The Fires of Perfect Liberty: Labouring Men and Women of England, 1851-1951; part eleven   Leave a comment

The Road to 1945 and Beyond (4/4)

 

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As the debts mounted for maintaining Britain’s global status and its benevolence at home, so did the doubts about the ideological basis on which the new Jerusalem could be built. Even those who had been the most ardent supporters of the collectivist approach, like Stafford Cripps, became, after 1949, equally determined supporters of the mixed economy. Attlee set the date of the general election as 23 February 1950, and the Labour Party fought the election on the manifesto Let us win through together, an endorsement of Cripps’ economic policy.

Despite polling a record 13.3 million votes, the Labour majority was cut to six. Nevertheless, the social reforms enacted by Labour were clearly popular with the British people, since it not only succeeded in winning more votes, but also won more seats in the 1950 election than it had done in 1945, on an even higher turn-out.

 (Above: The end of sweet rationing in 1949)

012Although it polled nearly fourteen million votes, slightly more than the Conservatives, Labour lost the October 1951 election. Historians have argued that this was, in part, because its achievements in the postwar years had been accompanied by continued, and sometimes intensified, austerity for the British people. Wartime rationing of some essential foods continued into the new year following the government’s re-election. However, there were clear signs, for instance in the Festival of Britain celebrations of that summer, that the drabness of the period was coming to an end. Interestingly, one woman, a wartime child, recalled in 1963, that a great deal was determined by differing expectations within the population. Not everyone’s experience of the prewar years was of prolonged economic depression, of course, but it should be remembered that those born after 1930 did not yet have a vote:

002For those who remembered the years between the wars the gradual climb back to prosperity was a long, dispiriting haul, echoing with prewar memories of better days. For the wartime children it was different. Those years were not a return but a revelation. They were lit by surprises; between 1945 and 1951 we saw not only the first pineapples and bananas of our lives, but the first washing machine, the first fountain, the first television sets.

The world opening before us was not a pale imitation of the one we had lost but a dip of extraordinary things we had never seen before. If later, we seemed to snarl with baffled rage at the disillusionment and apathy of our elders, perhaps this was why. They treated it all as a dreary mess; they forget that for us it could have been a brave new world.

 

As this wartime child suggested, many older, ordinary people had become tired and disillusioned by Labour’s Big Brother style. We work or we want, proclaimed the irritating government posters. Many had worked hard, and industrial production increased by a third between 1946 and 1951, but people wanted more consumer goods in the shops, even, as a tantalising 1946 advert suggested, some lovely lingerie, and ’Lux’ to look after these pretty things. They remembered how pure, safe Lux preserved the beauty of these delicate fabrics… and how easily it rinsed out. For the time being, they had to wash their treasured things with the soap or flakes available. Of course, there were ways and means of getting some of these goods on the black market:

 

The spivs were tense, dubious, insecure. Yet the essence of spivvery was deeply English, a small, boyish lust for life, and eagerness to play practical jokes on the clumsy, long-winded motions of a bureaucracy.

 

One woman, quoted in a radio broadcast, said she was happier when she lay listening to bombs and daring herself to tremble; when she got romantic letters from abroad; when she cried over Dunkirk; when people showed their best side and we still believed we were fighting to gain something. However, for many (now) teenage evacuees, like Daphne Gulliver, returning home after five years, was a much longed-for occasion and they were keen to settle back into their families and communities, to finish school and salvage whatever they could of their childhood and teenage years. Daphne left school at sixteen in 1947 and then went to work as a short-hand typist at the Rolls Royce engine factory at nearby Ansty, using her bicycle to get up the farm lane on the other side of the river Sowe and up the hill each day. She remembered how much she treasured her cycle which one of her relatives put together with true Coventrian craftsmanship:

Tommy Hatfield had a sort of workshop and you could go up there and say you wanted a bike, and he’d measure you up for size and look through all these frames, and find one the right size. Then he’d dip it in acid, then he’d dip it in a stone enamelling vat. I suppose they were always black. He’d tell you which day he’d finish it, and then you’d come home riding your bike, pleased as punch. Lovely thing a bike.

