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The ‘Other England’ of the Sixties and Seventies: The Changing Fortunes of East Anglia.   Leave a comment

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Looking across the River Deben towards Woodbridge from Sutton Hoo.

East of England; the Country from the Stour to the Wash:

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After the far West of England, East Anglia was one of the most neglected regions of England until the sixties. In the fashionable division of the nation into North and South, it has tended to get lumped in with the South. The South-east Study of 1964 was less vague, however, drawing an arbitrary line from the Wash to the Dorset Coast at Bournemouth and defining the area to the east of this boundary as ‘South-east England’. In the same year, Geoffrey Moorhouse (pictured below), a well-known contemporary Guardian correspondent, wrote that, in time, if policies to encourage a counter-drift of the population from the South were not adopted, the whole of the vast area delineated might well become one in character, in relative wealth and in disfigurement. As far as he was concerned, the ‘carving out’ of this area encroached upon the traditional regions of the West Country, beginning at Alfred’s ancient capital of Winchester in Hampshire, and East Anglia, incorporating Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, or at least that part of it lying to the north of Colchester. To the south, most of Essex was already part of the ‘Golden Circle’ commuter area for the metropolis, stretching from Shoeburyness at the end of the Thames estuary, around the edge of ‘Greater London’ and up the Hertfordshire border to the north of Harlow. Suffolk and Norfolk, however, still remained well ‘beyond the pale’ between the Stour Valley and the Wash, occupying most of the elliptical ‘knob’ sticking out into the North Sea. It was an ‘East Country’ which still seemed as remote from the metropolitan south-east of England as that other extremity in the far south-west peninsular.

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In the fifties, as the wartime airfields were abandoned and the Defence Ministry personnel went back to London, East Anglia went back to its old ways of underemployment, rural depopulation, low land and property values. By the mid-fifties, the people of East Anglia were not yet having it as good as many parts of the Home Counties that Macmillan probably had in mind when he made his famous remark. Urban growth continued, however, into the early sixties. For the most part, development was unimaginative, as council estates were built to replace war-time damage and cater for the growing town populations.  Where, in 1959, the Norfolk County Council was getting four thousand applicants a year for planning permission, by 1964 the figure had risen to ten thousand. Issues of planned town growth became urgent. Old properties, particularly thatched cottages and timber-framed farmhouses were eagerly sought. For all the talk of imminent development, with all the benefits and drawbacks that this implied, East Anglia did not look as if it had changed much by the early sixties. The most noticeable signs of the times were the great number of abandoned railway stations. Railway traffic had declined throughout England as British road transport had eclipsed railways as the dominant carrier of freight. Several branch lines, such as the Long Melford to Bury St Edmunds and sections of the Waveney Valley had already closed before the celebrated ‘Beeching Axe’ was wielded in 1963. Neither Suffolk nor Norfolk enjoyed a share in the slow growth of national prosperity of the fifties, but then the boom came suddenly and Suffolk became the fastest growing county by the end of the decade. It began in the early sixties when many new industries came to the East Anglian towns and cities.

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The abandoned railway station at Needham Market, Suffolk.

The ‘neglected’ Suffolk of the fifties was ready to be rediscovered in the sixties. Companies escaping from the high overheads in London and the Home Counties realised that they could find what they were looking for in Ipswich, Bury, Sudbury and Haverhill. Executives discovered that they could live in an area of great peace and beauty and yet be within commuting distance of their City desks. Moreover, the shift in the balance of international trade focused attention on once more on the eastern approaches. When the bulk of Britain’s trade was with the empire and North America it was logical that London, Southampton and Liverpool should have been the main ports. The railway network had been constructed in the nineteenth century in such a way as to convey manufactured goods to these ports. But the Empire had been all but disbanded and Britain was being drawn, inexorably if sometimes reluctantly, into the European Common Market. More and more industrial traffic took to the road; heavy lorries at first, then containers. Now producers were looking for the shortest routes to the continent, and many of them lay through Suffolk, shown below in Wilson’s 1977 map of the county.

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One of the benefits of East Anglia’s poor communications was that, at the height of summer, it was the only region south of the Bristol-Wash line which was not crammed with holidaymakers and their traffic. The seaboard caught it a little, as of course did the Norfolk Broads. Norfolk reckons, for instance, that caravans are worth two million pounds a year to it one way or another and, like Cornwall, saw this as a mixed blessing; as Moorhouse was writing his book (in 1964), the County Council was in the process of spending fifty thousand pounds on buying up caravan sites which had been placed with an eye more to income than to landscape. But inland and away from the waterways crowds of people and cars were hard to find; out of the holiday season, East Anglia was scarcely visited by any ‘outsiders’ apart from occasional commercial travellers. Local difficulties, small by comparison with those of the North, were lost from sight. As the sixties progressed, more and more British people and continental visitors realised that discovered the attractions the two counties had to offer. As Derek Wilson wrote at the end of the following decade,

They realised that a century or more of economic stagnation had preserved from thoughtless development one of the loveliest corners of England. They came in increasing numbers by their, now ubiquitous, motor-cars to spend quiet family holidays at the coast, to tour the unspoilt villages, to admire the half-timbering, the thatch, the pargetting and the great wool churches. Some decided to stake a claim by buying up old cottages for ‘week-ending’ or retirement.

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So great was the demand for even derelict old properties that prices trebled in the period 1969-73. Village communities were no longer so tight-knit so the arrival of these ‘strangers’ cannot be said to have disrupted a traditional culture. Only in those areas where the newcomers congregated in large numbers, buying up properties at inflated prices which ‘locals’ could no longer afford was any real and lasting cultural damage inflicted. At first, the seaside towns found it difficult to come to terms with the expansion in tourism, having been ignored for so long. Even the established Suffolk holiday resorts – Aldeburgh, Southwold, Dunwich, even Felixstowe – were ‘genteel’ places; compared with Clacton on the Essex coast which was far closer in time and space to for day-trippers from London, they did not bristle with amusement arcades, Wimpy bars, holiday camps and the assorted paraphernalia that urban man seems to expect at the seaside. Derek Wilson commented that Suffolk was more like a coy maiden prepared to be discovered than an accomplished seductress thrusting her charms at every single passer-by. 

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Three centuries of properties in Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

A Metropolitan ‘Refugee’ in Dunwich:

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Greyfriars, The Simpson coastal ‘pile’ in Dunwich.

One of the earliest of these ‘refugees’ from the metropolis was John Simpson (who was to become the BBC’s World Affairs Editor). When he was fifteen, in 1959,  moved from Putney to Dunwich. His holidays had already been taken up with following his father’s genealogical enthusiasms, and they went from village church to county archive to cathedral vault searching for records of births, marriages and deaths, and transcribing inscriptions on gravestones. Having discovered the full extent of the full extent of the Simpson’s Suffolk roots, Roy Simpson insisted that they should look for a country house there. John recalled,

We spent a wintry week driving from one depressing place to another and talking to lonely farmers’ wives whose ideal in life was to leave their fourteenth-century thatched manor-houses and move to a semi near the shops. We had almost given up one evening and were setting out on the road to London when I spotted a brief mention at the end of an estate agent’s list of a rambling place on a clifftop overlooking the sea at Dunwich. …

From the moment I saw it I knew I would never be happy until I lived there. No one could call ‘Greyfriars’ handsome. It was the left hand end of an enormous 1884 mock-Elizabethan pile which had been split up into three separate sections at the end of the war. Our part had around eight bedrooms and five bathrooms. … It was always absurdly unsuitable … four hours’ drive from London, and nowhere near the shops or anything else. Its eleven acres of land were slowly being swallowed up by the ravenous North Sea, and it cost a small fortune to keep warm and habitable. … 

The village of Dunwich immediately formed another element of that sense of the past, faded glory which had haunted so much of my life. In the early Middle Ages it had been the greatest port in England, sending ships and men and hundreds of barrels of herrings to the Kings of England, and possessing a bishopric and forty churches and monasteries. But it was built on cliffs of sand, and the storms of each winter undermined it and silted up the port. In the twelfth century, and again in the thirteenth, large parts of the town collapsed into the sea. … Our land ran down to the cliff edge, and we watched it shrink as the years went by. 

The stories about hearing bells under the sea were always just fantasy, but Dunwich was certainly a place of ghosts. A headless horseman was said to drive a phantom coach and four along one of the roads nearby. … In the grounds of our house two Bronze Age long-barrows stood among the later trees, and when the moon shone hard and silver down onto the house, and the thin clouds spread across the sky, and a single owl shrieked from the bare branches of the dead holm-oak outside my bedroom window, it was more than I could do to get out of bed and look at them. I would think of those cold bones and the savage gold ornaments around them, and shiver myself to sleep.

The winter of 1962 was the worst since 1947, and that was the worst since the 1660s, people said. The snow fell in early December and dug in like an invading army, its huge drifts slowly turning the colour and general consistency of rusty scrap iron. In our vast, uneconomic house at Dunwich the wind came off the North Sea with the ferocity of a guillotine blade and the exposed pipes duly froze hard. The Aga stood in the corner of the kitchen like an icy coffin. … We wandered round the house in overcoats, with scarves tied round our heads like the old women at Saxmundham market. None of the lavatories worked.

In October 1963, Roy Simpson drove his son ‘up’ to Cambridge from the Suffolk coast in his old Triumph. John Simpson set down his cases, as had many Suffolk boys before him, outside the porter’s lodge in the gateway of Magdalene College. For the next three years, his life revolved around the University city in the Fens until he joined the BBC in 1966.

Coast, Cathedral City & Inland Industrial Development:

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The curvature of the eastern coastline had been responsible for the lack of metropolitan infiltration hitherto. Norfolk and Suffolk were in a cul-de-sac; even today, apart from the ports of Felixstowe and Harwich, on opposite sides of the mouth of the River Stour, they do not lie on transport routes to anywhere else, and their lines of communication with other parts of the country, except with London, were still poor in the early sixties, and are still relatively retarded half a century later, despite the widening of the A12 and the extension of the A14. The disadvantages of remoteness could be severe, but at the same time, this saved the two countries from the exploitation that had occurred in places with comparable potential. Had there been better communications, Norwich might have been as badly ravaged by the Industrial Revolution as Bradford, but the great East Anglian woollen trade and cloth-making industry were drawn to Yorkshire as much by the promise of easier transport as by the establishment of the power-loom on faster-flowing water sources. Instead, Norwich still retained the air of a medieval city in its centre with its cathedral, its castle, and its drunken-looking lollipop-coloured shops around Elm Hill, Magdalen Street, and St. Benedict’s. Its industries, like the Colman’s mustard factory, were already discreetly tucked away on its flanks, and there they did not intrude.

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Norwich itself was poised to move forward by the sixties, and though its hopes had received a setback as a result of Britain’s early failures to get into the Common Market, it still saw itself as playing an important part in the development of trade between this country and the Continent. European connections were already strong in East Anglia. From the obvious Dutch gables widespread throughout the region (see the example below from a farmhouse near Woodbridge, Suffolk) and concentrated in places like Kings Lynn, to the names beginning with the prefix ‘Van’ in the telephone directories, Flemish influences could, and still can be found everywhere. Dutch farmers had been settling in the two counties since the late seventeenth century. There were two Swiss-owned boatyards on the Norfolk Broads and one of Norwich’s biggest manufacturers, Bata Shoes, was Swiss in origin. In the early sixties, two Danish firms had set themselves up near the city.

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For Suffolk, the sixties and seventies saw a most astonishing growth in the population, which had been decreasing for over a century. The population of Suffolk showed a comparatively modest, but significant growth from 475,000 in 1951 to 560,000 in 1961. Most of this increase was in West Suffolk, where the growth of Haverhill, Bury and Sudbury accounted for most of the extra population. These were designated in the mid-fifties as London overspill areas. In Haverhill, the notion of town expansion had been pioneered in 1955; by the time Geoffrey Moorhouse published his survey in 1964, there was already a plan for a further massive transfusion of people to the town from London.  Thetford, Bury St Edmunds, and Kings Lynn were to be transformed within the next two decades. Between the two censuses of 1961 to 1971, the population of Suffolk jumped by over eighteen per cent (the national average was 5.8 per cent). There were many reasons for this unprecedented growth, which brought Suffolk a prosperity it had not known since the great days of the cloth trade.

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A variety of restored properties in Needham Market today.

But the hinterland towns of central East Anglia presented a bigger problem for the local planners and county authorities. They had grown up as market-places for the sale of agricultural produce like those in other parts of rural England. By the mid-sixties, they had held on to this function much longer than most. But the markets, and particularly the cattle markets, had recently become more and more concentrated in the biggest towns – Norwich, King’s Lynn, Bury and Cambridge – and the justification for places like Stowmarket, Diss, Eye, Downham Market and Needham Market (pictured above), in their traditional form had been rapidly disappearing. Their populations were in need of new industries to take the place of old commerce and, in part, they got them. As early as the sixties, a new town at Diss, on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, was already talked of.  Carefully planned industrial and housing estates were built and a variety of service industries and light engineering concerns moved their machines and desks to spacious premises from whose windows the workers could actually see trees and green fields. Writing in the late seventies, Derek Wilson concluded that, while such examples of economic planning and  ‘social engineering’ could only be described as revolutionary, they were still too recent to invite accurate assessment.

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Above: The Centre of Ipswich is now undergoing an extensive renovation, including that of its historic Corn Exchange area, complete with a statue to one of its more famous sons, Giles, the Daily Express cartoonist, popular in the sixties and seventies, when rapid development engulfed many earlier buildings in concrete.

Paradoxically, Suffolk’s depressed isolation gave a boost to the new development. Some of Suffolk’s most beautiful countryside was no further from the metropolis than the ‘stockbroker belt’ of Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. Yet land and property prices in Suffolk were less than half of what they were in the desirable areas of those counties. Most of the county was within eighty miles of London and served by still reasonable rail connections, and improving road connections from the capital. The population was now more mobile, and light industry less tied to traditional centres.  But development in the sixties and seventies was not restricted to the eastern side of the two counties. Ipswich, the other town in the two counties which was relatively industrialised, had been, like Norwich, comparatively unscathed by that industrialisation. Its growth occurred largely as a result of migration within Suffolk. Even so, its population increased from a hundred thousand to a hundred and twenty-two thousand between 1961 and 1971. It became the only urban centre in the county to suffer the same fate of many large towns and cities across England in that period – haphazard and largely unplanned development over many years. In the late seventies, farmers could still remember when the county town was still was just that, a large market town, where they could hail one another across the street. By then, however, dual carriageways and one-way systems had been built in an attempt to relieve its congested centre, while old and new buildings jostled each other in what Derek Wilson called irredeemable incongruity.

East Anglia as Archetypal Agricultural England:

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Life on the land had already begun to change more generally in the sixties. East Anglia is an important area to focus on in this respect, because it was, and still is, agricultural England. In the sixties and seventies, agriculture was revitalised: farmers bought new equipment and cultivated their land far more intensely than ever before. The industries here remained identical to the main purpose of life, which was to grow food and raise stock. Many of the industries in the two counties were secondary, and complimentary, to this purpose. Of the thirty-nine major industrial firms in East Suffolk, for example, twelve were concerned with food processing, milling, or making fertilisers, and of the five engineering shops most were turning out farm equipment among other things. These industries varied from the firm in Brandon which employed three people to make and export gun-flints to China and Africa, to the extensive Forestry Commission holding at Thetford, where it was calculated that the trees grew at the rate of seventeen tons an hour, or four hundred tons a day. But a quarter of the total workforce in Norfolk and Suffolk was employed in the primary industry of farming; there were more regular farm-workers in Norfolk than in any other English county. The county produced two of the founders of modern British agriculture, Coke of Holkham and Townshend of Raynham, and it had kept its place at the head of the field, quite literally.

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East Anglia was easily the biggest grain-producing region of the country and the biggest producer of sugar-beet. During the First World War, farmers had been encouraged to grow sugar beet in order to reduce the country’s dependence on imported cane sugar. This had been so successful that in 1924 the government offered a subsidy to beet producers. The crop was ideally suited to the heavy soil of central Suffolk and without delay, a number of farmers formed a co-operative and persuaded a Hungarian company to build a sugar factory near Bury St Edmunds. Five thousand acres were planted immediately and the acreage grew steadily over the next half-century. In 1973, the factory was considerably enlarged by the building of two huge new silos, which came to dominate the skyline along the A14 trunk road. The factory became the largest plant of its kind in Europe and by the late seventies was playing an important part in bringing Britain closer to its goal of self-sufficiency in sugar.

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Local ingenuity and skill had devised and built many agricultural machines during the nineteenth century, like this threshing/ grain crushing machine from the Leiston Richard Garrett works, which made various farming machines, including tractors.

Of all the English counties, Norfolk had the biggest acreage of vegetables and the heaviest yield per acre of main crop potatoes. It was also the second biggest small fruit producer and the second highest breeder of poultry. Suffolk came close behind Norfolk in barley crops, while it had the biggest acreage of asparagus and more pigs than any other county. The region’s importance to agriculture was symbolised by the headquarters of the Royal Agricultural Society having its base in Norfolk, and the region also played host to the British-Canadian Holstein-Friesian Association, the Poll Friesian Cattle Society, the British Goat Society, and the British Waterfowl Association. No other county had as many farms over three hundred acres as Norfolk, and most of the really enormous farms of a thousand acres or more were to be found in the two Easternmost counties. The biggest farm in England, excluding those owned by the Crown, was to be found on the boundary of Bury St Edmunds, the ten-thousand-acre Iveagh estate, covering thirteen farmsteads, and including a piggery, three gamekeepers’ lodgings and homes for its cowmen, foresters and its works department foreman.

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The most significant change taking place on the land throughout England was in the size of farms. The big ones were getting bigger and the small ones were slowly dwindling and going out of business. Mechanisation was reducing the number of jobs available to agricultural workers, and from this followed the steady decline of rural communities. By the end of the sixties, however, the employment position in Norfolk was beginning to stabilise as the old farm hands who were reared as teams-men and field-workers and were kept on by benevolent employers retired and were not replaced. Although it employed fewer people than ever before, farming was still Suffolk’s largest single industry in the mid-seventies. After Britain joined the Common Market in 1973, accessibility to European markets had led to a certain amount of diversity. There were numerous farmers specialising in poultry, pigs and dairying. Yet persistently high world grain prices led to the intensive production of what the heavy soils of central Suffolk are best suited to – cereal crops. The tendency for large estates to be split up and fields to remain unploughed had been dramatically reversed. The larger the unit, the more productive and efficient the farm, with every producer determined to get the maximum yield from their acres.

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The field patterns between Leiston and Sizewell (from the model detailed below).

As the big farms grew bigger and farming became more highly mechanised, farmers were tending to re-organise the shapes and sizes of their fields, making them as large as possible so that the tractor and the combine harvester could work them with greater ease and maximum efficiency. They uprooted trees and whole copses, which were awkward to plough and drill around, cut out hedges which for centuries had bounded small parcels of land, and filled in ditches. To the farmer, this meant the promise of greater productivity, but to the ecologist, it meant the balance of nature was being upset in a way that the farmer and the general countryside population, including animals as well as people, would have to pay for, later if not sooner. The practical answer to this problem has been the increasing use of chemicals to control pests which, as soon became obvious, was a double-edged blade. In addition, the poor land was treated with chemical fertilizers. East Anglia provided a classic example of what could happen as a result of the indiscriminate chemical warfare being conducted in the English countryside. As reported in the New Statesman (20 March 1964), …

… a Norfolk fruit-grower was persuaded by a pesticide salesman that the best way of keeping birds off his six acres of blackcurrants was to use an insecticide spray. Two days after he did so the area was littered with the silent corpses of dozens of species of insects, birds and mammals.

This was very far removed, of course, from the idealised conception of the rural life that most people carried around in their imaginations, and perhaps many of us still do today, especially when we look back on childhood visits to the countryside and relatives living in rural villages.  Moorhouse characterised this contrast as follows:

Smocked labourers, creaking hay carts, farmyard smells, and dew-lapped beasts by the duck-pond – these are still much more to the forefront of our consciousness than DDT, aldrin, dieldrin, and fluoroacetemide. In most of us, however completely we may be urbanised, there lurks some little lust for the land and a chance to work it.  

Rustic Life; Yeomen Farmers and Yokels:

Farmers had to become hard-nosed professional businessmen. The profits from their labour had to be extracted while they were there, for it was never certain what might be around the next bend. This emphasis on business sense, both in himself and in others, his passion for getting the maximum work out of his men and machines, was what made Moorhouse’s Norfolk farmer sound indistinguishable from any high-powered industrialist in the Midlands. In a sense, he wasn’t. He was prepared to try any method which would increase his productivity. In the early sixties, something very odd had been happening in his part of the world. Traditionally, ‘big’ Norfolk farmers like him had tended to be isolated neighbours, seeing each other at the market but otherwise scarcely at all. But he and three other men had taken to sharing their equipment for harvesting quick-freeze peas; this work had to be done particularly fast on a day appointed by the food factory and ‘Farmer Giles’ and his neighbours had decided that it could be done most efficiently and cheaply by pooling their men and machines and having this unit move from property to property in the course of one day. In 1964, they also clubbed together for a contracting helicopter to spray their crops. He and his friends, being staunch Tories, might not have accepted that they were putting co-operative principles into farming practice, but that was precisely what they were doing, just as the Suffolk sugar-beet growers had done forty years earlier.

For all his business acumen, however, ‘Farmer Giles’ measured up to the popular stereotypical image of a yeoman farmer. He was a warden at his local church, had a couple of horses in his stables and during ‘the season’ he went shooting for four days a week. He cared about the appearance of his patch of countryside, spent an impressive amount of time in doing up the tied cottages of his men, rather than selling it to them, as some of them would like. This is not simply because, in the long run, it results in a contented workforce, but because he can control what it looks like on the outside, as pretty as an antique picture, thatched and whitewashed. Fundamentally, he belonged as completely to the land as he possessed it. Though he no longer had any real need to, he did some manual work himself, as well as prowling around the farm to make sure everything was going to his overall plan. He was organic, like his 1,200 acres, which nonetheless produced a profit of sixteen thousand pounds a year. As he himself commented, overlooking his fields, there is something good about all this! A cynic might have responded to this by suggesting that any life that could produce such a profit was indeed, a good life.

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Above & Below: Cattle grazing on the Deben meadows near Woodbridge, Suffolk.

But how had the tied agricultural workers, the eternal rustics, fared in this changing pattern of agriculture? The farm labourer interviewed by Moorhouse worked on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. He left school at fourteen, the son of a mid-Norfolk cowman of thirty-five years standing. He first worked on a poultry farm for a couple of years, had four years as assistant cowman to his father, five years as a stock feeder, then two years ‘on the land’ working with tractors and horses. He then came to the farm Moorhouse found him working on fifteen years previously, just after getting married, as a relief man. At the age of forty-two, with a teenage daughter, he was head cowman for a ‘gaffer’ with 450 arable acres and a hundred acres of pasture which carried fifty Friesian milking cows, forty-six calves, and a bull. His farmer was nearing seventy and didn’t hold with too many of the new ways. It was only in that year, 1964, that the modern method of milking – straight from the cow through a pipeline to a common container – had been adopted by his gaffer. Farmer Giles had been doing it this way ever since it was proved to be the quickest and easiest way. ‘Hodge’ got up at 5.30 a.m. to milk the cows and feed the calves. After breakfast until mid-day, he was busy about the yards, mixing meal, washing up and sterilizing equipment. From 1.30 p.m. he was out again, feeding the calves and doing various seasonal jobs until milking, which generally finished by 5 o’clock. Very often he went out again before bed-time, to check on the cows and the calves. He worked a six-and-a-half-day week, for which he was paid twenty-two per cent more than the basic farm worker’s wage for a forty-six-hour week.

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When he first came to the farm, ‘Hodge’ was given, rent-free, a cottage, which was in rather worse shape than the shelters which housed the cows in winter. It had one of the tin-can lavatories described below and was lit with paraffin lamps. He had to tramp eighty yards to a well for water. There was one room downstairs plus a tiny kitchen, and two bedrooms, one of which was so small you couldn’t fit a full-size bed in it. After a while, the farmer modernised it at a cost of a thousand pounds, knocking it together with the next-door cottage. The renewed place, though still cramped, had all the basic necessities and Hodge paid twelve shillings a week for it. He accepted his situation, though the National Union of Agricultural Workers (NUAW) did not, since it had been trying to abolish tied cottages for forty years on the principle of eviction. Although a socialist and chairman of his local union branch, Hodge argued that tied cottages were necessary because the farm worker had to be near his job so that, as in his case, he could hop across the road before bedtime to check on the cows. Other changes had taken place in his lifetime on Norfolk land. The drift to the towns had fragmented the old society, and traditions had been quietly petering out. The parish church was generally full for the harvest festival, but otherwise ill-attended; the rector had three parishes to cope with.

Rural Poverty & Village Life:

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A former labourer’s cottage in Saxmundham marketplace.

