I 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).
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.
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.
Midland Daily Telegraph, March 24th 1920, from British Newspaper Archive
On 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
My biography of the brilliant trade union leader, Mary Macarthur, has just been published by History West Midlands and can be bought here .
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.
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
I am delighted to introduce a podcast recorded by History West Midlands, in which I share some stories of women’s every day life in Coventry between 1850 and 1950. These are drawn from my recent book, A History of Women’s Lives in Coventry 1850-1950 published by Pen&Sword For those who live in the Coventry area, the book is also available at The Big Comfy Bookshop in Fargo Village, Waterstones (city centre and Leamington) and Earlsdon Post Office, and is priced at £14.99.
I also have a short piece on the wonderful ‘Sheroes of History’ women’s history site about Alice Arnold, Coventry’s first woman mayor. You can read it here along with lots of excellent blogs contributed by authors about many truly remarkable women.
If you enjoy the Alice Arnold blog, I will be talking on September 17th at Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery and Museum about Coventry’s earliest women councillors. Autumn 1919 marks the centenary anniversary of the election of two brilliant pioneers – Alice Arnold and Ellen Hughes. It is easy to overlook local politicians and yet they are the ones who often make the biggest difference to our communities and to the quality of our lives. I will be paying tribute to the first elected women and also to the other women who served on Coventry City Council in the years before the Second World War. Their contributions had an enormous impact on the lives of Coventry’s citizens and their experiences of work, politics and womanhood brought new and valued perspectives to the Council Chamber.
I am thrilled to announce that this September my biography of Mary Macarthur will be published by History West Midlands. In 1921 this brilliant and charismatic trade union leader died, aged just 40. In her short life, her activism and leadership had been responsible for raising awareness of women’s poor working conditions and encouraging them to speak out against injustice and inequality.
Mary Macarthur is perhaps best known for the prominent part she played in the women chain makers’ strike in Cradley Heath, Staffordshire in 1910. This heroic dispute ended with the women receiving the minimum wage that was theirs by right. It was a triumph, but by no means an isolated one. Mary Macarthur, as leader of the country’s all-female general trade union, the National Federation of Women Workers, travelled the length and breadth of the country making sure that women’s lives were improved by better pay and working conditions and union membership.
This biography seeks to understand what motivated this extraordinary individual and why she chose the path that she did, particularly at a time when it was still far from common for a middle-class woman to appear on public platforms. In other words, this is not just an account of Mary the union leader but of Mary the woman – of her travels and friendships, love and marriage, family and motherhood – all explored within the context of her times.
I look forward to sharing my research journey on my website once the book is published. In February, I was interviewed by Jenni Murray on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour about Mary Macarthur. I was invited to be on the show with Bryony Purdue, who is currently playing Mary Macarthur in a touring folk opera called Rouse Ye Women, by Townsend Theatre Productions. This is about Mary Macarthur’s involvement in the 1910 women chain makers’ strike in Cradley Heath and it is a truly inspirational, powerful and deeply moving play which has got some brilliant reviews. I was delighted to be with the cast at Greenwich Theatre in February for a post-show chat about Mary Macarthur.
For the chance to hear Bryony beautifully performing a song and an excerpt from Rouse Ye Women, plus some background from me about Mary Macarthur, catch us on this episode of Woman’s Hour, here
On Thursday May 30th I am talking at Tara Theatre, Earlsfield, London about Mary Macarthur and the part that she played in the 1908 Corruganza strike. A group of brave women at the Corruganza box making factory in Summerstown refused to be intimidated by their boss who had decided to reduce their already low wages. Together they fought back, formed a branch of the all female National Federation of Women Workers and headed for Trafalgar Square to ensure their cause was widely publicised. In January this year, I went on a memorable and guided walk around Summerstown with excellent local historian Geoff Simmons. We set out to find the site of the box factory and also to walk in the footsteps of the women strikers on their way to the station. I felt very close to the box makers, despite the fact that when I was in Summerstown, the sun shone in a bright blue sky whereas when they were on the march, they negotiated heavy summer downpours!
My talk is part of Tara Theatre’s exciting May festival of women’s artists – I’ll Say It Again – read all about it here
I am also very much looking forward to talking about Mary Macarthur at the Chain Makers’ Festival on Saturday July 6th in the Mary Macarthur Gardens, Cradley Heath. This is an event that I love attending and which raises the profile of all women workers fighting for a better day.
Here is the front cover of my new book, just published by Pen & Sword. I am pleased to be able to introduce it in this centenary year of the (partial) granting of the vote to women and it has been an absolute pleasure to work on.
It is about the everyday lives of Coventry women throughout one extraordinary century of change and it is full of stories of what it was like to be a woman between 1850 and 1950.
During these years, women broke through barriers so that future generations of women might experience greater freedoms than had ever been possible for their mothers. Others offered their time and exceptional talents for the good of the community.
The main focus of the book is the too often neglected details of women’s daily lives, of triumphs and tragedies, changes and continuities, loves and losses. What was it like to grow up in Coventry, to go to its schools, to work in its offices, shops and factories? What were women’s experiences of getting married, setting up home and raising children? How did women spend their scarce and precious leisure time?
In other words, this is a book about the business of being a woman in this distinctive English Midlands city. I have lived in Coventry since 1980 and I feel honoured to call it home. In writing about women’s lives between 1850 and 1950, I appreciate how much has changed for the better, how much easier many things have become for subsequent generations of women. I also recognise, however, my own experiences in those I have researched. I love the cover photograph (thanks to Albert Smith for this) because it is so timeless – a group of women taking time out of the day to rest, to talk and to laugh. To me, it also shows the support that women give one another over the big and the small stuff – from cradle to grave, with all the important bits in between. I have learned so much from researching such wonderful women and I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I have enjoyed writing it.
Some examples from the book:
Read about midwife Harriet Ives who, by the time of her retirement after the Second World War, reckoned that she had delivered over 7000 babies in the city
Learn about Coventry’s suffragettes, including one woman who escaped a jeering and menacing crowd by leaping on a tram and travelling on it until it was safe to get off and go home
Discover the Medical Officer’s advice to mothers about infant feeding at a time when poor housing and lack of good storage could lead to the contamination of baby milk
I have written blogs about my three great grandmothers during the First World War. This final one focuses on Elizabeth and has been the most difficult of the series to write, largely because I found it so hard to find any details of her life. In the end, it was the reasons why this was so that proved the most fascinating, and it’s what I have chosen to write about here, reflecting on what this absence of biography reveals about the ways that women’s lives are not only recorded but remembered – and, too often, forgotten.