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Daphne was also happy to be able to take part in chapel life again. There were marvelous harvest festivals after the war and everything was decorated. Then the produce would be sold off to raise money and there would be a concert to follow. The choirmaster was quite strict and if anyone wasn’t behaving themselves, he would throw a hymn book in their direction to bring them to attention. After the war, the chapel was taken under the wing of Queens Road and the Rev Gordon Wylie, succeeding Rev Ingli James, brought the thirty-four year-old Rev Arthur J Chandler (left), my father, to Walsgrave from Wednesbury, Staffordshire, in 1948. In addition to overseeing Ansty and Shilton chapels, he helped to build up the Walsgrave congregation again. As Daphne’s mother, Vera, was a deacon at the chapel, he was a regular visitor to their house and around the time of Daphne’s twenty-first birthday in 1952, they got engaged. Her Aunt Jessie’s husband, Tommy Gardner, worked for forty-five years at the Austin Motor Carriage works in Holbrooks. Although they had no children of their own, Jessie and Tommy fostered two children from the Barnado’s Home Tommy had grown up in before the First World War. Jessie lived on in Coventry to be a hundred and two. Aged ninety-one, in 1992, she concluded her memoirs with these remarks about the heritage of her family:

So, they (the Gullivers and Tidmarshes) were good people and that’s where it’s coming out in these generations, because we came from good stock; honest, God-fearing workers. We all seem to be doing very well these days, after all these years. So, I can’t say much for the good old times that they talk about. I’m all for these times.   Some things are better, some things are worse, I will admit. But, on the whole, we are looked after much better in our old age now.

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George Orwell died in January 1950, in a London hospital. His last published piece was a review of Churchill’s memoir, Their Finest Hour which had been published the previous year. He wrote that Churchill’s memoirs read more like those of a human being than those of a public figure. There was, Orwell felt, a certain largeness and geniality about the wartime PM, soon to become a peacetime leader too, which made him cherished by ordinary people, and the stories circulating about him testified to that affection. The same year that Churchill published Their Finest Hour, Orwell published what many consider to be his finest work, Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is usually remembered as a nightmare vision of the doublespeak future, in which the tyranny of Big Brother presides over an English state where War is Peace and Lies are Truth. However, it needs to be read as an English novel, and its title simply as a reversal of the numbers four and eight, rather than as an extended essay, warning of future abuses of power.

For Orwell, as for many others in the world, the themes of the novel were evident in current and recent experiences. In fact, the fundamental conflict in the book is between history (as collective memory) and tyranny. When O’Brien, the arch-deceiver who has persuaded Winston Smith that he is running a resistance group, suggests sealing his recruitment with a toast to the future, Winston lifts his glass and drinks instead To the past. O’Brien agreed, The past is more important. By encouraging forgetfulness, the Party became free to impose on its subjects its own version of whatever past it chose. But, somehow, memory was not quite obliterated from Winston’s consciousness, so that he had a sense that things had not always been as they were in the present. Gradually, the past starts to come back to him through a series of encounters with objects and people. Finally, he denounces the revolution and the Party for destroying all archives: History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right. He also dreams of a Golden Country, in which nature, love, liberty and history are all interlaced. This is Orwell’s vision of a True England. Searching for a True Coventry, the sociologist, Leo Kuper, made an astute observation on the gap between workers’ perceptions of Coventry in the late 1940s, and the realities of working class life there:

It is as if there were many worlds; a world of objective reality, Coventry and its people and neighbourhoods, and the worlds of interpretation of this objective reality, the images projected from many and contrasted points of view.