The poverty of the inland, rural villages was the result of far more basic concerns than the pressures on property prices created by newcomers, or the changes in agriculture, which did little to improve the lives of villagers. Their cottages may have looked attractive enough in their appearance on the outside, but too often offered their home-grown dwellers little encouragement to remain in them, and if they got the chance to move out they did, while there was no help at all for those who might be interested in trying their hand at rural life. Moorhouse found one village within ten miles of Ipswich which, apart from its electricity and piped water supplies, had not changed at all since the Middle Ages. Some of its cottages were without drains and in these, the housewife had to put a bucket under the plughole every time she wanted to empty the sink; she then carried it out and emptied onto the garden. Sewerage was unknown in the community of 586 people, none of whom had a flush toilet. They used tins, lacing them with disinfectant to keep down the smell and risk of infection. In some cases, these were housed in cubicles within the kitchens, from where they had to be carried out, usually full to the brim, through the front door. Every Wednesday night, as darkness fell, the Rural District Council bumble cart, as the villagers call it, arrived in the village street to remove the tins from the doorsteps. Moorhouse commented that this was…

… for nearly six hundred people … a regular feature of life in 1964 and the joke must long since have worn thin. There are villages in the remoter parts of the North-west Highlands of Scotland which are better equipped than this.

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This was not by any means an isolated example. While in both counties the coverage of electricity and water supplies were almost complete, drainage and sewerage were far from being so. In the Clare rural district of Suffolk villages were expected to put up with the humiliating visitations of the ‘night cart’ for another five years; in the whole of West Suffolk there were twenty-four villages which could not expect sewerage until sometime between 1968 and 1981, and both county councils accepted that they were some villages which would never get these basic amenities. In East Suffolk, only those places within the narrow commuting belts around the biggest towns could be sure that they would one day soon become fully civilised. In Norfolk, it was estimated that as many as a hundred would never be so. Again, this was the price that East Anglia was paying for being off the beaten track. It was not the indolence of the county councils which ensured the continuance of this residue of highly photogenic rural slums, as Moorhouse put it, so much as cold economics. Both counties had, acre for acre, among the smallest population densities in England; in neither is there very much industry. Therefore, under the rating system of that time, based on property values and businesses, they were unable to raise sufficient funds to provide even these basic services, as we would see them now. Norfolk claimed to have the lowest rateable value among the English counties, and Suffolk was not much better off. They simply did not have the ‘wherewithal’ to make these small communities fit for human habitation. But this simple fact was little ‘comfort’ to those who had to live in them.

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County Hall, Norwich.

For a survey which it undertook for its 1951 development plan, East Suffolk County Council had decided that basic communal necessities consisted of at least a food shop, a non-food shop, a post office, a school, a doctor’s surgery and/or clinic, a village hall, and a church. When it took a long, hard look at its villages, it found that only forty-seven had all of these things, that ninety-three had all three basic requirements and that (food shop, school, village hall), that 133 had only one or two of them and that thirty-one had none. A similar survey by the West Suffolk County Council showed that only sixteen per cent of its 168 parishes had all the facilities and that about the same proportion had none. When the county authorities made a follow-up survey in 1962, using the same criteria, they found that the position of these rural communities had hardly changed in a decade. There were many more surgeries, due to the growing provisions of the NHS, but the number of village schools had dropped from 103 to 92 and of non-food shops from fifty to twenty-seven.

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 Suffolk County flag.

In 1964, a regional, South-east Plan was being considered, which included both Suffolk and Norfolk. Moorhouse considered that it might transform the whole of East Anglia into something more approximating Hertfordshire or Essex in terms of economic development. But he also felt that unless there was a change of national direction, the East Country could not stay as it was, virtually inviolate, its people so conscious of their inaccessibility that they frequently refer to the rest of England as ‘The Shires’, and with so many of them eking out a living in small rural communities as their forefathers had done for generations.  It was scarcely surprising, wrote Moorhouse, that the young were leaving, looking for something better. The appeal of bigger towns and cities, with their exciting anonymity, was great enough for many whose childhood and adolescence had been spent wholly in the confining atmosphere of the village. Combined with the lack of basic amenities and work opportunities, this left young people with few reasons to stay.

Power, Ports & Progress:

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A lonely stretch of coast near Leiston, still enjoyed by caravanners and campers, was the sight of another important development. There, at Sizewell, Britain’s second nuclear power station was built in the early 1960s (the first was built at Windscale in Cumbria in the late fifties). In 1966, power began surging out from the grey, cuboid plant (a model of which – pictured above – can be seen at the Richard Garrett museum in Leiston) into the national grid. By the late seventies, Sizewell’s 580,000 kilowatts were going a long way towards meeting eastern England’s electricity needs.

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Sizewell Nuclear Power Station (2014)

The docks also began to be modernised, with ports like Tilbury and Felixstowe hastening the decline of London, which could not handle containerised freight. In addition, most of the Suffolk ports were no further from London than those of Kent and they were a great deal closer to the industrial Midlands and North. In 1955 the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company had on its hands a dilapidated dock that needed dredging, and warehouses, quays and sea walls all showing signs of storm damage. The total labour force was nine men. By the mid-seventies, the dock area covered hundreds of acres, many reclaimed, made up of spacious wharves, warehouses and storage areas equipped with the latest cargo handling machinery. The transformation began in 1956 as the direct result of foresight and careful planning. The Company launched a three million pound project to create a new deepwater berth geared to the latest bulk transportation technique – containerisation. It calculated that changing trading patterns and Felixstowe’s proximity to Rotterdam and Antwerp provided exciting prospects for an efficient, well-equipped port. Having accomplished that, it set aside another eight million for an oil jetty and bulk liquid storage facilities. In addition, a passenger terminal was opened in 1975. The dock soon acquired a reputation for fast, efficient handling of all types of cargo, and consignments could easily reach the major industrial centres by faster road and rail networks.

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Looking across the estuary from Harwich to the Felixstowe container port today.

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Increasing trade crammed the Suffolk’s main roads with lorries and forced an expansion and improvement of port facilities. The development of new industries and the growth of the east coast ports necessitated a considerable programme of trunk road improvement. From the opening of the first stretches of motorway in the winter of 1958/59, including the M1, there was a major improvement in the road network. By 1967 motorways totalled 525 miles in length, at a cost of considerable damage to the environment.  This continued into the mid-seventies at a time when economic stringency was forcing the curtailment of other road building schemes. East Anglia’s new roads were being given priority treatment for the first time. Most of the A12, the London-Ipswich road, was made into a dual carriageway. The A45, the artery linking Ipswich and Felixstowe with the Midlands and the major motorways, had been considerably improved. Stowmarket, Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket had been bypassed. By the end of the decade, the A11/M11 London-Norwich road was completed, bringing to an end the isolation of central Norfolk and Suffolk.

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Above Left: An old milestone in the centre of Woodbridge, Suffolk; Right: The M1 at Luton Spur, opened 1959.

Culture, Landscape & Heritage; Continuity & Conflict:

 

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Suffolk remained a haven for artists, writers and musicians. Indeed, if the county had any need to justify its existence it would be sufficient to read the roll call of those who have found their spiritual home within its borders. Among them, and above them, towers Benjamin Britten, who lived in Aldeburgh and drew inspiration from the land and people of Suffolk for his opera Peter Grimes. The composer moved to the seaside town in 1947 on his return from the USA and almost at once conceived the idea of holding a festival of arts there. It began quietly the following year but grew rapidly thereafter as the activities multiplied – concerts, recitals, operas and exhibitions – and every suitable local building was made use of. Many great artists came to perform and the public came, from all over the world, to listen. Britten had long felt the need for a large concert hall with good acoustics but he did not want to move the festival away from Aldeburgh and the cost of building a new hall was prohibitive.

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In October 1965, the lease of part of a disused ‘maltings’ at nearby Snape became available. It was in a beauty spot at a bridge over the River Alde (pictured above), and architects and builders were soon drafted in to transform the site into a concert hall and other facilities for making music. Queen Elizabeth II opened the buildings in June 1967, but almost exactly two years later disaster struck when the Maltings was burnt out. Only the smoke-blackened walls were left standing, but there was an almost immediate determination that the concert hall would be rebuilt. Donations poured in from all over the world and in less than forty-two weeks the hall had been reconstructed to the original design, and the complex was extended by adding rehearsal rooms, a music library, an art gallery, an exhibition hall and other facilities.

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The Suffolk shore or, to be more accurate, ‘off-shore’ also made a crucial contribution to the breakthrough of popular or ‘pop’ music in Britain. At Easter 1964 the first illegal ‘pirate’ radio station, Radio Caroline, began broadcasting from a ship just off the Suffolk coast (see map, right). Within months, millions of young people were listening to Radio Caroline North and Radio Caroline South, Radio London and other pirate stations that sprung up. Not only did they broadcast popular music records, but they also reminded their listeners that any attempt to silence them would constitute a direct ‘attack on youth’.

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With the advent of these radio stations, the BBC monopoly on airtime was broken, and bands were able to get heard beyond their concerts. Eventually, the Government acted to bring an end to its ‘cold war’ with the British record industry. The BBC set up Radio One to broadcast popular records and in August 1967, the Marine Offences Act outlawed the pirate ships.

Back on dry land, there were areas of conflict, then as now, in which the interests of farmers, businessmen, holidaymakers and country residents clashed. When the farmer rooted out hedges, sprayed insecticides indiscriminately and ploughed up footpaths he soon had conservationists and countryside agencies on his back. When schedule-conscious truck drivers thundered their way through villages, there were angry protests.

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Saxtead Green’s post mill (see OS map above for location near Framlingham) as it looked in the 1970s when it was maintained by the Department of the Environment; it is now managed (2018) by English Heritage.

w290 (1)There were also, still, many for whom the images of Constable’s rolling landscapes were set in their mind’s eye. For them, this was, above all, his inviolable country. It was also dotted with windmills, another echo of earlier continental associations, many of them still working. Every new building project was examined in great detail by environmentalists.

Many local organisations were formed to raise awareness about and resist specific threats to rural heritage, such as the Suffolk Preservation Society and Suffolk Historic Churches Trust.

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Most of the churches, like the very early example at Rendlesham (right), were built of flint, both in Suffolk and in Norfolk, where a great number of them have round towers, a feature unique to that county. The farming people of Barsham in the Waveney Valley added their church to the Norman round tower in the fourteenth century (pictured above). After that, they could not afford elaborate additions. When the nave needed re-roofing, modest thatch seemed to offer the best solution. Suffolk, in particular, had an incredibly rich and well-preserved heritage which gave it its distinct county identity.

DSC09863Almost every church had a superb timber roof, described by Moorhouse as a complex of rafters, kingposts, and hammerbeams which look, as you crane your neck at them, like the inverted hold of a ship (the one pictured left is again, from Rendlesham). Very often these medieval churches were miles from any kind of community, emphasising the peculiarly lonely feeling of most of the area. Most are the remains of the Black Death villages, where the plague killed off the entire population and no one ever came back.

 

Around its magnificent ‘wool church’ (pictured below), the half-timbered ‘perfection’ of Lavenham might not have survived quite so completely had it been located in the South of England. This was one of the hidden benefits of the county’s relative isolation which had, nevertheless, come to an end by the late seventies.

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On the other hand, Wilson has reminded us that the wool-rich men of the town rebuilt their church almost entirely between 1485 and 1530 in the magnificent, new Perpendicular style, yet it remains today and is widely viewed as the crowning glory of ecclesiastical architecture in Suffolk. 

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Many other of the county’s churches are not as Medieval as they look (see the fifteenth-century additions to the transepts of St Michael’s, Framlingham, above) which may challenge our contemporary view of the balance between preservation and progress. In 1974 the Department of the Environment produced a report called Strategic Choice for East Anglia. It forecast a population of over eight hundred thousand in Suffolk alone by the end of the century. It saw the major towns growing much larger and suggested that the counties would inevitably lose some of their individuality:

We know … that the change and the growth … will make East Anglia more like other places. For some, this will mean the growth should be resisted, and the opportunities which it brings should be foregone. Whether or not we sympathise with this point of view, we do not think it is practicable. Much of the change and growth that is coming cannot be prevented by any of the means that is likely to be available. The only realistic approach is to recognize this, and take firm, positive steps to maintain and even enhance the environment of the region, using the extra resources that growth will bring …

By the time the report was published, the people of East Anglia had already begun, as they had always done in earlier times, to face up to many of the problems which change and development brought their way.

 

Sources:

Joanna Bourke, et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

John Simpson (1999), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.

Geoffrey Moorhouse (1964),… Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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Posted November 1, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Agriculture, Assimilation, BBC, Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civilization, cleanliness, Co-operativism, Cold War, Commemoration, Conservative Party, Demography, Domesticity, East Anglia, Education, Elementary School, Europe, European Economic Community, Factories, Family, Great War, History, Home Counties, Hungary, Immigration, Integration, Journalism, Labour Party, manufacturing, Medieval, Midlands, Migration, Music, Mythology, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), Norfolk, Population, Poverty, Refugees, Respectability, Scotland, Second World War, Suffolk, Tudor times, Uncategorized, Welfare State, World War One, World War Two

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Family Life, Labour and Leisure: The Forward March of Women In Britain, 1930-40 (Chapter Five).   Leave a comment

Chapter Five: Migrant Women, Work and Marriage in the West Midlands of England.

In BirminghamCoventry, and other areas of the West Midlands, where juveniles or young adults were placed in large-scale industrial concerns, the government Transference Scheme appears to have been more successful throughout the thirties. Such employment was better-paid and facilitated the maintenance of some measure of group identity in the work, domestic and leisure experiences of the transferees. The regional dimension to this contrast is highlighted by a 1934 memorandum from the Midland Divisional Controller to the Ministry:

There is really no comparison between the Midlands Division and say, London, because all the London vacancies are hotel and domestic posts.

Those local Juvenile Employment Committees who considered the transference work a priority ensured that the juveniles were met at the station and escorted to their lodgings. They might also ensure that social contacts were made and that parents were kept informed of the progress of their son or daughter. The officers of the Birmingham Juvenile Employment Bureau were involved with the Merthyr Bureau in each stage of the transference process. They visited Merthyr to interview the juveniles and to explain to their parents the various types of vacancies available. In 1937, this resulted in sixteen boys and seven girls being transferred. The link between the local officials led to a firm of electrical engineers employing an entire family from Merthyr. They were given a bungalow from which the mother looked after a number of the apprentices. Much of this work was undertaken under the auspices of the special After Care Committee of the JEC, and the effectiveness of their work was recorded by A J Lush, in his report for the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service:

A large number from South Wales have secured employment in the area of South Birmingham. It is gratifying to note that from the employers, comparitively few complaints have been received. With regard to the boys themselves, the general difficulty experienced is that having been in Birmingham for a month or two, they wish to experiment by changing their lodgings and also their jobs, just to see what other kinds of work and other parts of Birmingham are like…

The lack of after-care provision in smaller ‘Black Country’ townships such as Cradley Heath and Halesowen was reported as being the cause of much concern to Ministry officials. On the other hand, juvenile transference to Coventry and Rugby was said to be of fairly considerable dimensions. The relative success of the Scheme to these centres was due in no small part to the ability of local officials to change attitudes among local employers. At the beginning of 1928, the Coventry District Engineering Employers’ Association was ‘unanimous’ in its opinion that it was very dangerous proceeding to bring large numbers of boys and girls into any area without parental control. By 1937, the employers’ attitudes had changed to the extent that they were willing to consider the provision of a hostel, as in Birmingham, and to guarantee continuous employment for the juveniles over a period of twelve months.

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In Coventry, Welsh immigrants were not as concentrated in either domestic or industrial terms as they were in Cowley. In 1937, the Juvenile Employment Committee recognised that the wide dissemination throughout the city of those requiring supervision was a major cause for concern. Oral evidence reveals that it was also a cause of anxiety and homesickness among many of the immigrants. However, although it was more difficult to recreate a sense of neighbourhood, it would be wrong to assume that the majority of immigrants felt scattered and isolated. In the first place, there were pockets of Welsh immigrants in Longford, Holbrooks and Wyken. The Hen Lane estate, in particular, was said to have a large concentration of Welsh workers. Secondly, there is evidence that familial and fraternal relationships were just as significant as in Cowley. Labour was engaged in a similar way, usually at the factory gates, except that Coventry firms actively recruited in the depressed areas by means of advertisements and ‘scouts’. This encouraged still further the tendency towards networked migration, and many men in well-paid jobs found definite openings for friends and relatives. Some, like Haydn Roberts, were ‘second stage’ migrants, attracted to Coventry from metropolitan London by the better pay and more secure terms of employment on offer. The prospect of a more settled, married life in Coventry was a huge incentive:

I met my fist wife, she was a girl from Nantymoel. She was a maid in Northwood College for girls… I went to Nantymoel and met Bill Narberth and the bands… He came to Coventry in 1934 to play for Vauxhall Crossroads Band… He got a job in Alfred Herbert’s in the hardening shop. He came up for the Band… they wanted cornet players in the Vauxhall and he applied and got the job… and quite a few others… I met Bill and he was talking about the money he earned… So I threw up my job and got a single ticket, came up by train… There were quite a few Welsh people around that area in Longford and Holbrooks because the factories were there… Herberts, the Gasworks, Morris Bodies and Morris Engines.

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The importance of these kinship and friendship networks can be traced through the electoral registers and civic directories of the period, as well as from The Roll of the Fallen: A Record of Citizens of Coventry who fell in the Second World War, 1939-45 (published in 1945, including the birthplaces of those killed in action, 1939-45/ by enemy action, i.e. bombing of the City in 1940-41) and the Queens Road Baptist Church Roll. From these, it is possible to reconstruct eighty-six ‘Welsh households’ in Coventry, forty-eight of which showed clear signs of sub-letting, in many cases to obvious adult relatives or friends of Welsh origin. Jehu Shepherd married and bought a house in 1939, but he was one of the earliest Rhondda immigrants to Coventry, who remained a powerful influence on Coventry Welsh life throughout the period and well beyond. He was one of a family of nine, all of whom left Wales. He left the Rhondda just before the General Strike and was found a job at the Morris Works by his brother-in-law, going to live in his sister’s house. He then found a job at the same factory for his brother Fred, who brought his wife Gwenllian with him, and they were followed by Haydn who got a job at Courtaulds. Another sister, Elizabeth and her husband moved to Coventry in 1927. The family in general, and Jehu, in particular, appear to have given early cohesion to the Welsh community in Coventry, especially through the formation of the Coventry Welsh Glee Singers. He met and married Mary, from Ystradgynlais, in Coventry in the late thirties, and they bought a house together in 1939. She was a nurse who later became a senior sister and ward matron in the Gulson Road Hospital and Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital in the post-war NHS.

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Aneurin Bevan, Minister for Health and Housing, meeting NHS nursing staff.

Jehu was also choirmaster at Queens Road Baptist Church from 1926, but in 1937 he decided that he had to give up this duty in favour of keeping the Gleemen together because most of them didn’t go to church, some of them liked a drink… and he felt he must keep them together. In February 1929, the Society and the Gleemen had combined to give a performance in aid of the Lord Mayor of Coventry’s Fund for the Distressed Areas. The Midland Daily Telegraph praised the careful training given by Mr Shepherd to his singers during their weekly rehearsals. The exiles’ empathy with those they had left behind in the valleys was portrayed to full effect when Miss Chrissie Thomas played God Bless the Prince of Wales on her mandolin, in reference to the Prince’s recent visit to the distressed areas. 

There can be little doubt that, as with the Glee Singers, the majority of the Welsh immigrants to Coventry did not attend church regularly, and that the working men’s clubs in Holbrooks and Wyken were more important centres of Welsh life than were Queens Road Baptist Church or West Orchard Congregational Church. Nonetheless, these churches attracted larger numbers of them than their counterparts in London. The attractiveness of these chapels was due, in no small part, to their inspirational Welsh Ministers, Howard Ingli James and Ivor Reece, respectively. From his induction in 1931, Ingli James provided strong leadership for those among the Welsh who were chapel-goers. When Mary Nicholas and Martha Jones, sisters from Tonypandy, first started attending Queens Road on arrival in Coventry in 1932, they found that there were a great many Welsh already in the congregation. In his sermons, Ingli James affirmed to a wide audience, the society and culture from which they had come, as Mary Shepherd, recalled:

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, never, when I think what those poor men had to go through to get that coal for me to enjoy – and then I say, ‘I paid for it’ – no money would pay for what they did!” I can see him now in that pulpit.     

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The Nuffield Survey’s war-time report on Coventry and East Warwickshire found that the City’s sixty thousand houses and shops were a goodly number for the population as it stood at the outbreak of war and that, although large houses were few, the great majority of houses provided accommodation superior to the average for the whole country. Mary Nicholas, originally from the Rhondda, described her reaction to the change in accommodation which her move to Coventry involved:

Comparing the house I was living in with the house I came from I thought I was in heaven. I thought of the old house and black leading the grates…

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In Birmingham, the connection with a particular coalfield area again played an important part in establishing a significant immigrant community. A significant proportion of those who settled in South West Birmingham during the period was from the Monmouthshire mining villages of Blaina, Nantyglo and Risca. In particular, there seems to have been a close link between Cadbury’s at Bournville and the authorities and officials in Blaina and Nantyglo; a large number of juvenile transferees, girls and boys, from this area went to Bournville direct from secondary school. The Quaker-founded Company had always operated a strict marriage bar, so there was a constant demand for single women. J. B. Priestley described the type of work done by the young women at the ‘works’ when he visited in the Autumn of 1933:

The manufacture of chocolate is a much more elaborate process (than that of cocoa) … there were miles of it, and thousands of men and girls, very spruce in overalls, looking after the hundred-and-one machines that pounded and churned and cooled and weighed and packed the chocolate, that covered the various bits of confectionery with chocolate, that printed labels and wrappers and cut them up and stuck them onand then packed everything into boxes that some other machine had made. The most impressive room I have ever seen in a factory was that in which the cardboard boxes were made and the labels, in that shiny purple or crimson paper, were being printed: there is a kind of gangway running down the length of it, perhaps twenty feet from the floor, and from this you had a most astonishing view of hundreds of white-capped girls seeing that the greedy machines were properly fed with coloured paper and ink and cardboard. In some smaller rooms there was hardly any machinery. In one of them I saw a lot of girls neatly cutting up green and brown cakes of marzipan into pretty little pieces; and they all seemed to be enjoying themselves; though I was told that actually they preferred to do something monotonous with the machines. I know now the life history of an almond whirl. There is a little mechanical device that makes the whirl on the top, as deft as you please. I saw thousands of marsh-mallows hurrying on an endless moving band… to the slow cascade of chocolate that swallowed them for a moment and then turned them out on the other side, to be cooled, as genuine chocolate marsh-mallows…

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There was a girl whose duty it was, for forty-two hours a week, to watch those marsh-mallows hurrying towards their chocolate Niagara. “Wouldn’t that girl be furious,” I sad to the director who was showing me round, “if she found that her Christmas present was a box of chocolate marsh-mallows?” But he was not at all sure. “We consider our staff among our best customers,” he told me. … Such is the passion now for chocolate that though you spend all your days helping to make it, though you smell and breathe it from morning until night, you must munch away like the rest of the world. This says a good deal for the purity of the processes, which seemed to me exemplary…  

By the autumn of 1934, the Monmouthshire migrants were well-enough settled to form an organisation known as the Birmingham Association for the Relief of the Distressed Areas (BARDA), together with immigrants from Durham. Its aims were to help families who already had one or more members settled in Birmingham to remove their homes to the city. It had a membership of about two hundred, whose meetings were held at the Friends’ Meeting House in Cotteridge, just along the Bristol Road from Bournville. Over the period over a hundred individual members of families were reunited in this way, and the families were often related. Fifty-five of this hundred, including mothers not seeking paid work, had members in regular employment by the early months of 1937; twenty-two were still at school and only four of the fathers who had followed their daughters and sons to Birmingham were without full-time, permanent work. Of these four, two were approaching pensionable age, and the other two had temporary or part-time work.

Once a young migrant had become sufficiently established to ask her or his parents to join them and make a home, the Association set to work finding a house for them. Since landlords were averse to accepting unemployed tenants, BARDA’s recommendation of an employed son or daughter as a responsible tenant helped to overcome this problem.In some cases, houses were purchased on a new estate from a fund created for the purpose and in others, help was given in order for families to furnish their new homes adequately. By these means, BARDA enabled a large number families to become independent, self-supporting and self-confident. Its meetings provided an opportunity for them to come together, deal collectively with individual problems of settlement and family reunification and to discuss the broader issues relating to unemployment, migration and the problems of the distressed areas.

BARDA entered into lengthy correspondence concerning the way in which the means test regulations presented a major obstacle to the reunification of families in Birmingham. Parents were already faced with the prospect additional household expenditure in the provision of equipment for the reunited family, in the replacement of clothing and in the higher costs of lighting and heating which obtained in Birmingham. They were therefore understandably reluctant to move unless they could be sure that the unemployment allowances would not be decreased before they had had a reasonable period to look for work and establish the household. BARDA had written to various officials, setting out specific cases which showed the obstructiveness of the regulations to their work:

The kind of case we have specially in mind is of a family where two youths over school age have been successful in obtaining employment in Birmingham  – one in a regular position and the other in more temporary employment. The father is about forty-two years and has a wife and two children of school age. Presumably, whilst living in a distressed area the parents with their two children obtain full public assistance but if they transfer to live with their two sons,… they would receive no public assistance as the wages of the two sons would be viewed as sufficient for the household. There would be the added risk that the one son in temporary employment might become unemployed so that the parents and four children would be dependent upon the earnings of one youth. The alternative appears to be for the family to continue to receive public assistance until they qualify for old age pension, in which case the two children, now of school age, might also become a charge on the public assistance. Whereas if the whole family removed to this area there might be a prospect of the whole family obtaining employment. 

