Family discoveries: aspects of life in 1930s Britain

The Richmond Spend for Employment Scheme, 1933

A few years ago, I was given a messy envelope of papers that had belonged to my grandfather (1898-1970). Amongst them is a set of documents relating to his involvement in the early 1930s in a scheme intended to help the unemployed and to alleviate unemployment in the municipal borough of Richmond, Surrey. In 1932, with the support of the Richmond mayor, the Council of Social Services, of which my grandfather, Francis Christopher Gibbons, was the honorary secretary, set out its aims to ’unite all engaged in social service and to bring together those who need help and those who can bring help’. It opened a room which unemployed people could use in any ways that might further their chances of getting work and a canteen supplying cheap refreshments each morning. In 1933 it initiated a Scheme for Employment with the intention of generating employment, largely for local tradesmen. The idea was that residents who could afford to, would pledge promises of work, using their money to stimulate local trade rather than sitting on their savings.

As someone who never ceases to feel the excitement of looking at archival material, I was excited to find myself the custodian of such a collection of material. At the same time, I wasn’t quite sure how –   or even if – to tell its story. The unemployment of the inter war years, heightened for so many by the financial ‘crash’ of 1929 and its aftermath, was a tragedy for thousands of families. National averages for unemployment rates, rising to over 20 per cent in the early 1930s, meant nothing in regions where dependence on Britain’s traditional heavy industries – coal, steel and shipbuilding, for example – sometimes saw localized unemployment at 70 per cent. The hardship experienced by these areas has become one of the dominant narratives of 1930s Britain. There were government attempts to encourage regeneration in the worst affected regions – South Wales, Scotland and the Northeast, for example. We read also of the affluent Southeast and the Midlands, where ’new’ industries, including the production of cars, electrical equipment and consumer goods such as radios and telephones, were big employers, paying relatively decent wages and contributing to rising living standards.

Such a small, localized initiative in a leafy, conservative borough in Southeast England seems almost unworthy of attention compared to the devastation inflicted in the worst affected industrial areas where thousands of lives were blighted by unemployment. With its focus on self-help rather than political agitation for change, it was a far cry from the demonstrations and campaigns of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (and which is more akin to research into labour and trade union history I usually engage in).What on earth can we learn about the Depression years from the efforts of a group of well-wishers in Richmond, Surrey, where the unemployment rate in early 1933 was around two per cent? As it turns out – quite a lot, actually.  What the Richmond scheme reminds us – and others which were similar, operating around the country – is that the effects of the Depression were widely felt. Unemployment in Richmond, as in many small non-industrialised towns, was not due to the impact of depression on one industry but was spread, as the Mayor explained, over occupation, trade and profession, ‘a creeping paralysis of all trade and commerce’.[1] Unemployed workers who lived in places associated with affluence can too easily disappear into a polarized narrative in which life in the depressed regions was bad and life in the south was good. Unemployment hurts whether you are surrounded by others who are also out of work or if you are living in a community where most people have jobs.

And the documents themselves deserve to be shown. I am guessing that this was work that my grandfather was proud of, given the prominence of these amongst the papers I received.

In early 1932 the Prince of Wales spoke about the need for communities to do whatever they could to help those in need during the economic crisis. As patron of the National Council of Social Service, promoting the spirit of public service, the Prince delivered the speech at the Royal Albert Hall to an audience of 10,000 which included many invited young people and representatives of organisations delivering social service. The BBC broadcast the event and it was heard by many more people across the country who gathered at venues to hear  – and to heed, it would seem – the message to ‘the rising generation’ to play its part in time of crisis.[2] Richmond was one of many areas to embark on projects intended to offer support and increase opportunities for employment and my grandfather, known as Frank (and as Christopher in business) stepped forward to do what he could.

A word first about Frank (who used his middle name, Christopher for business purposes). In 1932 he was 34 and married with two children. Family folklore, combined with what I found amongst his papers, suggests that his fortunes were badly affected by the economic crisis that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Certainly, a shirt and pyjama manufacturing business in Dalston in which he had been a joint partner since 1928 was in serious trouble in late 1930, when a creditors’ meeting was held and arrangements made for the two owners to pay their debtors in instalments. What happened to the business after that is unclear, but I suspect that Frank’s part in it at least did not last much longer. I know that he had an outfitters’ shop in Richmond for some years but this appears to have been over by the mid-30s when he and his family moved back in with his mother in her rented house in Chelsea.

So, as honorary secretary of the Richmond Council for Social Service and then secretary of the Mayor’s Scheme for Employment in the town, Frank was able to get involved in the challenge laid down by the Prince of Wales. He was either unemployed or business was so slack that he had spare time to give. Also, as a small business owner, he had everything to gain from an initiative designed to generate employment. The first efforts went into the establishment of the ‘recreation’ centre, with further plans to include boot and shoe repairing facilities and physical training for young men. Then came the Employment Scheme, launched with the support and approval of the Mayor and Town Council.

Letter from a Richmond citizen offering to help the Council of Social Service

Spend to Employ

Distinct from money set aside by the Borough Council for public works, those involved in setting up the new scheme were at pains to stress that the venture was not funded by rate payers but was wholly dependent on private expenditure. Richmond citizens were asked to fill out pledge cards, promising to spend money during February, March and April – recognised as the slackest months of the year – of 1933 which would lead to chances of work for local unemployed workers. Rather than saving for a rainy day, those with available money were asked to spend it locally and provide work for tradesmen and businesses, by committing to having work done that was beyond the strictly essential. Leaflets, promises cards and appeal letters were distributed to all Richmond households by an army of volunteers, all supplied with specially designed armbands.

The literature included lots of ways to help, including having work done on the home (decorating, distempering, new shelves and cupboards, reupholstery), garden (rockery, garden seats and summer houses) and car (loose covers for seats, carpets, new paintwork), buying new household goods and tools (buckets, brushes and hardware, ordering new suits, shirts and underwear, repairing old ones, having a telephone and a wireless with aerial fitted. Alternatively, donations were welcomed, as were all offers of help at the headquarters – open for long hours each day – lent by the Borough Council, from which the Scheme was run ‘with military precision’.[3]

The pledge card sent to every household

The plan was not to provide odd jobs for the unemployed (apart from anything else, this had implications for those in receipt of unemployment benefit) but to ensure that orders went to local businesses who could then retain men who would otherwise have been laid off through lack of orders. The advantages were emphasized in the press; tradesmen kept and used their skills and self-respect and in addition increased consumer power worked to the advantage of shopkeepers who were able to pay off their debts and improve business.

It is fair to say that talk of the tragedy of unemployment was assumed to relate to men, despite heavy unemployment among both men and women nationally. It does seem that in Richmond (which was no exception to the general rule) solutions were directed almost entirely at male unemployment. It is men who are specifically mentioned as attendees at the recreation room and I reckon it would have been a brave woman who turned up for a cup of tea with bread and dripping.  The 1930s was a tough time for a woman to be looking for work – and thousands were. If she was single, it was assumed either that someone would provide for her or if not, that domestic work was her natural sphere. Such work was no more popular than it had been after the First World when it was widely seen to be the answer to women’s unemployment and no end of training programmes to give it the illusion of either vocation or professionalism ever changed women’s minds. So, it is no real surprise to hear the Mayor of Richmond, at the Employment Scheme launch, mention women just once and suggest domestic service as ‘ideal work’ for them.

The model chosen by Richmond was the so-called Bristol Scheme, established by the Bristol Rotary Club in 1932 to encourage citizens to ‘spend that others may earn’. This – or variants of it – was established – or at least tried –  in the spring of 1933 in over a hundred locations across Britain, from large cities including Edinburgh, Sheffield and Birmingham to towns such as Stockport and Winchester and several London boroughs.  In Richmond the intention was to obtain £30,000 worth of promises and by April, the local newspaper reported that it had succeeded in bringing in pledges and donations totalling £40,000. How much work was found is unknown, but a scheme run in nearby Barnes and Mortlake, claimed, at the conclusion of its scheme, to have secured full time employment for 150 men and additionally some obtained casual work. It was no cure for unemployment and across the country only small successes were claimed but those who championed it believed that one of its biggest advantages was the encouragement given to local people to come face to face with the problems of unemployment and think seriously and deeply about its causes and effects.

The premises lent by the Borough Council for the purposes of the Scheme, at 23 Hill Rise, Richmond
This is the same shop on Hill Rise as above. My grandfather is standing (hatless) in the doorway at the back) Photo from Richmond Herald, March 11 1933

In a letter to the local press in March 1933, Frank was at pains to allay suspicions that by improving their homes, the Borough Council would then consider their value increased and re-rate their properties. This, he wrote, was only the case if structural alterations, such as extensions, were made., whereas keeping property in good order was never used to increase its gross rental value.[4] He also praised the ‘extremely generous help from Richmond tradesmen and wholehearted co-operation from all sides’.[5] In April he resigned as Organising Secretary of the Employment Scheme, the reply he received from the Mayor thanking him for his service and noting with pleasure that the reason he could not continue in post was due to business engagements. As I don’t know yet when Frank’s shop (which was on Paradise Road in Richmond) opened, it is hard to know if those engagements were the result of improved business or a brand-new venture. Either way, it was a temporary reprieve and when the shop closed (or was sold), Frank eventually – back in Chelsea – went into the Civil Service, where he remained for the rest of his working life.