Elizabeth was born in Chelsea in 1858. Her father was a plasterer and her mother, before her marriage in 1841, had been a servant. The couple had at least eight children. Elizabeth followed her mother into one of the commonest occupations for girls and young women in Chelsea and became a domestic servant in Chelsea’s Paulton Square, an elegant Georgian and gardened space, just around the corner from where she had grown up in far less opulent and much more crowded housing. In 1885 Elizabeth married Alfred, a bricklayer, and the couple had ten children, six of whom survived into adulthood.
By the time the First World War began, the family had moved from their three or four roomed flat in a subdivided house in Chelsea to an eight roomed house in Fulham which they do not appear to have shared with any other households or lodgers. From this, I can only guess that times had got easier for the family as the oldest children began to contribute to the household income. The youngest child was 13 and still at school but, in all likelihood, all of her older sisters, aged from 14 to 25, were by then at work. Three years before, the 1911 census recorded that Louisa the eldest was a dressmaker and Edith, the second eldest, a servant. The only son, William, was a gas fitter and family memory is that he was not fit for army service when war came. His father, Alfred was, at 56, too old to sign up.
And that, unlike the accounts that I have managed to piece together of my other great grandmothers’ lives in wartime, seemed to be all that I could find out. One of the reasons for the lack of information about Elizabeth could be the fact that family narratives are often told or recorded through male experiences or official records that reveal male occupations. In the case of Annie and Amy (the first two blogs) this was at least in part via information found in their husbands’ army records, allowing details of, for example, family separation and dependent children to be further explored. It is also because families tend to retain evidence of men’s army service, in the form of medals, photographs and patriotic pride in sacrifices made. By contrast, their wives are broadly defined by history as women-whose-husbands-went-to-war, holding the fort until the menfolk came home. If they didn’t themselves take on an exciting or dramatic wartime adventure as, for example, a munitions or transport worker – which just might be remembered within a family – the women’s experiences are assumed to be domestic and, apart from the imagined added wartime induced stoicism, indistinguishable from those of other generations of wives and mothers.
In the case of Elizabeth, neither her husband nor her son went to war and so there is no clear male wartime trail to uncover an understanding of how she dealt with war. Elizabeth, at 55, was quite possibly too old to take on war work but she had five daughters who were all of employment age by 1918. Despite asking lots of questions (my oldest surviving relative was born in 1921), I have been unable to find out what these young women did during the war. Did they take advantage of the availability of better paid work than they were used to? Did they go into industrial work? Nursing? Did they take on work traditionally associated with men? No one knows. Of the youngest three sisters I have been told only that in the post war years they worked in London department stores; my great aunt Lilian worked in Harrods until her retirement in the 1950s. Family folklore is that her fiancé was killed during the First World War and I know that she remained single for the rest of her life. Whatever she did during the war is hidden beneath the tragedy of a young man losing his life and the implied tragedy of his sweetheart being left on the shelf.
That this is all that is known about Lilian’s life in wartime seems to me tragic in its own way, especially as I remember her as having a quirky sense of humour, a love of adventure and, along with her sisters (one of whom was my grandmother), dressmaking skills that kept my dolls and I in wonderfully bright summer dresses when I was a little girl. I have over the years asked and asked again where the sisters learned how to design and create clothes but no one seems to know. Worse, it seems to be accepted that they knew how to sew because they were women. If garment making was how they, like the eldest sister, earned their living at various points, then no one took much interest in their traditionally female employment. It was women’s work, as was (in the eyes of the family) the shop work they took on after the war. This is, as in so many families, in stark contrast to family memories of male employment, in both war and peace time. Men go through history defined by their work (biographies of women very often start with ‘her father was a carpenter/clergyman/teacher’ with details of mothers left out or limited to lineage, marriage and motherhood). Women are remembered if they are pioneers, buck trends, set trends, have their talents publicly or professionally acknowledged or behave badly or oddly. Even then, as Elizabeth Crawford recently pointed out in an article about sisters Ella and Geraldine Stevenson, WSPU supporters and militant campaigners, family memories of maiden aunts, however extraordinary the lives they led, are too often hazy, their stories unknown.
The fact that Elizabeth’s family was predominately female has contributed to the difficulties of my research and particularly as just one of her five daughters (my grandmother) went on to have children. Even so, her children have passed on far more details of their male relations than they have of the women. And it was whilst trying to find out what happened to one of Elizabeth’s daughters, Edith, that I managed to get a little closer to an understanding of what this family had gone through during the First World War. When I asked about her, there was just the vaguest memory within the family that one of the sisters had died. And so I trawled for a death certificate and found that, like great grandmother Ellen and Amy, Elizabeth too suffered a commonplace tragedy unrelated to war – the death of one of her children. In this case, her child was Edith, a 25 year old single woman who died of pulmonary tuberculosis and tuberculosis of the spine in July 1917. She had contracted the disease in 1915. Her younger sister, Lilian, was present at her death at the family home. According to her death certificate, Edith was a domestic nurse but there is no one to ask when she had to give up her work, whether she contracted the illness whilst nursing or how she was cared for within her family. As well as the anxieties associated with having a TB sufferer in the home, there was the added expense of doctors’ visits, medicines, restorative tonics and nutritious food. The latter was even more expensive in wartime and it was increasingly necessary to queue for long periods for many of the staples that might have helped to build the patient’s strength. The family’s better fortune in moving to the larger house in 1911 may well have protected the rest of the family from disease by ensuring that there was a separate sick room for Edith.
Here, then, once again, we witness a family experiencing a different type of war to the one that remains uppermost in the nation’s collective memory. When we think of death and the First World War, the slaughter of men on the Western Front is of course at the forefront of our minds. Yet in three of my four blogs, families lost children to illness during the War and the lives of their parents would never be the same again. It makes me so sad that Edith, no matter how much she was loved in her lifetime, has left no mark on the world other than ‘oh yes, I think there was a sister who died’. It was not my intention to present these blogs as family history but as case studies showing how four women experienced the First World War and what has emerged for me is the importance of digging as deep as possible to discover that there was no such thing as ‘ordinary’ and that all lives are as important. One of my great grandfathers was awarded the Military Medal and that makes me proud but so sad that he had to live with the horrors witnessed at the Somme for the rest of his life. I am equally proud of all the women, like my great grandmothers who looked after their families, kept the family fed and housed by running the business, taking in lodgers and making money where and when possible. It saddens me that Annie, Amy and Elizabeth had to bury children, all victims of diseases that are now curable and controllable and which, in some countries at least, no longer cast shadows over parenting.
Women did great things during the First World War. They worked in industry, in public services, as doctors, nurses and in the armed services. Let’s not forget the importance of their domestic lives and how they cared for their children amidst the difficulties of war. Let’s remember also those who did not marry and/or did not have children, so many of whom are now absent from our histories –and we need wherever possible to record the precious and extraordinary details of their lives.