This case illustrates graphically the disjunction which existed between unemployment policy and voluntary migration and why so many migrants chose to have nothing to do with the transference schemes of the Ministry of Labour. To solve this most peculiar paradox in policy, BARDA advocated that no deductions should be made from parental unemployment allowances for a minimum of six months. Nevertheless, its advocacy was of no avail. Although, as an example of autonomous organisation of migration, BARDA was successful in attracting interest in government and the national press, its practical influence was limited to South West Birmingham and did not extend to the nearby town of Smethwick, where Rhondda people had been able to find homes in close proximity to each other and were working in the Tangyies Munitions Factory by 1936-37. Instead, they made good use of the local chapels and, as in Oxford and Coventry, formed a male voice choir. However, the Welsh causes which existed in the centre of Birmingham, like those in London, had been founded in the early and mid-nineteenth century, their congregations mainly made up of professional, Welsh-speaking people from rural Wales, the language of worship also being Welsh. The mostly English-speaking immigrants from Monmouthshire who were able to afford the bus fare into the city centre soon found that they had little in common with their Welsh-speaking country cousins. The new exiles took little interest in the activities of the two Welsh societies, Y Brythoniad and Y Cymrodorion.

Haydn Roberts, who had moved from London to Coventry in the mid-thirties, and became foreman at the GEC, recalled how trade unionism spread to the factory from the Standard Works when the latter sacked a lot of trade union members. He remembered a Welsh shop steward in the Model Room who had been at the Standard Works and was a bit militant because Sir John Black had kowtowed to them. Again, although Roberts acknowledged the importance of strong trade union traditions to the mining community he had left as a teenager, he had seen no need for those traditions in the new industrial context in which he found himself. He had not been a miner or a member of the SWMF himself, but had followed his father’s sense of grievance against the mine owners, and saw no relevance in applying these grievances to his new industrial context. Moreover, the jobs and processes involved at the GEC were far more diverse than at the Standard Works, and Roberts was responsible for the supervision of ‘girls’ or ladies who had just got married but continued to work on a part-time track. Although women workers elsewhere in Coventry had been instrumental in resisting the introduction of the Bedaux System, involving the speeding-up of production lines, according to Roberts the GEC women were uninterested in trade unionism. Some of these women were Welsh in origin, and all of them shared Roberts’ perception of their new environment. However, as noted in chapter three, there were some ‘wildcat’ or spontaneous strikes involving women in the late thirties, but these occurred on the full-time track involving younger, single women.

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When J. B. Priestley visited the city in 1933, there were still plenty of unemployed there, about twelve thousand he was told. The graph above shows this estimate to be quite accurate for the time of year (autumn) of his visit. By then, the city had got well past the worst period of the depression in 1931-32, when unemployment had risen to over twenty percent. Factories that were working on short time in that period, were back on double shifts in 1933. He saw their lights and heard the deep roar of their machinery, late that night of his sojourn.

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In Coventry, the factors which led to Labour gaining control of the City Council in the 1937 municipal elections were more complex than in either Oxford or Birmingham. They included a general shift away from shop-floor ‘syndicalism’ towards a more rounded concept of municipal socialism. Unlike in the Chamberlains’ Birmingham, the ruling Liberal-Conservative Progressive Coalition in Coventry had failed to respond to the demands of a spiralling population through proper planning and provision of social services. The Labour ‘take-over’ was also greatly facilitated by the mushroom growth of a large individual membership section in the local Party which enabled many managerial, professional and clerical workers to play an increasingly important role alongside shop stewards and trade union officials. This growth was carefully nurtured by a number of key local politicians, shaping the Party into an organisation which was capable of winning elections and of running the City successfully. In addition, the radical Liberalism of many chapel-goers in the City became detached from its more Gladstonian leadership, much of it being transferred into support for the Labour Party.

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This ideological shift was reinforced by the Christian Socialism advocated by leading Unitarian, Methodist and Baptist preachers, some of whom defied deacons and elders to speak on Labour platforms. This ‘social gospel’ influence was fuelled by the influx of workers from the depressed areas in general, and South Wales in particular, where it was still comparatively strong among those who had continued to attend the Nonconformist chapels, as an alternative to the outright Marxism of many in the SWMF. The Progressive candidates, Tories and Liberals, often made the mistake of disparaging this shift by playing upon the fears and prejudices of ‘old Coventrian’ electors. They suggested that Labour’s 1937 victory resulted from the coming of so many of the Labour Party’s supporters to Coventry, whom they referred to as the sweepings of Great Britain. The local Labour leader, George Hodgkinson, however, considered that the low turn-out in 1938 was

… an index that the municipal conscience was by no means fully developed, probably through the fact that many newcomers had not got their roots in Coventry and so had not formed political allegiances. 

Clearly, whilst the immigrants may have been predominantly socialist in outlook, this did not mean that this general allegiance was automatically and immediately translated into a particular interest in local politics. Even by 1937-38, many migrants did not regard their situations in Coventry as anything more than temporary, especially with the economic recovery of South Wales underway, and therefore did not see themselves as having the right and/or duty to vote as citizens of Coventry. Comparisons of oral evidence with the electoral registers reveal that many were not registered to vote for as long as five years after their arrival in Coventry. In many cases, this was due to the temporary nature of their lodgings, which resulted in multiple sub-lettings and transient residence among the migrants. They were far more scattered around the city than their counterparts in Cowley and were therefore not as settled by the late 1930s. Thus, the argument advanced by The Midland Daily Telegraph and other Conservative agencies within the City in November 1937 that the large influx of labour from socialist areas was responsible for Labour’s victory reflected their belief in the myth of the old Coventrian at least as much as it did the reality of the situation.

There were a number of Welsh workers, some of them women, who came to the City in the late 1930s and who began to play a significant role in local politics following the war. William Parfitt started work in the mines at Tylorstown in the Rhondda at the age of fourteen, becoming Secretary of his Lodge at the age of twenty-one. In December 1926, he appeared in Court with a number of others, charged with riotous assembly at Tylorstown for leading a crowd who attacked a crane being used to transfer coal from a dump to be sent to Tonyrefail. When Sergeant Evans spoke to Parfitt, he replied we are driven to it, we cannot help ourselves. He later became an organiser for the National Council of Labour Colleges, enduring periods of unemployment before leaving the Rhondda. William Parfitt arrived in Coventry in 1937 and began work as a milling machinist in the Daimler factory. After the war, he became Industrial Relations Officer for the National Coal Board. He was elected to the City Council in 1945 and twenty years later became Lord Mayor of Coventry.

Harry Richards was also born in the Rhondda, at Tonypandy, in 1922. On moving to Coventry in 1939, he became an apprentice draughtsman at Armstrong Siddeley Motors and a design draughtsman at Morris Motors. He then became a schoolteacher after the war and was elected to the City Council in 1954. Like Parfitt, he went on to become Lord Mayor in 1979-80. No doubt Parfitt, Richards and other immigrants who became involved in post-war politics, shared the motivation for their involvement which arose out of the determination of both leaders and led to attain better living conditions than those which most of the immigrants from the coalfields had been forced to endure for much of the inter-war period. Similarly, Councillor Elsie Jones,   made the following poetic contribution in 1958, celebrating twenty-one years of Labour rule in the City, in which she both echoed and transposed some of the themes she drew from Llewellyn’s 1939 book and the subsequent popular war-time film:

Born and reared in a mining area I realised the need for reforms very early in life –

Because I loved light and sunshine I knew men and young boys who, during winter, seldom saw either –

Because I loved peace and a tranquil home, and I saw peaceful men become violent at the spectacle of their semi-starved families –

Because I loved music and culture, and the arts, and I knew boys and girls with wonderful natural gifts who would never get a chance to express them –

Because I loved freedom and independence, and saw proud men grovelling for the ‘privilege’ of working for a week for a week road-mending.

How green and beautiful was my valley.

How black the despair in the hearts of its people.

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It is significant that when the post-1945 Labour Government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Aneurin Bevan chose to go to Coventry to defend it. It would seem that his choice may not have been entirely coincidental, as when he issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue, he 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. 

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The Cheylesmore Estate in Coventry, newly built after the war.

The growth of municipal socialism in the City from 1937 onwards can clearly be seen as a practical expression of that impetus to reform, progress and planning which Bevan himself epitomised. Another Welsh ‘Dick Whittington’, this time in Birmingham, was William Tegfryn Bowen, who worked as a miner in the Rhondda between 1916 and 1926 before leaving for Birmingham in 1927.  He studied economics, social services and philosophy at Fircroft College in Selly Oak before going to work at the Austin Motor Company’s works further down the Bristol Road in 1928. There he led a strike against the introduction of the Bedaux system in defiance of more senior union officials. Following this, he endured several periods of unemployment and odd-jobbing until the war, when he became a City Councillor in 1941, and an Alderman in 1945. Between 1946 and 1949 he was both Chairman of the Council Labour group and Chairman of the Health Committee. This latter position led to his appointment as a member of the Executive Council of the NHS and also as a member of the Regional Hospital Board. Effectively, he was Bevan’s architect of the NHS in Birmingham, a city which, under the Chamberlain ‘dynasty’, had been first a Liberal Unionist and then a Tory stronghold for many decades since mid-Victorian times. On becoming Lord Mayor in 1952, Bowen was asked to account for Labour’s currently and apparently secure hold on the City. He referred to the large influx of workers from other areas, with a different political outlook.

In Coventry, from 1929 onwards, it was musical engagements which enabled Philip Handley, the City’s Employment Officer, to champion the immigrant cause, often in the teeth of criticism from other civic leaders, trade unionists and employers, and to attempt to construct a far more positive narrative and vision of a progressive, cosmopolitan city:

The Welshman’s love of music and art, the Irishman’s physical vigour and courage, the Scotsman’s canny thoroughness, the tough fibre of the Northumbrian, the enterprise of the Lancastrian – Yes, the Coventrian of twenty-five years hence should be a better man in body and possibly in brain… 

Of course, Handley meant ‘man’ in the generic sense, and the contribution of these ‘new Coventrians’ of both genders in terms of ‘brain’ cannot be underestimated or marginalised, certainly not in the second and third generations. Through the better system of secondary education which existed at that time in Wales and the high standard of adult education in the coalfield communities, the new industry towns acquired significant numbers of youngsters whose talents lay in their heads as well as their hands. In their new environment, there were a number of ways in which these talents could be expressed. As was also the case in Cowley, Welsh families had a more positive attitude towards education, so that local schools, both elementary and secondary, suddenly found themselves with some very able and highly motivated pupils, a theme which was revisited by local politicians after the war.

There is some evidence to suggest that in Coventry the impact of these immigrant children was quite dramatic, both in terms of quantity and quality. In 1936-37, the number of school children admitted from other districts exceeded those leaving Coventry by more than 1,100. In February 1938 The Midland Daily Telegraph then carried out research for a major report entitled Coventry as the Nation’s School in which it claimed that Coventry’s school problem was being aggravated by the influx of newcomers from the Special Areas. For the previous twelve months, it went on, children had been pouring into the city at a rate of a hundred a month. Most of them went to live on the new housing estates on the city’s outskirts where few schools had been built. Sufficient children were moving into the city every year to fill ‘two good-sized schools’ and although there were enough school places available throughout the city to accommodate the newcomers, the schools were in the wrong places.

Coventry’s schools remained significantly more overcrowded than the national average throughout the decade, and despite the increasing press speculation, no new secondary schools were built, although six new elementary schools were added between 1935 and 1939. Despite this, throughout the period 1925-37, the cost of elementary education per child Coventry schools remained below the average cost in county boroughs in England and Wales. Whilst the school rolls were falling in most English authorities, in Coventry they were rising sharply. It is in this context that the Education Committee’s gradual shift towards the idea of building bipartite comprehensive schools, combining grammar and technical ‘streams’ began in the late 1930s. The idea of academic and technical secondary education working in tandem on the same sites made sense as a solution to cater for the sons and daughters of immigrants who valued secondary education. The emphasis which was placed on education in coalfield societies was a positive dividend of interwar migration to the City’s schools after the war.

There was also a dearth of shopping and general social facilities in Coventry, throwing an increased burden on the central shopping area. Philip Handley, as the Employment Exchange Officer, was clear that the City’s obsession with the elemental question of housing and employment had been to the exclusion of any significant attempt to develop social and cultural amenities, with the result that the new housing areas lacked halls, churches and libraries. Since he was responsible for the reception and after-care of young immigrants, he shared some of the concerns of those in the social service movement who viewed the ‘new areas’ as lacking the ‘right sort’ of social and cultural institutions to receive them. In particular, in his correspondence with Sir William Deedes, he referred to the problems they faced in the ‘settling in’ period, during which the public house and the cinema are more attractive than the strange church which may be, and usually is, some distance away. 

Many who migrated, both men and women, were in a poor physical condition and sometimes unable to stand the strain of their new employment, and others were simply not fit enough to find employment in the first place. Social and healthcare services often simply could not cope with the problems that the influx of men and women on the borderline destitution created. In the year 1935-36, despite an increase in the population of Oxford of two thousand, only one bed was added to the city’s hospitals. In Coventry, the Public Assistance Committee was forced to either make the cases of sick immigrants chargeable to the local authority from which they came or remove them entirely, as was the case with one family from Burry Port. Lack of adequate financial provision for young adults in time of sickness was one of the main causes of their early return to the depressed areas. Those whose migration and settlement were aided by financial support from voluntary agencies stood a greater chance of ‘survival’ in the new area, as in this case:

Case E434. This family came from a distressed area, to seek work, the husband having been out of work for four years. The United Services Fund … made a grant for the removal of the household goods and supplied the railway fares. The man obtained work after a few weeks as a labourer, earning two pounds ten shillings weekly. The eldest daughter, aged seventeen, was found a situation, which proved very satisfactory. The daughter of fourteen , who had been a tubercular subject most of her childhood was in a debilitated state of health, and the CCAS (Coventry City Aid Society) did not think she should take up work until she was quite strong. She was sent to Eastbourne for three weeks, and was placed in a situation on her return. Unfortunately, the husband, a builder’s labourer, contracted rheumatism.  Through the office he was sent to Droitwich for three weeks. He is convalescing at the present time, and we hope will soon be back to work in some occupation more suited to his health.

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Coventry’s churches and chapels provide ample evidence of religious activity, the diversity of which seems a natural corollary of mass migration from numerous points of origin with attendant religious traditions. All children attended Sunday school, with parental encouragement, either to get them out of the house or to get that religious instruction which even agnostic guardians seem to have regarded as a positive stage in constructing a morality for their children.  For children, it was enjoyable; there were stories, and outings at least once a year. ‘A bun and a ha’penny’ attracted any waverers. Also, it provided companionship on an otherwise quiet day for boisterous young children. But family observance was a minority feature of Sundays in Coventry. Families, generally, did not pray together or say grace. A minority of families attended church or chapel regularly, perhaps sang in the choir, so that for those children Sunday school was only one of a number of religious services they might participate in on a Sunday.

As has been stated already, in Coventry many of the Welsh immigrants were attracted to those churches with Welsh ministers, most notably to the ministry of Howard Ingli James at Queen’s Road Baptist Church and Ivor Reece at West Orchard Street Congregational Church. Since the Welsh population in Coventry was not as geographically concentrated and as stable as in Cowley, it was not as easy for the immigrants to be appointed as deacons. Nevertheless, the impact of immigration upon the congregation and upon the city was a major factor in the development and direction of Ingli James’ ministry, as his 1936 article for The Midland Daily Telegraph reveals:

Coventry is today faced with the difficult task of welding a host of newcomers into a community, in fact of making a city, which is not the same thing as a mere collection of streets, or conglomeration of people…  Almost every week strangers appear in our congregation, often in such numbers that one has difficulty in getting into touch with them. Many are young, and trying their wings for the first time. It is an important part of our work to meet their needs both spiritual and social, to provide them with a place where they may find friends and feel at home.

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Above: Coventry City centre (Broadgate) in 1939

James wrote in his book Communism and the Christian Faith in 1945, that he had had little contact with either socialists or communists during his time as a minister in Swansea in the twenties and early thirties, but had become ‘radicalised’ through his contact with the young migrants in his congregation and, no doubt, by the municipal socialists he met in the city more widely. Finding friends was often a dilemma faced by the Welsh immigrants to Coventry, as in Cowley. In Coventry, the marked tendency for Welsh women to select their own countrywomen as friends rather than their immediate neighbours was noted in the University of Birmingham’s Survey of the early 1950s. So, too, were the continuing stereotypes of the immigrants used by ‘Coventrians’. In particular, Coventrian women thought of the women from the older industrial areas in their cities as being unemancipated by comparison with themselves. Interestingly, and paradoxically, as well as being labelled as ‘clannish’, ‘all out for themselves and ‘rootless’, they were also said to be ‘thrusting’, trying to get onto committees and councils whereby they could ‘run the town’, showing a lack of respect for the real Coventrians.

The confused and contradictory nature of this stereotyping reveals what Ginzberg described as the classic pattern of a dominant majority irked by a foreign minority in its midst, except that, by the 1950s, it was difficult to tell who the real Coventrians were. However, before the ‘Blitz’ of 1940, Coventry was primarily identified as an engineering city, as testified to by J. B. Priestley following his 1933 sojourn in the city. In his English Journey, he describes walking at night to a hill from which he had a good view of the old constellations remotely and mildly beaming, and the new Morris works, a tower of steel and glass, flashing above the city of gears and crank-shafts. Its high-paid factory work acted as a powerful magnet to migrants from far and wide, who generally found in it a welcoming working-class city without the social hierarchy which existed in Oxford and London and, to a lesser extent, in Birmingham. Although many of the women migrants may not, at first, have gone into the factories, this changed dramatically after 1936, with the growing demands of the shadow factories for labour, and they also made a broader contribution to working-class life and politics throughout the city.

(to be concluded… )

Posted May 3, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Assimilation, Birmingham, Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Coalfields, Commonwealth, Coventry, democracy, Elementary School, Empire, Factories, History, Immigration, Integration, Marriage, marriage 'bar', Marxism, Maternity, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, Mythology, Narrative, Nonconformist Chapels, Oxford, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Respectability, Second World War, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, Victorian, Wales, Warfare, Women at War, Women's History, World War Two

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Family Life, Labour and Leisure: The Forward March of Women In Britain, 1930-40 (Chapter Two).   Leave a comment

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Chapter Two: Fertility and Factory Work

On the whole, the practice of women going out to work has, except in time of war, traditionally been restricted to widows, spinsters and wives living apart from their husbands. This was the state of affairs in 1936 when ‘Poverty and Progress’ was written, for B. S. Rowntree’s second survey of York showed that… only an insignificant handful of women supplemented their husband’s earnings by going out to work.

Since 1935 however, the situation has changed in three respects. First there is now virtually no unemployment. Second, large increases in the prices of clothing and household sundries have in many cases been accompanied by a considerable decline in quality so that housekeeping has become very expensive. Third, the fact that, on the whole, the working class is more prosperous than it has ever been, has created a desire in many families for goods that would formerly have been rejected without consideration, as being entirely beyond their means. All these factors have combined to induce many women to go out to work even though their husbands are in full-time employment.

B. S. Rowntree & G. R. Lavers, Poverty and the Welfare State (1951), p. 54.

Perhaps we might add, based on evidence presented in the last chapter, that it was the refusal of many middle-class and working-class husbands to countenance the purchase of labour-saving devices, especially washing machines, that forced their wives to go out to work in order to establish the independent means necessary to make such purchases on behalf of the family. Once the machine was installed, it saved so much of a woman’s domestic labour that she was permanently free to work full-time outside the home, except during childbirth and the early years of nurturing children.

Over the first four decades of the twentieth century, marrying habits remained remarkably stable – the average age at which ‘bachelors’ married remained constant at twenty-eight years, and the average age at which ‘spinsters’ married was twenty-six. Thus, in 1938 over one-third of all bachelors and spinsters who married were between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine. There was normally very little age difference between bride and the bridegroom in Britain. In 1938, fifty-eight thousand out of the four hundred thousand families were between men and women who were both in the same age group (25-29), and another sixty thousand were between partners who were both in the twenty-one to twenty-four age group. The average age of females at marriage had fallen a little by then, and the figures showing the ‘marital condition’ of British women aged twenty to forty-four show that there has been no decline in their ability or readiness to marry, but rather an increase, so that at the end of the inter-war period the proportion of women who had taken at least the first step towards family life was considerably higher in 1938 than in 1931, especially for those under twenty-five, among whom it had risen from a quarter to nearly a third.

One probable explanation of the higher marriage rate immediately before the Second World War is that not until then did the supply of new dwellings catch up with the increase in the number of families. Only in the four years, 1935-39 was there a marked easing of the housing situation when the output of new dwellings when the output of new dwellings was maintained at 360,000 per annum, while the number of additional families each year was only a hundred thousand. By 1939, the average family size was 3.59 persons, as compared with 4.35 before the First World War. Only twenty-five percent of families contained five or more persons, and only one person in every three was part of a household as large as this. By 1939 the representative British citizen, whether child or adult, was sharing his or her domestic life with at most two other people; and households containing four children had become, according to Mark Abrams, semi-shameful anachronisms.

 

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Before 1938, the number of official statistical sources that could throw light on British family life was extremely limited, but it was in July of that year that the Office of Population Statistics was established with the main purpose of ensuring that every birth, legitimate or otherwise, live or stillborn, must be registered along with other facts including the age of the mother and the interval since marriage, and the number of existing siblings. When the results of these records for England and Wales for the second half of 1938, 1939 and 1940 were published, they threw considerable light, for the first time, on the pattern of married life in this country at the end of the inter-war period. During these thirty months, there were about eleven and a half million women aged fifteen to forty-nine in England and Wales. Just over half of them were married, and these married women produced 600,000 maternities per annum, roughly one for every ten married women. In each year, one-quarter of these maternities were those of married women under twenty-five, one third were those of those aged twenty-five to twenty-nine, and another quarter those of women aged thirty to thirty-four. Child-bearing over the age of thirty-five had become very unusual in English and Welsh families by this time.

Of all females aged fifteen to twenty-four, only eighteen percent were married, but nearly half the maternities of these women were completed within eight months of marriage. According to Mark Abrams, The general picture was that the “typical” English wife and mother in the years before the second world war was a young woman who, at twenty-four years of age, married a husband of twenty-six. Her first maternity would come two years later and for almost half of these women this was also their last maternity, but the remainder went on to have a second maternity three or four years later. In 1939 young wives on depressed Tyneside aimed at much the same size of family as young wives in the prosperous suburbs of the Home Counties; the outstanding differences in fertility between Tyneside wives and those of the Home Counties were to be found among those over thirty-five years of age, i.e. those who had passed their childhood in a pre-1918 world; the Tyneside housewives in this age group were producing relatively forty percent more children than their southern sisters.

Over the inter-war period there was, then, very little change in the general attitude towards marrying; year by year much the same proportion of the population at risk started married life, and the age at which men and women took this step remained fairly constant. The new recruits, however, at least until the late 1930s, were largely the survivors of the high birth rates of the pre-World War One world, and the number of married couples, therefore, increased rapidly. One result of this was that the families of Great Britain increased rapidly, from 8,955,000 in 1911 to 12,300,000 in 1939; and this, in its turn, meant a demand for an additional three to four million dwellings. Between 1911 and 1939 the working population of Britain increased by twenty percent. In peacetime women formed thirty percent of this working population; most of them were young spinsters, but in the late thirties and during the war, young married women tended to continue at work at least until the birth of their first child.

In Coventry, the continuity of factory employment for women, begun in the 1890s, is clearly apparent in census data for 1911, 1921 and 1931. The table above shows the percentage of female workers in major occupational groupings for these years. The table below shows the continuing importance of textiles, but also its relative decline by 1931. In 1921 one quarter of all female workers were employed in the textile group, but this had declined to just under one fifth by 1931. Metalwork employed a remarkably stable ten percent of female workers over the whole period. The growth area was in electrical apparatus, which grew from nothing to five percent by nearly 1931 and then nearly trebled by 1939, as shown in table 5.1. from Josie Castle’s article (below).

 

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This industry expanded rapidly in the thirties as a source of employment for unskilled women at a time when employment in rayon began to stagnate and eventually to decline. By 1939 GEC had become the largest single employer of women in Coventry, a position which it held post-1945. Personal service continued to account for a fifth of women workers in the thirties, including cleaning and serving in hotels, lodgings, restaurants, hospitals and forms of laundry work, together with private domestic service. Despite the national trends in this latter area, which revealed an overall decline, in Coventry, a sharp decline in 1921 was followed by a recovery to about fifteen percent of the female workforce in 1931. It was this resurgence which was largely responsible for the fact that personal service supplanted textiles as the largest single occupation for females in Coventry in 1931.

The proportion of female clerks and typists was only slightly higher in 1931 than a decade earlier, showing the same trend as the national figures. Tertiary occupations for women, including shops, expanded only slowly in Coventry to 1931, again reflecting the national trend. Overall, the proportion of professional women actually declined to three percent in 1931, from five percent in 1911.

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Table 5.2 above shows how many women of working age actually worked over the same period, both for Coventry and Great Britain. Up to 1931, one-third of all women of working age were actually at work and, again, this figure was close to the national average, while that for married women was lower. It is impossible to get details on the marital status of the local workforce from the 1931 Census but from other evidence, it continued low and still presented problems to war-time authorities seeking female labour for Coventry industries. It is difficult to explain the reluctance of married female Coventrians to participate in paid employment. Oral evidence collected in the 1980s suggests that, in addition to the operation of a marriage bar operated by Courtaulds, many women workers in large-scale production based on assembly lines were glad to leave behind the grinding monotony of this work.

