My great grandmothers and me: International Women’s Day 2021

In the middle of last summer, in a brief window after the end of the first lockdown and before the start of the tier system that we then became so familiar with, I went on a journey. I had an urgent need to walk in the footsteps of some strong women of the past and so I packed my bag and headed off to do the sort of research that I love best. I was entirely solitary. For four days I walked for miles every day; apart from a single visit to an archive, I spoke to almost no one other than to buy food. Each evening I retreated to my base to think without interruption about what I’d discovered during the day. With maps, photos and whilst sitting on my bed eating the boxed meals that the hotel served up during that extraordinary Covid year, I started to work out what I felt I needed to know.

I stayed at the Fulham end of Putney Bridge in south west London. It was the perfect location for my voyage of discovery into the lives of my four great grandmothers – Annie, Amy, Ellen and Elizabeth – who all lived in Putney, Fulham and Chelsea at the turn of the twentieth century. Armed with addresses gleaned from census material and family knowledge, a map and a phone, I looked for houses, workplaces, schools, shops, pubs and churches. The streets were quiet; I had never seen London like this and it made my walks easier than I’d expected without the normal rush of constant movement. Some scenes I remembered from childhood visits to the house in Putney where three generations of women lived together until the 1950s – my great grandmother, grandmother and my mother. Most of the time, however, I made new discoveries, thinking about how the women went about their everyday lives. All of it gave me a sense not just of the familiar but of my place in these women’s traditions. I wanted to know how their lives – like mine was for years – were dominated by thoughts of what they could cook for tea and of how much money was left until pay day. Was everyone ok? Was everything done that needed to be done? Might there be anything left over for a weekend treat for the family? Was there time or energy for an evening stroll or a Sunday trip to the park?

My great grandmothers were working class women; at certain points on my travels, the prosperity that is evident in these districts in the 21st century made it harder to picture the realities of their lives. The Sunlight Laundry in Fulham where Annie and one of her daughters worked has been converted into luxury apartments and is next door to a pub that I suspect is now rather different in feel and style to the one that my great grandfather – perhaps sometimes with Annie – visited, a few minutes’ walk from their house in Querrin Street.

Annie worked here, at what was then the Sunlight Laundry, Fulham

It takes imagination to picture the financial struggles of Ellen, mother of 11, landlady to four lodgers in an 8 roomed rented house in what is now a very upmarket street running between the Kings and Fulham Roads but with a different lens applied, the past does still surface. The spirit of those early 20th century streets and buildings remains – I feel it at least – and although it is easy to be blindsided by gentrification, to gawp at the price tags of London’s houses, it is as impossible to walk around today’s London as it was 100 years ago without realizing that for millions of people, the streets are not paved with gold. Affluence and struggle are present side by side right across the city. London is full of overpriced and done up houses but for the majority of people hardships remain and the anxieties that these induce were, I suspect, all too familiar to my great grandmothers.

Parkfields, Putney. Even when I spent childhood holidays here, there was no bathroom or indoor WC.

All four of my great grandmothers worked and mothered during the years that I wrote about when researching my book on the branches of the all-female trade union, the National Federation of Women Workers. All four could have been members of trade unions. Names of branch members have remained elusive throughout my research and so I have to accept that I will probably never be able to find out if they were union women. There are no family stories of radicalism or activism and to be honest, the odds were stacked against them being trade unionists. Hidden, low paid work such as theirs made it difficult to avoid the gaze of the boss, to find the necessary money for union subs, to find the time to attend branch meetings which were so important in keeping members united and supported and there were too many calls on their time. Annie had the best chance of being unionised when she worked in the industrial laundry and I do know that the Sunlight had a branch of the National Federation of Women Workers. Indoor domestic service, which at least three of them were engaged in before their marriages – placed women directly under the glare and influence of their mistresses and even those who went home at the end of each day, likely did so in a state of exhaustion, making it difficult to act on any chance encounter they might have with a trade union organiser.

At various times the women were laundry workers, domestic servants, shop workers and seamstresses. All of them were wives and mothers. Some of them worked outside the home after the arrival of their children, others found alternative ways to make the money that was needed to pay the rent, to feed and clothe their families. I know with certainty – and not because any one has told me – that all four were the lynchpins, relied upon by everyone, doing the shopping daily, making meals out of what was available and affordable, worrying when a pair of boots was nearing the end of its life, when a pair of trousers had been patched for the last time, when a child’s growth spurt meant saving for new clothes or material, if no hand me downs were forthcoming.