On Saturday 17th August 1918 a strike began without warning in London among women bus and tram workers. These wartime workers walked out in defence of the principle of equal pay for equal work. Despite promises that where men and women did the same jobs, pay would be the same, the Committee of Production had, earlier in the year, awarded an increase of five shillings per week to men only. The five shillings was added to the war bonus that workers were given on top of their wages to help them cope with the spiralling costs of living during the First World War. It was argued that the brunt of these costs was felt more acutely by men than by women, because men had wives and children to support. The women were having none of this and the injustice and inaccuracy of the reasoning was what led to the strike.
Despite the disruption caused to workers and day trippers alike, there was a great deal of support for the women who were backed in their action by transport unions, male colleagues and public transport workers in towns beyond the capital. Initially the strike had no official support but as it spread rapidly to garages and depots, the London and Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers was quick to back the women. Its Executive Council passed a resolution endorsing the actions of their members and calling upon all its bus and tram members to come out on strike in support and to extend the dispute into the provinces. Reports suggest that services in London and the suburbs were seriously reduced. The traffic manager of one of the affected firms, the London General Omnibus Company, stated that around 3000 buses and trams were withdrawn on the first day of the strike alone with over 10,000 employees involved.
There were ‘indescribable’ scenes in long queues for trains and emotive reports of soldiers home on leave having to lug heavy kit bags across the capital, two of whom apparently collapsed under the strain and had to be taken to hospital by ambulance. Visitors to the city were said to be confused but stoical Londoners apparently enjoyed the chance to get some extra fresh air, taking to walking in far greater numbers than usual. Some workers even confessed that it was something of a relief not to be enduring the heat and overcrowding that had become standard on the capital’s buses and trams during rush hours. Although London County Council kept its services running, some of its conductresses came out in sympathy and they were joined by female workers on the Bakerloo tube line, one of whom said that she thought it was about time the Underground girls were listened to. For doing the same work as the men, she remarked how unfair it was that the women railway workers were paid 12 shillings and 6 pence less. According to one trade union journal, ‘the weather was hot, and the way was long: such tubes as were running were blocked to suffocation: but amidst all the irritation and inconvenience caused to the ordinary citizen, hardly a voice was raised in deprecation of the principle for which the fight was being waged’.
The dispute, which lasted for a week, ended in success and women were granted the five shillings which was then extended to women in war industries. It was a hugely important but by no means straightforward landmark case for equality and one well worth recalling, particularly at a time when we are still – one hundred years on and nearly 50 years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act – uncovering new instances of gender pay inequalities on an alarmingly regular basis.
According to the secretary of the National Federation of Transport Workers, the women were ‘smarting under a sense of injustice’ and the men were loyally cooperating with them. Men, however, had a vested interest in protecting wage rates and feared that where women were paid less than them, the wages of all workers could be dragged down to the lower level. So, as the strike spread south west to Bristol, Bath and Weston super Mare, and to the south coast at Brighton and Hove, Hastings and Folkestone, many male workers lent support to protect their own pay and status.
This struggle for equal pay seemed, according to the Labour economist Sidney Webb, to have come about ‘all in a rush’ and he thought that now there might well be wide acceptance of the equal pay for equal work principle – already adopted by the Labour Party – with ‘momentous social changes to come’. It was astonishing, Webb remarked, how quickly ‘we reach conviction when there are eight million women electors (for the Representation of the People’s Act had passed in February 1918)’. But let’s not forget; this was wartime and not all support for the women was due to a desire to raise their status or to value their position in the workplace.
Women’s work on and beyond the Home Front was vital to the war effort, particularly as men signed up or were conscripted into armed service. Hundreds of thousands of women moved from traditional (and low paid) female employment, such as domestic service and food production, into work previously regarded as belonging to men. Women worked in service industries, they drove delivery vans and they began working on public transport in considerably greater numbers than before the war (from 300 to 4,500 on the buses and from 1,300 to 22,000 on the trams by 1918). Whilst the railways would not take on women as drivers and there were very few tram or bus drivers, the public grew used to the sight of women ticket collectors and conductresses. They also recognised and appreciated that with fewer tram cars and buses on the roads than before the war, the new workers were working in difficult conditions, dealing with larger numbers of passengers and a great deal of overcrowding.
Despite promises that where women replaced men, equal pay would be granted, women soon discovered that employers (and government) looked for ways to claim that the work that they did was seldom equal to men’s. In engineering, for example, where women’s labour in the munitions’ factories ensured the regular supply of shells and equipment to Front Line troops, skilled jobs were commonly broken down into several separate processes, making it easier for employers to maintain wage differentiation by insisting, whenever possible, that the new jobs were not eligible for the skilled rates of pay that had belonged exclusively to men before the war. Such so-called ‘dilution’ was not so easy to accomplish on public transport where women were visibly doing the same jobs as men; for example, up to 90 per cent of conductors were reckoned to be women. In recognition of this – but most definitely for the duration of the war only – women were told that their basic pay rates would be equivalent to men’s. This made their exclusion from the 1918 award particularly hard to accept.
Traditionally women’s work was regarded as being less skilled than men’s and yet here, in the case of the transport workers, the public could plainly see that women had not only replaced men but had done so with the greatest of efficiency and enthusiasm. So how could the decision to award them a smaller war bonus than men be justified? It was time to bring out a favourite old rationale; male workers were assumed to be family men with dependents, whereas women workers were assumed to be single with no one to support but themselves. Naturally, then, men worked for – and the labour movement defended – the so-called family wage (never incidentally paid to a woman with children, even if she was the family’s sole breadwinner). The assumptions were of course based on enormous and inaccurate generalisations; as Sidney Webb observed, the average employer got his labour as cheaply as possible, but he didn’t pay a single man less than a married one, or a childless husband less than the father of a family. In the case of the war bonus, the all-male Committee of Production took the view that the burden of increased prices in wartime, which affected food and most commodities, fell more heavily on men than on women. For those working women whose husbands had gone off to fight, there was the army separation allowance, payable to wives and children and it was thought that this should be entirely adequate compensation for receiving a lower war bonus than men. The trade union journal Woman Worker highlighted the ‘ridiculous argument’ that separation allowances were a reason against equality. ‘You might as well say’, it reported, ‘that a man’s wages should be reduced because he had been left a legacy by his deceased aunt’. In other words, the allowance had absolutely nothing to do with the pay that women were entitled to for doing the same work as men.
The transport companies believed they had another reason for keeping women’s bonuses lower than men’s; women, they maintained, were more expensive to employ than men. Because their attendance was allegedly less regular than men’s, a large reserve staff of women had to be kept on the books. The women strikers were having none of this nonsense, pointing out that no member of the spare staff was paid unless she actually worked, so there could be no loss to the firm.
