the establishment of branches, the disputes that drew in members, the triumphs when disputes ended in improved conditions and the despair when at times organisation had little lasting success. There is detail but it is not always enough to tell stories in their entirety. When piecing together – often very small – snippets of information from a myriad sources, I was acutely aware of how much more there was out there, undiscovered and also of how difficult it can be to capture the grassroots history of a national union that existed over a hundred years ago.
And then, a decade after I started to write the book (and 8 years after its publication) came this amazing discovery of the first branch minute book of the Federation that I have ever seen. It is only a few pages long, from the inaugural meeting of the Newcastle upon Tyne branch on August 14th 1912, when 18 people were present, until July 1913 when just seven turned up. From the election of the branch officials (fabulous lists of names with which a local and/or family history researcher can do so much), including the secretary, E Howson, the formation of a social or dance committee, through to concerns over falling membership and pleas for members to stick together and to turn up to meetings, these few pages are of the utmost importance. They reveal the campaigning efforts of local activists, including Mrs Harrison Bell of the Women’s Labour League, in helping to form and sustain the branch which held its meetings in the Northern Independent Labour Party Club Room, at 18 Clayton Street. Laid out before me is evidence of so many challenges faced by local branches. Here is concern about paying the rent for the meeting room when attendance was so low (in early 1913 there were two consecutive months when numbers were too low for the meeting to go ahead). There is cheerful optimism at a two-shilling profit after the enjoyable and successful Christmas dance and appeals for an organiser to be sent from the Federation’s London HQ. There were always too few organisers and demand for their help was high because their presence was so helpful with campaigning and giving encouragement to new and fragile branches.
In the earliest meetings there is encouragement given to join and stay united within the union and discussion about the importance of combination. Resolutions passed included the need for women to be present on the newly established National Insurance Courts of Referees and for ‘intelligent working women’ to be involved in the planning and arrangement of workmen’s dwellings in Newcastle. There are summaries read out of the minutes of the Federation’s National Council.
There are just a few specific references to conditions at local firms; a mention, for example of improvements which would ‘add to the comfort of the girls’ at Messrs Armstrong & Whitworth. There is frustration at the branch members at Messrs Gleaves who ‘seemed to have forsaken the Union altogether’ (this is possibly the business of Henry Gleave, whose drapery sold underclothing, baby linen and fancy drapery made in his factory).
Having been to many such meetings at the end of my own working day, tired and wanting to put my feet up, I can’t help wondering if there was enough here (despite the enormous efforts of the branch officials) to keep members engaged and ready to come back each month. There were -and are – so many calls on women workers’ time and in addition, there was the hugely important issue of feeling secure and safe enough to attend a union meeting. In Newcastle, as in many other towns and cities where women worked across a broad range of industries, it was often too risky to openly form a works branch and instead – as in this case – one branch would seek to pull in workers from across the city to meet in a club room or hall. Men – employed in larger numbers – might hold their union meetings in the pub or union club, thus combining leisure time with union business. It was all so much trickier for women. There were a hundred and one domestic things to be done at home in the evening. On top of that, there was the ever-present risk of intimidation or victimization – would the boss find out about the meeting? Would he sack you? And then there was the cost of membership, out of an already low wage.
Being a branch official was hard and often dispiriting work. I am not in the least surprised to read that on a stormy night in January 1913, only the Secretary and one other woman attended and that the meeting did not go ahead. It was not a question of members’ commitment to the union but simply one of getting by – and of keeping warm (hopefully) and dry at home. Social events were often the glue that held a branch together, although even here it does not seem that the December dance in 1912 (despite being hailed as a decided success with its two-shilling profit) was able to do this.
The book ends with a meeting in July 1913. It is not clear if there were more meetings, although clearly membership was falling and the Federation’s Annual Report for 1914 reveals organisers’ frustration, asking why the women of Tyneside don’t ‘wake up to the fact that they will never get decent wages till they organise’. There were so many reasons why organisation was so difficult for women workers. I am (by complete and happy chance) currently writing an article for the North-East Labour History Society about the work of the Federation in the North-East of England, in which I explain just how hard it was for small branches to keep going, in the early years of the union. It was not until the First World War that membership soared, particularly in munitions centres like Newcastle. By early 1917, the Federation claimed it had nearly 9000 members in that city alone. This short minute book adds detail, intimacy and vibrancy to research like mine into women’s work and trade union membership. I am delighted to know that it has survived and that it is there to refer to in the forthcoming article and much more besides. It is a tremendous addition to the Library’s collections.
I hope my excitement at the emergence of this new acquisition to the TUC Library is evident. If you want to know more about the National Federation of Women Workers, here is a link to an exhibition I worked on with the TUC Library to commemorate the 100th year of the death of Mary Macarthur:
By late November, the Harris’s house looked just as Lucy had pictured it. It was modern, bright and homely. The coal shed was full, the lavatory next to it as neat as could be, despite doubling as a garage for George’s bicycle and a handful of gardening tools. Thomas’s pram had to stay permanently parked in the narrow hallway by the front door, where everyone was always colliding with it but there was no room for it out the back. The very thought of the precious pram being wedged in next to the WC filled Lucy with horror and besides, it was too much for her, at five months pregnant, to ease it down the passage at the end of the run of houses and around to the back gate.
As yet, there had been little time to attend to the garden but George and Lucy were full of plans. The garden was bordered on both sides by low walls and a brick path had been laid, running from the back gate up to the house. The two feet between one of the walls and the path made a natural border for growing flowers but the rest of the garden was a blank canvas. A small area behind the WC and the coal shed and leading to the back door was bricked but apart from this, the garden was a mixture of bare earth and builders’ rubble. The couple read the ‘Gardening Notes’ column in the Coventry Herald, saving any cuttings that gave them ideas, growing tips and seasonal advice. The plan was to have a small lawn for the children to play on, flowers in the two long borders and fruit bushes and vegetables at the end of the garden furthest from the house. One sunny August afternoon in 1909, weeks before the move, the couple had walked out to the Allesley and Coundon Horticultural Society’s summer show, with Thomas in the pram, where they admired the displays of potted and cut flowers, particularly the sweet peas, stocks and dahlias. They loved the roses and George made a mental note to put up some trellising so that they could have a climbing variety or two, such as Crimson or Tea Rambler. The afternoon was a welcome respite from all the anxieties surrounding the impending move and they treated themselves to a pot of tea and a slice of cake while they listened to the Bedworth Town Band and watched a display of Morris dancing. As they came away to go home to feed Thomas, Lucy rather envied the young people staying on for an evening’s dancing, the girls in their pastel-coloured frocks resembling the shades of the sweet peas she so loved. But with a baby and in the first stage of her second pregnancy, she felt with a pang that her dancing days were over.
Lucy’s pregnancy with Thomas had been straightforward and easy. The only time she had needed to see the midwife was at delivery and she had not seen a doctor at all. Lucy’s mum made sure that her daughter stayed in bed for two weeks after the birth so that she could rest and make sure that her milk became established. She was so well looked after that her sisters were mightily relieved when she finally made an appearance downstairs and started to pick up some of the many duties that had fallen to them at the end of their working days, including boiling nappies and washing linens. And so when Lucy realized that she was expecting again (admittedly a little sooner than she’d hoped), everyone assumed that things would go as smoothly the second time around. This time, however, Lucy was tired right from the start, she was sick for weeks, her back hurt and her feet swelled. Her mother worried that she was not gaining enough weight and asked her neighbour, Mrs Jackson, to come in and take a look at her daughter. Mary Jackson was the midwife who had delivered Thomas, and before him, Lucy and her sisters. She was widely respected within the community and trusted as a very safe pair of hands by local doctors. She had never received any formal training but when the Central Midwives’ Board was established as a result of the Midwives’ Act of 1902, Mrs Jackson’s registration as a Coventry midwife was accepted and approved as a result of her years of bona fide practice and because of her reputation for wisdom and efficiency. She was used to seeing the effects of successive pregnancies on women and when she came to visit Lucy, she saw a young wife and mother worn out by constant sickness and the anxieties of trying to be a perfect housewife in her new home. In December, much to Lucy’s initial dismay, Mrs Jackson ordered her home to her mother’s house in Spon End for the remainder of the pregnancy.
Lucy was horrified. They had only just moved to Kensington Road, she had only just started to feel confident in her new surroundings, carefully packing up George’s lunch each day and making sure his meal was waiting for him each evening when he returned home from work. Lucy had pored over the ‘Home Hints’ and household columns in the local press, seeking to improve on her knowledge of even the most basic of tasks. Her mother laughed when Lucy, having read an article on how to make a good cuppa, set off to ask her local grocer which tea was best suited to the local water. ‘He’ll see you coming,’ she warned her daughter who, undaunted, learned off by heart the Coventry Herald’s advice, even though she’d been brewing tea since she was a girl:
The water should be fresh and freshly boiled. The tea pot should be washed out with boiling water. Then the tea should be put in. if China Tea is used there will be required about one tea-spoonful to each breakfast cup. If Indian tea half that quantity will suffice. Having covered the tea with the requisite quantity of water, it should be allowed to stand for three of four minutes for fine Assams, such as Pekoe and Broke Pekoe, about five minutes for Pekoe Souchong and Souchong. The tea should be poured off the leaves immediately the proper time has elapsed. In this way the flavour of the tea is all extracted, whilst the tannin is nearly all left behind in the leaves. A good method is to use an infuser, which will permit of the steeped leaves being withdrawn directly the tea is properly made. In India a silver ball, pierced with holes to permit of the percolation of the water, is largely used to hold the tea while the boiling water is acting upon it. If these precautions are carried out the resulting beverage will be of the most delicious character, and will contain nothing to harm the most delicate nerves.
