The Life of Mary Macarthur

I am delighted to share here the exhibition that I have curated for the TUC. Using images and materials from the TUC Library, it marks the centenary of the death of Macarthur, on 1 January 1921 and celebrates her work as an inspiring trade union leader. Please join me if you can on Friday 8th January at midday for the official launch of the exhibition and for my talk on the life and work of Macarthur. You can register for this free event here

Don’t Try to be Sexy, Ms Smith: ‘Equality’ in the 1970s

Sunday PeopleThe Equal Pay Act (EPA) was passed in Britain on May 29th 1970, 50 years ago this week. For those who had long campaigned for equal pay, it was a relief to finally see it on the statute books (although in a fight with its origins in the late 19th century, by no means all of those who had done so were still alive) and, as a measure that improved at least some women’s pay, it seems right to commemorate it. However, – and this is a VERY LARGE however indeed –this legislation was severely limited in its scope and it never ensured that all women were paid the same as men. In addition, it was launched into a world that was awash with unchallenged and normalized sexism. This happened to be the world in which I was becoming a young woman. This is my take on the EPA, what it meant, and how it was publicly received in 1970s Britain.

In my research on women and work in the early 20th century, I was always struck by the lengths that employers went to to try to get round changes in the law that would mean that they had to raise wage rates. In 1909 the Liberal Government’s Trades Board Act introduced minimum wages into four of the country’s worst paid industries. The first Trade Board rates to be agreed were in the chain making industry of the Black Country and for women homeworkers, the increase was set to substantially raise their pay. There was, however, a three-month period before the agreement became enforceable in 1910, followed by a six-month period in which workers were encouraged to sign an agreement to work at the old rates, with bosses warning that this was the only way that future work could be guaranteed. It was a blatant attempt to bypass the law and the women, led by the National Federation of Women Workers struck, much to the employers’ surprise. The public was incensed that the women were being so shabbily treated, the bosses were shamed into doing the right thing and after a ten-week dispute, the rate was achieved.

This evasion, as outrageous as it was, nevertheless seems fairly mild in comparison to what happened nearly 60 years later, when the EPA was passed (don’t get me wrong. There was no shortage of injustices between 1909 and 1970!). For starters, it was not implemented until 29 December 1975, giving employers a splendidly long time (although not the 7 years the CBI had requested) to work out how to get around pay rise issues, for example by altering job descriptions so that men continued to receive higher pay than women. Spare Rib, the feminist magazine, kept its readers in touch with what was going on. In an excellent article in 1973, entitled ‘Equal Pay: Make It Work for You’, Sarah Boston reported that the company Shoefayre, had renamed its male shop assistants ‘Trainee Managers’ and paid them £3 more than the women whose job titles went unaltered. The terms of the Act were deliberately vague and extremely limited; equal pay was only to be conceded when men and women’s work was deemed to be the same or broadly similar. This was so easy for employers to circumvent, especially as the job evaluations that were needed to determine equal pay were not even compulsory so that many firms did not even bother to carry them out. There were endless ways to get around equal pay, such as implementing grading structures which put heavy work (done by men) at the top and light work (done by women) at the bottom, often with scant regard to the skill and training required. Despite no longer being able to advertise a job as a man’s or a woman’s, firms found ways to ensure that certain jobs would remain exclusively female so that they could be paid less. A good ruse used by at least one firm was to ‘grant’ women a pay rise that brought them up to the male minimum rate. The only problem, as Sarah Boston showed, was that none of the men at the firm were actually on the basic rate and were all paid more than the women.

Even before the Act was implemented, a great many women knew that they would still have a fight on their hands for wage rises. As for women who did work that had long been deemed traditionally female and was notoriously low paid, the EPA changed little or nothing. At the end of the EPA’s first year, Spare Rib noted that ‘it’s been hard for women to take the EPA seriously. Even in cases where it applies, industrial tribunals have been ruling against us for the most trivial reasons’.  Of the 130 cases heard by tribunals (most commonly chaired by men) in the first six months of 1976, 94 were dismissed. Spare Rib drew readers attention to the appeals tribunals which could either reverse the verdicts of the industrial tribunals or get the case referred back for a second hearing. The first three appeals hearings ruled in favour of women workers.

First came the Kraft Food factory in Kirby which had denied women equal pay because they were not permitted to do night work. The appeals tribunal told the firm that ‘the mere time at which the work is performed should be disregarded when considering the differences between the things which the woman does and things which a man does.

This was followed by a case involving Fortes, who had promoted one male waiter to ‘Banqueting Supervisor’ just days after the EPA was passed. A tribunal had ruled that the women waitresses were entitled to equal pay only until the man’s promotion came into effect but this was rejected by an appeals tribunal which ruled for a permanent rise for the women.

The third case concerned a firm on Humberside which had appealed against a tribunal that had decided that a woman cook should receive the same wage as two male assistant chefs. To prove the difference between the jobs, the firm had pointed out that the work was carried out at different times, in different locations and that catering was for different numbers. The appeals judge considered these to be ‘trivial differences’.

Whilst the appeals’ tribunals helped many women workers, it is clear that the process of challenging your employer, was made as difficult as possible – and would not even have been needed if the spirit of the Act had genuinely intended equality. After a long strike for equal pay at the Trico Factory in Brentford (where women were paid £6.50 less than the men on broadly similar work) , supported by the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, one woman’s assessment of the ‘victory’ neatly summed up the real state of affairs; ‘We didn’t get [the settlement] through the Equal Pay Act – you could say we got it despite the Equal Pay Act’.