Beyond the general support given to the women, there were plenty of warnings flying around about the consequences of awarding equal pay in all industries and these show just how far the argument for equality had yet to go. The Times declared that whilst the women bus and tram workers had a good case, the principle was no matter for sentimentality and that there were many cases of ‘conventional’ rather than ‘real’ equality where general standards of work would be pulled down unless wage differentiation was maintained. It gave, however, no examples of what this was supposed to mean. Instead it went on to say that equal pay would inevitably reduce the employment of women when the men returned from the war but ‘that is another remoter question’ (how many times had women heard that one – be patient, wait until the class struggle is won). Sidney Webb, whilst agreeing the principle, also feared that equal pay would lead to the workplace segregation of the sexes after the war. Even trade union leader Mary Macarthur, champion of women war workers, believed that the principle of equal pay for equal worth was essentially meaningless, because of the risk that employers would interpret equal as identical, whereas ‘it hardly ever is’. She also feared that equality of opportunity for women industrial workers would work against women, resulting in their coercion, through the combination of ‘economic necessity and unscrupulous employers’ into work that they did not want to do or that was dangerous and unsuitable and would lead to the removal of a great deal of protective factory legislation.
After a conference attended by several of the transport unions, the women agreed a return to work ahead of talks and days later they were awarded the five shillings bonus, backdated to when the men had first received it. There was much praise for the women strikers’ bravery. Workers in essential war industries were effectively (officially at least) banned from strike action during the war and Mary Macarthur’s union, the National Federation of Women Workers, offered up its hearty congratulations to the ‘bus girls’, thanking them for a very valuable demonstration which was much appreciated by those in munitions, to whom the five shillings advance was extended from September. Not all, however, were so effusive in their praise; The Times accepted that the women’s demands had been met with sympathy but condemned such ‘sudden and revolutionary attacks on our social life’ that only have to repeated often enough ‘to ruin the best of causes’. Worse was the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph which, after acknowledging the women’s fight and victory, chose to run a story about some of the more ‘extraordinary’ causes women workers had struck over, including (allegedly) the removal of a chewing gum machine in a factory in New York, the dismissal of a handsome foreman and an incident with an engagement ring ( which even a read of the article makes clear was nothing to do with the viewing of a worker’s ring and everything to do with the rough push that a worker received from a supervisor to get her back to work). 
Whilst the strike was successful (and as Woman Worker stated, how unfortunate that a strike is necessary before some people can assimilate the simplest facts), it can’t be claimed that this wartime dispute was the start of an unstoppable move towards equal pay. When the results of a government committee on women’s wages were published in 1919, its recommendations were mixed, to say the least. It did accept equal pay for equal work as a general principle but as it also accepted the concept of ‘women’s work’, where wages should be based on the needs of an 18-year-old single woman, the application of the equal pay principle was constrained from the start. As Gail Braybon writes, ‘thus, the ideas that equal pay was for men’s protection and that women’s wages were inherently less important, were maintained’.
In a post-war world, in which all pre-war work practices had been restored to protect the labour rights of the working man, and in which government and trade unions agreed that married women should ideally not seek employment outside the home, the battle for equality of both pay and opportunity had a very long way to go. Despite the gains of the war, in terms of pay, opportunities and a nation’s gratitude, despite the gaining of the parliamentary vote by some women in 1918, and even despite the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, ensuring women access to the professions, women workers found themselves at the back of the queue in a world which continued to assume that becoming a wife and a mother were their ultimate goals. If women didn’t take the low paid work that they had done before the war, they found themselves denied unemployment benefit. Thousands of women in industry had their wages rates slashed in the early 1920s.
The 1918 equal pay strike was an important step along the way to full gender equality. Despite women’s hopes that the war would transform their status as workers, this was not to be. As Mary Macarthur wrote at the end of the war, ‘the new world looks uncommonly like the old one, rolling along as stupidly and blindly as ever’. The strike is an important reminder – if we needed one – of the barrage of obstacles that continue to be placed in women’s way as they pursue equality in the workplace but it also a reminder that women will rise up to challenge injustices and, however long it takes, they will eradicate inequalities wherever they find them.
For more, do visit the following excellent accounts of and resources for the strike:
Perhaps the most valuable reason for examining individual lives during the First World War is the opportunity given to emphasise unique sets of circumstances. My first two studies (Part One) (Part Two) have looked at the lives of two women whose husbands went away to war and the hardships that they and their families endured on the home front. This one is about Ellen – the third of my great grandmothers – whose husband did not go to the Front and alongside whom she worked to bring up their children and make a living in the most trying of circumstances. As for so many women, the war made a hard existence harder, as life – and death – went on regardless.
Ellen was born in Chelsea in 1873, to working class parents in one of the poorest parts of the borough. As she grew up, she lived with her family in a series of subdivided houses near the Thames, in streets where, according to Charles Booth, in the 1890s, residents’ earnings were tumbling into his ‘poor’ category (incomes between 18 and 21 shillings a week). Overcrowding in Chelsea, as in so many parts of London, was rife; by 1901 it was not uncommon in this part of the borough for more than twenty people to be living in houses with as few as seven rooms. When trade union campaigner, Gertrude Tuckwell, took up her first teaching post at Park Walk Board School in the 1880s, she brought the children home to tea in her Chelsea flat, remembering that the thing that struck them most was that she had a bedroom all to herself.
The search for affordable accommodation was to be a constant feature of Ellen’s early married life. When she married John in 1893, she was a domestic servant and he a soldier in the Coldstream Guards, based in London. After the wedding, the couple was not admitted onto the Army’s tightly controlled accommodation register and as a result had no entitlement to live in barracks. Much of John’s pay as a private (a maximum of one shilling and two pence a day) would therefore have gone on renting private rooms. In her study of working class families in Lambeth (across the river from Chelsea), published in 1913, Maud Pember Reeves noted that a rent of under six shillings a week (unless for a single room) generally signified very poor, small, ground floor or basement rooms.  If they sought to avoid this, Ellen, at least until the birth of their first surviving child in 1895, almost certainly had to continue to work in whatever capacity she could.
So, they lived in the heart of Booth’s declining Chelsea. When John was released into the Reserves, his only army pay was an annual three pounds retainer. There was, according to Booth, a great deal of prejudice directed at Reservists and ex-soldiers by employers, partly because of the risk of their being recalled at short notice but also because their ‘aptitudes for civil employment are not very great in any direction and in very many are absolutely non-existent’. John worked as a stoker at the gas works, with the potential for decent earnings but as the work was seasonal, many stokers, led ‘irregular, uncertain’ lives. By the time their third child was born in 1898, John had been recalled to the Army, just ahead of heavy military action in Sudan. He remained in London, however, and was now permitted to be on the ‘married roll’, his growing family accommodated in army quarters in Francis Street, Westminster.
Although the army provided medical expenses for soldiers’ families, there was generally little privacy or space in barracks for the delivery of a baby, particularly if there were already children in the family and so Ellen returned to Chelsea to give birth, possibly staying with a relative or someone recommended by other women in the barracks. In 1901 John was permanently discharged on grounds of ill health, with no pension but a one off payment of 26 pounds. They returned to Limerick, his home town, where the family lived for two years, perhaps with John’s mother, getting back on their feet, before returning to Chelsea in late 1904 or early 1905. They now had six children.