Lucy wanted to do things her way. There was more amusement for her mother – an accomplished cook – when her daughter began to seek out products that she’d seen being advertised, in the hope that their use would guarantee the perfect results. Despite, however, buying ‘Paisley Flour – the sure raising powder’ her first attempts at scones ended in tears when they failed to rise. George ate them regardless, pronouncing them to be excellent. He was happy and proud to try any of his wife’s experiments as long as they were not too costly or – worst of all – wasteful. Both of them agreed that cooking with Bisto (named for its ability to Brown, Season & Thicken In One) – introduced in 1908 and advertised from 1910 – was a tasty addition to stews, turning the cheapest cuts of meat into hearty meals:
So when Lucy realized she would have to return home until her baby was born, she fretted over how George would manage without her. In fact, there turned out to be little to worry about. She and Thomas went back to Spon End, where she rested as much as she could. There was no more shopping, no more heavy laundry and minimal cooking. George ate in the factory canteen at lunchtimes and called in each evening to see his wife and child, sitting at the kitchen table with them to have a cheese or cold meat sandwich, a mug of tea and a piece of fruit cake. On Sundays he came round for lunch and then he and Lucy’s dad walked round to the Kensington Road house to work on any jobs that needed doing so that the house was perfect for Lucy’s return in the spring, with the new baby. They dug over the garden in readiness for grass seed and the fruit and vegetable patches and George enjoyed it so much he began to think that an allotment would be a good idea, not just to keep his family in fresh produce but to give him the chance for some healthy exercise and – if he was honest – some time to be on his own, away from the stresses of family life. There were several allotment associations in Coventry and at one, the Coventry mayor told those present how great an interest the Council took in these. All men needed a hobby, he said and surely gardening was a much better option than drinking beer. George rather wondered if he might combine the two, treating himself to the odd bottle at the end of a summer’s evening gardening. He put his name down at a meeting of the local association in The Royal Oak on Earlsdon Street.
Lucy relaxed in the presence of her mother and as the sickness eased, the tiredness lifted a little. Resting with her legs up each afternoon kept the puffiness down, having an afternoon nap at the same time as Thomas was better for her than her previous habit of using her son’s sleep time to race through her house, doing as much housework as she could. Her mind was eased by the fact that one of her sisters – with bad grace, it must be said – was sent up to the Kensington Road house twice a week after work to sweep the floors and dust away the incessant coal dust (while Lucy and Thomas were away, George only lit a fire for the kitchen range on the coldest of winter evenings. It was not the worst of winters; temperatures in Coventry were recorded as falling below freezing on roughly a third of days between January and March 1910. Even so, minus 1 degrees Celsius was the lowest temperature recorded that winter and for this George was grateful, allowing him to keep the coal house well stocked and save money for the coming winter, when there would be two babies to keep warm).
Florence Eliza Harris was born on March 16th 1910. The labour, straightforward and relatively quick, was attended by the trusty Mrs Jackson. This time the doctor was called in to examine Lucy and to check the baby who was smaller than Thomas had been at birth. Both were pronounced healthy although Lucy was prescribed a few more weeks rest before she could go home to Kensington Road and resume her life as a housewife. Florence was one of 2,674 Coventry births in 1910 and although there were as yet no baby clinics in the city, the Sanitary Committee had chosen at the start of that year to appoint a second health visitor. Amongst the duties of these women were visits to mothers and babies. During the course of 1910, they made 1750 visits, giving feeding and baby care advice. As both women were also qualified Sanitary Inspectors, they made sure that whenever they visited a new mother, they assessed the condition of her housing; were the walls and ceilings clean? Were the areas in which food was stored sufficiently ventilated? Was there evidence of damp? Was the accommodation overcrowded? There was little doubt that the little Spon End house, with Lucy, Thomas and the new baby living there, was bursting at the seams but nothing that she saw gave the health visitor any cause for concern. Not only was the house scrubbed and polished but it was clear that Lucy was in very good hands, benefiting from her mum’s experience and common sensical approach to all that life threw at her. And of course, there was a new and spacious house in Kensington Road waiting to welcome back the little family.
On her first visit, the health visitor gave Lucy a leaflet about feeding her baby. In the early twentieth century health officials advocated breast feeding as the safest and healthiest start for babies. Feeds every two hours during the day and every four hours at night were recommended for the first three months and then the intervals between feeds could be lengthened. The leaflet distributed to new mothers made it clear that routine was very important and that the baby should not be put on the breast purely for comfort or to keep her quiet. Six months of breast feeding was deemed to be best for baby but the advice was that after nine months, it should be stopped entirely. The milk was deemed to be of insufficient quality for baby by then and if continued might induce weakness in the mother, making her susceptible to illness.
Lucy understood the benefits of breast feeding. An old school friend had lost her baby to diarrhoea a few years previously, during a hot summer in which it was harder than usual to keep foodstuffs and baby milk cool and free from bacteria. Lucy wanted to feed Florence herself for as long as she could, as she had done with Thomas, but it wasn’t easy to ignore her mother, who was always telling her that breast feeding for more than just a few weeks would exhaust her and that she should aim to give the baby a bottle after the first three months. Against all the professional advice, Lucy’s mum believed – as her mum had done before her – that the natural way wasn’t necessarily the ‘nice’ way and she told her blushing daughter more than once that she was sure her husband would prefer it if she stopped feeding sooner rather than later. By the time Lucy was back home, in the early summer of 1910, Florence was being fed with cow’s milk. The suggested formula for a three-month old baby was three tablespoons of milk, three tablespoons of water, a half teaspoon of demerara sugar and one to two teaspoons of fresh cream. As the baby got older, the advice was to gradually lessen the quantity of water and increase the milk so that at six months, each feed consisted of nine tablespoons of milk. Lucy followed the hygiene advice on the feeding leaflet to the letter. As soon as the milk was bought (from the dairy and grocers on the corner of Kensington Road and Henley (now Beaudesert) Road, Lucy decanted it into a jug which she then placed in a pan of cold water, changing the water regularly throughout the day to keep the milk as cold as possible. The required amount of milk was then boiled ahead of each feed and placed in a boat shaped feeding bottle which had an opening at each end, onto which the rubber teat was placed.
After each feed, Lucy did as the health visitor advised and bathed the inside of Florence’s mouth with a small piece of clean linen rag dipped in warm water. She then washed the bottle in water to which she added a small amount of washing soda, making sure to put the rubber teat in a separate bowl of clear, clean water. It was a time-consuming regime but it gave Lucy peace of mind to know that she was doing everything that she could to keep her daughter safe. She was mightily relieved that the summer brought no prolonged periods of intense heat and she knew how fortunate she was to be able to keep food relatively cool and well covered in her kitchen cupboards.
Once Lucy was back home and settled into a routine with Thomas and the new baby, she was finally ready to take on the challenges of full time housewifery. For several months she still tended to walk to Spon End to the shops that she knew and – more importantly to her – where she was known to the shop keepers. She had heard too many tales of young wives being short-changed by shop owners who thought they could take advantage of inexperienced young wives, selling them damaged or poor quality goods, underweight measures and out of date food. By the winter, however, the prospect of yet another cold, wet walk down Hearsall Lane to Spon End, encouraged her first forays into Earlsdon to discover what it had to offer. By the spring of 1911 she was well into her stride.
In 1911 George was earning just over 32 shillings a week. This was a decent wage, only a few shillings lower than those being earned by the men who had served apprenticeships, and considerably more than those paid to unskilled general labourers. At the Humber, George had impressed with his technical ability to manage new machinery and he was typical of the many men who, although graded as semi-skilled workers, could turn their hands to almost anything in the fast paced and ever- changing vehicle industry. His weekly wage meant that Lucy could buy non-perishable foods (tea, sugar, flour, oats, dried fruit, jam, rice and pulses) laundry products and toiletries in weekly quantities, which was much cheaper than shopping daily for them and it also meant that for the rest of the week, the pram got loaded up only with those items that were harder to store and keep fresh, such as vegetables, pies, sausages, bacon, cheese and butter. The family was luckier than many but nonetheless money was tight, with prices rising faster than wages during their first years at Kensington Road (Board of Trade figures showed that in the 15 years before 1911, wages had risen by 12 per cent and food prices by 18 per cent).
Their budget looked broadly like this;
Wage: 32 shillings
9 shillings to Mr Bird for house payment
8 pence a week to the Workers’ Union, George’s trade union subscription (this would, if needed, give strike pay, sickness and out of work benefits and a contribution towards funeral costs)
1 shilling to the Hospital Provident Fund to help with the costs of seeing a doctor and any medicines required (when Thomas had a series of chest infections later that year, the couple was very relieved to have this insurance)
3 shillings (where possible) into the Coventry Building Society to replenish the rainy day fund
2 shillings kept by George for the odd pint of beer, plus plants and seeds for the garden
This left around 19 shillings a week for food, fuel and clothing. Lucy’s mum thought it strange that Lucy knew exactly how much George earned each week, as her husband had always kept an undisclosed amount of his wage packet for himself and handed over the rest for housekeeping. George was only too happy to trust Lucy to feed and clothe the family and all he expected was that she would manage efficiently and learn to be a careful manager. She was determined to do precisely that.
By the time the Harris’s were well and truly settled, there were several shops in Kensington Road. The only ones that Lucy went to regularly were the dairy run by Mr Cleaver at number 102, (milk contamination was regularly reported in the local press and so Lucy would only buy milk from the trusted Mr Cleaver) the newsagent and tobacconist at the bottom of the road (13b, where, just once a week, George picked up a packet of ten Lambert & Butler Waverley cigarettes for 3d, the Coventry Herald every Friday for 1d and the Midland Daily Telegraph on his way home from work each evening for a halfpenny ), the Post Office (55) and Bales the Chemist at the junction with Albany Road. Mr Bale grew used to the sight of Lucy in his shop, visiting not just to buy soap and liquorice (which she swore by to keep the children ‘regular’) but to ask for advice about the children’s many minor ailments. His advice, as opposed to the doctor’s, was free, even if it did sometimes result in Lucy spending precious pennies on some rather questionable concoctions, such as Bales’ Blood Mixture, advertised as a ‘spring medicine’.
On very rare occasions, Lucy bought sausages or a pie from the London Central Meat Company at 104 Kensington Road, a butcher’s with several shops in the city, but on the whole she favoured Coventry Market for meat. One of her favourite times of the week was going to the Market Hall on a Saturday evening when it stayed open until 11pm. Saturday was pay day for most people and a chance to go shopping with a full purse. Once the children were in bed, Lucy left George in charge and met her mum at the bottom of Albany Road where they walked to the market together. Both women kept a close eye on the prices of products in the local paper, noting what was in short supply (and therefore more expensive), what was plentiful and where the bargains might be. Lucy’s main purchases on her Saturday night excursions were butter (in 1912 this sold for around 1 shilling and 2 pence although Lucy, always with an eye for the new, was later converted to Lipton’s Margarine, ‘made with nuts and cream, equal to butter and half the price’), new-laid eggs at a shilling for nine, and – most important of all – the Sunday joint. At the butcher’s stall, she still stuck close to her mum, who knew exactly what she was looking for – the right amount of fat, the right colour, smell and general appearance of the meat. The later the visit to the stall, the better was the chance of a knock down price, although this was risky if all the best cuts had been sold. But it was worth paying a little more to trust the butcher and to know that the joint would be the basis for meals on Sunday (roast), Monday (cold cuts with potatoes), Tuesday (minced, using economical recipes found in magazines and newspapers), and the bones used for stock or soup. When prices were too high (such as in September 1911 when an outbreak of foot and mouth disease closed live markets and led to meat shortages), Lucy would choose chicken, which ranged in price from 2/6 to 4 shillings, depending on the size, but these were never big enough to last for as many meals as beef or lamb. Rabbit was another option but for this Lucy tended to visit Mr Fletcher’s butcher’s in Earlsdon Street as he very often had a fresh supply of rabbit hanging on hooks from the shop ceiling. The preparation of rabbit, bought unskinned for around a shilling, made Lucy feel queasy when she first started cooking, but after a while, her only thoughts were on the pie that she was making and which was a firm family favourite.