Amy lived here for years, running a fish shop
Modder Place, Putney, where Annie once lived

These are the things that women have done – and continue to do – across the generations. My life has been broadly similar. I don’t know how my great grandmothers felt about their lives or how they dealt with illness, deaths and the insecurities of a life with few – if any – safety nets. They left no written records, they talked to no one about their experiences. All I know is that they lived through it and got through it – somehow. I wasn’t expecting revelation or ghosts to accompany me on my walks around their neighbourhoods.  I discovered a few new facts – how much rent they paid, what the rates were, the occupations of those in their streets –  but nevertheless I left with a much stronger sense of these women’s lives. This in turn galvanized me at a time when I needed a helping hand. Knowing where my great grandmothers walked, the front doors they went through, the schools their children attended, the shops they visited, gave me a sense of their daily routines. I recalled them in times of trouble –their husbands and sons fighting in the First World War, rationing, soaring costs of living and the constant battle to keep all the plates spinning – but I realized something else when I was standing on their streets. I don’t know if they felt strong. There may have been times when they just wanted to give up, walk out of the door and disappear.

And so I stopped thinking of them as having something that I didn’t and instead simply thought about them as women who might have been just like me. In doing so, I began to understand something about myself that connected me to them in a way that I hadn’t previously seen.  I was looking to them for inspiration because I admired their strength in overcoming difficulties and their courage in just getting on with whatever life chucked at them – which seemed to me to be quite a lot.  I wasn’t expecting them to speak to me in any other way. But they did. They told me, as I stood by their front gates and outside their workplaces, that it was only right that, when looking at their past strengths, I also acknowledge my own. Events had left me feeling vulnerable and uncertain but I was still there. I was still getting on with it, just as my great grandmothers did before me.  I am strong and capable too. One day my great grand daughters might come to see where I lived my life. Like me, they’ll find nothing spectacular but they might, when they need it most, see that it is enough just to get through tough times and enjoy the good ones.

Happy International Women’s Day, sisters.  

If you want to find out a little more about the four never-ordinary- women who were my great grandmothers, their First World War stories are available on this site under Women’s Lives in the First World War. Women’s Lives in the First World War – Cathy Hunt historian

There is also a post on the years in which great grandmother Ellen lived in the same street at Sylvia Pankhurst Ellen and Sylvia: Chelsea 1906 – Cathy Hunt historian

The Girl on the Beach and the use of photographs in historical research

I have always delighted in discovering a photograph of the person I am researching and when I do, I find myself reading all sorts of things into what I see. A look of determination, of apprehension, of confidence, I try to match the photograph to what I know of the person. That I do this came to me very forcefully the other day when I discovered a photograph of myself that I had never seen before. Taken in the early 1960s, when I was around 2, what first grabbed my attention was that the image captured three generations of the same family – the infant me, my mum and my grandma. As I am currently researching motherhood in the 20th century, looking at change and continuity in the lives of women within the same family, the photo was like gold dust to me. My mum is watchful, either appreciating the view or – more likely – keeping an eye on my older brother, then around 4. My grandma might be asleep or just able to be more relaxed than her daughter, no longer on constant duty and determined to get value out of her deck chair, hired by the hour (We only ever had deckchairs when my grandparents came down to visit us from London and they made me cross, I think because I knew that I’d be expected to stay nearby and lose the freedom that I so loved on the beach).

 And then there is me. On the day that I looked at this photograph I saw a feisty little girl, strong, sturdy legged, hand on hip, standing independent of the two women. I couldn’t get this picture out of my head for the rest of the day and I wondered why. I eventually saw that depending on how I feel and what is going on in my life, I can look at a photo of myself in many different ways. Was the girl on the beach that day – or in that minute – more fractious than bold? Worried about something rather than seizing the day? And if I can guess so little about a moment in my own life, how can I ever be sure what is going on in the photos that I come across in my work? So, as a direct result of discovering the beach photo, this blog has two strands. It offers some observations about the use of photographs in historical research and then it takes one example –  the girl on the beach -to illustrate the many values that thinking about a photograph can have, despite our uncertainties about what it may or may not depict.