 

Kuper showed how many of those who considered themselves real Coventrians viewed the image of post-war cosmopolitan Coventry in wholly negative terms which led to racial stereotypes being applied to those who were seen as being the major contributors to this image. A leading Coventry official referred to the Rhondda Valley section of Coventry, where he said that there was continual trouble among the Welsh, second only to the centre of the city. He also portrayed the Irish as having to fight every Friday night, after receiving their wages, in order to complete the evening’s revelries; Indians as creating troubles with young girls and living like pigs; Negroes, like the Irish and Scots, as having little respect for the police and the Poles as being unable to understand why they were not beaten up for committing misdemeanors. He went on to suggest that the only real solution to these problems was to segregate these different national groupings until they had come to appreciate our way of living. Kuper commented, with not a little understatement, that there was more in these comments than cool observation of ethnic differences.

In any case, even in 1951, the description of Coventry as a cosmopolitan city, heterogeneous throughout, was as misleading as it had been in 1931. The Census showed that the overwhelming majority of immigrants to the city were of British origin, with just under ten thousand from Ireland. This was a new migrant stream in the postwar period. In the 1931 Census there were only just over two thousand Irish in Coventry, but this number may have expanded rapidly during the building boom of the later 1930s. At the close of the second world war the streets surrounding St Osburg’s and St Mary’s Roman Catholic churches had a distinctive Irish atmosphere. These two inner-city areas were well supplied with lodging houses and multi-tenanted buildings, and the two churches provided useful ports of call for itinerant building workers or those after a start in local factories. Although casual building workers formed an important part of the Coventry Irish community, many more workers began to settle permanently.

The Polish community in Coventry, as in Britain as a whole, came about as the result of three waves of immigration corresponding to the period up to 1940; the decade 1940-50, known as the Emigracja and then the period after 1950. It has been estimated that during the wartime Emigracja some 165,000 Poles arrived in Britain, though numbers decreased by about thirty thousand after 1950 through onward migration to other countries or voluntary repatriation to Poland. The Polish exile community was made up of members of the Polish Armed Forces who escaped to the west through Hungary following the Nazi-Soviet invasion and partition of their country in September 1939 which led to the surrender of the forces in Poland, together with political prisoners from concentration camps in Germany and Russia. Many of the latter, perhaps several hundred, were people with professional qualifications which could be used in Britain, especially doctors and dentists. In addition, there were about two thousand skilled engineers. Later, a rather larger group of unskilled workers, including some disabled and elderly relatives, entered the postwar British economy. Many ambitious immigrants with lesser qualifications set up small businesses, becoming householders and small-scale landlords. The location of Polish forces during the war largely determined the places to which Polish immigrants gravitated. Most of those in the Midlands were airmen, based in Nottingham or Leicester. London, as the home of the Polish government-in-exile became the largest Polish resettlement area, accommodating a quarter of the total immigrants. Birmingham and Manchester were the recipients of the next largest groups of four to five thousand each, but Coventry accommodated as many as three thousand.

Of course, these first generation Polish wartime exiles had every intention of returning to their homeland, and therefore made every effort to maintain their language and to cultivate their Polish heritage. The wartime Emigracja determined the later shape and character of the life of the Polish community in Britain. It was an exile community which arrived with a network of various military, civilian and religious institutions, as well as welfare associations such as the Polish Red Cross, the Polish Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), servicemen’s clubs and a Polish press. There were over two hundred periodicals published in Britain between 1939 and 1949. Factors such as patriotism, class and the negative attitudes towards Polish immigrants ensured a high level of community participation in these institutions and strengthening ethnic identity and vitality. These conditions gave shape to the social, religious, economic life of the community, allowing it to meet a variety of needs among new Polish immigrants. The Polish YMCA was founded in 1949 as a dynamic organisation responsible for the promotion of Polish history and cultural heritage not only within the Polish and British communities but all over the world through exhibitions of Polish art, folklore, song, dance and music.

