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

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

Book cover

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

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

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

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

Born 13th August 1880.

Died 1 January 1921.

Corruganza TUC

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

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

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

For more details of this event, see here


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

Coventry women on holiday between the wars. Photo courtesy of Albert Smith (included in A History Of Women’s Lives in Coventry)
A Chat Over the Fence. Courtesy of Albert Smith (included in A History of Women’s Lives in Coventry)
book launch
Launch of A History of Women’s Lives in Coventry at The Big Comfy Bookshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for bryony purdue
Bryony Purdue and Cathy at the BBC for Woman’s Hour

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

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

Corruganza TUC
Mary Macarthur addressing the crowd, Trafalgar Square, 1908
Summerstown, January 2019

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

Mary Macarthur (Commons

A History of Women’s Lives in Coventry

front cover

Here is the front cover of my new book, just published by Pen & Sword. I am pleased to be able to introduce it in this centenary year of the (partial) granting of the vote to women and it has been an absolute pleasure to work on.

It is about the everyday lives of Coventry women throughout one extraordinary century of change and it is full of stories of what it was like to be a woman between 1850 and 1950.

During these years, women broke through barriers so that future generations of women might experience greater freedoms than had ever been possible for their mothers. Others offered their time and exceptional talents for the good of the community.

The main focus of the book is the too often neglected details of women’s daily lives, of triumphs and tragedies, changes and continuities, loves and losses. What was it like to grow up in Coventry, to go to its schools, to work in its offices, shops and factories? What were women’s experiences of getting married, setting up home and raising children? How did women spend their scarce and precious leisure time?

In other words, this is a book about the business of being a woman in this distinctive English Midlands city. I have lived in Coventry since 1980 and I feel honoured to call it home. In writing about women’s lives between 1850 and 1950, I appreciate how much has changed for the better, how much easier many things have become for subsequent generations of women. I also recognise, however, my own experiences in those I have researched. I love the cover photograph (thanks to Albert Smith for this) because it is so timeless – a group of women taking time out of the day to rest, to talk and to laugh. To me, it also shows the support that women give one another over the big and the small stuff – from cradle to grave, with all the important bits in between. I have learned so much from researching such wonderful women and I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

Some examples from the book:

  • Read about midwife Harriet Ives who, by the time of her retirement after the Second World War, reckoned that she had delivered over 7000 babies in the city
  • Learn about Coventry’s suffragettes, including one woman who escaped a jeering and menacing crowd by leaping on a tram and travelling on it until it was safe to get off and go home
  • Discover the Medical Officer’s advice to mothers about infant feeding at a time when poor housing and lack of good storage could lead to the contamination of baby milk

The book can be ordered here

I will also have copies at the following events

  • Please join me if you can for a chat about the book and some tea and cake at the Big Comfy Bookshop, Fargo Village, Coventry on September 9th from 2.30 onwards.
  •  A very informal book signing morning at the wonderful Kenilworth Books, 12 Talisman Square, 10.30 am until lunchtime, Saturday September 15th
  • A talk about the book, Coventry Society, November 12th. Details to follow
  • A talk about women’s lives in the First World War, Coventry History Centre, Saturday 10 November. Details to follow


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

The forgotten lives of women

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

Elizabeth’s story

Elizabeth with one of her daughters


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

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

The house in Fulham where the family lived from 1911

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The London Transport Women Workers’ Strike, 1918

London Buses at War,

London Women Tram Workers – Equal Pay Strike 1918

The TUC Library Collection

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

[1] Woman Worker, September 1918

[2] Morning Post, August 19th 1918

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


[5] Daily News and Leader, 24thaugust 1918

[6] Woman Worker, September 1918

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

[8] Woman Worker, September 1918

[9] The Times, August 21st 1918

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

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

[12] Cathy Hunt, National Federation, p 96

Women’s Lives in the First World War, Part Three: Making ends meet in Chelsea; one woman’s First World War

Ellen’s three youngest children outside the Chelsea house, c 1921

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’s story

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).[1] 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. [2]  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’.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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’.[7]

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.[8] Some had electric lighting, laundry rooms, modern cooking appliances and fitted cupboards[9] , facilities often lacking in the private rented sector, even if rents were comparable.  [10] In 1907 the Medical Officer for Health concluded that infant mortality here was a third lower than that of Chelsea’s poorest streets.[11]  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.[12]. 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.[13]

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.[14] 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.[15]

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.[16]

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.[17] Some landladies offered ‘Sunday meals if required’ or evening meals, often combined with the ability to make simple meals for oneself.[18] 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.[19]  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.[20]

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’.[21] 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. [22] 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.[23]

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.[24] 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’.[25] 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.[26] 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.

Francis, aged 16 or 17, 1915

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.[27] 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.

Ellen as an older woman, date unknown

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.





[1] Charles Booth, Maps Descriptive, 1888, 1889-90

[2] Maud Pember Reeves, 1913, Round About A Pound A Week,  London, Virago , 35

[3] Booth, Life and Labour of the People of London, 2nd series ,volume 4,  67

[4] Booth, Life and Labour, 2nd series, volume 3,  459

[5] 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

[6] Annual Report (AR), Medical Officer for Health (MoH) Chelsea, 1904

[7] Pember Reeves, 1913, Round About ,  38

[8] AR MoH 1904

[9] Anthony Wohl, 1977, The Eternal Slum: Housing and Social Policy in Victorian London,London, Edward Arnold,  41

[10]‘Settlement and Building’, VCH, pp 79-90, [accessed February 4th 2016]

