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British Society and Popular Culture, 1963-68: Part Two – Beatlemania & the Cultural Revolution.   Leave a comment

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Sexual Freedom & Women’s Liberation:

The ‘cultural revolution’ had a profound effect on sexual behaviour in general, and on women in particular. Sex before marriage became less taboo (one-third of young women were pregnant when they married), and there was a general feeling of increasing sexual freedom at various levels in society, which was made a reality through the advent and growing availability of the contraceptive pill from 1962. Women’s liberation also took off, leading to the victory of the Equal Pay Act in 1970. Until that, equal rights and feminism only really touched the surface. There was still a long road to travel on this, however. Too many workplaces were utterly unwelcoming of women wanting work. Too many memoirs recount the gross sexism of the new rock stars, not to mention the abuse of young women and children by a small number of prominent pop celebrities, more recently uncovered in police investigations. ‘The Pill’ might have arrived, and the Abortion Act became law in 1967, but this was still a time of ‘unwanted’ pregnancies, ‘unmarried’ mothers and gross domestic violence being administered by drunken men. Yet the philosophical principles of egalitarianism were gradually weaving their way into social change. Traditions of submission and obedience, together with hierarchies of class and gender based on medieval property rights, industrial capital and imperial administration, began to wobble and dissolve into a society which was more dilute and porous. This was not so much because ‘revolutionaries’ ushered in an age of personal freedom, but more generally because it suited a new economic system based on consumer choices.

In domestic life, two-thirds of families acquired labour-saving devices such as refrigerators and washing-machines. There was a growing ‘snappiness’ and lightness of design, in everything from the cut of clothing to the shape of cars, an aesthetic escape from the gravitas of the post-war period of austerity. But among the population as a whole this was a gradual transformation, experienced in a continuum, not as a revolution. The process was somewhat accelerated among the younger generation.  The real earnings of young manual workers had grown rapidly in the early sixties, creating a generation who had money to spend on leisure and ‘luxury’ goods. The average British teenager was spending eight pounds a week on clothes, cosmetics, records and cigarettes. In London, King’s Road and Carnaby Street became the haunts of this generation. Their attitude is summed up by the designer Mary Quant, whose shop Bazaar in King’s Road, provided clothes…

… that allowed people to run, to jump, to leap, to retain their precious freedom. 

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Quant had been cutting up lengths of cloth bought over the counter and selling them at Bazaar since the mid-fifties. Her iconoclastic style involved drawing, slicing and sewing up a uniform that parodied the pleated, padded, extravagant clothes of the Old New Look designers. In doing so, she was taking on the fashion industry of Paris and the West End from her bedsit and tiny shop. Quant’s shockingly short mini-skirts, named after the car she loved, were offensive enough for the occasional brick to be lobbed at her window. She always claimed that she was trying to free women to be able to run for a bus. But it was the sexual allure that shocked. Michael Caine later recalled taking his mother down the King’s Road to see what all the fuss was about:

I said, “here’s one now”, and this girl walks by with a mini up to here. She goes by and my mother looked at her. So, we walk on a bit. She never said a word. So I said, what do you think, mum? She said: “If it’s not for sale, you shouldn’t put it in the window.”

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Clothes became the outward symbols of the ‘Chelsea Set’ of which Caine was a fully paid-up member, as was Quant. But Quant’s fashions were as exclusively priced as the ‘Set’ itself. ‘Biba’, an iconic symbol, promised liberation for women and girls, but liberation through spending. Its founder, Barbara Hulanicki was a girl from an exiled family, born before the war, brought up in British-controlled Palestine and then raised by a ‘bohemian’ aunt in Brighton, before going to art school. She then launched a mail order company with her husband. Biba, named after her younger sister, aimed to offer glamorous clothing at cheap prices. She had been mesmerised by Audrey Hepburn (above and below), her shape; long neck, small head, practically jointless, and her first top-selling design was a pink gingham dress like the one worn by Brigitte Bardot at her wedding.

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Her succession of boutiques were dark, chaotic spaces in which customers could lose themselves, pick up and try on, discard and collect, and sometimes steal, a great gush of new designs which seemed to change every week. The clothes were run up at high-speed in the East End and ferried to the boutique (below) several times a week. Turnover was spectacular and soon celebrities were beating a path its door, mixing with shorthand typists and schoolgirls to buy Biba designs – Mia Farrow, Yoko Ono, Princess Anne, Raquel Welch and even Bardot herself. As one Biba admirer said, it was helping to create the concept of shopping as an experience, a leisure activity for the young. George Melley, jazz singer, writer and professional flamboyant called it a democratic version of Mary Quant. Hulancki herself said that she always wanted to get prices down, down, down, to the bare minimum. The cheapness and disposability of the clothes was shocking to an older Britain in which millions of families had been used to make do and mend, followed by making their own clothes, buying patterns from Woolworth’s and sewing them by hand, or using a new electric sewing machine, or knitting woollen dresses and jerseys. Biba was the beginning of the throw-away consumer culture applied to clothing, and though it would present moral dilemma later, in the sixties it simply provided freedom for millions of young single women, career girls about town, who, as yet, had not been shaped by motherhood.

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Pop Music and Popular Culture:

Another symbol was popular music. Before ‘pop’ the dominant popular music styles produced low profits. Most public music was live; piano and banjo players on music-hall stages, the star singers and then eventually the big bands of the dance halls and the smoky subculture of ‘jazz’. Sheet-music made big money for talented composers like Ivor Novello and stage stars like Harry Lauder. Gramophone record sales had kicked off with recordings of early twentieth-century opera stars but the invention of the modern microphone in the twenties had then changed popular singing, allowing intimacy and variety of a new kind. The recording industry brought Louis Armstrong, the Ink Spots, Vera Lynn and the crooners of many West End musicals to millions of homes before pop. By the end of the fifties there were four major British recording companies: EMI, Decca, Pye and Philips. Most of their profits came from classical music or comic recordings, like those of Flanders and Swann. It was with the spread of seven-inch forty-fives that records had become something that teenagers could afford to buy. Though first produced in the US as early as 1948, for working-class British youngsters they were still formidably expensive by the late fifties.

The other essential technological changes arrived at around the same time. First, loud electric guitars, invented by radio repairman Leo Fender in 1948. Then transistor radios, originally invented in the mid-fifties to help Americans keep in touch after the coming nuclear war with Russia, and becoming popular for other purposes at the end of the decade. Without the mike, the electric guitar and the seventh-inch record, rock and pop would not have happened. Without the radio, the vital cross-cultural currents would have been unheard. The post-austerity economic boom was putting money in the pockets of teenagers and young workers, and the post-war baby-boom had increased their numbers. Better nutrition meant that they reached puberty earlier, and the mechanisms for the mass-marketing were already in place. By the early sixties, all the essential ingredients of the new market for this were also in place.

Most histories of golden-age sixties rock groups begin with a similar narrative, with the kids discovering Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley under their bedclothes, covertly listening on frequency 208 on their transistor radio to Radio Luxembourg, which broadcast to the UK from 7.00 p.m. onwards every night. They then go on to describe the formation of a ‘skiffle’ band, like that of Lonnie Donegan, using simple chords and home-made instruments like washboards or slatted wardrobe doors, mouth organs and ‘kazoos’. Then the coffee bar or burger bar would make an appearance, a place where teenagers could go to socialize and listen to jukeboxes. The local art college would also, often, be part of this formative, group experience. Many of these were associated with local technical colleges, which before the university expansion of the seventies was where bright, imaginative and often rebellious teenagers would end up after leaving ‘academia’ behind at fifteen. The art schools were the true factories of popular culture, for musicians, painters and sculptors.

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By the later fifties, art students were not only listening to skiffle, but the US rock ‘n’ roll stars, and also to British ‘Elvis copies’ like first Tommy Steel, then Harry Webb, ‘reincarnated’ as Cliff Richard, then Tom Jones. John Lennon went to Liverpool Art College, while Ray Davies, who formed The Kinks attended Hornsey, Keith Richard of The Rolling Stones went to Sidcup, and Pete Townsend of The Who went to Ealing Art College. The RAF-style roundels and bold black arrows which appeared on the band’s clothes and became part of the Mods’ insignia, had been swiped from graphic designers and pop painters. Of course, no band was more important in the sixties, and arguably since, than The Beatles. They expressed both youthful rebellion and commercialism, providing British teenagers with an identity that cut across the barriers of class, accent and region. The Beatles had been formed, originally as The Quarrymen, in July 1957 and in 1962 Love Me Do reached #17 in the charts. But it wasn’t until April 1963, that From Me to You became their first number one hit single.

‘Beatlemania’ & the Radio Revolution:

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The key to their initial breakthrough, and their continued success, was not studio recordings, but radio performances. Between 1957 and 1970 they performed live in eighty-four different venues in England, fifteen in Scotland, six in Wales and two in Ireland. Many people in the establishment regarded ‘pop’ music with disdain. The BBC held a monopoly over the radio waves and, in a deal with the Musicians’ Union and record manufacturers, ensured that popular music was not given airtime. The Beatles, however, were too popular for the BBC to resist, and between March 1962 and June 1965, no fewer than 275 unique musical performances were recorded in their studios and broadcast throughout the UK. The group played eighty-eight different songs on national radio, some recorded many times. As well as their own songs, these recordings also included rock ‘n’ roll numbers by Chuck Berry and Little Richard. They worked like dogs, once recording eighteen songs in one day on 16 July 1963. Derek Taylor has written about how …

… they became our cheeky chappies, our Elvis, took up residence on the front page, and in the zeitgeist of the age, helped to establish the booming creative potential of provincial England.

The Beatles gave us a continuing soundtrack of unparalleled charm and reassurance. As long as they kept on delivering fresh songs along with the morning milk, everything was right in our optimistic world. Quite quickly, the Beatles became an institution all of their own, with all sorts of attendants – fanatics and detractors, revisionists and archivists, accountants and lawyers, scribes and Pharisees.

That the Beatles were woven into the fabric of British life was due in large part to the regularity of their attention to good habits – the Christmas message to the fans, the package tours, the visits home to Liverpool families, an honest paying of all the expected dues and in no small measure to the BBC, who provided that unparalleled broadcasting expertise to keep the nation in touch with ‘the boys’ through fifty-three broadcasts. Radio allowed them to ‘be themselves’ and that was always enough for the Beatles and their followers.

