Moving into Kensington Road

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.

Image courtesy of David Fry and Albert Smith

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.  

Courtesy of David Fry

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.

Lucy certainly felt the pressure….

All advertisements are from the Coventry newspapers 1908-11 and are courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive.

My great grandmothers and me: International Women’s Day 2021

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.

Annie worked here, at what was then the Sunlight Laundry, Fulham

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.

Parkfields, Putney. Even when I spent childhood holidays here, there was no bathroom or indoor WC.

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.

Amy lived here for years, running a fish shop
Modder Place, Putney, where Annie once lived

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.

Happy International Women’s Day, sisters.  

If you want to find out a little more about the four never-ordinary- women who were my great grandmothers, their First World War stories are available on this site under Women’s Lives in the First World War. Women’s Lives in the First World War – Cathy Hunt historian

There is also a post on the years in which great grandmother Ellen lived in the same street at Sylvia Pankhurst Ellen and Sylvia: Chelsea 1906 – Cathy Hunt historian

The Birth of a Coventry Street

Kensington Road

Copyright Fry and Smith. This is taken from the top of Kensington Road, looking down towards Albany Road

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.

The Minton floor tiles in the hall plus evidence that the growing Hunt family was perhaps in need of a bit more space, although with just five residents, we each had considerably more floor space than many families in 1911, some of whom shared with lodgers and extended family members.

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.

The air raid shelter at the bottom of the next door garden, still there when we moved in in the early 1990s

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.

Copyright Fry and Smith. This view is taken near the junction with Westwood Road and is looking up the road towards Earlsdon Avenue North

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.

2021: The neat lines and edges of the photograph above are gone and instead cars are parked nose to tail

Development

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.

Copyright Fry and Smith

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.

A view of the original outbuildings that were built at the rear of the houses
The outhouses in ‘our’ house had been replaced by a downstairs bathroom. Here you can see where the windows had been bricked up. in the left hand corner is the Belfast sink, rescued from the renovation of the house next door, plus the chimney pot removed from our roof

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).

This advertisement shows that builders were willing to provide the finishings that buyers wanted

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

This advertisement appeared in the local press in the autumn of 1909. There is no mention of a bathroom

 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 People and 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.

Kensington Road is full of patterns on brickwork

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.

In this short section of the street, it is possible to see three distinct styles of houses, as developed by those who bought up plots of land

 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.

This appeared in the Coventry Herald in 1913

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

How To Keep Happy

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.

To make this skirt for the spring, about 3 yards of material was needed

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 Easter Bride

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?

Keep smiling’.

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

The Life of Mary Macarthur

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

The Girl on the Beach and the use of photographs in historical research

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:

Courtesy of TUC Library Collections

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.

Courtesy TUC History Online

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.

Courtesy Coventry Archives

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.

The Macarthur sisters. Copyright of TUC Library Collections

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.

Biscuit Makers to the King and a Brave Bunch of Women Workers

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:

This is from the Gertrude Tuckwell Collection, TUC Library

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.

1911 delegates at the Scottish Trades Union Council. Edinburgh’s Mrs Lamont is second from the left, Mary Macarthur fourth from left. This image is from the National Library of Scotland and I thank them for allowing me to use it in my biography of Macarthur

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.

Thanks also to the British Newspaper Archive

Don’t Try to be Sexy, Ms Smith: ‘Equality’ in the 1970s

Sunday PeopleThe Equal Pay Act (EPA) was passed in Britain on May 29th 1970, 50 years ago this week. For those who had long campaigned for equal pay, it was a relief to finally see it on the statute books (although in a fight with its origins in the late 19th century, by no means all of those who had done so were still alive) and, as a measure that improved at least some women’s pay, it seems right to commemorate it. However, – and this is a VERY LARGE however indeed –this legislation was severely limited in its scope and it never ensured that all women were paid the same as men. In addition, it was launched into a world that was awash with unchallenged and normalized sexism. This happened to be the world in which I was becoming a young woman. This is my take on the EPA, what it meant, and how it was publicly received in 1970s Britain.