Between 1931 and 1939 the fastest growing source of employment for females in Coventry was the electrical apparatus group, followed by the metal industries. Textiles and textile goods increased slowly but employment in rayon fell. Rearmament and the actual onset of war brought labour shortages to the engineering sector which filled them using women. But the reluctance of married women to work continued into the war years. Thus, although we have no precise statistical information on marital status and participation rates for the 1930s, it seems reasonable to assume that few married women worked in Coventry. The quantitative picture of female employment in Coventry shows a very high proportion of women workers in secondary industries, with fewer in tertiary industries than in Britain as a whole and in other cities, most notably in nearby Birmingham.

Within the range of secondary industries in 1921, textiles employed the largest number of females, 3,852. From other sources, Josie Castle was able to establish that forty percent of this number worked for one firm, Courtaulds on the Foleshill Road. By 1920 Courtaulds was the largest artificial silk producer in the world, and the Coventry factory was producing half of the company’s total British output and had become the base for an empire of yarn mills reaching across the Atlantic. Although output at Coventry was overtaken during the twenties by that at Courtaulds other plants, Coventry remained the firm’s nerve centre. The research laboratories moved there in 1925 and thenceforth a wide range of new developments, including the acetate process in 1928, originated and were tested at Coventry. British output of rayon rose by five hundred percent between 1921 and 1928 and sixty percent of it was Courtauld’s. However, they had to settle for more moderate profits in the thirties.

The process of rayon manufacture had important implications for the gender division of labour on the shop floor. All work involving heavy machinery and potent chemicals was allocated to males. Women looked after the final drying and the sorting and checking of the skeins for defects, and their despatching other women for winding on to cones, pirns or bobbins, or for making into warps or wefts, before final dispatch. All of this work was clean and safe, nearly half of it requiring no machinery at all. Where machines were operated by women, as in reeling, they were light and relatively simple, posing no danger to stray limbs or hair. All work was clean by the very nature of the product as both shop and workers were kept spotless for the sake of the rayon. These arrangements meant that women workers did not have to work with men, any contact with the opposite sex being restricted through their supervision by foremen. As a result, management at Courtaulds made determined efforts to create a special moral atmosphere for its women workers.

By contrast, the work and the nature of the product at the GEC did not lend itself to the exclusive reservation of dirty and dangerous work to men, nor to segregation of the sexes on the shop floor. If either of these conditions obtained, the occurrence was entirely unplanned, as in the case of foreman Haydn Roberts’ female charges, at least as far as the management was concerned. The local image of the GEC was much like that of any engineering factory – dirty and noisy but with the variation that there were plenty of jobs for women. Overshadowed by Courtaulds as a major employer of female labour in the 1920s, the GEC grew rapidly in the thirties to overtake Courtaulds in this respect. Inter-war development in wireless radios and telephones required larger numbers of unskilled females, and Coventry had these in abundance. At Coventry, GEC manufactured automatic and manual telephone exchanges, telephone instruments and repeater equipment as well as wireless receiving sets, loudspeakers and all kinds of wireless accessories.

It catered for a very large home market as well as a substantial export trade mainly to the Empire. The production of equipment was organised on the mass production process and bench assembly methods. Manufacturing was distributed amongst twenty-one sections and shops. Heavier production work was generally left to men; the Frame Shop and Ebonite Moulding shops were 100% male, but women operated presses set up for them by skilled males in the Press Shop and in cable-making. Adjusting, Coil winding, Polishing, Buffing, Lacquering, Testing and Finishing, Wiring and Wireless Assembly were left almost entirely to unskilled women. Most of this work involved the production of thousands of identical small parts, requiring close attention to detail and considerable manual dexterity.  The twenties’ boom in telephone and wireless continued into the thirties, with the half million radios sold in Britain in 1930 turning into two million by 1937. Profits fell during the general depression of 1929-31, but, like Courtaulds, GEC weathered these years better than most British manufacturers. By 1939 the Company had as many employees as Courtaulds, and more of them were female – 3,450 compared with 2,100. The Table below shows the full scale of this expansion and the dominance of women workers in the workforce throughout the decade.

Some of this work was was dangerous as well. One former worker remembered a girl on one of the big presses losing her thumb, and another lost only the tip of a finger but later died of septicaemia in hospital. Thus some female workers at the GEC worked under much dirtier and more dangerous conditions than their sisters at Courtaulds where there appear to have been few if any accidents involving women workers. In the mid-thirties Courtaulds made a fetish of safety precautions, but apart from some concerns of the Medical Officer of Health about sulphur on the women’s hands, it is reasonable to conclude that Courtaulds was far safer for women workers. The two firms provided very different working conditions for their female workers, partly due to the nature of their products, and contrasts quickly found their way into local mythology. The ingredients of this myth were the recruitment policies, wages, pay systems, work discipline, welfare, sporting and social activities operated by the two firms.

From The Loudspeaker (the house magazine), as well as from old photographs and oral reminiscences it is possible to build up a picture of the GEC’s operations. Interior views show expanses of a floor with bank after bank of presses and lathes often beneath a tangle of wiring, pulleys, blocks and tackles. Many shops were noisy and dirty and all were pervaded by the mingled smell of oil, hot metal and dust characteristic of engineering works. Outside, whereas Courtaulds was reminiscent of the solid Victorian textile mills, GEC was unmistakably a modern engineering factory.

Courtaulds efforts to maintain cleanliness, safety and respectability, originally devised to overcome the reluctance of the local working class to enter the rayon factory, remained in place even when the problems of recruitment lessened. Instead, these operated in the twenties to give a certain cachet to being or having been, a Courtauld’s girl, not only amongst employees but also local employers. This superior image was still useful to a firm employing large numbers of female juveniles in the thirties when a constant one-third of the firm’s female workforce was under eighteen. Courtaulds took girls as soon as they were eligible for work at fourteen. The operation of a marriage bar kept up the numbers of juveniles; as senior girls left their places were filled by new fourteen-year-old recruits.

Their reputation for respectability was a relief to parents fearful for the physical and moral safety of such youthful offspring, although only 14.5 percent of GEC’s insured female workforce was under eighteen in 1935. Courtaulds also offered higher wages to its unskilled female labour than elsewhere at least until 1937. By the mid-thirties, GEC’s expansion meant that its workers were earning more regular piecework bonuses and could expect to earn close to the Courtaulds top rate which by this time had been cut to thirty-four shillings. GEC also paid more than other local employers. One female worker earned thirty shillings a week as a chargehand when she left the Company in 1937.

The dual effects of recovery and rearmament tightened up the Coventry labour market after 1935. Employers, especially in engineering, began to compete for any available labour. Courtaulds’ reputation as a high payer for women was severely threatened. Nonetheless, there were no rises until November 1939, despite industrial disputes in 1937. The GEC was also able to attract married women, some of whom were barred from Courtaulds by marriage. Added to this, the work discipline at Courtaulds was notoriously strict, as many of its female workers recalled:

In the warehouse’s two sorting rooms there were distributed about four hundred girls. The girls sat in rows stretching the full length of the very big rooms. Between the rows were wide gangways where the foreman patrolled. Each row was was divided into sections of thirty or so with a female chargehand. Talking was forbidden. If you were caught talking too often your name went in ‘the book’ and you did get caught because ‘you were watched all the time’. The first stint lasted from 8 a.m. to 12 noon and there was no tea break. Girls wishing to use the lavatory took a check from the chargehand and hurried out. Any absence longer than five minutes was also noted in the foreman’s conduct book. Each girl had a daily quota of skeins for checking and sorting … a few girls, who persistently failed to make the daily quotas, getting the sack. The work had to be up to standard as well. Each skein sorted was marked with a girl’s own number and the checkers reported faulty work to the foreman. If the work failed to improve the next pay increment was stopped.

The work was not only monotonous but also tough on the eyes. Even management acknowledged that sorting required good eyesight. Sorters took the skeins of rayon from the drying room. Each skein had to be shaken out and hung on a peg where the worker spread it to look for broken threads. Good eyesight was needed for this and the only ‘aid’ the girls had were the compulsory black overalls worn by all sorters, against which the white silk stood out. Some of the skeins when shaken released clouds of acrid dust. One ex-worker described the effect as like peeling onions; your eyes would be streaming. Often her eyes hurt so much that she had to go to the surgery to get drops for them.

The reeling department was attached to the spinning and reelers came closest of all the women workers to the chemical processes of production. Finished cakes were doffed on to stacks with slide-through trades to the reeling section, the other half of the long building housing the spinning workers. The girls got the cakes still smelling of sulphur, fresh from their baths of acid:

The smell was terrible. After a few days one did get used to it, but the odour would cling to your clothes; even laundering did not remove it … Courtaulds employees were well known in Coventry, because of the aroma surrounding them.

But in the warehouse and other places where women worked the smell was not so obvious and never permeated clothing. Reeling was more physically taxing than sorting. Instead of rows of seated girls quietly grading silk skeins, there were rows of reeling machines, eighteen or twenty to each girl, who hurried endlessly between them:

Sometimes you ran … you were never cold, the sweat poured off you. I had eighteen machines. As one stopped, I laced it, then the next one stopped and I had to lace that. By the time you got to the end the other end would be stopped and you’d start again.

Why did the women workers put up with these conditions? High wages were crucial both for the girls and their parents. Most families, especially large ones, depended on more than one wage earner to tide them over periods of seasonal unemployment which was characteristic of the Coventry labour market. But there were other explanatory factors. Almost as important as wages to the acceptance of work discipline at Courtaulds was the way in which working-class girls were brought up. Their experiences within the family bred low expectations for themselves and a sense of obligation towards both parents and siblings. This was often a harsh discipline in itself and it began at an early age. The régime at school was just as tough and so, for many fourteen-year-old girls starting work at Courtaulds, the work discipline was somewhat familiar. For some, however, it was more like a concentration camp. 

Family or friends working at Courtaulds would arrange a job for a girl as soon as she turned fourteen. They spoke to the foreman and ‘booked’ an impending vacancy. Therefore, the new worker began with a sense of both familial involvement and an obligation to the foreman which helped to weaken any rejection of working conditions. Moreover, girls were brought up in an environment in which early marriage and a lifetime of domestic labour were the norms for women. Factory work was an interlude before marriage so that the monotony and harshness were more easily borne because they were not perceived as a life sentence. Nevertheless, parental control did not always breed passivity. One ex-worker recalls how her father, a strong trade unionist, ordered her to strike with her fellow workers in October 1937. She was twenty-four at the time, and was loath to go out against her foreman, but was marginally more frightened of her father.

The stern Victorian ‘paterfamilias’ provided a strong model for the work discipline at Courtaulds. The former workers remembered their foremen with dislike. In sorting, Alf Barnett, a really nasty man who stood where you couldn’t see him and watched all the time to put your name in his book so you lost your rise. Alf was capable of reducing a woman to tears if her work came too often from the checkers as unsatisfactory. But work discipline at Courtaulds was also concerned with both the inner and outer cleanliness of the female workforce.

For Courtaulds cleanliness became godliness and in the person of Nurse Gaskin, management assumed responsibility for an astonishing degree of ‘personal hygiene’ in its workers. Appointed as Nurse in 1911, she had become Lady Superintendent by 1931. She devoted herself wholly to the morality and cleanliness of the works; the women workers saw her as a Tartar whom no one dared cross. She subjected all new recruits to an intense medical scrutiny, requiring them to strip while she asked them searching questions about skin trouble and menstrual irregularity. Popular myth held that it was she who instituted the monthly supervised bath mandatory for all female workers together with an inspection of the hair for nits. This concern for outward cleanliness was matched by an equal effort to preserve inner moral health:

(Nurse Gaskin) … ruled the female staff with a rod of iron. She toured the factory twice a day and any girl wearing too short a dress or a sleeveless garment would be sent home and told to dress respectably for the next day. The nurse would be round early next morning to make sure that the girl was dressed in what she deemed suitable. Anyone caught chatting to a member of the opposite sex was “on the carpet”. Even the canteen had separate rooms for men and girls.

The efforts to maintain gender segregation met with the approval of parents, some of whom went even further than the Company by forbidding their daughters to attend the mixed dances in the firm’s ballroom. Despite this, evidence from the company magazine The Rayoneer’s engagement columns suggests that many marriages were made at work. The Company’s concern for the personal hygiene and moral welfare of its workers were part of a ‘welfare capitalist’ policy popular with many firms at the time and certainly with its Chairman, Samuel Courtauld. He was known in business circles for his advanced ‘leftist’ views because of his espousal of such organisations as the Industrial Welfare Society, to which Seebohm Rowntree also belonged, and he was known to be in favour of state intervention in the economy during the war. From this mix of directorial influences, authoritarian managerial styles, welfare provision, work processes and wage structures, and control of the labour market, there emerged a distinctive environment for Courtaulds workers

 

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At GEC the same factors interacted to give a different environment. Wages were lower, the work process was entirely different owing to the nature of the product, and so were workers’ attitudes to their jobs. For example, the job hierarchy which developed between the sorting and reeling processes at Courtaulds had no parallel at GEC. From the oral evidence, jobs where earnings were higher at GEC often involved dirty work with dangerous machines. Moreover, in 1935 the Company’s attempts to return to an individual bonus system provoked the first major strike since its arrival in Coventry. Three thousand workers came out, the T&GWU was called in and eventually, the strike was settled on terms more favourable to management.

This payment system produced a form of factory discipline quite different from that at Courtaulds. The bonus scheme meant that workers were largely self-disciplined so that the focus of resentment was rarely the foreman: it became instead the rate-fixer. One ex-worker remembered the rate-fixer glowering behind her, stopwatch in hand,

… swearing you could do more than that … talk about being brought to tears … He’d set the basic rate at so much per thousand and you’d always be racing to do more.

But the rate-fixers visits were comparatively intermittent compared with those of the bullying foremen in Courtaulds. The women were also able to make toilet visits, within reason, and to take the occasional drink and snack breaks at their place of work. Possibly because of this more relaxed attitude on the part of the management, there was a more ‘homely’ atmosphere at the GEC. Nevertheless, women at Courtaulds with more than ten years service got leaving gratuities of ten shillings for each year of service, whereas workers with ten years’ service at the GEC were dubbed ‘dependables’ and given a badge and a gold-plated pencil. All Courtaulds workers received generous gifts at New Year each year.

Management at GEC did not share Courtaulds’ concern for respectability. The roles of the GEC nurses were far less intense than those of Nurse Gaskin. The Ambulance Department dealt with minor accidents and provided a couch for those afflicted by headaches or fainting. Attendance at the surgery was voluntary and since workers were either docked or put on waiting time if they left the shop floor for medical attention, they kept visits to a bare minimum. The nurses did not double as moral vigilantes, either. Pregnancies went undetected for long periods, so much so that one girl working on the heavy presses, who came into labour on the job, set off for home and gave birth on the way home in a hedge. By contrast, Nurse Gaskin had at least one girl dismissed on suspicion of pregnancy, unjustly as it turned out. A fourteen-year-old recruit to Courtaulds might work for six to ten years, and during their later working years, most were courting. However, they were often engaged for two or three years before marrying, by which time they had saved enough to buy a house with their fiancés. Such objectives made time at work seem like an interlude before the real business of life.

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GEC employees had a Sick Benefit Fund to which two-thirds of all employees belonged, more females than males, paying sixpence per week. Employees at both firms had sporting clubs using buildings and grounds supplied by the firms, and where necessary, company transport to away fixtures. In this, both GEC and Courtaulds workers were in tune with the company welfare movement which stressed sport as promoting their physical and mental health. The GEC had football fields, cricket pitches and even a golf course. Both firms had swimming clubs. On the social side, both firms had ballrooms which achieved local popularity. Courtaulds’ ballroom had had a high status since the twenties and in 1937 GEC built a new one of palatial proportions which eclipsed all others in local estimation. For Courtaulds workers, balls and outings were the chief opportunities for men and women to socialise and some of these contacts led on to marriage. In February 1938, out of twenty-one marriages announced at Main Works and Little Heath, nine were between couples where both worked at Courtaulds.

In terms of industrial relations, Courtaulds did not officially recognise the T&GWU until 1937. Some skilled male workers both there and at the GEC belonged to craft unions, but the bulk of the workers at both firms were unskilled and semi-skilled process workers, both male and female. But the T&GWU remained curiously inactive in Coventry, though it did use the 1931 strike to recruit workers from Courtaulds, and it remained an undercover organisation and did not gain significant numbers until the 1937 strike. Neither firm was immune to the pressures of a labour market invigorated by rearmament after 1936. Worker unrest created opportunities for the T&GWU which came into the factories on the basis of existing disputes involving organised women, recruited heavily, and then settled the disputes over the heads of the strikers in such a way as to suit management rather than the workers.

The T&GWU organised among males at Courtaulds factories in Flint and Wolverhampton but made little effort to recruit women workers there or at Coventry. Ernest Bevin seems to have been cautious about over-reaching in the early thirties and women workers were peripheral to his concerns so that he left the Union’s business in Coventry to local officials. The ‘easing out’ of Alice Arnold, a well-known local Labour leader, from this enclave of ex-Workers’ Union organisers meant that it was entirely male and inexperienced in organising textile workers, especially females, who were therefore left to organise themselves.

A spontaneous ‘wildcat’ strike followed an incident in the Courtaulds warehouse in 1931. Workloads were arbitrarily increased one Monday morning, following on a previous intensification of their rate sorting about eighteen months before. During the dinner hour, the women talked among themselves and decided not to return that day. Instead, they stood outside in the yard beneath the warehouse. The chargehand eventually persuaded them to return to work by threatening them with pay cuts. Nothing came of the incident and the increased workloads remained. Some of the women joined the T&GWU, but with little effect. A more widespread strike occurred at the factory, beginning on 30 April 1931, in response to planned speed-ups and wage cuts. But this was started by the men. These spinners had to return to work on the company’s terms, accepting a ten percent wage-cut. This was much less than the twenty percent cut which had previously been imposed on the women.

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In 1935, there was a ‘wildcat’ incident at GEC. Management introduced a conveyor track for the girls to shunt part-assembled selectors from one part of their section to another. At the same time, the management docked the bonus, arguing that it was the track alone which increased production. The girls struck, refusing to use the track unless the bonus was restored. It was, and they quickly resumed work. We didn’t need a union, we did it ourselves, was the recollection of one of the women. She never belonged to a union and could not recollect anyone else in her section joining either. Another women worker said that it wasn’t allowed: You’d have got the sack. Courtaulds’ workers had even firmer recollections of this. One joined in the 1937 strike but soon dropped out when she didn’t get strike pay. She couldn’t justify the expense of the dues when there was nothing to show for it.

This time, though, trouble had begun among the women and spread to the men. The immediate cause or catalyst for the strike is not known, but one recollection is that management lifted the marriage bar in favour of one worker, but this is disputed. It was more likely that it was caused by the atmosphere of general unrest over the higher wages being paid in the shadow factories since girls were leaving both GEC and Courtaulds for jobs in them. The strike at Courtaulds started for no apparent reason:

A crowd of girls came running into the reeling department and shouted, “come on, we’re all out on strike”. Everything was a muddle, no one knew what was happening … someone switched the machines off and we were more or less forced out. Quite frankly to me it was all a great adventure and a break from a boring job. I never really knew the why’s and wherefores of the strike, rumours were rife: 1. a girl had been sacked unfairly; 2. our pay was to be cut; 3. we were on strike for more money. I can’t remember how long it lasted, but we started back in dribs and drabs … but things hadn’t altered except that we were on short time for a long time.

These experiences of women workers at Courtaulds and GEC are similar to those identified for car workers, both in Coventry and Cowley: long periods of passive acceptance broken only rarely by spontaneous, unorganised but thoroughgoing strikes. These episodes were few, however, and did little to relieve harsh and monotonous work régimes. The GEC’s women workers had a small victory and a larger defeat; at Courtaulds, they lost on each occasion. Despite differences in pay systems, discipline and welfare arrangements, female workers at both firms showed little resistance to changes in working practices, to speed-ups and intensification. But they did demonstrate a willingness to take collective action which the T&GWU failed to capitalise on. For their part, the Union showed little interest in organising women workers, who would probably have joined had any effort been made to recruit them. The majority simply believed that management would not have allowed it.

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Though Coventry was, by the mid-thirties, a small but significant island of prosperity offering opportunities for both men and women which did not exist elsewhere, the nature of women’s work remained unchanged. It remained the province of the young, unskilled and temporary. For Coventrian women the major change was the relative decline of Courtaulds during the latter part of the decade, yielding first place to the GEC after 1935. The rise of the latter was a portent of factory work in the post-war world which relied on married, part-time female workers, still cheap and passive but no longer so juvenile. War also brought to an end an era in Coventry in which factory work for girls meant GEC and Courtaulds.

(to be continued…)

…..

 

The Long March of Every Woman: Gender, ‘Community’ & Poverty in British Labour History, 1928-38   2 comments

Chapter One: The Brambles of Poverty in a Distressed Area.

‘Women’s History’ in Britain has too often been viewed through the prism of ‘Great Men’s History’ by emphasising the roles of well-known individuals rather than focusing on the everyday lives of the masses of working-class women and their families. This is sometimes blamed on the lack of sources with which to describe and analyse these lives, but women and women’s experiences and ‘issues’ were by no means overlooked in the social documents of the inter-war period. In fact, given the pace of change in both working-class life in general and the lives of women in particular, which was of particular concern to social investigators, there is a wealth of relatively unused primary source material of both quantitative and qualitative types. At the time, it took almost a decade before their social surveys to break through the fog of denial which emanated from Neville Chamberlain’s Ministry of Health:

Our observations did not disclose any widespread manifestation of impaired health which could be attributed to insufficiency of nourishment. In this view we are confirmed by the opinions of the medical practitioners who have the best opportunities of watching the physical condition of families.

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Although women had won the vote in 1928 on the same basis as men, the struggle of working-class women for better rights and conditions in the home, at work and in society was, in many respects, still in its infancy. Much was expected from the first majority Labour government which came to power at the beginning of 1929 under the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister. The photograph above, taken by Arthur Lovegrove in Reading in 1929, shows a group of women supporters of The Daily Herald, which became an important campaigning mouthpiece for the Labour movement throughout the years of financial crisis and economic depression which followed in the 1930s. The experience of mass unemployment and widespread poverty in Britain reached into all areas of Britain, including relatively prosperous towns such as Reading, but it was in the older industrial areas of South Wales and the North-East of England where it was most protracted, leaving a lasting legacy of bitterness as well as a determination to fight back by the working-class communities located in these ‘distressed’ areas. But though they were particularly dense and piercing in places, the ‘brambles’ of poverty did not grow evenly throughout the depressed coalfields of Britain in the 1930s.  They did not even grow evenly in the same street, in the same terrace, and neither did they ensnare one individual or family in quite the same way or to the same degree as the next. They grew at different rates in differing places. This diversity of growth has much to do with the nature of the places in which they grew.

It is therefore imperative that historians should move away from the contemporary, stereotypical images left behind by propagandists, investigators and politicians and seek out how working-class communities were defining and redefining themselves during the period. It is necessary to examine the intricate cultural and institutional web of coalfield societies before judgement can be made about the relationships between impoverishment and demoralisation. Considerable evidence has already been advanced that, during the early part of the century, coalfield society developed its own autonomous culture alongside the received one, a culture which rejected values that did not stem from the community’s own sense of economic and social solidarity. This alternative culture reached its zenith during the 1926 lock-out, and, despite the impact of the depression, there was tangible continuity in its institutional life over the succeeding decade.

This alternative culture was allied to a revolutionary counter-culture in other parts of Britain, including London, and increasing involved women. The picture below shows The Women’s Red Army marching through East London to Epping Forest, 1928. This is a rare shot of the LLX, the women’s section of the Labour League of Ex-servicemen. The women and some men, about two hundred in all, had assembled at Gardiner’s Corner in the East End and marched through Mile End, Bow and Stratford, held a rousing meeting at Leytonstone and continued onwards to Epping Forest, closely followed by plainclothes officers of the Special Branch.

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On practising their marching in a forest glade, an urgent message produced the arrival by car of the Commissioner of Police who accused them of performing military movements. Apparently, they succeeded in convincing him that they were only practising their marching in readiness for May Day and the police withdrew, leaving the ‘red army’ to dance on the greensward and make their way back by bus, having been forbidden to march.The uniform was first seen in public on Sunday 11 March 1928 when thirty-five women, led by Mrs J R Campbell, marched into Trafalgar Square for an International Women’s Day meeting and took up a position on the plinth, along with the speakers who included A J Cook, Marjorie Pollitt, Beth Turner and Hanna Ludewig from Germany. The uniform was officially described as a fawn coloured blouse and serviceable short skirt, stockings to match, flat-heeled brown walking shoes, khaki berets, red tie and regulation armbands. An official Communist Party pamphlet described the LLX as having ‘guarded the plinth’ and it would seem that they and the uniformed men drew their inspiration from the Workers’ Guard in Germany where the Red Front Fighters numbered some three hundred thousand.

The picture below shows the Prince of Wales on his extensive tour of the depressed areas in South Wales, Tyneside, Scotland and Lancashire, where he is shown shaking hands with a worker at Middleton. He met families who had been unwaged for years and seemed sincerely and visibly shaken by their plight. He is reported to have said,

Some of the things I see in these gloomy, poverty-stricken areas made me almost ashamed to be an Englishman… isn’t it awful that I can do nothing for them but make them smile?