Paradoxically, just as Britain was retreating from its formal imperial commitments, Commonwealth immigration into Britain, principally from the West Indies and South Asia, was becoming an increasingly salient issue in British domestic politics. The census of 1951 recorded just seventy-four thousand New Commonwealth immigrants; ten years later, this number had more than quadrupled. The 1948 Nationality Act reaffirmed the right of British citizenship and free entry to the United Kingdom to all Commonwealth citizens and colonial subjects, without restrictions. But as growing numbers of Caribbean and South Asian people began to take up this right to abode, the British authorities became increasingly alarmed. The most significant group of Commonwealth workers in Coventry were those of Indian origin who took up the right to settle in Britain under the 1948 Act, though a small number but significant number of them had been employed in the textile industries in the thirties. By the early fifties they were estimated to have expanded to about four thousand, though the 1951 Census only showed less than two thousand Commonwealth immigrants in total. They took over some of the more rundown housing stock in the Foleshill Road area near the textile factories. However, even as early as the summer of 1951 there was evidence of colour prejudice when the Indian workers tried to get semi-skilled jobs in engineering and metal-working factories. At the Sterling Metals works, the management, under union pressure, stated at the Works Conference that it was the main desire to recruit white labour. It also agreed to keep black and white gangs segregated and to give white labourers guarantees against the upgrading of Indian workers.

Certainly, by 1951 Coventry was predominantly a city of newcomers. It has been estimated that in that year only thirty to thirty-five per cent of the city’s population of a quarter of a million were born in the City, though when those born in outlying and incorporated areas of Warwickshire are taken into account, this proportion must have been somewhat higher. Of the thousands who came to the city many soon left, having failed to find accommodation or work. One study claimed that in 1949, while eighteen thousand newcomers entered Coventry, but that nearly the same number left. Surveys suggested that Coventrians were far from welcoming to newcomers generally, so that friendship and social networks followed regional and ethnic lines. Clubs, pubs and churches often catered for specific migrant groups, and there was a lack of interest in establishing neighbourhood friendships. However, there is little evidence to suggest any hostility or negative stereotyping between immigrant groups, perhaps because of Coventry’s general status as a city of immigrants. The London area continued to send just under ten per cent of the total immigrants, but by the late 1940s there were more from Northumberland and Durham. As recently as 1940, insurance book analysis highlighted a dearth of migrants from coalfields other than Wales. Perhaps the general increase in mobility of labour during wartime encouraged Geordies to move, together with the high wages available in Coventry.

Paul Addison, in his well-known book, The Road to 1945, attributed the Labour victory to the growth of middle opinion among English intellectuals and to the impact of the war upon popular consciousness. He paid scant attention the pressures from below to the new industrial areas of the Midlands and South East of England, including the contributions to the growth of trade unionism, the Labour Party and working class culture made by immigrants to these areas before and during the Second World War. Besides the role played by migrating militants in the unionisation of the Pressed Steel works in Cowley and later at Morris Motors, there were a number of significant individual immigrants involved in the development of the Labour movement in Oxford, Coventry and Birmingham. For example, Evan Roberts, a former Welsh miner and railwayman, became the first Labour Councillor for the East Ward of Oxford in 1945 and eventually became the first Lord Mayor of Oxford in 1962.

William Parfitt, a former miner from Tylorstown in the Rhondda, came to Coventry to work for Daimler, after which he became Industrial Relations Officer for the West Midlands Region of the National Coal Board. He was elected to Coventry City Council in 1945 and in 1965-6 became Lord Mayor of Coventry. William Tegfryn Bowen worked as a miner in the Rhondda between 1916 and 1926, moving to Birmingham in 1927, where he studied at Fircroft College, the workers’ college in Selly Oak, before working for the Austin Motor Company in 1928. In 1929 he became a trade union official and led a strike against the introduction of the Bedaux system in defiance of more senior officials. He then endured long periods of unemployment before becoming a City Councillor in 1941, an Alderman in 1945 and between 1945 and 1949 was Chairman of both the Council Labour Group and Chairman of the Health Committee. This latter position led to his becoming a member of the Executive Council of the NHS and a member of the Regional Hospital Board. On becoming Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1952, Bowen was asked to account for the Labour hold on a City which, under the Chamberlains, had been considered a Tory stronghold. In his answer he referred to a large influx of workers from other areas, with a different political outlook.