So far, this role of woven tags is the only evidence I have of my grandfather’s shop in Paradise Road

It’s not hard to see why the Scheme appealed to my grandfather, Frank. Public spirited he may have been but ultimately, he needed an upturn in business. It is no wonder that local businessmen might get involved to bolster their own fortunes. Its advocates were at pains to show that the Scheme was non-political but there is little doubt that it had considerable Conservative appeal, making no demands on the rates and boosting trades and businesses in which many local councillors were involved.[6] The local Labour Party, whilst wishing the Council for Social Service every success, warned it not to imagine that the people of the country were satisfied with the Government’s action in ‘shelving its responsibility and putting it on the shoulders of a charitable organisation’. Labour also criticized the paltry amount given by the Borough Council (just over £4000) for relief works for unemployed men.[7] I think probably that the self-help philosophy underpinning this endeavour is the reason it has taken me so long to write about it – no matter how hard I look, there are absolutely no elements of either socialism or cooperation apparent in these papers! Yet still they provide a remarkable insight into the efforts of individuals to do something, however small or even ultimately ineffectual about the social and economic crisis that blighted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people during the Depression in Britain.


I think that the documents ought to be preserved in the area to which they relate. I intend to offer them to Richmond Archives.

[1] Richmond Herald, March 11 1933

[2] Hampshire Telegraph, January 1 1932

[3] Richmond Herald, March 11 1933

[4] Richmond Herald, March 25 1933

[5] Richmond Herald, March 11 1933

[6] Forgive my early research on this. The makeup of the Borough Council is hard to determine at this time when so many councillors referred to themselves as Independent. The determination by many of them to keep party politics out of local elections was a determination to keep out the socialists.

[7] Richmond Herald January 14 1933

Fred Kershaw and the National Federation of Women Workers: a tribute to an unsung public servant

Ten years ago, I was busy turning years of research into a book about the National Federation of Women Workers (the NFWW), that unique experiment into all female trade unionism, from 1906 to 1921. Since its publication in 2014, I have also written a biography of its leader, Mary Macarthur (2019) as well as curating an exhibition for the TUC to commemorate the 100th year since her death. These were of course never intended to be the end of the story and I am always hopeful that new material will turn up to develop it further.

I am so excited, then, to report that 2022 has been a year of discoveries which have led me to a richer understanding of both the NFWW and of its leader. In February I posted here about my excitement when I first saw the handwritten minute book of the Newcastle upon Tyne branch of the NFWW, covering the years just before the First World War.

And then, during the summer, I had an email from the great grandson of a man who worked for the NFWW from 1914 to 1921. His great grandfather, Fred Kershaw, wrote an (unpublished) memoir during the 1950s, by which time he had become Baron Kershaw of Prestwich. His name was put forward by the Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee and the title bestowed in the New Year’s Honours’ List of 1947. Fred Kershaw recalls in his account the press surprise at the inclusion in the List of this ‘back-room boy’, with the Daily Express asking ‘Who is he?’.[1] It was precisely for his ’back-room’ work that Kershaw was brought to Attlee’s attention and at least part of the value of the memoir is that it shines light on behind-the-scenes, supporting work that is too often uncharted and unrecognized for its worth. In Kershaw’s case this included detailed research into social issues. This kind of work is seldom front-page news because those people in more high-profile positions, use and incorporate it into the decisions that then shape policy and make an impact on people’s lives. When there is a chance, such as I have been given, it is important to put those who so often remain faceless and nameless fairly and squarely into the written record. In this piece I have the opportunity to share – and therefore honour  – the memory of one of those unsung, dedicated ‘back roomers’ who spent his life making things more comfortable and more secure for thousands of workers.

Fred Kershaw, 1881-1961. Thanks to the Kershaw family for the use of this photograph of Fred at 80

There are several other reasons why I am drawn to Fred Kershaw’s story.  As a historian of the NFWW, my ears prick up every time a new piece of information is turned up. Excitement is greatest when this involves people. When writing the history of the NFWWW, it was often difficult to uncover information about those who worked for the union. With the exception of Mary Macarthur and some of the more high-profile organisers with whom she worked closely – Margaret Bondfield and Susan Lawrence, for example, who both went on to become Labour MPs – it was seldom possible to piece together the life histories of the NFWW’s organisers, activists, members and officials. There are snatches of detail – for example, a strike which led to a factory worker becoming an activist or a paid member of union staff – but to be able to go further back into earlier lives and glimpse how events influenced later decisions is rare. In his memoir, Fred Kershaw describes in moving and intimate detail aspects of his youth and the link between these and the decisions he went on to make is evident.

I was sent this memoir because of my work on Mary Macarthur and the NFWW. In my research, Kershaw had a walk-on part only, because he features very little in the records. He is in fact incorrectly named in my book’s appendices. Referenced as the Assistant Chief Secretary of the NFWW (so far so good), he is listed as George and not Fred Kershaw. Whilst it is never a good day for a historian (understatement) when they find something that contradicts their published work, I am delighted to be now able to correct this inaccuracy. More than this, I am so pleased to be able to do more to place Fred Kershaw within the NFWW’s history. Despite his low profile (at least compared with those whose union work attracted press attention through strikes, work disputes and social campaigns) Kershaw’s work, making sure that the benefits due to members were paid out, was one of the most important jobs within a trade union.

Fred Kershaw’s memoir does not just add to what is known, it reveals a great deal about the times in which he lived. it is a piece of social history which may not change the historical record but certainly makes it more accessible, shining a spotlight on some of the most pressing social problems of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I am privileged to have seen it and I want to use this blog to chart one man’s journey into social work and public service. Thank you to his family for granting me permission to share it here. I mean no disrespect by referring to him from now on as Fred rather than Kershaw. I do so in the hope that this makes him more personable – a real person, not just a name.

Fred was born on November 6th, 1881, in Prestwich, which was then a village just north of Manchester. He was one of 13 children whose father John’s working life was disrupted and ultimately ruined by drink. He was, according to Fred, a very well-respected skilled man. Apparently, an early venture in Salford as a mill owner had ended because of his gambling and drinking. At the time of Fred’s birth, John was employed in a Prestwich mill which manufactured cotton tapes, webbings, bindings and ribbons. During these years, he had periods of continuous drinking which would result in frequent and long absences from work. The work here lasted until around 1896, by which time Fred describes John as a broken man who never worked regularly again. To provide for his family, however, he did rent a property close by and turned it into a grocery and provisions shop. This required Fred, aged about 16, to leave his own job and manage the shop on behalf of his father. The business was not a success, partly because it was not in the best location for passing trade and partly because it was weakened by John, who ‘meddled and interfered without ever taking a practical and real part in the work’.

Anxiety and insecurity seem to have been constants within the family as John’s drinking impacted heavily on his wife and children. Fred describes one occasion when his father turned his mother out of the house and she sought refuge at her mother’s nearby. Four-year-old Fred stayed on at home, entirely reliant on the kindness of neighbours, until, after some days, he was able to join his mother and sleep in a cot in his grandmother’s room. There must have been some sort of reconciliation and they returned home, and more children were born in the years that followed.

Fred recalled one incident which unsurprisingly ‘seared itself’ on his memory. When he was around 16, he came home from work one afternoon to find his mother nursing her young child whose illness was causing convulsions. To try to stop these, the baby was placed in a mustard bath, which was a much-tried remedy for reducing fever in the late 19th century.  The frantic mother’s anxiety and desperation was heightened when John did not arrive home from work at his usual time. The family knew only too well what this meant – that he would not now appear until pub closing time. That he would be drunk they both knew with certainty but worse, there was no predicting what sort of mood he would be in. The fight for the infant’s life went on all evening and the worry and fear (of his uncertain temper) over Father’s impending return intensified.  At around 11pm, his key was heard in the lock. He came into the room, took in the scene around the zinc bath at the fireside, stared, ‘as only drunken men stare’, closed the door and retreated silently upstairs to bed. The baby died during the night. That the tragedy and the trauma of losing the baby were worsened by the father’s unpredictability hardly needs stating. What further saddened me as I read this was that Fred could see that although drunk, his father did still recognise the gravity of the situation but decided to withdraw, rather than cause a scene, unable or not prepared to help in the struggle to save his infant child.  