The Beatles’ frequent access to the BBC’s studios and airwaves was the consequence of an age of wireless innocence. Although millions were hungry for rock ‘n’ roll, on the radio it was severely rationed. When you tuned in during the day, there was only the choice of the BBC’s three national networks and, of those, only the Light Programme might occasionally allow Elvis or Buddy Holly into your house. There was no local radio or commercial radio. The only alternative was a crackling, phasing Radio Luxembourg beamed across Europe at night. When ‘the Light’ did feature ‘pop’, due to the Musicians’ Union restriction, records were frequently side-lined by emasculated renditions of hits from dance orchestras. But without competition, BBC radio programmes were guaranteed huge audiences. The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, had understood this opportunity and sent an application for a radio audition to the BBC’s Manchester outpost early in 1962. Producer Peter Pilbeam had auditioned them and, despite his note on his report about the singers – John Lennon, yes; Paul McCartney, no – both had featured on their BBC debut in front of an audience at Manchester Playhouse in March 1962. This regional radio breakthrough had come seven months before the release of their first single on ‘Parlophone’, Love Me Do, and no recording exists of the concert or any of their other three broadcasts of 1962. It remains ‘pre-history’ in terms of the Beatlemania years, especially when compared to their ‘meteoric’ rise to fame in 1963.

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At the beginning of 1963, Britain was experiencing its worst winter weather since 1947. The country shivered through freezing temperatures at a time when few houses had the luxury of central heating. Most of the land was covered in deep snow making transport difficult. Undaunted, The Beatles spent many hours during those cold early months of 1963 in a van driven by a friend, journeying up and down the country to appear onstage at theatres and ballrooms and to perform in radio and TV studios. Before this breakthrough year, the group had worked hard at their craft, including hundreds of hours spent entertaining the rowdy clientele of a Hamburg nightclub and the friendly regulars at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, enabling the development of an extensive and varied repertoire. Their musical expertise combined with discipline and stamina proved to be an unbeatable formula.

Though the stories of British rock and pop bands follow a predictable trajectory, the stories of the earlier bands are more interesting simply because the story had not occurred before. Though pop was a business it was also narrative about class and morality; almost every band’s story described the tension between the marketing of the music and the attempt by the band to stay in some way ‘authentic’, true to themselves. Many never tried to be authentic in the first place, but the groundbreaking ones did but didn’t find it easy. The Kinks were four north London boys who affected a camp look and played rough, hard pop were put into the most extraordinary pink hunting jackets, ruffs and thigh-high suede boots. The Beatles were bullied and cajoled by Epstein into ditching the rough jeans and leather Luftwaffe jackets they had learned in Hamburg. To get their first recording contract with EMI, the Beatles were told to stop smoking on stage, stop swearing, turning up late, and making spontaneous decisions about which songs they would play at their gigs. They also had to learn to bow smartly to the audience, all together, after every song. They agreed. It was only later in their successful sixties that they felt they could tell their managers where to get off.

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The BBC’s Saturday Club presenter, Brian Matthew (above), commented, following their appearance on his show on 26th January 1963:

At the moment, the majority of ‘The Beatles’ fans are in their home town of Liverpool and I have a very strong suspicion it won’t be long before they’re all over the country.

Brian Matthew’s belief was quickly confirmed. From ten o’clock to twelve noon every Saturday, the show reached an enormous audience of around ten to twelve million. The Beatles were featured ten times on the programme and quickly established a rapport with Matthew and producer Bernie Andrews, who supervised the music sessions.  Six numbers were recorded in sessions lasting no more than three and a half hours; sometimes as short as ninety minutes. Throughout 1963 number one records followed in quick succession: Please Please Me, From me to You, She Loves You and I Want to Hold Your Hand. The debut album, Please Please Me, the Twist and Shout EP, and the With the Beatles LP were also released within that year. While those releases kept them high in the charts, the pressure of The Beatles schedule never eased for a moment, but they were match-fit. They performed music in thirty-nine radio shows in 1963 and, most importantly, fifteen of those programmes were editions of their own radio series Pop Go the Beatles which the BBC invited them to host during the summer of 1963. Tuesday evening became an essential date with the radio for millions of fans. They were encouraged by the presenter to let their humour shine between the songs, and producer Terry Henebery remembers this ‘zaniness’ not being confined to the recorded speech links:

They’d come to the studio and horse about. You had to crack the whip and get on the loudspeaker talk-back key quite a lot and say “Come on, chaps!” They’d be lying all over the floor, giggling. And I can remember afternoons down at the Paris Cinema studio, where you were just looking at the clock, throwing your hands up in horror and thinking, ‘will they ever settle down?’ I mean, people would go and get locked in the toilets and fool about. But you were, at the end of the day, getting some nice material out of them.

No one would have predicted it in 1963, but the songs The Beatles chose to perform for their radio series constitute the most fascinating aspect of their music sessions for the BBC. The New Musical Express reported that R-and-B material will be strongly featured. The shows certainly lived up to that promise. Required to record six songs for every show, to avoid undue repetition, the group would often romp through an old favourite or work on a new number. As Ringo observed:

It was fine when doing the repertoire we knew, but some weeks it’d be real hard. We’d rehearse two or three songs in the lunch break and then go and record them in the afternoon.

For some groups, a series that demanded six new recordings every weeknight might have been daunting; but it allowed The Beatles to air their influences and try out some new favourites. They performed fifty-six new songs in all, twenty-five of which had not and would not be released on any of their records. The choice of material in these and other programmes clearly reveals the artists who had inspired the group. They recorded nine cover versions of Chuck Berry songs which, except for Roll Over Beethoven were all belted out by John. In addition, they covered six Carl Perkins and four Elvis Presley songs, while the four Little Richard rockers were the exclusive vocal property of Paul and his throat-ripping ‘whoops’ and ‘hollers’. In gentler moments, Paul sang A Taste of Honey and Till There Was You, but his most unusual ballad was The Honeymoon Song. John produced a real gem in Ann-Margret’s I Just Don’t Understand. The four were adept at digging out unusual material, often beating rival Liverpool groups to sought-after American records and learning the B-side. As Paul commented in 2013,

You will find stuff in our repertoire that came off little odd-ball records. We had started off going onstage and playing songs that we liked, but then we would find that on the same bill as us in the Liverpool clubs, there might be another band that would play exactly the same songs. If they were on before us, it made us look a bit silly. We started to look further afield, study the American charts and see what was there. We’d listen to radio a lot and find out if there was anything up and coming. We would also flip records and listen to the B-sides; see if we could find anything that way. In fact, that’s what started John and I writing, because this was the only foolproof way that other bands couldn’t have our songs. There was no great artistic muse that came out of the heavens and said, ‘Ye shall be a songwriting partnership!’ It was really just we had better do this or everyone is going to have our act. …

In addition to the night-time broadcasts of Radio Luxembourg, the other sources for rock ‘n’ roll music on discs were coffee-bar jukeboxes, fairgrounds and record shops. Fortunately, this era was a golden era for record stores. Hundreds of family-run concerns, like Brian Epstein’s NEMS in Liverpool, would take pride in stocking at least one copy of everything released. Many Liverpool musicians spent hours in listening booths at NEMS while records were played to them. Occasionally, they might even buy one! At the time of their BBC sessions, The Beatles were seeking out the latest Rhythm and Blues records from the States. Although many of these by groups such as The Miracles did not, at first, make the British charts, they were a key influence on The Beatles. Again, Paul McCartney explains:

With our manager Brian Epstein having a record shop – NEMS – we did have the opportunity to look around a bit more than the casual buyer. …

Ringo would get stuff from the sailors. … he happened to have a few mates who’d been to New Orleans or New York and had picked up some nice blues or country and western. … But it was really a question of looking harder than the next guy. We made it our full-time job to research all these things; to go for the road less travelled.

These records, and those by The Shirelles, who did have some UK hits, had sophisticated vocal, string and horn parts. Rearranging them for a four-piece line-up helped to create the Beatle sound just as much as the earlier singles by the rock ‘n’ roll pioneers. Current R&B records were not easy to get hold of or hear in Britain. But in 1963, records released on the Tamla and Motown labels were distributed in the UK by Oriole. Radio Luxembourg also featured the latest records by Mary Wells, The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Martha & the Vandellas and Little Stevie Wonder. Although none of them was a hit at the time, The Beatles’ love of the records from Detroit was demonstrated when they included three Motown songs on With the Beatles. Their devotion to black soul music proved crucial to its wider acceptance.

The significance of The Beatles’ BBC radio sessions also stems from the way the sound of the group was captured for their broadcasts. At that time, artists were not given large amounts of studio time. At EMI studios, on 11th February 1963, The Beatles had to record ten songs for their debut album, Please Please Me. The fact that this was achieved in under ten hours subsequently became regarded as a remarkable achievement. This was seen as especially true when the quality of the tracks was considered. It was common practice in 1963 to complete a minimum of two songs in a standard three-hour session. As Paul has pointed out,

It was just the rate people worked at. … Looking at it now, it seems so fast, but then it seemed very sensible.

At the BBC, the work-rate was even higher. Apart from when they were performing in front of an audience for a broadcast, The Beatles had to record five or six songs in a short session so they were not fazed by this requirement. The recordings were made onto a four-track tape machine at EMI in October 1963, but multi-tracking did not begin at the BBC until a decade later. This meant that the mono recordings could not be edited, except by editing different takes of a song onto the same tape. Otherwise, there was the option to ‘overdub’ by copying the first recording to another tape, while at the same time adding more instruments or vocals. Both of these processes could be very time-consuming, so what we hear on the BBC tapes is the sound of the group performing ‘live’, direct to tape, as if to an immediate audience, but without the noisy hysteria which accompanied their public concerts. The pop songs of the early Beatles were not neatly produced commodities as all pop songs later became. You can hear the fun involved in their creation.

When Pop Go The Beatles finished its run, they were once more at the top of the charts with She Loves You. From that point on, things went crazy and pretty much stayed that way. Their unassailable popularity was reflected by the press who applied the epithet Beatlemania to the hysteria that surrounded their every move. In February 1964, the States surrendered to the magic and Brian Epstein’s bold boast that his group would be ‘bigger than Elvis’ proved to be true. Having ‘hit the business jackpot’, as Brian Matthew expressed it in Saturday Club, the number of times The Beatles came to the BBC was greatly reduced; compared to the thirty-four programmes recorded in 1963, from October 1963 to June 1965 there were just fifteen specially recorded sessions. Having once been prepared to rush from one end of the country to the other for a radio show, global success now made the group less available. Their last BBC radio performance was the solitary one of 1965, on Whit Monday, entitled The Beatles Invite You to Take a Ticket to Ride. It was understandable that they now had real need of this particular kind of radio exposure. But most of the sessions at the BBC had been exciting and fun. DJ Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman worked with the Beatles in 1964. He remembered that:

Their music and persona freed me from middle age … because the things that were coming from The Beatles made me feel like a ten-year-old! They made us all feel tremendously happy.