In the same month that saw the introduction of the EPA, the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) became law. This set up the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) to promote equality and to tackle and remove discrimination in the areas of housing, education and training, as well as in employment. Whilst both these Acts (today covered by the Equality Act) disappointed a lot of women who hoped for much more, the existence of the legislation did at least provide the chance to challenge prejudice and to raise awareness of inequality.

I was 14 in 1976 and completely unaware of the enormity of the scale of the work that lay ahead fo rthe EOC. What I did hear were endless jibes about women ‘wanting it both ways’ – demanding equality in the workplace but still expecting men to open doors for them or pick up the bill on dates. About women being reluctant to do ‘masculine’ (ie heavy or dirty) work. About there being no point to married women having equal pay when it was clear that they were only working for pin money. I heard women deemed to be too loud or expressing opinions being accused of ‘going all women’s lib on us’ and I read about mothers who went out to work wanting it all but neglecting their duties. Sometimes it seemed as if the media delighted in deliberately missing the point; a 1976 Daily Mirror piece entitled ‘Adrienne doesn’t want to be a man’, quoted Adrienne, aged 28, declaring that she wanted to be neither independent nor equal and that women’s lib was in fact pointless (October 5 1976) . Here was the age-old argument about separate spheres – that difference did not equate to inequality. Adrienne ‘gave up a hectic social life and a successful career’ (in that order!) to have a family and had never looked back. And look what happened when mothers went out to work; the Mirror (April 24 1976) reported that,

Fleas and cockroaches are on the increase in Belgium … and it’s all thanks to Women’s Lib, says a health ministry official. He claims that children are turning up to school “like fleabags” because working mothers are too tired to clean their homes.

Regarding equal pay, the legislation existed but there seemed to be a question over whether it was nice or feminine to use it. One of the first women to challenge her employer was ‘blonde Ann Hunt’ (Daily Mirror January 1 1976) who ‘slapped in her claim’… on the day the [EPA] came into force. Another woman who asked for equal pay was awarded compensation for unfair dismissal ‘even though she [had] stormed out and resigned’ (Coventry Evening Telegraph, March 3 1976)

When Joan Bakewell wrote in the Mirror (October 15 1976) that the spirit of the EPA was being ignored and evaded, declaring her support for the women strikers at the Trico factory, readers had things to say,

Blaming the lawmakers for the position in which some women find themselves is, at best, misguided. Women shouted hard and long, telling us how they were undoubtedly equal to men. Now that they have a bigger slice of the cake some are choking on it. if the blame is to be placed anywhere, why not at their own door?

Of course the {SDA and the EPA] will never work. Joan Bakewell must realise there are many jobs which women are quite incapable of doing, even though they may be very competent at their own particular line. They will always be asking a male to help them do something or other (October 21 1976).

I have just finished reading Motherwell, Deborah Orr’s brilliant account of growing up in the 1960s and 70s. Like the Orrs, my family watched Miss World and The Benny Hill Show – everybody did. I heard endless jokes about women, at which you were obliged to laugh if you didn’t want to appear humourless or (God forbid) too serious because, let’s face it and as Orr wrote, ‘women were a joke, after all’. All I knew about women’s liberation and women’s rights were that they were the subject of some hilarious jokes and that women who ‘demanded’ equality’ shaved their heads but not their legs, burned their bras, were not as they should be and were above all figures of fun.

So, if I had read an article in the Sunday People (a British tabloid newspaper) in the autumn of 1976 – 9 months after the introduction of the EPA and the SDA) , about how women should behave at job interviews, I probably wouldn’t have noticed much, if anything, wrong with it. It merely showed me the world that I knew and with no idea yet of what the world of work would look like for me, I suppose I assumed that I would work at something and that whatever it was, it would be what was expected of a young woman in the late 1970s.

Stead & Simpson
My first experience of the world of work: Saturday job, Stead & Simpsons, Exeter 1978

The People article, called ‘Don’t Try to Be Sexy, Ms Smith’ (October 3 1976), appeared on what looks like a woman’s page that included fashion, an advice column, a pattern and a ‘what’s new in the shops’ column. The employment piece was written by Maggie Morro, who stated that despite the SDA and women’s lib, ‘the fact remains … some men just don’t like employing women’. What then, can [a woman] do about this to ensure that she proves to a boss that ‘she’s just as good as the fellows?’.


What followed was a list of tips for women wanting to be taken seriously at interview and in the workplace. Was it a joke or a response to an editor’s straight request for something light-hearted on the modern challenges facing women office workers? Who knew? Let’s laugh anyway because it’s funny, right? (In December 1976 Spare Rib reproduced the People article on a page devoted to examples of sexism sent in by readers. Trouble was, I’d never heard of Spare Rib and I don’t remember seeing it in my local newsagent’s).

Spare Rib
My collection of Spare Rib. But in 1976 my advice on being a teenager came from Jackie

The journalist consulted the Alfred Marks Employment Bureau. Mr Bernard Marks urged girls not to play on their sex appeal at interview but instead to ‘realise it’s their brains not their bosoms a firm is interested in’. He went on, ‘girls who compete with men for jobs have to be careful to keep their femininity on a low key’.

The interview advice that followed included the avoidance of dresses plunging below the navel, to go easy with the false lashes and nails and to make sure there was no ‘careful’ revealing of knees when sitting down. Oh, and don’t wear trousers as ‘some men, believe it or not, still reckon that women just aren’t women unless they’re wearing skirts or a dress’ (so no knees, but do show your legs. Excellent).

Then come some great tips on interview behaviour, reproduced here in full:

If you’re single, don’t make a big play about what time you knock-off. And don’t mention that your boyfriend’s a 6 ft. amateur boxing champion with a terrible jealous streak.