On return, they lived in a rundown part of Chelsea in a square which, along with its adjacent courts were cleared after the First World War and where much of the housing was in a poor state of repair. When they moved in, 15 houses in an adjoining courtyard had already been condemned. Despite the fact that the houses had no through light or ventilation, were ‘old, worn out and dilapidated’ with damp walls, defective roofs, rotten plaster and woodwork, dirty and verminous rooms, the Medical Officer of Health still blamed the ‘frequently choked and overflowing’ WCs on the neglect and carelessness of the tenants. But there was little that tenants in substandard, overcrowded accommodation could do to persuade landlords to undertake essential repairs, which were often neglected until public health legislation forced improvements or closure of the premises. Tenants kept quiet about deficiencies and outstanding repairs due to fear, not just of eviction but of increased rent to cover the cost of repairs. Maud Pember Reeves noted that tenants might be more assertive if they understood their rights but instead ‘they put up with broken and defective grates which burn twice the coal for half the heat; they accept plagues of rats or vermin as acts of God; they deplore a stopped-up drain without making an effective complaint, because they are afraid to find new quarters if they make too much fuss’.
By 1914 it was estimated that about 25% of Chelsea’s working class population lived either in model or industrial dwellings owned by the Borough or by philanthropic building companies such as Peabody or the Guinness Trust. In such dwellings, Pember Reeves noted that children could grow up free from damp and bugs, with running water, light and good ventilation. Other advantages included moderate rents ranging in one block from three and a half shillings for a one bedroomed tenement to nine and a half shillings for three bedrooms. Some had electric lighting, laundry rooms, modern cooking appliances and fitted cupboards , facilities often lacking in the private rented sector, even if rents were comparable.  In 1907 the Medical Officer for Health concluded that infant mortality here was a third lower than that of Chelsea’s poorest streets. But the majority of the flats had just two to three rooms and were too small for large families like Ellen’s. In addition, tenancy terms were strict, forbidding subletting or the taking in of washing, both of which might sustain a family in times of unemployment, short time working or illness.. The prompt paying of rent was imperative and without flexible arrangements or the ability to negotiate arrears payments with the landlord in order to remain in the property until things improved, workers in irregular employment dare not risk taking on a municipal tenancy.
For those needing space for a growing family or for home working, therefore, private tenancies might be more practical, if less secure. In early 20th century Chelsea, with limited opportunities for regular paid work for mothers, some families sought houses rather than rooms, with a plan to take in lodgers to cover the higher rent and supplement the family income. If property owners were prevented by the terms of their leases from converting their houses into flats, many turned a blind eye to their tenants subletting, as long as the rent was paid on time. The risks to the primary tenant, however, were considerable, never knowing for sure whether lodgers would pay on time, or whether they would be a suitable fit within a household in which full self-containment was never possible due to shared toilet and washing facilities. If meals and washing were not included in the rent, access to the family’s cooking and laundry spaces was expected. Pember Reeves noted the stress that forcing the ejection of an unsatisfactory tenant placed on the subletting landlady, as well as the risk to her own family when rent was not paid.
In 1908, Ellen and John moved into Park Walk, which runs between Kings Road and Fulham Road, to take on the largest house they had rented so far, with a basement kitchen and scullery, two rooms on each of its three floors, a tap and an outside WC in a small backyard. From local newspaper advertisements, it seems unlikely that the cost of renting a house of this size in this part of Chelsea would have been less than around 15 shillings a week and could be, depending on its condition and facilities, several shillings more. The family, however, could never reap the benefits of the extra space. By 1911 Ellen had nine children and four lodgers, maintaining her unofficial role as landlady until the 1930s.
How much could be charged depended on what a landlady was prepared to provide. In her work on landladies and lodgers, Leonore Davidoff found that the basic services provided in lodgings included cleaning, fetching water and coal, laying fires and running errands, lighting and fuel. In London, the general rule was that the landlady provided bedding in furnished rooms which the lodger agreed to wash. Some landladies offered ‘Sunday meals if required’ or evening meals, often combined with the ability to make simple meals for oneself. This was not, however, without its risks for both tenant and landlady; the Common Lodging Houses Act of the 1850s allowed for inspections of premises but with so many casual arrangements in place, it was difficult for local authorities to be aware of all lodgings and many dangers went unheeded for both lodgers and hosts. In the 1930s, a frail elderly woman was burned to death whilst preparing her breakfast in her rented room in Ellen’s house with fire or smoke damage spreading to other rooms.
Ellen’s resourcefulness with the family budget was long remembered by her children, two of whom were interviewed by my dad in the 1960s (this is also referred to in my blog, ‘Ellen and Sylvia’). ‘It’s marvellous, you know, what the Old Lady done, really’, one of them told him, ‘how she got by with all them [sic] kids’. Her Irish potato cakes, consisting entirely of the two cheapest of ingredients – bread and potatoes – were a family staple when times were hard. Nonetheless, they were not enough and Francis recalled that food was sometimes so hard to come by that his younger brother, Patrick, ‘grew rickets, you know. His legs were like a hoop…and in the end he was taken into St George’s Hospital to have his legs broken. Twice they did it and the bones were sort of re-set to straighten them out’. He piggy backed him to school in the mornings and back home at the end of the day.  A combination of a diet lacking in Vitamin D (fish oils, animal fats, eggs and dairy produce) and poor accommodation with restricted sunlight, made rickets a serious risk for children, in turn reducing their ability to resist respiratory infections.
Some help appears to have been offered to the family from the Catholic Church. By Easter 1907, ten year old Mary and eight year old Frank were boarders at a school in Herefordshire run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul (SVP). Founded in England in 1844, SVP worked amongst poor families offering Catholic guidance in the form of schools, youth groups and ‘protection from corruption’ for those children forced by economic necessity to work away from home. I don’t know how long the two children were at the school; a very formal letter from Frank informs his parents that ‘we did very well when the Inspector came in last week and Ma Soeur gave us a half holiday. We go to Mass every morning and we learn Hymns in school’. He ends his letter with a plea to his mum to send him some picture postcards from home.
In the early months of the War, Ellen, aged 41, gave birth to her tenth surviving child. Her husband, at nearly 50, was too old for active service and in indifferent health. His employment record was chequered. The job as school caretaker had been exchanged for domestic service (at one time he was a valet although I don’t know whether this was in a private household or a hotel, for instance) and in 1916 he was working as an army clothing packer, unskilled work, likely to have been excluded from the negotiated rates of pay awarded within the more obvious (or narrowly defined) types of industrial war work, such as munitions production.