Just before The Beatles made their last BBC recording, at Easter 1964 the first illegal ‘pirate’ radio station, Radio Caroline, began broadcasting from a ship just off the Sussex coast. 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’. 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.

The Rock Generation:

In the early days of pop and rock, it was not always quite as obvious that money would always trump vitality. There were still battles to be fought between the two. The Who (pictured below) were a west London band which had, like so many others, emerged from skiffle, and had been kick-started by the early successes of The Beatles. They were encouraged by their manager, Peter Meadon, to dress stylishly and address themselves to the new audience of ‘Mods’. Their first single, I Can’t Explain was self-consciously derivative of The Kinks, and was released in January 1965. It made it to #8 in the charts, but it was their second single, My Generation which really caught the mood of the times and the imaginations of pop fans, later became the first British rock ‘anthem’. It was recorded at the Pye Studios in London in October 1965 and released as a single on 5th November. Just before its release, Roger Daltry was fired from the band for fighting with the other members, but he was quickly reinstated when it reached #2. The fighting and onstage antics continued throughout their early career, though, including the smashing up of guitars by the band’s leader, Pete Townsend. While delighting their live audiences, their guitar-smashing kept them away from mainstream venues.

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A string of top ten hits followed in 1965-67, from Substitute to Pictures of Lily and I Can See for Miles. Pete was disappointed that the last of these only reached #10 in the UK charts compared with #9 in the US, commenting shortly afterwards that to him, that was the ultimate Who record yet it didn’t sell and I spat on the British record buyer. Throughout a stellar career during which some think, with their concept albums, eclipsed The Beatles after the break-up of the ‘fab four’, The Who, though, far from revolutionary in politics, were never properly ‘tamed’.  Nor were The Kinks, whose song-writing genius Ray Davies became involved in a punch-up with an American television union official who had called them a bunch of commie wimps. That altercation got them banned from the States for four crucial years.

The big battle lines, however, were drawn over the content of the songs, which quickly moved beyond the easy American boy-meets-girl themes of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. By 1968, rock was beginning to escape from the urban and suburban Britain of its young consumers. For most of them, their teenage years would end in a more conventional working life and marriage, which was (perhaps somewhat conversely) more popular than ever in the late sixties, with marriage rates peaking in 1972. But drugs, mysticism, gangs and sexual experimentation were some of the alternatives celebrated by pop culture, much to the discomfort of record companies, the BBC, politicians and the newspapers. Songs such as Lola by The Kinks and I’m a Boy by The Who challenged existing sexual stereotypes, and there was a ‘libertine’ element in The Rolling Stones songs which shocked those parents who could follow the lyrics.

Above all, the rate of experimentation and change in sixties pop itself was astonishing, as a new sound, instrument, length of song and sexually explicit album cover image seemed to come along every few weeks in 1966-68. It was a classic, market-driven competition between the top bands and artists, measured by sales of records. Lennon and McCartney remained at the forefront of this experimentation, feeding back discoveries about tape loops, modern composers and Bach into the music of The Beatles, retreating more and more into their Abbey Road studio to produce more complex sounds. The Stones’ blues-rock challenged the ‘Mersey Beat’ and the ‘Mods’ began to produce early versions of the ‘heavy metal’ genre, followed by Led Zeppelin at the end of 1968, who made it their own. But, at this stage, The Beatles were still seen as the pioneers, the first big stars to fall for Indian mysticism, sitars, or the next drug craze, and the first to break up under the strain. Their trajectory, like their output, seemed impossible to beat. As Andrew Marr concludes,

A band’s success was based on its members’ skills but also on their authentic claim to be the kids from the streets whose anger, enthusiasm, boredom and wit reflected the actual Britain all around them, the lives of the people who would save up and buy their songs. Pop was music from below or it was nothing. Yet the successful musicians would be cut off from the world they came from by the money and the security needed to keep fans at bay until they were fated to sound introspective and irrelevant.  

By 1968, other forms of music were receding before the ear-splitting tidal advance of rock and pop, driven by radio. In painting, pop art and the pleasure principle were on the attack. Simpler and more digestible art forms, suitable for mass market consumption, were replacing élite art which assumed an educated and concentrated viewer, listener or reader. Throughout these years there were self-conscious moves to create new élites, to keep the masses out. They came from the portentous theories of modern art or the avowedly difficult atonal Classical music arriving from France and America, but these were eddies against the main cultural current.  Similarly, when Mary Quant set up her shop she was a rotten businesswoman. The fun was in the clothes. No business with so little grasp of cash could afford to be cynical. Of course, the King’s Road was a foreign country to most Britons in the mid-sixties. The majority of those who lived through that period have personal memories of rather conventional and suburban lives. Most working-class people were still living in Edwardian and Victorian red-brick terraces in the English and Welsh industrial cities, and in tenements in Glasgow, Dundee and other Scottish towns.

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For this vast majority, the early sixties were experienced as a continuation of the fifties, not as a break with that decade. Britain remained an industrial society, though more prosperous, whose future was believed still to depend on factories producing cars, engines, washing machines and electrical goods, both for the ‘domestic’ market and for export. The older generation of authority figures – teachers, judges and above all parents – still derived their clothes and morality from their wartime experience, and were the butt of widespread mockery, especially by the cartoonist Giles of The Daily Express (commemorated by the statue shown above, located in Ipswich town centre) and on TV by David Frost. Television also gave further mass exposure to the pop industry, with regular editions of  ‘Jukebox Jury’, ‘Ready, Steady, Go’, and ‘Top of the Pops’ attracting huge young audiences. The radio, TV and magazine publicity machine was up and going. The equipment was in every second home, radios and record players turned out by Britain’s booming electronics industry. But the men with moustaches and ‘short back and sides’ haircuts were visibly still in power. As Andrew Marr has written,

The Britain which proudly displayed volumes of Churchill’s war memoirs on bookshelves, and stood up in cinemas for the national anthem, did not disappear when Ringo Starr grew his first luxuriant moustache.   

Swinging London and its New Celebrities:

The new culture was far from elitist; it was meritocratic, but it could be just as exclusive as the older forms. It was shaped by upper-working-class and lower-middle-class people who had never enjoyed this level of cultural influence before. The northern cities of England, especially Liverpool, but also Newcastle and Manchester, that were sending their sons and daughters south to conquer, even if it was only on radio and television shows. The older Britain with its regimental traditions, its racism and clear divisions in terms of class, geography and dialect. The ‘scouse’ voices of The Beatles and the ‘Geordie’ accents of the Animals had been rarely heard on the radio before 1963, and for many metropolitan and Home Counties listeners, they came as something of a shock. By the summer of 1965, however, what was called Swinging London, or the Scene, was a small number of restaurants, shops and clubs where a small number of people were repeatedly photographed and written about. In Chelsea, Biba, ‘Granny Takes a Trip’, ‘Bazaar’ and ‘Hung on You’ were honeypots for the fashionable. They spent their evenings and nights at clubs like ‘Annabel’s’, ‘Showboat’ and ‘Talk of the Town’.

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There were perhaps no more than twenty ‘celebrities’ at the heart of Swinging London. They included The Beatles and Mick Jagger, among eight pop singers, the model Jean Shrimpton, the designer Mary Quant, painter David Hockney, actors Michael Caine and Terence Stamp, and photographers Lord Snowdon, David Bailey and Terence Donovan. The ‘list’ compiled and published by Private Eye journalist Christopher Booker in 1969, also included an interior decorator, a creative advertiser, a film producer, a discotheque manager, a ballet dancer and the Kray brothers from the East End who could only be described as connected with the underworld. These New Aristocrats, as Christopher Booker called them, were all concerned with the creation of images. Following the Profumo affair of a few years earlier, old money, big business, the traditional arts and politics were being marginalised and replaced by working-class ‘upstarts’. Among the photographers, Bailey was a tailor’s son and Donovan a lorry driver’s son, both from the East End. Michael Caine was a Billingsgate fish porter’s son and Stamp the son of a tug-boat captain. The female aristocrats included Lesley Hornby of Neasden, better known as ‘Twiggy’, a carpenter’s daughter, and Priscilla White, better known as ‘Cilla Black’, another (originally) ‘scruffy Scouser’. A few were there entirely because of their looks, like ‘supermodel’ Jean Shrimpton, a description first used in 1968. Very few of these men and women would have made it in the London of previous decades. The intertwining of this aristocracy of pop was as sinuous as the old Tory cliques of the fifties. But their significance was that they represented the increased mobility of talented people from working-class backgrounds.

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006These ‘celebrities’ were joined by footballers, who in 1966-68 were raised from tradesmen and servants to the level of golden gods, sometimes behaving badly too. England’s victory in the 1966 World Cup, with its dramatic finale at Wembley and the team’s 4-2 defeat of West Germany was the stuff that dreams are made of, leading to ritual disappointed expectations every four years ever since. Despite reaching the semi-finals on two occasions since, in 1990 and 2018, the nation has not yet been able to repeat the dressing up and dancing in the streets that went on then, with every English man, woman and child joining in. Alf Ramsey, the English team manager, had been part of the team who had lost 3-6 to Hungary at Wembley in 1953. Now he and his lions had brought football home at last. The three ‘Eastenders’, West Ham’s Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst outshone the Charlton brothers on this occasion, but Bobby Charlton was himself part of Manchester United’s ‘home’ international trio together with George Best and Denis Law who won the European Cup, beating Eusebio and Benfica 4-1 in 1968. This was a remarkable achievement, coming just a decade after Busby’s ‘babes’ were all but wiped out in the Munich air disaster of 1958. Glasgow Celtic had been the first British team to win the European Cup in the previous year, under the management of Jock Stein in 1967. Some of these soccer celebrities, like George Best, were later to struggle with the limelight, but for now they could do no wrong as far as the British public were concerned. The articles and photos below are from a facsimile of the Sunday Mirror from 31 July 1966:

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The new celebrities were not just fascinated by images, but quickly colonised the entire new media of pop music, radio, television, fashion, advertising, colour magazines, and hairdressing. These were not the property of the City or of old money. Linguistic diversity was as important as imagery in this democratisation of society and culture. It was the breakthrough lead given by Lennon and McCartney in singing their own material that persuaded scores of other British bands to follow suit. Others chose to mimic the accents and vocabulary of the American rockers who had inspired them, even when producing their own compositions. There are few songs in the ‘transatlantic’ repertoire of The Rolling Stones which sound particularly English, unlike those of other iconic London bands such as The Kinks and The Who. Banned from the US while others were breaking into the American market, Ray Davies turned back to local subjects. He had always written pop songs about everything from the death of the dance-halls to the joys of an autumn sunset over Waterloo Bridge, but The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society of 1968 was on an entirely different scale. As Ray Davies commented himself:

While everybody else thought the hip thing to do was to drop acid, take as many drugs as possible and listen to music in a coma, the Kinks were singing songs about lost friends, draught beer, motorbike riders, wicked witches and flying cats.