Married women should avoid muttering about getting off early to collect the kids from school. That’s your problem, not his.

So make arrangements for the kids before you get to the interview and tell your prospective boss what plans you’ve made.

Never ask where the nearest supermarket is or which day is early closing. Men are just not concerned that you’ve got to get something for dinner.

Don’t chatter about your personal problems. Don’t giggle. Don’t bite your fingernails or pick your teeth. Or fiddle with your bra-strap.

Don’t smoke without asking permission and never pull your last boss to shreds, or suggest he was always lusting after you.

It doesn’t help if you demand your holidays the next month. It does help if you show an interest in the firm’s products and know a bit about them.

Be honest, of course. But not silly. Don’t dwell on the fact that you missed getting your O levels by half a mile and haven’t worked since the kids were born.

Show our future boss you are happy to have a go at anything – including making the tea – and that you are ambitious.

Above all don’t come on strong as a women’s libber, just in case he happens to be a male chauvinist.

Naturally, everyone assumed that the boss was a man. I am pretty sure that me and many of my classmates would have seen this as offering straightforward rather than ironic advice. In amongst the jokes about boxing boyfriends or the spilling the beans of pervert ex bosses, the sub message was loud and clear – despite the EPA and the SDA, equality of opportunity was nowhere close. It was still a man’s world and in order to be part of it, you played by men’s rules. Blend in and please. If you got it right and didn’t exploit your femininity (but didn’t obscure it either), you might just be taken seriously. Too much woman and you were probably a bit dumb. Too little woman and you confused people. Too single and you were a threat or a tease. Too much of a mother and you couldn’t possibly care enough about your job. Too much ambition and you would need to be put in your place. In other words, women, just do what you were told. Be quietly but unthreateningly indispensable, a safe pair of hands, as unobtrusive as possible.

As long as you weren’t silly of course.

My sources:

Motherwell by Deborah Orr, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2020

British Newspaper Archive

Spare Rib Archive, British Library

This was my take on the issue of 1970s equal pay. Here are some links relating to the persistence of unequal pay in Britain:











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


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.

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!

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.

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

International Women’s Day and Women’s Friendships

mumOn International Women’s Day 2020, the importance of women’s friendships is uppermost in my mind. Very recently, I have been reminded how much I love and value the women in my life and I have been thinking a great deal about the loving support that has upheld so many women in their times of trouble. In neighbourhoods, women have always rallied round during difficulties and crises – in childbirth, in illness, in death and in the agonies of domestic disputes. Women were there to sustain with tea, childcare, physical comfort and righteous indignation. Women supported other women simply because it was the right thing to do, because they knew that it was the best – sometimes the only – way to deal with physical and emotional pain. Even in the grimness, women shared moments of humour, using laughter to block out unkindness and to strengthen solidarity. They did all this not because they regarded men as the enemy but because they recognised both the understanding that can unite women and the healing powers that female friendships can provide. At the same time as wanting to thank the women with whom I share so much, I reflect also on the bonds that got some of the women in history who I most admire through the worst of times and helped them on towards better times. Even when these were a long time coming, the women were there anyway, giving all that they could.

A chat over the fence, courtesy of David Fry and Albert Smith

In the British labour movement of the early 20th century, female friendships and solidarity among women were vital to those women striving to secure a place for themselves as leaders and organisers of women workers. The trade union world was dominated by men, who were unused to the sight and sound of women on public platforms, delivering messages that too many believed women were not qualified to give, and to women workers who should not even have been in the workplace alongside men. It was an adversarial and combative world, dealing with aggressive employers who too often believed that women should be grateful for any pay that they received. Women activists had to overcome barrier after barrier in order to provide guidance and encouragement and to try to help make improvements for all women. Economic independence remained out of reach for many who needed it but that did not stop the fight for fairness, safety and raised, decent standards of living. When Mary Macarthur, founder of the all-female National Federation of Women Workers, started the Woman Worker, a journal for women workers in 1907, her hope was that it would ‘bind women together in friendship and unity’. The first serialized story carried by the journal featured a young woman worker called Margaret. It highlighted the doubts that a young man had about women’s capacity for loyalty and comradeship or indeed their ability to stick to a cause. He, like so many others, was completely wrong; women, despite the high stakes, proved their determination to correct injustice time and time again as they stood, marched and sang together in defiance of bosses who treated them with disdain. The gratitude felt by the box makers at the Corruganza factory in south London in 1908 towards their forewoman, Mary, spilled into the reports of a bitter pay dispute; Mary had risked her future to defend the girls whose pay was being reduced, even though her own wages were secure. Confronting the factory manager, she was sacked on the spot despite her 16 years of service. That she ‘stuck up for us’ meant a great deal to women who were fighting to maintain wages barely enough to cover the essentials of life.

Corruganza 2
Corruganza Box Makers’ Strike 1908. This is a rally in Trafalgar Square with Mary Macarthur in the bottom right of the photograph. Courtesy of TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University

Women trade unionists took advantage of rare opportunities to let off steam together, like the Edmonton branch of the National Federation of Women Workers, whose members, in the days leading up to the First World War, took the boat to Kew where they were met by cars and taken to Hampton Court. The weather was perfect, all meals were served outdoors, there was dancing, running races and the chance just to wander through the grounds, talking and relaxing. All agreed that it was one of the most enjoyable outings they had ever had. Women had far less time for this sort of event than men, for whom a degree of leisure was built into the working day – lunch breaks in which no shopping had to be done for the family, a quick half in the pub on the way home or a union evening meeting in the club. Trade unions knew the importance of women meeting together free of the fear of being watched by the boss or criticized or mocked by their loved ones – like Margaret in the story in the Woman Worker. Telling her lover that she could only go walking with him until her union meeting, he tried to persuade her not to go. She explained that she must, because, as branch secretary, it was her duty. Her young man laughed and told her that of course she must have her ‘little amusements’ and she could call them ‘business’ and ‘duty’ if she liked, but still he believed that her commitment to the union was nothing more lasting than a fad. Women, then, needed other women, if they were not to be constantly undermined by those who thought they had a larger claim on their time.