Lucy made her own bread and cakes but occasionally, she treated Thomas and Florence to a Chelsea bun (shared on the walk home) from Wright’s Model Bakery on Albany Road. If her parents were coming for Sunday tea, she would buy a slab of Wright’s Rich Sultana Cake (sold in slabs at sixpence a pound). Sometimes, on his cycle ride home from work, George would stop off at Atkinsons to pick up a pork pie; this was a treat for him and Lucy, when the children were asleep, eaten with pickles and raw onion. Fruit and vegetables came from various shops, including Crumps and also Moore’s, both on Earlsdon Street. As time went on and George cultivated much of the garden and then his allotment (which he got in 1912), there was a steady supply of seasonal produce, including leeks, parsnips and potatoes, peas and beans, raspberries and gooseberries. It was not long before Lucy added jam making to her ever growing list of skills. She collected recipes and added to them over the years. One of her earliest came from a women’s trade union newspaper she had once brought home from work, before she was married. Her father had been cross that she had brought what he regarded as subversive material into the house and so Lucy had showed him the pages of home hints, which calmed him down a little (though she never brought it home again and instead read it in the rest room at work).
Half-pound cold meat finely chopped, 3 ozs. Breadcrumbs, 2 ozs. Suet finely minced, little grated nutmeg, ¼ teaspoonful curry powder, ¼ teaspoonful herbs, a teaspoonfls browned breadcrumbs, 1 or 2 eggs, milk or stock, pepper and salt. Grease a basin with butter, cover surface with browned crumbs. Mix all other ingredients in order given above and cover with greased paper. Steam an hour. Serve with brown sauce.
Another favourite was ‘Savoury Pie‘, useful for the middle of the week when the joint had run out. Lucy always added a little bacon to it, fearing that George would complain if presented with a meal without some form of meat. A pound of tomatoes could be bought for between 6 and 8 pence a pound and Spanish onions for around 1 ½ d a pound. Lucy liked making this dish but was aware that these were expensive ingredients and she mostly made it in late summer when the tomatoes had ripened at the allotment.
Put 1 ½ ozs. Or dripping in saucepan and 1lb Spanish onions; let cook gently near fore but not near enough to burn, for 20 minutes. Then chop 1lb of tomatoes and lay on top and the 1lb of potatoes on top of the tomatoes. Put id on and let cook gently till the potatoes are cooked through.
The only commodity that the Harris’s had delivered was coal. The kitchen range ate a great amount of coal and the Harris’s tried to keep their coal shed stocked up, because it was much cheaper when bought in the largest quantities possible (Lucy saved a little every week for coal so that they could bulk buy). Deliveries were made by T and J Dewis, Coal Merchants on the Butts and Thomas looked forward to the delivery days when the cart arrived and the coal was shovelled into a wheelbarrow and trundled down the alley and in through the back gate. Lucy was never more thankful for the back gate and coal shed on coal delivery days, pitying those whose coal entered the house through a coal shute from which clouds of thick black coal dust would invariably rise and spread. It was bad enough keeping the range clean, with black lead polish, the worst job of the week (apart from laundry day).
That’s all from the Harris family for now. Maybe I will revisit them as their family grows, when Thomas and Florence starts school and to see how they deal with the tragedy of war.
A note from me
Firstly, thank you so much for reading. Researching and writing this short series on Kensington Road has been useful therapy for me following the death of my mum earlier this year. Mum was a big fan of my blog (that’s mums for you) and it always got us talking. One area of discussion would lead to even more unanswered questions and so the need for more research. And that curiosity – the need to find out more – is precisely why I write. For years I was so cautious about committing anything that I wrote to print, that much of it stayed on my computer until I deleted it out of frustration and annoyance at my lack of bravery. I am still learning that it doesn’t matter if I don’t know all the answers or if I get something wrong. The advantage of writing a blog is that it can be widely read and people can comment, make suggestions and fill in some of the blanks. Thank you to those who have got in touch already – I am extremely grateful for your input.
Thanks also to
British Newspaper Archive, largely Coventry Herald, Midland Daily Telegraph
David Fry and Albert Smith for photographs and also for their invaluable Earlsdon and Chapelfields Explored (see Part One of this blog)
The Woman Worker for recipes
Coventry Archives for Annual Reports of Medical Officer of Health; Trade Directories; Coventry Municipal Handbooks
Recommended reading for more on domestic life and motherhood in early 20th century Britain
Margaret Llewelyn Davies Maternity: Letters from Working Women (1915, Virago edition 1978)
In the second part of my small study, I am going to introduce a fictional family to tell the continued story of one Coventry street and its residents. The family may not have existed but the details of their lives are based on historical research and it’s a way of taking as close a look at Kensington Road’s earliest years as possible. As with the first post, I welcome comments from readers so that the most accurate portrait of family life can be painted.
George and Lucy Harris moved into Kensington Road in the autumn of 1909 when George was 27 and Lucy was 25. With them was their eight-month old son, Thomas, and a new arrival was expected in the spring. The couple was relieved to finally move out of Lucy’s parents’ house in Spon End where Lucy had grown up with her five siblings. Although this meant that she was used to the noise and chaos that filled each of its four rooms, starting her married life within those crowded walls had proved a strain on everyone. After the wedding in the summer of 1907, the couple lived there so that they could start saving in earnest for a home of their own. It was a tight squeeze. In order to free up a room for the newly-weds, Lucy’s parents slept downstairs in the living room and her three younger sisters shared the other bedroom. Her elder brother had already left home, for a room in a house near to the newly opened Ordnance Works in Red Lane where worked.
George was not a Coventry kid. He was born in Northampton, left school at 14 and started work on the railways. He was always vaguely restless and listened with interest to his fellow workers’ animated talk about the Coventry cycle factories that were beginning to diversify into motor car production. One Saturday morning, he asked a friend to cover for him for the last hour of work on the tracks near the station, boarded a train to Coventry and made his way to the Humber Works on Lower Ford Street. Dressed in his Sunday suit, George made a good impression on the work’s foreman who understood only too well his keenness to join the men who were part of this transport revolution. Looking beyond a lack of engineering experience, the foreman recognised a willingness to adapt and to learn and hired eighteen year old George on a trial basis.
It was a good decision for the Humber. George was hard working and although his job was initially in cycle production, he was quickly hooked on the excitement felt by the young workers as the company strengthened its development and output of motor vehicles. He found lodgings on the Holyhead Road and it was while cycling back from work, that he first saw Lucy Evans, leaving Williamson’s watch making factory where she worked. A courtship was followed by an engagement, which George insisted should continue until they had saved enough to set up home together. As they walked out together on Sunday afternoons, they noted the progress made to the new streets and houses being developed near Hearsall Common. As they strolled, they speculated about what their future might be like in one of these modest but elegant red brick houses. It took many walks but eventually Lucy persuaded George to set a date for the wedding, by telling him that if they could start their married life with her parents, the money George paid out in lodgings could be put aside. They would, Lucy was quite sure, only have to give a little extra to her mum to cover their contribution to food and fuel. The wedding was at St Thomas’s Anglican Church on The Butts, where Lucy had been baptized in 1884. From girlhood, Lucy had dreamt of a wedding dress of satin crepe -de-chine, trimmed with pearls, finished off with a satin train and tulle veil, with a tiara of orange blossom. She kept her dreams to herself, however, and opted for a simple cream dress with a grey serge coat. A future and a home were more important and the only frivolity Lucy allowed herself was a sheaf of white lilies which everyone agreed set off her outfit perfectly. There was a wedding breakfast of roasted ham, beef and wedding cake at her mum’s and just enough wine and beer to toast the young couple. For a year, the newly-weds saved every penny they could and, when, in the late summer of 1908, they realised that they were going to have a baby, it was clear that they would need to redouble their saving efforts ahead of Lucy leaving her job at Williamsons. Despite her many friends there, Lucy couldn’t wait to turn her back on the factory; she had expected, as did her employers, that she would leave as soon as she was married – as she had seen so many other women doing – but she had stayed in pursuit of achieving her dream of a good, solid home for her family.
And then, there it was. In the early summer of 1909, a sign appeared in the window of a house still under construction at the top end of Kensington Road. The notice directed those interested in this or the houses to its immediate left and right to contact Mr Bird, the builder and developer. Lucy immediately loved everything that she could see from the road, from the downstairs bay window, to the tiny tiled porch and the intricate pattern of the line of decorative brickwork below the eaves. When they got back to the house in Spon End, she stood impatiently beside George as he wrote to express their interest in the house. The reply came two days later. Mr Bird asked them to meet his agent at the house that Saturday afternoon and so, leaving baby Thomas with Lucy’s mum, they knocked on the door at 3 o clock. It was love at first sight for Lucy; the house was nearing completion, the walls were plastered and the floorboards were laid. The Minton tiles in the hall were in the process of being laid and added a rich redness to the interior of the house. Compared to the little Spon End house where Lucy had grown up, it seemed palatial. There were two downstairs reception rooms and a kitchen with a generous sized pantry. The builders, said Mr Bird’s agent, were about to install a coal-fired range for cooking and a copper for boiling water. Upstairs there were three bedrooms, the smallest one still big enough, explained the agent, to partition and add a bathroom if they wished. If they wished! Neither Lucy nor George had even considered such luxury and nor did they now. Not only would this add to the weekly rent, it was far beyond their expectations and they dismissed the idea. To have their own outdoor WC and not to be sharing with five other people seemed luxurious enough for them.