[11] AR MoH 1907

[12] Ibid,  40

[13] Pember Reeves, Round About, 34-5

[14] ‘Settlement and Building’  79-90

[15] Pember Reeves, Round About,   38

[16] 1911 Census England and Wales

[17] Leonore Davidoff, 1979 ‘The Separation of Home and Work? Landladies and Lodgers in 19th and 20th Century England’ in Sandra Burman (ed) Fit Work for Women (London, Croom Helm) p 82

[18] West London Press 1905-10, British Newspaper Archive

[19]‘ Lodgers and Lodging in Victorian and Edwardian England’, London Metropolitan Archives,  accessed June 12 2016

[20] Western Daily Press, 19 August 1935, British Newspaper Archive

[21] ‘Childhood in Chelsea: Frank and Henry Gibbons on life in and around Park Walk from c 1905’, transcript of conversation recorded 1969. Thanks to JC Gibbons for permissions

[22] ‘Childhood’’

[23] Lara Marks, 1996, Metropolitan Maternity,: Maternal and Infant Welfare Services in Early twentieth Century London, Amsterdam, Rodopi ,101-2

[24] accessed May 11th 2016

[25] Family papers, March 18th 1907

[26] ‘Childhood’

[27] West London Press, March 17 1916, British Newspaper Archive

The garment industry 2018; can we learn anything from the Edwardian campaigners?

IMG_5924What, 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[1] 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’.[2] 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’.[3]

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.[4] 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.

IMG_5882Ad 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.

IMG_5883Ad 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.[5] 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’.[6]

IMG_5885Ad 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.[7]

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.

[1] Sarah O’Connor, ‘Dark Factories: Labour exploitation in Britain’s garment industry’, May 17 2018, Financial Times

[2] Bournville Works Magazine 1910

[3] Mary Agnes Hamilton, Mary Macarthur: A Biographical Sketch, 1925, Leonard Parsons, p 80

[4] Gertrude Tuckwell Collection, TUC Library, London Metropolitan University, file 216m/7.


[6] Jackson’s Oxford Journal, June 22 1907

[7] As above


Some further reading:


Sheila Blackburn (2007) A Fair Day’s Wage for a Fair Day’s Work? Sweated Labour and the Origins of Minimum Wage Legislation in Britain (Aldershot, Ashgate)


Cathy Hunt (2014) The National Federation of Women Workers, 1906-21, Palgrave Macmillan


Richard Mudie-Smith (compiled) (1906) Handbook of The “Daily News” Sweated Industries Exhibition (London, Burt & Sons)


Women’s Lives in Britain during the First World War: Part Two

Few lives were left unchanged by the First World War. We remember those who served but, as my last blog suggested, history has neglected those whose wartime roles were rather less defined than those of the soldiers and key workers whose labour so obviously helped the nation in its hour of need. This piece looks at the situation facing a mother of seven young children left to cope with the family business when her husband signed up for the Army in September 1914. In this family’s life, there was undoubtedly great change but the study shines light on the continuous work of a wife and mother – in this case, my great grandmother, Amy, who had little choice but to try to keep all the plates spinning, even when tragedy struck at the heart of her family’s life.

Amy’s story

In 1914, Amy and John were the tenants of a fish shop in an area to the west of Putney High Street and a few minutes’ walk away from the Thames.  Putney, in the London borough of Wandsworth, was an attractive district for the expanding middle classes, able to reach their businesses in the city with ease, due to good railway links. Yet, as Charles Booth had confirmed a few years earlier, it was also an area in which both the very rich and the very poor lived in close proximity. The street in which Amy and John lived – Quill Lane – was one of several comprising working class housing which was surrounded by larger, more affluent households. The small workmen’s cottages that made up their street were largely flats or subdivided houses where families depended upon the wages of, for example,  labourers, painters and decorators, coach drivers, horse dealers, billposters, charwomen, domestic servants and sick nurses. The fishmongers’ was not the only shop or commercial business on their street; its neighbours included a grocer, greengrocer, an umbrella maker, a boot maker, a confectioner and a rag merchant.

sheet10Amy and John’s shop was in Quill Lane, north of the railway line  and Chelverton Road and west of Putney High Street. Charles Booth Online Archive @London School of Economics and Political Science.

A year after John’s return in 1901 from a 14 year stint in the British Army, he married Amy and, by 1914, they had seven children, aged between 11 and two. Amy was born in Brighton but had, as a very young woman, come to London to work as a servant. John was born in Putney and it was here that they settled. Both John’s father and older brother were – variously – local fishmongers, general dealers and greengrocers and, possibly, it was to them that John turned for business advice when he resumed civilian life.

The earliest record of the shop appears in 1909 trade directories where it is listed as a fishmonger’s. At some point – perhaps from the outset – as well as selling wet fish, the shop provided home smoked fish as well as fish and chips. John Walton’s excellent study, Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, shows that by the early 20th century there were perhaps as many as 1200 fish and chip shops in London and the trade became increasingly more important as the fishing industry developed and expanded.[1] Panikos Panayi, in the equally impressive Fish and Chips: A History, reckons that on the eve of the War, perhaps up to 20 per cent of all fish caught by British trawlers and ten per cent of British potatoes went to the fish and chip trade.[2]

One of the advantages of running a wet and cooked fish shop was that anything that remained unsold during the day could be fried in the evening, thus reducing waste but also allowing the fishmonger to spend less at the market by buying some cheaper fish for fried suppers. John and Amy’s shop came with stabling for the horse needed to collect fish daily from Billingsgate Market and, as well as the cart, they had a barrow used to hawk fish around the streets of Putney. In this way, all bases were covered; fish and chips provided nutritious and affordable suppers for the working class families living nearby and the barrow facilitated the selling of fresh fish to the better off.

