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

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at a few images:

Courtesy of TUC Library Collections

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

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

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

Courtesy TUC History Online

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

Courtesy Coventry Archives

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

The Macarthur sisters. Copyright of TUC Library Collections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biscuit Makers to the King and a Brave Bunch of Women Workers

Here is a tale of an incident in the strange life of a historian whose study is always in a dreadful muddle. A simple (or completely weird) coincidence resulted in this short blog.

As I sat at my desk in the afternoon with a cup of tea, reading the news (there you go, I was already distracted from the work I was supposed to be doing) about potential strike action by GMB members at Burton’s Biscuits in Edinburgh, a piece of paper fell off my ‘filing’ pile and fluttered to the floor. Stooping to retrieve it, I saw that it was an appeal for funds to sustain 30 women employed by MacKenzie & MacKenzies’ Biscuit Makers in Edinburgh in 1908. Wondering by now what year I was actually in was enough to get me off my chair and start digging around in folders of research notes that go back years. This is the result.

First, the piece of paper that fell off the desk:

This is from the Gertrude Tuckwell Collection, TUC Library

The women, in the icing department (referred to – as female labour so often was – as girls by the press and by their union) were told on 15 January 1908 that new piece-work rates were to be introduced in their section. In effect, these amounted to a reduction of around 8 pence a day, which would bring some of the women’s pay down by as much as 30 per cent. The women alleged that they were given just a few minutes to digest the news, clearly in the expectation that they would agree it and carry on working. Deeply concerned, however, that if they accepted the new rates, more reductions would follow, the women walked out. This principled stand was a very bold move by a group of low paid workers, over half of whom appear at that point to have been either very new trade union members or not members at all. As such, those women were not yet entitled to union strike pay.

Quick to offer help was the Edinburgh branch of the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW). This all – female union, established for women who worked in some of the worst paid industries in the country – and considered by many in the labour movement to be too difficult to organise – was barely two years old but its fighting tactics had already begun to improve pay and conditions for women workers across Britain and its membership was on the rise. The Federation’s HQ was in London but its founder was the indefatigable Glasgow-born Mary Macarthur (1880-1921). She had cut her union teeth in Scotland when she was still a very young woman, before moving south in 1903 and becoming secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League. It was under the umbrella of this organisation, which aimed to strengthen women’s trade unionism nationally, that the NFWW was formed in 1906. Its very first branch had been, in fact, formed in Edinburgh during a dispute at a paper bag factory, which ended with the women returning to work on their own terms. The branch quickly came to the attention of the Edinburgh Trades Council whose members were ready and willing to give it much welcomed support when the MacKenzie & MacKenzies’ women walked out in early 1908.

The president of the Edinburgh Federation branch, Mrs Lamont, had been on hand to support the paper bag workers in 1906 and her reputation as a dedicated activist was recognised by Mary Macarthur, who entrusted her with the vice-presidency of the national NFWW. At the same time as repeated – and futile – attempts to negotiate with the management at MacKenzie & MacKenzies’ went on, the local labour movement helped not only to recruit new members into the Edinburgh NFWW branch but to help with the urgent need to provide them with strike funds. The Trades Council deplored what it claimed was just the latest reduction to be introduced by MacKenzie & MacKenzies in just three years. It feared that this latest proposed cut would reduce the wages of even the most expert workers, many of whom had been with the firm for between six and 11 years, to about nine shillings a week.  Enough was collected from across the national labour movement and from well -wishers to ensure that all strikers received 5 shillings a week until they were eligible for strike benefit from the NFWW. For some of the women, this represented half of their usual weekly wage and so, although on its own, it was nowhere near enough to live on, it may have stopped some of them from having to seek help from the parish, from charity, family or from money lenders.

New union though the NFWW was, the tactics used by its leadership were effective right from the start. Mary Macarthur ensured that in every dispute her union was involved in, meticulous research was undertaken to make sure that all facts were fully investigated and that organisers understood the characteristics of the local economy. Once this was done, it was on to a campaign of naming and shaming in the hope of humiliating a firm into backing down. In the case of the biscuit makers, the union issued a circular to be sent out to 200 or so shareholders of MacKenzie & MacKenzies, highlighting the management’s continued refusal to settle the dispute and emphasising the implications of paying such low wages to its workforce. It also let it be known that MacKenzies’ was paying considerably less than two other local employers engaged in the same type of work.