The agent, who could see that the couple wanted this house very much, asked them if they had considered owning rather than renting it. George and Lucy’s initial reactions were the same – that such an arrangement could never be for the likes of them. They knew very little of banks and mortgages – this was not the world from which they had come – and so, as Mr Bird’s agent went into sales pitch overdrive, the Harris’s listened with incredulity and learned that with a £30 deposit, they could buy directly from the developer and then pay him nine shillings a week until the full balance of £235 was paid off. Minds reeling, they went back to Spon End to consider their options. They did have £30 in savings but not much more than this and, with the new baby on the way, they were acutely aware of the new expenses to come. Neither liked the idea of removing the only safety net that they had. But how wonderful it would be to own their home and not to be at the mercy of a landlord who might put up the rent without warning or even evict them in favour of a preferred tenant. George was earning a decent wage at the Humber. Work was generally steady; there had been a few periods of short time working and one or two layoffs when sales stalled or declined, depending on the season and the economy, but George had a good reputation with the firm which was expanding and had recently opened new works in Stoke. He was confident as he could be of his continued employment in Coventry. The couple took a deep breath and decided to enter into the agreement with Mr Bird.
The house was ready by early September and the keys were theirs. In the weeks before they moved in, George, Lucy’s father, and a friend from George’s days in lodgings, spent virtually every evening and Saturday afternoon papering the walls and painting the woodwork. Lucy arrived home one day with a pattern book she had picked up from a shop in Bishop Street. Her eye was drawn to a rich blue paper with a design of embossed daisies and tiny strawberries. How good this would look on the downstairs walls. For the nursery she liked a yellow paper covered with leaves and woodland creatures. She knew, however, that neither was in their price range and instead, she happily accepted the need to go instead to the Coventry Decorators’ Supply shop in Queen Victoria Road and pick out some of the cheaper rolls that were end of range. Although this meant that much of the house was decorated in rather plainer colours than she hoped, George surprised her by splashing out on a slightly more expensive cream paper with a textured rose pattern for the front room. For years afterwards, this room was used only when relatives came to visit and on Christmas Day.
Once the house was decorated, Lucy turned her full attention to the furniture and furnishings she wanted. She longed for elegant, brand new things but she knew that there wasn’t enough money to get everything at once. The couple had already acquired a few bits and pieces; wedding gifts, including a willow patterned tea service, had been carefully stored away until they had their own home. Lucy had been left tablecloths and a bedspread by her grandmother as well as an assortment of pots and pans and cutlery. Her father had made the baby’s crib and highchair and there was a bed from her parents’ house for Thomas, once the new baby came along. George’s grandparents in Northampton had left him an elegant dining table with six chairs which was being stored in a friend’s workshop. It was a start. Some more furniture came from an auction – an oak bedstead, a divan suite covered with brown velvet, a tiled washstand and two hearth rugs. Lucy was tempted by the ‘easy terms’ offered by the Coventry Furnishing Company in Fleet Street.
For four shillings a month she might be able to get the pair of walnut dressing tables she had seen in town, priced £4 and four shillings but she knew better than to ask George about it, knowing that he would never consent to buying goods on terms. His biggest worry was becoming ill or having an accident and not being able to work. He was in a trade union but its sickness benefit wouldn’t last long and, despite the advent of state sickness benefit some years later, George remained anxious about buying the house until the final payment was made years later. And nothing was ever bought on tick. Besides, matching bedroom furniture could wait; Lucy was particularly anxious to dress her windows as perfectly as possible, to let the neighbours know that she took pride in appearances, thereby demonstrating her family’s respectability. With material from the market, a friend of her mother’s made ‘lace’ curtains using white filet net with an elaborate border which gave Lucy the elaborate finish she was seeking. Even so, she aimed to replace these with Nottingham lace as soon as funds would allow.
Roller blinds were fitted to all of the bedroom windows and Venetian blinds prevented the prized living room wallpaper from becoming faded. The modern advice to housewives was to let as much natural daylight into the house as possible and Lucy, anxious for the health of her family as well as wanting to have a fashionable home, welcomed the move away from the heavy drapes that has been popular just a few years before.
The house was fitted with gas lighting brackets on each side of the chimney breasts in the main rooms. The only cost for the Harris’s was to choose globes to cover the mantles. There were so many styles but Lucy opted for a combination of plain and frosted glass. Gas was paid for by a penny-in-the-slot meter under the stairs and to keep costs low, the gas was only usually lit in the back downstairs room and the kitchen, with candles and night lights upstairs for years to come.
The next instalment of my study will look at life in Kensington Road for the young couple, with particular focus on Lucy as she grew as a mother and housewife, shopping, cooking and caring for her growing family. There was endless domestic advice given to women on the ‘home hints’ pages of newspapers and magazines. Times were changing but Victorian notions of the Angel of the Hearth were still very apparent, as this article in the Coventry Herald of 1909 makes clear;
Woman makes the atmosphere of a home, and it is for her to decide what the atmosphere shall be. Shame on the woman who does not make it an atmosphere of sunshine and love. Though she may be possessed of the wisdom of Minerva or the beauty of Venus, she is not a good no a worthy woman if she allows her moods and temper to ruin the home life of those dependent upon her for happiness. Woman are apt to excuse themselves, regarding their moods and their tempers by saying that they inherit these peculiarities or that they are the result of sickness or trouble. That is folly. There is no inheritance we cannot overcome if we set ourselves about it and some of the people who have suffered the greatest losses and the greatest trials in life have developed the sweetest characters. It is pure selfishness which permits a woman to indulge in these weaknesses.
In the middle of last summer, in a brief window after the end of the first lockdown and before the start of the tier system that we then became so familiar with, I went on a journey. I had an urgent need to walk in the footsteps of some strong women of the past and so I packed my bag and headed off to do the sort of research that I love best. I was entirely solitary. For four days I walked for miles every day; apart from a single visit to an archive, I spoke to almost no one other than to buy food. Each evening I retreated to my base to think without interruption about what I’d discovered during the day. With maps, photos and whilst sitting on my bed eating the boxed meals that the hotel served up during that extraordinary Covid year, I started to work out what I felt I needed to know.
I stayed at the Fulham end of Putney Bridge in south west London. It was the perfect location for my voyage of discovery into the lives of my four great grandmothers – Annie, Amy, Ellen and Elizabeth – who all lived in Putney, Fulham and Chelsea at the turn of the twentieth century. Armed with addresses gleaned from census material and family knowledge, a map and a phone, I looked for houses, workplaces, schools, shops, pubs and churches. The streets were quiet; I had never seen London like this and it made my walks easier than I’d expected without the normal rush of constant movement. Some scenes I remembered from childhood visits to the house in Putney where three generations of women lived together until the 1950s – my great grandmother, grandmother and my mother. Most of the time, however, I made new discoveries, thinking about how the women went about their everyday lives. All of it gave me a sense not just of the familiar but of my place in these women’s traditions. I wanted to know how their lives – like mine was for years – were dominated by thoughts of what they could cook for tea and of how much money was left until pay day. Was everyone ok? Was everything done that needed to be done? Might there be anything left over for a weekend treat for the family? Was there time or energy for an evening stroll or a Sunday trip to the park?
My great grandmothers were working class women; at certain points on my travels, the prosperity that is evident in these districts in the 21st century made it harder to picture the realities of their lives. The Sunlight Laundry in Fulham where Annie and one of her daughters worked has been converted into luxury apartments and is next door to a pub that I suspect is now rather different in feel and style to the one that my great grandfather – perhaps sometimes with Annie – visited, a few minutes’ walk from their house in Querrin Street.
It takes imagination to picture the financial struggles of Ellen, mother of 11, landlady to four lodgers in an 8 roomed rented house in what is now a very upmarket street running between the Kings and Fulham Roads but with a different lens applied, the past does still surface. The spirit of those early 20th century streets and buildings remains – I feel it at least – and although it is easy to be blindsided by gentrification, to gawp at the price tags of London’s houses, it is as impossible to walk around today’s London as it was 100 years ago without realizing that for millions of people, the streets are not paved with gold. Affluence and struggle are present side by side right across the city. London is full of overpriced and done up houses but for the majority of people hardships remain and the anxieties that these induce were, I suspect, all too familiar to my great grandmothers.
All four of my great grandmothers worked and mothered during the years that I wrote about when researching my book on the branches of the all-female trade union, the National Federation of Women Workers. All four could have been members of trade unions. Names of branch members have remained elusive throughout my research and so I have to accept that I will probably never be able to find out if they were union women. There are no family stories of radicalism or activism and to be honest, the odds were stacked against them being trade unionists. Hidden, low paid work such as theirs made it difficult to avoid the gaze of the boss, to find the necessary money for union subs, to find the time to attend branch meetings which were so important in keeping members united and supported and there were too many calls on their time. Annie had the best chance of being unionised when she worked in the industrial laundry and I do know that the Sunlight had a branch of the National Federation of Women Workers. Indoor domestic service, which at least three of them were engaged in before their marriages – placed women directly under the glare and influence of their mistresses and even those who went home at the end of each day, likely did so in a state of exhaustion, making it difficult to act on any chance encounter they might have with a trade union organiser.
At various times the women were laundry workers, domestic servants, shop workers and seamstresses. All of them were wives and mothers. Some of them worked outside the home after the arrival of their children, others found alternative ways to make the money that was needed to pay the rent, to feed and clothe their families. I know with certainty – and not because any one has told me – that all four were the lynchpins, relied upon by everyone, doing the shopping daily, making meals out of what was available and affordable, worrying when a pair of boots was nearing the end of its life, when a pair of trousers had been patched for the last time, when a child’s growth spurt meant saving for new clothes or material, if no hand me downs were forthcoming.
These are the things that women have done – and continue to do – across the generations. My life has been broadly similar. I don’t know how my great grandmothers felt about their lives or how they dealt with illness, deaths and the insecurities of a life with few – if any – safety nets. They left no written records, they talked to no one about their experiences. All I know is that they lived through it and got through it – somehow. I wasn’t expecting revelation or ghosts to accompany me on my walks around their neighbourhoods. I discovered a few new facts – how much rent they paid, what the rates were, the occupations of those in their streets – but nevertheless I left with a much stronger sense of these women’s lives. This in turn galvanized me at a time when I needed a helping hand. Knowing where my great grandmothers walked, the front doors they went through, the schools their children attended, the shops they visited, gave me a sense of their daily routines. I recalled them in times of trouble –their husbands and sons fighting in the First World War, rationing, soaring costs of living and the constant battle to keep all the plates spinning – but I realized something else when I was standing on their streets. I don’t know if they felt strong. There may have been times when they just wanted to give up, walk out of the door and disappear.