In my research on women and work in the early 20th century, I was always struck by the lengths that employers went to to try to get round changes in the law that would mean that they had to raise wage rates. In 1909 the Liberal Government’s Trades Board Act introduced minimum wages into four of the country’s worst paid industries. The first Trade Board rates to be agreed were in the chain making industry of the Black Country and for women homeworkers, the increase was set to substantially raise their pay. There was, however, a three-month period before the agreement became enforceable in 1910, followed by a six-month period in which workers were encouraged to sign an agreement to work at the old rates, with bosses warning that this was the only way that future work could be guaranteed. It was a blatant attempt to bypass the law and the women, led by the National Federation of Women Workers struck, much to the employers’ surprise. The public was incensed that the women were being so shabbily treated, the bosses were shamed into doing the right thing and after a ten-week dispute, the rate was achieved.

This evasion, as outrageous as it was, nevertheless seems fairly mild in comparison to what happened nearly 60 years later, when the EPA was passed (don’t get me wrong. There was no shortage of injustices between 1909 and 1970!). For starters, it was not implemented until 29 December 1975, giving employers a splendidly long time (although not the 7 years the CBI had requested) to work out how to get around pay rise issues, for example by altering job descriptions so that men continued to receive higher pay than women. Spare Rib, the feminist magazine, kept its readers in touch with what was going on. In an excellent article in 1973, entitled ‘Equal Pay: Make It Work for You’, Sarah Boston reported that the company Shoefayre, had renamed its male shop assistants ‘Trainee Managers’ and paid them £3 more than the women whose job titles went unaltered. The terms of the Act were deliberately vague and extremely limited; equal pay was only to be conceded when men and women’s work was deemed to be the same or broadly similar. This was so easy for employers to circumvent, especially as the job evaluations that were needed to determine equal pay were not even compulsory so that many firms did not even bother to carry them out. There were endless ways to get around equal pay, such as implementing grading structures which put heavy work (done by men) at the top and light work (done by women) at the bottom, often with scant regard to the skill and training required. Despite no longer being able to advertise a job as a man’s or a woman’s, firms found ways to ensure that certain jobs would remain exclusively female so that they could be paid less. A good ruse used by at least one firm was to ‘grant’ women a pay rise that brought them up to the male minimum rate. The only problem, as Sarah Boston showed, was that none of the men at the firm were actually on the basic rate and were all paid more than the women.

Even before the Act was implemented, a great many women knew that they would still have a fight on their hands for wage rises. As for women who did work that had long been deemed traditionally female and was notoriously low paid, the EPA changed little or nothing. At the end of the EPA’s first year, Spare Rib noted that ‘it’s been hard for women to take the EPA seriously. Even in cases where it applies, industrial tribunals have been ruling against us for the most trivial reasons’.  Of the 130 cases heard by tribunals (most commonly chaired by men) in the first six months of 1976, 94 were dismissed. Spare Rib drew readers attention to the appeals tribunals which could either reverse the verdicts of the industrial tribunals or get the case referred back for a second hearing. The first three appeals hearings ruled in favour of women workers.

First came the Kraft Food factory in Kirby which had denied women equal pay because they were not permitted to do night work. The appeals tribunal told the firm that ‘the mere time at which the work is performed should be disregarded when considering the differences between the things which the woman does and things which a man does.

This was followed by a case involving Fortes, who had promoted one male waiter to ‘Banqueting Supervisor’ just days after the EPA was passed. A tribunal had ruled that the women waitresses were entitled to equal pay only until the man’s promotion came into effect but this was rejected by an appeals tribunal which ruled for a permanent rise for the women.

The third case concerned a firm on Humberside which had appealed against a tribunal that had decided that a woman cook should receive the same wage as two male assistant chefs. To prove the difference between the jobs, the firm had pointed out that the work was carried out at different times, in different locations and that catering was for different numbers. The appeals judge considered these to be ‘trivial differences’.

Whilst the appeals’ tribunals helped many women workers, it is clear that the process of challenging your employer, was made as difficult as possible – and would not even have been needed if the spirit of the Act had genuinely intended equality. After a long strike for equal pay at the Trico Factory in Brentford (where women were paid £6.50 less than the men on broadly similar work) , supported by the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, one woman’s assessment of the ‘victory’ neatly summed up the real state of affairs; ‘We didn’t get [the settlement] through the Equal Pay Act – you could say we got it despite the Equal Pay Act’.