Women leaders were just as reliant upon each other’s support as were rank and file members. When Mary Macarthur left Scotland for London in 1903, she went to live with Margaret Bondfield, who was already a senior trade union official for the Shop Assistants’ Union. Not only did Bondfield offer Mary a temporary home, comfort and support, she introduced her young friend to other women in the labour movement who immediately recognised the brilliant potential of the exuberant 23 year old Scot.

Bara adjusted
Mary Macarthur Holiday Trust Archive, TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University

Mary Macarthur went on to have a remarkable career and she surrounded herself at all times with a loyal band of women who would move heaven and earth for her. They worked together to get things done, to spread workloads and to rally when needed. As Mary Macarthur’s final illness in 1920 became unstoppable, these women formed the closest of circles around their friend, once again offering the loving support that had helped to sustain her the previous year when she had lost her husband. They were all women who had outstanding careers of their own, women including Susan Lawrence, who became one of the first women Labour MPs, Madeleine Symons, who was trade union worker, JP and social activist, and Gertrude Tuckwell, a labour movement campaigner who all knew the central importance of female friendships to health and happiness. There was no jealousy or point scoring; when Margaret Bondfield and Mary Macarthur first met, at a Shop Assistants’ convention, Bondfield was older and more experienced and yet she claimed to know immediately that the young woman standing in front of her was destined for greatness; here, she said, was ‘genius, allied to boundless enthusiasm and leadership of a high order, coming to build our little Union into a more effective instrument’. Despite the older woman’s seniority at that point, she wrote that ‘it was a dazzling experience for a humdrum official to find herself treated with the reverence due to an oracle by one whose brilliant gifts and vital energy were even then manifest. So might a pigeon feel if suddenly worshipped by a young eaglet’. This was generous praise indeed from Bondfield who went on to become Britain’s first woman Cabinet Minister in the Labour government of 1929 to 1931.

Margaret Bondfield

My own experiences of friendship tell me that nothing has changed. The women in my life have been there to pick me up off the floor during my toughest moments and I hope that I have been as valuable to them during theirs. In the last few years, I have talked to many trade union groups about women activists of the past and I have witnessed some incredibly strong support networks of and for women and I am in no doubt of the strength that these give to individual women, activists and grassroots union members. So, this year, I want just to say thank you to all these women. The importance of kindness, empathy and having a laugh together is incalculable. Mary Macarthur was right; binding together in friendship and unity is what sustains us.

On the beach Labour Woman
Mary Macarthur and her daughter, Nancy on the beach with Dr Marian Phillips, Labour Woman, 1920

Me on the beach with two very important women; my mum and my Nana


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.



I am delighted to introduce a podcast recorded by History West Midlands, in which I share some stories of women’s every day life in Coventry between 1850 and 1950. These are drawn from my recent book, A History of Women’s Lives in Coventry 1850-1950 published by Pen&Sword For those who live in the Coventry area, the book is also available at The Big Comfy Bookshop in Fargo Village, Waterstones (city centre and Leamington) and Earlsdon Post Office, and is priced at £14.99.

Coventry women on holiday between the wars. Photo courtesy of Albert Smith (included in A History Of Women’s Lives in Coventry)

A Chat Over the Fence. Courtesy of Albert Smith (included in A History of Women’s Lives in Coventry)

book launch
Launch of A History of Women’s Lives in Coventry at The Big Comfy Bookshop

I also have a short piece on the wonderful ‘Sheroes of History’ women’s history site about Alice Arnold, Coventry’s first woman mayor. You can read it here along with lots of excellent blogs contributed by authors about many truly remarkable women.

If you enjoy the Alice Arnold blog,  I will be talking on September 17th at Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery and Museum about Coventry’s earliest women councillors. Autumn 1919 marks the centenary anniversary of the election of two brilliant pioneers – Alice Arnold and Ellen Hughes. It is easy to overlook local politicians and yet they are the ones who often make the biggest difference to our communities and to the quality of our lives. I will be paying tribute to the first elected women and also to the other women who served on Coventry City Council in the years before the Second World War. Their contributions had an enormous impact on the lives of Coventry’s citizens and their experiences of work, politics and womanhood brought new and valued perspectives to the Council Chamber.

Alice Arnold and Ellen Hughes, Coventry’s first women councillors, successful candidates in the first local elections in Coventry since before the First World War.

I am thrilled to announce that this September my biography of Mary Macarthur will be published by History West Midlands. In 1921 this brilliant and charismatic trade union leader died, aged just 40. In her short life, her activism and leadership had been responsible for raising awareness of women’s poor working conditions and encouraging them to speak out against injustice and inequality.

PRE-ORDER SPECIAL ONLY £15* - Mary Macarthur 1880-1921 The Working Woman’s Champion

Mary Macarthur is perhaps best known for the prominent part she played in the women chain makers’ strike in Cradley Heath, Staffordshire in 1910. This heroic dispute ended with the women receiving the minimum wage that was theirs by right. It was a triumph, but by no means an isolated one. Mary Macarthur, as leader of the country’s all-female general trade union, the National Federation of Women Workers, travelled the length and breadth of the country making sure that women’s lives were improved by better pay and working conditions and union membership.