Billingsgate_Fish_Market._ILN_1876Billingsgate Fish Market, Illustrated London News, 1876. Public domain image

Although it was generally a man’s name over the door of the shop, there is no doubt that women were heavily relied upon to ensure the success of local retail businesses. As Elizabeth Roberts notes, the work (paid or otherwise) of millions of married women went largely unrecorded by census enumerators. Sure enough, no occupation is listed for Amy, then a mother of six, in the 1911 census, yet that small shop in Putney could not have survived without her labour, or that of the general servant who is also listed as sharing the family’s accommodation above the shop (the story of the servant, Georgina, whose life appears to have been spent in and out of London workhouses is one that I will endeavour to tell at a later date). John travelled daily for fish, potatoes and supplies such as frying oil and fuel and hawked fish around the streets. In the shop, the frying of fish was generally regarded as man’s work but Amy and Georgina – although there is no evidence beyond the 1911 census of how long the servant was employed for – would clean the shop, prepare the fish for smoking and frying, wash and peel the potatoes, open up to start trading and serve customers. Hours were long, from the four am trek to Billingsgate to closing up after the pubs were shut, around midnight. In addition, the daily needs of the family were – of course – Amy’s responsibilities.

John signed up for Army service on September 8th 1914. The first two weeks of that month saw record numbers of men enlisting across the country, more in total than had registered during the whole of the preceding month. By the end of August, almost 35,000 men had enlisted in London alone, followed by 21, 870 in the first week of September. The peak day for London recruitment was September 9th when 4,833 men joined up.[3] Recruits had to be between 18 and 38 but the upper age limit was extended to 45 for those who had previously served in the Army; John was 45 and although 13 years had lapsed since his discharge, he was accepted into the Queens Regiment.

Several reasons for the September spike in recruitment have been considered by historians. It came after news of the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force and heavy casualties at the Battle of Mons and it is thought that this may have prompted men to offer their services to the country, including many who had previously been torn between public and family duty.[4] The authorities were also becoming more organised by September; the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee allowed the War Office easier access to local networks through which leaflets and posters could be distributed.[5] In addition, considerable social pressures were brought to bear on men to persuade them to enlist; aged 45, John might have resisted these but perhaps felt bound to offer the experience gained in his former years of service to his country in its hour of need. Not that he had a particularly distinguished military record; in his first four years, from 1887, he was twice convicted of desertion and petty misdemeanours before finally being sent on tours abroad until his discharge, remaining a private for his entire service. Yet he was just 18 when he had joined up and 14 years is a long time in a young man’s life; perhaps he settled down and made the best of what the Army could offer and believed, at the start of the War, that it was now his duty to return. His wartime service appears to have been much steadier; his conduct was noted as good and he was a sergeant by the time he left.

There were also many, less patriotic reasons why men decided to join up. Interruptions in trade caused unemployment levels to rise steeply at the start of the war, which in turn adversely affected local trade and, with a large family to feed, perhaps John considered that the Army would at least provide a regular wage as well as the separation allowance payable to Amy and the children.

Until he came home over two years later, declared unfit for further duty (he had not been posted abroad and was likely to have been involved in training younger men), Amy, it would appear, had little choice but to keep the home fires burning and the fish shop pans hot. Aside from the shock of sudden separation (whether this caused sadness or otherwise), the wives of those who enlisted were left to continue with lives in which they were expected to carry on as normal and do so with an uncomplaining sense of patriotic duty and pride in those who had gone to war. Running the household with skill and a firm hand was nothing new for millions of women; Elizabeth Roberts writes of women’s heroic efforts to balance the family budget, avoid debt and stretch income as far as it could possibly go by acquiring expertise in where to shop and how to get the best deals.[6] In wartime, as we see in Annie’s story, this still had to be done during times of acute food shortages, rationing, price rises and all in the knowledge that even after the Army separation allowance had come through, there was, for many families, still a reduction in the money coming into the house and a shortfall to try to make good.

Before the War, Amy’s unpaid labour in the shop undoubtedly helped keep the business afloat.  Now, everything depended on her. There is no hard evidence that she did keep the shop open while her husband was away but simply closing up when you were paying rent and rates made no sense at all and this shop remained the family business until the eve of the Second World War. Many of those who did give up their businesses to go away to war were never again able to afford to buy them back in the post war years when landlords demanded much higher prices.[7] Those who had worked to establish their trade before the War thus relied on those left behind to keep things going. This was no mean feat if you also had seven young children. I don’t know whether Amy employed someone to go to market in the early morning but I do hope so: I don’t like to think of her having to manage to run both family and shop in addition to undertaking the daily trek for fish and potatoes. Whoever it was who did go, however, had to be astute and sharp elbowed; all foodstuffs essential to the trade were at times in very short supply and fishmongers and fryers could not afford to be choosy. As the war went on, previously unpopular fish such as catfish (Walton writes that it was sold as the rather more appetising sounding ‘Scottish hake’) and dark-coloured coalfish were used more and more in the frying trade. The price of fish, like most foodstuffs rose steeply, yet customers somehow expected that their local shop should show them loyalty and keep prices at pre-war levels (typically this was a penny for fish and either a penny or sixpence for the chips). It was a difficult balancing act for shopkeepers who relied on their neighbours for trade but needed to run at a profit or at least break even.[8]

Towards the end of the war came some much needed state support as the government recognised the vital place of fish and chips in the diets of the nation’s workers. Not only did they make a cheap, nutritious meal but they saved households from using more fuel than they needed (or could afford) and were of great help to those working long shifts in the munitions factories, unable to queue for scarce food stuffs and often too exhausted to contemplate going home to cook for the family. In January 1918 the press reported that the government had stepped in to ensure the continuance of the trade by taking control of all the country’s oils and fats. It secured a supply of Egyptian cotton seed and a blended mixture of oils was available to fryers, who were nevertheless warned to exercise the greatest economy in its use.[9]

John Walton refers to suggestions that as a result of the wartime importance of the trade, the overall status of the industry was raised and that, in the post war world, it gained a wider respectability, becoming more than just a back street trade. For the wartime shopkeeper, one of the few benefits came with the imposition of shortened opening hours; 10.30 in the evening became standard and as pub licencing hours were also restricted, passing trade was not being missed and Amy could, in theory, get more sleep.