 

Harry Richards was from Tonypandy in the Rhondda. Between 1939, aged seventeen, and 1945 he was an apprentice draughtsmen at Armstrong Siddeley Motors and a design draughtsman at Morris Motors. He then became a schoolteacher and was elected to the City Council in 1954. He also became Chairman of the Coventry Welsh Rugby Club, and became Lord Mayor of the City in 1979. Roberts, Parfitt, Bowen and Richards shared the motivation for their involvement with other immigrants from the depressed areas like Elsie Jones, who born and reared in a mining area… realised the need for reforms very early in life. It is also apparent that the political attitudes of many of those living in Coventry’s new housing estates were largely derived from their memories of the depression years elsewhere in Britain.

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The result of the 1945 general election in Coventry had been the confirmation of the Labour Party’s local supremacy since taking control of the Council in 1937. Between them, Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman took just over sixty per cent of the votes cast. Crossman’s majority in Coventry East, which included Walsgrave, was nearly twenty thousand. When the Labour government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Aneurin Bevan chose to defend it in Coventry. He issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue and was given a great reception from the people of Coventry, in particular from members of the Welsh Community, many of whom knew him in their native valleys. The growth of municipal socialism in Coventry, from 1937 to 1947, can clearly be seen, like Bevan’s own political progress, as a practical and ideological expression of an impetus to reform which arose out of the determination of Labour leaders to attain better living and working conditions than those which they had been forced to endure for much of the inter-war period.

After 1945, the housing crisis presented an even greater challenge for Coventry’s municipal socialists than it did for Aneurin Bevan, who was Minister of both Health and Housing. The shortage of housing was not simply a short-term crisis for the Labour Government, but remained a huge national problem for the whole decade and a half after the war. In Coventry, for obvious reasons, it was particularly severe. By 1948 there were fifteen thousand families on the waiting list, widespread squatting in old military buildings and an illegal campsite facing the Council House, yet politicians and planners failed to act swiftly, preferring to concentrate on the city centre development. It was not until a decade later that the worst of the housing crisis was over. In the late 1940s, the large, so-called neigbourhood units of Canley, Tile Hill, Bell Green and Willenhall were designed to accommodate between fifteen to twenty thousand residents in decent dwellings within a planned environment. Several social surveys were conducted by the planners and the University of Birmingham on behalf of the council. What the authorities wanted to find out was what the attitude of the residents of this type of estate was, and the potential services they required. They concluded that the residents had only a thin attachment to their particular neighbourhood. The survey revealed that neighbourhood friendship networks were generally narrow, usually confined to immediate and very near neighbours.

Coventrians in these areas thought of the Welsh, Scots and Geordie women in their city as being unemancipated by comparison with themselves. They were more content than Coventry women to accept traditional roles as housewives, nurses and maidservants. Both oral and documentary sources suggest that very few Welsh women entered insurable employment in Coventry before the war, compared with both native women and immigrant women from Lancashire. However, there is little evidence to suggest that immigrant women were more fertile, as was suggested, or that they had more children. In Coventry, there was, however, a marked tendency for them to select their own countrywomen as friends, rather than their immediate neighbours. This clannishness was perhaps understandable if they were from the more strongly Welsh-speaking western valleys, and were not working, but it cannot have helped them to integrate, and in some cases reinforced the stereotypes of them held by Coventrian women. The Welsh immigrants in general were also accused of being all out for themselves… rootless… thrusting, trying to get on committees and councils in order to run the town, thereby showing a lack of respect for the true Coventrians.

002Of course, this stereotyping reveals a classic pattern of a dominant majority irked by a foreign minority in its midst, except it was not always based on prejudice, but sometimes on real experiences. Seymour Gulliver (pictured on the right with his wife, Vera, in the 1970s), who had himself born outside Coventry, in 1900, albeit in Warwickshire, moving into Walsgrave with his family in 1909, recalled an occasion on which he fell out with the Welsh miner he had helped to settle into Walsgrave and Binley Colliery. This neighbour, Chairman of the Lodge at Binley, was delayed getting to an emergency strike meeting, so Seymour had started the meeting without him. He was annoyed when he arrived at the meeting to find that his place had been usurped, and became even more irate when the men voted for Seymour to continue in the chair. The two men had words after the meeting. Seymour commented that this incident had taught him that the Welsh miners always wanted to be in charge.

