Decorations Hide City’s Scars* VE Day in Coventry

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

pre raids

 

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

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

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

VE Day Cathedral
Coventry Evening Telegraph, May 10 1945

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

Broadgate
Coventry Evening Telegraph,  May 10 1945

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

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

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

street party
Coventry Evening Telegraph, May 10 1945
St Thomas street
Coventry Evening Telegraph, May 12 1945

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

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

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

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

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

Memorial Park
Coventry Evening Telegraph,  May 14 1945

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

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

Bombed house
Coventry Evening Telegraph,  May 8 1945

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Sheila Gibbons and John Gibbons for their reflections

 

May Day in Coventry 1920

May Day in Coventry 100 years ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

With thanks to the British Newspaper Archive

 

 

 

Spring Notes

 

My butterflyI have been visiting Canley Ford in Coventry for over 30 years, discovering it first one Boxing Day afternoon in the mid- 1980s, on one of our extremely long walks with a three month old baby who would only sleep when togged out in his voluminous stripy Andy Pandy outdoor suit (Mothercare) and wedged into his ‘Cosytoes’ bag (Mothercare) , lying in the sturdiest of buggies (Mothercare) encased in the rain cover (for even extra warmth – we were anxious parents).

Cathy and Tom Canley Ford

As our family grew, we returned regularly to splash in the ford, to look and listen for the signs of the seasons, delighted then, as now, that we had this green lung so close to home – especially important for us as in those days we had no car and no garden. In a wonderful guest blog for the website Municipal Dreams, my friend and fellow historian Dr Ruth Cherrington described her playtime experiences of the ford, 20 or so years earlier as a child of the 1960s.

During the current Coronavirus crisis, my daily visits to the ford, a short walk from my suburban house, have become hugely important to my physical and mental health. Reached by strolling down a leafy lane, displaying richer shades of greens with every passing day, with celandines on the verges, the ford is surrounded by three meadows, framed with blackthorn (just coming into flower), hawthorn, mature oaks, birch and ash trees. Just now, there are clumps of magnificent daffodils catching the eye and the little pond is alive with hatched frogspawn and the marsh marigolds are coming into flower. I have seen and/or heard great spotted woodpeckers, chiffchaffs, great tits, goldcrests, robins, a sparrowhawk as well as a buzzard circling low, surveying the scene. Best of all have been the emerging butterflies – commas, peacocks and brimstones – dancing ahead of me, alighting on the blackthorn, even settling briefly on the grassy path ahead a step or two of me.

blackthorn and hawthornblackthornmarsh marigold

After my first seasonal sighting this week of a brimstone, I wandered home thinking of the delight that the first signs of spring have given to so many people across the centuries – and for so many reasons. I searched and came across this delightful piece of nature writing in the Coventry press, published exactly a hundred years since my own brimstone walk and in these unsettling times, it offered me calm and reassurance. The changing of the seasons will continue to remind me that there are some things I can be certain of. I thought I would share a little of these ‘Countryside Notes’:

…What gleam is there on the sun-ward bank, where the celandines have opened their enameled petals to the effulgence that brings the brimstone butterfly forth, and the enamoured sky-lark’s song? Clear of hue, like freshly opened primrose flower untouched, unsullied, the brimstone butterfly came from over the lea for the first time since the frail blue harebells withered there in October’s surly time.

Through winter’s inclement season the brimstone butterfly has survived frost and snow, and the dismal skies sending rain, while cold winds with searching severity swept across the field to the wood, hurling many a withered leaf far across the glade. Remarkable that it now comes forth as unsullied as the celandines there, opening their enameled bosoms for the first time to the sun.

…Not sights alone but sounds compose the fascinating factor that dwells in field and wood. Where the bee went to the flowering gorse we heard the wail of the plover, heard the whistle of the partridge across the furrowed field, and the cry of the yaffle was a wood sprite’s voice in the silence of the pines where intermingling larches are daily growing from brown and buff to the broadest tone of spring.