And so I stopped thinking of them as having something that I didn’t and instead simply thought about them as women who might have been just like me. In doing so, I began to understand something about myself that connected me to them in a way that I hadn’t previously seen. I was looking to them for inspiration because I admired their strength in overcoming difficulties and their courage in just getting on with whatever life chucked at them – which seemed to me to be quite a lot. I wasn’t expecting them to speak to me in any other way. But they did. They told me, as I stood by their front gates and outside their workplaces, that it was only right that, when looking at their past strengths, I also acknowledge my own. Events had left me feeling vulnerable and uncertain but I was still there. I was still getting on with it, just as my great grandmothers did before me. I am strong and capable too. One day my great grand daughters might come to see where I lived my life. Like me, they’ll find nothing spectacular but they might, when they need it most, see that it is enough just to get through tough times and enjoy the good ones.
Here is Part One of a portrait of a Coventry street in the earliest years of its existence. Kensington Road, running between Albany Road and Earlsdon Avenue North, is a thoroughfare I thought I knew well, for it was in one of its 138 houses that I became, for the first time, an owner occupier, in a terraced property that was home to my family for almost ten years. I loved that house from the moment we moved in (our youngest son made his appearance into the world on moving day itself), which was just as well as we had no money to change or replace anything. Lucky for us then that the original window frames hung on long enough to serve us, even though the sash cords were largely useless and the single glazed glass panes defenceless against passionate garden football matches. It was years before we dared peep under the carpet in the narrow hall in case the Minton tiles we hoped would be there proved too badly damaged to expose. But there they were and although we were never able to have them professionally cleaned and restored, we were pleased they were back on show anyway (just visible under a sea of trainers), a proud feature of the original house. We never did risk removing the wood chip wallpaper that adorned the whole house, for fear it was all that was holding the plaster on the walls, yet even through its thick and uneven texture, we could just make out the pipes that served the gas lamps that once lit the front room.
Other parts of the house’s history revealed themselves to us bit by bit. A builder friend showed us how the force of bomb blast had shifted the top half of the house before it settled back into place but now ever so slightly out of kilter with the lower half of the building. Troublesome drains eventually led to an understanding of the extent of fractured sewage and water pipes running under the whole neighbourhood, a consequence of the pounding that Coventry took on the night of 14 November 1940, one of the most intense bombing raid on a British city outside London during the Second World War. Digging at the bottom of the garden one day, my husband’s spade went through the earth and kept on going down, revealing a shaft to ensure fresh air could reach the (long gone) air raid shelter that offered a safer space than the house did to its wartime occupants. I have always loved the story recounted by Ernie Newbold in Portrait of Coventry (1972) of King George Vl’s morale boosting visit to Coventry hours after the 1940 Blitz. Alderman Moseley, at that time Mayor of Coventry, lived at number 39 Kensington Road and, in the course of the King’s tour of the city, brought him to his home. The Mayoress, Moseley’s wife, was evidently taken by surprise, for she was at the back of the house dealing with fallen plaster and broken glass when there was a knock at the front door. She yelled out an instruction to come round the back because the door was off its hinges and then she saw who it was, ‘a tall spare figure in a military greatcoat’. I love the story not so much because of the thought of Mayoress Moseley yelling ‘ come round the back, it’s open’ to the King but because of what it says to me about women’s endless capacity for resourcefulness.
When we finally accepted that we had grown so much that we had run out of space and needed to move (albeit not far away), I cried when our Kensington Road front door closed behind us for the last time. Nearly two decades later, the Covid lockdowns of 2020/1 provided me with an unexpected opportunity to stay and work locally and to go for walks which took me on occasion back to this road which I held so much affection for. On some days, the traffic was so light that I could walk down the middle of what is normally a busy road and take photographs quite safely. It brought to mind a story I was told by Charles Evans, who came to live in Kensington Road not long after it was developed. As a boy, he and his siblings used to attach a very long rope to a garden gate on each side of the road. The rope, used for mammoth skipping games, needed untying only a few times in any one day, if a car or delivery vehicle needed to get past. A far cry then, from modern car ownership; when we lived there it was considered something of a triumph to be able even to park in the street.
One of the results of those local walks this past year is this blog, produced with the help of what I already had to hand – census material, newspaper archives and a good collection of books on Coventry’s history. There is – I know – much more still to discover in building plans, regulations and rates books, all to be explored when life is back to normal with archives offices and libraries open once again. I have thought long and hard about whether to post this, as it is so clearly unfinished but after years, I am finally beginning to understand that if I don’t put things out there, they will remain on the hard drive of my computer and running around my head but of no use to anyone. So this is a brave effort on my part to share and it comes with a plea; if you have any information, plans, deeds or stories about the street and its residents, please do get in touch with me so that the story can be expanded and enriched. I make no claim that Kensington Road was a typical Coventry street; the characteristics of the city have always been too diverse for it to be that. It is just a story of everyday life in early twentieth century Coventry.
The houses in Kensington Road were built between 1907 and 1910 on land sold by the Sir Thomas White Charity to the Newcombe Estates Company. This development company was responsible for the streets of terraced housing now variously referred to as Hearsall or North Earlsdon and situated between the mid 19th century districts of Earlsdon and Chapelfields. The best – and also the most visual – description and analysis of the development, which began in 1904 with the development of Newcombe Road, can be found in David Fry and Albert Smith’s Earlsdon and Chapelfields Explored (Simanda Press 2011). They explain how the land was sold in stages to the Company and how, from there, it was sold on again to individual builders who in turn bought plots large enough to build several houses. In April 1907, in a column called ‘Expanding Coventry’, the Coventry Herald announced plans for new buildings including 11 houses in Kensington Road for Mr W Higgins, 20 for Mr C.J. Smith, 13 for Mr C.F. Woodhall and 10 for Mr T.F. Bird. A first glance down the road seems to suggest uniformity but a slow walk along it shows precisely how it was shaped by the piecemeal development; here’s a run of houses with flat roofed bay windows, there’s another with small, pitched roofs over the bays and extending over the front door. Some houses are entirely flat fronted and a few more have bay windows on both levels.
With the exception of one or two larger houses built on corner plots, the houses were built with two reception rooms, kitchen and/or scullery and (on the whole) three bedrooms. Some had entrance halls, others opened straight into the living room. The original specification for the majority of the houses was an outside WC next to the coal shed and all the houses had back access, via a series of alleyways, with gates to each property. This ensured that coal could be delivered without the need for it to be tramped through or stored in the house. I know I would have been particularly pleased with that, given the dirt and the dust involved in bringing in the coal.
Using the 1911 Census of England and Wales, we can see which houses had six as opposed to five rooms. It’s important to note that in the room count for each entry, bathrooms and sculleries are excluded. This does make it more difficult to know which of the houses were originally fitted with bathrooms or added them subsequently. There is some useful evidence in the local press, such as the notice of a sale by auction of number 26 Kensington Road in 1912, after the death of the owner occupier. This house was described as having a forecourt, a good piece of garden ground at the rear with back approach, 3 bedrooms, a fitted bathroom and WC, front and back sitting rooms, kitchen, scullery, pantry, coalhouse and WC. The deceased owner was a 71 year old widow who lived alone in the property with a servant. Neither servants nor sole occupants living ‘on their own means’ were the norm on this working class street of workers, families and lodgers so perhaps the bathroom at number 26 was added as something of a luxury feature. When selling newly built houses, builders often made it clear that finishings could be added at the purchaser’s request, to suit their budget and tastes, rising from a basic price in the region of £270 in 1909. By the time we moved into our house in the early 1990s, a bathroom had been added to the back of the kitchen, where once the outside WC and coal shed had stood. Upstairs, the third (back) bedroom showed signs that it – or much more likely a divided section of it – had once been a bathroom, but without access to any documentation, I cannot be certain that the bathroom was an original feature (although I suspect that it was).
I recall another conversation with Charles – the young skipper – who moved into the road in 1912. According to the census of the previous year, his family’s house had five rooms; Charles told me that it had a scullery and I regret not having asked him what made him describe it as a scullery as opposed to a kitchen. On the whole, sculleries were for food preparation, washing dishes and doing laundry and were not big enough to count as living or even cooking space, thus distinguishing them from kitchens with a range and even a table around which family members gathered for meals and domestic jobs. I have not yet been able to go and see any plans of the houses but I have turned to Fry and Smith for some help. They include a floorplan for a substantial terraced house in Albany Road which had both kitchen and scullery marked out. There is also a plan for a small (and much older) cottage in Warwick Street, showing the architect’s plans for its extension in 1911. This adds space for a scullery and pantry but with no mention of kitchen. My Kensington Road kitchen originally had a fireplace along the back wall of the house and small though the room was, the six rooms recorded on the census suggests that this had always been regarded as the property’s kitchen, with a walk in pantry under the stairs.
Selling the Houses
Once the houses were nearing completion, builders used various methods to try to sell them. In the autumn of 1908, Mr Taylor of 65, Butts, put five houses on the market at a combined price of £1,100 (although they were also available singly), presumably hoping to sell to a landlord who would then let to tenants. T.F. Bird, a young builder and contractor (born in Dudley but by 1911 living with his wife in Earlsdon Street), who built extensively in Earlsdon and Hearsall, placed the following ad in the local paper in 1909:
“An Englishman’s Home” should be his own. Hundreds of our fellow townsmen realise this and instead of paying rent they buy their own houses and save the rent. Why not do likewise?
TF Bird seeks to make this possible for all. Call and see his houses in Kensington Road. They are designed for you. You can either buy them outright or by the payment of a deposit of £30 and the balance at eight shillings and four pence per week.
It’s interesting to see an advertisement from over 100 years ago playing on the British obsession with buying as opposed to renting, which is today as strong as ever. I presume that those who bought from the builder in 1909 remained leaseholders until they had paid off their debt, whereas those who had a more conventional mortgage were immediate freeholders. David Fry and Albert Smith note that owner occupiers lived in half of the road’s houses, a much higher percentage than some of the streets that surrounded it. I need to do more work to find out the average cost of weekly renting but I did see that a landlord with a house in nearby Newcombe Road was hoping to get seven shillings and six pence per week from tenants.
And now for those who lived in the street.
The Peopleand the Census
There was an urgent need for housing in Coventry by the early 20th century; the city’s population had risen from 46,563 in 1881 to 106,349 in 1911. The craft industries that had dominated Coventry’s economy in the nineteenth century – ribbon weaving and watch making – were both in decline. But new industries were changing the face of the city, providing employment for Coventry born folk and for those attracted in to the city by openings in bicycle and – increasingly – motor car manufacture. Both were predominately male occupations and by 1911, along with the associated industry of machine tool making, made up the largest category of employment for men in Coventry. Across the city some 13,000 men were employed in these industries out of a total of 37,222 working men.