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Eight years later, after his accession to the throne, he made his noted second tour of South Wales and witnessed the effects of a decade of ‘the slump’ in the Rhondda and Monmouthshire valleys. After being shown the derelict steelworks at Dowlais, that once provided employment for nine thousand, he uttered the words that are remembered to this day as something must be done to find them work, though others have argued that his words were more direct, and specifically aimed at the government ministers who travelled with him, something will be done.The young MP for Ebbw Vale, Aneurin Bevan, was furious at the whole event, however…

To organise an expedition to Wales as if it were an unknown, barbarous and distant land, much in the same way as you might go the Congo was an outrage.

He said that the king was being used to mask persecution and that Ernest Brown, the Minister of Labour who accompanied the king, was the instrument of that persecution. He declined a suggestion that he should meet Edward VIII at Rhymney, saying:

I cannot associate myself with a visit that would appear to support the notion that private charity has made, or could ever make, a contribution of any value to the solution of the problem of South Wales.

In 1938, the authors of a Review of the decade-long Industrial Transference Scheme (1938) suggested that it was ‘the clan spirit’ found in the depressed areas of South Wales and northern England which continued to represent the major source of political opposition to National Government policy towards them. The Review characterised these areas as small, self-contained communities in which most of the residents are known to each other and cited their geographical position as a major factor in the intensification of ‘parochialism’. Coalfield ‘communities’ were defined in negative terms by politicians and government inquirers; they were no longer ‘real’ communities with a proper social leadership provided by a resident, benevolent middle class. Neither did they any longer serve any useful economic purpose, but were infamous for their industrial militancy before the world war, and for the obduracy of the miners’ leaders in 1926.

Many of the national voluntary agencies shared these negative stereotypes of the coalfield communities, although their social investigators managed to produce, both in print and on film, a generally softer image than the official one, showing far greater sensitivity to their plight without wallowing in sentimentality. Nonetheless, some of them set about their task as if they were embarking on an anthropological expedition, to echo Bevan’s condemnation of Edward VIII’s 1936 tour of South Wales. The editor of the journal Fact, prefacing Philip Massey’s Portrait of a Mining Town, asserted the need for an attempt to survey typical corners of Britain as truthfully and penetratingly as if our investigators had been inspecting an African village. He stated that, like African villages, mining communities are isolated and relatively easy to study and went on to make the dubious assertion that they were so cut off from the neighbouring townships like Cardiff and Newport that in the latter a ‘collier’ was regarded as a sort of strange being. 

Many of the philanthropists of the 1930s used this image of isolation to justify their concept of social service ‘settlements’ in the valleys, as a means by which the ‘outlook’ of the communities might be ‘broadened’. They were attempting to infuse their middle-class notions of ‘citizenship’ of a wider community extending beyond the boundaries of the valley. The Pilgrim Trust Annual Report for 1936 described each valley as being a self-contained community with its own traditions accustomed to leading its own life in isolation from its neighbours. Stereotypes such as these had as much to do with the projection of an image for specific ends as with reflecting the reality of coalfield communities, no matter how sympathetic the process and product of the investigations might appear. Thus Hilda Jennings, the author of the 1934 book, Brynmawr: A Study of a Distressed Area wrote in a similar vein,

The small town or village environment is predominant. Mining communities, often separated from each other by a bleak stretch of moor or mountain, and dependent on one industry, naturally have a distinctive character. Local attachments are strong, family connections widespread, and modes of thought remarkably homogenous. There are few if any wealthy or leisured inhabitants, and the children of teacher, shopkeeper, and miner attend the same elementary and county schools. Men, women, and children, are so intimately known to their fellows that their doings are invested with a personal interest which gives warmth, colour and drama to day-to-day events. The influence of public opinion and local tradition is correspondingly strong.

Hilda Jennings’ book consisted of a detailed, ground-breaking survey of the coalfield towns on the northern, Breconshire edge of the south Wales coalfield. This most ‘untypical’ coalfield community had been stranded like a beached Leviathan by the receding tide of the coal industry well before the miners’ six-month lock-out of 1926 and the ‘slump’ of the late 1920s. Her survey was conducted in co-operation with the Coalfields Distress Committee of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service (SWMCSS). It first led its readers, not into a Miners’ Institute full of unemployed men, but into the bedroom of a terraced collier’s house:

In one of the older streets containing a large proportion of back-to-back houses with very small, airless rooms, little access to sun, and leaking roof and walls oozing with damp as many as seventeen cases (of consumption) were notified from the twenty-nine houses in the street… In one such case one of the two small bedrooms was given up to a dying girl, while the father and mother and six children crowded into the second bedroom and living room (used also as a bedroom). It is not to be wondered at that two other children contracted the disease, and that two out of three infected children died within two years.

This tragic tale needs no literary embellishment and is a narrative which is typical not just of the older mining towns at the heads of the valleys, with their high rates of home-ownership among once-prosperous workers, but across the steam-coal valleys from Nantyglo in Monmouthshire to Neath and the Swansea Valleys. The ‘Brynmawr Experiment’ was started by Quakers but was not run by them. To understand the problems of Brynmawr Peter Scott, with others, decided to have a comprehensive social survey undertaken.  Scott had served since 1926 the Society of Friends as Field Officer for the Society’s relief work in South Wales. In November 1926, Horace Fleming reported to the Society’s Coalfields Distress Committee on the possibilities which the work in the Rhondda had opened up:

It seems clear that the spirit expressed in and being kept vigorous by the mens’ and womens’ groups, is the living root on which an educational movement may be grafted… Being cul-de-sacs, the mental ventilation of the valleys is poor, with the result that the inhabitants are much more self-centred than non-valley dwellers. This movement (the National Council of Labour Colleges) with its condemnation of existing economic conditions and its doctrine of class war, has spread with remarkable rapidity throughout South Wales… To a people who, for generations, have been dependent on the spoken word, the clergy’s failure has meant the demagogue’s gain.  Nor is this surprising, when it is remembered that the only advocacy, with rare exceptions, of a new world heard in these valleys, was that of the Marxist, even though his new world was only to be entered through war… the present defeat is being traced to the theories of the extremists…

Fleming added that this tide of criticism was beginning to undermine the NCLC and that the Quakers could grasp the opportunity to address the educational needs of adults who were conscious of the failings both of the chapels and the communists. There was, he felt, a desire for a more constructive approach than that offered by the NCLC. The strategy proposed was that ‘a fluid movement’ should be built upon the foundations of the existing groups. Such a movement would not be dependent on bricks and mortar but would flow into the Miners’ Institutes and the chapels. A more sympathetic organisation could follow later, but the immediate priority was to provide a fellowship wider than sect, party or class.

The Quakers who settled in Brynmawr eighteen months later had similar concerns. In the summer of 1928, Peter and Lilian Scott, together with a number of other single male and female ‘Friends’ had gone to the Welsh coalfields due to their concern for the unemployed. They had held Quaker meetings for worship standing in groups in the marketplaces and street corners in the towns and villages they visited, starting in Abertillery, trying to give spiritual comfort and fellowship to the people among whom they lodged, the local unemployed, by first getting to know them and their problems. One of the Quaker women remembered the puzzled reaction of local people to their meetings, which appeared to be so different to their own nonconformist religious services, dominated by male preachers, deacons and hymn-singing:

These open air meetings were held under conditions very different from today. There was little wheeled traffic: the few bicycles and carts made very little noise and motor-cars were rarely seen. In every street, but particularly in market squares and on street corners, there were men in typical ‘miners’ squat’, unemployed and with no money for recreation, just talking, or silent.

During the morning the group of Friends would decide where to hold their meetings and would go to perhaps two places to advertise them, one for the afternoon and one for the evening. Advertising was done mainly by chalking the on pavements, with an occasional handbill in some prominent place.

At the time agreed, the group of Friends, usually six or eight,… would gather standing in silence. The men around would watch, unmoving, until someone spoke. Then by ones and twos the men would get up and gather round to hear what we said, and if held by the speaker would move in closer until there was quite a crowd.

The messages given were mainly concerned with the presence of that of God in each of us, of the love of God for us all, and with the love we should bear to one another in all circumstances. These meetings might be illustrated by a gospel reading, a prayer, a story of early Friends, a personal experience: all the things one might expect in any Quaker meeting… at the end of the meeting men would come to one or another to ask questions – why were we doing this and who were we anyway?

Occasionally there was a hostile reaction. On one such occasion the men crowded around threateningly, interrupting the meeting. ‘Who were we to come talking like this? What did we know of unemployment and the conditions under which they were living, why didn’t we do something for them?     

At Brynmawr, the Quakers faced a challenge from trade union leaders and other local people who also told them, You say you want to help us: prove you mean what you say; stay here and do something for us. So that is what they did. Peter went back to Friends’ House in London and said food and clothes were vital, so Joan Fry from the Coalfields Distress Committee went to Brynmawr and later addressed a public meeting at Golders Green. Brynmawr was a good place to start for a project which, from the start, was concerned with the unemployment ‘black-spots’, by contrast with the earlier ‘settlements’ in the Rhondda. The coal seams were nearer the surface on these northern ridges, and the coal on this higher ground had been mined in ‘levels’ for a century and a half so that they were practically worked out. The deeper, more modern mines further down the valleys were still working, albeit on ‘short-time’ and to keep the pits from flooding. However, they had enough labour in the colliery villages close by, so the heads-of-the-valleys towns had higher levels of long-term unemployment. Those in work were mostly bank clerks, ministers of religion, policemen, shopkeepers and teachers.

Peter Scott was a utopian visionary and his experiment, from the start, was of a different nature to that of the Maes-yr-Haf settlement. He was more interested in the social and economic reconstruction of the town than in the concept of an educational settlement. Nevertheless, both projects were species of the same desire, one which they shared with the liberal-Cymricists, of promoting unifying spiritual values above the interests of the working classes. Both experiments opened up important channels of communication into a crisis-ridden society. The Baldwin Government and its civil servants viewed the approach of the winter of 1928-9 with some trepidation. The Mansion House Fund had begun to deal with the immediate need for relief as well as aiding the work of the newly established Industrial Transference Board. However, they also began to realise that longer-term measures were required to deal with the problems of ‘demoralisation’ and their perceptions of the real threat of social disorder. To the middle-class social workers, many of them Quakers or Oxford graduates, ‘demoralisation’ meant not just the psychological effects of impoverishment, but also the extent to which the workless in these communities would espouse ‘desperate remedies’ in response to their condition, and uphold loyalty to ‘class’ above that to a broader ‘community’ and sense of ‘citizenship’.

Later in 1928, Peter and Lilian made their home in Brynmawr, where they were joined by a few others moved by a similar compassion to share in the life of a suffering community.  Disillusioned as so many were at that period with the existing social and economic order and inspired by a Utopian vision, the Scotts concluded that it was just in those areas where the breakdown of the old order was most complete that there lay the greatest opportunity for the creation of a better one. Margaret Wates arrived in Brynmawr from London at the beginning of December 1928, having joined the Society of Friends at the beginning of the year. She was full of youthful enthusiasm and idealistic socialism.

She was put in charge of the Relief & Service Centre as relief was reluctantly regarded by both government and the social service agencies as an unfortunate necessity in the winter of 1928-29. She was supported by local women, most of whom were twice her age. An empty shop in the main street, Beaufort Street, was adapted for the purpose, to which second-hand clothing came pouring in. She recalled that all her local helpers were neatly dressed, not just Mrs Price, the local policeman’s wife, who was regarded as comfortably off, but also the wives of the unemployed miners.  It seemed to her that the Welsh women were more tastefully and neatly dressed than their English counterparts. They would also clean, brush and put away their husbands’ Sunday clothes on Mondays so that they were ready to be worn the following Sunday. Their working clothes also looked cleaner, now they no longer had to go underground. In these ways, married couples were able to keep up a veneer of respectability and to cover up their poverty. She discovered later that they stitched paper together to make extra bedding for themselves.

Margaret was also responsible for placing girls in service, almost the only work available for women at the time. A few men and boys were also placed through Worthing Friends (the town was twinned with Brynmawr through the Mansion House Fund), and other Quakers helped to find employment in other areas, but most of these returned to Brynmawr in the end. Margaret was particularly involved in the work with women, helping organise them into self-help sewing groups in neighbouring places. It was easier for the outside volunteer workers to get hold of premises and get people to work together, as they were trusted not to have an “axe to grind”. They had gifts of material and sewing machines to help these groups establish themselves. She ran a playgroup once a week for the families of the poorest children in the district, who lived in shacks on the hillside. The idea came to her on one of her evening walks “up the mountain” and saw the pathetic settlements, made of bits and pieces. She talked to the women, who struggled to look after their children in sickness, but discovered that they were, in some ways, better off than the unemployed miners with homes to maintain that they couldn’t afford to keep or sell, or rents that they couldn’t afford. The “tent dwellers” at least had a home of their own, however primitive, each with a little fire.

Margaret Wates had a secretary, Marion Richards, who was younger than her, who called her by her Christian name, which was unusual in professional relations at that time but was the kind of relationship that the Quakers wanted to encourage. The local people were very loyal to the local chapels otherwise and showed little interest in meetings for worship or Quaker business methods. Marion Richards was the youngest of a large family whose men were colliers, her father unemployed. They were heavily involved in local politics and she later became a County Councillor. She helped Hilda Jennings with the Survey. Jennings was an Oxford graduate and a well-qualified and tactful social worker as well as an experienced leader of local committees. Although not a Quaker herself, she shared Peter Scott’s outlook on many things, and he gave her a free hand with her work. The book, published in 1934, was subtitled A Study of a Distressed Area and was said to be a classic of its kind. She later became the admired, loved and respected Warden of Bristol University Settlement, where she worked for twenty years.

The survey was different from the other social surveys done by trained social workers, as it was done by local people themselves. All sections of the Brynmawr community took part in this self-study, in order to understand the long-term effects of unemployment on many aspects of the town. There were two hundred volunteers involved in the Survey Committee which became ‘the Community House’, work starting in the attic. It was divided into eight sub-committees dealing with Commerce, Education, Health and Housing, Industry, Municipal Services, Population and Transport. These were led by people with a professional interest in a special area, chosen not elected. However, the Trade Unions and the Labour Party refused to co-operate with the survey, as they felt their dignity and authority had been undermined; they considered themselves to be the truly representative body since they had been elected. Two models of democracy were in open conflict, and it was a conflict which could not be resolved easily. This was, however, more of a loss to both the Urban District Council and the Miners’ Federation than to the survey itself.

Hilda Jennings insisted on using Quaker business methods, refusing to take votes on difficult issues, although this inevitably slowed down the processes of investigation and the overall progress of the survey. She was undaunted in her belief also in the educational value of conducting the survey by these means, helping to develop open-mindedness and raising people above sectional interests, since pooling experience enriched the common life. The community should raise itself to a higher level because it aimed to give the fullest life to everyone. It could and it wished to work with the elected bodies: this would benefit all, and help to create a more inclusive and harmonious society.

The idealism applied to the means by which the survey was conducted is evident in the ends, the text of the survey. The evidence it presents is both quantitative and qualitative, especially when dealing with family life. Although other surveys of the unemployed contain moving references to the lives of women, they tend to regard their roles as secondary, or adjunctive, to those of both employed and unemployed men. In the Brynmawr Survey, full details are given of how the mothers in these families were the first to suffer privation, and so became dispirited, debilitated and apathetic. The school children had free school meals and free milk provided for them, and there was milk given at the infant welfare clinics. But family relationships were strained. The diet was poor, even when the miner was working, and for those unemployed, it mostly consisted of tea, bread and margarine, with some meat and vegetables on Sundays. Men’s health suffered as a result, making them unemployable and destroying their self-respect, so that women would increasingly ‘go without’ in order to maintain these factors in their husbands in particular, but also in their adult sons, if they still lived at home and were unemployed, as was most likely the case in Brynmawr.

It was difficult for miners of any age to settle in other forms of work elsewhere, as they could only become labourers and unskilled factory workers. They were very proud of the crafts of the collier, timberman, fireman, haulier, etc. They were also proud of their dangerous and manly occupation. They resented having to take work as labourers, road-menders and gardeners, even though such work often required great physical strength, if not the same level of skill as that of a collier. Some work was available in the English coalfields after the General Strike, and some Welsh colliers were prepared to uproot their entire family in order to take it, but from the end of 1929, the trade depression took away much of this demand in, for example, the industrial towns of the English Midlands which had been expanding in the 1920s. When relative prosperity returned to these areas in 1934, most of the available jobs were in unskilled engineering, especially in the automotive industries. Some families moved to cities like Oxford, Coventry and Birmingham, but most of those who continued to leave the coalfields were single men, or at least childless. For the older family men, it was often too late.

The Welsh collier also had very strong roots in his locality and in his loyalty to his family and the wider human relationships within solidly working-class communities. Jennings’ Survey revealed this to be nowhere more the case than in Brynmawr. In addition, the climate at the top of the valley meant that the houses were continually damp. The houses were also older than in many colliery villages further down the valleys. Many were over a hundred years old and in a deplorable condition, unable to give protection from the frequent heavy rains and gales. Walls oozed with damp so that rheumatism, influenza and bronchitis were common complaints. There were 93 back-to-back houses of which there were seventeen cases of tuberculosis in 29 houses. Some unemployed families took lodgers in order to boost family income, but, as most houses had only two bedrooms, this created overcrowding, despite there being a large number of empty houses in the town which their owners couldn’t afford to sell or let.

One Brynmawr volunteer remembered visiting a house near the town centre with the living room, as was traditional, opening directly off the street: it had a tea-chest as a table and some boxes to sit on and was miserable-looking beyond belief. Many of these houses had shared yards and toilets, and rarely had gardens, so their occupants were unable to improve their diet by growing fresh food unless they had access to an allotment. Yet family pride meant that with local traditions of polished brass hangers and black leading inside and colour washing outside, plus the need to keep the fire burning day and night, mainly using coal dust, these homes seemed more weathertight and snug than they were in reality.

Moreover, as there were no collieries in Brynmawr, just the ‘levels’ cut into the hillsides, this meant that there were no colliery companies and therefore no company houses available for miners to rent, or as “tied houses” in Brynmawr. There was a Council-run housing estate as well as some more modern, bigger hoses that miners had built for themselves in more prosperous times. If a family owned or expected to inherit a house, they would, therefore, be far less willing to move away to find work. Some unemployed house owners had to mortgage their houses before they could claim poor relief, later known as Unemployment Assistance, which was all that the long-term unemployed could claim after using up the insured benefits they were entitled to. The Council tenants who were unemployed had also been allowed to accumulate very large rent arrears. Since these could not be collected, the Urban District Council, already deeply in debt due to the local poor rate system, could not afford to repair these houses, thus adding to the general dilapidation and deterioration of the housing stock.

By 1928, as Margaret Wates recalled, there were already youths of eighteen who had never worked, having left school four years earlier. They went about in groups up the mountain, or out in the streets after dark, as they did not want to be seen in their shabby clothes. She knew a mother and daughter who shared one pair of shoes so they could not go out together. One family of ten members had two cups between them, so the children were always late for school! When savings were exhausted there was nothing left for sickness or replacements, or even to do repairs.

The Brynmawr experiment, under the dynamic leadership of Peter Scott, maintained a certain independence in its operation. Scott insisted that anything done must spring from the community and not be imposed from the outside. His determination that the work should not be controlled by any outside committee led him into direct conflict with the Friends’ Coalfield Distress Committee to the extent that,  at the end of 1929, he severed his connection with the official Quaker undertakings in the area, thereafter working independently with a group of volunteers. In December, a general town’s meeting was called, chaired by the local MP, with two thousand people in the hall. The rather emotional approach taken by Scott’s group alienated the hard-headed trades unionists, but it was successful in rallying several hundred people of different backgrounds to volunteer to community service over a period of three years, including hard manual work. Significant opposition to this was raised by some unemployed on the basis that the only commodity they had for sale was their labour. They did not want to surrender this right and ruin their chances of future employment, or of losing their dole if they did voluntary work.

A compromise was agreed that the unemployed miners would always be deemed available for, and thereby genuinely seeking work as far as the employment exchanges were concerned. Nevertheless, the Labour Party and the Miners’ Federation continued to shun the scheme. They insisted that all labour should be paid for at trade union rates. They were also suspicious of a group of English Quakers with middle-class backgrounds interfering in the town, even if they supplied help that was desperately needed. Thus, the claim that the work at Brynmawr sprang from the community was not borne out by reality. The cautious welcome which Brynmawr had initially given to the Scotts’ activities soon waned and his group’s relationship with the local community deteriorated. The newcomers were never fully integrated into the town’s civic life and, as a result, the Quakers became known, disparagingly, as ‘the BQs’ – ‘the Bloody Quakers’! 

Soon after the big meeting, and despite the ostracism of voluntary workers, their wives and children, a small group of local men started work on a piece of land near the railway station, converting it into a garden, and planting trees on a nearby ‘tip’. The men slept in the two large empty rooms above a shop, while the women shared another large building. They had meals on site – the food was plain, plentiful and cheap. Local women helped with the cooking as well as with the laundry, mending, cleaning and first aid, in addition to doing colour washing and gardening. There were also men’s and women’s clubs. By 1936 these were ‘vigorous’ and would have expanded had they had more accommodation. The men repaired furniture, tapped boots, made bows and arrows for an archery range, and wove scarves. The men did not make much use of the boot repairing and carpentry facilities, but the women’s club had seventy-five members and joined the Federation of Women’s Institutes and the Townswomen’s Guild. Needlework and foreign language courses were started in 1931. The women made leather gloves and other useful and ornamental things. There was also a demand for cookery classes, including food values. The keep-fit classes were crowded out.

In January 1934 some of the group around the Scotts formed themselves into ‘An Order of friends’, choosing to dedicate themselves to the new community of their vision, as expressed in Jennings’ book, published the same year. Thereafter all the Scotts’ undertakings were carried on in the name of ‘An Order’, though in fact its members never had more than a nominal responsibility for its administration. The most successful efforts made were in the two new industries of furniture and bootmaking. These conformed to the accepted pattern of industrial life and were more readily tolerated by local people on that account. Subsistence Production, the largest, most costly and most visionary of Scott’s undertakings, diverged too far from the current industrial mores to be readily accepted. The theory which lay behind it stemmed from J W Scott (no relation to Peter), a Professor of Philosophy at University College Cardiff, who in the 1920s had worked out an elaborate theory for producing and distributing goods as far as possible free from the constraints of the monetary system. He had envisaged groups of men, each working at his own trade without wages, producing goods for exchange within the group.

The Welsh tradition of spontaneous community singing, Gymanfa Ganu, was also revived. Brynmawr and the heads-of-the-valleys towns were usually more culturally, if not linguistically Welsh, than the anglicised colliery towns further down the valleys where many English ‘immigrants’ had settled. There ‘Welshness’ was based on the surviving Welsh-medium chapels founded by the earlier Welsh immigrants. Margaret Wates remembered one old lady who gave Welsh lessons to the English volunteers at the Centre using her Welsh Bible. For many of the older women, their lives outside the home, when time allowed, continued to revolve around the chapels, whether services and activities were in Welsh or English. Many men had long-since abandoned the chapels in favour of the Workmen’s Institutes, built earlier in the century. Since membership of these was based mainly on colliery employment, the institutes had been built in colliery villages, rather than in the heads-of-the-valley towns. Their activities were almost exclusively male until well into the 1930s, and in this respect, they were slow to adapt to the impact of mass unemployment on the social lives of men and women. On the other side of the northern outcrop, Resolven Institute near Neath was one of the first to allow women access to certain ‘new’ activities, as one local woman recalled:

 In Resolven now there was a reading room, you see. There was a lot of debating. You could say that the Reading Room was the House of Commons of the village. And I remember the first wireless coming. It came to the Reading Room. And women were allowed to listen to the wireless for the first time. It was a very important evening!

The new clubs were, therefore, had a more immediate practical purpose for women than for their unemployed men, since the latter were able to maintain their access to the local Miners’ Institutes through continuing to pay their subscriptions to the Miners’ Federation, which set up Unemployed ‘Lodges’ in parallel to those for miners still in work. Women were also more receptive to the new cooperative ideas than men, however. Nearly all the men over forty-five in Brynmawr had been unemployed since 1921. They were more regular volunteer workers than the younger men but regarded the Subsistence Production Society (SPS) as second best. Faith in Socialism as a Utopian form of Christianity, if not Marxist Communism, was almost universal. They had a strong family life and were resigned to lower standards of living, but they were opposed to the means test, and to irregular working hours and differentials in wages. Their outlook was set in the industrial unionism of the pre-1914 years, and these traditions were fiercely maintained among them. They distrusted “An Order of Friends” and the SPS, which they regarded as they did any other large industrial undertaking, as fundamentally capitalist and therefore automatically opposed to the interests of labour. At the same time, it was not quite real, but a pastime, so they were not prepared to work so intensively on it. The principles behind the scheme were either not understood or not trusted by many of the older men. To those behind the SPS, they meant benefiting people according to their needs.

The women, by contrast, wanted the cheap milk and other necessities provided by the SPS. The opposition of the men lessened as time went on, but few were interested in creating a new order of society through the schemes, as Jennings and the Quakers advocated. Other groups, not just the Communists, the trades unions and the Labour Party were opposed to the SPS, but even the Co-ops and the and the shopkeepers, who were also fearful of the involvement of government. A Viennese psychologist, Dr Marie Jahoda, concluded (after a four-month local sojourn and study of the Cwmavon Scheme in 1937/38) that while the SPS was ‘a valiant experiment’ and ‘a heroic attempt to tackle a problem at the right point’, it was doomed to failure because the leaders’ eyes were blinded by their glorious mirage of the future to the extent that they were unable to see the numerous pitfalls of interference from outside the normal development of the community.