With the cost of living soaring, the family – as was common – looked to the earnings of their eldest children. In this family, however, emigration and war ensured that there was to be no such support. When first out of school, the eldest, John, had worked as a servant in a household in affluent Evelyn Gardens, just a few minutes’ walk from Park Walk. Yet, like so many young men from his class and generation, he decided that London offered him too few opportunities and at an unknown date before the war, he set sail for a new life in Australia. In early 1915, aged 20, he enlisted in the First Australian Imperial Forces and embarked from Sydney on board the Ceramic, a requisitioned ocean liner. During military campaigns, he sustained serious injuries, returning to Australia in September 1918, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Ellen and John’s second son, Francis, although not quite 16 when war began, actually beat his older brother to the recruitment office and in December 1914, was accepted into the City of London Yeomanry. He had added just over two years on to his age and was sent to nearby Barnes to do his initial cavalry training before going with the regiment to Norfolk. As the number of adult volunteers decreased after the initial surge, it became easier for underage recruits to be accepted and providing they passed a medical, were of minimum height (5 foot, 3 inches) with a minimum chest size of 34 inches, many boys – up to 250,000 in total – got away with it. Francis was posted abroad in early 1917 and later that year, transferred to the Royal Flying Corps where he became an air mechanic. After serving in Salonika, Greece, he came home to Park Walk in 1919, so ill with malaria that, according to family folklore, he received the last rites, before making a full recovery.
As in so many families, the details of fathers’ and sons’ military records are proudly remembered whilst nothing is known about what the wives and daughters did during the war (more on this in the next blog). Mary, the eldest daughter, was 17 when war was declared but the only surviving evidence of her possible war time work is that in 1916 she lived at Northern Hospital, Winchmore Hill in north London. Whether she was a nurse or a domestic servant, for example, is unclear because the source of the information – a death certificate – reveals only her address. On March 8th this young woman was with her 12 year old brother, Joseph, when he died at the Victoria Hospital for Sick Children in Chelsea. All that is known about the young boy’s past medical condition comes from my own chance discovery that in 1905, aged just 18 months, he had spent 75 days in Great Ormond Street Hospital being treated for meningitis. The chronic hydrocephalus and cerebral compression recorded as the cause of death may have resulted from this earlier illness but there is no way of knowing whether this was indeed so, whether the hydrocephalus was congenital or whether it was a relatively recent affliction. His pain, however, and the grief that his family experienced, are in no doubt.
There are so many possible reasons why neither Ellen nor John was at their son’s bedside when he died. Perhaps it had been a long vigil and, as mother to four under 8 year olds (including a toddler) and landlady to at least three lodgers, there were times when Ellen had little choice but to go home and do her best to care for her family and keep up the running of the household. With John at work and two teenage sons (16 and 14) also probably in employment, Ellen had cause to rely on her eldest daughter to help when and where she was needed. Mary’s employment was of course much more likely to be interrupted by domestic and caring responsibilities than that of her father or brothers.
Ellen had another reason to be grateful to Mary; at the time of Joseph’s death, Ellen was just over a month away from giving birth to her eleventh child, a girl, baptized Josephine. As I write this, the simple recording of these facts strikes me as wholly inadequate but I really don’t have the words to describe the anguish that this mother must have faced. Within just over 14 months, two of her sons had joined up to fight in a war that was becoming more entrenched, another son had died and she had given birth to a daughter. Throughout all of this, she was a landlady, working out how to cope with rises in food and fuel prices, needing every extra penny that might come the family’s way.
It is hard, then, to imagine the anxiety she felt when, in the days between Joseph’s death and Josephine’s birth, her husband was summoned before the magistrates for failing to keep a register of ‘alien’ lodgers at their address. He was fined 40 shillings, an amount quite probably equivalent to two week’s wages at the army clothing factory where he worked. According to the newspaper in which this was reported, a police constable had called at the house and discovered that of the three lodgers found there, one was German and one was Danish. Under the Aliens Restrictions Act of August 1914, all foreign nationals had to register with the police and from November, everyone living in lodging houses, whether British or foreign, was required to register. John’s defence was that he had no idea that he had to keep a register, that he had no time to read the newspapers to find out about the legislation and that he had received no instructions about the need for registration. When it transpired that he could neither read nor write, the magistrate expressed exasperation rather than sympathy, waved aside John’s insistence that he did not keep a lodging house because he only had three lodgers and imposed the fine. It is likely that the only way that this could be paid, unless the couple borrowed the money from elsewhere, was paid in weekly instalments.
This was a disaster. Because Ellen and John were themselves tenants, they sublet on a very informal basis. Because of John’s illiteracy, it seems that Ellen was largely in charge of all official family paperwork; it was, for example, always Ellen who registered the birth of their children. But, as John was listed as the rent and ratepayer, he was, in the eyes of the law, the head of the household and so it was he who appeared in court. Perhaps neither of them thought that the legislation applied to their situation for this was undoubtedly a family home, and, in their eyes, they merely had a few lodgers to bring in a little extra revenue.
This is, I suppose, just another tale of family life in early 20th century London – a working class woman, pregnant at least 12 times in twenty years, raising children, caring for them in sickness and in death, watching them go off to fight (by 1918 three of her sons were in the Forces) and then, once the war was over and the years rolled on, saying goodbye to more of them who followed their oldest brother to Australia, knowing that she would most likely never see them again. Ellen lost none of her children in the Great War but she suffered losses regardless, and, like countless women before and after her, remained the one on which everyone depended, from the moment she became a married woman.
Widowed in 1933, she remained in Park Walk for several more years, still providing rooms for tenants, taking on cooking and cleaning jobs where possible before sharing the house with her son, Francis, his wife and children when the Depression destroyed their chances of keeping on their home and business in Twickenham. She died in hospital in Kent in 1946, by which time her son had given up the tenancy on the old house, which was damaged during Second World War air raids and moved to nearby Putney. We still need as many stories like this as possible to remind us of the realities of working class motherhood in times of war.
 Charles Booth, Maps Descriptive, 1888, 1889-90
 Maud Pember Reeves, 1913, Round About A Pound A Week, London, Virago , 35
 Booth, Life and Labour of the People of London, 2nd series ,volume 4, 67
 Booth, Life and Labour, 2nd series, volume 3, 459
 Myna Trustram, 1984, Women of the Regiment: Marriage and the Victorian Army (Cambridge, CUP), 84. Sincere thanks also to Dr Spencer Jones for his expert advice on the Guards’ Regiments
 Annual Report (AR), Medical Officer for Health (MoH) Chelsea, 1904
What, if anything, can be learned from the campaigns undertaken just over a hundred years ago to strengthen the position of the most vulnerable and most hidden workers in Britain. Here I take a look at today’s love of cheap fashion amid our uncomfortable awareness of the often extremely poor pay and conditions suffered by those who make our clothes, before comparing it to concerns expressed at the start of the 20th century.