By 1918, Amy’s eldest three children were 15, 13 and 11. Although the school leaving age was 14 (13 in some instances), President of the Board of Education, H.A.L. Fisher, calculated in 1917 that up to that point, around 600,000 children had left school prematurely in order to ease the strain in families where earnings had been reduced because of the War.[10] Local authorities wanted the Board of Education to temporarily suspend the by-laws governing school attendance in order to be able to support families trying to make ends meet. There is a good chance that Amy’s children helped in the shop even if they were able to remain at school, for example, peeling and chipping potatoes, serving or even selling from the barrow (legally children had to be 12 in order to do this, so only the two eldest could – in theory – do this).

The eldest child in the family was a girl. In common with many girls in working class families, her school attendance record was quite possibly worse than that of her brothers. Girls were expected to take on domestic duties and child care within families whenever needed and in Amy’s family, whether or not the servant remained throughout the war, a crisis occurred that would have been even harder to endure without the help of a daughter.

Since the turn of the century, public health in Britain had shown signs of improvement. The pre-war Liberal welfare reforms empowered local authorities to provide free school meals and medicals. On the eve of war, infant mortality rates were, on average, lower than they had been a decade earlier and the death rate from the commonest childhood diseases was also reduced. Of course, whilst anyone was at risk from scarlet fever, measles, diphtheria and tuberculosis, the chances of contracting these remained stubbornly higher in densely populated areas where overcrowding was common. Poor housing added to the risk of so-called ‘filth’ diseases (such as diarrhoea, dysentery and typhoid); where children played in yards with privies shared by many families and where waste lingered, dangers, particularly in warm weather, lurked everywhere. Every family dreaded the appearance of illnesses that, thanks to vaccination programmes, are now, in Britain, either eradicated or less likely to result in epidemics. In the spring of 1915, three year old Nelly, Amy and John’s youngest child, died in a fever hospital in Tooting from measles and diphtheria.

According to the Wandsworth Medical Officer of Health Report for 1915, both diseases were more prevalent than they had been in the preceding years. Because the compulsory notification of measles did not begin until 1916, Medical Officers had to rely on schools to report suspected cases, which then allowed visits to affected households. In Putney in 1915, all of the 165 cases notified in this way came from Hotham Road Elementary School. Opened in 1909, this Council school was the closest to the fish shop and was certainly attended by my grandfather, James, Amy and John’s fourth child. From 1911, a pamphlet was left at every house in the borough after a school notification, advising of symptoms. Measles was most infectious in its early stages but this was before the rash appeared and so parents needed to be on the alert if coughing, sneezing and redness of the eyes occurred. All infected children were required to stay off school for four weeks after the rash came out and their houses were disinfected.

Measles was (and remains) a dangerous disease with risks of complications such as bronchitis, pneumonia and – in Nelly’s case – diphtheria. Such complications were more likely to occur in those under five or over 20. In Wandsworth in 1915, there were 152 deaths from measles (compared with 26 in 1914) and of these, 88 per cent of the deaths occurred in children under the age of five. Measles’ complications often came on very quickly and Nelly’s removal to the fever hospital is likely to have occurred when diphtheria struck. Treatment for the so-called ‘strangling angel’ bacterial infection which attacked the throat, making swallowing and breathing very difficult, needed to be swift in order to save the patient’s life. As with measles, Wandsworth saw an increase in the number of diphtheria cases during 1915, with 89 per cent of these removed from the home to isolation or fever wards.

Accounts of morbidity and mortality rates, of notices from schools and reports of home visits to educate parents about symptoms all serve to remind us of the dangers posed by diseases now controlled or eradicated in Britain by mass vaccination programmes (from the late 1940s for diphtheria and the mid – 1960s for measles) but they tell us nothing about the agony of loss. Amy had to care for her family alone, keep the business going amidst the strains of war, all the while grieving for her daughter. I hope that John was granted compassionate leave to return home to be with his family and I hope also that the local community was tightly knit enough to support them and offer what practical help it could. I don’t write this in a gush of sentimentality but as a historian, conscious of just how much of the past is sanitised by statistics. They are, of course, of vital importance but wherever possible they need the addition of details and stories to give them deeper meaning.

The experience of motherhood, whatever else is going on in the world, however great the dislocation and upheaval, is always unique and personal and this one account of a working class British woman shows that not only did war have an immense impact on her life, she also had to deal with hardships that were all too common in family life and which the histories of war have obscured.