When most articles in the press at this time were either anonymous or signed with initials only – in this case F.S.C. – we know nothing about the author, or of the place she/he was describing. When it was written, the world was still in recovery from the enormous impact of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-9 that had inflicted pain and suffering on families, so many of whom were desperately trying to rebuild their lives after the ravages of the First World War. I am sure that the descriptions of the coming of spring comforted many Coventry readers in 1920 but I wonder if the writer considered just how poignant the words would be for this reader, a century on, in the midst of a growing crisis. Canley Ford 2blackthorn and hawthorn

Midland Daily Telegraph, March 24th 1920, from British Newspaper Archive

Christmas in Coventry 1919

 

The idea that Christmas in the Northern hemisphere offers a brief escape not just from the drabness of mid-winter but from the daily grind is as old as the festive season itself. The lights, the decorations, the music and the relentless advertisements showing glamour, sparkles and families having glorious fun together remind and encourage us to prepare in the best way we can for a few days in which life – for better or worse – does not feel quite the same as usual. As I walked around Coventry city centre a few days after the Christmas lights’ switch on this year, I wondered about Coventry folk doing the very same thing but a century ago. What was on their minds as they gazed at the first window displays of the season and as the first advertisements for Yuletide fayre appeared in the newspapers? Were they eagerly anticipating the holiday or wishing either that it was not happening at all or that at the very least it would be over as quickly as possible? So, for anyone who thought that I was about to deliver a sermon about the true meaning of Christmas, rest easy; instead, here is a glimpse at Coventry’s Christmas preparations in 1919, with particular focus on those struggling to make ends meet.

Pool Meadow 1920
Coventry at the start of the 20th century, courtesy of Coventry Archives

For the folk in need of a reminder (and I suspect there were a great many who were) that the time of good cheer was really upon them, the Midland Daily Telegraph tried to help out in the run up to Christmas. This was, it told its readers, the first Christmas since the signing of Peace; during the year, soldiers had been happily reunited with their families and, in spite of grave problems – unemployment and housing shortages to name just two – there was at last a chance for merriment ‘to percolate into dwellings which for years have been darkened by clouds of anxiety and sorrow’. The war dead were not forgotten; empty chairs in homes told of sacrifices made by those who did not return from the War and to the servicemen demobilized throughout the year, the wish for ‘Peace on earth, goodwill to men’ could have no deeper meaning. The editorial paid tribute to the ‘unselfishness and stoicism’ of brave mothers who found themselves now solely responsible for making sure that their children had a joyful Christmas. It highlighted the importance of children’s happy bliss, too young, it reckoned, to understand the serious problems of life and instead enabled to ‘enjoy the rollicking fun attached to the legendary visit of Santa Claus’.

And there were many charitable ventures intended to make sure that Christmas in Coventry that year could be enjoyed as best as possible. After the upheavals of war, the government and local authorities spent much of 1919 in anticipation of social unrest, fearing that every strike would threaten law and order and push Britain nearer to a crisis that might result in Britain going the way of Soviet Russia. So the powers that be were probably not best pleased with the sermon delivered on the Sunday before Christmas by the Christian Socialist vicar of St Peter’s Church in Hillfields. To a congregation which contained several members of the Coventry Unemployed Workers’ Committee, the Reverend Paul Stacy declared that, broadly speaking, the Russian Revolution had ‘revealed God’s justice as against capitalism, which was a modern Anti-Christ’. He then said that God was undoubtedly at work in the labour movement, calling upon all to work together to build a fairer, better order. Far less challenging than this were the Midland Daily Telegraph’s numerous December messages embracing the spirit of the season, almost implying that to do so was something of a public duty, exhorting all to cast troubles aside and surrender to the reassuring traditionalism of Christmas. Yes, admitted the editorials, there was distress but food was plentiful and although prices were high, they were not exorbitant. Maybe so, but amidst the adverts for gifts, dancing, pantomime and cinema (all of which I will return to, so do hang on if you want to know what else was out there beyond the misery), were notices and articles of charitable endeavours and institutional obligations to help as many citizens as possible.

Thanks to a committee set up by Coventry City Council, war widows and their dependants were entitled to parcels containing one or more plum puddings, six to twelve mince pies, two fruit cakes, a pound of tea, a pot of jam and – for large families only – a joint of meat. Ex-servicemen were presented with an illuminated card on which was recorded the grateful appreciation of the city for their patriotism in serving King and Country in the Great War, ‘with honour, in a just and righteous cause’. The cards came with a box containing 50 cigarettes given to ‘a gallant Townsman’. To what extent food hampers and civic gifts compensated for the enormous sacrifices made by the city’s families can only be guessed at, but they were at least acknowledgements of duty done and suffering endured. In addition, businesses and individuals contributed to the Mayor’s Fund for Relief, which offered help to those who applied in wards across the city. The list of contributors printed just before Christmas ranged from £100 from industries including Rudge Whitworth and Triumph to six shillings donated by a group of schoolgirls.