In the same month that saw the introduction of the EPA, the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) became law. This set up the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) to promote equality and to tackle and remove discrimination in the areas of housing, education and training, as well as in employment. Whilst both these Acts (today covered by the Equality Act) disappointed a lot of women who hoped for much more, the existence of the legislation did at least provide the chance to challenge prejudice and to raise awareness of inequality.

I was 14 in 1976 and completely unaware of the enormity of the scale of the work that lay ahead fo rthe EOC. What I did hear were endless jibes about women ‘wanting it both ways’ – demanding equality in the workplace but still expecting men to open doors for them or pick up the bill on dates. About women being reluctant to do ‘masculine’ (ie heavy or dirty) work. About there being no point to married women having equal pay when it was clear that they were only working for pin money. I heard women deemed to be too loud or expressing opinions being accused of ‘going all women’s lib on us’ and I read about mothers who went out to work wanting it all but neglecting their duties. Sometimes it seemed as if the media delighted in deliberately missing the point; a 1976 Daily Mirror piece entitled ‘Adrienne doesn’t want to be a man’, quoted Adrienne, aged 28, declaring that she wanted to be neither independent nor equal and that women’s lib was in fact pointless (October 5 1976) . Here was the age-old argument about separate spheres – that difference did not equate to inequality. Adrienne ‘gave up a hectic social life and a successful career’ (in that order!) to have a family and had never looked back. And look what happened when mothers went out to work; the Mirror (April 24 1976) reported that,

Fleas and cockroaches are on the increase in Belgium … and it’s all thanks to Women’s Lib, says a health ministry official. He claims that children are turning up to school “like fleabags” because working mothers are too tired to clean their homes.

Regarding equal pay, the legislation existed but there seemed to be a question over whether it was nice or feminine to use it. One of the first women to challenge her employer was ‘blonde Ann Hunt’ (Daily Mirror January 1 1976) who ‘slapped in her claim’… on the day the [EPA] came into force. Another woman who asked for equal pay was awarded compensation for unfair dismissal ‘even though she [had] stormed out and resigned’ (Coventry Evening Telegraph, March 3 1976)

When Joan Bakewell wrote in the Mirror (October 15 1976) that the spirit of the EPA was being ignored and evaded, declaring her support for the women strikers at the Trico factory, readers had things to say,

Blaming the lawmakers for the position in which some women find themselves is, at best, misguided. Women shouted hard and long, telling us how they were undoubtedly equal to men. Now that they have a bigger slice of the cake some are choking on it. if the blame is to be placed anywhere, why not at their own door?

Of course the {SDA and the EPA] will never work. Joan Bakewell must realise there are many jobs which women are quite incapable of doing, even though they may be very competent at their own particular line. They will always be asking a male to help them do something or other (October 21 1976).

I have just finished reading Motherwell, Deborah Orr’s brilliant account of growing up in the 1960s and 70s. Like the Orrs, my family watched Miss World and The Benny Hill Show – everybody did. I heard endless jokes about women, at which you were obliged to laugh if you didn’t want to appear humourless or (God forbid) too serious because, let’s face it and as Orr wrote, ‘women were a joke, after all’. All I knew about women’s liberation and women’s rights were that they were the subject of some hilarious jokes and that women who ‘demanded’ equality’ shaved their heads but not their legs, burned their bras, were not as they should be and were above all figures of fun.

So, if I had read an article in the Sunday People (a British tabloid newspaper) in the autumn of 1976 – 9 months after the introduction of the EPA and the SDA) , about how women should behave at job interviews, I probably wouldn’t have noticed much, if anything, wrong with it. It merely showed me the world that I knew and with no idea yet of what the world of work would look like for me, I suppose I assumed that I would work at something and that whatever it was, it would be what was expected of a young woman in the late 1970s.