Amy and her son James next to the shop in the late 1920s. Her husband died soon after this photo was taken and the business continued with the help of her children until the late 30s. Amy spent her final years in a Putney almshouse.
[1] Great War London: London and Londoners in the First World War
[2] As above,
[3] For more details see British Library
[4] Elizabeth Roberts, Women’s Work 1840-1940,CUP, 1988, pp42-3
[5] See Walton, pp30-2
[6] Much of this information comes from Walton’s book. It is a valuable social and economic history study – do read if you can.
[7] Gloucester Journal, 19 January 1918; see also Walton
[8] Arthur Marwick, The Deluge: British Society and the First World War, 2nd edition, 1991, Macmillan Press, p 156
[9] John K Walton, Fish and Chips and the British Working Class 1870-1940, LUP, 1992
[10] Panikos Panayi, Fish and Chips: A History, Reaktion Books, 2014

see also Medical Officer Of Health Reports, Wandsworth,

Women’s lives in the First World War – Part One

Fragments of history: Women’s Lives in Britain during the First World War

History is messy and frustrating but it can also be tantalisingly exciting trying to piece things together and make a little more sense of the past. It doesn’t always work but we often get just a tiny bit nearer to knowing or understanding stuff. Sometimes, we want things to be true and can be guilty of using what evidence we think we have to back up what we want to believe. That’s probably ok as long as we’re honest about it and leave a trail for others to interpret afresh or provide the addition of some new facts or information.

A few years ago my mum gave me a small pack of postcards and photographs. Most were written to ‘Dolly’ (my grandmother) by her father when he was in the Army during the First World War. They are touching messages of love sent to a daughter at home in London during a soldier’s service that saw him wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and returned to a hospital in the North East of England. On one card, he wrote that he regretted that he couldn’t send five year old Dolly any money but would do so as soon as he was out of hospital. Sure enough, another card stated that he was enclosing one shilling and six pence for her and her older half-sister, Lilian, to buy some sweets. He did not return to live in the family home until his army discharge early in 1919.

Juett 2

Juett 4

Juett 5FWW

As well as the cards that he sent home, there are those that he may have carried with him or that were sent to him while he was away. There is a torn photograph of the family, most likely taken early on in the War and with the words ‘Return to Wife’ scrawled on the back. There are two photographs of Dolly, near the start and towards the end of the War. On the back of one is a message, ‘July 9th, Lil Money Stopped’; on the other, there are two lists of food, with prices – tea, sugar, margarine, cheese, onions, bread and sausages. There is so much missing in the everyday detail of this family’s life and I will never know exactly when the lists were made or who wrote them but they fascinated me so much that I have used them in order to embark on a series of snap shots of women’s lives during the War.

Annie, Amy, Elizabeth and Ellen were my great grandmothers.  Born between 1858 and 1878, all were raising families in south west London during the First World War. Their stories have come to me from my parents in snatches, with details missing that will in all probability remain so, but I nevertheless want to try to write about what is known before that too is lost forever. The seemingly ordinariness of these women’s lives helps to reveal the very opposite, cutting through generalisations and public memories by trying to provide a sense of some women’s lives a hundred years ago, when certainly there were daily reminders of war but when getting on with life was the only option.

Annie’s story


When war was declared, Annie and William had been married for just over three years. Their daughter, Dorothy (Dolly) was nearly three and they were raising Annie’s youngest child, Lily, from her previous marriage, who was about twelve. Her eldest three children had gone their own ways. Like so many working class Londoners, the couple lived in cramped, overcrowded accommodation, renting one or possibly two rooms in a small apartment in Putney. William was a general labourer and house painter and Annie – at least until the birth of Dolly in the autumn of 1911 – worked at the Fulham Sunlight Laundry. It’s difficult to estimate the couple’s pre-war income, partly because there’s no way of knowing whether Annie was able to continue to earn once Dolly was born and partly because inclement weather, short term and casual contracts meant that labouring and decorating did not always bring in the steadiest of wages. Whilst averages can never be relied on for complete accuracy, sometimes they remain our only indicator and the average weekly pay packet for a labourer in 1914 was 22 shillings and 10 pence. Women’s pay rates in commercial laundries like the Sunlight were lower than this and even with union negotiated wage rises during the War, the basic salary for a woman aged 18 or over was just 18 shillings a week by the end of the War. If, because there was no one to look after Dolly, Annie gave up her job outside the home in 1911, their entire income was then lost when William signed up as an army recruit in early September 1914. With her many years of experience of laundry work, perhaps Annie took in washing at home but her ability to do so was always dependent on the family’s living arrangements.  Sometimes renting a room (or rooms) came with agreed access to a scullery or wash house but only the friendliest of fellow tenants (and landlords) would have tolerated a woman using up space, water, tub and drying room (if there was any) to do anything more than her own family washing.

With William away, Annie became reliant on the separation allowances that were paid to wives of servicemen from the start of the War. The weekly amount received depended on the rank of the serving husband; William joined the West Yorkshire Regiment as a private and was promoted to sergeant whilst in France in 1916, where he had been on active service since 1915. The government recognised the importance of making sure that the families of Kitchener’s recruits were looked after and did not have to resort to charity or the dreaded Poor Law. Bureaucratic hold ups and patronising attitudes, however, caused anger, frustration and hardship for many women. In the autumn of 1914, Sylvia Pankhurst’s paper, The Woman’s Dreadnought, drew attention to the humiliation caused by payment delays, by women not receiving the right amount of money and by the ‘meagreness’ of the allowances given. It was wrong, stated the Dreadnought, that as well as having to send birth and marriage certificates to the War Office, women ‘should have to submit to minute and often fussy and impertinent cross examination from officials of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ families association besides. The wives and children of the soldiers were entitled to a fair wage on behalf of the men at the front, and ought not to be placed in the position of suppliants for charity’ – the very thing that government had agreed should be avoided, in the interests of public morale and support for the War.[1]

From March 1915 the wife (and some unmarried couples with children) of a private received 12 shillings and 6 pence a week and a wife and one child 17 shillings and 6 pence, with 2 extra shillings for each additional child. An extra 3 shillings and 6 pence went to wives in the London area if they could prove that they had lived in the capital before the War. The allowance paid to the wife of a sergeant was 15 shillings, 20 shillings if she had a child and 23 shillings and 6 pence if there were two children. Allowances were, with some exceptions, only for children under 16[2]; Annie’s daughter, Lilian, reached her 16th birthday towards the end of the War and this may account for the message indicating that her money had been stopped and leading to the need to re-calculate the family’s income.