This biography seeks to understand what motivated this extraordinary individual and why she chose the path that she did, particularly at a time when it was still far from common for a middle-class woman to appear on public platforms. In other words, this is not just an account of Mary the union leader but of Mary the woman – of her travels and friendships, love and marriage, family and motherhood – all explored within the context of her times.

I look forward to sharing my research journey on my website once the book is published. In February, I was interviewed by Jenni Murray on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour about Mary Macarthur. I was invited to be on the show with Bryony Purdue, who is currently playing Mary Macarthur in a touring folk opera called Rouse Ye Women, by Townsend Theatre Productions. This is about Mary Macarthur’s involvement in the 1910 women chain makers’ strike in Cradley Heath and it is a truly inspirational, powerful and deeply moving play which has got some brilliant reviews. I was delighted to be with the cast at Greenwich Theatre in February for a post-show chat about Mary Macarthur.

For the chance to hear Bryony beautifully performing a song and an excerpt from Rouse Ye Women, plus some background from me about Mary Macarthur, catch us on this episode of Woman’s Hour,  here

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Bryony Purdue and Cathy at the BBC for Woman’s Hour

On Thursday May 30th I am talking at Tara Theatre, Earlsfield, London about Mary Macarthur and the part that she played in the 1908 Corruganza strike. A group of brave women at the Corruganza box making factory in Summerstown refused to be intimidated by their boss who had decided to reduce their already low wages. Together they fought back, formed a branch of the all female National Federation of Women Workers and headed for Trafalgar Square to ensure their cause was widely publicised. In January this year,  I went on a memorable and guided walk around Summerstown with excellent local historian Geoff Simmons. We set out to find the site of the box factory and also to walk in the footsteps of the women strikers on their way to the station. I felt very close to the box makers, despite the fact that when I was in Summerstown, the sun shone in a bright blue sky whereas when they were on the march, they negotiated heavy summer downpours!

My talk  is part of Tara Theatre’s exciting May festival of women’s artists – I’ll Say It Again – read all about it here

Corruganza TUC
Mary Macarthur addressing the crowd, Trafalgar Square, 1908

Summerstown, January 2019

I am also very much looking forward to talking about Mary Macarthur at the Chain Makers’ Festival on Saturday July 6th in the Mary Macarthur Gardens, Cradley Heath. This is an event that I love attending and which raises the profile of all women workers fighting for a better day.

Mary Macarthur (Commons

Women’s Lives in the First World War, Part Four: Hidden lives

The forgotten lives of women

I have written blogs about my three great grandmothers during the First World War. This final one focuses on Elizabeth and has been the most difficult of the series to write, largely because I found it so hard to find any details of her life. In the end, it was the reasons why this was so that proved the most fascinating, and it’s what I have chosen to write about here, reflecting on what this absence of biography reveals about the ways that women’s lives are not only recorded but remembered – and, too often, forgotten.

Elizabeth’s story

Elizabeth with one of her daughters


Elizabeth was born in Chelsea in 1858. Her father was a plasterer and her mother, before her marriage in 1841, had been a servant. The couple had at least eight children. Elizabeth followed her mother into one of the commonest occupations for girls and young women in Chelsea and became a domestic servant in Chelsea’s Paulton Square, an elegant Georgian and gardened space, just around the corner from where she had grown up in far less opulent and much more crowded housing. In 1885 Elizabeth married Alfred, a bricklayer, and the couple had ten children, six of whom survived into adulthood.

By the time the First World War began, the family had moved from their three or four roomed flat in a subdivided house in Chelsea to an eight roomed house in Fulham which they do not appear to have shared with any other households or lodgers. From this, I can only guess that times had got easier for the family as the oldest children began to contribute to the household income. The youngest child was 13 and still at school but, in all likelihood, all of her older sisters, aged from 14 to 25, were by then at work. Three years before, the 1911 census recorded that Louisa the eldest was a dressmaker and Edith, the second eldest, a servant. The only son, William, was a gas fitter and family memory is that he was not fit for army service when war came. His father, Alfred was, at 56, too old to sign up.

The house in Fulham where the family lived from 1911

And that, unlike the accounts that I have managed to piece together of my other great grandmothers’ lives in wartime, seemed to be all that I could find out.  One of the reasons for the lack of information about Elizabeth could be the fact that family narratives are often told or recorded through male experiences or official records that reveal male occupations. In the case of Annie and Amy (the first two blogs) this was at least in part via information found in their husbands’ army records, allowing details of, for example, family separation and dependent children to be further explored. It is also because families tend to retain evidence of men’s army service, in the form of medals, photographs and patriotic pride in sacrifices made. By contrast, their wives are broadly defined by history as women-whose-husbands-went-to-war, holding the fort until the menfolk came home. If they didn’t themselves take on an exciting or dramatic wartime adventure as, for example, a munitions or transport worker – which just might be remembered within a family – the women’s experiences are assumed to be domestic and, apart from the imagined added wartime induced stoicism, indistinguishable from those of other generations of wives and mothers.

In the case of Elizabeth, neither her husband nor her son went to war and so there is no clear male wartime trail to uncover an understanding of how she dealt with war. Elizabeth, at 55, was quite possibly too old to take on war work but she had five daughters who were all of employment age by 1918. Despite asking lots of questions (my oldest surviving relative was born in 1921), I have been unable to find out what these young women did during the war. Did they take advantage of the availability of better paid work than they were used to? Did they go into industrial work? Nursing? Did they take on work traditionally associated with men? No one knows. Of the youngest three sisters I have been told only that in the post war years they worked in London department stores; my great aunt Lilian worked in Harrods until her retirement in the 1950s. Family folklore is that her fiancé was killed during the First World War and I know that she remained single for the rest of her life. Whatever she did during the war is hidden beneath the tragedy of a young man losing his life and the implied tragedy of his sweetheart being left on the shelf.