About 20 years later, Fred, when working with the NFWW, recounted this deeply painful event to Mary Macarthur. She was standing as the Labour Party candidate in Stourbridge, Worcestershire, in the General Election which took place at the end of the First World War. Mary was apparently frustrated by the questions she was facing from temperance activists in the audience. Despite the wartime introduction of some government control in the drinks trade, including the restriction of pub opening hours, the watering down of beer and making it illegal to buy rounds of drinks, temperance societies were not in favour of permanent state control or any measures which they believed normalized or made alcohol more respectable. In contrast, Mary’s views were those of the Labour Party, which advocated taking the production and retailing of alcohol out of the hands of all those who profited by encouraging excessive consumption and instead ensuring that local areas could set their own controls relating to the sale and consumption of drink. Mary recognised that excessive drinking was a social evil but she was more concerned to get to ‘the root of the matter’, convinced as she was that the solution was ‘bound up with the removal of bad social conditions generally’. [2]

On hearing Mary Macarthur’s impatience on temperance (quite probably because in such a crucial post war election, there were so many more social and economic issues to be tackled; her 14 electoral points ranged from the need for lasting peace, a restoration of freedom, to the necessity of a living wage, new homes and education for all), Fred told her of the death of his young sibling and how alcoholism had made things so much worse. Many contemporary accounts refer to Mary Macarthur’s tendency to wear her heart on her sleeve, with one colleague recalling that ‘emotional outbursts were common […] indeed they were part of her stock-in-trade’.[3] It comes as little surprise to me that she wept on hearing Fred’s story and ‘never again had a word to say against total abstainers’.

Historians do have to be careful about how they make use of anecdotal material and personal recollection and here I am mindful of the fact that Fred’s memoir was written over 40 years after the 1918 incident in Stourbridge. If, however, we are ever going to understand more about the character of someone whom we never met, then surely the only way to do so is to examine evidence in all forms to get as close to that person as possible.  We can never know for certain but, armed with other recorded observations of Mary Macarthur’s reactions, perhaps we can legitimately reflect on the impact that Fred’s words might have had on her. About 15 months later, she gave an interview in which she expressed her views on the drink question. As a member of the Labour Campaign for the Public Ownership and Control of the Liquor Trade, she held its position on freedom to choose as opposed to prohibition (which had recently been imposed in the United States) and believed that what was important was that alcohol should be obtainable in ‘reasonable quantities and under decent conditions’. Mary put the woman’s point of view. She stressed that it was ‘woman in the home – she and her children – who suffer most from excessive drinking’ and that it was women, armed with the vote, who needed to influence public opinion, and encourage ‘wise solutions…vital to their freedom and happiness’. It was a thoughtful, nuanced interview, calling for understanding, empathy and recognition that the drink question would not be resolved until poverty was ended and education accessible to all. [4]

Let’s return now to Fred and find out how he came to work alongside Mary Macarthur within the trade union movement. He left school aged 13, denied the chance to stay on any longer because his father insisted that he should go out to work. His earnings were needed and therefore sitting the scholarship for a free grammar school place, suggested by his teacher, was not an option. Fred did not, however, have a job to go to; instead this young lad walked into Manchester and set about looking out for ‘boy wanted’ notices, before finding a position at a weekly paper called The British Fancier. We read often enough of the early age at which so many boys and girls started employment, working long hours for wages that were needed by their families. Arguably we do still need accounts that provide us with a glimpse of what life was like for such young workers. Going to work was not the end of childhood and the strains on young lives were immeasurable. All of Fred’s wages went to his parents, apart from two pence a day given to him for a midday meal. As the cheapest of these was fourpence a day (for beef and potatoes), he often went without to save for a meal another day, or he would walk into the market to buy some apples or a penny’s worth of soup and half a loaf (which took care of the other penny). His working day was extended by walking there and back, a total of eight miles a day. His youth is apparent in the sweet story he tells of his mum and brothers and sisters coming to meet him from the office one evening to take him to the pantomime, with a basket of apples and oranges to eat in the theatre.

After about a year, Fred moved on to a new job as a ‘flour boy’ at the Prestwich Cooperative Society, earning five shillings a week. Here he stayed until leaving to manage the shop taken on by his father. But John was drinking heavily again and one day, in a violent rage, he ordered Fred out of the house. It was a turning point; Fred could not risk losing both his home and his livelihood. He approached a firm from which he had bought goods for the shop and was offered a job as a traveller in provisions. This kept him in steady employment and made it possible for him to get married, aged 21 and start a family.

At some point during these years, Fred became actively involved in the temperance movement, joining the Prestwich branch of the Sons of Temperance Friendly Society. The Sons of Temperance mission was to encourage abstinence for the benefit and well-being of the community. Friendly societies had a long tradition in Britain, providing sickness benefits and savings schemes to those workers who were able to save and contribute. Fred spent time teaching children and gaining experience in delivering talks. He was, by his own admission, a young man who took life very seriously and he clearly thought deeply about the work that he did. By 1913 he had become President of the Salford Grand Division of the Order (of the Sons of Temperance). Looking back, he discovered notes he made to support his first speech in May 1904. Under no illusions that drink alone was responsible for the many social ills that confronted people in the early 20th century, he demanded the abolition of the dreaded Poor Laws. Those in the direst straits might (after severe grilling from the Poor Law Guardians) be offered ‘parish relief’, either in the form of payment or a spell in the workhouse, designed not for comfort but as a deterrent. For the sick and elderly with nowhere to go and no one to care for them (and with no old age pensions until 1908), the workhouse or its infirmary provided some sort of care and shelter. Everyone knew how hard it was to recover from encounters with a system intended not to prevent poverty but merely to provide assistance to the desperate which came with a heavy – and all too often permanent – sting in its tail. Fred was lecturing on this ahead of the creation of a Royal Commission of the Poor Law in 1905, finally set up to review the system of poor relief. There was little doubt amongst those who had experience of it that the Poor Laws were cruel and inadequate, but the Commission came to little. A majority report offered no substantial change and despite a minority report compiled by some high-profile social campaigners (including Beatrice Webb) calling for its abolition, the Poor Law dragged on until 1948. By this time Fred was in the House of Lords and voted for the legislation which finally marked the end of a hateful system of ‘help’ which had so embedded itself into the psyche that ‘ending up in the workhouse’ remained a visceral fear for thousands of people long after its eventual demise.

In 1906 a Liberal government was elected in Britain and was responsible for a series of enormously important social and welfare reforms which brought benefit to the lives of hundreds of thousands. The introduction of the Old Age Pension in 1908 was one such vital measure and the National Insurance Act of 1911 another. The latter introduced the first state unemployment benefit for certain categories of workers but by far the largest part of the Act was the introduction of health insurance, entitling workers to sickness benefit and medical assistance.  The costs of this state insurance were born by the worker and the employer, with further contribution from the government and it came into effect in the summer of 1912.

David LLoyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Liberal Government which introduced the Old Age Pension and the National Insurance Act. Wikimedia Commons

In preparation, lecturers were employed by the National Health Insurance Commissioners to explain not just the costs and the benefits but also how the Act was to be administered. Because of his experience as a speaker, Fred was recommended by the Sons of Temperance as a Commission lecturer. He was invited to London in the spring of 1912 and after an interview, was offered a temporary job. For Fred, such a move was impossible. He understood only too well the risks of casual or short-term contracts and as a married man with three children, ‘the horrors of unemployment were too vivid’. None of the excitement of London which Fred experienced on that trip could come before the stability he sought for his young family and so he agreed only that he would lecture for the Commission on a voluntary basis and return to his life and employment in Northwest England.

He appears to have been very good at lecturing, knowledgeable but also clear and direct in message. Although he had been drawn to his own friendly society by the temperance teaching, Fred’s expertise on National Insurance was now in great demand. It was valuable work and he saw how the administration of the new Act could help government and organisations understand more about the overall health of the nation. It was not long before he accepted a job as a manager for the State Section of the London Grand Division of the (Sons of Temperance) Order and the move south to London was then made. He was well qualified, with experience of friendly societies as well as his sound knowledge of the implementation and workings of the National Insurance Act.

Fred Kershaw and the National Federation of Women Workers

Before I explain Fred’s move to the NFWW, I want to explain how his work with the Sons of Temperance took him into the British labour movement. In response to growing concern among friendly societies and trade unions that the new National Insurance scheme would damage their own, long established benefit schemes, the government agreed that they, along with commercial insurance companies and the Post Office could become ‘Approved Societies’. These were to be able to administer their existing plans alongside those of the State. An article in the Rochdale Times in June 1912 confirms the impression I get from Fred’s account that he was both cautious and thorough in his research and his methods. He was at a meeting of a small sickness and burial club in Rochdale, called to discuss the adjustments it was required to make to accommodate National Insurance. Possibly there at the behest of the Rochdale Union of Friendly Societies, Fred comes across as the (quite likely unwelcome) voice of reason, reminding those who were still there (several members had walked out amid what sounded like a long and bad-tempered discussion about government interference) of the need for societies to be actuarily sound to be accepted as approved societies. He was promptly shut down by the Chairman when he asked if this society was sound, and the meeting ended after what seems to have been a rather painful two and a half hours for all concerned. [5]

This one incident gives us some idea of the amount of work – and understanding – that was required by small organisations to comply with government rules and – as importantly – to ensure their own survival. The transition period was a difficult one and needed the patient expertise of people like Fred to get the job done. The challenge to those trade unions whose membership included workers on very low pay was considerable. They worried that members who already struggled to pay their union dues, might decide, when faced with the new compulsory state payments to be taken from their wages, to stop paying their union dues. It was tough enough to endure one deduction but two could stretch budgets too thin. In the case of the NFWW founded just five years before the NI Act, the worries were considerable. Its small membership, numbering just a few thousand in 1911, was comprised of some of the very worst paid women workers in Britain, drawn from industries including garment, box, jam and sweet making and metal work. Fred recalled that one of his earliest talks for the Sons of Temperance had referred to the women chain makers of Cradley Heath in the Black Country. These women, whose wages were scandalously low, worked excessively long hours in small forges at the back of their homes. Their struggles would become famous during a 1910 ten-week ‘lock out’, which, led by Mary Macarthur and her NFWW, resulted in victory for the women workers and the securing of Britain’s first minimum wage. The chain makers were by no means alone. The Federation was aware of thousands of women working either in their own homes or in small workshops, isolated and so hidden from the public gaze that employers could get away with paying the very lowest of wages.