The title song of their album calls for the ‘preservation’ of Desperate Dan, strawberry jam, the George Cross, the ‘Sherlock Holmes English-speaking vernacular’, little shops, china cups, virginity, Tudor houses and antique tables while attacking the new skyscrapers and office blocks. The album, which sold in tiny numbers compared with Sergeant Pepper, with its equally nostalgic Liverpudlian and Lancastrian-themed lyrics, confused contemporary critics who could not decide whether the group were being serious or satirical. The simple answer, with the benefit of a critical hindsight which regards the disc as one of the greatest achievements of British pop in the sixties, “both”. The band showed that it was possible to write inspiring rock music about what was around you, rather than posturing as a boy from Alabama or pretending to be an Afro-American. On the other hand, in listening to Dusty Springfield, who had one of the ‘purest’, most spell-binding voices of the decade, you could be forgiven for thinking she was from Detroit or Paris. Few of the songs she sang, if any, had British themes and British English vocabulary. But then, ‘son of a preacher man’ scans better! The English folk-song revival of the early sixties also played into this democratic, eclectic mix, with the founding of Fairport Convention in 1967, named after the house in which they practised in North London. Their folk-rock genre took themes and dialects from all parts of the British Isles. By 1968, regional accents had become commonplace in radio and television programmes, especially the perennial ‘soap operas’, though it took much longer for the provincial presenters of news, views and features to be accepted onto the national broadcasts of the BBC, not to mention those from ethnic minorities. This reflected the slow progress in British society in general towards genuine devolution, diversity and gender equality.

Despite the dramatic increase in wealth, coupled with the emergence of distinctive subcultures, technological advances (including television) and unprecedented shifts in popular culture, by the end of the sixties, there was a general sense of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with society and politics in Britain. In the early seventies, when John Lennon was asked to assess the impact of The Beatles by Rolling Stone magazine, he commented that…

Nothing happened, except we all dressed up. The same bastards are in control, the same people are running everything, it’s exactly the same.

Conclusion: A Real Counter-cultural Revolution?

The counter-cultural ‘revolution’ in Britain had no organisation and no practical agenda. It was largely middle class in its amorphous leadership, without any real or effective links to the working-class socialists who wanted higher wages and perhaps even workers’ cooperatives, but were less keen on long-haired students taking drugs, or indeed on angry black people. The counter-cultural currents influenced pop and rock music, but it did not immediately create an indigenous, autonomous British movement. It was dependent on passing American fads and voices, like that of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. Like both Dylan and John Lennon in the early seventies, The Who questioned revolutionary values and violent methods in their second great ‘anthem’, Won’t Get Fooled Again, written by Pete Townsend in 1970 and recorded and released the next year. It ends with the line, Meet the new boss; he’s the same as the old boss! Townsend wrote,

It’s really a bit of a weird song. The first verse sounds like a revolution song and the second like somebody getting tired of it. It’s an anti-establishment song. It’s ‘anti’ people who are negative. A song against the revolution because … a revolution is not going to change anything at all in the long run, and a lot of people are going to get hurt.

Symbolically, perhaps, the group has usually played the full eight-and-a-half minute version of the song at the end of its concert. More than any other song, it sums up the relationship between pop music and sixties’ counter-culture.

Sources:

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

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. London: Macmillan.

Kevin Howlett (2014), The Beatles: The BBC Archives, 1962-1970.

 

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

Chapter Six: Motherhood, Domesticity & Recreation.

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Between the wars, high maternal mortality and infant mortality rates continued to disfigure most industrial districts in Britain. While deaths in childbirth affected all classes of women, Hans Singer showed in his 1937 reports for the Pilgrim Trust that there was a clear relationship between poverty and maternal mortality rates (I have written about this in the previous series of articles). The high rate of maternal was a national disgrace. It was the result of numerous causes, including a moral attitude to women and conception that contributed to their suffering. In England and Wales, four women in every thousand lost their lives in childbirth every year. As we have seen in an earlier chapter in this series, the rate was seven per thousand in the distressed areas of South Wales, a fact masked by the continuing high birth-rate in the area throughout the inter-war period. In January 1936, the Prime Minister announced that a bill to establish a national midwives’ service would be put before Parliament. Under the Act, all maternity cases would, from July 1937, be conducted by a properly qualified midwife, whether working under a local authority or a voluntary service. With the agreement of the Chancellor, the service, costing half a million pounds, was to be funded by central government. Conservatives responded to the call of their leader and his wife, while Labour MPs welcomed the establishment of a national medical service in tune with their party’s pledge to provide a universal national health service. One of them, Arthur Greenwood, author of the play Love on the Dole, referred to the eugenic advantages of improving the maternity care of mothers:

… what this nation may in future lack in numbers, it ought to be the aim of statesmanship to make up in quality. That has a very distinct bearing upon the problem of maternal well-being.

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As Susan Williams has pointed out, it was the first time that the principles of a state medical service had been put into effect, scotching the myth that the NHS sprang to life fully formed in 1948 as the brainchild of Aneurin Bevan (see the caption above). Nevertheless, the relationship between poverty and infant mortality was even clearer. In Coventry, although the rate of infant deaths at the beginning of the interwar period, 92 per thousand, was lower than in many other major West Midland towns and cities, it was still far too high. The vital statistics taken from an average of the seven years ending 1931 showed an overall death-rate of 12.1 for England and Wales as a whole, compared with 11.6 for Birmingham and 6.5 for Bournville, Cadbury’s ‘model village’ area of the second city. Infant mortality rates for England and Wales over the same period were 69, for Birmingham 72 and for Bournville 56. In the earliest of these years, the heights and weights of Bournville children were compared with one of the children of one of the more deprived areas of Birmingham, and the Bournville children were found to be between two to four inches taller and between four and nine pounds heavier.

More than a decade later, a survey carried out on behalf of the Birmingham Social Survey Committee in 1939 was concerned with the relationship between poverty and the size of families on a new housing estate in one of the city’s poorest suburbs, Kingstanding. It found that, at a time when the volume of both employment and earnings were higher than ever before in Birmingham’s history, fourteen percent of the 5,300 families with dependent children on the estate had insufficient income to buy the minimum diet prescribed by the British Medical Association (B.M.A.). This meant that one-third of the children on the estate were living in poverty. The investigators separated these families into groups according to the number of dependent children they had. They found that whilst only five percent of the families with one or two children under fourteen were in poverty, forty percent of the families with three or more dependent children were below the minimum line.

Across the country as a whole, although contraception was not readily available, it was becoming widespread, thanks to the work of the Marie Stopes clinics. Many married couples across Britain were using some method to prevent pregnancy. As a result, families were declining in size, leading to widespread fears of a shrinking population. Eugenicists warned of a decline in the country’s ‘human stock’, as the families with many children tended to be from the poorer working class. One of the motivations behind Marie Stopes’ publicising of the effects of the benefits of contraception was the eugenicist belief in the necessity of limiting the ‘poor quality’ offspring of this class. Despite Stopes’s efforts, there were still large families in solidly working-class towns and poorer districts of London and cities such as Birmingham and Coventry. Margery Spring-Rice, the pioneering social reformer, studied the lives of 1,250 mothers in these districts for her book, Working-Class Wives. Alongside the poverty and hardship, she drew attention to the number of pregnancies the women endured. Nearly five was the average, but a third of those she studied had six or more confinements, which led to large families, despite the high rates of infant mortality. In 1936, for every thousand births, fifty-six babies were dead before the age of one, compared with fewer than five per thousand today. Only half of the poorer families Margery Spring-Rice researched used any form of birth control.

Oral evidence for Coventry reveals how a group of self-organised working-class women determined to combat this ‘social ill’ through their practical involvement with mothers and children in its poorer, but growing suburbs. Six members of the Women’s Cooperative Guild were elected to the City Council between the wars, lobbying powerfully for the expansion of Maternity and Child Welfare clinics. Cooperative guilds-women also became voluntary workers in these clinics as they were established by independent committees in the expanding city. A daughter of one of these women, interviewed in the mid-1980s, had fond memories of her mother’s work in a voluntary clinic. She recalled that, as a twelve-year-old, she had helped her mother tear old sheets into strips to make the ‘belly bindings’ which had formed parts of the contents of maternity bags issued to mothers in need. In 1935, Alderman Mrs Hughes spoke to Lower Stoke Branch of the wonderful way our guilds-women have taken to the Maternity and Child Welfare work, a new clinic having been opened at Radford, staffed with guilds-women. 

Right up until the reorganisation of health services into the NHS in 1948, voluntary workers played a large part in Maternity and Child Welfare work in the city. During this period there was only one clinic administered by the City Council, although after the 1929 Local Government Act it did provide medical and nursing staff for the voluntary clinics. Statistics showing the number of children attending clinics (above) provide evidence of the extent of the voluntary commitment. Proximity was probably the biggest factor in the popularity of the voluntary clinics for they were held in church halls and similar buildings in residential areas, whereas the municipal clinic was held in the city centre. The attitude of the volunteers at the clinics may also have been important. As well as being deterred by personal difficulties such as the inability to afford to pay the fare to a centre or to attend at awkward hours, ‘poor people’ may also have been put off by a harsh or wooden administration or unacceptable personnel. These problems could be overcome by the use of voluntary workers who had both a genuine concern for the mothers and a thorough understanding of their problems.

Ivy Cowdrill was involved both in the establishment and the day-to-day administration of a clinic which was opened in Tile Hill in 1937. Her account of her work shows that when voluntary workers were part of the community in which a clinic was established they had a shared experience which helped them to understand the mother’s problems. She begins with an explanation of the circumstances in which her local clinic was opened:

… they were starting to build up here … and the people used to come along the lane here … it was all fields then … They (the mothers) used to go down with the prams all the way to Gulson Road (the municipal clinic in the city centre) to get the cheap food … I used to feel sorry for them. Well, we all did. And Pearl Hyde talked to us about it and asked if we’d help her. We certainly would! … There were several of us in … the Coop Guild … We talked about it at the Guild but it was when Pearl started to come round that we got to talk about it more.