The Federation set about attracting the support of some prominent names to appear on platforms at public meetings or to make known their sympathy with the cause, as did Lady Barbara Steel, the Scottish social and suffrage campaigner, who also contributed to the strike fund. Soon after the strike began, Thomas Richards, trade unionist and Labour MP for Wolverhampton, was in Edinburgh giving an impassioned speech on behalf of the strikers. Reported in The Scotsman, Richards expressed his outrage that MacKenzie & MacKenzies, supplying biscuits not just to the Royal Household but to the House of Commons, was in fact nothing more than a firm of sweaters. He told his audience that if girls sold their labour to any employer, they ought to be able to earn enough to keep them in comparative comfort, good clothing and have enough left over to put by for a rainy day. The failure to pay the women a living wage was, in his view, nothing short of un-Christian behaviour. His speech chimed perfectly with the NFWW’s ongoing national campaign to highlight the immorality of paying scandalously low wages to women workers and it proved a highly effective way of raising money to support strikers. By the time the NFWW embarked on perhaps its most famous strike – that of the women chain makers of Cradley Heath in 1910, fighting for the country’s first minimum wage – it had acquired a good few years of experience of these tactics. In Edinburgh in 1908 a total of £103 1 shilling and 4 pence was collected by the local labour movement for the biscuit icers. Of this amount just over a quarter came from the Federation.

The financial and moral support kept the women out on strike into the Spring. The Trades Council praised their spirit of comradeship and recorded with pride that despite its length, the strike had remained solid. Several attempts to negotiate with MacKenzie & MacKenzies were made but the firm remained adamant that its proposals would not mean wage reductions for its employees. Even threats to raise the question in Parliament or to kick up a national stink about the behaviour of the Royal biscuit making establishment did nothing to lead to a change of heart. By June, according to Edinburgh Trades Council, the fund was helping just four of the strikers because all others had found work elsewhere. There was at least pride in the fact that none of the women had returned to MacKenzie and MacKenzies. The NFWW’s Annual Report for 1908 recorded that year as a trying one for the Edinburgh branch (there was another – more successful – strike, this time at a paper bag factory) but nonetheless it had managed to increase its membership overall. In the next few years, with the help of some brilliant women activists and with the continued support of the Trades Council, the branch strengthened and grew. Such progress, however, could never be taken for granted. The NFWW did all that it could do protect its members from employers who intimidated, threatened or sacked those regarded as ringleaders and troublemakers. Its 1908 Annual Report shows that during that year three members of the Edinburgh branch received victimisation pay of £1 and 4 shillings each, presumably to compensate for loss of earnings.

The union conceded that not all workplace struggles for fairness ended in victory but it constantly reminded workers that a strong union branch and solidarity were of untold importance. Using her analogy of the union as a bundle of sticks, Mary Macarthur frequently reminded women that an employer could easily pick off a single twig but that he was powerless when faced with an unsnappable bunch.

Solidarity, in other words.

1911 delegates at the Scottish Trades Union Council. Edinburgh’s Mrs Lamont is second from the left, Mary Macarthur fourth from left. This image is from the National Library of Scotland and I thank them for allowing me to use it in my biography of Macarthur

One final note. The union in question in the 2020 dispute in Edinburgh is the GMB. 100 years ago this winter, Mary Macarthur’s National Federation of Women Workers merged with the National Union of General Workers which in turn – in the late 20th century – became part of the GMB. History is never just history. A piece of paper that falls off my desk changes nothing but it reminded me that the struggle for justice has been long and that it goes on.

And I took a good hard look at the biscuit with my tea today.

The notes that I referred to for this piece were largely gathered over the past decade or so from the TUC Library, the National Library of Scotland. A big thanks to the staff at both.

Thanks also to the British Newspaper Archive

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.


Mary Macarthur: A New Biography, published October 16th 2019

My biography of the brilliant trade union leader, Mary Macarthur, has just been published by History West Midlands and can be bought here .

Book cover

It has been a privilege to research and write this first full length account of Macarthur’s life since that published by Mary Hamilton in 1925. By way of an introduction to the book,  here a blog that I wrote recently for Women’s History Network 

Here also is a short film made by History West Midlands. It shows what a wonderful day we had launching the book in Cradley Heath, where I was the guest of the Friends of the Women Chain Makers, 109 years to the day after the brilliant success of the Chain Makers’ Strike of 1910. Here, women won the minimum wage that was already theirs by right but was being withheld by bosses who thought that they could continue to control and manipulate women workers.

And to hear me talking to the book’s publisher, Mike Gibbs of History West Midlands, you can listen to a 30 minute podcast here

Mary Macarthur was an extraordinary woman, described by one contemporary as ‘a wholehearted fighter for economic and political justice’ and another as as ‘one of the pioneer women of the movement who has done more than any other woman I know of for the emancipation of her sex’.

Born 13th August 1880.

Died 1 January 1921.

Corruganza TUC

Here is one of my favourite photographs of Mary Macarthur standing on the plinth of Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square on a wet August day in 1908 during the strike of women box makers at the Corruganza Factory, Earlsfield. Image courtesy of TUC Library

There are lots of events coming up allowing me to tell Mary’s story and to highlight the relevance of her work today when so many workers still face uncertainty, on zero hours contracts with no sick or holiday pay, where impossible targets are set, making people exhausted and ill and trapped in appallingly low pay.

If you are in London on Thursday 21st November, do join me at 6.30 the Wash Houses, London Metropolitan University, entrance from University reception at Calcutta House on Old Castle Street E1 7NT. This is home to the wonderful TUC Library and I will highlight the richness of the material housed here that allowed me to write this book as well as my history of the National Federation of Women Workers

For more details of this event, see here