In the months following the war, as factories reverted to peacetime production, many industries experienced something of a boom as orders picked up and trade adapted to new conditions. Despite this, however, even before an economic slump took hold in 1920, unemployment in Coventry was uncomfortably high in December 1919 and the local press noted with regret that this was the one circumstance likely to lessen the full observance of the festive season. Despite deliberately protracted demobilization throughout the year, not all ex-servicemen had moved seamlessly into employment and women continued to be affected not just by the closure of munitions’ factories but by the determination of many industries to be rid of as many women workers as possible. Hardship had been exacerbated by the recent withdrawal of the temporary unemployment benefit granted by the Government in November 1918, leading some of the city’s newest Labour councillors to urge both Government and Council to provide alternative means of sustenance to those in the direst need.

According to the Unemployed Workers’ Committee, there were up to 9000 unemployed men and women in Coventry (of a total population of around 136,000). Families had long since run out of savings and many had no choice but to apply to the Board of Guardians for assistance. The Guardians, noting that the numbers being helped were considerably higher than in the previous year, expressed their especial regret that ‘respectable’ men and women, together with their children, should find themselves destitute at Christmas. Much of the help given was in the form of food with only a limited amount of cash relief available. It was therefore acknowledged that for some there was no alternative but a humiliating admission to the Workhouse.

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Coventry Workhouse, Whitefriars, London Road. A dormitory in the former cloisters of the 14th century friary. Courtesy of Coventry Archives

Here, for resident children, there was a collection of toys and hope that a Christmas tree would be provided. On Christmas Eve the 420 inmates (some of whom were in the workhouse infirmary) received a visit from the Mayor and his family and presents of tea, sugar and tobacco were distributed. Lunch of roast beef, vegetables and plum pudding was served at midday on Christmas Day, with an ‘allowance’ of beer, or sweets and ‘other luxuries’ for those who preferred these. Those children removed from the workhouse to ‘scattered homes’ (increasingly regarded as kinder, less institutional surroundings for young people than the workhouse) run by the Poor Law Union in Hill Street, Whitley and Edgwick were also treated to festive food, toys and entertainments. For families who were able to stay together in their own homes, the education authority made sure that meals for children in need were available at the Municipal Restaurant in Ford Street, which had been set up during the war.

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Christmas time on the Gulson Children’s Ward. Undated. Courtesy of David Fry

If all this wasn’t enough, Coventry was also facing a housing crisis. There was too little working class housing, a great deal of overcrowding (with many couples and even families crammed into one or two rooms in lodgings) and unacceptable levels of insanitary and inadequate accommodation. Building materials were in short supply, leaving those willing to work in construction unemployed. The Medical Officer for Health confirmed that in 1919 building fell to its lowest levels for 20 years, with just 125 houses completed, compared to 1,491 during the war years. Even with the addition of these, built for war workers, there was reckoned to be a shortage of over 2000 homes in the city. As a temporary measure, the Council started to convert former munitions’ workers’ hostels into cottages, although there was considerable disquiet about the high price of the rents being charged for such small dwellings, particularly as they were often inadequate or ill-suited to family needs. These were, as was often pointed out with bitterness, a long way from the homes for heroes promised to returning soldiers by Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Coventry’s housing provision did expand in the years to come). Paying over-inflated rent and keeping the landlord at bay was a constant worry for many families, as Labour councillor Alice Arnold reminded a magistrate who was hearing the case of an ex-solider facing eviction. Councillor Arnold lost patience in the courtroom and expressed her frustration with a system she believed was biased against working class men and women. She left the court with the tenant declaring that she intended ‘to make such a stink of it in Coventry that I will make the magistrates who heard the case ashamed of themselves.