Pearl Hyde was the Labour Party candidate for the ward. Although she did not win the seat in the 1937 municipal elections in which the Party won control of the Council, she was successful shortly afterwards in a by-election in another ward. Due to her local government commitments and her work with the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, Pearl Hyde’s practical involvement with the clinic soon ceased but the enthusiasm of her followers remained and many of those originally involved were inspired to carry on until 1941 when ‘the (Ministry of) Health’ took over. Ivy Cowdrill’s testimony conveyed the enthusiasm and energy of the women involved:

We got talking about it and they all said they’d help … we used to go out every day. My daughter used to go with me, knocking on doors, enquiring … to see how many babies and who would come.

With the approval of the Ministry of Health and with professional personnel provided by the city council the clinic was opened in October 1937. Ivy Cowdrill went on to give a detailed description of activities at the clinic and the duties of voluntary workers:

We bought aluminium bowls and we used to put a clean piece of tissue paper in the bowl … to put the babies’ clothes in, by the side of every chair. We used to go early and do that before the clinic opened. And put everything ready and the scales … One would be weighing the toddlers this side and one the other side weighing the tiny babies. And we had a couple of nurses (health visitors) and a doctor. We had a doctor’s room. We used to take it in turns or it wouldn’t be fair or someone would have the dirty jobs all the while, washing the aluminium bowls out, washing the cups and saucers.

From the evidence in the local Medical Officer of Health reports it appears that the majority of voluntary clinics were organised in this way. The volunteers administered the clinics and were ancillary workers whilst the councils provided the health visitors and doctors. A criticism of voluntary clinics in this era was that voluntary workers were inclined to usurp the duties of the health visitors but there is no evidence that Coventry volunteers took over any of the health visitors’ educational or advisory duties. Indeed, they did not receive training in such matters. What many of them did have, however, was the experience of being mothers and that would qualify them as experts on baby matters in the eyes of many of the young mothers who attended the clinics. In this capacity, they passed on common sense advice and words of encouragement as they handled the babies. Not only were many of them experienced mothers, but most of them had experienced a similar lifestyle to the women who attended, and they spoke the same colloquial language.

The usual image of a voluntary worker is of a middle class ‘lady bountiful’, but in the thirties working class helpers were fairly common in baby clinics, in Coventry and elsewhere. They often had part-time jobs in the factories or in local hospitals as, for example, laundry workers. Although they might be more financially secure than many of the young mothers, many of them had endured periods of hardship themselves in younger days. Apart from the weighing of babies, the main tasks of a voluntary worker at a child welfare clinic centred around the sale of baby foods and food supplements. Here too their knowledge of working-class life was useful, as they were immediately aware when some of the mothers needed flexible arrangements regarding payment:

We used to sell Bemax, Marmite, Ovaltine and every food there was until the National Food came out; orange juice, vitamin pills, the lot … It was very big welfare. You can tell by the money we took ’cause the food was … very cheap … And the Ovaltine was only about a shilling … If anyone said, “I’ve no money”, I’d say, “We’ll get it”. I’d lend them the money and they’d bring it back here … And I’ve come home like a packed mule ’cause the soldiers’ wives used to have their money on a Monday and the clinic wasn’t till Thursday, so … they’d no money come Thursday … I used to bring the food home and they used to come here for it here … My husband used to shout “Shop!”

The volunteers were also aware of other needs among their clients. The concept of ‘welfare’ was extended and clinic attendance was made into a social occasion by the provision of tea and biscuits. Special social events, including day trips, were organised, and Cadbury’s donated bars of chocolate for the children for Christmas parties. The Coventry clinic seems to have been the sort of centre which could have developed into the type of women’s club advocated by Margery Spring-Rice of the Women’s Health Enquiry Committee in 1939. Such a centre would enable women to meet their fellows … form social ties … talk and laugh and eat food which they had not cooked themselves. The efforts made in this direction by the Tile Hill volunteers were appreciated by the women of the district throughout the thirties and early forties. Not only were the volunteers deeply committed to the work, but they also gained a great deal of satisfaction from what was, in effect, an extension of the traditional female role of nurturer within the private domain of the family. Ivy Cowdrill’s recollection typified this:

It was great. I loved it. Thursday was my day out … and I just lived for Thursday every week. You know it was so great to be involved in it … It wasn’t only working at the welfare, we was interested in the life of the children altogether. You seem to live for them really. You got so interested in it, it seemed to occupy your mind all the while.

Volunteers like Ivy Cowdrill made their mark by transferring the caring values of the private domain into the public one of the clinic and putting a human face on what was otherwise an impersonal service. The people who flooded into Coventry during the thirties, attracted by jobs in the new factories, were mainly young people. The proportion of the population aged over forty-five in the City was lower than almost anywhere else in Britain. The people had more consistent and better-remunerated work than in most other industrial areas and yet infant mortality remained high and old vested interests resisted the modernisation of medical services. The women of the Coop Guild, with little help from the State, set about tackling this problem and confronted it with zeal and zest until the onset of war and then the foundation of the National Health Service prepared the way for the bureaucratization of health care. Many of the ‘clinic activists’ gave up their positions with reluctance having hoped for a role for their voluntary work within the healthcare schemes devised by the state.

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Oral testimony is also a crucial source of information about attitudes towards family life in the past. In many respects, Coventry interviewees might be speaking for members of working-class families of any industrial town in Britain. Peter Lynam’s article on Domestic Life in Coventry 1920-39 draws material from a wider study of Coventry car workers based on sixty interviews with couples from three generations. Most of the evidence was drawn from talking with the women who, apart from relatively short periods at work either just before marriage or during the second world war, spent most of their time on the domestic front. Many of those interviewed, although resident in Coventry for many decades, had spent their formative years in other towns and regions. Even those proud to have been born in the City were children of at least one parent who had come from outside. Marjorie Clark remarked of her own parents, for example:

Mother was a cook in service in Cheshire, and dad was an engineer, a toolroom man, in Altrincham … Dad came first, got a job in Coventry and got lodgings. Then mother followed and, of course, being in Coventry, as cook-housekeeper. And they got married in Coventry and stayed afterwards … They must have come to Coventry about 1906-1907, married about 1909 …

June Bream came as a very young child to Coventry in the early twenties. Her background displayed the peculiar characteristic shared by the families of tradesmen working in the motor industry at an early stage of its development:

I was born in Liverpool, in Wavertree, West Derby … My grandma had a boarding house in Southport and before I was born my father worked in Scotland … My father was an old coach-builder and in those days they had to travel to where the work was. So they had a big tool box and the man was known by his tool box whether he was a tradesman or not. And then after I was born my father moved down to Coventry, looking … for work. … after he’d been here a couple of years … the family moved down with him.

 

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Housing was always a problem for working people but the flood of migrants into Coventry produced a housing shortage which lasted almost thirty years. Moreover, most of the housing was small and lacking in modern conveniences, prompting frequent attempts to find something better. It was unusual for those born in one house still to be living there a decade later. The family would move from rented accommodation according to the price charged for it and the space provided, taking into account added children or those leaving home on marriage, thus making payment for unused space an extravagance. Irregular employment or unforeseen adversity could prompt a move to more restricted but cheaper living space. Marjorie Clark described her family’s mid-thirties move to a ‘nicer house’:

We lived in a house in Kingston Road without a bathroom, just a two up, two down. Mother and dad wanted a house with a bathroom and we had a chance to move into a slightly larger house. That was the reason we moved into Queensland Avenue.

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‘Two up, two down’ was the most common form of accommodation, even though many families had more than two children. Some older people lived in the old weavers’ or watchmakers’ houses with large windows and an extra floor that was one large room, originally a workshop. The Midland Daily Telegraph had been calling for three-bedroom houses to be built since 1919, as young families would grow and need more space. As it was, families with a number of children slept several to a bed in the back bedroom, with curtains dividing boys from girls, while parents slept in the front bedroom with the baby in the cot when required. Very large families would have older boys and girls sleeping in the downstairs back living room. In many homes, the front room would still be kept for special occasions. The usual furniture consisted of a large crockery cupboard, a dining table and set of chairs. By the mid-thirties, most families would also have a radio, and there might be a piano in the front room.

The home was ‘mother’s domain’. She did the cooking, washing and mending. Sometimes other family members – especially daughters – helped with the cooking and cleaning. Younger children were often assigned domestic tasks like swilling out the yard, polishing the fireplace, dusting mantelpieces, or polishing the ‘lino’ in the hall. A woman’s work was particularly laborious. Without washing machines, an exception in the thirties, washing clothes would take the best part of a day. Preparing meals also took time, and traditional mid-day dinner times for men and young workers in the family often involved them returning home from workplaces to eat cooked ‘dinners’, along with children of school age who were not entitled to free school meals. They would not be long out of the house before their evening meal was having to be planned and prepared. June Bream had to miss most of her last school year when she was thirteen because her mother was confined to bed after losing a baby. She had to look after her mother ill in bed, her father and two brothers and a sister. She went to school in the mornings one week, and the afternoons the next week, fitting her domestic duties in as best she could. When her father came home on a Friday night, wages night, she put her clean ‘piny’ on so that he could throw his wages in it. He told her, you’re the mother of the house … till your mother’s well now.

Although June missed some schooling due to her domestic responsibilities, an experience which was far from unique for girls of her age, the notion of the woman’s place being in the home was strongly reinforced by the education given to girls. June would normally have had lessons in sewing, cooking, and laundry, and in the senior, there was a specialist ‘housewifery’ teacher:

She used to teach you to be a housewife, a mother. They used to have this part (of the school) where it used to be like a house and you used to have old grates in it … and gas stoves where they were all black-leaded, and of course you had to do all that. … you had special times, and it was either cookery or washing and ironing … or housework. … you had to go in every room; you had a kitchen and a living room and a bedroom. And if you were doing cookery … you had to cook the meal in the morning and then the teacher and the rest of the class … used to stop for dinner and you used to have to wait on table. They showed you how to set the table.

Since most women stopped paid employment on marriage, the home became the focus for most women by their mid-twenties. Imelda Wintle remembered her mother’s working hours with appreciation:

She used to describe herself as a “poor old slave” … I mean she was on the go all the time. She used to do her own decorating and things like that, and cutting down clothes … and making do.

When money was tight, housewives would also take in washing, which they would also press and iron. Many Coventry housewives would also have a locally made Singer sewing machine, often received as a wedding gift, with which she would mend clothes as well as making clothes for the children. Most clothes were either made at home or by a local dressmaker or tailor. Many of the dressmakers would be ordinary housewives with a skill in dressmaking.

