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