The 1911 census reveals that in Kensington Road, the motor, cycle and machine tool industries accounted for around 40% of male heads of household, lodgers, sons and other male family members and this was the single largest category of male employment in the street. By contrast, only one young woman in the road – the daughter in a household – is expressly recorded as working in the cycle industry (across the city over 1000 women were employed in the cycle and motor industries). Of the Kensington Road men working in these new industries, over 60% had not been born in Coventry; some came expressly to take jobs in workshops and factories where wages were relatively high. In 1913 a strike and campaign initially at the Humber, Daimler and Ordnance factories, resulted in a minimum wage of 26 shillings and 6 pence for a 53-hour week. This was as much as five shillings higher than the average paid at that time to a general labourer. These were undoubtedly good wages for Coventry’s factory workers, generally classified as semiskilled, and the agreement set a basic rate that was higher than anywhere else in the country, and on a par with London rates. The skilled engineers (the craftsmen – those who had served apprenticeships) may well have been somewhat irked by the fact that overtime pay for these semiskilled workers was paid at the same rate as their own.
That these industries were attractive to relatively young men is evident in Kensington Road, where the average age of men thus employed was around 30. The majority of these were householders, many married with children, some of whom – the vast majority boys – also went into this work. This certainly fits with the findings of a study that found that in 1911 over 75% of those in the cycle and motor industries were under the age of 35, and over 5000 were under 25.
Although employment in the city’s engineering factories dominated, there was still quite a range of employment in Kensington Road. Among men the next largest category of work (although at around 12% it was considerably less than engineering) was that carried out by craft and tradesmen – builders, decorators, carpenters and gas fitters were, with all the house building going on in the city, generally in high demand. In addition, there were railway workers, shop workers, a few white collar workers – clerks and insurance agents – and a few professional workers, including an accountant and a very few teachers.
The crafts of old Coventry – watch making and ribbon weaving – were both represented but in small numbers. The once thriving watch industry, so prevalent in Earlsdon and Chapelfields, was clinging on but the average age of the men thus employed (for on this street no women were recorded as working in watch making) was, at about 42, more than a decade older than the average in engineering. There was just one apprentice to the industry and whereas one might expect this to be because of local connections to watch making, he was in fact a young man whose father worked as a nightwatchman in a machine tool factory, the family having moved to Coventry from the south west of England. The husband and father who lived in ‘our’ house was a watch dial painter, and at 35, he was a relatively young worker in the trade although, unlike the apprentice, he was a Coventry born man who came from a watchmaking family.
Ribbon weaving, once such a proud feature of the city, had suffered a devastating and irreparable blow in the 1860s and although it remained, it had, by 1911, come to be regarded more as women’s work than employment dominated by skilled male craftsmen. What did this mean? That the women employed in the industry (of which, across the city, there were far more than men) received low wages, a consequence of it now being a woman dominated industry which in turn acted as a deterrent to men because of the low wages. There is just one man on the street – a silk dyer – working in the silk trade and a 77 year old ribbon weaver (despite the fact that by 1911 the State had introduced old age pensions, this man is described as ‘unable to work’ rather than retired. The fear of destitution lingered long in people’s minds). We need to be wary of assuming that the work had become de-skilled; true, the days of master weavers working in their homes with the help of their families was long gone, but among the few young women in Kensington Road described on the 1911 census as working in the silk industry, there is evidence of specialist work, including silk blocking and pearling.
Of the houses in Kensington Road that are listed as having male heads, around 70 show that no occupation was recorded for their wives. There has sometimes been a temptation amongst commentators to conclude from such statistics that married women did not need to work because they were the wives of relatively well-paid male workers. This may have been the case for some families, particularly because of decent wages in the Coventry engineering industries. But if we look again, the census also reveals that of the households where women were not working outside the home, nearly half had lodgers, or accommodated one or more extended family member. Men of various occupations – including engineering – lived in houses with lodgers and there is little doubt that the work of ‘doing’ for the lodger would have fallen almost entirely on the women of the household. Having a lodger was certainly no easy way to make money. During these early years of the 20th century, the local press is full of columns advertising rooms, such as this from 1909:
Board-residence Vacancy for Gentleman Boarder 43 Kensington Road. Healthy situation. 16 minutes Broadgate. Penny tram and motor bus stage. Every comfort. No children. Moderate terms.
Another at number 8 Kensington Road offered sole occupancy of a bedroom, a shared sitting room and a bath. Prices were not generally advertised, as the terms of residence were for private negotiation; some lodgers requested an evening meal whereas others would eat at the works canteen and opt for a more self-contained arrangement (the provision of meals and services was what usually distinguished a boarder from a lodger), perhaps needing only to share the family kitchen to make tea or light suppers. Boarders and lodgers alike added considerably to the laundry load and to housework tasks and of course there was the loss of family privacy – a stranger at the table for Sunday dinner, perhaps. There was the inconvenience of another person using the WC and washing facilities, the need for more hot water and heat. Kensington Road boarders and lodgers were overwhelmingly male and in Kensington Road the very few women lodging included a dressmaker, a nurse, a piano teacher and an elementary school teacher (living in a household where the daughter was also a teacher). Suitable lodgings for women workers were difficult to find during these years and there were public meetings organised by concerned campaigners to establish all-female lodgings where women could feel safe and secure. This was put forward as a moral as well as a practical issue (it being declared a ‘disgrace’ that Coventry had nowhere where women could seek lodgings other than newspaper columns and shop noticeboards), for the need to preserve women’s modesty and privacy in mixed sex boarding houses or households troubled many who sought to improve the lives of young and single women workers. When young women could no longer live with their families or had left their home towns in search of work, what they needed was to see advertisements like this one, for ‘superior apartments for one or two young ladies: board optional. No other boarders kept’. They still of course had to take the meaning of ‘superior’ on trust.
Taking in lodgers or being recorded on the census as ‘helping’ with the family business (I will talk more in the next blog about this) are all signs that extra income was needed to help make ends meet, to pay the rent or mortgage and to feed growing families. There was always a need to be as resourceful as possible, where work outside the home was not possible, practical, desired or permitted (by husbands).
Amongst women who were heads of households, over half were widows, some of whom living with children who were working, one who was running a shop ( I will talk more about shop work in the next blog), another who had turned being a landlady into more of a formal arrangement and was letting out apartments. Of the single women heads of household, one acted as her sister’s housekeeper (the sister worked for a tailoring company) and two others were dressmakers, working at home. A couple of married women were recorded as housekeepers or carrying out domestic duties; I like to think that they insisted on these descriptions to show that their unpaid labour was of immense value but in reality it probably depended on who filled in the form or on how the given information was interpreted by the enumerator once it had been collected.
Most of the women listed as being in work were the daughters and female relations of heads of household. It is – because of the small numbers – much more difficult to try to analyse women’s occupations in Kensington Road in relation to the broad trends of Coventry employment in 1911 than it is for its men. It is just possible to see, however, that the majority of Kensington Road women did very broadly reflect the city wide trends, which identify domestic work of all kinds and work in the textile industry as the main categories for employed women. There was a handful of women working as servants or housekeepers in Kensington Road but with the exception of two (as far as I can see), they worked at home for their families. In addition, some women in the street were employed on different types of factory work, including cardboard box making and there were a few clerks and teachers.
If you’ve survived my riff on statistics and are still interested, do watch out for the next part of this blog when I’ll take a look at life on the street and offer some information on setting up home, buying and acquiring furniture and all the other things that make a house a home. I locate the street’s shops and think about food prices, meal preparation and lots more besides.
Huge thanks to David Fry and Albert Smith for allowing me to use their images of Kensington Road
Thanks also to the British Newspaper Archive
The study that I referred to when discussing the ages of Coventry’s new workers is by Brad Beaven and John Griffiths and is called Citizenship in the Industrial Boomtown: Narratives of work and leisure in Britain 1880-1914
Ernie Newbold’s Portrait of Coventry was published in 1972 by Robert Hale
I’m currently preparing a series of blogs about life in a working class Coventry street just over 100 years ago. I hope that the first of these articles will make its appearance in the next week or so. In the meantime, I am absorbed in – and far too distracted by – local press advertisements and references to the running of house and home. Today, feeling more than a little lockdown glum in the gloom of a wet mid February, I came across some delightful advice included on ‘The Women’s Page’ of the Coventry Herald 110 years ago. Entitled ‘How to Be Happy’, it grabbed my attention on a page full of subjects such as how tuberculosis is infectious (and how to render sputum harmless) and why you shouldn’t overheat your house (the heated air is detrimental to the mucous membrane of the nose). There are some cures for insomnia which range from taking a hot bath, using a hot-water bottle, reading a particularly dull book to the rather more specific suggestion of covering the eyes and ears with wadding. In a similar vein there is free medical advice provided to those writing in to the column. ‘Anxious M’ is told to ‘springe out the nostrils’ with a mixture of hot water and carbolic acid every morning, and sounding even more alarming than that is the advice given to ‘Concerned’ who is told that, ‘There is no connection between the discharge and the operation. Use a warm douche containing a little Condy’s fluid twice daily’. I think it’s best we don’t know what had been asked. I feel pretty sorry for the (presumed) infant of another Anxious who faced a cotton reel being strapped to his back using tapes passing round his waist to prevent him from lying on his back.
Also on the page are recipes for Crecy soup (a thoroughly boiled and sieved concoction of carrots, turnips, celery, onion, ham slices and beef broth), boiled mince roll (sewn into a cloth), mutton and macaroni (also boiled), Scotch eggs ( using up scraps of cold or sausage meat) and apple snow, served with redcurrant jelly and thin (boiled) custard. There is a pattern for a Spring skirt and a sketch for a an Easter bride’s dress.
The adverts are well chosen for the page and include mangle rollers, chimney sweeping, ladies blouses and Allinson’s Wholemeal Bread, available from the city Health Food Stores. There is a children’s column offering mathematical surprises and stories from around the world about the moon (women readers of newspapers and journals were used to sharing ‘their’ section with children, making sure that the loftier matters of politics and sport were kept far apart from household cleaning, fashion, food – oh and the raising of children. At least ‘Concerned’ could be reasonably assured that her ailment wasn’t likely to be read out at breakfast time).
The humour in the jokes section is cheesy enough for groans; “Now Patsy, would it be proper to say, ‘You can’t learn me nothing’? ” Patsy, “Yes, ‘m “. Teacher, “Why?” Patsy, “Cause you can’t”.