Sunday (afternoon) dinner was the best meal of the week, with the mother going personally to the butcher’s shop, knowing exactly what she was looking for. The week’s meals then followed a set pattern, with variations according to income. Kath Smith recalled:

Sundays we had roast, always … and of course we had the cold meat on Monday. And we always had … meat and potato pie on Tuesday. I suppose it could have been sausage, or something, on Wednesday or Thursday.  It was always fish on Friday and … a makeshift dinner on Saturday. It may be sometimes on a Saturday we would have fish ‘n’ chips instead of faggots and peas. … fish ‘n’ chips was thre’pence , tu’penny fish and a penny worth of chips … and on Sunday for tea we’d always have salmon and fruit and cream … a tin of salmon was eleven pence ha’penny and a tin of pineapple was five pence ha’penny …

The pattern was determined by other domestic tasks, like Tuesday being washday which meant the stew could be left to cook slowly and then finished off with pastry. Pay-day was usually on a Thursday or Friday, so the mid-week days often required ingenuity to keep the family going on shrinking resources. Feeding the breadwinner was the top priority, next came the children. The housewife often ate very little at these meals. Eva Shilton commented:

I’ve seen her eat bread and mustard, and she’d eat a sandwich of cabbage and things like that. Since, later on in life, I’ve mentioned it to her and she said, “Well, I couldn’t see you lot go without”. And she’d make do, she was a typical mother …heart and soul for her children … She didn’t like cooking but she would always cook for my dad because he liked the things we didn’t … I think with him having so much ill-health, when he was well she would look after him to keep him well.

The death of a parent was a dreadful experience for young children especially. A father’s death also meant the loss of the breadwinner. The family was in deep trouble unless older children were in employment, still single and part of the parental household. It often necessitated a move to cheaper accommodation and the mother’s quest for employment, at least cleaning work or taking in washing, or at best factory work, which was not well-paid where women were concerned because most female workers were young, single and cheap. The loss of a mother had its emotional impact and needed older members of the family to ‘rally round’. Vera Langford’s fiance was confronted with this situation when his mother died, having to return to Coventry from London to look after the younger children in a large family. It took him, his father and his elder brother to bring them up between them.

Industrial injury or recurrent illness suffered by a male breadwinner also led to a wife’s search for paid employment. Although fathers were ultimately responsible for disciplining children who misbehaved, mothers were usually responsible for nurturing ‘respectability’ and protecting the family’s reputation:

Well, we always classed ourselves as being respectable. “And don’t bring trouble home” and that kind of thing. I think if we had’ve done we would never have been able to enter the house again … my mother was like that … she meant it. She just wanted us all to be happy and respectable and live a decent life … and that was what we did; no one ever brought trouble to her …

In an immigrant family, relatives were not likely to be near at hand. In such circumstances, a family wedding was a major event. For native Coventrians, however, the city’s growth provided little reason to move and find work elsewhere, so local extended families gathered easily for wedding celebrations. Marriage was approached in a practical fashion. Vera Langford recalled her wedding at the Registry Office:

We hadn’t got any money for a big ‘do’. What we had got we kept, … we sort of spent on necessities … Just family.

Many couples started married life in inauspicious circumstances. The city’s motor industry provided many with a living, as many as it provided with spells of unemployment. Together with a number of other women, Marjorie Clark was made redundant from Standard Motors just six weeks before her wedding. Nonetheless, preparations for it had been going on for some time, so she was determined to go ahead with the celebrations:

We got engaged on New Year’s Day in 1937 and got married on New Year’s Day, 1938 … We saved enough for the deposit on the house, that was fifty pounds, … a lot of money then! … mother helped me in a lot of ways, even if it was only with a bottom drawer, that sort of thing. And for the year that I was engaged she had no money from me for my keep. I kept all my money … and saved every penny of it for the wedding and everything like that … It was a white wedding at an Anglican church and… it was bitterly cold … It was a very happy wedding … There was no reception, no photographer, no honeymoon because I was out of work and my husband was on short time … So my mother saved the turkey from Christmas, cooked it and we had that for the reception … at home. 

By 1939, Coventry car ownership was surpassed only by that of London. This increased mobility opened up new possibilities for travel. Cycles, motorcycles and sidecars were used particularly by young workers for some distance from the city with boyfriends or girlfriends. On the other hand, most women confined themselves to the home after marriage and some mothers rarely went out when the children were young. Mothers spent recreation time in the evening either sewing, knitting, making clothes, listening to the radio or reading. All this went on in the living room, keeping an eye on the children not yet in bed. Public houses in Coventry had long been the ‘marketplace of the working class’ and when work was erratic the companionship found in them might lead to information about which firms were hiring at their factory gates.  The dominance of engineering topics in pub discourse was the reason given by the head porter of J. B. Priestley’s hotel, during his stay in Coventry in 1933, for avoiding the city’s pubs:

You go into one of these pubs … All right. What do you hear? All about gears and magnetos and such-like. Honest. That’s right. They can’t talk about anything else here. Got motor cars on the brain, they have. I hardly ever go into a pub. I go home and have a read.

Matt Nelson, from a North-east mining community, remembered that it was taboo for a woman to enter a pub ‘up there’, as was also the case with pubs ‘down there’ in south Wales. In Coventry, however, wives might respectably join husbands in pubs or clubs, meeting others from the locality. However, for many from chapel-going working-class families who regarded themselves as ‘respectable’, they shared the views of the workers from the depressed areas, regarding pubs as ‘low dives’, not the sort of places that either they or their daughters should be found in. Priestley made a brief visit to the bar of his hotel, where a barmaid with an enormous bust and a wig was busy exchanging badinage with four friends, two male (drinking ‘Bass’) and two female (drinking Guinness):

“He did, didn’t he, Joe?”

“‘S ri’, ”

“Cor, he didn’t ever,”

“Well, you ask Florrie,”

“I don’t mean what you mean,”

” ‘s ri’ ”

“‘Ere, Joe you tell ‘er.”

Men and women would also go to the cinemas and theatres together and mothers sometimes went to ‘matinée’ film shows with female friends. Social circles were sometimes organised through local churches providing companions for women otherwise tied to the home, but mothers seemed to have little time to themselves: their ‘recreation’, such as it was, was often home-based and spent with the family, making clothes, baking cakes, and so on.

Although a number of the city’s firms had established recreation clubs by the late thirties which attracted large numbers of employees, very few women seemed to take up these opportunities. The Secretary of the Alfred Herbert Recreation Club, E. Thomas, observed in 1939 that a relatively small number of women were involved in club activities. The nature of women’s recreation at this period is not clear. Certainly, they constituted at least half of dancers, a large part, even a majority of cinema-goers and, at least in inner-city areas, a sizeable proportion of pub-goers. However, in addition to the domestic roles of married women, the practice of leaving work on marriage, either through a ‘marriage bar’ operated by the company they worked for, or through a choice made under familial and cultural pressure, excluded them from works’ clubs unless they were in the company of a husband who worked for the company. Married women were occasionally referred to in works magazines in recreational contexts, but it is not clear whether they were widows or were challenging the convention of ceasing to work after marriage. The involvement of unmarried women in works’ activities also presented something of an issue for employers like Courtaulds and London Laundry for whom recruitment and moral discipline among female employees was central to business efficiency.

When women workers did participate in works’ recreational activities, they were rarely given any control over their use of leisure facilities. The Alfred Herbert Recreation Club had no female members on its management committee until 1940 and the Magnet Club committee welcomed women only as representatives of all women’s sections such as women’s hockey. In part, this reflected the lack of women as foremen and skilled workers in these firms because it was from the ranks of these that the committee personnel were usually drawn. It is particularly noticeable that women were never chosen to represent activities that were evenly mixed, such as cycling and swimming. Firms’ magazines were always patronising towards women, and cartoons, jokes and pen-portraits cast them in subservient roles. Women’s pages were purely domestic in focus and rarely successful. For the most part, they did not celebrate the achievements of individual women workers, nor their collective activities. Therefore, they lacked the appeal that team news had for male workers.

Firms and clubs showed intermittent bursts of enthusiasm for encouraging women’s participation. In particular, many firms tried to capitalise on the keep-fit craze from the mid-thirties on , often under the auspices of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, mentioned in chapter one, since it had the attraction of providing women employees  with discipline and exercise at the same time, at little cost and in large numbers. Instructresses pointed out how it helped girls to enjoy life and work much better than before and that it was consistent with the belief that the success of the mass depends entirely on the individual. There is, however, no evidence that the League’s eugenic beliefs in the achievement of racial health and beauty by natural means were ever treated with any degree of seriousness in Coventry. Indeed, such initiatives met with varying success. The London Laundry branch of the Everywoman’s Health Movement folded after just over a year in 1939 through lack of support. It had never achieved a membership of more than twenty-five. The GEC Ladies’ Physical Culture Club, affiliated to the League of Health and Beauty, had over two hundred members in 1937 in two classes, but despite displays in Coventry, Birmingham and London, it experienced declining enthusiasm and finished after the outbreak of war.

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Not all women’s recreational activities were doomed to failure, however, and there are several examples of autonomous women’s sections and activities providing sociability for employees over long periods. Women’s sports, even women’s soccer, common during the First World War, continued until the ending of munitions work and the dispersal of the hostel labour force in 1918-19. By 1930, the Magnet Club ran two women’s cricket teams and several departmental teams, although these came in for a certain amount of ridicule in The Loudspeaker. In 1932, there was the first of series of women’s cycling camps. The fashion for departmental outings had meant that trips such as that of the coil-winders and the assembly section at GEC were virtually all-women affairs, and women began holding their own annual dinners as early as 1928. It is not apparent, however, how such occasions related to women’s prospects of advancement at work or their status within the company, unlike the complex rituals of competitive displays at full staff dances.

The relationship between works social clubs and the recreation of the city as a whole was at its closest, and most beneficial to both parties, in the regular dances which were held on factory premises. Dances were already being put on by some of the city’s chief companies in 1921. There were only two commercial ballrooms, the Gaumont and the Rialto, in Coventry, so the factories provided the main alternative to church hall dances, and their dancehalls and ballrooms were far grander. They also had the specially sprung floors which were favoured by dancing enthusiasts. The dance craze was most popular among skilled manual workers and clerical staff, people who had served time and could afford to pay 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. for admission. For them, the refined, formalised ritual of the dance halls provided an appropriate setting for courtship and social aspiration.The halls banned drink, although men would go to the pubs first, and the doors were closed at 9.30 in order to exclude those who had drunk too much. Young women, who therefore arrived first, at about 8 p.m., would not tolerate men whose breath revealed that they had spent too much of the intervening time in the pub. Men were also expected to carry a second handkerchief for their right hand so that they didn’t soil their partner’s dresses, or inadvertently touch any exposed skin.