On the subject of who was a real Coventry kid, in his survey of Tile Hill, a district of Coventry, conducted in the late forties, Leo Kuper found that only thirty-two per cent of the community were Coventry born, while twenty-five per cent were from the North of England, sixteen per cent from other parts of the Midlands, ten per cent from Wales, and about five or six per cent each from Scotland, Ireland and the South of England. In Coventry, by the late 1940s, it was impossible to tell who the real Coventrians were.

In terms of facilities, especially shopping, the Coventrians of the late forties were unanimous in their desire for a large, well equipped central retail area with suburban outlets confined to the provision of everyday essentials. The findings of these surveys tended to reinforce the major thrust of the reconstruction plan and convinced the civic officers and councillors that they were providing what the people wanted. The residents on the new estates could also look forward to the provision of the ten form entry comprehensive schools, large health centres and new parades of small shops. Even so, the prosperity of the mid-fifties and sixties was still unimaginable, even in high-wage Coventry, in the late forties. In addition, neighbourliness was difficult to achieve on these new estates. It wasn’t just the Welsh who found it difficult to mix, but also the migrants from the North of England, Scotland and Ireland, who often found Coventrians cold and unfriendly.

Earlier immigrants continued to provide a warmer welcome through churches and chapels. One of the leading Welsh personalities at Queen’s Road Baptist Church in the centre of Coventry was Jehu Shepherd, who became organist and choirmaster during the ministry of Ingli James in the 1940s. The Welsh newcomers that Shepherd had formed into a Glee Party in the thirties, found themselves at home among the convinced and articulate group of Christian Socialists which James’ preaching helped to produce in this period. James was from Barry, where his father had been pastor of Bethel Baptist Church before the First World War. In 1917 he was ordained and became Minister at Stoneygate, Leicester, followed by powerful ministries at Cannon Street, Accrington and, from 1923, at Pantgwydr in Swansea. During these ministries, according to a Baptist Union memoir, he saw that the working classes in this country were drifting from the churches and he set himself resolutely to stop the drift. He began his ministry at Queen’s Road in 1931. Besides supporting the initiatives which the immigrants had taken to establish an image of respectability in their new environment, such as the Glee Singers, James also affirmed, from the pulpit, the culture from which they came, continually referring to the miners and unemployment in his sermons. However, his unashamed championing of working class causes and politics, including his appearance on Labour Party platforms (along with Rev Ivor Reece, of West Orchard Congregational Church), brought him into conflict with some of the established professional Coventrians on his diaconate. Jehu Shepherd’s wife, Mary Shepherd, originally from Ystalafera, near Neath, remembered him well:

 

He was a strong Labour man and he upset quite a few people because he just said what he felt – he was true to himself, he would not say one thing and mean another, or say something just to please people. Ingli was not bombastic and what he said was true. I always remember once when he talked about the miners, he said, ’I had a load of coal and paid for it the other day – did I say paid for it? – no money would pay for what they did!’ I can see him now in that pulpit.

 

In 1942 he preached a sermon entitled, How Green Was My Valley, coinciding with the distribution of the Hollywood film of Richard Llewellyn’s book in Britain. Daphne Gulliver remembered the Rev. James preaching at Walsgrave Chapel after the war. She described him as a Welsh ranter, a very famous socialist, and extremely funny. Walsgrave had the kind of pulpit in which you could walk up and down and he used to shake all his black hair into his eyes. James articulated his impetus to reform in his book, published in 1950, Communism and the Christian Faith. In it he acknowledged his indebtedness to the Queens Road congregation for the way they had given him a new vision of what a Christian community in a busy industrial city might be and do. He then went on to describe the means by which he came to his vision of Christian socialism:

The depression of 1929-33 left a profound mark on my mind. All around me I saw the bitter struggle of the unemployed… I also realised that the world contained an abundance of the necessities of life which the system denied to the people. However, these ideas were all vague, and I played no active part in the struggle of the unemployed. At the end of 1934, I read my first copy of ’the Daily Worker’. What I read filled the gaps in my political development…