And on that note, here are the words of wisdom given to the women of Coventry in 1911 not just on how to be happy but how to stay that way, in ten steps:
‘Keep cheerful. Hunting trouble ruins more nerves than trouble when it arrives
Keep alert. Mental ruts make more hypochondriacs than does overwrought imagination
Keep physically active. The alert woman who hates to move is usually the greatest growler about her health
Keep clean. The close connection between the pores of the skin and general health is not considered carefully enough
Keep interested. There is nothing like a fad or an object in life to put aches and pains into the background
Keep your feet warm. more cold is taken through the ankles than in any other way, so do not run in low shoes all winter
Keep away from drugs. Walk more and take medicine less
Keep a curb on your appetite. Over-eating is the menace of the age
Keep out of debt. There is nothing like money troubles to worry one to death. Care will kill the nine-lived cat and what gives more care than a budget of debts with no money to settle?
Lucky those, then, who could settle their debts. In my forthcoming series, I will be looking at the people who lived in the street I have chosen for the study, examining their occupations, their wages and how they got by. In the early twentieth century Coventry’s population was growing, new industries were providing employment not just for the local workforce but for those from other towns and cities, attracted by the prospect of a decent wage and a secure future. I want to look inside the census statistics, curious to get as close as possible to the realities of daily life. That’s if, of course, I stop getting distracted by discoveries along the way….
The page is from the Coventry Herald, March 31 1911
I am delighted to share here the exhibition that I have curated for the TUC. Using images and materials from the TUC Library, it marks the centenary of the death of Macarthur, on 1 January 1921 and celebrates her work as an inspiring trade union leader. Please join me if you can on Friday 8th January at midday for the official launch of the exhibition and for my talk on the life and work of Macarthur. You can register for this free event here
I have always delighted in discovering a photograph of the person I am researching and when I do, I find myself reading all sorts of things into what I see. A look of determination, of apprehension, of confidence, I try to match the photograph to what I know of the person. That I do this came to me very forcefully the other day when I discovered a photograph of myself that I had never seen before. Taken in the early 1960s, when I was around 2, what first grabbed my attention was that the image captured three generations of the same family – the infant me, my mum and my grandma. As I am currently researching motherhood in the 20th century, looking at change and continuity in the lives of women within the same family, the photo was like gold dust to me. My mum is watchful, either appreciating the view or – more likely – keeping an eye on my older brother, then around 4. My grandma might be asleep or just able to be more relaxed than her daughter, no longer on constant duty and determined to get value out of her deck chair, hired by the hour (We only ever had deckchairs when my grandparents came down to visit us from London and they made me cross, I think because I knew that I’d be expected to stay nearby and lose the freedom that I so loved on the beach).
And then there is me. On the day that I looked at this photograph I saw a feisty little girl, strong, sturdy legged, hand on hip, standing independent of the two women. I couldn’t get this picture out of my head for the rest of the day and I wondered why. I eventually saw that depending on how I feel and what is going on in my life, I can look at a photo of myself in many different ways. Was the girl on the beach that day – or in that minute – more fractious than bold? Worried about something rather than seizing the day? And if I can guess so little about a moment in my own life, how can I ever be sure what is going on in the photos that I come across in my work? So, as a direct result of discovering the beach photo, this blog has two strands. It offers some observations about the use of photographs in historical research and then it takes one example – the girl on the beach -to illustrate the many values that thinking about a photograph can have, despite our uncertainties about what it may or may not depict.
I have written two biographies, one of the relatively well-known trade union leader Mary Macarthur (1880-1921) and one of Alice Arnold, lesser known trade union organiser and Coventry politician (1881-1955). For both women, photographs were in pretty short supply, so there was always excitement when I came across one that I hadn’t seen before. Immediately I started trying to read myriad scenarios into the circumstances of the fresh image. Sometimes this was relatively easy; there were official portraits taken of both women, their role at the time being key to the image, a formal look required. Then there were photographs that appeared in the press, taken at various public events or appearances. Sometimes the woman is looking directly into the camera, sometimes she is less aware that she is being photographed. When looking at these images, I am able to use my knowledge of the subject’s life to work out what else she had going on at the time, I speculate about what she was focusing on, the attention she was giving or the importance she was attaching to the event.
Let’s look at a few images:
This one was taken when Mary Macarthur was just 23 years old. It shows her as a delegate at what might have been her first international conference – in Berlin – on behalf of the British Women’s Trade Union League. What I think I see is a determined, animated young woman off on a great adventure at the International Congress of Women. Mary, born in Scotland, had only been in London for a year where she had started her new work with the League, living independently, far away from her family and full of ambition and reforming zeal. She wanted to make a difference and, based on the impressive start she had made to her trade union career in Scotland, she believed that she could.
But do I really know that Mary was fizzing with excitement at the prospect of the conference? Of course not. I can only project what I think I know about her onto the image. Was she fully at ease in her new world? Was the bold look that I think I detect here actually one of defiance in the face of intimidation at the unfamiliarity of new circumstances? Mary attended the Congress with her older friend and colleague, Margaret Bondfield who recalled that the two of them felt quite uncomfortable at the sight of its grand dinners, ‘orchids by the hundred for table decoration, sprays for each guest, many courses and six glasses of wine, etc., beside each plate’. They listened to platform speeches, debates and discussions on education, women’s professions and industries, social aims and institutions and the legal position of women. Yet, according to Bondfield, the two friends, whilst very impressed with the fact that ‘nearly everyone who addressed the sections was a professor, or a Doctor of Law or Medicine or Science’, found it hard to find enough delegates who had their own practical experience of industrial working conditions, concluding that ‘salvation for the workers’ would not be delivered from the learned, but ‘must come from themselves’. So perhaps Mary’s look was after all one of youthful confidence, reflecting her belief that she had what it took to make the difference so badly needed.
Here is a very different image of Mary Macarthur, taken thirteen years later when she (far right) was on the platform of a Women’s Labour League conference in Bristol.
Unlike the previous image, I have never used this one when writing or talking about Macarthur, because it is so ambiguous (even if the banner in front of the stage makes us wonder – tongue in cheek – if the women speakers are all sozzled). But there is plenty to speculate about. 18 months into the First World War, are these socialist campaigners taking a breather between speeches from the relentless work needed to keep industrial women safe and on decent pay, to organise them into trade unions, to ensure that army allowances payable to wives and children were adequate, to support widows and carers, to help women make ends meet during a period of spiralling costs of living? Or is just hot in the room? The end of a long day, the start of another? When this was taken in early 1916, Mary Macarthur had a young baby – was she suffering from nights of interrupted sleep? On top of her usual heavy workload – now at least doubled by the pressures of war – she had travelled from London to attend this conference, which presumably involved either bringing her daughter with her or arranging childcare at home. In other words, once again, we can read into the photo what we want to see – and still be wide of the mark.
In the case of my other subject, Coventry Labour councillor and trade unionist Alice Arnold, scarcely any photos survive, apart from the one taken when she became Coventry’s first woman mayor in 1937 and a few that appeared in the press during her term of office, at civic ceremonies or performing public duties as her city’s representative. Whilst there are a few portraits of Mary Macarthur as a child and a very young woman, Alice Arnold’s early years were dominated by acute poverty and it is unlikely that there was ever available money for a family trip to the photographer’s studio, such as this one taken of the Macarthur sisters.
Alice Arnold became well known not just for her radical politics and her outspokenness but for her aversion to wearing civic robes when she became a city councillor and for an apparent lack of interest in smart clothes. She believed that the official gowns and hats created a barrier between her and her constituents although she consented to wear the mayoral garb when she became the city’s first woman mayor in 1937.
What was she thinking when the mayoral photograph was taken? Was there awkwardness at sitting for the official civic portrait or resentment at the need to don the robe? One or two oral history accounts refer to Arnold’s deep pride at representing her city during this year, so perhaps it is a sense of duty and determination to get things right that we see here? Whatever her look may or may not tell us, the importance and significance of the image is that it shows the first woman to hold the office of mayor since Coventry received its royal charter in 1345.
This next image of Alice Arnold is unlike any other that I have found of her. She was 56 when she became mayor and almost all photos of her are from that year – 1937 – or later. This one, however, is of a younger woman.
Although it appeared in the papers when she was first elected to the Council in 1919, I wonder if it dates from the First World War, when Alice became a trade union organiser for the Workers’ Union. She later remarked that ‘her heart and soul were with the labour movement’ and her 14 year career with the Union, supporting and organising women workers gave her as much personal satisfaction as being able to represent Coventry people during over 30 years on the City Council. I don’t know but this photograph doesn’t suggest to me that this was a woman who did not care about her appearance. She looks professional, well-groomed and well dressed. Perhaps the references to her perceived lack of sartorial care were wide of the mark. Although Alice left behind the extreme poverty of her childhood, she lived much of her life in straitened circumstances, an unmarried working-class woman in poor health on a low income. There was little spare cash for a varied wardrobe, whether she would have liked one or not.
I will carry on using photographs in my research because whatever we don’t know can help us to try to understand better, add texture to our writing and help us to question all that goes on in women’s lives. if they help us to look more deeply at everything that was happening in the subject’s life when the photograph was taken, then that will surely make us better and bolder researchers and biographers.
And so I turn once more to the girl on the beach. I willed myself to see strength of mind and body in that little girl. I began to wonder what traces of her, seemingly wanting to do things her own way, were still there in the woman looking back at her forgotten young self. On the day that I found the photo, I didn’t think that there were all that many. I feared that the essence of that girl had been left behind, perhaps not on that south coast beach but somewhere along the way, her self-confidence chipped away at by a whole host of things that happened as she grew. By the time that girl was ten and still had sturdy legs, she was beginning to fret about them, wishing them to be smaller and pencil thin like those of some of her school friends. Sturdy and strong was not, at that time, a look she wanted the world to see. Small was how she wished to be.
Behaving like a girl was another lesson that had yet to be learned. This was not just about how she looked, dressed and carried herself but about her attitude. That feisty beach look (if it really was) became harder to detect as the years passed. I toned myself down, carried myself with care. There was a tension between speaking out and worrying about doing so. I became ever more circumspect in how I spoke and I watched what I said. I told myself that I should be quieter because (or in case) my opinions were uninformed and of less value than of those out there in the world.
It seems to me that all too often girls start off with confidence that is subsequently eroded, making them worry about being themselves – too bright, too loud, too big, too much – prompting them over time to tone down, hold back, agree more, become smaller or less. Boys too can lose their way, be unsure of who they are and make use of masks and constructed personas to give illusions of assurance. The pressures on men to behave in certain ways are immense but I think that the demands placed upon both men and women by society are often different, gender-based ones. Men are less likely than women to be told to be quieter, to keep their opinions to themselves, to take up less room.