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Neglected housing in Whitefriars Street, courtesy of Coventry Archives

So, as in any year before and since 1919, many of those who came into the city centre to get ready for Christmas were facing enormous challenges and try as they might, they could not ignore the seasonal transformation of shop windows and the shelves stacked with seasonal gifts. Food, good health, employment, decent housing and the chance to be distracted from the worries of everyday life were modest requirements as the season approached.

Advertising was as artful then as now; Kendalls of Broadgate, for example, informed potential customers that,

No real harm can come to England while the Christmas spirit lives – that sympathy with fellow men which makes us wondrous kind. Christmas Gifts prove this! What Presents could be more ‘thoughtful’ than beautiful rain-resisting Umbrellas, real Kendalls.

In contrast, the Broadgate offices of Albert E Hunt were also on hand, reminding Coventry people that the problems of the War were over but that now new conditions confronted everyone. If by chance any citizens should need  ‘cash accommodation’ to put their affairs in order, they could do no better than to apply for advances from Hunt’s business of between £10 and £5000. Armed with a loan and a nice fat debt with which to start the New Year, parents could then visit Fletchers at 24, West Orchard, to see its array of toys, or the books and fancy goods on sale at Ward’s at 11, Broadgate. Some might even consider taking the children to visit Birmingham’s Toy Fair, where Father Christmas was always in attendance and the piece de resistance in 1919 was a spectacular panorama of Robinson Crusoe’s Hut with Shipwreck in the distance, Cannibal Encampment complete with jungle, moving animals and rustic bridges crossing streams from a ‘real waterfall’.

B Riley Taylor, Outfitter at Kings Head Buildings (at the junction of Hertford Street and Smithford Street), reckoned to stock the perfect presents for gentlemen, including gloves, silk handkerchiefs, scarves, ties, shirts and underwear. WF Webbs’ shop on Paynes Lane boasted that it had the largest stock of gramophones and records in the district, catering for all tastes, including grand opera, instrumental, musical comedy and popular songs. For the ladies who wanted to attend one or more of the many dances advertised in the local press, Newton’s Fancy Drapers, with stores on both Hertford Street and the Foleshill Road, was on hand for Paris net dance frocks, prettily trimmed and finished with either Crepe de Chine or Tinsel Tissue. Younger girls could plead with their mothers for party frocks of white spotted net daintily trimmed and fully lined. Mrs Penny of Brooklyn Road, Foleshill, catered for those attending fancy dress balls, hiring costumes at moderate charges.

Coventry_Broadgate_1917
Broadgate 1917, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Hopefully Mrs Penny’s trade boomed just before the Christmas Eve fancy dress ball at the Baths Assembly Hall, with dancing from 7 to 12 and licensed refreshments for sale. For less energetic revellers, Coventry had an array of venues showing films, plays and musical evenings to suit a range of tastes over the festive season. On Boxing Day, a new ‘picturisation’ of Louisa Alcott’s popular novel, Little Women, was scheduled to run for two nights at the Globe on Primrose Hill Street. Amongst advertisements for films including ‘The Temple of Dust’, ‘The Hope Chest’, ‘When a Woman Sins (in 7 parts) and ‘Jazzmania’ at the Empire (a film exhibition of modern ballroom dancing for those wishing to try out their new steps over Christmas), it was ‘Little Women’ which leapt out at me as I looked through the newspapers, because I am eagerly awaiting a new version of the film, which opens on Boxing Day 2019.

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The Hippodrome, Coventry. This building opened in 1907. Courtesy of David Fry

Family fun was to be found at the Opera House where Dick Whittington and His Cat, complete with full orchestra and large opera chorus began a weel’s run on Boxing Day. Football fans could escape to the Christmas morning match (thus avoiding involvement in the preparation of Christmas lunch, apart from getting home in time to carve the meat) to see second division Coventry take on Stoke, with another game on Boxing Day (Hednesford Town) and West Bromwich Albion the day after. Both traditions remain strong 100 years on, with a few notable changes; this year Puss in Boots is the Belgrade Theatre’s pantomime and although there are no longer Christmas Day football fixtures, there are normally Boxing Day ones – Coventry was scheduled to play Bury, a club that has sadly gone out of business this season – and so the Sky Blues won’t play until they travel to play Wycombe Wanderers on December 29th.