Two of Elizabeth’s daughters in the years before the war. The girl standing is almost certainly my grandmother but even the identification of the women from the few remaining photos has been difficult

That this is all that is known about Lilian’s life in wartime seems to me tragic in its own way, especially as I remember her as having a quirky sense of humour, a love of adventure and, along with her sisters (one of whom was my grandmother), dressmaking skills that kept my dolls and I in wonderfully bright summer dresses when I was a little girl. I have over the years asked and asked again where the sisters learned how to design and create clothes but no one seems to know. Worse, it seems to be accepted that they knew how to sew because they were women. If garment making was how they, like the eldest sister, earned their living at various points, then no one took much interest in their traditionally female employment. It was women’s work, as was (in the eyes of the family) the shop work they took on after the war. This is, as in so many families, in stark contrast to family memories of male employment, in both war and peace time. Men go through history defined by their work (biographies of women very often start with ‘her father was a carpenter/clergyman/teacher’ with details of mothers left out or limited to lineage, marriage and motherhood). Women are remembered if they are pioneers, buck trends, set trends, have their talents publicly or professionally acknowledged or behave badly or oddly. Even then, as Elizabeth Crawford recently pointed out in an article about sisters Ella and Geraldine Stevenson, WSPU supporters and militant campaigners, family memories of maiden aunts, however extraordinary the lives they led, are too often hazy, their stories unknown.

The fact that Elizabeth’s family was predominately female has contributed to the difficulties of my research and particularly as just one of her five daughters (my grandmother) went on to have children. Even so, her children have passed on far more details of their male relations than they have of the women. And it was whilst trying to find out what happened to one of Elizabeth’s daughters, Edith, that I managed to get a little closer to an understanding of what this family had gone through during the First World War. When I asked about her, there was just the vaguest memory within the family that one of the sisters had died. And so I trawled for a death certificate and found that, like great grandmother Ellen and Amy, Elizabeth too suffered a commonplace tragedy unrelated to war – the death of one of her children. In this case, her child was Edith, a 25 year old single woman who died of pulmonary tuberculosis and tuberculosis of the spine in July 1917. She had contracted the disease in 1915. Her younger sister, Lilian, was present at her death at the family home. According to her death certificate, Edith was a domestic nurse but there is no one to ask when she had to give up her work, whether she contracted the illness whilst nursing or how she was cared for within her family. As well as the anxieties associated with having a TB sufferer in the home, there was the added expense of doctors’ visits, medicines, restorative tonics and nutritious food. The latter was even more expensive in wartime and it was increasingly necessary to queue for long periods for many of the staples that might have helped to build the patient’s strength. The family’s better fortune in moving to the larger house in 1911 may well have protected the rest of the family from disease by ensuring that there was a separate sick room for Edith.

Here, then, once again, we witness a family experiencing a different type of war to the one that remains uppermost in the nation’s collective memory. When we think of death and the First World War, the slaughter of men on the Western Front is of course at the forefront of our minds. Yet in three of my four blogs, families lost children to illness during the War and the lives of their parents would never be the same again. It makes me so sad that Edith, no matter how much she was loved in her lifetime, has left no mark on the world other than ‘oh yes, I think there was a sister who died’. It was not my intention to present these blogs as family history but as case studies showing how four women experienced the First World War and what has emerged for me is the importance of digging as deep as possible to discover that there was no such thing as ‘ordinary’ and that all lives are as important. One of my great grandfathers was awarded the Military Medal and that makes me proud but so sad that he had to live with the horrors witnessed at the Somme for the rest of his life. I am equally proud of all the women, like my great grandmothers who looked after their families, kept the family fed and housed by running the business, taking in lodgers and making money where and when possible. It saddens me that Annie, Amy and Elizabeth had to bury children, all victims of diseases that are now curable and controllable and which, in some countries at least, no longer cast shadows over parenting.

Women did great things during the First World War. They worked in industry, in public services, as doctors, nurses and in the armed services. Let’s not forget the importance of their domestic lives and how they cared for their children amidst the difficulties of war. Let’s remember also those who did not marry and/or did not have children, so many of whom are now absent from our histories –and we need wherever possible to record the precious and extraordinary details of their lives.

My favourite photo of Annie, William and their children in the First World War


‘The Weather Was Hot, The Way was Long’: the 1918 strike for equal pay

On Saturday 17th August 1918 a strike began without warning in London among women bus and tram workers. These wartime workers walked out in defence of the principle of equal pay for equal work. Despite promises that where men and women did the same jobs, pay would be the same, the Committee of Production had, earlier in the year, awarded an increase of five shillings per week to men only. The five shillings was added to the war bonus that workers were given on top of their wages to help them cope with the spiralling costs of living during the First World War. It was argued that the brunt of these costs was felt more acutely by men than by women, because men had wives and children to support. The women were having none of this and the injustice and inaccuracy of the reasoning was what led to the strike.

TUC women conductresses
Women bus conductresses, 1918. With thanks to the TUC Library, Special Collections, London Metropolitan University. Rita Ferris-Taylor’s grandmother, Blanche Taylor, is in the back row, on the right hand side of the photo. 

