International Women’s Day – a tribute to past and present unsung heroines of our communities.

I have been feeling sorry for myself this week. Flu is a miserable state of affairs and now, although out of bed, I am left with little energy or inclination to do anything. On International Women’s Day I am thinking, however, about the quiet, steely determination displayed by so many women to get on with the task in hand – and to make a lasting difference to other women’s lives. Sometimes the smallest acts are the most effective and so, in the absence of any great statements (too tired!), I just want to say thank you to those women who found their cause, who kept going and who, in the most practical and sensible of ways, set out to put things right in their communities.

Two such women were Coventry’s first women councillors. Alice Arnold and Ellen Hughes were elected for Labour in 1919, in the first municipal elections after the First World War. In a city suffering in the 1920s from high unemployment and inadequate housing, these two pioneers placed the relief of poverty at the heart of their work, often paying close attention to details overlooked by those who saw policy where they saw people. They sought the construction of Council housing that was not just adequate but well designed for families. All houses, insisted Councillor Hughes, should have baths and hot water heating to tackle ‘the incessant chasing away of dirt’. Kitchens needed dressers and built in cupboards, despite the fact that many male councillors thought that they were an unnecessary expense. There must be space for children to play safely, away from the roads and estates should be provided with centres where children over the age of two could play, looked after by trained nurses.

Sporting facilities, said Councillor Arnold, should be available for all, not just the wealthy and in an election speech in 1919, she employed her characteristically direct manner to state that,

if we cannot get land at a reasonable price I am prepared to confiscate it, and return it to the right owners, the common people. We cannot have an A1 nation when the good things of this world are kept from the mass of the people.

John Yates, a contemporary of Alice Arnold’s recalled that,

There were two points she always used to make in her speeches in those days, especially if she could get an afternoon audience with a few fur coats in it. One was the instruction sent out to Local Authorities when Mr Chamberlain was Minister of Health, that baby food could no longer be given away at clinics, however poor the mother, but must be paid for at threepence a packet. The other was the row then going on between the Medical Officers for Heath and the Ministry over starving schoolchildren. The MOHs said that they ought to have power to order free meals before a poor child showed the actual symptoms of malnutrition, the Ministry said, No! You shall only feed the child actually suffering from malnutrition – that is the law.

By 1939 eleven women had served as Labour councillors in Coventry, many drawing on their prior experiences as Poor Law Guardians, trade union organisers and magistrates.  As we approach the centenary of the election of Councillors Arnold and Hughes, I will be writing much more about these remarkable pioneers and the women who joined them on Coventry City Council, but I want to conclude with a tribute to another Labour woman councillor, this time serving in Manchester from 1924. This story from Hannah Mitchell inspires me because here is a woman who gets it completely. No need for fanfares, for statues or public acknowledgments. She identified a piece of land in her ward and persuaded the Baths Committee to build a small wash-house where women could hire ‘stalls’ to do their household washing, making use of hot water, extractors, hot air driers and ironing tables. These buildings, so important all over the country to housewives, meant that the home could be kept free of the damp caused by dripping washing and steam, that less fuel was required and that the exhaustion of wash day could be kept to a minimum.

Councillor Mitchell was not granted the honour of overseeing the formal opening of the wash-house and it was instead opened by a representative from another ward. A little piqued at this (because ‘the males who were before me on the rota refused to give way’ and allow her the privilege out of turn), she wrote,

Perhaps there was a spice of malice in my speech when moving the vote of thanks, but I think my neighbours understood, and applauded very generously. It isn’t a very romantic memorial, but every time I pass the little building, I feel that the women who helped to send me to the Council have something tangible to remember me by.

So, here’s to the women who have worked to provide the services that have not been heralded with grand memorials but which have made such a difference. Their work goes on and I wish them all a very happy international women’s day and my eternal thanks.



The Labour Group on Coventry City Council, 1919. Miss Alice Arnold is on the left and Mrs Ellen Hughes on the right. 14 November 1919, Coventry Graphic. The photograph is taken from my forthcoming book, A History of Women’s Lives in Coventry (Pen and Sword) and is reproduced with kind permission of Coventry History Centre. Not for copying anywhere else.