Despite the best efforts of those who sneer at the very thought of the high street, fashion is – and should be – a great leveller. When I was growing up, cheap clothing looked cheap and it set you apart. Many of my friends had more money than me and I discovered that the best way to mask a lack of funds was to be ‘alternative’ – to adopt a grungy style that drew attention not to my limited wardrobe but to a statement of difference. I bought bits and pieces from markets and temporary shops and I adapted things but what I really wanted was choice. This is the main reason why I delight in Primark and wish that it had existed when I was a teenager. On Saturday afternoons, the store is full of young women trying on outfits for a night out. How brilliant is that. And there’s more. I also love the pride with which parents on low incomes can dress their babies and no one can tell if the little one is rocking Primark or JoJo Maman Bebe.
Yesterday I did a pictorial quiz online to see if I could tell the difference between Primark and high end fashion. I guessed a third right but I really had no idea which was which. In other words, you can go out in a Primark dress with your head held high, safe in the knowledge that you look and feel great. When my teenage boys were growing up, I couldn’t afford the labels they wanted in order to fit in. I knew why it was important to them and I never tried to persuade them towards ‘other’ (you have to decide these things for yourself) and so, when a Sports Soccer (now Sports Direct) store opened, it was a big relief for me and for them. No more BeWise joggers for my lads.
And yet the same affordable fashions and trends that go a little way towards removing them and us labels have a horrible sting in their tails. Our pleasure in affordable clothing is accompanied by cut throat competition amongst retailers and suppliers with prices being driven down in a race to get the must-have look out before anyone else and to do so at a lower cost than anyone else. We are aware that a great deal of production is sourced abroad (a quick look at the washing on my line today indicates Bangladesh, China, Cambodia and Turkey) and we are under no illusions that, despite the existence of ethical trading initiatives, conditions and wages for all workers are safe and fair. From time to time outsourced production makes the headlines in dramatic fashion; April 2013 saw the collapse of Rana Plaza, near Dhaka in Bangladesh, a building which housed several ready-made clothing factories. More than 1100 people died. Recently, an excellent article by Sarah O’Connor for the Financial Times drew attention to so-named ‘dark factories’ in Leicester, in which workers are paid well below the minimum wage. Such garment factories or workshops (often with fewer than 20 employees) occupy space within former, much larger industrial units, where machinery can be outdated and where working conditions are very far from ideal. Leicester is not alone in this; online retailers such as Boohoo and Missguided rely on suppliers in other UK cities such as London and Manchester in order to sell clothes that are ‘trendy, fast and cheap’, to meet the demands of the so-called Instagram generation.
O’Connor’s examination of this section of the garment industry that has ‘become detached from UK employment law’ illustrates just how many things have gone wrong. Amid relentless pressure on suppliers to produce garments at the cheapest possible price, hours are under recorded to make it seem that the minimum wage is being paid (whereas £5 is regarded as a ‘top’ wage) and workers in the sector have little faith in government enforcement of fair pay. Safety standards are also being compromised – fabric is piled high, wires protrude from ceilings, fire escapes are blocked yet the number of inspections carried out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) under the Tory government has been reduced. And whilst local authorities have responsibility for building and fire safety, this depends on concerns or incidents being reported to them in the first place. With many factories or workshops unrepresented by trade unions, another layer of potential protection and inspection is lost to workers and community groups, offering employment advice, have seen their funding cut drastically. In this way, too many workers are becoming invisible.
But do we as consumers have responsibilities too? Do we keep buying, telling ourselves that boycotting certain stores or companies will only result in worsening hardship for those employed by manufacturers pressured into producing clothes at ever cheaper prices? The same concerns were growing over a hundred years ago when readymade clothing was becoming more widespread and the equivalent of those who turn their noses up at Primark today were pouring scorn on flighty young working class women stepping out in cheap versions of the latest fashions or blinging up their hats with faux fur, feathers and artificial flowers. It does not seem at all fair to me that those who can least afford it should be those chiefly blamed for perpetuating sweated working conditions in the UK and abroad. I am not trying to shift the blame away from those – like me – who buy cheap clothing (as opposed to designer fashion, although this is not immune from labour exploitation) but I do wonder if there is anything that we can learn from the campaigns that were run in Britain at the start of the twentieth century that were designed to protect the most vulnerable workers. What were the aims of those involved? Did they have any successes or did no one listen, given that the problems of exploitation have continued into yet another century?
Over a hundred years ago, trade union activists and social reformers sought to expose the poor wages and working conditions experienced by many so-called sweated workers in Britain and to seek improvements through a combination of labour organisation and state legislation. The Women’s Industrial Council (WIC) investigated women industrial workers’ pay and conditions in factories, workshops and amongst those producing goods in their own homes. The Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) sought to support and to strengthen women’s trade unionism and in 1906, its secretary, Mary Macarthur, pulled together the many small unions it had helped and turned them into the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), which developed branches across the country with varying degrees of success.
Neither the pressure groups nor this all- female trade union focused exclusively on garment workers but on the myriad industries in which women (and some men) were among the worst paid in the country. In seeking to influence public opinion, however, the various branches of the clothing industry perhaps drew some of the most emotive responses from the public for more or less the same reasons as they do today. These are goods that we either need or desire and it outrages us to find out that workers are being exploited because of our demand. The prettier and more delicate a garment was, the greater the impact that could be made by campaigners revealing the conditions under which it had been made. In Birmingham in 1910 it was discovered that women were being paid 3 and a ¼ pence for three hours work on a ‘very pretty child’s dress of white cashmere with smocked yoke, waist and wrists’. So, it would take the worker seven 9 hour days to make six shillings (for context, an average male labourer’s wage in 1906 was reckoned to be just under 26 shillings), wages described at the time as pathologically low.
Many of the very worst paid workers received work from factory middlemen to do at home and when Mary Macarthur was asked, on behalf of a House of Commons Select Committee on home working, to provide evidence from the baby clothing trade, she visited a young woman in London making ‘little lace-trimmed garments by the dozen, at the rate of one penny each’. The woman had incipient diphtheria and because she had no bed clothes, was using the baby linen she was stitching to keep herself warm in bed at night. As a result of the visit, Macarthur spent six weeks in hospital after contracting diphtheria but, says her biographer, it was worth it for she was able to ‘bring home, to the committee and to the public, in the most vivid way, some of the consequences of sweating. When they saw it as setting death in the folds of a baby’s robe, they shuddered’.