From the start of the War, the anxieties facing wives and mothers escalated. As the cost of living rose steeply, working class women struggled to get by on the separation allowance alone. At the start of the War, many businesses contracted as they waited to see what would happen and the market for fashionable and fancy goods slowed as people tightened their belts and stopped placing orders. As a consequence, unemployment amongst women increased, causing considerable extra hardship and leading to charity run relief works where women could work, for a low wage, on tasks such as garment making.[3] As the War progressed, and as more men enlisted, women were needed in the nation’s shops and offices, on its buses and trams, as postal workers and delivery drivers, to name but a few.  Married women with children who were able to do so took on work where they could and, from 1915, munitions factories began to employ large numbers of women. Here, decent money could be earned but shifts were long, the work was dangerous and unhealthy and the practicalities of travelling to work (sometimes very long daily distances), of finding suitable and affordable childcare (for nurseries were in very short supply) meant that many mothers were unable to take on War work of this nature. Those who did often found that rather than being praised for their patriotism, they faced accusations of neglecting their children and even of greed, for surely they should be content with the regularity of the separation allowance? After all, it was argued, this was more than many women had had before the War and here they were now, with a nice reliable sum of money coming into the house each week.

Those who criticised clearly had no idea of how difficult life was for so many working class women. There were price rises right from the start of the War. Before the government introduced rent controls in 1915, women like Annie – husbands rapidly mobilised and gone to war – worried with good reason that landlords might evict them as they waited for their allowances to come through or that they might try to attract new tenants who could, thanks to war work, afford to pay more. The Woman’s Dreadnought encouraged women to send in their experiences of budgeting and it is clear that less than a year into the War, fuel and foodstuffs had risen considerably. In February 1915, one woman gave her account of what she called ‘just poor every day living’ for her family of four:

Before the War (in shillings and pence, eg 1/6) Since the War
14 loaves of bread 2/11 4/8
1 ¾ cwt coal 2/4 3/6
1lb meat 6d 9d
½ quartern flour 2 1/4d 4 ½ d
½ lb tea 8d 10d
3 ½ lbs sugar 5 ¼ d 10 ½ d
I tin milk 4d 5d
Rent 6s 6s
Insurance 1s 1s


If Annie’s sole income was the separation allowance (until William’s promotion, she received 21 shillings, plus the London allowance), the above gives some indication of how money for her family of three was spent. On top of these and other foodstuffs, fuel and rent, there were clothes and shoes to buy (maybe through clothing clubs), soap and detergent and whatever else was needed in the household. Price rises became steeper; according to a 1918 government committee, the average working class household’s weekly expenditure on food had increased by 90 per cent in four years and other household costs, such as fuel and lighting, had risen by 74 per cent.[5]

Before the introduction of rationing from the start of 1918, working class women bore the brunt of food shortages that were caused by disrupted supplies from overseas as well as by inequitable distribution. Queues were long and there were no guarantees that there would be much left even when you reached the front; one woman wrote that her daughter had lost a morning’s schooling in order to queue at a dairy before coming home without the margarine she’d been sent out to get. Another stated that despite a statement in the Press announcing that meat was available, she and others ‘watched load after load of nice fresh joints being sent out on the quiet to the rich; no one else got any’. When the butchers’ shops finally opened towards the end of that day, ‘the promised meat consisted of dirty black bits and dirty animals’ heads and bad liver, which smelt disgustingly’.[6] Sausage meat was sometimes the best that could be got but only then if you were lucky enough to see it on display or were forewarned that it might be coming.

Queueing was time consuming and exhausting and, with four hour queues for meat common, almost impossible for mothers of small children. Working women despaired that they could not shop until the end of their shift by which time shops were often all but emptied of food. Rationing eased the queues; in order to get goods such as sugar and fat, it was necessary to register with a local shop which would provide these rationed items. As well as national, compulsory rationing, local food committees were set up to manage the distribution and prices of goods such as tea, cheese and jam but money remained extremely tight.[7] The lists on the back of Annie’s postcard indicate very careful planning and the buying of the most basic of foodstuffs – with no meat mentioned except sausage – one loaf, perhaps 4 ounces of cheese, onion (always handy for soups, stews and pies), tea, sugar and margarine. The stopping of the government allowance for Lilian ( ‘Lil money stopped’) was a blow; the chances are that Lilian had been working since leaving school, most likely at 14, so although there was already some extra money coming in (plus the increased allowance for the wife and children of a sergeant), the overall household income went down as a result of the stoppage.



These, then, were just some of the practical concerns facing women during the War. In addition, there was loneliness to contend with and deep anxieties about loved ones away at the War. William was with his regiment in France for a year before he was wounded by a bullet that entered his leg at the right knee and travelled up to the thigh. He was transferred to a military hospital near Newcastle. Unless travel permits were granted to the wives of wounded servicemen, the cost of visiting her husband in hospital would have been prohibitive for Annie and even if there was money available, there were unlikely to have been many – if any – opportunities to travel the length of the country with her two daughters. William remained in the North East in the Training Reserve, for the rest of the War. He received the Military Medal from King George V at an investiture at St James’ Park in June 1917, awarded as a result of his bravery on July 1st 1916. I wonder if Annie was even able to attend this event.

There were other people to be anxious about too; although I have not yet been able to find any details, Annie’s eldest two sons from her first marriage both either joined up or were conscripted in 1916. Family memories and a photograph of Tom, the eldest, suggest that he lost all, or part, of an arm during the War.