I have written two biographies, one of the relatively well-known trade union leader Mary Macarthur (1880-1921) and one of Alice Arnold, lesser known trade union organiser and Coventry politician (1881-1955). For both women, photographs were in pretty short supply, so there was always excitement when I came across one that I hadn’t seen before. Immediately I started trying to read myriad scenarios into the circumstances of the fresh image. Sometimes this was relatively easy; there were official portraits taken of both women, their role at the time being key to the image, a formal look required. Then there were photographs that appeared in the press, taken at various public events or appearances. Sometimes the woman is looking directly into the camera, sometimes she is less aware that she is being photographed. When looking at these images, I am able to use my knowledge of the subject’s life to work out what else she had going on at the time, I speculate about what she was focusing on, the attention she was giving or the importance she was attaching to the event.

Let’s look at a few images:

Courtesy of TUC Library Collections

This one was taken when Mary Macarthur was just 23 years old. It shows her as a delegate at what might have been her first international conference – in Berlin – on behalf of the British Women’s Trade Union League. What I think I see is a determined, animated young woman off on a great adventure at the International Congress of Women. Mary, born in Scotland, had only been in London for a year where she had started her new work with the League, living independently, far away from her family and full of ambition and reforming zeal. She wanted to make a difference and, based on the impressive start she had made to her trade union career in Scotland, she believed that she could.

But do I really know that Mary was fizzing with excitement at the prospect of the conference? Of course not. I can only project what I think I know about her onto the image. Was she fully at ease in her new world? Was the bold look that I think I detect here actually one of defiance in the face of intimidation at the unfamiliarity of new circumstances? Mary attended the Congress with her older friend and colleague, Margaret Bondfield  who recalled that the two of them felt quite uncomfortable at the sight of its grand dinners, ‘orchids by the hundred for table decoration, sprays for each guest, many courses and six glasses of wine, etc., beside each plate’. They listened to platform speeches, debates and discussions on education, women’s professions and industries, social aims and institutions and the legal position of women. Yet, according to Bondfield, the two friends, whilst very impressed with the fact that ‘nearly everyone who addressed the sections was a professor, or a Doctor of Law or Medicine or Science’, found it hard to find enough delegates who had their own practical experience of industrial working conditions, concluding that ‘salvation for the workers’ would not be delivered from the learned, but ‘must come from themselves’. So perhaps Mary’s look was after all one of youthful confidence, reflecting her belief that she had what it took to make the difference so badly needed.

Here is a very different image of Mary Macarthur, taken thirteen years later when she (far right) was on the platform of a Women’s Labour League conference in Bristol.

Courtesy TUC History Online

Unlike the previous image, I have never used this one when writing or talking about Macarthur, because it is so ambiguous (even if the banner in front of the stage makes us wonder – tongue in cheek – if the women speakers are all sozzled). But there is plenty to speculate about. 18 months into the First World War, are these socialist campaigners taking a breather between speeches from the relentless work needed to keep industrial women safe and on decent pay, to organise them into trade unions, to ensure that army allowances payable to wives and children were adequate, to support widows and carers, to help women make ends meet during a period of spiralling costs of living? Or is just hot in the room? The end of a long day, the start of another? When this was taken in early 1916, Mary Macarthur had a young baby – was she suffering from nights of interrupted sleep? On top of her usual heavy workload – now at least doubled by the pressures of war – she had travelled from London to attend this conference, which presumably involved either bringing her daughter with her or arranging childcare at home. In other words, once again, we can read into the photo what we want to see – and still be wide of the mark.

Courtesy Coventry Archives

In the case of my other subject, Coventry Labour councillor and trade unionist Alice Arnold, scarcely any photos survive, apart from the one taken when she became Coventry’s first woman mayor in 1937 and a few that appeared in the press during her term of office, at civic ceremonies or performing public duties as her city’s representative. Whilst there are a few portraits of Mary Macarthur as a child and a very young woman, Alice Arnold’s early years were dominated by acute poverty and it is unlikely that there was ever available money for a family trip to the photographer’s studio, such as this one taken of the Macarthur sisters.