Stead & Simpson
My first experience of the world of work: Saturday job, Stead & Simpsons, Exeter 1978

The People article, called ‘Don’t Try to Be Sexy, Ms Smith’ (October 3 1976), appeared on what looks like a woman’s page that included fashion, an advice column, a pattern and a ‘what’s new in the shops’ column. The employment piece was written by Maggie Morro, who stated that despite the SDA and women’s lib, ‘the fact remains … some men just don’t like employing women’. What then, can [a woman] do about this to ensure that she proves to a boss that ‘she’s just as good as the fellows?’.

 

What followed was a list of tips for women wanting to be taken seriously at interview and in the workplace. Was it a joke or a response to an editor’s straight request for something light-hearted on the modern challenges facing women office workers? Who knew? Let’s laugh anyway because it’s funny, right? (In December 1976 Spare Rib reproduced the People article on a page devoted to examples of sexism sent in by readers. Trouble was, I’d never heard of Spare Rib and I don’t remember seeing it in my local newsagent’s).

Spare Rib
My collection of Spare Rib. But in 1976 my advice on being a teenager came from Jackie

The journalist consulted the Alfred Marks Employment Bureau. Mr Bernard Marks urged girls not to play on their sex appeal at interview but instead to ‘realise it’s their brains not their bosoms a firm is interested in’. He went on, ‘girls who compete with men for jobs have to be careful to keep their femininity on a low key’.

The interview advice that followed included the avoidance of dresses plunging below the navel, to go easy with the false lashes and nails and to make sure there was no ‘careful’ revealing of knees when sitting down. Oh, and don’t wear trousers as ‘some men, believe it or not, still reckon that women just aren’t women unless they’re wearing skirts or a dress’ (so no knees, but do show your legs. Excellent).

Then come some great tips on interview behaviour, reproduced here in full:

If you’re single, don’t make a big play about what time you knock-off. And don’t mention that your boyfriend’s a 6 ft. amateur boxing champion with a terrible jealous streak.

Married women should avoid muttering about getting off early to collect the kids from school. That’s your problem, not his.

So make arrangements for the kids before you get to the interview and tell your prospective boss what plans you’ve made.

Never ask where the nearest supermarket is or which day is early closing. Men are just not concerned that you’ve got to get something for dinner.

Don’t chatter about your personal problems. Don’t giggle. Don’t bite your fingernails or pick your teeth. Or fiddle with your bra-strap.

Don’t smoke without asking permission and never pull your last boss to shreds, or suggest he was always lusting after you.

It doesn’t help if you demand your holidays the next month. It does help if you show an interest in the firm’s products and know a bit about them.

Be honest, of course. But not silly. Don’t dwell on the fact that you missed getting your O levels by half a mile and haven’t worked since the kids were born.

Show our future boss you are happy to have a go at anything – including making the tea – and that you are ambitious.

Above all don’t come on strong as a women’s libber, just in case he happens to be a male chauvinist.

Naturally, everyone assumed that the boss was a man. I am pretty sure that me and many of my classmates would have seen this as offering straightforward rather than ironic advice. In amongst the jokes about boxing boyfriends or the spilling the beans of pervert ex bosses, the sub message was loud and clear – despite the EPA and the SDA, equality of opportunity was nowhere close. It was still a man’s world and in order to be part of it, you played by men’s rules. Blend in and please. If you got it right and didn’t exploit your femininity (but didn’t obscure it either), you might just be taken seriously. Too much woman and you were probably a bit dumb. Too little woman and you confused people. Too single and you were a threat or a tease. Too much of a mother and you couldn’t possibly care enough about your job. Too much ambition and you would need to be put in your place. In other words, women, just do what you were told. Be quietly but unthreateningly indispensable, a safe pair of hands, as unobtrusive as possible.

As long as you weren’t silly of course.