In February 1919, William returned home to Putney and to the ‘normal’ life that the government hoped would follow the tragedies and upheavals of war. But what did that look like and how easy was it for couples to live together again after years of experiences that had not been shared and now could not easily be understood? There were no promises of employment for returning soldiers like William and finding work as soon as possible was the most important part of homecoming.  Without it, the family’s only income was a disability pension of 6 shillings and 6 pence per week, with an additional allowance for children, although his army record indicates that this was not be relied upon and was up for review in less than a year.

William, however, was one of the lucky returning soldiers; his war injury did not prevent him from resuming a normal working life and he went back to painting and decorating, as well as being very competent in woodwork. Despite this, it was years before the family’s housing came anywhere close to a standard ‘fit for heroes’ and they appear to have seldom, if ever, lived on their own, sharing or taking in lodgers before finally moving into a small mid nineteenth century cottage in Putney in about 1930. There were no mod cons here, just one cold water tap in the scullery (which had a dirt floor when they moved in), an outside toilet and no electricity. From 1933 William and Annie shared the cottage with their daughter, Dorothy, her husband and their children. My mother was born here and Dorothy – my grandmother – remained here until her death in 1987.

Men had no choice but to readjust to life at home. Apparently William, like so many men who had been at the Front, never spoke of what he had seen, apart from just once telling my mother of having witnessed the slaughter of so many comrades in his regiment as they were ordered over the top on that fateful summer’s day in 1916. Families had to learn how to deal with men’s silences, bad dreams, and behaviours that today we are beginning to recognise as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Women had many other things to cope with too, including the loss of independence that had come with being the recognised head of the household. No doubt many women were enormously relieved and thankful at the return of their husbands but at the same time, they had grown used to doing things their own way, having full control over the family budget (as opposed to being allocated money from the man’s wage packet, as happened in so many households), shopping and cooking with what food items were available, without the pressure of making meals for the working man, sometimes relying on the communal kitchens that were set up late in the War. There was a government hope that women would act as a calming influence on those men who came back from war troubled, restless or (worst of all) seeking radical political change. There was renewed emphasis on women’s place in the home and on the sanctity of wifehood and motherhood and a widespread assumption that married women would have no further wish for paid work now that War was over.

Over the next few weeks, more blog posts will, through the experiences of Ellen, Amy and Elizabeth, add some more detail on bringing up children during the War, making ends meet and carrying on a family business when the main breadwinner went off to war.




[1] The Woman’s Dreadnought, September 26th 1914

[2] See Imperial War Museum accessed April 9th 2018

[3] Gail Braybon & Penny Summerfield, Out of the Cage: Women’s Experiences in Two World Wars, 1987, Pandora, pp31-4

[4] The Woman’s Dreadnought, February 27th 1915

[5] Working Classes Cost of Living Committee, cited in Angela Woolacott, On Her Their Lives Depend, Munitions Workers in the Great War, 1994, University of California Press, p 117-18

[6] The Woman’s Dreadnought, January 19th 1918

[7] For a very good description of local rationing, see Rachel Field, Ipswich in the Great War, Pen & Sword Military, 2016, pp 37-9

Peace and Plenty: Coventry leading the way, 1938



Photograph taken from the Midland Daily Telegraph 31 October 1938

 Coventry’s reputation as a city of peace and reconciliation, led by the international work of its Cathedral, is known throughout the world. The powerful images of the charred roof beams fallen in the sign of the cross and of the cross of nails created from the debris of the devastated Cathedral in 1940 have come to symbolise hope and international friendship. In the 1940 Christmas Day service, broadcast from the Cathedral ruins, Provost Howard looked towards a future in which the Cathedral would work with all people ‘to build a kinder, more Christ-like world’.

What is less well known is that Coventry was making its mark as a city promoting peace and equality before the Second World War began. In 1938 the city’s first woman mayor, Alderman Alice Arnold, led a deputation of Coventry citizens to London to present the so-called ‘Peace and Plenty’ petition at the Home Office, addressed to the King, asking for a judicial commission to investigate ways to avoid war and to ensure peace and lasting prosperity for all. The story behind this petition – signed by 60,000 Coventry citizens  – as well as the lead that Coventry provided for other cities, just weeks after Chamberlain’s return from Munich, with his message for ‘peace in our time’, are extraordinary and deserve to be remembered, 80 years on.

The twin anxieties of economic depression and the gathering war clouds were uppermost in the minds of millions of people during the 1930s. Coventry’s ‘new’ engineering industries may have ensured that the very worst of the world economic crisis was avoided in the city but unemployment and short time working had nevertheless left deep marks since the 1920s. In addition, from the late 1930s, there was no escaping the fact that the city was at the forefront of Britain’s rearmament production and that its economic prosperity was bound up with preparations for war.

The organisation behind the petition that Alice Arnold took to London was founded by Mr Robert Scrutton, when he was staying with the popular and socially aware vicar of St Peter’s Church in Hillfields, the Reverend Paul Stacy. Started as an avowedly non-party political movement, it instead declared itself to be a united Christian attempt to seek broad agreement on principles which would end poverty, remove the economic causes of war and in so doing, seek social well-being and security for all people. Named the United Christian Petition Movement (UCPM) it had six broad principles:


  1. No man, woman or child should suffer insecurity or poverty through no fault of their own whilst actual or potential resources existed to meet their needs.
  2. That as long as people were in need of food, warmth or shelter, the restriction of supplies or the destruction of goods because people did not have the money to buy them was indefensible.
  3. To encourage the growth of a Christian Social Order, promoting fellowship and co-operation.
  4. To provide security, liberty and opportunity for all men and women to enrich the State by developing their personalities and using their spiritual and intellectual attributes.
  5. That industries and businesses should recognise that human life is sacred and should ‘cease to be made subservient to monetary, expediency or to industrial or commercial exploitation’.
  6. To encourage self- expression and individual development in order to enrich communities.