Mary Macarthur supporting the women chain makers of Cradley Heath in 1910. Wikimedia Commons

Fred’s work and research in London brought him, in 1914, to the attention of Mary Macarthur. Since 1912, her union had thrown every available resource into the drive to get women to join its Approved Society. Organisers and officials were told in no uncertain terms that ‘every other thing must be put aside. You must think of nothing else, do nothing else, give yourself to the work heart and soul’.[6] Touring the country, talking to women workers, the NFWW’s message was simple. Join its Approved Society if that was all you could afford but remember also that the union is on your side. Whatever employers say (and some were pressing workers to join insurance societies and ‘sick clubs’ which they had set up themselves), the union has your interests at heart.

The task of expanding the union amongst women who were often not yet very familiar with the importance of trade unions was never easy. Dealing also with the new state administration made things even harder. Nevertheless, the NFWW’s Approved Society grew sufficiently to require additional office space and an expanded team of administrative staff research. Fred was appointed by Mary Macarthur as Chief Assistant Secretary of the NFWW, specifically to manage the Approved Society. It was a move which ‘completely transformed [his] life’, placing him within what he referred to as ‘the councils of the great trade union and Labour movements’.

The banner of the National Federation of Women Workers

It was, however, never plain sailing. When he first arrived at the offices in Mecklenburgh Square, in Bloomsbury, he found the Approved Society in ‘a shocking state of disorder’. It was not just the NFWW that struggled; Fred recognised that not even the largest organisations had understood just how much extra work National Insurance would involve. Mary Macarthur concluded that administering National Insurance had strained the energies of friendly societies and trade unions ‘to breaking point’, diverting staff away from their ‘true aims’. The NFWW had spent an enormous amount of time looking for ways to ensure that the 1911 Act did not drain its resources and so it was clearly an enormous advantage to be able to entrust the NFWW’s Approved Society to someone with solid experience of such an important but often neglected (due to lack of staff and time) part of the union.

Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury, London. The buildings which housed the National Federation of Women Workers are no longer in existence. Wikimedia Commons

Fred had already carried out some research into the sickness claims of married women and it was his knowledge of this aspect of the new insurance work which first brought him to Mary Macarthur’s attention when she read a report he had produced on the subject for his own organisation. It was an issue she cared deeply about. When questions began to be asked in government over why sickness claims among women were higher than expected, the answer was entirely obvious to Mary. It was the direct result of poverty, the type of work that women did, the long hours, often standing up, lack of fresh air, long periods without nourishment and low wages, resulting in insufficient and improper food. Even among the Cradley Heath chain makers, with their minimum wage, it was found that the sad reality was that women remained ‘overstrained by their arduous work, underfed in consequence of their meagre wage and [living] on the borderlands of chronic ailment’.[7] They frequently worked up to the last minute before their babies were born and returned too soon, resulting in a high incidence of sickness among married women.

As the NFWW faced the realities of the First World War, its team of staff expanded to deal with unprecedented challenges. Fred’s role grew to cover the administration of the whole union. At the start of the War there was high unemployment amongst women workers who were laid off by firms waiting to see what the War would mean for business. Then, as thousands of women moved into munitions work from 1915, the NFWW membership began to expand significantly. Women munitions workers not only undertook dangerous work with toxic materials, they also worked long hours which were regularly extended by compulsory overtime. Married women, particularly those with menfolk away at the Front, juggled shift work with childcare, and, despite generally higher wartime wages, a cost-of-living crisis meant there was constant anxiety over budgeting and feeding the family. Women bore the brunt of life on the home front and the women’s unions worked tirelessly to defend their rights and protect their welfare.

Mary Macarthur

As leader of the NFWW and, increasingly, as a national spokesperson for women’s employment and welfare rights, Mary Macarthur had an exhausting war. She relied heavily on a small band of NFWW advisers and supporters and Fred was trusted with the day to day running of her beloved union’s administration. She lived and worked in Mecklenburgh Square and Fred, coming daily to the Square to work, came to know her well. Some of the most well respected and influential people in the labour movement came to gatherings at the home she shared with her husband, the socialist and trade unionist, William Anderson, before and during the war years. Fred recalled that on Friday evenings Mary would host symposiums, which he likened to ‘our modern cocktail parties’, to which ‘a few of the outstanding figures of the day’ would be invited. It is easy to imagine these events, full of earnest talk and lively debate, crowded with people wanting to be close to those whom it appeared would have a hand in shaping the post war world.

Mary Macarthur in Trafalgar Square in 1908.Image copyright TUC Library Collections

It was not all work, but it was certainly not all play. The impact of the First World War was enormous, reaching into every aspect of life but it is not until we read individual stories that we remember that things continued to happen to families regardless of the disruptions of war. Days before the outbreak of war, the Kershaws’ six-year-old son, Freddie, died suddenly, quite probably from undiagnosed diphtheria (a doctor had treated the little boy for tonsillitis). Fred’s account of the agonies suffered by his wife is hard to read and it is not surprising then that for this couple, the coming of war was muted by the poignancy of their personal grief. Fred went to Mecklenburgh Square to tell Mary Macarthur and her reaction clearly stayed with him. She was, he wrote, naturally sympathetic but at the same time she was overwhelmed by the prospect of war, drawing nearer. ‘It is the end of everything’ she said to Fred, who although wrapped in his grief, thought that she was too pessimistic. His memoir concludes, however, that ‘neither Miss Macarthur nor I realised what was to follow’ and they certainly had no concept of the scale of the tragedy that lay ahead for the world.

Mary Macarthur, despite being distraught at the idea of war (she was prominent at a big peace rally in Trafalgar Square the day after her meeting with Fred) had experienced a personal tragedy the previous year, when her first born child was still born. Comfort did come to both families; in 1915 Fred’s wife had a son and Mary Macarthur gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

Further tragedy lay ahead for Mary Macarthur. Her husband, Will Anderson (a Labour MP in Sheffield until 1918 and reckoned by many to be a future leader of the Labour Party), died in February 1919, during the Spanish flu pandemic. A year later, Mary was diagnosed with cancer that proved to be terminal.  Fred recalled the afternoon in 1920 when they sat together at tea and she told him that she had just a few months to live. She urged him to work to help push through the planned amalgamation of the NFWW with the larger, mixed sex National Union of General Workers (NUGW). Fred’s account confirms others which stress Mary’s devotion to her work right up until the very end of her life and her deep affection for the union she had founded and nurtured since 1906. It was always her intention to ensure that the men and women of the labour movement worked together side by side. She viewed the NFWW as a training ground, for which there would be no further need once women had sound union experience and confidence and when men recognised women as trusted and competent allies in the fight for better working conditions. Mary Macarthur died on January 1st, 1921, the very day that the merger with the NUGW took place. She was just 40 years old and in Fred’s words, ‘there passed a woman who, had she lived, would have been the foremost woman in Labour’s political and industrial movement’.

Although Fred worked for the NUGW for a brief spell, his future lay beyond it. He used his considerable experience of social insurance and his financial expertise to work for the wider trade union movement, helping members obtain compensation in accident claims and advising unions on the investment of any accumulated funds. Additionally, he maintained a close interest and connection with matters relating to the health aspect of National Insurance, recalling his shock at maternal mortality figures which remained unchanged by advances in medicine and health services. He was deeply respected by many within the labour movement and his detailed work (often behind the scenes) on reports into social problems was highly regarded. Fred draws attention to his deep and lasting friendship with Margaret Bondfield (who he had worked with at the NFWW and was to become one of the first women Labour MPs in 1923 and Britain’s first woman cabinet minister in 1929); in her autobiography, she refers to Fred as her friend, helper and supporter and notes the importance of his statistical work on unemployment insurance claims in the 1920s.[8]

Margaret Bondfield. Image copyright of TUC Library Collection

Fred’s pride in entering the House of Lords is evident (‘what a day! The ex-milk boy and flour boy was to become a peer of the United Kingdom’) and he took the bestowed Honour ‘very, very seriously’. What mattered most to him was how his experience in social insurance could, in this new capacity, continue to be of value to the nation. Just ahead of the 1950 General Election, Lord Kershaw spoke in support of the Labour candidate at a meeting in Mortlake, near where he lived in Richmond. He spoke of his humble start as a flour boy and how he felt that the spirit of service must always supersede the spirit of capitalism. He talked also of how he had been mocked in the House of Lords for not having an Oxford accent and how this was assumed to mean a lack of wisdom. He was having none of it. ‘We may drop our aitches’, he said, ‘but we don’t drop the standard of living of our people’. He drew attention to the advances that had been made by Labour; people were, he said, never so free as they were now – free to preserve their self-respect even if unemployment came their way, now that the hated Means Test had been removed. Maternal mortality had been reduced and ‘those with eyes to see could not help marvel at the wonderfully healthy children of today. Healthy and bonny children did not happen by accident; they happened through the concerted planning of the government of the day’.[9]

Fred, who served as a JP, as a Board member at Westminster Hospital, as chairperson of the Marie Curie Foundation, devoted his public life to that spirit of service of which he spoke in 1950. His social conscience was formed early on and drew him to the sort of work to which he knew he could make a real difference. He did not become a household name or even a prominent name within the Labour movement and it is one of the reasons why it is so important to show the lasting value of the ‘backroom’ boys and girls.