Dancing was enjoyed most by the young women, who spent time at home and work trying out the latest steps with sisters and friends, often to the radio or gramophone. The complexity of the dances of the thirties – foxtrots, waltzes, quicksteps and tangos, required tuition, and men needed to be confident of their dancing before they could be among the first to venture out onto the floor. Ability to dance was, therefore, an asset in successful courtship, and while many learnt from their sisters or other female acquaintances, others went to one of the city’s many dancing schools. There were beginners’ nights at the major ballrooms. The dance halls also offered camaraderie. Groups from different areas of town would rendezvous at set pitches in each dance hall, but courtship no doubt provided the basic motivation. Male toolroom employees met few women at work because they were segregated by skill and they rarely met the office and shop girls they aspired to marry. Courting couples were left to other areas of the dance floor where they would try to be lost to the group.

No doubt, there were some for whom the attraction of a particular hall lay in its resident dance band. The biggest firms’ hall, which most effectively escaped the canteen atmosphere and rivalled purpose-built commercial halls, was the GEC ballroom (shown below), often referred to as ‘The Connor’. Attendances were large, averaging over six hundred by 1936. Special occasions, in particular, the New Year’s Eve dances, drew massive audiences, as many as 1,350 in 1930. Attendances thereafter were limited to eight hundred, and in 1937 a second dance was organised for New Year’s Day, to accommodate the 750 dancers who had been unable to get tickets for the previous night.

 

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This ‘new leisure’ was the subject of many contemporary social investigations and surveys conducted by organisations such as the Pilgrim Trust and the NCSS. Following his visit to Coventry in January 1939, Sir William Deedes wrote to its local Employment Exchange Officer, Philip Handley, to express his alarm at what he referred to as a lack of social and recreational provision in the form of community centres, boys’ clubs, churches and hostels. His distaste for working class preferences in leisure activities is clear from the following extract from his subsequent report, which he attached to his letter:

Cinemas are thronged and on a Saturday afternoon queues ‘a quarter-mile-long’ and mainly of young people are to be seen. I was informed that on Saturday and Sunday nights also Road Houses within a twenty-mile radius of Coventry are full of young people dancing and entertaining themselves. The night I was there a small road house four miles out of Coventry had fifty cars and four charabancs outside and some three hundred persons inside dancing. A football match the same afternoon was attended by thirty thousand to forty thousand people and ‘the Dogs’, I am told, never fail to draw large numbers… Is it proper to ask oneself whether, if there were better facilities for playing games, both out and indoor, use would be made of them? An answer to the question cannot be given in Coventry because the facilities are not there!

Handley might have replied that Deedes seemed to have ignored the facilities provided by local firms in making this assertion, but we do not have such a letter. Deedes may have had in mind the ‘model’ which Bournville in Birmingham provided in terms of recreational provision. J. B. Priestley, who visited Cadbury’s Birmingham ‘village’ in 1933, pointed out that they had long been in the top class of the school of benevolent and paternal employers. Their workers had been provided with magnificent recreation grounds and sports pavilions, with a large concert hall in the factory itself, where midday concerts are given, with dining-rooms, recreation-rooms, and drama facilities. The factory was almost as busy in the evenings as it was in the daytime, with games, music, lectures, classes, plays, hobbies, conferences all keeping the place in full swing. The membership of the various clubs and societies ran to several thousand for whom no form of self-improvement, except those that have their base in some extreme form of economic revolution, was denied. The only form of pastime which was precluded was the ancient one of getting drunk. The factory had all the facilities for leading a full and happy life and, he asserted, what progressive people all over the world are demanding for humanity was what the Cadbury workers already had. Those in charge insisted that the firm used no compulsion whatever and never moved to provide anything until it knew that there was a real demand for it. He added his conviction that…

 … whether all this is right or wrong, the employers themselves have acted in good faith … Is it right or wrong? … It is easy for some academic person, who has never spent an hour in a factory and does not really know how people live, to condemn it on philosophical grounds … Now there is no getting away from the fact that here, owing to this system of paternal employment, are factory workers who have better conditions, more security, and infinitely better chances leading a decent and happy life, than nearly all such factory workers elsewhere … who worked in bad conditions, who had no security, and whose employers did not care a rap if their people drink themselves silly in their leisure … No factory workers in Europe have ever been better off than these people. 

Despite this accolade, however, Priestley has his doubts as to whether, taking a longer view, it was good for people to see the factory where they worked as the centre of their whole lives, even if it offered them so much. A worker whose whole life was centred on the factory might, he suggested, enjoy many unusual luxuries, but one obvious ‘luxury’ they could not enjoy was a spirit of independence. Pensions and bonuses, works councils, factory publications, entertainments and dinners,  garden-parties and outings, all organised by the firm, were all very well, but they could easily create an atmosphere injurious to the personal growth and ‘self-help’ of the men and women working for the firm. Although he conceded that workers in such places as Bournville had so many solid benefits conferred upon them that they were better placed than the ordinary factory worker, who is probably not so content at either work or play, …

On the other hand, I for one would infinitely prefer to see workers combining to provide these benefits, or a reasonable proportion of them, for themselves, to see them forming associations far removed from the factory, to see them using their leisure, and demanding its increase, not as favoured employees but as citizens, free men and women.   

In reality, the ‘new leisure’ cut across class and regional demarcations, especially in Coventry, where it mixed, mingled and blended with older forms of leisure, some of which had migrated with their adherents from the older industrial areas. There were, evidently, many in key positions within the social service movement in both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ industrial areas, who regarded the development of mass, commercial forms of entertainment  as undermining their patronage, and when these critics wrote of the lack of leisure provision or of the absence of a communal ethos, they were writing from an ‘establishment’ perspective. Meanwhile, the Coventrian workers themselves, whether newcomers or ‘established’ citizens, both at work and at play, were re-modelling and re-making their city in their own image and shaking off the bonds of both patronage and paternalism.

The reactions of the migrants themselves to the social life of the new industry areas, documented in previous chapters, are more relevant in comprehending the wider cultural factors at work within the processes of migration and settlement. In Coventry, the streets themselves, the neighbourhoods and districts reflected the migration of labour. Some areas were completely cosmopolitan in this respect, with neighbours from all parts of the Midlands and North of England, Scotland and Ireland. In other neighbourhoods, there were concentrations of certain nationalities, Welsh, Scottish and Irish. Certainly, from the mid-1930s on, Coventry was a stronghold of the affluent worker. The roast every Sunday, the buying of your own house, early TV and car ownership all bear witness to rising living standards. Not everyone experienced the improvement in quite the same way or to the same degree, but enough did for it to constitute a trend. From the late thirties onwards, and especially with the onset of war and after, married women found that they had jobs to go to. Women began, increasingly, to have dual roles, providing the family with two wage packets, allowing many to enjoy a short period of affluence before the privations of war and the Blitz hit home.

Women at War in Coventry:

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Women in fire masks, Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London, 1941. Photo by Lee Miller.

While the main onslaught of the ‘Blitz’ of the autumn of 1940 was directed at the capital, other ports and cities were subjected to severe attacks over short, concentrated periods, or to single raids. The ten-hour incendiary and explosive blitz upon Coventry caused tremendous damage, overnight, in November 1940 (I have written more extensively about this elsewhere on this site). Most of the ‘inner’ city’s factories sustained some damage, with the Daimler factory, the GEC and British Thomson Houston being badly hit. In 1981, Muriel Jones, then a young worker in the city, recalled her experience of that night:

 The night of the November Blitz, I was on day shift with my sister and two friends. Just as we left work the siren sounded so we ran as fast as we could, hoping to get to our digs or a shelter. One of my friends stopped along the road to say goodbye to her sailor boyfriend; it was their last goodbye, they were never seen again. We made it to one of the four shelters, and ours was the only one that escaped the bombs, all the other occupants were killed. About sixty people. After the raid we had to dig ourselves out as best we could, to face all the damage. Around us our digs were gone along with a lot more houses. Our landlady and husband with them, although they were in a garden shelter.

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 Coventry,  14 November 1940

“Those of us who lost everything in the war will never forget. We don’t need anniversaries and war films and books, we just remember … everything seemed so vast, so much happened, we thought that nothing more could happen. We often believed that things would never come right again.”

– Two elderly ladies who had survived the blitz, interviewed by The Coventry Standard on the twentieth anniversary of the raid.

“Please don’t let it die Coventry. We managed to survive then when all the odds were against us. We can do it now if we try.”

 – A ‘young lady’ interviewed by The Coventry Evening Telegraph in 1980, about the previous evening’s television documentary.

 

Sources:

Denys Blakeway (2010), The Last Dance: 1936: The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray.

Mark Abrams (1945), The Condition of the British People, 1911-1945: A Study prepared for The Fabian Society. London: Victor Gollancz.

J. B. Priestley (1938), English Journey: Being a Rambling but Truthful Account of What One Man Saw and Heard and Felt and Thought During a Journey Through England During a Journey Through England During the Autumn of the Year 1933. Leipzig: Bernard Tauchnitz

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (eds.) (1986), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

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

René Cutforth (1976),  Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbott: David & Charles.

Andrew J. Chandler (1988), ‘The Re-Making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, c. 1920-40. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Cardiff.

 

Family Life, Labour and Leisure: The Forward March of Women In Britain, 1930-40 (Chapter Four)   1 comment

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Chapter Four: Migration, Marriage and Militancy – The Case of the Cowley Garwites.

Nowhere were the features of ‘voluntary’ migration from South Wales more marked than in Cowley, the centre of the car industry to the south of Oxford. The ‘Barnett House’ investigators of 1936 found a distinct tendency to ‘lumpiness’ in the migration streams to the Oxford District, providing further evidence of the familial and fraternal networking. Of the 1,195 Welsh workers in Oxford at this time, 215 had employment books which originated in the Maesteg District, covering the Llynfi, Ogmore and Garw valleys. By contrast, the numbers from all the Rhondda and Pontypridd districts amounted to 224. An even more striking fact was that of a hundred and fifty Welsh ‘foreigners’ in the city, one-sixth were from the Pontycymmer Exchange Area in the Garw Valley. In the period 1930-36, out of the 1,841 people whose employment books were transferred from that exchange, 270 (15%) went to Oxford and ‘local observers’ stated that the percentage in the late 1920s was probably in the region of 25%. Goronwy Daniel’s research lent further support to the thesis that considerable networking had taken place. Of the sixty immigrants interviewed by him, forty-six said that they had moved to Oxford rather than any other town because they had relatives living there.