Despite the disruption caused to workers and day trippers alike, there was a great deal of support for the women who were backed in their action by transport unions, male colleagues and public transport workers in towns beyond the capital. Initially the strike had no official support but as it spread rapidly to garages and depots, the London and Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers was quick to back the women. Its Executive Council passed a resolution endorsing the actions of their members and calling upon all its bus and tram members to come out on strike in support and to extend the dispute into the provinces. Reports suggest that services in London and the suburbs were seriously reduced. The traffic manager of one of the affected firms, the London General Omnibus Company, stated that around 3000 buses and trams were withdrawn on the first day of the strike alone with over 10,000 employees involved.

There were ‘indescribable’ scenes in long queues for trains and emotive reports of soldiers home on leave having to lug heavy kit bags across the capital, two of whom apparently collapsed under the strain and had to be taken to hospital by ambulance. Visitors to the city were said to be confused but stoical Londoners apparently enjoyed the chance to get some extra fresh air, taking to walking in far greater numbers than usual. Some workers even confessed that it was something of a relief not to be enduring the heat and overcrowding that had become standard on the capital’s buses and trams during rush hours. Although London County Council kept its services running, some of its conductresses came out in sympathy and they were joined by female workers on the Bakerloo tube line, one of whom said that she thought it was about time the Underground girls were listened to. For doing the same work as the men, she remarked how unfair it was that the women railway workers were paid 12 shillings and 6 pence less. According to one trade union journal, ‘the weather was hot, and the way was long: such tubes as were running were blocked to suffocation: but amidst all the irritation and inconvenience caused to the ordinary citizen, hardly a voice was raised in deprecation of the principle for which the fight was being waged’.[1]

The dispute, which lasted for a week, ended in success and women were granted the five shillings which was then extended to women in war industries. It was a hugely important but by no means straightforward landmark case for equality and one well worth recalling, particularly at a time when we are still – one hundred years on and nearly 50 years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act – uncovering new instances of gender pay inequalities on an alarmingly regular basis.

According to the secretary of the National Federation of Transport Workers, the women were ‘smarting under a sense of injustice’ and the men were loyally cooperating with them.[2] Men, however, had a vested interest in protecting wage rates and feared that where women were paid less than them, the wages of all workers could be dragged down to the lower level. So, as the strike spread south west to Bristol, Bath and Weston super Mare, and to the south coast at Brighton and Hove, Hastings and Folkestone, many male workers lent support to protect their own pay and status.

This struggle for equal pay seemed, according to the Labour economist Sidney Webb, to have come about ‘all in a rush’ and he thought that now there might well be wide acceptance of the equal pay for equal work principle – already adopted by the Labour Party – with ‘momentous social changes to come’. It was astonishing, Webb remarked, how quickly ‘we reach conviction when there are eight million women electors (for the Representation of the People’s Act had passed in February 1918)’.[3] But let’s not forget; this was wartime and not all support for the women was due to a desire to raise their status or to value their position in the workplace.

Women’s work on and beyond the Home Front was vital to the war effort, particularly as men signed up or were conscripted into armed service. Hundreds of thousands of women moved from traditional (and low paid) female employment, such as domestic service and food production, into work previously regarded as belonging to men. Women worked in service industries, they drove delivery vans and they began working on public transport in considerably greater numbers than before the war (from 300 to 4,500 on the buses and from 1,300 to 22,000 on the trams by 1918).[4] Whilst the railways would not take on women as drivers and there were very few tram or bus drivers, the public grew used to the sight of women ticket collectors and conductresses. They also recognised and appreciated that with fewer tram cars and buses on the roads than before the war, the new workers were working in difficult conditions, dealing with larger numbers of passengers and a great deal of overcrowding.

Conductress in the First World War, Imperial War Museum (public domain), Wikimedia Commons

Despite promises that where women replaced men, equal pay would be granted, women soon discovered that employers (and government) looked for ways to claim that the work that they did was seldom equal to men’s. In engineering, for example, where women’s labour in the munitions’ factories ensured the regular supply of shells and equipment to Front Line troops, skilled jobs were commonly broken down into several separate processes, making it easier for employers to maintain wage differentiation by insisting, whenever possible, that the new jobs were not eligible for the skilled rates of pay that had belonged exclusively to men before the war. Such so-called ‘dilution’ was not so easy to accomplish on public transport where women were visibly doing the same jobs as men; for example, up to 90 per cent of conductors were reckoned to be women. In recognition of this – but most definitely for the duration of the war only – women were told that their basic pay rates would be equivalent to men’s. This made their exclusion from the 1918 award particularly hard to accept.

Traditionally women’s work was regarded as being less skilled than men’s and yet here, in the case of the transport workers, the public could plainly see that women had not only replaced men but had done so with the greatest of efficiency and enthusiasm. So how could the decision to award them a smaller war bonus than men be justified? It was time to bring out a favourite old rationale; male workers were assumed to be family men with dependents, whereas women workers were assumed to be single with no one to support but themselves. Naturally, then, men worked for – and the labour movement defended – the so-called family wage (never incidentally paid to a woman with children, even if she was the family’s sole breadwinner). The assumptions were of course based on enormous and inaccurate generalisations; as Sidney Webb observed, the average employer got his labour as cheaply as possible, but he didn’t pay a single man less than a married one, or a childless husband less than the father of a family.[5] In the case of the war bonus, the all-male Committee of Production took the view that the burden of increased prices in wartime, which affected food and most commodities, fell more heavily on men than on women. For those working women whose husbands had gone off to fight, there was the army separation allowance, payable to wives and children and it was thought that this should be entirely adequate compensation for receiving a lower war bonus than men. The trade union journal Woman Worker highlighted the ‘ridiculous argument’ that separation allowances were a reason against equality. ‘You might as well say’, it reported, ‘that a man’s wages should be reduced because he had been left a legacy by his deceased aunt’.[6] In other words, the allowance had absolutely nothing to do with the pay that women were entitled to for doing the same work as men.