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive

[1] Taken from Fred Kershaw’s unpublished memoir. Grateful thanks to the Kershaw family for sharing with me and encouraging me to write this post

[2] Mary Macarthur’s Election Manifesto 1918, Gertrude Tuckwell Collection, TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University

[3] Cathy Hunt (2019) Righting the Wrong: Mary Macarthur 1880-1921, History West Midlands, page 72

[4] Londonderry Sentinel, March 20 1920, British Newspaper Archive

[5] Rochdale Times, June 11, 1912, British Newspaper Archive

[6] Cathy Hunt (2104), The National Federation of Women Workers, 1906-21, Palgrave Macmillan, page 60

[7] Cathy Hunt, Righting the Wrong, page 100

[8] Margaret Bondfield (1949) A Life’s Work, Hutchinson & Co, pages 250, 274

[9] Richmond Herald, February 4 1950, British Newspaper Archive

The Newcastle upon Tyne Branch of the National Federation of Women Workers

This post can also be found on the TUC Library‘s Collection Blog pages. Thanks to Jeff Howarth for allowing me to reproduce it here. Given the many hours of my life spent at the TUC Library, it feels good to be able to share this here and to contribute something in this, the Library’s centenary year.

Winding down for the weekend and scrolling through Twitter last Friday afternoon, my attention was suddenly grabbed by a tweet from the TUC Library. It announced a brand-new acquisition to its Collections and was accompanied by two images which stopped me in my tracks. These were the opening pages of a hand-written minute book belonging to the pre-First World War Newcastle on Tyne branch of the National Federation of Women Workers. My heart skipped a beat, flipped over entirely and neither it nor my mind settled down until I had seen the document for myself a few days later.

I learned that the book was found by a daughter who was clearing her mother’s house after her death. I understand all too well what that this entails, having just finished sorting and emptying my own mum’s house. It seems likely that the book belonged to her grandmother. My thoughts and emotions are, then, not just ones of excitement but also of empathy and gratitude that this has now been passed to the TUC Library. Such finds are the very stuff of the history of working people’s lives and they are priceless.

I know there are hundreds of historians who long for such discoveries. It is rare occasions such as these that make searching for them so worthwhile, especially as there are inevitably so many garden paths to go up as well. I have been researching and writing about the extraordinary trade union that was the National Federation of Women Workers (Federation) for well over a decade. In 2014 Palgrave Macmillan published my history of the Federation, founded in 1906 by the charismatic Mary Macarthur (1880-1921). The research for the book was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and provided me with the funds to work with national collections and to travel (there were a lot of train journeys, a lot of meal deals in hotel rooms and a lot of soreness in my arms, back and neck from lugging laptop and books all over the place) to local archives and local studies’ libraries.

This small all-female trade union, which nonetheless punched well above its weight, existed for just 15 years, between 1906 and 1921, before merging with the larger and mixed gender National Union of General Workers. Thanks in large part to the endeavours of Gertrude Tuckwell of the Women’s Trade Union League, under whose guidance and protection the Federation operated, an extensive and valuable collection of annual reports, newspaper cuttings, pamphlets and notices relating to the union (and more broadly on women and work) is available for consultation at the TUC Library in London. What was harder to find – and of course what I then wanted so much to find – was detailed information about just how the union operated at the grassroots level. This I tried to knit together, albeit with many frustrating gaps, by looking at newspapers and at the records of other organisations, such as local Trades Councils, which supported the Federation in its attempts to protect women industrial workers and improve their often appalling pay and conditions.

How I longed to find more than a brief branch report submitted to and published by the Federation’s newspaper, Woman Worker, or included within its Annual Reports. At the end of my book, I included a substantial appendix giving brief outlines of all the branches I had managed to identify. My frustration at its almost certain incompleteness is there for all to see in the note I added at the start indicating that ‘this is not a comprehensive list but is included here to encourage and facilitate further research’ (my fervent hope). Here I included, where they emerged, the names of branch secretaries, treasurers and presidents and of the industries in which women in the different regions of Britain were employed. The book chapters also pay attention to the establishment of branches, the disputes that drew in members, the triumphs when disputes ended in improved conditions and the despair when at times organisation had little lasting success. There is detail but it is not always enough to tell stories in their entirety. When piecing together – often very small – snippets of information from a myriad sources, I was acutely aware of how much more there was out there, undiscovered and also of how difficult it can be to capture the grassroots history of a national union that existed over a hundred years ago.

And then, a decade after I started to write the book (and 8 years after its publication) came this amazing discovery of the first branch minute book of the Federation that I have ever seen. It is only a few pages long, from the inaugural meeting of the Newcastle upon Tyne branch on August 14th 1912, when 18 people were present, until July 1913 when just seven turned up. From the election of the branch officials (fabulous lists of names with which a local and/or family history researcher can do so much), including the secretary, E Howson, the formation of a social or dance committee, through to concerns over falling membership and pleas for members to stick together and to turn up to meetings, these few pages are of the utmost importance. They reveal the campaigning efforts of local activists, including Mrs Harrison Bell of the Women’s Labour League, in helping to form and sustain the branch which held its meetings in the Northern Independent Labour Party Club Room, at 18 Clayton Street. Laid out before me is evidence of so many challenges faced by local branches. Here is concern about paying the rent for the meeting room when attendance was so low (in early 1913 there were two consecutive months when numbers were too low for the meeting to go ahead). There is cheerful optimism at a two-shilling profit after the enjoyable and successful Christmas dance and appeals for an organiser to be sent from the Federation’s London HQ. There were always too few organisers and demand for their help was high because their presence was so helpful with campaigning and giving encouragement to new and fragile branches.

In the earliest meetings there is encouragement given to join and stay united within the union and discussion about the importance of combination. Resolutions passed included the need for women to be present on the newly established National Insurance Courts of Referees and for ‘intelligent working women’ to be involved in the planning and arrangement of workmen’s dwellings in Newcastle. There are summaries read out of the minutes of the Federation’s National Council.

There are just a few specific references to conditions at local firms; a mention, for example of improvements which would ‘add to the comfort of the girls’ at Messrs Armstrong & Whitworth. There is frustration at the branch members at Messrs Gleaves who ‘seemed to have forsaken the Union altogether’ (this is possibly the business of Henry Gleave, whose drapery sold underclothing, baby linen and fancy drapery made in his factory).  

Having been to many such meetings at the end of my own working day, tired and wanting to put my feet up, I can’t help wondering if there was enough here (despite the enormous efforts of the branch officials) to keep members engaged and ready to come back each month. There were -and are – so many calls on women workers’ time and in addition, there was the hugely important issue of feeling secure and safe enough to attend a union meeting. In Newcastle, as in many other towns and cities where women worked across a broad range of industries, it was often too risky to openly form a works branch and instead – as in this case – one branch would seek to pull in workers from across the city to meet in a club room or hall. Men – employed in larger numbers – might hold their union meetings in the pub or union club, thus combining leisure time with union business. It was all so much trickier for women. There were a hundred and one domestic things to be done at home in the evening. On top of that, there was the ever-present risk of intimidation or victimization – would the boss find out about the meeting? Would he sack you? And then there was the cost of membership, out of an already low wage.

Being a branch official was hard and often dispiriting work. I am not in the least surprised to read that on a stormy night in January 1913, only the Secretary and one other woman attended and that the meeting did not go ahead. It was not a question of members’ commitment to the union but simply one of getting by – and of keeping warm (hopefully) and dry at home. Social events were often the glue that held a branch together, although even here it does not seem that the December dance in 1912 (despite being hailed as a decided success with its two-shilling profit) was able to do this.