My sources:

Motherwell by Deborah Orr, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2020

British Newspaper Archive

Spare Rib Archive, British Library

This was my take on the issue of 1970s equal pay. Here are some links relating to the persistence of unequal pay in Britain:

https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/news/50-yrs-since-equal-pay-act-fawcett-launches-bill-to-modernise-law

https://inews.co.uk/news/50-years-equal-pay-act-29000-claims-made-2863838

https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2020/may/25/29000-annual-claims-50-years-equal-pay-act

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Decorations Hide City’s Scars* VE Day in Coventry

On May 7th 1945, a few minutes after the announcement that the following day would be a public holiday to mark the end of the war in Europe, a reporter from the Coventry Evening Telegraph walked into his city’s central streets. He recalled having done so also on the day that war was declared in September 1939. Then, he wrote, people were grave but calm. In contrast, he now noted an air of restrained cheerfulness in streets ‘battered, smashed, rendered almost unrecognisable’ by the impact of war on the city. Its citizens had of course experienced much more than the bombing of their city. They were weary with war work of all descriptions, with coping with separation and loss, with anxieties for their families, with rationing and deprivation. It had been a very long five and a half years.

pre raids

 

shops
Both images from The City We Have Loved (wartime publication)

I have read differing views about this year’s VE Day commemoration. The implications of its post Brexit context include concerns about nationalism and over-emphasis on victory as opposed to international peace. The anticipated community celebrations of 2020 will of course not now be happening anyway, as we find ourselves in the middle of a global crisis of a rather different nature to 1939-45. Nonetheless, many people will be remembering where they were on 8th May 1945 and others will still wish to hear about it, to learn more about an earlier extraordinary time. It was a day in history during which emotions were mixed, when joy and relief were muddled with pain and sadness and anxiety for the future. My own commemoration on this Bank Holiday, moved from May Day to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VE Day, bears no hint of the political. For me, it will be, as for so many others, a private and reflective one and so this blog is an attempt only to share information about some of the ways in which Coventry folk marked the end of war in Europe.

Even when we anticipate an event with a degree of certainty, when it finally comes, it often induces shock. Germany’s surrender didn’t take the British public by surprise but when the official announcement came, on May 7th, elation was no doubt mixed with incredulity that after so many years, the fighting in Europe was really over and that hopes of life returning to whatever normal was going to be, might just be on the brink of turning into reality, albeit very slowly. After the news of the surrender, came the announcement that the next two days – May 8th and 9th – would be public holidays, a chance for those who could to let their hair down and for others to contemplate the miseries and hardships for so long endured. In Coventry, as in other cities, towns and villages across the country, opportunities for fun were grabbed but these were not completely separated from times of quieter reflection or prayer. As the Coventry Evening Telegraph reported, amidst the joy of the holiday, no one forgot the victims of war and everyone was mindful that the war in the Pacific was not yet over. On VE Day, people went ‘in a never-ending stream’ to Coventry’s ruined Cathedral, many to give thanks and others perhaps just wanting to gather in a place that had already become such a symbol of the extent to which their city had suffered. Four services had been scheduled but there were so many people that many more were held, right up to and beyond midnight. As night fell, the Cathedral was in darkness, apart from the sanctuary which was lit to impressive effect. Many brought flowers to remember those who had died and the blooms, placed in vases so near to the cross of nails and the cross made from the charred fallen roof beams, seemed to a news reporter to bring ‘beauty to the tumbled masonry of the cathedral’.

VE Day Cathedral
Coventry Evening Telegraph, May 10 1945

Across the city, bands and public address systems provided dance music. Many Coventry folk gathered in Broadgate, as they have done so many times since. There, after a hesitant start, an on-duty policeman used ‘his persuasive powers and unofficial services as MC’ to get the dancing started amid the flags and streamers. More people danced outside the Hippodrome, at the bottom of Trinity street, with music supplied by the theatre’s orchestra which came out to play on the venue’s steps. In the evening, bands played across the city,in Edgwick Park, Naul’s Mill Park and the War Memorial Park. In the middle of the day, a tropical storm had reached the Midlands, bringing thundery rain that sent crowds diving for cover although its impact on Coventry’s entertainments seems to have been short-lived and dull skies did little to dampen spirits. Despite the fun, complete quiet fell at 3pm when the Prime Minister’s speech was broadcast to the nation. Through the loudspeakers, people listened to Churchill pay tribute to their sacrifices and their resolve. This was their hour, he told them. Rejoice and celebrate but be mindful of the hard work ahead to end the war with Japan. And then the fun began again, going on into the night. One of the most impressive evening illuminations in Coventry was a giant V of light thrown into the sky by searchlights, seen by those in the centre of the city.