Through public meetings and an ambitious programme of door knocking, it was claimed that signatures were being collected at the rate of 2000 a week, with 51,000 by the summer of 1938. By the time Alice Arnold handed the petition to the Home Office on 29 October, the 60,000 names gathered amounted to nearly a third of the city’s population (the equivalent of over two thirds of its electorate).  There were meetings in other British towns and cities but it was decided that Coventry should lead the way in recognition of the fact that the movement had its origins there. Extra poignancy was attached after Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich in late September 1938, waving the piece of paper with which he hoped that war in Europe might be averted. In a letter from Mayor Arnold appealing to Coventry employers to give their workforces time off from work (on a Saturday, which was often a half day in industry) to accompany the petition to London, she wrote that it was felt that ‘the most practical offering of thanksgiving for the untiring efforts of the Prime Minister’, was for Coventry to set an example to encourage other cities to ‘work to obtain the settlement of all national and international disputes by similar peaceful negotiations, based upon justice and humanity’. Alice Arnold did not ignore the fact that this peace had only been secured due to the ‘the great sacrifice’ made by one nation – the agreement allowed Hitler to annex the Sudetenland – and the UCPM noted that the gratitude of thousands and thousands went out to the people of Czechoslovakia.

Support for the Petition was not, however, found in all quarters. An editorial in the Midland Daily Telegraph stated that ‘if every political organisation sought to further its cause by arranging monster petitions to His Majesty the King instead of pursuing the normal channels so deeply ploughed into the fabric of every democratic State’, political structures would need to be redrawn. Despite not wishing to hinder any political movement seeking remedies to major social problems – in this case mass unemployment – the conservative view put forward was that this was a matter for Parliament and for legislation. Arguably, the numbers of signatures on the Coventry petition tell a different story.

A special train was chartered to take the Coventry deputation which had the support of the city’s churches, trade unions, some members of the City Council, the manager of the city’s Labour Exchange and, it was claimed, of some leading members of local industries. At Euston, Coventry folk were joined by over a hundred clergy as well as by members of the Social Credit Movement, together forming a procession that was around a quarter of a mile long, complete with band. Crowds cheered it on its way to Whitehall and the press reported that in Gower Street, Indian students (where the YMCA Indian Student Hostel was located) came out onto the street to show their support.

The leaders of the procession, Mayor Arnold and her Mayoress, Councillor Ellen Hughes, were the first two women to be elected as councillors in Coventry and their prominence on this day in 1938 ought, I think, to be remembered as a landmark feminist event in the city’s history. Together they laid a wreath at the Cenotaph before handing in six bundles of signatures at the Home Office. The Mayor received a bouquet of flowers from two prominent women supporters of the UCPM, Lady Claire Annesley and Baroness Heyking. At a meeting in Horse Guards’ Parade, Alice Arnold expressed her pleasure in supporting the petition and said that ‘we feel that if Christianity existed in its truest sense we should not be in the position we are today’. Despite the fact that wealth could so easily be produced, there were hundreds of thousands of people living in poverty because of the present economic system. This was a subject dear to the Mayor’s heart who herself was born into poverty in Coventry. She began work at the age of 11 and by the First World War, was an organiser for the Workers’ Union, speaking up for the rights of women workers. When she and Ellen Hughes became city councillors in 1919, both campaigned vociferously for better living standards for Coventry citizens, drawing attention to the dire consequences of poverty in their city.  Alice Arnold’s own health was poor and the day in London must have taxed her strength, for it came only a few weeks after a lengthy spell in the city’s municipal hospital for complete rest, whilst her secretary brought in official papers for her to sign, so determined was she to serve her city.

On her return to Coventry after the deputation, Alice Arnold, her mayoral year now drawing to a close, appealed to Lord Mayors and Mayors in Britain to work with the clergy in launching UCPM campaigns in their own cities. Places that agreed co-operation included Birmingham, Newcastle, Sunderland, Oxford, Barnsley, Harrogate, Liverpool, Bexhill, Nelson, St Ives, Tottenham and six other London boroughs. Preparations were made to follow Coventry’s example and in February 1939 it was hoped that the people of Sunderland would soon be able to add their names to the two million nationwide it was claimed had now signed the petition. In April a public meeting in Liverpool appealed for people to attend a public meeting to discuss ‘Peace and the Abolition of Poverty Everywhere’. In the summer it was reported that over 89 British towns and cities and 23 countries, including Switzerland and France were launching similar campaigns.

The Movement was short lived, overtaken by the realisation that there would be no ‘peace in our time’ and the final descent into the Second World War began, just 20 years after the end of the War to end all wars. Yet the support shown for the Coventry petition in 1938, at a time when rearmament was gathering pace and civil defence measures were very public reminders of the fragility of ‘peace’, demonstrates the willingness of a city to work towards a world in which insecurity and poverty could be eradicated and there would be no more war. It was, however, by now evident that Fascism must be militarily defeated before there could be any more talk of a new world based on social principles that would ensure security, liberty and opportunity for all.

It cannot have been predicted that just over a year into that war on Fascism, Coventry would again lead the way with messages of hope, kindness and, in the wake of the devastation of the city, of forgiveness too.

The majority of material used here is from Coventry’s and other local newspapers. With thanks to Coventry History Centre and the British Newspaper Archive