The book ends with a meeting in July 1913. It is not clear if there were more meetings, although clearly membership was falling and the Federation’s Annual Report for 1914 reveals organisers’ frustration, asking why the women of Tyneside don’t ‘wake up to the fact that they will never get decent wages till they organise’. There were so many reasons why organisation was so difficult for women workers. I am (by complete and happy chance) currently writing an article for the North-East Labour History Society about the work of the Federation in the North-East of England, in which I explain just how hard it was for small branches to keep going, in the early years of the union. It was not until the First World War that membership soared, particularly in munitions centres like Newcastle. By early 1917, the Federation claimed it had nearly 9000 members in that city alone.  This short minute book adds detail, intimacy and vibrancy to research like mine into women’s work and trade union membership. I am delighted to know that it has survived and that it is there to refer to in the forthcoming article and much more besides. It is a tremendous addition to the Library’s collections.

I hope my excitement at the emergence of this new acquisition to the TUC Library is evident. If you want to know more about the National Federation of Women Workers, here is a link to an exhibition I worked on with the TUC Library to commemorate the 100th year of the death of Mary Macarthur:

The Life of Mary Macarthur – TUC Library exhibition | TUC

Mary Macarthur, secretary of the National Federation of Women Workers, Trafalgar Square, 1908

Selected Publications

Redressing the Balance: Women in Twentieth century Coventry  (1999) (ed) Women’s Research Group, Coventry

A Little Too Nice: the National Federation of Women Workers in Coventry 1907-18, in Women’s History Journal (2003) 43, 15-19

‘Her Heart and Soul were with the Labour Movement’: Using a Local Study to Highlight the Work of Women Organisers Employed by the Workers’ Union in Britain from the First World War to 1931 in Labour History Review (2005) 70 (2) 167-84

Everyone’s Poor Relation: the Poverty and Isolation of a Working Class Woman Local Politician in interwar Britain in Women’s History Review (2007) 16 (3) 417-30

Tea and Sympathy: A Study of Diversity among Women Activists in the National Federation of Women Workers in Coventry, England, 1907-14 in International Labor and Working Class History (2007) 72 (1), 173-91

Success with the Ladies: An Examination of Women’s Experiences as Labour Councillors in Inter War Coventry in Midland History (2007) 32 (1) 141-59

A Woman of the People: Alice Arnold of Coventry 1881-1955 (2007) Coventry Branch of the Historical Association

Audience Research Reports of the BBC 1937-50 and Parliamentary Labour Party Papers 1968/69 to 1993/4 A Review of British Online Archives in Archives, (2009) Volume XX1V (120) 86-89

Dancing and Days Out: The Role of Social Events in British Women’s Trade Unionism in the Early Twentieth Century in Labour History Review (2011) 76 (2) 104-20

Going Strong Like the Tanks: Coventry Women Workers and the Trade Unions in the First World War in Against All Odds (2011) Women’s Research Group, Coventry

‘The Fragility of the Union: the work of the National Federation of Women Workers in the regions of Britain 1906-14’ in Mary Davis, Class and Gender in British Labour History: Renewing the Debate (or starting it?) (2011) Merlin Press 171-89

Sex Versus Class in Two British Trade Unions in the Early Twentieth Century in Journal of Women’s History 24 (1) 86-111

Gertrude Tuckwell and the British Labour Movement, 1891-1921: A Study in Motives and Influences in Women’s History Review (2013) 22 (3) 478-496

The National Federation of Women Workers 1906-21 (2014) (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan)

A History of Women’s Lives in Coventry, 2018, (Barnsley, Pen & Sword)

Righting the Wrong: Mary Macarthur 1880-1921. Working Woman’s Champion (2019) (Birmingham, West Midlands History)

June 2021

June 2021

I am delighted to start this new section of my website with the exciting news that I have recently been elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, in recognition of my contribution to historical scholarship. As an independent historian, this means a great deal to me and I am proud to be part of this great community of historians.

Film Mary Macarthur

This short film from History West Midlands was filmed in Cradley Heath on the day that my biography of Mary Macarthur was launched.

Monument to the women Chain Makers of Cradley Heath by Luke Perry (2012) located in the Mary Macarthur Memorial Park, Cradley Heath

Podcast Coventry Women’s Lives

Here is a podcast recorded by History West Midlands in which I talk about my book and about everyday life for the women of Coventry between 1850 and 1950

Three women holding their own in a male dominated workshop environment in the early 20th century. John Dutson’s factory in Trafalgar Street electroplated parts for the watch industry. Courtesy of David Fry
Teaching staff at Wheatley Street School in the 1890s. Courtesy of David Fry
‘The Winners of the Race at Lunchtime’: GEC women workers leaving work on the stroke of noon, The Loudspeaker, January 1926. Courtesy of Coventry History Centre

Kensington Road Part Three: 1909-11, the Growing Family

By late November, the Harris’s house looked just as Lucy had pictured it. It was modern, bright and homely. The coal shed was full, the lavatory next to it as neat as could be, despite doubling as a garage for George’s bicycle and a handful of gardening tools. Thomas’s pram had to stay permanently parked in the narrow hallway by the front door, where everyone was always colliding with it but there was no room for it out the back. The very thought of the precious pram being wedged in next to the WC filled Lucy with horror and besides, it was too much for her, at five months pregnant, to ease it down the passage at the end of the run of houses and around to the back gate.

As yet, there had been little time to attend to the garden but George and Lucy were full of plans. The garden was bordered on both sides by low walls and a brick path had been laid, running from the back gate up to the house.  The two feet between one of the walls and the path made a natural border for growing flowers but the rest of the garden was a blank canvas. A small area behind the WC and the coal shed and leading to the back door was bricked but apart from this, the garden was a mixture of bare earth and builders’ rubble. The couple read the ‘Gardening Notes’ column in the Coventry Herald, saving any cuttings that gave them ideas, growing tips and seasonal advice. The plan was to have a small lawn for the children to play on, flowers in the two long borders and fruit bushes and vegetables at the end of the garden furthest from the house. One sunny August afternoon in 1909, weeks before the move, the couple had walked out to the Allesley and Coundon Horticultural Society’s summer show, with Thomas in the pram, where they admired the displays of potted and cut flowers, particularly the sweet peas, stocks and dahlias. They loved the roses and George made a mental note to put up some trellising so that they could have a climbing variety or two, such as Crimson or Tea Rambler. The afternoon was a welcome respite from all the anxieties surrounding the impending move and they treated themselves to a pot of tea and a slice of cake while they listened to the Bedworth Town Band and watched a display of Morris dancing. As they came away to go home to feed Thomas, Lucy rather envied the young people staying on for an evening’s dancing, the girls in their pastel-coloured frocks resembling the shades of the sweet peas she so loved. But with a baby and in the first stage of her second pregnancy, she felt with a pang that her dancing days were over.

I used this image (courtesy of Albert Smith) in my book, Women’s Lives in Coventry. Taken in 1910 it shows a Coventry family all dressed up in a garden with some of the trellising that George sought in 1909. It’s a lovely photo in which the pride being taken in the garden is clear to see

Lucy’s pregnancy with Thomas had been straightforward and easy.  The only time she had needed to see the midwife was at delivery and she had not seen a doctor at all. Lucy’s mum made sure that her daughter stayed in bed for two weeks after the birth so that she could rest and make sure that her milk became established. She was so well looked after that her sisters were mightily relieved when she finally made an appearance downstairs and started to pick up some of the many duties that had fallen to them at the end of their working days, including boiling nappies and washing linens. And so when Lucy realized that she was expecting again (admittedly a little sooner than she’d hoped), everyone assumed that things would go as smoothly the second time around. This time, however, Lucy was tired right from the start, she was sick for weeks, her back hurt and her feet swelled. Her mother worried that she was not gaining enough weight and asked her neighbour, Mrs Jackson, to come in and take a look at her daughter. Mary Jackson was the midwife who had delivered Thomas, and before him, Lucy and her sisters. She was widely respected within the community and trusted as a very safe pair of hands by local doctors. She had never received any formal training but when the Central Midwives’ Board was established as a result of the Midwives’ Act of 1902, Mrs Jackson’s registration as a Coventry midwife was accepted and approved as a result of her years of bona fide practice and because of her reputation for wisdom and efficiency. She was used to seeing the effects of successive pregnancies on women and when she came to visit Lucy, she saw a young wife and mother worn out by constant sickness and the anxieties of trying to be a perfect housewife in her new home. In December, much to Lucy’s initial dismay, Mrs Jackson ordered her home to her mother’s house in Spon End for the remainder of the pregnancy.

Lucy was horrified. They had only just moved to Kensington Road, she had only just started to feel confident in her new surroundings, carefully packing up George’s lunch each day and making sure his meal was waiting for him each evening when he returned home from work. Lucy had pored over the ‘Home Hints’ and household columns in the local press, seeking to improve on her knowledge of even the most basic of tasks. Her mother laughed when Lucy, having read an article on how to make a good cuppa, set off to ask her local grocer which tea was best suited to the local water. ‘He’ll see you coming,’ she warned her daughter who, undaunted, learned off by heart the Coventry Herald’s advice, even though she’d been brewing tea since she was a girl:

The water should be fresh and freshly boiled. The tea pot should be washed out with boiling water. Then the tea should be put in. if China Tea is used there will be required about one tea-spoonful to each breakfast cup. If Indian tea half that quantity will suffice. Having covered the tea with the requisite quantity of water, it should be allowed to stand for three of four minutes for fine Assams, such as Pekoe and Broke Pekoe, about five minutes for Pekoe Souchong and Souchong. The tea should be poured off the leaves immediately the proper time has elapsed. In this way the flavour of the tea is all extracted, whilst the tannin is nearly all left behind in the leaves. A good method is to use an infuser, which will permit of the steeped leaves being withdrawn directly the tea is properly made. In India a silver ball, pierced with holes to permit of the percolation of the water, is largely used to hold the tea while the boiling water is acting upon it. If these precautions are carried out the resulting beverage will be of the most delicious character, and will contain nothing to harm the most delicate nerves.