Broadgate
Coventry Evening Telegraph,  May 10 1945

Later, when the holiday was over, Coventry’s mayor, George Hodgkinson, would pay tribute to the crowds, impressed by their discipline and deportment that seemed to him to reflect the soberness and realization that there was still an enemy to overcome. Coventry’s Chief Constable agreed, saying that such behaviour was of the kind he had expected, ‘having regard to the fine spirit [people] have shown through the war and the good-neighbourliness that has prevailed’.

The mayor was certainly in a position to judge the mood of the people, after a determined effort to put in an appearance at as many events and street parties across the city as he and his wife, the mayoress, could manage. The Coventry Evening Telegraph reckoned that the residents of practically every other street in the city must have held a victory party during the holiday and the weekend that followed. A ‘staggering’ amount of food was produced for parties, much of it having been saved up in readiness, although it was reported that women had been out early on VE Day visiting food shops to get supplies for the holiday feasts.  The paper reported that ‘parents and neighbours did not forget what a lean time the younger generation had had throughout the grim years of the war in Europe’. At the end of a party in Willenhall, each child was given a packet of sweets, a parcel of cakes, an orange and an ice-cream. Older residents were not forgotten and nor were returned prisoners of war or those who had been wounded. The telephone at the Coventry Evening Telegraph rang with invitations for journalists to come out to witness and record the parties and although it wasn’t possible to go to them all, the newspaper was sure ‘that Coventry people in their week-end celebrations were thinking first and foremost of the young, the old and the deserving’.

The mayor was also on hand to give added ceremony to the lighting of a bonfire in Widdrington Road, one of many fires across the city (some complete with effigies of Hitler). Historian Angus Calder wrote of how, across the nation, fireworks delighted children who had never known a Guy Fawkes Night and Coventry seems to have been no different, with the noise and the flares heard all through the evening of VE Day. Curious about this, however, I asked my mum, who lived in London throughout the war, about VE Day fireworks. She told me that she had attended a big party in the garden of a house in her street; it was, by all accounts, an impressive affair, with outside lights strung up, a good deal of alcohol and party food that she had never before seen the like of. But there were no fireworks; we’d seen quite enough of them during the war, she told me. Quite.

street party
Coventry Evening Telegraph, May 10 1945

St Thomas street
Coventry Evening Telegraph, May 12 1945

Across the country, church bells rang out after years of being silenced. At 3.40pm on VE Day, Coventry Cathedral’s bells were broadcast to the world, along with those of Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, York Minster and other cathedrals. Thousands of miles away in south-east Asia, a serving soldier from Coventry wrote to the newspaper of the ecstasy he experienced whilst listening to a broadcast during which he heard the bells of Coventry Cathedral. Every chime he wrote, was perfect, every note ran up and down his spine, made his hair tingle and his throat lumpy, ‘and though it embarrasses me to put it on record, my eyes were unnaturally watery’. He prayed that it would not be long before he experienced this again ‘and when it comes along I want to be in a place where I can see the bell tower as well as hear those bells again’.

For those unable to attend events, the Joe Loss band on the radio Home Services at 7pm preceded a service of thanksgiving, a tribute to the King, songs and marches of the war, followed by the Benny Loban dance band (at the Plaza Ballroom) and music (interspersed with news) right up until 2am. Perhaps my dad, then aged 11, was allowed to stay up to listen to these bands, for he was certainly not allowed to attend the party in his London street, having just come out of hospital after being knocked unconscious by a lorry just days before VE Day (a reminder that in war and in peace, the stuff of life still has a habit of tripping us up when we least expect it). This may well account for why he remembers the drama and the fear induced by hearing the 1939 announcement of the outbreak of war rather than the broadcast announcing the end of the fighting in Europe.