 

Probably the most powerful weapon ever put into the hands of the British Marxists was the prolonged period of widespread unemployment between the wars. Those who wonder why ten thousand electors voted Communist in the Rhondda Valley in 1945 should reflect on the plight of the valley during that period, when streets of empty shops testified to its bitter poverty, when every male member of many a church was unemployed, when thousands of eager youngsters were compelled to seek employment far from home. The memory of what happened to Merthyr, to Jarrow, to many a small town in Lancashire during these years is still the most powerful weapon the Marxist propagandist can use. Conversely, the most convincing argument against Marxism would be a demonstration that we can build a relatively just society in which every citizen is assured of useful employment and a decent livelihood, without infringing on the rights of the other and without resorting to violence… we must show how it might be done.

 

In this passage, Ingli James distilled the essence of the experience of a significant section of the British working class between the wars. The migrating millions who found their own way to Coventry, as opposed to being sent there by the Ministry of Labour, showed, by their contributions to the economic, political, social, cultural and religious life of the new industry towns, both in the prewar and postwar periods, that they were not prepared to be treated as mere pawns of an economic and political system which had displaced them.

Coventry’s 1951 Development Plan was the culmination of a scheme designed by a new class of professionals, implemented by newcomers for the benefit of a population with shallow roots in the city. The shopocracy had been routed in 1937 and the vice of old Coventry continued to be associated with narrow-minded backwardness. The defeat of this old elite was compounded by the support of the Evening Telegraph for the reconstruction plan. The isolation of the Chamber of Commerce, the main opponents of the plan, was increased by the tendency of many of Coventry’s firms, both in retail and manufacturing, to come under the control of outside owners. There was almost an element of irrelevant antiquarianism in the announcement in 1951 that the new Lord Mayor, Harry Weston, was the first Coventrian to hold the office for eight years, at a time when eighty-four per cent of the ruling Labour group on the Council between in the decade after 1945 were born outside Coventry. In November 1945 thirty Labour councillors were returned to face an opposition of eighteen Progressives, an amalgam of Conservatives and Liberals. Despite continuing austerity, Labour maintained its two-to-one majority in 1947 and 1949. The Evening Telegraph, in its editorial on the 1949 poll, concluded that newcomers to Coventry were strengthening the Left. Labour had an apparently unbreachable majority and the Conservative candidates who stood for election in 1951, the year of Conservative victory in the general election, were an assortment of small businessmen, managers and retired publicans. They were the champions of small shopkeepers threatened by municipal socialism.

The newcomers to Coventry prepared to play along with the prejudices and stereotypical images which confronted them. Instead, and in response, they set about fostering a positive self-image in their new environments, and in the process they enabled and enhanced the recovery of working class politics and culture in the Midland cities of England. The memory of the depression years had become a powerful motive force on the road to 1945 and well beyond it. Those who had lost almost everything had also lost their fear; they had everything to regain, and were determined to be there at their own remaking, as part of an integrated and relatively united, British working class. In the 1945 government film A City Re-born, a soldier and his fiancée are shown viewing Donald Gibson’s model of the new Coventry. They cannot contain their optimism and enthusiasm about the city where they are going to live, looking forward to their own little home… with a nice little garage… and a nice little nursery, while the film commentary enunciated the official mythology about the City:

Coventry is going to be a place to live where people can believe how pleasant human life can be… It must not be every man for himself, but every man for the good and happiness of all people living… Every man must believe in the good and happiness that is to be shared… to be shared, equally.

By 1951, Everyman had come to Coventry. The city had become not simply the identifiable symbol of the Tue England, but also of the New Jerusalem of the British working class which had relocated and recreated itself there.

Printed Sources:

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Barry Cunliffe (et. al., eds.), (2001),The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. London: Penguin.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (eds.) (n.d.), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. University of Warwick: Cryfield Press.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain, III: 1776-2000; The Fate of Empire. London: BBC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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