Over the years, many events and situations have threatened my sense of who I am. But after looking at my beach photo, I think it is time for the girl on the beach to rediscover and reclaim her boldness. She does have something to say and she will say it. If she wants to be loud she can be and she will be. She has opinions and that is ok. Opinionated is not the dirty word she thought it was. She talks; she does not talk too much. People don’t need to listen to her if they don’t want to but she has the right to speak and to write. The things that she writes about have value, sometimes because they add to what is known and – just as important – because they offer a view of the world from a different – and unique – perspective. These things are ok. The photo of the little girl served as a reminder that I do not need permission to be myself. The girl on the beach is strong. And she’s going to be alright.
Here is a tale of an incident in the strange life of a historian whose study is always in a dreadful muddle. A simple (or completely weird) coincidence resulted in this short blog.
As I sat at my desk in the afternoon with a cup of tea, reading the news (there you go, I was already distracted from the work I was supposed to be doing) about potential strike action by GMB members at Burton’s Biscuits in Edinburgh, a piece of paper fell off my ‘filing’ pile and fluttered to the floor. Stooping to retrieve it, I saw that it was an appeal for funds to sustain 30 women employed by MacKenzie & MacKenzies’ Biscuit Makers in Edinburgh in 1908. Wondering by now what year I was actually in was enough to get me off my chair and start digging around in folders of research notes that go back years. This is the result.
First, the piece of paper that fell off the desk:
The women, in the icing department (referred to – as female labour so often was – as girls by the press and by their union) were told on 15 January 1908 that new piece-work rates were to be introduced in their section. In effect, these amounted to a reduction of around 8 pence a day, which would bring some of the women’s pay down by as much as 30 per cent. The women alleged that they were given just a few minutes to digest the news, clearly in the expectation that they would agree it and carry on working. Deeply concerned, however, that if they accepted the new rates, more reductions would follow, the women walked out. This principled stand was a very bold move by a group of low paid workers, over half of whom appear at that point to have been either very new trade union members or not members at all. As such, those women were not yet entitled to union strike pay.
Quick to offer help was the Edinburgh branch of the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW). This all – female union, established for women who worked in some of the worst paid industries in the country – and considered by many in the labour movement to be too difficult to organise – was barely two years old but its fighting tactics had already begun to improve pay and conditions for women workers across Britain and its membership was on the rise. The Federation’s HQ was in London but its founder was the indefatigable Glasgow-born Mary Macarthur (1880-1921). She had cut her union teeth in Scotland when she was still a very young woman, before moving south in 1903 and becoming secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League. It was under the umbrella of this organisation, which aimed to strengthen women’s trade unionism nationally, that the NFWW was formed in 1906. Its very first branch had been, in fact, formed in Edinburgh during a dispute at a paper bag factory, which ended with the women returning to work on their own terms. The branch quickly came to the attention of the Edinburgh Trades Council whose members were ready and willing to give it much welcomed support when the MacKenzie & MacKenzies’ women walked out in early 1908.
The president of the Edinburgh Federation branch, Mrs Lamont, had been on hand to support the paper bag workers in 1906 and her reputation as a dedicated activist was recognised by Mary Macarthur, who entrusted her with the vice-presidency of the national NFWW. At the same time as repeated – and futile – attempts to negotiate with the management at MacKenzie & MacKenzies’ went on, the local labour movement helped not only to recruit new members into the Edinburgh NFWW branch but to help with the urgent need to provide them with strike funds. The Trades Council deplored what it claimed was just the latest reduction to be introduced by MacKenzie & MacKenzies in just three years. It feared that this latest proposed cut would reduce the wages of even the most expert workers, many of whom had been with the firm for between six and 11 years, to about nine shillings a week. Enough was collected from across the national labour movement and from well -wishers to ensure that all strikers received 5 shillings a week until they were eligible for strike benefit from the NFWW. For some of the women, this represented half of their usual weekly wage and so, although on its own, it was nowhere near enough to live on, it may have stopped some of them from having to seek help from the parish, from charity, family or from money lenders.
New union though the NFWW was, the tactics used by its leadership were effective right from the start. Mary Macarthur ensured that in every dispute her union was involved in, meticulous research was undertaken to make sure that all facts were fully investigated and that organisers understood the characteristics of the local economy. Once this was done, it was on to a campaign of naming and shaming in the hope of humiliating a firm into backing down. In the case of the biscuit makers, the union issued a circular to be sent out to 200 or so shareholders of MacKenzie & MacKenzies, highlighting the management’s continued refusal to settle the dispute and emphasising the implications of paying such low wages to its workforce. It also let it be known that MacKenzies’ was paying considerably less than two other local employers engaged in the same type of work.
The Federation set about attracting the support of some prominent names to appear on platforms at public meetings or to make known their sympathy with the cause, as did Lady Barbara Steel, the Scottish social and suffrage campaigner, who also contributed to the strike fund. Soon after the strike began, Thomas Richards, trade unionist and Labour MP for Wolverhampton, was in Edinburgh giving an impassioned speech on behalf of the strikers. Reported in The Scotsman, Richards expressed his outrage that MacKenzie & MacKenzies, supplying biscuits not just to the Royal Household but to the House of Commons, was in fact nothing more than a firm of sweaters. He told his audience that if girls sold their labour to any employer, they ought to be able to earn enough to keep them in comparative comfort, good clothing and have enough left over to put by for a rainy day. The failure to pay the women a living wage was, in his view, nothing short of un-Christian behaviour. His speech chimed perfectly with the NFWW’s ongoing national campaign to highlight the immorality of paying scandalously low wages to women workers and it proved a highly effective way of raising money to support strikers. By the time the NFWW embarked on perhaps its most famous strike – that of the women chain makers of Cradley Heath in 1910, fighting for the country’s first minimum wage – it had acquired a good few years of experience of these tactics. In Edinburgh in 1908 a total of £103 1 shilling and 4 pence was collected by the local labour movement for the biscuit icers. Of this amount just over a quarter came from the Federation.
The financial and moral support kept the women out on strike into the Spring. The Trades Council praised their spirit of comradeship and recorded with pride that despite its length, the strike had remained solid. Several attempts to negotiate with MacKenzie & MacKenzies were made but the firm remained adamant that its proposals would not mean wage reductions for its employees. Even threats to raise the question in Parliament or to kick up a national stink about the behaviour of the Royal biscuit making establishment did nothing to lead to a change of heart. By June, according to Edinburgh Trades Council, the fund was helping just four of the strikers because all others had found work elsewhere. There was at least pride in the fact that none of the women had returned to MacKenzie and MacKenzies. The NFWW’s Annual Report for 1908 recorded that year as a trying one for the Edinburgh branch (there was another – more successful – strike, this time at a paper bag factory) but nonetheless it had managed to increase its membership overall. In the next few years, with the help of some brilliant women activists and with the continued support of the Trades Council, the branch strengthened and grew. Such progress, however, could never be taken for granted. The NFWW did all that it could do protect its members from employers who intimidated, threatened or sacked those regarded as ringleaders and troublemakers. Its 1908 Annual Report shows that during that year three members of the Edinburgh branch received victimisation pay of £1 and 4 shillings each, presumably to compensate for loss of earnings.
The union conceded that not all workplace struggles for fairness ended in victory but it constantly reminded workers that a strong union branch and solidarity were of untold importance. Using her analogy of the union as a bundle of sticks, Mary Macarthur frequently reminded women that an employer could easily pick off a single twig but that he was powerless when faced with an unsnappable bunch.
Solidarity, in other words.
One final note. The union in question in the 2020 dispute in Edinburgh is the GMB. 100 years ago this winter, Mary Macarthur’s National Federation of Women Workers merged with the National Union of General Workers which in turn – in the late 20th century – became part of the GMB. History is never just history. A piece of paper that falls off my desk changes nothing but it reminded me that the struggle for justice has been long and that it goes on.
And I took a good hard look at the biscuit with my tea today.
The notes that I referred to for this piece were largely gathered over the past decade or so from the TUC Library, the National Library of Scotland. A big thanks to the staff at both.
Redressing the Balance: Women in Twentieth century Coventry (1999) (ed) Women’s Research Group, Coventry
A Little Too Nice: the National Federation of Women Workers in Coventry 1907-18, in Women’s History Journal (2003) 43, 15-19
‘Her Heart and Soul were with the Labour Movement’: Using a Local Study to Highlight the Work of Women Organisers Employed by the Workers’ Union in Britain from the First World War to 1931 in Labour History Review (2005) 70 (2) 167-84
Everyone’s Poor Relation: the Poverty and Isolation of a Working Class Woman Local Politician in interwar Britain in Women’s History Review (2007) 16 (3) 417-30
Tea and Sympathy: A Study of Diversity among Women Activists in the National Federation of Women Workers in Coventry, England, 1907-14 in International Labor and Working Class History (2007) 72 (1), 173-91
Success with the Ladies: An Examination of Women’s Experiences as Labour Councillors in Inter War Coventry in Midland History (2007) 32 (1) 141-59
A Woman of the People: Alice Arnold of Coventry 1881-1955 (2007) Coventry Branch of the Historical Association
Audience Research Reports of the BBC 1937-50 and Parliamentary Labour Party Papers 1968/69 to 1993/4 A Review of British Online Archives in Archives, (2009) Volume XX1V (120) 86-89
Dancing and Days Out: The Role of Social Events in British Women’s Trade Unionism in the Early Twentieth Century in Labour History Review (2011) 76 (2) 104-20
Going Strong Like the Tanks: Coventry Women Workers and the Trade Unions in the First World War in Against All Odds (2011) Women’s Research Group, Coventry
‘The Fragility of the Union: the work of the National Federation of Women Workers in the regions of Britain 1906-14’ in Mary Davis, Class and Gender in British Labour History: Renewing the Debate (or starting it?) (2011) Merlin Press 171-89
Sex Versus Class in Two British Trade Unions in the Early Twentieth Century in Journal of Women’s History 24 (1) 86-111
Gertrude Tuckwell and the British Labour Movement, 1891-1921: A Study in Motives and Influences in Women’s History Review (2013) 22 (3) 478-496
The National Federation of Women Workers 1906-21 (2014) (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan)
A History of Women’s Lives in Coventry, 2018, (Barnsley, Pen & Sword)
Righting the Wrong: Mary Macarthur 1880-1921. Working Woman’s Champion (2019) (Birmingham, West Midlands History)
I am delighted to start this new section of my website with the exciting news that I have recently been elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, in recognition of my contribution to historical scholarship. As an independent historian, this means a great deal to me and I am proud to be part of this great community of historians.