As Coventry prepared to return to work, a formal thanksgiving service, attended by over 20,000 people was held in the War Memorial Park on Sunday 13th May. A huge parade entered the park, taking nearly half an hour just to pass through its gates en-route to the War Memorial. It included representatives of all who had been involved in the city’s  war services and behind them came the mayor and the civic party, the Bishop of Coventry and other clergy and church choirs in full robes. From the steps of the cenotaph, came the National Anthem, prayers and scriptures, The Last Post and two minutes’ silence for the fallen and speeches, including this from the mayor, George Hodgkinson,

The leaders of State must not fall down upon their job after the heroic and successful endeavours of the men and women in the armed forces. We must be ready to adventure as a community on the home front so as to ensure that the fruits of victory may not slip away. The dangerous life of war-time, a willingness to put aside personal comfort and consideration in pursuit of a common ideal must be carried into the equally adventurous jobs of peace.

The fraternity and comradeship of war-time brought out the noble acts in every individual. The presence of danger created a loyalty and patriotism that leaped across the barrier of social distinction and personal prejudice. In this spirit we may confidently approach the problems of the future.

Memorial Park
Coventry Evening Telegraph,  May 14 1945

It was not just the mayor who was intent on delivering a message of encouragement. The Coventry Evening Telegraph noted that the words of King George Vl – ‘just triumph and proud sorrow’ – aptly described the mood of the holiday. After the thanksgiving and celebrations, it was time to get back to work, stated the newspaper, ‘with the consciousness that the war is not yet over, but with the confidence that, come what may in war or after, it will not be the goodwill and the energy of the people of these islands which will be unequal to the task’.

Coventry families undoubtedly needed and appreciated the relief that VE Day celebrations brought. Whilst some anxieties were over, much hardship and uncertainty remained. The post war challenges faced by the city were enormous with homelessness being one of the most serious problems. There had been housing shortages before the war began and these were exacerbated by the destruction caused by the air raids – bombing caused damage to over 50,000 houses, with over 4,300 homes destroyed. People lived in hostels, on disused army sites, as well as in caravans and railway carriages on bomb sites. Just after VE Day came the announcement that the city’s first temporary bungalows (prefabs) were soon to be erected on the Whoberley Hall estate at Brookside Avenue. These ‘Phoenix’ houses, using aluminium sheets no longer required for war production, were made in factories and put up on site. These alone, however, were not enough and in the years that followed, the Council’s housing list remained desperately long. There was a desperate shortage of school places, much of the city centre still lay in ruins and there was enormous uncertainty about the economic future of the city.

Bombed house
Coventry Evening Telegraph,  May 8 1945

On VE Day, all this lay ahead and so the jolliness of a few days of partying was a chance to raise spirits and to relax a little. As life settled down again, chances to dance continued at ballrooms and clubs across the city (such as the Anglo-American Victory Ball at Neale’s Ballroom on Albany Road, with an entrance price of 3/6), there was a range of films to choose to see (including Dead Man’s Eyes at the Alexandra, Little Nelly Kelly at the Roxy, The Hairy Ape at the Regal, Jitterbugs at the Standard) and there was greyhound racing at the Coventry Stadium on Lythalls Lane. Life would go on and Coventry folk, like those all over the country, continued to endure and to hope for a better future.

 

 

*This was a headline in the Coventry Evening Telegraph May 8th 1945

With thanks to the British Newspaper Archive, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 7th to 14th May 1945

Angus Calder, The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945, 1969, Jonathan Cape

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason, Life and Labour in a 20th Century City: The Experience of Coventry, 1986, Cryfield Press

The City We Have Loved, wartime publication, Three Spires Publishing, Coventry

Sheila Gibbons and John Gibbons for their reflections

 

May Day in Coventry 1920

May Day in Coventry 100 years ago

Whilst not a British Bank Holiday until 1978, the Midland Daily Telegraph reported on May 1st 1920 that between 6 and 7 million British workers intended to treat the day as a general holiday, with demonstrations and processions up and down the country. In Coventry, there were few expectations that the city’s celebrations would be as impressive as those staged in 1919; that year was the first May Day since the end of the First World War. Not only had there been there a widespread stoppage of work, with workers staying away from the large engineering factories, there had been no trams or buses running and no bread was made or delivered. A gathering of thousands at Highfield Road football stadium had been followed by a fancy dress rugby match and a grand festival ball at the Drill Hall to end the day, with space for a thousand dancers.