To stock the cupboards and the pantry, the Coventry markets were open from 8 to 10pm on Christmas Eve. Blythe and Sons in the Market Place warned customers that although turkey and geese were in short supply, they were of a quality far superior than was obtained during the War. There were plenty of fowl and chickens, pork was harder to obtain than beef at butchers’ such as the London Central Meat Company Ltd, which had shops in many towns and cities. On the High Street, Atkins and Turtons had currants, sultanas, mincemeat, nuts, ‘pure confectionery’, chocolates and biscuits, including Tom Smith’s Crackers. There was a good supply of dessert fruit, including oranges (which had been hard to get during the War), lemons and apples. In many shop displays, the Christmas cake was a very welcome sight after its general absence due to wartime rationing and food shortages. Chocolate was a popular treat with Rowntrees advertising a ‘plain eating chocolate, with a piquant biscuit-like “snap” and it melts in the mouth with velvety smoothness’ whilst ‘of course Christmastide without a glorious steaming cup of Rowntree’s elect cocoa is unthinkable’.

Families did what they could, took what work they could find in order to provide for their children, swallowed their pride if they needed to, in order to accept charity or poor relief. Before the birth of the welfare state, safety nets were even less robust than today; unemployment benefit was time limited after which there was only parish (poor) relief or charity to turn to. Peace had returned to the nation but for millions of people, life was far from stable. I suspect that despite uncertainty and anxieties about the coming year, there were many people willing to trust that Christmas entertainments might be distracting and healing and to suspend normal life for a day or two at least. On Christmas Eve the Midland Daily Telegraph observed that Coventry ‘in pleasure is indeed a strange contrast to the city during the strenuous days of the past five years’. In an editorial that was almost sermon-like in tone, readers were urged to put away their cares and troubles, their strife and discontent and to let Christmas 1919 be the harbinger of social and industrial peace. Please, it seemed to urge, unite and look after one another and,

As the Christmas bells peal out and the carols are sung with all the verve at the command of the songsters, the homes will assume an atmosphere of jovial conviviality.

And for all those for whom this was an impossibility, there was always next year.

Author copyright Cathy Hunt

With thanks to the British Newspaper Archive. Material and quotes from Midland Daily Telegraph, Coventry Standard and Coventry Herald

Photos courtesy of David Fry.

 

A History of Women’s Lives in Coventry

front cover

Here is the front cover of my new book, just published by Pen & Sword. I am pleased to be able to introduce it in this centenary year of the (partial) granting of the vote to women and it has been an absolute pleasure to work on.

It is about the everyday lives of Coventry women throughout one extraordinary century of change and it is full of stories of what it was like to be a woman between 1850 and 1950.

During these years, women broke through barriers so that future generations of women might experience greater freedoms than had ever been possible for their mothers. Others offered their time and exceptional talents for the good of the community.

The main focus of the book is the too often neglected details of women’s daily lives, of triumphs and tragedies, changes and continuities, loves and losses. What was it like to grow up in Coventry, to go to its schools, to work in its offices, shops and factories? What were women’s experiences of getting married, setting up home and raising children? How did women spend their scarce and precious leisure time?

In other words, this is a book about the business of being a woman in this distinctive English Midlands city. I have lived in Coventry since 1980 and I feel honoured to call it home. In writing about women’s lives between 1850 and 1950, I appreciate how much has changed for the better, how much easier many things have become for subsequent generations of women. I also recognise, however, my own experiences in those I have researched. I love the cover photograph (thanks to Albert Smith for this) because it is so timeless – a group of women taking time out of the day to rest, to talk and to laugh. To me, it also shows the support that women give one another over the big and the small stuff – from cradle to grave, with all the important bits in between. I have learned so much from researching such wonderful women and I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

Some examples from the book:

  • Read about midwife Harriet Ives who, by the time of her retirement after the Second World War, reckoned that she had delivered over 7000 babies in the city
  • Learn about Coventry’s suffragettes, including one woman who escaped a jeering and menacing crowd by leaping on a tram and travelling on it until it was safe to get off and go home
  • Discover the Medical Officer’s advice to mothers about infant feeding at a time when poor housing and lack of good storage could lead to the contamination of baby milk