The Macarthur sisters. Copyright of TUC Library Collections

Alice Arnold became well known not just for her radical politics and her outspokenness but for her aversion to wearing civic robes when she became a city councillor and for an apparent lack of interest in smart clothes. She believed that the official gowns and hats created a barrier between her and her constituents although she consented to wear the mayoral garb when she became the city’s first woman mayor in 1937.

What was she thinking when the mayoral photograph was taken? Was there awkwardness at sitting for the official civic portrait or resentment at the need to don the robe? One or two oral history accounts refer to Arnold’s deep pride at representing her city during this year, so perhaps it is a sense of duty and determination to get things right that we see here? Whatever her look may or may not tell us, the importance and significance of the image is that it shows the first woman to hold the office of mayor since Coventry received its royal charter in 1345.

This next image of Alice Arnold is unlike any other that I have found of her. She was 56 when she became mayor and almost all photos of her are from that year – 1937 – or later. This one, however, is of a younger woman.

Although it appeared in the papers when she was first elected to the Council in 1919, I wonder if it dates from the First World War, when Alice became a trade union organiser for the Workers’ Union. She later remarked that ‘her heart and soul were with the labour movement’ and her 14 year career with the Union, supporting and organising women workers gave her as much personal satisfaction as being able to represent Coventry people during over 30 years on  the City Council. I don’t know but this photograph doesn’t suggest to me that this was a woman who did not care about her appearance. She looks professional, well-groomed and well dressed. Perhaps the references to her perceived lack of sartorial care were wide of the mark. Although Alice left behind the extreme poverty of her childhood, she lived much of her life in straitened circumstances, an unmarried working-class woman in poor health on a low income. There was little spare cash for a varied wardrobe, whether she would have liked one or not.

I will carry on using photographs in my research because whatever we don’t know can help us to try to understand better, add texture to our writing and help us to question all that goes on in women’s lives. if they help us to look more deeply at everything that was happening in the subject’s life when the photograph was taken, then that will surely make us better and bolder researchers and biographers.

And so I turn once more to the girl on the beach.  I willed myself to see strength of mind and body in that little girl. I began to wonder what traces of her, seemingly wanting to do things her own way, were still there in the woman looking back at her forgotten young self. On the day that I found the photo, I didn’t think that there were all that many. I feared that the essence of that girl had been left behind, perhaps not on that south coast beach but somewhere along the way, her self-confidence chipped away at by a whole host of things that happened as she grew. By the time that girl was ten and still had sturdy legs, she was beginning to fret about them, wishing them to be smaller and pencil thin like those of some of her school friends. Sturdy and strong was not, at that time, a look she wanted the world to see. Small was how she wished to be.

Behaving like a girl was another lesson that had yet to be learned. This was not just about how she looked, dressed and carried herself but about her attitude. That feisty beach look (if it really was) became harder to detect as the years passed. I toned myself down, carried myself with care. There was a tension between speaking out and worrying about doing so. I became ever more circumspect in how I spoke and I watched what I said. I told myself that I should be quieter because (or in case) my opinions were uninformed and of less value than of those out there in the world.

It seems to me that all too often girls start off with confidence that is subsequently eroded, making them worry about being themselves – too bright, too loud, too big, too much – prompting them over time to tone down, hold back, agree more, become smaller or less. Boys too can lose their way, be unsure of who they are and make use of masks and constructed personas to give illusions of assurance. The pressures on men to behave in certain ways are immense but I think that the demands placed upon both men and women by society are often different, gender-based ones. Men are less likely than women to be told to be quieter, to keep their opinions to themselves, to take up less room.

Over the years, many events and situations have threatened my sense of who I am.  But after looking at my beach photo, I think it is time for the girl on the beach to rediscover and reclaim her boldness. She does have something to say and she will say it.  If she wants to be loud she can be and she will be. She has opinions and that is ok. Opinionated is not the dirty word she thought it was. She talks; she does not talk too much. People don’t need to listen to her if they don’t want to but she has the right to speak and to write. The things that she writes about have value, sometimes because they add to what is known and – just as important – because they offer a view of the world from a different – and unique – perspective. These things are ok. The photo of the little girl served as a reminder that I do not need permission to be myself.  The girl on the beach is strong. And she’s going to be alright.