Coventry’s May Day 1920 was a much smaller affair. Many industrial workers observed the day by staying away from the factories but transport ran as usual, along with much of the general business of the city. Organisers had anticipated this; May 1st 1920 fell on a Saturday and this meant that Highfield Road was otherwise occupied (in fact, Coventry City was playing a vital last game of the season against Bury. In front of a crowd of 23, 506 – the second highest in the league – City won 2-1, thus avoiding relegation out of the Second Division and into the Southern League. Quite the May Day, then for City fans) and in addition, it had not been possible to book the Drill Hall on Queen Victoria Road for dancing and instead smaller dances were due to take place at the different trade union clubs. Nevertheless, hopes for a good day were high and there was certainly plenty for Coventry folk to see and hear.

The day began with the various trade unions setting out from their respective offices across the city to gather at Pool Meadow, so often the site of glorious demonstrations. Banners and placards were handed out to the unions and organisations taking part, all of which had to adhere to a strict order for the procession through the city to Spencer Park in Earlsdon. Heading up the march was the Coventry Silver Band and behind them, in pride of place was the National Union of Ex-Servicemen, a socialist organisation formed in 1919 with branches across the country. Then came trade unions large and small, representing men and women. The Co-operative Society, which had closed its shops for the day, decorated several lorries and was accompanied by other organisations, including the Irish Club, with an Irish flag and placards drawing attention to the fact that 200 Irishmen were incarcerated in English prisons, ‘untried and starving; were they to die?’ (the Irish War of Independence had started in January 1919). In addition, there were union bands playing and representatives of ‘Hands Off Russia’ (a national movement formed in 1919 to secure non-intervention in the Russian civil war and peace with the Soviet Government). Flag sellers were kept busy along the route, collecting money for the establishment of a Trades Hall for the city (this was to be a long time coming, finally being inaugurated as the Tom Mann Club in Stoke Green in 1947). Crowds came out to watch the procession and many accompanied the marchers to the park where six platforms had been put up to accommodate an array of speakers from the labour movement. Apparently, RC Wallhead, who had stood (unsuccessfully) in the 1918 General Election as Coventry’s Labour candidate, was due to be the main speaker but was not present, having gone to Russia!

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The Co-operative Society, reminding Coventry of its continued commitment to maternity and child welfare at Coventry’s Labour Day, 1920. The Co-op also offered health insurance, which is being advertised here. Courtesy of David Fry

The resolution put by each of the speakers and carried unanimously makes interesting and – in part – highly disturbing reading. It was in broad alignment with the messages coming out of other cities and countries, sending greetings to men and women of all nations ‘who are working for the complete freedom of all peoples and especially send[ing] its congratulations to the people of Russia in its heroic struggle for liberty’. It reaffirmed its belief in the principle of self-determination for all nations and ‘pledges itself to strive for its establishment in Egypt, India and Ireland’. It demanded an end to the blockade of Soviet Russia (just days later, in a famous incident, London dockers would refuse to load weapons intended for use against the Red Army onto the SS Jolly George). There was a broad pledge to abolish capitalism and to establish a Co-operative Commonwealth.

To me, the most disquieting clause in the resolution was the one demanding the immediate withdrawal of all black troops from occupied areas of Germany. This was an overtly racist campaign widely supported by the international labour movement and it related to French colonial troops from Africa stationed in Germany after the First World War. The moral panic was that the presence of the black troops was placing German women and girls at risk of rape from ‘primitive’ – as opposed to ‘civilised’ – men who were unable to control their sexual urges. Support for the withdrawal of the troops was encouraged in Britain by the left-wing Daily Herald newspaper which published articles by ED Morel, author of a pamphlet entitled ‘The Horror on the Rhine’, about the perceived dangers of black soldiers deemed to be oversexualized. Both Morel and the Herald wanted to emphasise their determination to support and champion the rights of Africans in their own countries but believed that their temperament made their presence dangerous when they were being used ‘as a passively obedient instrument of capitalist society’. I include here a link to an article which gives more context to these deeply shameful, racist views and the way in which they gained support from large sections of the left. https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/S0020859000000419

With thanks to the British Newspaper Archive