Marie Jahoda noted that the scheme could never surpass the limits of charity. In the absence of a sufficient number of idealists from other social classes who would resign voluntarily the advantages offered to them by their privileged position, it was necessary to employ technical staff at normal rates of pay. As long as this remained the case it was not possible, she argued, for the organisers to preach the necessary idealism and to create a common ‘ideology’ within the scheme while maintaining a standard of living high above that of the members. Without this community of interest there was no chance of making the experiment fully successful; without paternalistic supervision, there was no chance of making it work at all. Nevertheless, she concluded, the SPS was small enough to be understood in its general operation by every member and big enough to provide an insight into various social processes and a comparison with normal social life:

The colliery system with its problem of export trade and finance, extending over the whole world, is far too complicated to allow the average miner to understand its working; the family unit or a handicraft job is too small for the same purpose in the modern world. The amount of collective social experience represented by the membership of the SPS is one of the main positive effects.

This was no doubt why Dai Payton of Nantyglo, an unemployed miner, and his wife Phoebe, who had a fine family of eight children themselves, remained sympathetic contributors to the Brynmawr schemes. Margaret Wates came to know the family well during and after her brief sojourn in Brynmawr and the Eastern Valley:

They lived in a company room at Nantyglo with one bedroom and one living room, no ‘parlour’. This one-up-one-down had a spiral staircase joining the two rooms, which was dangerous for their small children. They had a ‘longish’ yard in front of the house with a gate to the main road through a low front wall. Next to this was the coal-shed and toilet!

Just inside the front door was flimsy wooden partition with a shallow stone sink beside it. They had a blackleaded oven which went under the stone stairs and was also used for drying the wood. The fire was kept going with a few lumps of coal to the front and dust to the back, carefully flattened, where the teapot could be kept warm. The fire irons were kept polished. I think there was a good-size table, a few upright chairs and boxes.

I visited Phoebe when she was ill, and found there were two double beds and an upright wooden chair… there was a cheap curtain between the beds, but it was very Spartan. Phoebe’s parents lived at the back of them, so some of the children slept in their house…

… every morning they had toast and margarine, and tea with condensed milk: on Easter Sunday they had half an egg each and fresh milk, which wasn’t bottled, but scooped out of the milkman’s churn on wheels. For tea on Sundays they had rice pudding. On Friday they had four faggots and sixpence worth of peas for dinner – “it was delicious”. On Sundays some of them had dandelion pop or nettle pop, a sort of home-made wine. The family never went hungry.

The children had school dinners, after the forms had been filled in about earnings, etc.: these were called “feedings”, and they had a half-pint of bottled milk a day at school. The school attendance officer… would call at the house if a child had been away from school for only two days.

Dai always gave his wife his unopened pay packet. She would buy his tobacco, pay his bus fare and his union subscription, and might give him tuppence to go into the welfare ground to watch a match. She would be responsible for paying the doctor when necessary…

Dai and Phoebe had been given a striking clock as a wedding present, which must have been the only thing of any value they possessed.

There was a traditional “Grace”… before meals, that was sung to a Welsh tune… remembered in 1930:

O Lord have mercy upon us

And keep us all alive;

There’s round the table nine of us

And food enough for five. 

Dai and Phoebe were exceptionally strong people, working so hard to ensure that their family survived under such difficult conditions. Despite all their best efforts, one of the children did not survive, however, a little sister who died at the age of four. Phoebe seems, in some ways, to correspond to the image of the ‘Welsh Mam’ that recent historians have become somewhat obsessed with, based on Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel, How Green Was My Valley:

As soon as the whistle went they (the women) put chairs outside their front doors ans sat here waiting till the men came up the Hill and home. Then as the men came up to their front doors they threw their wages, sovereign by sovereign, into the shining laps, fathers first and sons or lodgers in a line behind. My mother often had forty of them, with my father and five brothers working.

This image is not exclusive to the south Wales valleys, however. It was a regular practice in mining families throughout Britain for the woman to collect the wages of the men, before they were given back their beer and tobacco money. At Binley, near Coventry, if the men went to the pub on the way home, the children in the house would be sent out to intercept them and bring home the sovereigns. This practice continued into the 1940s. Neither did women scrub their husbands’ backs, which were generally left coal-black in order to harden against conditions underground. What perhaps typified the ‘Welsh Mam’ as compared with miners’ wives in other coalfields was that they never worked outside the home, except as shopkeepers, whereas in Coventry many women did shifts in textile factories, working around their husbands’ shifts and depending on whether sons were also miners. In Coventry, they usually became car-workers and engineers in the 1930s.

The ‘Mam’ was, of course, primarily a wife and a mother, clean and pious, and had the responsibility in and for the home. She was certainly as prevalent in other depressed areas where industrial work outside the home was essentially the province of men. By the end of the thirties, this pattern was beginning to change among the younger generations, especially at the southern end of the valleys, but in the heads-of-the-valleys, it remained the same throughout the thirties.  Here, it was women like Phoebe Payton of Nantyglo who continued to scrimp and go without.

As Gwyn A Williams and Dierdre Beddoe have pointed out, although aspects of the portrait of the ‘Welsh Mam’ were dominant in coalfield communities into the inter-war period, the image was essentially a nineteenth-century creation. In Wales, there was nothing really comparable to the industrial out-work done in domestic settings across the West Midlands of England by weavers, chain and nail-makers. Moreover, the British middle-classes were alarmed by the Chartist demonstrations and uprisings of 1831-51 into thinking that there might be a revolution, similar to those which had happened in France, in Britain. One of the chief ways that the middle-class sought to bring about stability was through the strengthening of the idea and role of the family. They advocated a bourgeois view of the family: male breadwinner, dependent ‘domesticated’ wife and dependent children. It was this version of the family that the middle class wished to impose upon the working classes and which working-class families came to aspire to: the dependent wife was to become the symbol of working-class male success. This message about the woman’s role was essentially domestic was trumpeted from the pulpit and reinforced by religious tracts, poems, magazines, paintings, prints and manuals of behaviour for women.

One of the myths which emerged from this stereotypical image which mining women aspired to conform to was that women and men had equal power and that, with the onset of male unemployment, women became the dominant power in unwaged households. The handing over of the sovereigns to the wife is often cited as evidence for this, but this act also involved the passing over of the burden of managing the household. Women’s authority was entirely limited to the private, domestic sphere. Not until the end of 1928 were working-class women able to exercise the vote in parliamentary elections on the same basis as men, but even then very few had access to the public sphere of politics. Besides this, they still had no control over their bodies and its reproductive functions. Miners were oppressed by coal-owners and poverty. Their wives were doubly oppressed by poverty and patriarchy. As one woman said, we were slaves because they were slaves to the coal-owners.

Of course, this does not mean that all miners treated their wives badly, either physically or psychologically, whether in work or out of it. Neither did they consciously ‘enslave’ them. If anything, there is a sense in the evidence that unemployment often brought about a more equal relationship between husband and wife. On the other hand, the poverty it brought often placed great strains on the household, and men, by their own admission, sometimes took out their frustrations and loss of personal pride on their wives.  Dai Payton worked at the level at Coalbrooke Vale for the SPS. A Brynmawr resident had transferred the lease of the level, a mile from Brynmawr, which supplied work for forty older men for eighteen months. After twelve months the management was handed over to the men, but in 1931 the Miners’ Federation called a strike, so the co-operative was also asked to join the strike, although they were both workers and owners. If they had agreed, they might have ruined the small enterprise, since they had not yet established if the plans of the old workings there had been correct. When they refused, they were called “blacklegs” and “traitors”, showing how difficult it was for co-operative ventures and trades unions to work together. The unemployed miners overcame all the technical difficulties, but the coal seam did not yield as much as was expected, though the group struggled on with courage and patience. By 1934, Dai Payton, together with a ‘butty’, made a success of it for a time, until nature forced them to retire. The unemployed were forced accustomed to going up “the mountain” to get a sack of coal, which they would bring back long distances on their backs. Working cooperatively decreased unnecessary physical strain, enabling the group to achieve a more rational way of working as well as running a successful if small, industrial enterprise for some years.

The Brynmawr Experiment was an attempt, unique in Britain, to encourage a whole community afflicted by desperate levels of unemployment, averaging 75% throughout the period 1928-38, to fight back on a number of fronts, tapping an entire range of resources, from the enterprise of volunteers to social service agencies and central government. The national network provided by the Society of Friends was crucial to the work as it supplied management and technical skills and money to get things done. But a community that has suffered such levels of long-term unemployment needs even more than a revivalist inspiration to overcome its paralysing effects. Immediately, it needed relief work, as an absolute necessity. In the medium-term, reconstruction projects were put in place, including a swimming pool, a park and a nursery school. Then the industrial decline had to be offset by starting small co-operative enterprises in boot and furniture making, which by the end of the period were achieving considerable success.

Another enterprise was stocking-making, in which a dozen women worked under a trained forewoman, making long, thick miners’ stockings, but mass production and keen competition proved too much for the group. They produced fine quality socks for a time but had to close down in the end. A further group of about a dozen women and girls made Welsh quilts of silk material, padded with lambswool, to traditional Welsh designs. They also made tea-cosies and other products to order. They worked in a big room above an empty shop for a period of a couple of years. As these ventures received no government support for five years, they had to be funded over this period by grants from private individuals and charitable organisations. The aim was not to replace the volume of jobs lost in the coal industry, but, in the words of Hilda Jennings, to…

… build up a new and better community in which the human spirit will be released from bitterness and divisions, and find outlets for creative energies in craftsmanship and right human relationships.

(to be continued)

Budapest between the Holocaust and the Uprising, 1946-56: Part Three; The Crucible, 1953-56.   1 comment

Family days and Events in the Fifties… 

Family days in Tom’s extended family had started before the war as enjoyable social events, but increasingly became times for sharing anxiety and problems caused by increasing persecution of Jews. After the holocaust, they then became a means of rebuilding a strong sense of family of those  who survived.  During the dark years of the communist era these family get-togethers were a time of mutual support, of sharing problems and giving advice, of debating the subtle political changes in the regime and generating some hope amidst the gloom. These events in extended Hungarian families continued throughout the Kádár era and even into the transition period which followed the collapse of communism in 1989-91. Tom’s direct memories were of the gatherings of the early to mid 1950s:

Everyone tried to make sure that we children had a good time, with special cakes and sweets, usually made by great-aunt Manci, my grandmother’s younger sister. We played games, while the adults were deep in conversation. The oldest of us was my second cousin Éva, two years older than me. I was next in age, my three cousins Jani, Andi and Juli (all children of my aunt Juci) were all younger as was my second cousin Kati. Her sister Marika and my other two second cousins András and Isti were all born in the early 50s. Éva made up some exciting ‘murder in the dark’ type of games, which involved hiding in cupboards and getting into some mischief.

There were occasional raised voices. It was often Éva’s mother Magda who was in some trouble. Like my mother, she had lost her husband in the holocaust in one of the ‘death marches’ and she never regained any kind of equilibrium. Her life seemed to go from one crisis to another. My grandfather Ármin (who was generally regarded as the ‘head of the family’) was always ready with advice, which Magda was not ready to receive. It was often my great-uncle Feri (Ármin’s younger brother) whose mild-mannered voice acted to mediate and bring calm to the proceedings. He was a much respected architect whose advice was sought by many.  Workplace problems were discussed, ways of getting round food shortages, childcare issues and, of course, politics. Most of the family were generally inclined to be liberal and tending towards socialist ideas, which dominated amongst the Jewish middle class.

Anti-semitism was generally linked to the old right-wing nationalism and the horrors of the holocaust were inflicted by the fascists. The Soviet Red Army, while bringing its own atrocities in some areas, meant liberation for the remnants of our family. So there was initially a lot of tolerance towards the proclaimed aims of the communist regime. The disillusion and the realisation of the total loss of freedom and the fear brought by the dictatorship of the Rákosi era dawned on members of the family at different rates.

Following the ‘turning point’ year of 1949, it only remained for the Hungarian Communists to apply some cosmetic surgery on the face of the Stalinist system to invest their de facto rule with a thin gloss of constitutionality. The rumps of the remaining parties, largely consisting of Communist fellow-travellers, merged with the Hungarian Workers’ Party (MDP) in the Hungarian Independence-Popular Front and undertook to submit to the decisions of its national board led by Rákosi as President, Dobi and Erdei as deputies and Rajk as General Secretary. They also pledged themselves to the leading role of the  MDP in the construction of socialism. Those who espoused alternative programmes were denounced as enemies of the Hungarian people, rather than being seen as any sort of ‘loyal opposition’. Predictably, on 15 May, 96 per cent of the electors voted for the candidates of the Popular Front, of whom more than seventy per cent were communists.

Shortly after the creation of the Popular Front, organised opponents of monolithic communist rule either evaporated or were forced into compliance through general repression. Within a week, the Democratic People’s Party dissolved itself and Cardinal Mindszenty was brought to court on fabricated charges of espionage and subversion. Having struck at the two pillars of the Catholic Church, landed property and youth education, the Communists had, early on, evoked the wrath of the militant prelate who was determined not only to defend religious liberty but also to preserve many of the Church’s anachronistic privileges. Now they turned on him as the head of what they termed the clerical reaction of 1947-49. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on the basis of an extorted confession. Despite this, there was no break in the adherence of ordinary Catholics to their Church, but its power to openly resist did decline sharply decline, as became evident on 5 September 1949 obligatory religious instruction was abolished, and circumstances were made unfavourable for parents sending their children to optional classes. By 1952, only a quarter of elementary school pupils took them.

Religion was rarely discussed in the extended Leimdörfer family, either, as it was such a sensitive subject among many surviving Jewish families. Most of the family remained Jewish, but only practised at the time of festivals, while Edit (Tom’s mother), aunt Juci and her husband Gyuri became committed Christians in the Reformed (Calvinist) Church following their conversion. Tom recalls his mother’s distress over the recurring rift this decision had created in the family:

The only time I saw my mother in tears at a family day was when her right to bring me up as a Christian was being questioned. It was my grandmother Sári who smoothed out that particular row. Although we might have been playing, Éva and I heard what was going on in the adult conversation. Occasionally, when they noticed us listening, the conversation would switch to German. All the adults spoke fluent German, but only ever used it in these circumstances.

One of Tom’s more distant relatives had been in the French resistance during the war (having been a student at Grenoble university) and was the only one of the family who was actually a member of the Communist Party. As a sideline from his office job, he made up a game called Five Year Plan, which became available in the shops to replace the banned Capitali (a Hungarian version of Monopoly). As a ‘western communist’ he was, no doubt, in just as much danger from the secret police and the ‘Muscovites’ who were leading the party, as were the other members of the family. Even the seventy-one member Central Committee of the party was dwarfed in its significance by the Political Committee which met every week; even within this body, the ‘Muscovites’ formed an ‘inner circle’ within which the ‘triumvirate’ of Rákosi, Gerő and Farkas reigned supreme, with Rákosi surrounded by a personality cult second only in its dimensions, within the Communist bloc, to that of Stalin himself.

If any complex financial questions arose, the family turned to Pali (Hédi’s father, my grandmother’s younger brother) who was an accountant. Pali had another daughter, Márti, who had Down’s syndrome. She was a much-loved and nurtured member of the family:

We children adored her as she always played with us and always had a warm smile and a hug for us. She joined in with our games and clearly enjoyed playing with our toys. She was well-known in her neighbourhood and could do some shopping for her parents as well as helping at home. Márti was not the only member of the family with a disability. My young second cousin Kati had a genetic disorder resulting in very restricted growth and associated mobility problems in later life. However, she was bright, always even-tempered, went through mainstream school and university, took a doctorate and became a very competent and respected accountant.

Sixteen members of the extended family had died in the holocaust, but those who survived remained close to each other through thick and thin, notwithstanding any strains of religious, economic, political or philosophical differences. The dark years were hard for everyone, but when anyone was in acute hardship, there was always help. If things got difficult at home for anyone, there was always a listening ear. Tom recalls an occasion when, aged about nine, he ran away from home:

I forget the reason, but Mami and I had a row and she took to her periodic silent phase. I took the 49 tram, then changed to the 11 and arrived at my aunt Juci and uncle Gyuri’s flat. The adults had a quiet word, decided I might as well stay the night, play with my cousins, and start next day as if nothing had happened. It worked, I guess we just needed some ’space’ from each other. Juci and Gyuri’s home was a lovely flat and I always liked going there. They were always very busy, both working full-time and with three young children, but they always had time for me. Jani, Andi and Juli liked having me around and regarded me as an older brother. Their paternal grandmother, Ilonka mama, lived with them, helped with household chores and quietly fussed around us. Feeling at home in their family in Budapest laid the foundation for my crucial years as a teenage orphan in London, but surrounded by a loving family.

In the period after the war, throughout the 1940s and even through to 1956, the cultural scene in Budapest remained vibrant, with a vigorous and colourful press at first, in which all the trends that survived the war-time crucible represented themselves with excellent periodicals. There were renowned musical and theatrical performances and a host of films which represented the highest standards of international cinematography. For Tom, this creative atmosphere was a central part of his upbringing:

Music was very important in our lives. It was my mother’s great source of comfort and it became one of the strongest bonds between us, though occasionally also a source of strain. I grew up listening to classical music on the radio and started going to concerts, the opera and the ballet at an early age. Tickets were cheap for everyone and sometimes even free for us, once Mami started to work for the Hungarian Philharmonia, the state bureau which organised all major musical events in the country and distributed all tickets. Its offices were just opposite the sumptuous classical building of the Opera House.

My parents were concert goers during their courtship and the short married life they had together before the war tore them apart. Mami now just had me and she started taking me to concerts and the opera at what might be considered a very early age. Works deemed suitable for children, like Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ ballet, Massine’s ‘La Boutique Fantastique’,  and Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ I saw before the age of six. I was not yet eight when I saw ‘Carmen’ at the Opera in a mesmerising performance…  Apart from the two opera houses of the capital (the classical Opera House and the more modern Erkel Theatre), there were outdoor performances in the summer. The outdoor theatre was near the zoo and occasionally a hapless tenor or soprano had to compete with some noisy peacocks or other nocturnally vocal animals.

There were a lot of excellent Hungarian musicians of international renown, who were not able to travel to the west. With visiting artists from the other communist countries, the quality of performances was always high… After Stalin’s death, when the regime became relatively less repressive, the first western artist to visit was the great Yehudi Menuhin. He played both the Beethoven and the Mendelssohn violin concertos in the same concert, one each side of the interval. Mami managed to get three tickets. She and her best friend Gitta (my friend Dani’s mother) were both looking forward to the concert as a high point of the year. Dani and I were to share the third ticket. He played the violin, so he had first choice and chose the Beethoven (which is longer). I was satisfied, because the Mendelssohn was my favourite, having been told that it had been one of my father’s best loved pieces of music. In any case, we could each listen to the other half outside the door. It was a magical performance and the four of us talked about nothing else for weeks.

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Tom, all dressed up for a night at the opera

Nagy’s New Course & Rákosi’s Return:

It is no wonder that Hungarians received the news of Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953 with almost unanimous relief. Gyula Kodolányi recalls how in school the next day they had to stand for a minute. Most of his friends bent their heads down, he remembers, not in mourning, but to hide glances of outright joy. Life on the streets was also commanded to halt for minutes of silence, but the attitude of the adults was similar, except for a few hysterical party members sobbing theatrically on the departure of their demigod.

As the new Soviet leadership recognised the possibility of peaceful co-existence with the West, this resulted in their recognition of the wider crisis which existed throughout their Empire in general, and Hungary in particular. Mátyás Rákosi, who was also Premier since 1952 and thought that things would return to normal once the power struggle in the Kremlin was over, was summoned to Moscow in the middle of June. In the presence of a party and state delegation he was reprimanded in a humiliating fashion by Lavrentiy Beria and the other Soviet leaders, who brutally dismissed him before his comrades for developing a personality cult and presiding over the collapse of the absurdly centralised Hungarian economy (due to policies implemented on their own demands, it has to be recognised, including the senseless industrialisation and forcible collectivisation of agriculture) and appalling living standards. At the same time, Beria announced that Imre Nagy, present in Moscow as Deputy Prime Minister, would be the new leader of Communist Hungary.  Nagy had fallen into disfavour in 1949, due to his dissent over the issue of collectivisation, and although he had gradually returned to the leadership of the party, he had managed to remain untainted by the terror. However, the ‘cadres’ in Budapest remained perplexed, since Rákosi had retained the party secretaryship, and it was therefore difficult for them to predict whether the Soviet leadership in the future would favour him or Nagy. Nevertheless, in the twenty-one months that followed, the Nagy government implemented significant corrections, justifying the description of the period as the new course. Nagy moved energetically to proclaim his policies for the new course on 4 July 1953. Kodolányi, then aged twelve, remembers walking home on a blazing hot evening in Budapest, in which all the windows were open to let in a cooling breeze:

… from every window Imre Nagy’s maiden speech as Prime Minister resounded forth from radios, often from radio sets placed on the window sills. It was a somewhat rasping but pleasant and unobtrusive voice, with intimate overtones of his native dialect of southwest Hungary… the unbelievable happened after so many years of Communism: a human voice speaking in Parliament, to real human beings. A Hungarian to fellow Hungarians. Morally and intellectually, Communism fell in Hungary at that moment – although in the world of power it remained here to pester us for another 37 years, an obtrusive carcass.

Imre Nagy may have been unaware of the full immense effect on the nation of the speech and his voice. He found his way to the hearts of the people, and at this moment already his road to martyrdom was fatally decided…

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At the earlier meeting of the party central committee on 27-28 June, Nagy had already stated that, in his view, Hungary had become a police state, and its government a shadow government in the service of the Communist Party. He demanded that the Party had to resort to ‘self-criticism’. In his historic Parliament speech, he promised the restoration of legality, the curbing of police power and the bringing of the ÁVH back under the control of the Interior Ministry. He promised a partial amnesty for political prisoners, the stopping of deportations and forced labour, and greater tolerance for religion. He also promised a sharp rise in living standards and the restructuring of the economy.  This would involve the abolition of costly development priorities in heavy industry, the restructuring of agricultural policy, the easing of burdens on the peasantry and the granting of their right to return to individual farming. His most urgent and important reforms were all codified in Parliament within a month. The effect was an immediate, immense sense of relief in society as hope, self-confidence and creativity emerged in all walks of life, despite the resistance which lurked in many pockets of Stalinist power. Too many people in positions of influence had been involved in the excesses of the Rákosi régime. Although the refreshing breeze of a new freedom of speech swept through the country, and the sins of Stalinist past were discussed widely, passions were kept in check.

However, partly owing to the power struggle ongoing in the Kremlin itself, the Soviet leadership became increasingly convinced that Nagy’s New Course was progressing too fast and dangerously. In early 1955 it decided that Rákosi had to be brought back to power. In January Nagy was censured by Khrushchev, who had displaced Malenkov, for the ‘radicalism’ of the reforms and ordered to correct the ‘mistakes’. His subsequent illness was used by Rákosi to prepare charges of right-wing deviation and nationalist tendencies against him and to arrange for his dismissal (18 April). Initially, Nagy’s replacement was András Hegedűs, a young man whom Rákosi and Gerő hoped to manipulate. However, Rákosi had not learnt the lessons of his fall from ‘grace’ and came back with the intention to take personal revenge in the spring of 1955, even though, by then, Stalinism had become a dirty word throughout the Soviet Empire. Another wave of forcible collectivisation of agriculture and a sharp increase in the number of political prisoners were among the most visible signs of re-Stalinisation. Nagy was ousted from the Hungarian Communist Party and withdrew from public life, but wrote memoranda defending the Marxist-Leninist basis of his reforms. He was supported by a large group of reformist intellectuals and revisionist Communist politicians, who still regarded him as their true leader. Tension continued to run high, so that the Soviets felt driven to interfere for a second time. The Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956 indicated that the Kremlin now deemed the use of widespread terror to maintain the pace of the armaments race as unaffordable. Although Rákosi claimed, on his return, that the ‘secret speech’ had confirmed that no further steps were necessary to restore socialist legitimacy, the illicit listeners to it in central and western Europe knew that it put the seal on the policy of de-Stalinisation, the toleration of different national paths to Communism and the peaceful co-existence of the two world systems.

Catalysts of the Uprising:

On 21 July 1956 Rákosi was finally deposed and sent into exile in central Asia. But instead of bringing back Imre Nagy, Mikoyan appointed Rákosi’s hard-line henchman Ernő Gerő as Prime Minister, a grave miscalculation as it turned out. It was mistakenly believed in the Kremlin that by dropping Rákosi things would return to normal, but his replacement by another veteran Stalinist did nothing to satisfy either the opposition in the Hungarian Communist Party or the Yugoslav Communists, whose voice had started to matter again following the reconciliation between Moscow and Belgrade. It is clear from the 1991 account of the then British Ambassador to Budapest, Peter Unwin, that by the time of Mikoyan’s deposing of Rákosi on 17 July 1956, only Nagy had any chance of replacing him successfully as both party secretary and prime minister. But although Nagy was once again becoming a figure of influence, he was not only no longer prime minister, but was still out of office and suspended from the Party indefinitely. In appointing Gerő, Mikoyan missed the chance to make a clean break with the Rákosi régime. Gerő was an experienced, hard-working apparatchik who had been close to Rákosi since their days in exile in Moscow during the war. Although less hated than his erstwhile boss, he was equally discredited among his colleagues in Budapest. He also lacked the flexibility and skill of Rákosi.