For further reading see,

The Hard Way Up: the Autobiography of Hannah Mitchell, Suffragette and Rebel, edited by G. Mitchell, Faber & Faber 1968

Pioneers to Power, John Yates, Coventry Labour Party, 1950

A Woman of the People: Alice Arnold of Coventry 1881-1955, Cathy Hunt, Coventry Historical Association, 2008


Ellen and Sylvia: Chelsea 1906

For a short time, between 1905 and 1906, my great grandmother, Ellen and one of my political heroes, Sylvia Pankhurst, lived within 250 metres of each other in London’s Chelsea. Whilst Ellen was bringing up her large family on a very limited income, Sylvia was a crucial member of the London Committee of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – the suffragettes.

I first became interested when, reading Sylvia’s The Suffragette Movement’ [i](1931), I recognised the name of the street – Park Walk – where she had taken lodgings whilst a student at the Royal College of Art in nearby Kensington. My dad had spent his early childhood in this street, living with his parents in the house rented and still occupied by his grandmother, Ellen. At the time when Sylvia was there, Ellen and her young family lived in Winterton Place, a short street running off the western side of Park Walk.

There were, at that time, lots of lodgers and sub tenants in Park Walk, some of whom, like Sylvia, were artists. Sylvia, however, was juggling life as a student with life as a political activist. The WSPU had been founded in Manchester in 1903 by her mother, Emmeline, and sister, Christabel, but increasingly there was a need for its presence in the nation’s capital. In her two rooms in Park Walk, Sylvia sacrificed her need for quiet study and ‘painting parties’[ii] in order to put up a stream of visiting activists such as Annie Kenney, sent ‘to rouse London’, ahead of the decision, in 1906, to permanently relocate the WSPU’s  HQ from Manchester to London. Members of the Pankhurst family were regular visitors to my great granny’s street and, Sylvia recalled, by early 1906, the press were beginning  to ‘hover around’[iii].

The realisation of how close Sylvia and Ellen lived was pretty seismic news to me. At the time I discovered it, I was a young worker, a history obsessed feminist and increasingly wondering, as my children grew, where my roots might be and what motherhood had been like for my grandmothers and great grandmothers. I knew that, despite Sylvia and Ellen’s geographical proximity, it was likely that, other than perhaps a nod in the street or at the shops (for, despite their different lives, both women had to eat) neither had much idea who the other was. It is unlikely  – though not out of the question, because women have always multi-tasked so brilliantly – that as the work of the London suffragettes intensified, Ellen was out chalking pavements for them or standing on a soap box on the nearby Fulham or Kings Road, trying to persuade people of the importance of women having the vote. I know nothing about her political opinions or affiliations but I do know that by 1906, she had seven young children, one of whom was very sick, one of whom was a newborn, and a husband on a very low income.

Why, then, am I writing this, if I am unable to claim any real connection between the two women or to be able to declare that my great grandmother was a suffragette, or that Sylvia Pankhurst popped round to help her with the laundry? My fascination lies in the fact that these two women, living so close to each other, were equally absorbed by the struggles of life. They had concerns, priorities and experiences that were very different from each other’s and yet…they both lived on strictly limited incomes in rented accommodation and they both sought ways to manage the weekly budget in the face of economic uncertainty about the future.

Ellen was a working class mother, born and bred in Chelsea. Sylvia was a middle class art student from Manchester. But, in the early twentieth century, here they both were; Chelsea was a space in which both women might be able to feel equally comfortable in their surroundings , meeting people who were familiar with their lifestyles – in Sylvia’s case, other artists and political activists, and in Ellen’s, family and people known since childhood. Sylvia was passing through but for Ellen, Chelsea was where she went to school, raised her children, earned a living and stayed on into old age. It would, I think, be extraordinary if Sylvia, an acutely sensitive, socially aware young woman wishing always to employ her artistic talents ‘in the cause of progress’[iv] did not notice the difficult lives of those, like Ellen, with whom she shared her Chelsea neighbourhood. Sylvia later worked closely with working class women in the East London Federation of Suffragettes.

A great deal more is of course known about Sylvia’s life than Ellen’s; her published writings tell us of the difficulties she faced as a student in London. She lived on a scholarship, sold her art work when she could but also sent money home to her mother. She was dedicated to the suffrage cause but, as her two years at college drew to a close, she was uncertain of her future. Should she pursue her art, or devote her time to social causes or politics? As WSPU work – and the demands of her political family – became more pressing, her anxieties led to ill health. She withdrew from the London Committee, gave up her rooms in Park Walk and fled to new digs in nearby Cheyne Walk. She had 25 shillings to her name, worries about paying the rent, a determination to be self-reliant and a great many decisions to be made.