Lucy wanted to do things her way. There was more amusement for her mother – an accomplished cook – when her daughter began to seek out products that she’d seen being advertised, in the hope that their use would guarantee the perfect results. Despite, however, buying ‘Paisley Flour – the sure raising powder’ her first attempts at scones ended in tears when they failed to rise. George ate them regardless, pronouncing them to be excellent. He was happy and proud to try any of his wife’s experiments as long as they were not too costly or – worst of all – wasteful. Both of them agreed that cooking with Bisto (named for its ability to Brown, Season & Thicken In One) – introduced in 1908 and advertised from 1910 – was a tasty addition to stews, turning the cheapest cuts of meat into hearty meals:

So when Lucy realized she would have to return home until her baby was born, she fretted over how George would manage without her. In fact, there turned out to be little to worry about. She and Thomas went back to Spon End, where she rested as much as she could. There was no more shopping, no more heavy laundry and minimal cooking. George ate in the factory canteen at lunchtimes and called in each evening to see his wife and child, sitting at the kitchen table with them to have a cheese or cold meat sandwich, a mug of tea and a piece of fruit cake. On Sundays he came round for lunch and then he and Lucy’s dad walked round to the Kensington Road house to work on any jobs that needed doing so that the house was perfect for Lucy’s return in the spring, with the new baby. They dug over the garden in readiness for grass seed and the fruit and vegetable patches and George enjoyed it so much he began to think that an allotment would be a good idea, not just to keep his family in fresh produce but to give him the chance for some healthy exercise and – if he was honest – some time to be on his own, away from the stresses of family life. There were several allotment associations in Coventry and at one, the Coventry mayor told those present how great an interest the Council took in these. All men needed a hobby, he said and surely gardening was a much better option than drinking beer. George rather wondered if he might combine the two, treating himself to the odd bottle at the end of a summer’s evening gardening. He put his name down at a meeting of the local association in The Royal Oak on Earlsdon Street.

Lucy relaxed in the presence of her mother and as the sickness eased, the tiredness lifted a little. Resting with her legs up each afternoon kept the puffiness down, having an afternoon nap at the same time as Thomas was better for her than her previous habit of using her son’s sleep time to race through her house, doing as much housework as she could. Her mind was eased by the fact that one of her sisters – with bad grace, it must be said – was sent up to the Kensington Road house twice a week after work to sweep the floors and dust away the incessant coal dust (while Lucy and Thomas were away, George only lit a fire for the kitchen range on the coldest of winter evenings. It was not the worst of winters; temperatures in Coventry were recorded as falling below freezing on roughly a third of days between January and March 1910. Even so, minus 1 degrees Celsius was the lowest temperature recorded that winter and for this George was grateful, allowing him to keep the coal house well stocked and save money for the coming winter, when there would be two babies to keep warm).

An image used in my book ‘Women’s Lives in Coventry’ of Coventry midwife, Sarah Reid, in 1912. Courtesy of David Fry

Florence Eliza Harris was born on March 16th 1910. The labour, straightforward and relatively quick, was attended by the trusty Mrs Jackson. This time the doctor was called in to examine Lucy and to check the baby who was smaller than Thomas had been at birth. Both were pronounced healthy although Lucy was prescribed a few more weeks rest before she could go home to Kensington Road and resume her life as a housewife. Florence was one of 2,674 Coventry births in 1910 and although there were as yet no baby clinics in the city, the Sanitary Committee had chosen at the start of that year to appoint a second health visitor. Amongst the duties of these women were visits to mothers and babies. During the course of 1910, they made 1750 visits, giving feeding and baby care advice. As both women were also qualified Sanitary Inspectors, they made sure that whenever they visited a new mother, they assessed the condition of her housing; were the walls and ceilings clean? Were the areas in which food was stored sufficiently ventilated? Was there evidence of damp? Was the accommodation overcrowded? There was little doubt that the little Spon End house, with Lucy, Thomas and the new baby living there, was bursting at the seams but nothing that she saw gave the health visitor any cause for concern. Not only was the house scrubbed and polished but it was clear that Lucy was in very good hands, benefiting from her mum’s experience and common sensical approach to all that life threw at her. And of course, there was a new and spacious house in Kensington Road waiting to welcome back the little family.

On her first visit, the health visitor gave Lucy a leaflet about feeding her baby. In the early twentieth century health officials advocated breast feeding as the safest and healthiest start for babies. Feeds every two hours during the day and every four hours at night were recommended for the first three months and then the intervals between feeds could be lengthened. The leaflet distributed to new mothers made it clear that routine was very important and that the baby should not be put on the breast purely for comfort or to keep her quiet.  Six months of breast feeding was deemed to be best for baby but the advice was that after nine months, it should be stopped entirely. The milk was deemed to be of insufficient quality for baby by then and if continued might induce weakness in the mother, making her susceptible to illness.

Lucy understood the benefits of breast feeding. An old school friend had lost her baby to diarrhoea a few years previously, during a hot summer in which it was harder than usual to keep foodstuffs and baby milk cool and free from bacteria. Lucy wanted to feed Florence herself for as long as she could, as she had done with Thomas, but it wasn’t easy to ignore her mother, who was always telling her that breast feeding for more than just a few weeks would exhaust her and that she should aim to give the baby a bottle after the first three months. Against all the professional advice, Lucy’s mum believed – as her mum had done before her – that the natural way wasn’t necessarily the ‘nice’ way and she told her blushing daughter more than once that she was sure her husband would prefer it if she stopped feeding sooner rather than later. By the time Lucy was back home, in the early summer of 1910, Florence was being fed with cow’s milk. The suggested formula for a three-month old baby was three tablespoons of milk, three tablespoons of water, a half teaspoon of demerara sugar and one to two teaspoons of fresh cream. As the baby got older, the advice was to gradually lessen the quantity of water and increase the milk so that at six months, each feed consisted of nine tablespoons of milk. Lucy followed the hygiene advice on the feeding leaflet to the letter. As soon as the milk was bought (from the dairy and grocers on the corner of Kensington Road and Henley (now Beaudesert) Road, Lucy decanted it into a jug which she then placed in a pan of cold water, changing the water regularly throughout the day to keep the milk as cold as possible. The required amount of milk was then boiled ahead of each feed and placed in a boat shaped feeding bottle which had an opening at each end, onto which the rubber teat was placed.

After each feed, Lucy did as the health visitor advised and bathed the inside of Florence’s mouth with a small piece of clean linen rag dipped in warm water. She then washed the bottle in water to which she added a small amount of washing soda, making sure to put the rubber teat in a separate bowl of clear, clean water. It was a time-consuming regime but it gave Lucy peace of mind to know that she was doing everything that she could to keep her daughter safe. She was mightily relieved that the summer brought no prolonged periods of intense heat and she knew how fortunate she was to be able to keep food relatively cool and well covered in her kitchen cupboards.

Once Lucy was back home and settled into a routine with Thomas and the new baby, she was finally ready to take on the challenges of full time housewifery. For several months she still tended to walk to Spon End to the shops that she knew and – more importantly to her – where she was known to the shop keepers. She had heard too many tales of young wives being short-changed by shop owners who thought they could take advantage of inexperienced young wives, selling them damaged or poor quality goods, underweight measures and out of date food. By the winter, however, the prospect of yet another cold, wet walk down Hearsall Lane to Spon End, encouraged her first forays into Earlsdon to discover what it had to offer.  By the spring of 1911 she was well into her stride.

In 1911 George was earning just over 32 shillings a week. This was a decent wage, only a few shillings lower than those being earned by the men who had served apprenticeships, and considerably more than those paid to unskilled general labourers. At the Humber, George had impressed with his technical ability to manage new machinery and he was typical of the many men who, although graded as semi-skilled workers, could turn their hands to almost anything in the fast paced and ever- changing vehicle industry. His weekly wage meant that Lucy could buy non-perishable foods (tea, sugar, flour, oats, dried fruit, jam, rice and pulses) laundry products and toiletries in weekly quantities, which was much cheaper than shopping daily for them and it also meant that for the rest of the week, the pram got loaded up only with those items that were harder to store and keep fresh, such as vegetables, pies, sausages, bacon, cheese and butter. The family was luckier than many but nonetheless money was tight, with prices rising faster than wages during their first years at Kensington Road (Board of Trade figures showed that in the 15 years before 1911, wages had risen by 12 per cent and food prices by 18 per cent).

