Most of my work is about people’s lives in Britain in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. This is a period I love and above all else I am fascinated by the details of daily living and the different paths that we take, sometimes through free choice, very often through circumstance.
When I was a student in the early 1980s, I had a very different understanding of what I thought history was about. I struggled along with 15th and 16th century statecraft and diplomacy and never got to grips with what it was actually like to live and be in Renaissance Europe. I don’t remember studying any women at all on my course, unless they were ‘bad’ ones ie witches, or powerful ones, eg Catherine de Medici. ‘Ordinary’ people were also absent; revolting peasants featured quite heavily but usually in terms of the impact their abject misery and poverty had on political regimes. In fairness, we did read EP Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class but this was a text that stood entirely apart from virtually all the others about governments, trade agreements and wars. I didn’t know how to relate it to what I was learning. The only time that I became really interested in my course was when studying the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England in the 1530s and I wanted to find out more about what happened to the monks and nuns who were uprooted and set adrift when their way of life was destroyed. I thought about pursuing this at postgraduate level but by then I was working in a city community centre, co-ordinating home visits and events for older people. Here I discovered the sort of history that I had by then recognised as my passion – people’s history. I began a very informal oral history group and loved listening to the details of people’s lives quickly convinced of the importance of recording accounts that captured all the things that history books so often don’t cover – experience, emotion and individual observations.
A few years later, I began working in community education. After a while I was lucky enough to be asked to give some short courses of local history. At Coventry University I was lucky enough to work with learners who asked if we could do some work on women’s history. After a couple of terms, when we all began to focus on how much women had contributed to the history of the local area, the group (all women) decided to embark on their own research and write a book about the lives of women in Coventry in the twentieth century. This was a wonderful project. Its aim was to show that whether or not women had achieved what society thinks of as fame or ‘greatness’, all the lives studied were extraordinary and that all the women featured had, in so many different ways, just got on with it, whatever situation they found themselves in.
I loved working with this group (the Coventry Women’s Research Group) so much that I went on to a study of my own, completing a PhD inspired by one of the women we had written about for the book. This was Alice Arnold, a Coventry woman who became a trade union organiser in the First World War, a Labour councillor in 1919 and Coventry’s first woman mayor in 1937. This was a study highlighting a working class woman’s experiences of industrial and political life in inter war Britain and as I fell in love with Alice, I became more and more interested in what motivates people to get involved in things that benefit their communities but are often accomplished at great personal cost. When I finished the study, I wanted to share what I knew about Alice’s tireless work to improve citizens’ lives and I accepted an invitation to write a short biography of her for the Coventry and Warwickshire Historical Association.
The Coventry Women’s Research Group, with Heritage Lottery Funding, went on to produce a wonderful series of themed books on women of Coventry and I went back to Coventry University to teach undergraduates and to research. With the help of a research grant, I wrote a history of the all-female general trade union, the National Federation of Women Workers (1906-21), led by the charismatic and inspirational Mary Macarthur. This was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014. Whilst it charts the history of the union, its main aim is to uncover grassroots stories of branch life, members, strikes and disputes and to show why women workers joined unions, despite the immense difficulties in doing so.
I have now moved away from higher education to work independently and it has been a pleasure to once more immerse myself in studies of community, place and people. In 2018 my book on women’s lives in Coventry between 1850 and 1950 was published by Pen and Sword. Its chapters include education, making a living, housing, health and welfare, leisure and community involvement. It is illustrated with some wonderful images of the city and its women citizens.
In 2019 I published a biography of the brilliant trade union leader Mary Macarthur. This is only the second full length study to be written about this outstanding woman and the first since Mary Hamilton’s 1925 study.
As well as writing, I give talks (see Events) and get involved in local projects. I was the historical advisor on the steering committee of a Heritage Lottery Funded project entitled Irish Hearts, Coventry Home, which recorded the experiences of Irish men and women who came to live in Coventry between 1940 and the 1970s. This culminated in an exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in March 2018.
In 2021 I curated my first exhibition to commemorate the centenary of the death of Mary Macarthur. This was hosted by the TUC and showcases the incredible material that its library holds on women and work and women of the labour movement. The exhibition can be seen here
Follow me on twitter: @CathyJHunt and FaceBook page Cathy Hunt Historian