Sometimes wages looked reasonable enough on paper but workers seldom took home what they had actually earned. In the 1890s, for example, a garment manufacturer moved his workforce into a brand new factory in central Oxford, which was reckoned to ‘contain every modern requirement for the comfort of the employees’ and was praised for its basement dining room, inside toilets and lifts to all floors. Many manufacturers believed that they truly had their workforce’s interests at heart and after all, wasn’t it the most natural thing in the world for women to make clothes? Did they really need much in the way of wages for labour that was so inherently womanly? A worker in Coventry reckoned that the owner of the blouse making factory where she worked justified its low rates of piece work by believing that this was the sort of work that his own daughters liked doing, sitting in front of the fireside at home. And if that was so, how could it possibly be considered to be exploitative?
And so, when some of the workforce at the Oxford factory joined the NFWW, the branch secretary, Laura Leng, provided Mary Macarthur with details of life in the factory where the amounts earned by gown hands, bodice hands, knickers hands and general hands were never consistent from one week to the next, instead depending on the amount each managed to complete and on many deductions regularly applied. Lateness was met with a half day lock-out, workers had to buy their own reels of cotton – and the more work you hoped to finish, the more reels you would need to buy – and had to pay for any broken needles. The WTUL uncovered lots more examples from across the country of how wages were reduced by fining workers, (most commonly) for producing faulty or damaged work, for talking, laughing, dancing in the lunch break or using the wrong staircase. Deductions were also made for being, for example, allowed to use the firm’s hot water to make tea, for paying the wages of a kitchen girl in the canteen, for having the staff toilets cleaned or by forcing employees to buy spoilt work. There were occasions when a worker discovered at the end of the week that not only was she to receive no wages but that she was in debt to the firm and what she owed would be taken out of her next wage packets. This factory was no worse than other garment factories; its pay and working practices were fairly standard in the industry and it was no doubt a great deal safer and more comfortable to work here, in a modern, light factory than in an old, cramped workshop or always surrounded by materials in your own home.
Ad from The Woman Worker, newspaper of the NFWW, 1907
The National Anti-Sweating League kept up the pressure on government to do something about pay levels. Exhibitions were held at which stalls were set up so that the public could see what homeworking entailed. It may have been little short of gawping, but the conditions, pressures and skills involved made strong impressions on visitors, including those who were in a position to – or inclined to – highlight the need for change. In 1909 the Trade Boards Act set minimum wages in (initially) four of the very worst paid of the so-called sweated industries – ready made and bespoke tailoring, cardboard box making, chain making and lace finishing. Whilst this undoubtedly raised wages within these industries (and more were later added), many employers nevertheless found ways to bypass the legislation, continuing to pay outworkers less than they were owed. In the Nottingham lace industry, where home work was given out by middle men or women, it took a very brave worker to refuse work offered at less than the legally set price, knowing not only that her neighbour would probably take it at the lower rate but that she would herself be denied future work as a result. As one of the organisers of the 1906 Sweated Industries Exhibition put it, ‘sweating follows unrestricted competition as naturally and inevitably as pain follows disease’. Trade Boards were replaced by wage councils in 1945 and still constant vigilance was required to ensure that workers were not falling below the safety net and this, in industries where workers were so often isolated, was difficult.
Ad from The Woman Worker, 1907
Trade union organisation was extremely difficult not least because of the high levels of victimisation experienced by members. In the Oxford factory, workers were careful not to talk about the union in work hours because they knew they were being watched and overheard. The firm’s manageress made it clear to all that she could do without the ‘Union girls’ as she set about the ‘shameful treatment’ of some members who doubted that they would be able to remain in the branch if they wanted to stay on in the factory.
Low paid workers often questioned whether they could afford the weekly union fee (of a minimum of a penny a week) and it was hard to keep branches going even after successful strikes. The key seems to have been close contact with HQ, although that meant an enormous amount of work for a small team of organisers who were stretched to their limits. By the eve of the First World War, however, there were upwards of 70 NFWW branches and a growing team of local activists. Not all of these were industrial workers themselves, however, and this drew criticism from the more established (predominately male) labour movement. Whilst mistakes were sometimes made by negotiators who could be naïve and mess up, I have always thought that rather than criticising those non-workers (many of whom were married working class women), they should be applauded for their efforts on behalf of those who could not risk exposure. Their presence could shield union members, keeping them away from vindictive factory bosses who might wait for negotiations to be concluded and then sack the ‘trouble makers’.
The most vulnerable workers are still (again?) at risk of victimisation for being members of a union. A climate of aggression towards unionisation, lack of government vigilance (or care) towards the lowest paid and insufficient involvement from the larger unions have all resulted in too many people working in potentially unsafe conditions and unable to maintain the standards of living that everyone deserves. There are many problems; the number of trade union members in Britain has fallen from a peak of 13 million at the end of the 1970s to just over 6 million last year. The TUC reckons that perhaps one in ten workers is in precarious employment. Anti-union laws and tabloid-peddled myths of the damage the labour movement has done to the British economy have not helped new workers to recognise the importance of union membership. And when new unions are being formed to represent those on the most precarious contracts, it would seem that the older trade unions have themselves retreated too far from the front line.
Recently, support plus the knowledge that they were not alone, helped two workers stand their ground in London. They worked as cleaners at a luxury car showroom in Kensington and were suspended after they joined the United Voices of the World (UVW) trade union, voting to strike in pursuit of the London Living Wage (LLW). In fact, it was discovered that as a result of deductions, they were not currently even receiving the minimum wage. Suspension turned into dismissal but with support and publicity from UVW, they were then reinstated and granted the LLW. This case – and so many others – is not just about wages but about respect and dignity. It is as Mary Macarthur said in 1907 – ‘the worker standing alone today is as powerless as a drop of water on a window-pane but when combined can become as powerful as that some drop of water can be when drawn into a rushing river or a surging sea’.
Ad from The Woman Worker, 1907
I’m no employment expert but I can see that things are not as campaigners like Macarthur hoped they would be 100 years on. Macarthur’s long term aim was to bring women workers into the labour movement; trade unionism was not, she said, something outside of ourselves, it was not like an automatic machine at the railway station, into the slot of which we could put a penny and draw out higher wages.
Now, as then, support, confidence and strength are vital to success. If we can offer our support to workers whenever and however we can so that they realise they are not hidden, perhaps this is how we can make a long term difference. In April, outsourced workers at the University of London went on strike, demanding to receive the employment rights of those directly employed by the University. The strikers are members of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), another new, small union seeking to give support to the most vulnerable of workers and crucially, their action was backed by other workers in HE and they were joined in demonstration and on the picket lines by supporters. We must keep up the pressure to ensure that all workers are safe, remembered, unionised and paid fairly.
There are of course lots of things that need to be done better but organisation still seems to me to be the best protection for vulnerable workers. Unions can insist on factory inspections when government does not, they can alert the public to wage levels and conditions. Binding together is surely still the best hope we have against unbridled competition in which everyone – employers as well as employees – struggle and suffer.
 Sarah O’Connor, ‘Dark Factories: Labour exploitation in Britain’s garment industry’, May 17 2018, Financial Times