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If Mikoyan had chosen Nagy in July, he would have given him the chance to create a position like Gomulka’s in Poland, strong enough both to resist both popular Hungarian and Soviet pressure. But the Kremlin remained distrustful of Gomulka’s efforts to come to terms with its own people and did not want to replicate these conditions in Hungary almost simultaneously. As a result, Nagy’s return to power was delayed for three vital months during the summer and early autumn of ’56, months which were also wasted by Gerő. Many Hungarians concluded that in replacing Rákosi with Gerő, the Soviets had made no decisive change in substance, even fearing that Rákosi might reappear yet again. All the old régime’s critics were equally convinced that real change could only be brought about by the return of Imre Nagy. Mikoyan kept in touch with Nagy, concluding that, should Gerő fail to establish his authority as a loyal Soviet subordinate, he would still have time to turn to the insubordinate and unrepentant Nagy.

During August and September the rehabilitation of political prisoners continued and there was no attempt made to silence the reformists clamouring for liberalisation and freedom of the press. Their success depended on their ability to stay ‘within bounds’, to gain popular control of peripheral spheres of national life, but not to threaten the central core of orthodox party power. Gerő remained reluctant to give Nagy a platform for renewed political activity. Yet the former prime minister was also a Bolshevik of nearly forty years’ standing and, as such, the one individual who could unite the nation and most of the party. Yet at the same time Gerő ignored the various unofficial promptings from Nagy, refusing to take action against him and his associates. When Nagy applied in writing for readmission to the Party on 4 October, he specifically accepted democratic centralism, in other words the right of the Party to discipline him, and Gerő’s leadership, despite the outrage of his friends. Gerő took nine days to respond to the application, making the strained atmosphere between the two camps even worse.

Discredited party functionaries were exposed in the press and the Petöfi Circle continued with its debates on burning issues like economic policy, the condition of agriculture and educational reform. After discussing the matter with Moscow, Gerő finally agreed to Nagy’s readmission. He was finally re-adopted by the party a week after the reburial of Rajk on 6 October, which turned into a 100,000-strong peaceful demonstration against the crimes of Stalinism. A delegation of Hungarian leaders visited Belgrade, and, by the time they returned, matters had already slipped beyond the party’s control. What had begun as a struggle between revisionist and orthodox Communists, set off by and adjusting to changes in Moscow, had turned into growing ferment among the intelligentsia and become a full-scale anti-Soviet revolution.

Following the reburial and rehabilitation of László Rajk and the victims of the purges of 1949, on 6th and 13th October, the newspapers carried the decision of the Political Committee to readmit Nagy to party membership. His Chair at the university and his membership of the Academy of Sciences were restored soon after, but there was no word of a return to public office. Demands for reform continued to spread and the country was soon ablaze with debate and discussion groups, which became local ‘parliaments’. But both sides seemed to back away from confrontation while events in Belgrade and Warsaw took their course. Events in Budapest were shaping as Nagy had predicted they would, with the nation facing crisis. He was close to power. The British Minister in Budapest reported on 18 October that…

Nagy’s star appears firmly in the ascendant and I am reliably informed that it is only a question of time before he obtains high office.

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As he relaxed on a short break at Lake Balaton, there was tumult throughout the country. Besides Budapest, students were calling for marches and demonstrations in Miskolc, Szeged, Pécs and Sopron.  The news of the Polish success in the showdown with Khrushchev on 19 November intoxicated them and excited mass meetings began by passing resolutions in support of Poland and ended in the formulation of demands for reform in Hungary.

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The origins and causes of the events of 1956 are often viewed through the prism of more recent attempts of central-eastern European states to wriggle free from the overarching and all-pervasive control of Soviet communism. However, whilst we may conclude that the 1956 Hungarian Uprising was an anti-Soviet revolution, based on contemporary and eye-witness accounts, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that it was not intrinsically anti-Communist, despite the justifications used by apologists for the Kádár régime which followed. Like many of the subsequent rebellions, even that of East Germany in 1989, both the leadership and the bulk of their followers were committed communists, or Marxist-Leninists, seeking reform and revision of the system, not its total overthrow. In her detailed and well-informed analysis of the Hungarian Revolution, Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote in 1957:

This was a true event whose stature will not depend upon victory or defeat: its greatness is secure in the tragedy it enacted. What happened in Hungary happened nowhere else, and the twelve days of the revolution contained more history than the twelve years since the Red Army had ‘liberated’ the country from Nazi domination.

This was certainly the case, although, as we have seen, the twelve previous years were hardly uneventful. However, anyone who has lived through one of the accelerations of history which have happened in Europe in more recent years may have some idea of the sense of headiness engendered at that time. Arendt marvelled at the way in which the Revolution was initiated by the prime objects of indoctrination, the “over-privileged” of the Communist system: left-wing intellectuals, university students, workers; the Communist avant-garde: their motive was neither their own nor their fellow-citizens’ material misery, but exclusively Freedom and Truth”. This was, she concluded, an ultimate affirmation that human nature is unchangeable, that nihilism will be futile, that… yearning for freedom and truth will rise out of man’s heart and mind forever. What, for her, was also remarkable, was that, given the atmosphere and the lines drawn by early October 1956, there was no civil war. For the Hungarian army, the interior police and most of the Marxist-Leninist régime and its cadres, those lines were quickly swept away by the tide of events. Only the Ávó remained loyal to the hard-line Stalinist cause.

The eye-witness evidence of Sándor Kopácsi, the Budapest Police chief, and Béla Király, the commander-in-chief of the Hungarian National Guard, both committed communists, of itself provides sufficient evidence that the Revolution was not an anti-Communist counter-revolution. More recently than their accounts, a memorandum of István Bibó, a Minister of State in the Nagy government of 1956 has been translated into English. Bibó was not a Communist, having been delegated by the re-established National Peasant Party, re-named The Petöfi Party. Between January and April 1957 he wrote down his thoughts for world leaders and delivered his memorandum to the US Embassy. He was later arrested along with Árpád Göncz and others and tried for treason and conspiracy. Although given the death sentence, he was released in 1963 under the general amnesty negotiated by the US and the Vatican with the Kádár régime. In the memorandum, his contemporary interpretation of the causes of the Uprising comes across even more clearly than those of Kopácsi and Király, who were caught up in its events:

In a word, the Hungarian action of the Soviet Union, which had been meant to avoid surrendering a position, has only dealt a blow to the position of communism… … the movements in Hungary, Poland and other Communist countries have most amply demonstrated that there is a genuine and active demand for the reality of freedom and its most developed techniques… These movements have proved that the demand for change is not limited to the victims of the one-party régime, it indeed came forth from those the single-party system brought up, its youths; there need be no worry that they would lead to the restoration of outdated social and political forms… The Hungarian Revolution and the popular movements of Eastern Europe mean that the Western world can and should follow a policy line that is neither aggressive nor informed by power considerations but is more active and enterprising and aims not to impose its economic and social system on others but step by step seeks to win East European countries and finally the Soviet Union over to Western techniques of freedom and the shared political morality in which it is grounded.

The fact that this was written in hiding and smuggled out of the country lends a certain poignancy to Bibó’s perspective, since it is not influenced by the western surroundings  of exile in North America. I have dealt elsewhere with the events and outcomes of this spontaneous national uprising, as the UN Special Committee described it in 1957. What is clear from the reading of the available evidence about its causes is that Kádár’s propaganda that it was inspired and led by fascists, anti-Semites, reactionaries and imperialists, echoing, strongly at first, all the way down to the recent sixtieth anniversary, no longer has any place in the national discourse.

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Bartók Béla Boulevard elementary school Class 8a, spring 1956

Tom is third from left in the middle row, Dani in front row extreme right

Form teacher Benedek Bölöni (Béni bácsi)

Sources:

Hungarian Review, November 2016, Vol VII, No. 6.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

Tom Leimdofer’s Family Memoirs, unpublished (including photos).

Budapest between the Holocaust and the Uprising, 1946-56: Part Two, 1948-53; Descent into Dictatorship.   Leave a comment

1948-49: The Turning Point

In February 1992, Tom Leimdorfer, my former colleague at the Society of Friends (Quakers), was running a week’s residential course for teachers and teacher trainers in Szolnok in eastern Hungary, in the middle of the great plain (Alföld). After the first session, a Physical Education lecturer from a teacher training college called Katalin asked him if by any chance he was the same Leimdörfer Tamás who once attended the Veres Pálné experimental primary school in 1948-49. She remembered being amongst his group little lady friends!

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Veres Pálné experimental primary class 1, September 1948

Tom in top row, extreme right. Bomb damage seen in background

Class teacher Sára Németh

As that academic year got underway, Hungary was effectively becoming a one-party state. It was, and is still often assumed in the west that the communist era in Hungary started at the end of the war. This is far from the case. The Soviet Red Army drove out the previous occupying German troops and the fascist arrow-cross regime of Szálasi was thankfully brought to an end in April 1945. Democracy was restored with free elections, and in fact a more genuinely democratic government came to power than Hungary had known for decades. However, within a year the pressures from Stalin’s Soviet Union ensured that Hungary would be firmly within its economic sphere and the government had few choices. By 1947 the right of centre prime minister from the Smallholders’ party was ousted. The most dramatic political change came early in 1948. The election gave the Communist Party 22.3% of the vote, but their strategy of salami slicing the ‘opposition’ parties came to a successful conclusion with the absorption of the left-wing of the Social Democratic Party into the Communist Party. Those who opposed the move had either been exiled, or, like Anna Kéthly, together with tens of thousands of ordinary members, were expelled. On 12 June 1948 the first congress of the now 1.1 million-strong Hungarian Workers’ Party had begun. Rákósi became General Secretary, with another former Muscovite exile, Mihály Farkas, the left-wing Social Democrat György Marosán and János Kádár serving as his deputies. In its programme, the Party committed itself to Marxist-Leninism, to the building of socialism through the ‘struggle’ against ‘reactionaries’, friendship and co-operation with the Soviet Union and the other people’s democracies, combined with a domestic policy of further nationalisation and comprehensive economic planning. The year 1948 soon became known as the year of the turning point. By this time, as László Kontler has written,

… major battles had been won by the Communists in the war for minds, that is, the struggle for dominance over the network of education and cultural life in general, by transforming their structure and content. As in the political and economic spheres, here, too, the destruction caused by the war, the desire to create something out of nothing and the vacuum which could be penetrated, favoured the most tightly organised force on the scene. The damage caused in school buildings, in educational and research equipment, library holdings and public collections by the warfare or by German and Soviet pillage was matched by the number of casualties of war among teachers and intellectuals, especially writers, who fell victim… by the dozens.

Those who resisted either fled the country or were arrested. By the end of the year other political parties had been banned and wholesale nationalisation was in full swing. Yet the Communists were careful to maintain a the post-war ‘coalition’ of an education system based on liberal democratic and national values without imposing Marxist-Leninist ones. The first National Council for Public Education, created in April 1945 and chaired by Albert Szent-György, the Nobel Prize winning scientist, included such diverse members as the composer Zoltán Kodály. Its main initiative was the transition to the eight-year elementary system which Tom Leimdorfer was now entering, originally proposed in 1940 which, besides skills in literacy and arithmetic, also made the acquisition of fundamental knowledge in the social and natural sciences possible. In the new curriculum, the conservative nationalist traditions were being replaced by more progressive ones. The transition to the new system was completed by the end of the 1940s, despite 70% of teachers not having the qualification to teach special subjects in the upper elementary section. At higher levels of education, the opening of the gates to free university places resulted in a doubling of students, though at the cost of a decline in overall standards. Nevertheless, this and other measures meant that several thousand young people from more humble origins were able to gain access to higher education.

However, the debates over aesthetic and ideological issues related to literature and culture, invariably initiated by the Marxist circle of Lukács, gradually metamorphosed into a witch-hunt against the apolitical or decadent representatives of the western-oriented populist writers. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences was also denounced by Lukács at the party congress in 1946 as a stronghold of reaction, and the removal and destruction of several thousand volumes of fascist, anti-Soviet and chauvinist literature from its library by the political police a few months later bode ill for the future. As in politics, 1948 became the year of the turning point in the cultural status quo, when the winding up of the non-communist press started and the Communists scored their most important success in their Kulturkampf against its most formidable rival, the Catholic Church, with the establishment of state control over ecclesiastical schools. The introduction of the eight-year elementary school system and the nationalisation of textbook publishing had already incited violent protests, especially among the organised clergy. Pastoral letters, sermons and demonstrations denouncing the proposed nationalisation of schools were all in vain: parliament enacted the measure on June 16. About 6,500 schools were involved, about half of them being Catholic-controlled.

Dark years again, 1949-53:

The New Year of 1949 saw the establishment of one party dictatorship under Party Secretary Mátyás Rákosi, whose salami tactics had got rid of all opposition and whose establishment of the feared secret police (ÁVH, commonly referred to as the Ávó) heralded an era of full-blown Stalinist repression. It lasted just over four years, but was all-pervasive. The first victims were some of Rákosi’s former political allies and hence rivals. The most prominent was Foreign Minister László Rajk who was accused of siding with Tito, who had led his  communist Yugoslavia out of the Soviet Block towards neutrality. The perceived threat posed to Soviet hegemony led Rákosi to opt for an astonishment effect to convince people of the need for an ‘iron fist’. The fact that Rajk had worked in the western communist movement before the war lent some plausibility to the fantastic allegations that he was an imperialist agent collaborating with the excommunicated Yugoslavs. Convinced by Kádár that the class enemy must be intimidated and that he therefore needed to accept his role as a ‘scapegoat’, though he would ultimately be spared, Rajk signed the expected confession. The charges against him were made public in June 1949. In October he was executed together with two of his associates paid with their lives for just keeping lines of communication open with Tito. Many others accused in the case were also put to death, jailed or interned later on, in the party terror which lasted until 1953. The proclamation of innocence, exhumation and ceremonial reburial of László Rajk in 1956 was one of the key events leading up to the Revolution. A new constitution, modelled on the Soviet one of 1936, made Hungary a People’s Republic. The role of the state organs at all levels was confined to practical management of issues, while strategic policy and control remained in the hands of the party élite.

Tom’s second school year started in September 1949  in a school nearer home, Bocskai primary school (named after one of the Transylvanian princes who successfully resisted both Habsburg and full Turkish rule). Although it was only 15 minutes walk from home, there were several roads to cross, so in some ways it was a more hazardous journey. It was a dull building, which would have been recognised as a suburban primary anywhere and it had a small dusty playground. Tom was a stranger in a year two class of all boys who were all pleased to see their friends and ignored me. Then, on the second day, a boy with a nice smile and very big ears started to talk to him. They soon discovered that they both only had Mums, but Dani was the middle one of three brothers, while Tom was an only child. They both listened to classical music and Dani had recently started to play the violin, while Tom was in his second year of making very slow progress on the piano. They had both recently learnt to play chess and were both keen on football. Within days they were firm friends, a friendship which was to last a lifetime in spite of distance. Dani’s mother (‘Gitta’) wasted no time in inviting him and his mother to her flat. He remembers that…

She was one of the kindest, most patient and loving people I ever met. She had lost her husband in the final days of the siege of Budapest. Gitta and my mother Edit, having met through their sons, became the closest of friends. Living close to each other, Dani and I were in and out of each other’s homes, played football in the street outside our house (which was safe, unlike the main road outside their large block of flats).  To a large extent our friendship must have been rather exclusive as I have no memory of any of my other classmates till we moved to the middle school in year five and became part of a wider group or little gang of 10/11 year olds.

The school day in Hungary started at eight in the morning and finished before one. They took sandwiches for break time (elevenses). Outdoor playtime during break was carefully structured with organised games or walking quietly in pairs. Tom’s class had the same teacher throughout the three years he was at the Bocskai school. She was an efficient and motherly woman. It was the ‘dark years’ of 1949-52, but school was a quiet haven, if rather dull. At the beginning of each year, they all had to buy the grey textbooks stacked in piles for each year and each subject in the bookshop. These were standard texts for all schools and only cost a few forints. Each year they contained more and more propaganda mixed in with what would be recognised as standard subject matter, especially in history.

By 1954, the number of secondary school pupils was 130,000, nearly double that of the highest pre-war figures, and three times as many students (33,000) went to universities, including several newly established ones. The proportion of young people attending from peasant and working-class origins, formerly barred from higher education, rose to over fifty per cent. The inculcation of Marxism-Leninism through the school system was emphasised at all levels within the new curricula. To satisfy this requirement, the whole gamut of text-books was changed, as Tom mentions above, new ones being commissioned and completed under careful supervision by the relevant party organs. Teaching of foreign languages was confined to Russian which became compulsory from the fifth year of elementary school in spite of the lack of qualified teachers.

For Tom, there was some homework even in the early years of elementary school, but afternoons were mainly free for play. When not playing with Dani, Tom spent much of his time with his grandmother, ‘Sári mama’:

We read books together, played endless board games (including chess and draughts), listened to music on the radio and talked about different performers, went for walks in good weather. Sometimes my cousin Éva came over too and we would play together. Occasionally, Sári mama sang songs from Lehár and Kálmán operettas, read me poems translated from world literature and told me stories of plays. From time to time (with the odd tear in her eye), she talked about my father when he was young, telling me which poems and what music he liked. School gave the basic numeracy and literacy skills, but my education during those year came mainly from my grandmother. With Mami working all day and often tired and stressed in the evening, ‘quality time’ with her had to wait till the weekend.

Among the most immediate and direct effects of the events of 1949-52 on Tom’s family was the loss of property, and for the second time within a few years. Tom’s grandfather’s timber yard had been confiscated under the Jewish Laws during the war. He had re-built the business from scratch as soon as the war was over. However, in 1948, he could see the signs ahead. The nationalisation of the large banks and the companies controlled by them, which was the ultimate test of the Smallholder Party, had been enacted on 29 September 1947. The bauxite and aluminium followed two months later. Then, on 25 March, 1948, all industrial firms employing more than a hundred workers were taken into state property by a decree prepared in great secrecy and taking even the newly appointed ‘worker directors’ by surprise. Ármin Leimdörfer (whose business only employed six or seven) generously offered it to a newly formed large state-owned building co-operative.  He was employed in the new firm and they valued his expertise. A few months later, all small businesses were also nationalised and their owners deported to remote villages. This also nearly happened to Tom’s grandparents twice during 1950-52. On both occasions, the senior management appealed to the political authorities to rescind the order as Tom’s grandfather was deemed essential to the firm and had several inventions to his name. On the second of these occasions, all their furniture was already piled on the lorry before they were allowed to return to their flat. Tom’s great-uncle Feri also lost the garage he owned, but kept his job as a much valued architect.

Just five years after surviving the Holocaust, many Hungarian Jewish people, in some cases entire families, were deported from the cities to distant farms in the country together with so-called class aliens, aristocrats, Horthyites and bourgeois elements, ordered to leave behind their apartments and personal belongings and to perform forced labour. It was no longer the upper and middle classes who were the objects of the communists’ ire, but any person belonging to any class who could be branded as an enemy in Rákosi’s system. During the eight years of this reign of Stalinist terror, mostly between the period 1948 to 1953, 600,000 Hungarians were made subject to legal charges taking away their rights, many of them being placed in detention by the police and juridical authorities. By adding family members to this number, the number of citizens affected increases to more than two million, out of a total population of less than ten million.  

The deportations also had the effect of freeing up accommodation in Budapest for workers the government wished to bring in from the provinces. There was also housing shortage as the result of war damage. Without legal proceedings, 13,000 ‘class enemies’ (aristocrats, former officials, factory owners, etc.) were evicted from Budapest, together with a further three thousand from provincial towns, to small villages where they were compelled to do agricultural labour under strict supervision. The official justification was their unreliability during a time of imperialist incitement and sharpening of class struggle, but the reality was their removal to satisfy the need for city housing for the newly privileged bureaucratic class. As living space became rationed, Tom’s small family flat was deemed too large for just his mother and himself:

She acted quickly to offer one room (my room) to a friend of hers whom we always called by her familiar name of ‘Csöpi’. If Mami thought that she had prevented a forced flat share with strangers, she was to be disappointed. We still had the small room next to the kitchen, the one designed for domestic staff, which Bözsi had occupied midweek during the immediate post-war years. The district authority allocated that room to a couple from the provinces. They were not unpleasant people, but the situation was difficult for everyone with shared kitchen and bath room for three very different households (one single young woman, one couple, my mother and me). Mami and I shared the largest room in the flat. The large sofa was turned each night into a wide twin bed. The room also housed a baby grand piano, a large bookcase, a coffee table and a very large old desk, which was my pride and joy as I was allowed full use of it from an early age. The wall opposite the window had the large ceramic stove jutting out into the room (next to the piano). Our room had the french window leading to the small balcony and the stairs to the garden. We shared the garden with Csöpi, but the couple just had the small room and use of kitchen and bathroom all of which opened from the entrance hall. The windowless dining area also opened to the entrance hall, then had two doors: one to our room and to Csöpi’s room (my old room). Our two rooms also had an intercommunicating double door, which did not give either of us any privacy, though we kept it closed…

… It was assumed that the couple who were `brought in’ had some party links, so it was always best to keep a low profile. All blocks of flats had wardens and the wardens were paid to keep an eye on the residents and to inform the secret police of any trouble or suspicious activities by the standards of the state. Residents gave wardens gifts in order to try to keep in favour, as false accusations were quite common.

Our warden lived in the flat below ours, which now would be called a ’garden flat’. Their front window looked out to our garden at knee level, but they only had access to the yard at the back. He was a cantankerous middle-aged man with a liking for too much alcohol, but he had a kind and forbearing wife. Mami made sure that whenever we had a parcel from my uncle Bandi in England, the warden had a present. Occasionally, the warden would appear on our doorstep, somewhat embarrassed, and ask a few questions about a visitor he had not seen before. It was all part of his job.

The shocking figures, combined with Tom’s eye-witness evidence, reveal the supreme inhumanity of the régime not just in terms of the scale of the deportations but also in the dehumanising effect of the housing measures in poisoning private relations, breaking consciences and confidences and undermining public commitments. For anyone who has read George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1948, it is not difficult to imagine how varying degrees of distrust pervaded individual relations, if not necessarily in their families and with intimate friends, surely with colleagues, neighbours, fellow members of clubs and choirs. On one of my first visits to Hungary, in July 1989, a Catholic priest commented that, for him, growing up in Budapest, 1984 was not a work of fiction. It described exactly what life was like in Hungary in the period 1948-53. The gap between the official proclamation of the people’s democracy and the reality of their helplessness against the obvious violations of its principles made people apolitical in a highly politicised age, turning them away from civic service.

Meanwhile, the communist state embarked on a 5-year plan of heavy industrialisation. The three-year economic plan, whose task was bringing reconstruction to completion, through the restoration of pre-war production levels, had been accomplished ahead of schedule, by the end of 1949.  The building of Ferihegy Airport, just outside the capital, begun during the war, was also completed. Huge investments were made to enhance industrial output, especially in heavy industry. Planned targets were exceeded, at the expense of agriculture. In respect of the latter, the earlier gradualist approach had been abandoned by the Communists in the summer of 1948. Although the organisation of co-operative farms was their long-term goal from the outset, they realised that the sympathy of the peasantry depended on land reform, and therefore they supported it in the most radical form possible. Even in early 1948, a long and gradual transition to cooperative farming was foreseen, but in view of the June resolution of the Cominform, which censured the Yugoslav party  because of its indulgent attitude to the peasant issue. Rákosi also urged the speeding up of the process, setting aside a few years to its accomplishment. Smallholders were forced into large agricultural collectives managed by party bosses (large landowners had already fled to the west and their land was confiscated). Eventually, the cooperatives were quite successful, but in the first years the effects were devastating. Food production slumped by half and food shortages became the order of the day. In spite of the fact that its share of national income was the same in agriculture as for industry, the former suffered from low investment.  When Tom’s uncle visited from Britain, where ration books controlled the austerity of 1947, he was surprised that war-devastated Hungary still had food in plenty. But by 1951, queues for rations of milk, bread, cheese and meat were the order of the day. Tom remembers standing in food queues after school, keeping a place for his grandmother.

The entirely unreasonable project of transforming Hungary, whose mineral resources were insignificant, into a country of iron and steel established an imbalance in the national economy to the extent that, while the population in general was satisfied with the modest increase in living standards compared with the terrible conditions of 1945-6, the target of reaching pre-war consumption levels was unrealistic. Meanwhile, Hungary’s foreign trade relations were undergoing a profound transformation. By 1949, the Soviet Union took over Germany’s place as its foremost foreign trade partner, a process sealed by the signing of a treaty of friendship and mutual aid between Hungary and the Soviet Union in February 1948. This was followed by the establishment of an entire network of exchange through the creation of the Council of Mutual Economic Aid (COMECON) on 20 January, 1949. The Soviets realised that they could save the expenses of dismantling, transporting and reinstalling equipment and, in addition, use Hungarian labour while exerting greater control over the country’s domestic economy, by creating or reorganising companies of key importance in shipping, air transport, bauxite exploitation, aluminium production, oil extraction and refinement, as mixed concerns. Tom Leimdorfer comments on the combined effects of these economic policies on ordinary people:  

With everything nationalised, gradually all choice in items of clothing also disappeared. Worse still, there were actual shortages of items likes shoes or socks or shirts. These were quite unpredictable and probably partly due to rumours and panic buying. Occasionally, one would hear that clothing items of a certain size were available at a particular outlet (by now all stores were also state-owned or directed co-operatives), but there would soon be a shortage. Long queues would form and the item would soon disappear. Large quantities of other items would be lying around unsold. The state denounced the rumours as being started by enemies of the communist state. It is possible that they had a point, but the ridiculous system of supply led planned production was probably mainly to blame. A certain factory had a target to produce a quantity of a certain product and that had to be fulfilled, irrespective of what was actually needed. Workers and managers who fulfilled or exceeded their targets were given prizes (‘Stakhanovite’ medals with small financial bonuses), those who failed faced disciplinary action.