The book can be ordered here

I will also have copies at the following events

  • Please join me if you can for a chat about the book and some tea and cake at the Big Comfy Bookshop, Fargo Village, Coventry on September 9th from 2.30 onwards.
  •  A very informal book signing morning at the wonderful Kenilworth Books, 12 Talisman Square, 10.30 am until lunchtime, Saturday September 15th
  • A talk about the book, Coventry Society, November 12th. Details to follow
  • A talk about women’s lives in the First World War, Coventry History Centre, Saturday 10 November. Details to follow

 

Peace and Plenty: Coventry leading the way, 1938

 

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Photograph taken from the Midland Daily Telegraph 31 October 1938 www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

 Coventry’s reputation as a city of peace and reconciliation, led by the international work of its Cathedral, is known throughout the world. The powerful images of the charred roof beams fallen in the sign of the cross and of the cross of nails created from the debris of the devastated Cathedral in 1940 have come to symbolise hope and international friendship. In the 1940 Christmas Day service, broadcast from the Cathedral ruins, Provost Howard looked towards a future in which the Cathedral would work with all people ‘to build a kinder, more Christ-like world’.

What is less well known is that Coventry was making its mark as a city promoting peace and equality before the Second World War began. In 1938 the city’s first woman mayor, Alderman Alice Arnold, led a deputation of Coventry citizens to London to present the so-called ‘Peace and Plenty’ petition at the Home Office, addressed to the King, asking for a judicial commission to investigate ways to avoid war and to ensure peace and lasting prosperity for all. The story behind this petition – signed by 60,000 Coventry citizens  – as well as the lead that Coventry provided for other cities, just weeks after Chamberlain’s return from Munich, with his message for ‘peace in our time’, are extraordinary and deserve to be remembered, 80 years on.

The twin anxieties of economic depression and the gathering war clouds were uppermost in the minds of millions of people during the 1930s. Coventry’s ‘new’ engineering industries may have ensured that the very worst of the world economic crisis was avoided in the city but unemployment and short time working had nevertheless left deep marks since the 1920s. In addition, from the late 1930s, there was no escaping the fact that the city was at the forefront of Britain’s rearmament production and that its economic prosperity was bound up with preparations for war.

The organisation behind the petition that Alice Arnold took to London was founded by Mr Robert Scrutton, when he was staying with the popular and socially aware vicar of St Peter’s Church in Hillfields, the Reverend Paul Stacy. Started as an avowedly non-party political movement, it instead declared itself to be a united Christian attempt to seek broad agreement on principles which would end poverty, remove the economic causes of war and in so doing, seek social well-being and security for all people. Named the United Christian Petition Movement (UCPM) it had six broad principles:

 

  1. No man, woman or child should suffer insecurity or poverty through no fault of their own whilst actual or potential resources existed to meet their needs.
  2. That as long as people were in need of food, warmth or shelter, the restriction of supplies or the destruction of goods because people did not have the money to buy them was indefensible.
  3. To encourage the growth of a Christian Social Order, promoting fellowship and co-operation.
  4. To provide security, liberty and opportunity for all men and women to enrich the State by developing their personalities and using their spiritual and intellectual attributes.
  5. That industries and businesses should recognise that human life is sacred and should ‘cease to be made subservient to monetary, expediency or to industrial or commercial exploitation’.
  6. To encourage self- expression and individual development in order to enrich communities.

 

Through public meetings and an ambitious programme of door knocking, it was claimed that signatures were being collected at the rate of 2000 a week, with 51,000 by the summer of 1938. By the time Alice Arnold handed the petition to the Home Office on 29 October, the 60,000 names gathered amounted to nearly a third of the city’s population (the equivalent of over two thirds of its electorate).  There were meetings in other British towns and cities but it was decided that Coventry should lead the way in recognition of the fact that the movement had its origins there. Extra poignancy was attached after Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich in late September 1938, waving the piece of paper with which he hoped that war in Europe might be averted. In a letter from Mayor Arnold appealing to Coventry employers to give their workforces time off from work (on a Saturday, which was often a half day in industry) to accompany the petition to London, she wrote that it was felt that ‘the most practical offering of thanksgiving for the untiring efforts of the Prime Minister’, was for Coventry to set an example to encourage other cities to ‘work to obtain the settlement of all national and international disputes by similar peaceful negotiations, based upon justice and humanity’. Alice Arnold did not ignore the fact that this peace had only been secured due to the ‘the great sacrifice’ made by one nation – the agreement allowed Hitler to annex the Sudetenland – and the UCPM noted that the gratitude of thousands and thousands went out to the people of Czechoslovakia.