During her Chelsea years, Sylvia lived simply and plainly. Annie Kenney recalled that, when staying in Park Walk, eggs, tomatoes or lentils were the main fare. ‘One day it would be lentils with an egg perched on the top; the day after that, as a change, lentils and tomatoes with an egg perched on the top; and the following day again, to make our meals more varied, an egg with fried tomatoes perched upon it and cocoa or a glass of milk’.[v] Stretching a meagre income to feed a family was also nothing new to Ellen. In a recording made by my dad in the 1960s, two of Ellen’s children recalled her fried Irish potato cakes, which consisted entirely of bread and potatoes. When working class family incomes came under pressure, the amount spent on meat, butter and green vegetables went down, while the dependence on foods that filled bellies, particularly bread, increased.[vi]

One of Ellen’s sons recalled that food was so hard to come by that his younger brother, born in 1902, ‘grew rickets, you know. His legs were like a hoop … and in the end he was taken into St George’s Hospital to have his legs broken. Twice they did it and the bones were sort of re-set to straighten them out’. He piggy backed his brother to school in the mornings and back home at the end of the day; ‘how he ever went to the toilet and that I don’t know, because I used to leave him, you see, I had to be there half an hour before the school opened because I had to run off to [my] school’ . A combination of a diet lacking in Vitamin D (fish oils, animal fats, eggs and dairy produce) and poor accommodation with restricted sunlight, made rickets a serious risk for children, in turn reducing their ability to resist respiratory infections.[vii]

Ellen’s family was certainly under pressure in these years. In the summer of 1905, her 18 month old son (her sixth child) was admitted to Great Ormond Street Hospital in central London where he spent 75 days being treated for ‘post basic meningitis’.[viii]  It is possible that his recovery was never complete; when he was 12, he died of chronic hydrocephalus and cerebral compression, recognised meningitis complications. Great Ormond Street’s mission was to provide free treatment for the children of the poor but there was still the expense of medication after discharge. As for so many families with sick children, hospital visits and specialist extended the distances Ellen needed to travel, adding costs and complicating the care of her children – and of herself, for she gave birth to a daughter just weeks after Joseph’s discharge from Great Ormond Street Hospital  – and disrupting any chances she had to supplement the family income.

Her husband, John, whom she had married in 1893, was discharged from the Army in 1901 on grounds of ill health. Until then, both pay and accommodation were erratic – some years in Army barracks in London, some years as a reservist, living in some of Chelsea’s poorer streets and working as a gas stoker – and afterwards, there was little improvement. John took work where he could – as a school caretaker, as a valet. The children’s pride in their mother’s ability to cope throughout is evident; ‘It’s marvellous, you know, what the Old Lady done, really. How she got by with all them kids’.

Sylvia left London for a time to study – and paint – women workers in England and Scotland, returning when required by her family to get back to the suffrage campaign. Perhaps if the house in Park Walk – number 45 – had survived (it was cleared away by inter war development), it might have earned itself a blue plaque, marking it as the first home of the London Committee of the WSPU, before the move to Clements Inn.

Ellen and her family stayed in Chelsea, moving into a larger house in Park Walk, which meant that extra income could be obtained by taking in lodgers. By 1911, nine children and four lodgers were crammed into the house. More children were to come, more struggle was to follow. Just as I wish I had known Sylvia Pankhurst and had just an ounce or so of the courage she displayed when enduring prison sentences, hostility and public derision, I wish I had known the woman who has also become a hero to me – my great grandmother. Her courage, like that of other unsung, barely remembered working class mothers, inspires me daily. I reckon the two would have liked each other.

[1] E Sylvia Pankhurst, 1931, The Suffragette Movement (London, Virago Press), edition 1988


[ii] Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement, p197


[iii] Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement, p 199


[iv]Pankhurst, Suffragette Movement, p214


[v] Annie Kenney, Memories of A Militant (London, Edward Arnold and Co), 1924. Kenney discusses meals eaten in Sylvia’s rooms, p62


[vi] Maud Pember Reeves, 1913, Round About A Pound A Week (London, Virago) edition 1999,  p95


[vii]Lara Marks, Metropolitan Maternity: Maternal and Infant Welfare Services in Early twentieth Century London, (Amsterdam, Rodopi), 1996 p 101-2


[viii] HHARP, Historic Hospital Admission Records Project Kingston University (accessed January 2016)

See below for some photos to accompany the blog.

Photos for Ellen & Sylvia