There was a culture of fear in the workplaces. People were regularly denounced as enemies of the state and investigated. Someone could be denounced for pre-war right-wing connections, for having been a ‘capitalist’, for having links with the west or for supposed fraud or misdemeanour at work. Actually, there was a lot of fraud, mainly perpetrated by those who thought they were safe. In fact, nobody was safe as they could be denounced by others who wanted their job or who wanted to climb the political ladder within the party. One close friend who experienced the horrors of the ‘knock in the night’ was Gyuri Schustek, who had been at college with my father. He was taken for interrogation by the secret police for allegedly falsifying documents in the workplace. At one point, he was told at gun point to sign a false confession. He kept his nerve and refused. After several months, he was released without explanation or apology. He never knew who denounced him or why. Such experiences were quite common.

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The main organ of repression, the ÁVH or Ávó, was separated from the Ministry of the Interior and put directly under the authority, first of the council of ministers, and then of the Defence Committee. Its permanent staff originally consisted of 28,000 officers, striking at individuals or refractory groups or rivals of the leaders upon direct orders from them, based on ‘evidence’ collected from about 40,000 informers also employed by the the political police. Records were kept on about one million citizens, or over ten per cent of the total population. Of these, around two-thirds were prosecuted and nearly 400,000 served terms in prisons or internment/ labour camps, mostly in quarries and mines. By 1953, the tide of persecution had turned on the creators of the system itself, including the chief of the political police. About eighty leading party members were executed, tortured to death or committed suicide in prison, and thousands more zealous communists served prison terms.

There were a few ‘show trials’ and presumed disappearances to Siberia. More likely, prominent figures who were or were deemed to be in opposition to the regime served lengthy terms of imprisonment, some with hard labour. One distant relative, the poet György Faludi (his hungaricised name from Leimdörfer) spent time working in stone quarries and later recorded his experience in the book ‘My happy days in hell’. 

For most people, however, it was all much less dramatic. Just an all-pervading atmosphere of fear and distrust, families teaching their children not repeat conversations they heard at home, everyone careful not to be overheard in public places. The language of the school and the workplace (which had to be really ‘politically correct’) was totally different from private conversations. The state controlled media was not believed by anyone (not even when it happened to tell the truth) and listening to low volume radio broadcasts of the BBC World Service or the right-wing ‘Radio Free Europe’ was both risky and difficult as they were often jammed by state-generated radio interference signals.

It was not all negative, of course. The communist regime improved the health service and education, especially in rural areas, and eliminated absolute poverty. There was no real starvation, homelessness or unemployment. There was improvement in sports facilities and Hungary gloried in its near invincible football team and the 16 gold medals at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. The pervading mood, however, was drabness and fear.

While the mobility between the main sectors of the economy was as yet insignificant, the project of social levelling advanced towards the ultimate communist ideal of a classless society with no private property, an ideal which was not against the wishes of a broad cross-section of society. As a result of the land reform, the nationalisations, the mass forced removals of officials from their posts and the deportations, ‘genteel’ Hungary, the peculiar amalgam of post-feudal, capitalist and liberal-nationalist values was, as Rákosi claimed triumphantly, thrown into the dustbin of history. The business and middle classes who had championed them either emigrated or metamorphosed into service industry or factory workers and engineers. Previously sharing over forty per cent of the national income, they now accounted for a mere ten per cent, while the mass of rural paupers became small proprietors or kulaks, before they too were consigned to history’s dustbin by the intensification of the class struggle in the 1950s. People were told that the reason they could not buy butter or eggs was because the kulaks who were hoarding and hiding their produce.

The party operated an immense system of patronage through which non-measurable benefits (mainly job promotion) could be earned; and for the party élite various perquisites were available according to rank, in a salient contradiction to the professed ideal of equality and the frequent calls to ever tighter austerity in the interest of a glorious future. Among the bulk of the population, a silent resentment grew. Aversion to the personality cult and the ideological terror, the hatred of police repression, bewilderment at the stupidities of economic planning and anger at the anomalies it caused, and the utter exasperation and disillusionment with the régime in general were sentiments occasionally expressed in strikes and perceptible across the Hungarian social spectrum by the time Stalin died on 5 March, 1953. Besides sparing Hungary and other eastern-central European countries from having to ‘import’ a new wave of terror from  the USSR, which had begun in the previous months, the ensuing power struggle and its outcome favoured important changes in the tone and methods, if not in the content and substance, of the communist régimes. With the permission and even on the insistence of Moscow, the process of de-Stalinisation could be started throughout the Soviet bloc. 

Sources:

See part three, following.

Budapest Between the Holocaust and the Uprising, part one: The Ghosts of War, 1946-1948.   1 comment

A Survivor’s Tale:

Tom Leimdorfer was born in Budapest in 1942. Unlike sixteen members of his extended family, he survived the Holocaust in Hungary in 1944-45, both the deportations to the extermination camp  of Auschwitz in the spring and summer of 1944, and the forced marches, starvation and shootings which happened throughout Hungary and in Budapest in particular in the winter of 1944-5. I have edited and published Tom’s account of this ‘survival’ already, and have also made use of his family’s recollections of the events and aftermath of the 1956 Uprising in an attempt to present a variety of perspectives of them.

In the following two ‘posts’ I aim to join these two narratives together by publishing the family’s recollections of childhood after the war in Budapest. For many historians, these years take up no more than a few pages, a few paragraphs even, in the post- world war two History of Hungary, between Soviet ‘liberation’ and invasion. Yet to those growing up in Budapest during these years, they were just as important in terms of their own formative experiences, as Tom’s accounts demonstrate. In any case, the effects of the Holocaust were still a daily presence in his consciousness, and the causes of the Uprising were also present, though less conscious.

The wreck of an engine:

The old steam engine stood there on the siding, a crumpled wreck of rusting metal, but still clearly recognisable as a steam engine. I clambered up the railway embankment through the mass of red poppies just ahead of Mami (my mother), who was anxiously telling me to stop and wait. It must have been a weekend afternoon as my mother worked on other days and I was looked after by my grandmother (Sári mama) or by my nanny Bözsi, who lived with us midweek. It was the summer of 1946 and I was nearing my fourth birthday. The time when children start to be insistent with questions.  This occasion has stood out in my memory as the day when I started to open the door to some awful mysteries around my young life.

‘Why is that engine broken?’ The questions was simple enough. Perhaps I had already asked many other questions about ruined houses, holes in walls. Perhaps this happened to be the moment when my mother decided the time has come to tell. She took my hand and crouched down beside me as I kept staring at the engine. ‘There was a war – many things were broken. Houses, bridges, trains, lorries and many people died’. Her eyes filled with tears, but she did not try to hide them this time. The wreck of the engine remained fixed in my mind, the details of the conversation have faded, but gradually I started making links. The gaps between houses still littered with great heaps of fallen masonry, the bullet holes in walls, the wrecked bridgeheads on the Danube bank, the ruins of the Buda Castle. Then, one by one, the ghosts of missing family members started to emerge in my consciousness.

While time spent with Sári mama and Bözsi was mainly carefree play, my precious time with Mami was often overshadowed by her anxiety and tears. It took time for me to connect the tears with the loss of her parents and the (presumed, but still unconfirmed) loss of her husband. My little friend Éva, and my slightly older second cousin (also called Éva) did not have fathers either, so this did not seem unusual even though my other playmate András did have a dad. My father figure was Dádi (my paternal grandfather, whose real name was Ármin Leimdörfer) and there was a close-knit family of my aunt Juci, uncle Gyuri and great-aunts and uncles who all surrounded me with attention. So it took time for the ‘gaps’ to emerge as family members lost to the war and to the greatest mass murder of all times. Much of my memories of childhood is full of special early friendships, enjoyable holidays, adventures of schooldays and young boy gangs, sport and hobbies, family days and national festivals. These interact with awareness of hardship and my mother’s struggle to keep me safe and to give me the best she could, awareness of new clouds of political persecution and the dangers of living in a dictatorship. It would be easy to paint the picture in very dark colours. Holocaust survival as a toddler, followed by school days in the darkest years of Stalinist communism. Yet there was much fun and laughter and enjoyment and learning. Enduring friendships were formed and I had the precious gift of love in a very special family. It was a priceless childhood, for all the pain and the sombre background.

The story of the tears in my mother’s eyes on that summer’s day in 1946 must be told, but this is pieced together from her words, from my aunt Juci’s book (‘By Grace Alone’) and from history. The memories of the little boy who asked about the broken engine need this backdrop. A good starting point is my old family album.

juliandi-janiMy cousins: Juli, Andi and Jani  

In my early conscious memory of family days, I also see the baby newcomers in the immediate post-war years, my cousins Jani (1946) and Andi (1947), Juci and Gyuri’s two boys, who were joined by my cousin Juli, born in in 1949. We were all treasured as precious signs of a future for the family as well as for ourselves.

childhood-memories

Contemplative by the garden fence

Our flat and our garden were very special places for me. While I have no memories of it before we had to flee on my fateful second birthday, I feel sure that returning to a known home must have been part of the healing. Not many flats in Budapest have secluded private gardens and we were very fortunate. 

That small garden was a wondrous place for me. Once I graduated from the sandpit, a section of the rough grassy patch (not even pretending to be a lawn) was gradually transformed by me to be a network of roads, bridges and tunnels. I created a small imaginary town and played with my cars and bricks and small figures for hours on end when the weather was fine. We had a hammock, which could be strung across near the patio end and where I could doze in the sunshine. As it was the front garden, I could also watch people passing by (through the Russian vine) without them seeing me. The houses opposite were flattened by an air raid or shelling. For a while it was a mysterious forbidden site of weeds and rubble till a new health centre was built there. The mystery was lost, but at least I did not have far to go for my X-rays.

My early recollections are of playing a good deal by myself, under the watchful eye of Bözsi who was calmness and gentleness personified. My mother went to work as secretary in my grandfather’s timber yard. I have no idea how she found Bözsi to look after me, but she was the perfect choice. She was a highly intelligent peasant woman of limited learning, but great wisdom and practical sense. She lived in our small room during the week and went home at the weekends. It never occurred to me at the time that she could be a mother and have children of her own, but she was. She left us when I started nursery school at the age of five in 1947 and I missed her terribly. Some years later, when I was nine, I spent a week with her family in the country in their typical peasant household. That was when I got to know her two children (a few years older than me), learnt to relate to geese and cows and oxen and sleep in one room with the whole family. Bözsi was the brains and the soul of the household and gently directed her husband and all her family. It was probably hard times after the war that made her seek midweek employment as a nanny and it must have been hard for her children, but I am eternally grateful.

The other dominant figure in my early life was Sári mama, my grandmother. She looked after me regularly while Bözsi did the shopping, which was a long complicated matter of queuing in several different shops. Bözsi also had a regular day for going home to her family midweek, when my grandmother took over. Sári mama was much more proactive in her approach to childcare. She had an endless repertoire of games to play indoors or out. She taught me songs to sing and rhymes to recite. We listened to music and she tried to get me to dance. She taught me the basics of draughts and chess and other board games from a very early age. She read stories, patiently answered my endless questions and opened doors to many of the mysteries of life.

Sundays were special times with Mami. She could be distant and preoccupied, anxious and angry, but I always knew that I was her treasure. She was obsessional about hygiene and nutrition. She had the highest expectations for the son for whom she tried to play the role of two parents. Apart from working in the timber yard, she sold  English fashion magazines (such as Vogue) sent by her brother Bandi. This became risky, then impossible during the fifties. Most Sundays, except the monthly Family Days, we went to the Reformed (Calvinist) Church. On the whole, I found it boring, but usually came away with a question to ask Mami. We often went to a little restaurant in Buda called Zöld Fa (Green Tree) where my favourite food was Wiener Schnitzel (escalope of veal). I was her little gentleman escort from a very early age. 

Occasionally, Mami took me with her to the timber yard, perhaps because neither Bözsi, nor Sári mama were free to look after me. My grandfather (Dádi) worked hard to restore the business, but on a much smaller scale than the pre-war firm. Part of the yard was bombed, the office was a small shed. I loved to play hide and seek amidst the piles of wood and enjoyed the scent of fresh shavings in the sawing shed. I now wonder about the health and safety aspect of a four year old running about in a timber yard, but all those working there were looking out for me. I loved watching the goods trains in the railway siding, where the timber was loaded. I was particularly friendly with one of the older workers (Béni bácsi) who occasionally lifted me onto a goods wagon or on a lorry and let me pretend to be in charge of operations.

An uncle returns from overseas:

There were two related events in my mother’s life in 1947. The first was the expected, but still devastating, confirmation that my father had died in 1943. Prisoners of war gradually returned from the Russian camps in small numbers over the post-war years. There was an article about one man who did not return till the 1990s as an elderly man with little memory left. For some families the uncertainty remained for a lifetime. The doctor friend of my father’s who returned in 1947 was there when he died, but could not get news to the family till he was freed in 1947. So my grandparents lost both their sons since young Sanyi died of Spanish flu in childhood. Juci was the one remaining child. By 1947, they had three grandsons and then a granddaughter in 1949. They made our future welfare their main purpose in life.

It may have been confirmation of my father’s death that prompted my uncle Bandi to visit us from London. There were no direct flights, he came by train. He had to leave the combatant units in the army quite early in the war, when they discovered he was colour blind. As an economics graduate, he was given a teaching job within the forces. After the war, he got a job with the Milk Marketing Board in the accounts department and this is where he met his future wife Lilian. He always called her ‘Compie’ (short for ‘companion’). Lilian was a widow with a young son, Roy. Bandi was becoming rapidly anglicised. He also nurtured a deep hatred of Germans (until the 1970s, when he went to work in Germany for while), but his resentment of Hungarians was even deeper and longer lasting. He could not forgive the people of Szécsény who watched his parents (and all their Jewish neighbours) being taken from their homes to Auschwitz and did not raise a murmur of protest. He blamed Hungarians as much as Germans for their death.

He visited my mother to see what support he could give. He also helped her to finalise the handover of my grandparents’ house to the state. A small sum was paid in compensation (houses in Nógrád County were not very valuable) and Bandi insisted that it should all go to my mother. This was generous as he was far from well off at the time. England was still a land of post-war austerity and rationing, while food was still relatively plentiful in Hungary with no rationing. However, Bandi had received help from the family when he left Hungary, so he was repaying a debt. I remember little of his visit as I was feeling very ill with jaundice (hepatitis A).  The little model open top red Jaguar car he brought for me was, however, amazingly memorable and a source of pleasure for years. It had a clockwork motor, steering and forward and reverse gears. He must have taken to me, because he told my mother that if she ever decided that I should go to live in England, he would look after me. This tentative agreement that ‘someday’ I might go to England was something I learnt much later, but it was somehow in the background of our lives. He vowed never to return to Hungary.

Bandi remained a very keen and active tennis player for all but the last four years of his very long life. He won many minor tournaments, became a Wimbledon umpire and as a ‘veteran’ became a legend on the international over 60s circuit. It was a veteran’s tennis tournament in the late 1980s that (when he was well over 70) that made him break his vow of never returning to Budapest. He rather enjoyed it and met up with three cousins he had not seen for forty years.

Little friends:

My very first ‘girlfriend’ was Éva Fischer, who was just a few months older than me. Her mother (Irén néni)  had been a close friend of my mother for many years. Her father also died in a forced labour unit. The two widows met as often as they could and Éva and I played for hours on end. We made up imaginary places and adventures, acted out stories we were told, made secret dens in corners of their flat or ours. In the autumn of 1947, I started going to nursery in the mornings. Mami normally took me and Sári mama collected me at lunchtime. It was a tram ride along the Buda side of the Danube and then a short walk up some steps as the nursery was in a street on the lower slopes of the Castle Hill. The main reason I loved to go was that Éva attended the same nursery. In fact the only thing I remember doing there all year was playing with Éva. The deep snow of that harsh winter is linked with memories of struggling up the icy steps to the nursery.

Our friendship was destined to be cut short by further events of history. The post-war democratic government of Hungary (dominated first by the Smallholder’s Party and then by a Socialist-Communist coalition) presided over a period of hyperinflation followed by a period of gradual reconstruction and land reform. Gradually, with the country under occupation by the Red Army and becoming increasingly linked economically to the Soviet Union, the Communist Party became the dominant force. During the course of 1948 they forced members of the Socialist Party to amalgamate. Those opposed to the process left the country or eventually ended up in prison on trumped up charges as the country moved towards one-party dictatorship by February 1949. Éva’s mother, Irén néni, saw it all coming and was determined not to live under another dictatorship. She was a jeweller by trade and worked hard in the post war years to rebuild her shop, which had been confiscated as part of the anti-Jewish legislation. She was not prepared to lose it again to the Communists. She had an acquaintance in Paris, a middle-aged widower, who was also a jeweller. He came to visit and marry her so she could get to Paris, with most of her merchandise. It was supposed to be a marriage of convenience, but it lasted till the day he died. They had separate shops and mainly separate lives, but seemed to love each other dearly.

I recall one evening in the autumn of 1948 when my mother and I were at the flat of Imre Budai, a colleague who was clearly smitten by her. By that time, Mami had left employment with my grandfather (who was negotiating the handover his timber yard to the state). As an attractive young widow, she was not short of admirers, but generally kept them at a distance. Budai was a kind balding and portly man, whom I found very boring. On this particular evening, he tried to distract me by allowing me to use his typewriter. I had just started school and Mami encouraged me to write a ‘letter’. So I did and it went like this: ‘Mami  I am bored let us go to Éva’. This caused some amusement and Mami kept the missive to show Irén. We did go to see them that night and I was shocked to see Éva amidst trunks and packing cases. She was in tears as all her toys were being packed away. The next time I saw her was in Paris in the summer of 1959. She was seventeen and engaged to be married. She and her husband went to live Geneva for some years and then emigrated to Israel. Irén néni kept in touch with me till she died in her seventies,  but I lost touch with Éva. Imre Budai had little success with my mother, though he courted her for months. One day, he produced an expensive Swiss Doxa watch as a gift for Mami, which must have cost him nearly a month’s salary. She refused to accept, he refused to take it back. So they agreed that I should have it and I have got it to this day (although I was not allowed to wear it till I was ten). I always thought of it as a gift from my mother.

My other little friend was András. His mother (Eszti) and and my mother met on the platform at the railway station saying goodbye to their husbands going to the Russian front. They were both pregnant, Eszti was just about to give birth, while my mother was four months pregnant. They became very close friends and shared news from the front, where the two men served in the same unit. Unlike my father, Jenő manage to escape both death and capture and made it back home after months of hiding and unspeakable deprivation. He did not stay with his unit and was officially missing. So he had to stay in hiding for eighteen months, till the end of the war. He could not even go down to cellars during bombing raids for fear of being seen and recognised.

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András with Tom in his garden, and skiing in the Mátra Mountains

After the war, Eszti and Jenő helped my mother by including her and me in their outings and holidays. Jenő was a keen photographer and there are photos and films capturing happy moments by the Lake Balaton in the summer or skiing in the Buda Hills or the Mátra Mountains in winter. Skiing was not a luxury sport for us. If there was snow on a winter weekend, we just took our skis on the trams or buses to the cog-wheel railway, which ascends the Buda Hills. There we would have our sandwiches and flasks of hot drinks while the wooden skis were waxed with a hot iron (there was a small fee to be paid for this). Then we were off to the slopes. Often we also had András’ other little friend (also called Tamás) with us. The three little boys practised together and raced each other on the safe and gentle nursery slopes, but we often watched the experts on the steep slopes and the ski jumps. Eventually, we ventured further as Jenő felt we were ready. Most memorable was the ‘round trip’, when we would go right down to Hűvös Völgy (Cool Valley) for a meal in a tavern and then take the tram home before dark.

András was a good friend throughout our childhood and we often played in each other’s homes. Their fourth floor flat had a fantastic view over the Danube, across to the Castle and the  hills. We always watched the firework displays on the 20 August (Constitution Day) from their balcony. We went to different schools except for the brief seven weeks in the autumn of 1956 before the Revolution and our flight to the west.  It was always strange and comforting to be back where I had my childhood ‘sleepovers’ with András, still surrounded by some of the old furniture and looking out over the lit panorama of bridges over the Danube.

Another little friend, a year younger then me was Gyuri Sarkadi, son of my mother’s cousin Kornélia (Kori néni to me). His father also died in the war and he was also an only child. Their flat opened to a large overgrown garden with some statues and exciting hiding places where we played for hours. Later we also played button football (of which more later) and board games while our mothers caught up with each other’s news. It was always an enjoyable visit as Kori néni was always very kind and Gyuri’s nanny,  Baja néni, always had some special treat for me. Gyuri became an electronic engineer and married a lovely paediatrician, Kati.

 

Early school days:

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Veres Pálné experimental primary class 1, September 1948

I am in top row, extreme right. Bomb damage seen in background

Class teacher Sára Németh

On a hot weekend during the summer of 1948, I was just waking up from my afternoon siesta. The sun’s rays were streaming through the gaps in the heavy wooden roller blind. I became aware of Mami sitting by my bed. She started to talk about the end of the summer. What did I think about starting proper school? This was her style; she always consulted me about decisions which affected me even at that early age. I remember asking some questions. I would have to see the school and they might not take me because I was not six till October and school (even now) only starts at the age of six. Also, the school she had in mind was on the other side of the river (Pest side) and we would need to take the tram. But it was where she went as a young girl. I said I would go on the visit, but I was a bit scared about it.

All I remember of the interview was the beautiful young teacher who showed us round, asked me a few questions and set me down to play a game of dice with pieces going round a board. I tried to concentrate because I knew I just had to be in her class. At the end she asked me which was my right hand. That was alright, but then she asked me which was her left hand. I just looked at her in total confusion and was mortified that I failed. They offered me a place all the same. It was a new ‘experimental’ primary unit attached to the famous city centre Veres Pálné gimnázium (grammar school), which my grandmother and aunt had attended. The ‘experimental’ aspect included the fact that it was a mixed class and they taught French right from the start. I learnt very little French in the year, but I remember gazing through the window at the large tree outside, knowing it was ‘fenêtre’ and ‘arbre’.

I made friends easily with some girls and the parents of one of them (also called Éva) took me with group of her friends skating a few times to the outdoor ice rink. It was great fun, though not on a par with skiing. The large artificial lake at Városliget (City park) would be drained each winter down to a few centimetres and artificially frozen. The replica castle on the far bank made a magic backdrop. There were special areas for children, for adults, for expert dancers and also for ice hockey. It made a great outing and I enjoyed being the only boy amongst a group of girls.

The boys in the class were more of a problem. I was the youngest and also one of the smallest. It soon became clear that playtimes were dominated by two big boys who were quite physical and each had their ‘group’. These were games I generally did not wish to take part in. One of the ‘big boys’ was far from bright and quite early on I made a point of quietly helping him whenever he got stuck with schoolwork. This strategy succeeded as he always leapt to my defence in the playground without me even asking him.

Travelling to school is worth a moment of reflection. It meant walking a few steps from our road to the main road, crossing over to the raised platform in the centre, which was the tram stop, five stops by tram (going over the river), crossing the main road again (now there is an underpass), walking five minutes to the school buildings. For the first couple of weeks, Mami took me before going off to her work, but this probably made her late. After that, she saw me onto the tram before catching her bus and I did the trip alone. There was not much traffic and I was taught to cross roads carefully. It would not have occurred to anyone that a six year old was at risk from strangers. Most days, my grandmother (Sári mama) met me coming out of school and took me to her home for lunch and helped me with any problems I might have had at school. In reality, I learnt more from her than from anyone else. On Wednesdays, my great-aunt Manci took me to her home and I was spoilt with her kindness and home-made teacakes.

One day my teacher, Sarolta, was very cross with me. I absolutely cannot recall why. She was beautiful and charming, but quite firm. She insisted that I must write right-handed, which was a struggle and would tap my hand with a ruler if I tried to use my left hand. None of this reduced my ‘crush’ on her which started when I first saw her at interview. Solemnly she declared that day, that I must stay behind until my mother came from work to fetch me. On the one hand, this was sweet punishment as I had her all to myself when the rest of the class went home, but the worry of my mother’s anger spoilt it. Like most young children, I remember the punishment, but not the supposed misdemeanour.

The ‘experimental’ primary school was closed after a year. By September 1949, communism was in full swing and Stalinist centralised standardisation became the educational climate. In fact, it was a return to the Prussian model of very formal pedagogy which was favoured by the old Austro-Hungarian empire, only with communist propaganda colouring the content. Anything ‘experimental’ (favoured in Russia in the early years of the Revolution under Lenin) went out of the window, together with attempts to teach French at an early age. Russian became compulsory from the age of 10 and thousands of language teachers (mainly of English, French and German) had to become teachers of Russian within weeks. Forty year later, the process was repeated in reverse as teachers of Russian became a dying breed.

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