Women ticket collectors on the railway, Manchester, Imperial War Museum, (public domain), Wikimedia Commons

The transport companies believed they had another reason for keeping women’s bonuses lower than men’s; women, they maintained, were more expensive to employ than men. Because their attendance was allegedly less regular than men’s, a large reserve staff of women had to be kept on the books. The women strikers were having none of this nonsense, pointing out that no member of the spare staff was paid unless she actually worked, so there could be no loss to the firm.

Beyond the general support given to the women, there were plenty of warnings flying around about the consequences of awarding equal pay in all industries and these show just how far the argument for equality had yet to go. The Times declared that whilst the women bus and tram workers had a good case, the principle was no matter for sentimentality and that there were many cases of ‘conventional’ rather than ‘real’ equality where general standards of work would be pulled down unless wage differentiation was maintained. It gave, however, no examples of what this was supposed to mean. Instead it went on to say that equal pay would inevitably reduce the employment of women when the men returned from the war but ‘that is another remoter question’ (how many times had women heard that one – be patient, wait until the class struggle is won). Sidney Webb, whilst agreeing the principle, also feared that equal pay would lead to the workplace segregation of the sexes after the war. Even trade union leader Mary Macarthur, champion of women war workers, believed that the principle of equal pay for equal worth was essentially meaningless, because of the risk that employers would interpret equal as identical, whereas ‘it hardly ever is’.  She also feared that equality of opportunity for women industrial workers would work against women, resulting in their coercion, through the combination of ‘economic necessity and unscrupulous employers’ into work that they did not want to do or that was dangerous and unsuitable and would lead to the removal of a great deal of protective factory legislation.[7]

After a conference attended by several of the transport unions, the women agreed a return to work ahead of talks and days later they were awarded the five shillings bonus, backdated to when the men had first received it. There was much praise for the women strikers’ bravery. Workers in essential war industries were effectively (officially at least) banned from strike action during the war and Mary Macarthur’s union, the National Federation of Women Workers, offered up its hearty congratulations to the ‘bus girls’, thanking them for a very valuable demonstration which was much appreciated by those in munitions, to whom the five shillings advance was extended from September.[8] Not all, however, were so effusive in their praise; The Times accepted that the women’s demands had been met with sympathy but condemned such ‘sudden and revolutionary attacks on our social life’ that only have to repeated often enough ‘to ruin the best of causes’.[9] Worse was the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph which, after acknowledging the women’s fight and victory, chose to run a story about some of the more ‘extraordinary’ causes women workers had struck over, including (allegedly) the removal of a chewing gum machine in a factory in New York, the dismissal of a handsome foreman and an incident with an engagement ring ( which even a read of the article makes clear was nothing to do with the viewing of a worker’s ring and everything to do with the rough push that a worker received from a supervisor to get her back to work). [10]

Whilst the strike was successful (and as Woman Worker stated, how unfortunate that a strike is necessary before some people can assimilate the simplest facts), it can’t be claimed that this wartime dispute was the start of an unstoppable move towards equal pay. When the results of a government committee on women’s wages were published in 1919, its recommendations were mixed, to say the least. It did accept equal pay for equal work as a general principle but as it also accepted the concept of ‘women’s work’, where wages should be based on the needs of an 18-year-old single woman, the application of the equal pay principle was constrained from the start. As Gail Braybon writes, ‘thus, the ideas that equal pay was for men’s protection and that women’s wages were inherently less important, were maintained’.[11]

In a post-war world, in which all pre-war work practices had been restored to protect the labour rights of the working man, and in which government and trade unions agreed that married women should ideally not seek employment outside the home, the battle for equality of both pay and opportunity had a very long way to go. Despite the gains of the war, in terms of pay, opportunities and a nation’s gratitude, despite the gaining of the parliamentary vote by some women in 1918, and even despite the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, ensuring women access to the professions, women workers found themselves at the back of the queue in a world which continued to assume that becoming a wife and a mother were their ultimate goals. If women didn’t take the low paid work that they had done before the war, they found themselves denied unemployment benefit. Thousands of women in industry had their wages rates slashed in the early 1920s.

The 1918 equal pay strike was an important step along the way to full gender equality. Despite women’s hopes that the war would transform their status as workers, this was not to be. As Mary Macarthur wrote at the end of the war, ‘the new world looks uncommonly like the old one, rolling along as stupidly and blindly as ever’.[12] The strike is an important reminder – if we needed one – of the barrage of obstacles that continue to be placed in women’s way as they pursue equality in the workplace but it also a reminder that women will rise up to challenge injustices and, however long it takes, they will eradicate inequalities wherever they find them.

For more, do visit the following excellent accounts of and resources for the strike:

The London Transport Women Workers’ Strike, 1918

London Buses at War,

London Women Tram Workers – Equal Pay Strike 1918

The TUC Library Collection

International Woman’s Suffrage Alliance, with special reference to women’s war work, John Rylands Library, Manchester

[1] Woman Worker, September 1918

[2] Morning Post, August 19th 1918

[3] Daily News and Leader, 24th August 1918


[5] Daily News and Leader, 24thaugust 1918

[6] Woman Worker, September 1918

[7] Cathy Hunt (2014), The National Federation of Women Workers, 1906-21, Palgrave Macmillan, p 103

[8] Woman Worker, September 1918

[9] The Times, August 21st 1918

[10] Sheffield Weekly Telegraph, August 21st 1918, British Newspaper Archive

[11] Gail Braybon (1981), Women Workers in the First World War, Croom Helm, p107

[12] Cathy Hunt, National Federation, p 96