Support for the Petition was not, however, found in all quarters. An editorial in the Midland Daily Telegraph stated that ‘if every political organisation sought to further its cause by arranging monster petitions to His Majesty the King instead of pursuing the normal channels so deeply ploughed into the fabric of every democratic State’, political structures would need to be redrawn. Despite not wishing to hinder any political movement seeking remedies to major social problems – in this case mass unemployment – the conservative view put forward was that this was a matter for Parliament and for legislation. Arguably, the numbers of signatures on the Coventry petition tell a different story.

A special train was chartered to take the Coventry deputation which had the support of the city’s churches, trade unions, some members of the City Council, the manager of the city’s Labour Exchange and, it was claimed, of some leading members of local industries. At Euston, Coventry folk were joined by over a hundred clergy as well as by members of the Social Credit Movement, together forming a procession that was around a quarter of a mile long, complete with band. Crowds cheered it on its way to Whitehall and the press reported that in Gower Street, Indian students (where the YMCA Indian Student Hostel was located) came out onto the street to show their support.

The leaders of the procession, Mayor Arnold and her Mayoress, Councillor Ellen Hughes, were the first two women to be elected as councillors in Coventry and their prominence on this day in 1938 ought, I think, to be remembered as a landmark feminist event in the city’s history. Together they laid a wreath at the Cenotaph before handing in six bundles of signatures at the Home Office. The Mayor received a bouquet of flowers from two prominent women supporters of the UCPM, Lady Claire Annesley and Baroness Heyking. At a meeting in Horse Guards’ Parade, Alice Arnold expressed her pleasure in supporting the petition and said that ‘we feel that if Christianity existed in its truest sense we should not be in the position we are today’. Despite the fact that wealth could so easily be produced, there were hundreds of thousands of people living in poverty because of the present economic system. This was a subject dear to the Mayor’s heart who herself was born into poverty in Coventry. She began work at the age of 11 and by the First World War, was an organiser for the Workers’ Union, speaking up for the rights of women workers. When she and Ellen Hughes became city councillors in 1919, both campaigned vociferously for better living standards for Coventry citizens, drawing attention to the dire consequences of poverty in their city.  Alice Arnold’s own health was poor and the day in London must have taxed her strength, for it came only a few weeks after a lengthy spell in the city’s municipal hospital for complete rest, whilst her secretary brought in official papers for her to sign, so determined was she to serve her city.

On her return to Coventry after the deputation, Alice Arnold, her mayoral year now drawing to a close, appealed to Lord Mayors and Mayors in Britain to work with the clergy in launching UCPM campaigns in their own cities. Places that agreed co-operation included Birmingham, Newcastle, Sunderland, Oxford, Barnsley, Harrogate, Liverpool, Bexhill, Nelson, St Ives, Tottenham and six other London boroughs. Preparations were made to follow Coventry’s example and in February 1939 it was hoped that the people of Sunderland would soon be able to add their names to the two million nationwide it was claimed had now signed the petition. In April a public meeting in Liverpool appealed for people to attend a public meeting to discuss ‘Peace and the Abolition of Poverty Everywhere’. In the summer it was reported that over 89 British towns and cities and 23 countries, including Switzerland and France were launching similar campaigns.

The Movement was short lived, overtaken by the realisation that there would be no ‘peace in our time’ and the final descent into the Second World War began, just 20 years after the end of the War to end all wars. Yet the support shown for the Coventry petition in 1938, at a time when rearmament was gathering pace and civil defence measures were very public reminders of the fragility of ‘peace’, demonstrates the willingness of a city to work towards a world in which insecurity and poverty could be eradicated and there would be no more war. It was, however, by now evident that Fascism must be militarily defeated before there could be any more talk of a new world based on social principles that would ensure security, liberty and opportunity for all.

It cannot have been predicted that just over a year into that war on Fascism, Coventry would again lead the way with messages of hope, kindness and, in the wake of the devastation of the city, of forgiveness too.

The majority of material used here is from Coventry’s and other local newspapers. With thanks to Coventry History Centre and the British Newspaper Archive www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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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