Their budget looked broadly like this;

Wage:  32 shillings


9 shillings to Mr Bird for house payment

8 pence a week to the Workers’ Union, George’s trade union subscription (this would, if needed, give strike pay, sickness and out of work benefits and a contribution towards funeral costs)

1 shilling to the Hospital Provident Fund to help with the costs of seeing a doctor and any medicines required (when Thomas had a series of chest infections later that year, the couple was very relieved to have this insurance)

3 shillings (where possible) into the Coventry Building Society to replenish the rainy day fund

2 shillings kept by George for the odd pint of beer, plus plants and seeds for the garden

This left around 19 shillings a week for food, fuel and clothing. Lucy’s mum thought it strange that Lucy knew exactly how much George earned each week, as her husband had always kept an undisclosed amount of his wage packet for himself and handed over the rest for housekeeping. George was only too happy to trust Lucy to feed and clothe the family and all he expected was that she would manage efficiently and learn to be a careful manager. She was determined to do precisely that.

By the time the Harris’s were well and truly settled, there were several shops in Kensington Road. The only ones that Lucy went to regularly were the dairy run by Mr Cleaver at number 102, (milk contamination was regularly reported in the local press and so Lucy would only buy milk from the trusted Mr Cleaver) the newsagent and tobacconist at the bottom of the road (13b, where, just once a week, George picked up a packet of ten Lambert & Butler Waverley cigarettes for 3d, the Coventry Herald every Friday for 1d and the Midland Daily Telegraph on his way home from work each evening for a halfpenny ), the Post Office (55) and Bales the Chemist at the junction with Albany Road. Mr Bale grew used to the sight of Lucy in his shop, visiting not just to buy soap and liquorice (which she swore by to keep the children ‘regular’) but to ask for advice about the children’s many minor ailments. His advice, as opposed to the doctor’s, was free, even if it did sometimes result in Lucy spending precious pennies on some rather questionable concoctions, such as Bales’ Blood Mixture, advertised as a ‘spring medicine’.  

1911 Midland Daily Telegraph

On very rare occasions, Lucy bought sausages or a pie from the London Central Meat Company at 104 Kensington Road, a butcher’s with several shops in the city, but on the whole she favoured Coventry Market for meat. One of her favourite times of the week was going to the Market Hall on a Saturday evening when it stayed open until 11pm. Saturday was pay day for most people and a chance to go shopping with a full purse. Once the children were in bed, Lucy left George in charge and met her mum at the bottom of Albany Road where they walked to the market together. Both women kept a close eye on the prices of products in the local paper, noting what was in short supply (and therefore more expensive), what was plentiful and where the bargains might be. Lucy’s main purchases on her Saturday night excursions were butter (in 1912 this sold for around 1 shilling and 2 pence although Lucy, always with an eye for the new, was later converted to Lipton’s Margarine, ‘made with nuts and cream, equal to butter and half the price’), new-laid eggs at a shilling for nine, and – most important of all – the Sunday joint. At the butcher’s stall, she still stuck close to her mum, who knew exactly what she was looking for – the right amount of fat, the right colour, smell and general appearance of the meat. The later the visit to the stall, the better was the chance of a knock down price, although this was risky if all the best cuts had been sold. But it was worth paying a little more to trust the butcher and to know that the joint would be the basis for meals on Sunday (roast), Monday (cold cuts with potatoes), Tuesday (minced, using economical recipes found in magazines and newspapers), and the bones used for stock or soup. When prices were too high (such as in September 1911 when an outbreak of foot and mouth disease closed live markets and led to meat shortages), Lucy would choose chicken, which ranged in price from 2/6 to 4 shillings, depending on the size, but these were never big enough to last for as many meals as beef or lamb. Rabbit was another option but for this Lucy tended to visit Mr Fletcher’s butcher’s in Earlsdon Street as he very often had a fresh supply of rabbit hanging on hooks from the shop ceiling. The preparation of rabbit, bought unskinned for around a shilling, made Lucy feel queasy when she first started cooking, but after a while, her only thoughts were on the pie that she was making and which was a firm family favourite.

1912 Midland Daily Telegraph
1910 Midland Daily Telegraph

Lucy made her own bread and cakes but occasionally, she treated Thomas and Florence to a Chelsea bun (shared on the walk home)  from Wright’s Model Bakery on Albany Road. If her parents were coming for Sunday tea, she would buy a slab of Wright’s Rich Sultana Cake (sold in slabs at sixpence a pound). Sometimes, on his cycle ride home from work, George would stop off at Atkinsons to pick up a pork pie; this was a treat for him and Lucy, when the children were asleep, eaten with pickles and raw onion. Fruit and vegetables came from various shops, including Crumps and also Moore’s, both on Earlsdon Street. As time went on and George cultivated much of the garden and then his allotment (which he got in 1912), there was a steady supply of seasonal produce, including leeks, parsnips and potatoes, peas and beans, raspberries and gooseberries. It was not long before Lucy added jam making to her ever growing list of skills. She collected recipes and added to them over the years. One of her earliest came from a women’s trade union newspaper she had once brought home from work, before she was married. Her father had been cross that she had brought what he regarded as subversive material into the house and so Lucy had showed him the pages of home hints, which calmed him down a little (though she never brought it home again and instead read it in the rest room at work).

This was the monthly journal of the National Federation of Women Workers, which Lucy first saw at work in 1907

Savoury Shape

Half-pound cold meat finely chopped, 3 ozs. Breadcrumbs, 2 ozs. Suet finely minced, little grated nutmeg, ¼  teaspoonful curry powder, ¼ teaspoonful herbs, a teaspoonfls browned breadcrumbs, 1 or 2 eggs, milk or stock, pepper and salt. Grease a basin with butter, cover surface with browned crumbs. Mix all other ingredients in order given above and cover with greased paper. Steam an hour. Serve with brown sauce.

Another favourite was ‘Savoury Pie‘, useful for the middle of the week when the joint had run out. Lucy always added a little bacon to it, fearing that George would complain if presented with a meal without some form of meat. A pound of tomatoes could be bought for between 6 and 8 pence a pound and Spanish onions for around 1 ½ d a pound. Lucy liked making this dish but was aware that these were expensive ingredients and she mostly made it in late summer when the tomatoes had ripened at the allotment.

Put 1 ½ ozs. Or dripping in saucepan and 1lb Spanish onions; let cook gently near fore but not near enough to burn, for 20 minutes. Then chop 1lb of tomatoes and lay on top and the 1lb of potatoes on top of the tomatoes. Put id on and let cook gently till the potatoes are cooked through.

The only commodity that the Harris’s had delivered was coal. The kitchen range ate a great amount of coal and the Harris’s tried to keep their coal shed stocked up, because it was much cheaper when bought in the largest quantities possible (Lucy saved a little every week for coal so that they could bulk buy).  Deliveries were made by T and J Dewis, Coal Merchants on the Butts and Thomas looked forward to the delivery days when the cart arrived and the coal was shovelled into a wheelbarrow and trundled down the alley and in through the back gate. Lucy was never more thankful for the back gate and coal shed on coal delivery days, pitying those whose coal entered the house through a coal shute from which clouds of thick black coal dust would invariably rise and spread. It was bad enough keeping the range clean, with black lead polish, the worst job of the week (apart from laundry day).

That’s all from the Harris family for now. Maybe I will revisit them as their family grows, when Thomas and Florence starts school and to see how they deal with the tragedy of war.

A note from me

Firstly, thank you so much for reading. Researching and writing this short series on Kensington Road has been useful therapy for me following the death of my mum earlier this year. Mum was a big fan of my blog (that’s mums for you) and it always got us talking. One area of discussion would lead to even more unanswered questions and so the need for more research. And that curiosity – the need to find out more – is precisely why I write. For years I was so cautious about committing anything that I wrote to print, that much of it stayed on my computer until I deleted it out of frustration and annoyance at my lack of bravery. I am still learning that it doesn’t matter if I don’t know all the answers or if I get something wrong. The advantage of writing a blog is that it can be widely read and people can comment, make suggestions and fill in some of the blanks. Thank you to those who have got in touch already – I am extremely grateful for your input.

Thanks also to

British Newspaper Archive, largely Coventry Herald, Midland Daily Telegraph

David Fry and Albert Smith for photographs and also for their invaluable Earlsdon and Chapelfields Explored (see Part One of this blog)

The Woman Worker for recipes

Coventry Archives for Annual Reports of Medical Officer of Health; Trade Directories; Coventry Municipal Handbooks

Recommended reading for more on domestic life and motherhood in early 20th century Britain

Margaret Llewelyn Davies Maternity: Letters from Working Women (1915, Virago edition 1978)

Cathy Hunt, Women’s Lives in Coventry, 1850-1950, 2018, Pen & Sword

Maud Pember Reeves Round About A Pound A Week (1913, Virago edition 1999))

Robert Roberts The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century (1971, Penguin)

To end, a photo of Kensington Road, taken in the last few weeks. I was struck by how much the view down the road will be altered by the addition of the student flats being built in Albany Road, on the site of the old Spencer Club

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.