 

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One of the earliest ‘Garwite’ migrants to Cowley was Tom Richards of Pantygog. He left the valley as a young, single man in October 1926 with the intention of heading to London. Chance encounters on the road led them to the Pressed Steel factory, under construction. They were interviewed by the foreman for the Leicester firm of Ashworth and Nesbit, who were fitting pipes on the factory:

We asked him for a job and he said ‘are you used to hard work?’ We said, ‘we are three miners’ and he said, ‘that’s alright then, you can start tonight’. My uncle said, ‘I’ve got a brother – will you give him a job?’ ‘Alright’, he said, ‘but don’t bring all the family down here!’ So we sent for him … Then my brother came up from Wales… all my mates, three or four cousins and people by the name of Allport.

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The advent of the Allport family was a significant factor in subsequent migration because they were well-known shopkeepers. The eldest son, aged twenty-five, was the to arrive in the late autumn of 1926. By the end of the year, there were in the region of twenty-five ‘Garwites’ forming half of all the Welsh labourers working on the site, who in turn formed half of all those employed there. Tom Richards’ mother, brothers and sisters arrived the next summer, together with the rest of the Allport family, joining the two eldest sons, as Vyall Allport recalled:

We were a very close family and kept together, so the boys wrote and Mam came up, and the next thing was that Iris and myselfcame up … Mam sold what property we had and that money put a deposit on a new house… on the Oxford Road. We came up in September 1927… in the van with all the furniture… Everyone was was sorry to see us going because we were part of the community, shop, football team and everything.

J. J. Williams, the local ‘journalist’ for the Garw, who by now was beginning to report this ‘exodus of worthies’ in his weekly column for The Glamorgan Gazette, included a paragraph to this effect:

Garwites regret the departure of Mr and Mrs Allport and family from Pantygog to Oxford. Mr and Mrs Allport have resided in the valley for twenty-eight years. Master Vyall Allport was well known in musical circles, and especially on the Eisteddfod platform. He has been successful at all the principal Eisteddfodau in South Wales.

Undoubtedly, their presence in Cowley as house-owners and contributors to Welsh cultural life had a major stabilising effect on the nascent Welsh community in Cowley. Many young single men stayed with Mrs Allport as lodgers and she helped to settle a large number of other families by supplying information and advice. Their house, re-named Pantygog, became part of a Welsh Corner, an informal advice centre for recently arrived immigrants, including the ‘British Legion’ and the ‘Cowley Workers’ Club’. The preponderance of ‘Garwites’ among the Welsh immigrants at this time and their establishment of sporting and musical societies helped to give the immigrant community a sense of cohesion at a very early stage. The presence of a Congregational Church also played a major part in this. The dynamism of Rev. Whatley White, inducted as pastor in 1926, and his successful ministry among young people, prevented many of the early immigrants from returning to the valleys, as their own testimonies record.

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By the late twenties, many of the young migrants were beginning to get married and start their own families, adding further to the stability of the burgeoning immigrant community. The Glamorgan Gazette reported that Mr Edward Bowden, formerly of Pontycymmer, and Miss Maggie Thomas of Blengarw, both well known in the Garw, had got married in Oxford. Stan Smith, also of Pontycymmer, who had obtained work for both himself and his brother in 1927, found that his Whitsun Holiday was the cause of some light-hearted speculation in the Pressed Steel Works’ magazine, Pressings in June 1928:

Stan Smith has had a week in Wales and he had his pockets very well lined before he went. We can hardly believe that it was matrimony that called him there, but one hears so many rumours.

Welsh marriages and courtships appear to have provided a source for a good deal of humour among the workforce at the Pressed Steel factory during the latter half of 1928. When such events were conducted between Cowley bridegrooms and Garw brides they further strengthened the ties which bound the two places together. By the Easter holidays of 1929, the obvious prosperity of the returning natives provoked the Garw columnist, J. J. Williams, into witty comment concerning their fashionable clothes. Apart from the wedding mentioned above, the marriages which were solemnised in the early years of the migration must have taken place in Wales, since the first marriage to be recorded at Temple Cowley Congregational Church involving a Welsh couple was that of Iris Allport and David Price in April 1930, by which time all of the Allport family had moved to Oxford. Many of the young men had left their fiancées behind when they first arrived in the city, regarding their successful settlement there as the prerequisite of marriage. The considerable and continual coming and going between Oxford and Wales during seasonal spells of unemployment, holidays and even weekends enabled them to maintain long-distance relationships and even to form new ones from girls ‘down home’ in preference to Oxonion girls. Of the twenty-one men interviewed by Goronwy Daniel who had married after leaving Wales, eleven had married Welsh women by 1938. Six of the remaining ten men who had married English women were either Englishmen who had lived in Wales or were Welshmen who had lived in England for many years before marriage.

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This preference for Welsh-Welsh matches is reflected even among the marriages which took place in Oxford. Nineteen of the seventy-nine weddings at Temple Cowley Congregational Church between 1927 and 1940 involved Welsh people. Of these, at least nine were ‘all Welsh’ affairs, eight were between Welsh bridegrooms and English brides, and two were between English bridegrooms and Welsh brides. Other significant facts are that only four of the seventeen Welsh bridegrooms were under twenty-five and that five out of the eight men who married English brides were aged between twenty-seven and thirty-four, whereas only two of the men who married Welsh brides were in this age group, five of them being aged twenty-six and two, who married after the outbreak of war, aged twenty-one and twenty-two. These figures confirm that many Welshmen deliberately delayed their marriages until they were settled and that those who did not have Welsh fiancées at the time of their migration married still later. The church records together with Daniel’s findings confirm that courtship and marriage formed an important thread in the migration network and that, despite the opportunities presented by the wide range of leisure activities for new relationships to be formed in Oxford, the retention of Welsh traditions in this aspect of life was particularly strong. As Daniel pointed out, the Welsh working class male’s stereotypical image of women was transferred to the new social context:

A factor which no doubt affects marriage is the preference expressed by many of the migrants for Welsh wives. These men considered women born in Oxford to be ‘different’, ‘too reserved’, ‘too fond on going into pubs – a thing that no respectable girl would think of doing in Wales’, ‘bad hosewives’ and ‘poor cooks – too fond of tins and bakers’ bread’. Some of those asked agreed that perhaps the same could be said of many a Welsh girl living in England, but maintained that ‘a girl from home’ would make the best wife.

It is possible that these statements are merely an expression of patriotism, or that they are the result of a natural tendency to idealise those things which are left behind… We can look upon the Oxford Welshmen as men adjusted to the behaviour and values characteristic of Wales, who are uprooted and forced to readjust themselves to alien surroundings. From this point of view it is easy to understand their loneliness on arrival in Oxford, their feeling that Welsh women are more ‘homely’ and ‘make better wives’ and the high proportion of them who marry Welsh women.

The experience of one of Daniel’s interviewees can, therefore, be seen as fairly typical in this respect. Whilst on holiday in the Garw, he met a girl from Ystradgynlais, in the Swansea Valley, who was staying with a friend. She later came to work in Cowley and they were married in 1935, seven years after his initial migration as a teenager. No doubt this pattern was repeated many times, after many of the migrants returned home dressed in the latest fashions, ‘Oxford bags’ and smart blazers, and, by the end of the thirties, in their own motor-cars. Cadwallader Jones left the Garw for Cowley in 1933 and having obtained work, found digs with a family from Pontycymmer. He then married a woman from his home village and they moved into a house on the Florence Park Estate, which had become very Welsh by the mid-1930s.  Even in those cases where Welsh men married English women, contact was often made through the chapel or the choir. Very rarely, it seems, were future spouses found more informally through dances or attendance at other forms of popular entertainment.

Social Service agencies also helped to define and stereotype young, single immigrant women as a ‘problem’ in terms of immoral conduct. It is probable that their concern had less to do with a real problem than with their desire to secure funding for their projects. To begin with, in the late twenties, these were organised and funded on a purely local basis. In Oxford, members of the Local Aid Sub-Committee of the Mayor’s Mining Distress Fund met the young workers on their arrival and arranged for them to become members of the local juvenile organisations. One of the committee members established a special club for Welsh girls which further facilitated the contact between these girls in circumstances in which the nature of their employment counteracted their own efforts to support each other socially. In March 1935, the Oxford Moral Welfare Committee for Outside Work issued an appeal for the provision of a new outside worker for moral welfare in Oxford which they justified by reference to the extraordinarily rapid growth of the city since the war which had outstripped the existing organisations for preventive and rescue work. Their thinly-veiled desire to regain a degree of social control over the lives of working-class women  as a whole led them to reinforce the stereotypical image of young immigrant women:

This increase, consisting as it does chiefly of a newly settled artisan population, practically of the same social class and without educated leaders of public opinion, has transformed the problem of Moral Welfare by bringing into Oxford hundreds of young wage-earning girls and women who are as yet strangers to the City and to one another. For them, some friend able to devote most of her time to their welfare will be the simplest way of bringing them into touch with the protection, healthy evening recreation, and general friendliness which the various organisations for young people in Oxford provide.

Four months later the Pilgrim Trust responded to this appeal by providing two hundred pounds per year for the first three years to guarantee the social worker’s salary. The job was mainly concerned with unmarried mothers, pregnant girls and girls with ‘loose associations’ (e.g. with married men).

The accusation that Welsh immigrants habitually undercut wages was a prevalent one. An American writer recorded that it was repeatedly said of the Welsh that they would work for wages that no Englishmen would dream of accepting. The accusation carried some potency in Oxford, where it seems to have derived from the immigrants who secured jobs in the building trades through the Merthyr-based firm of Moss and Sons. One of Goronwy Daniel’s witnesses recorded how she had been upset by a conversation she had overheard on a bus. An Oxford woman had said that the Welsh are stealing jobs by working for low wages. Although this became an oft-repeated epithet, contemporary left-wing activists like Abe Lazarus recognised that, although men from the depressed areas, DA men’, might be glad enough to accept low standards after years of unemployment, Oxfordshire agricultural labourers were far more likely, due to their non-industrial background, to accept low rates of pay in the car industry than Welsh miners. Nevertheless, this negative stereotype of the newcomers persisted well into the thirties. One of Daniel’s other interviewees who had migrated into the town in 1933 had found a strong dislike of Welsh people on the part of Oxford men, who thought the Welsh were taking their work and were all “reds”. The juxtaposition of these two remarks provides a graphic illustration of the emotive and illogical of much of the invective directed against the Welsh immigrants; they could be branded, at one and the same time, as ‘dilutees’ and ‘militants’.

 

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In Oxford, the Welsh were easily scapegoated as the agents of social and political disturbance more generally. Unlike Coventry, Oxford was not a working-class city, and had always been a town dominated by the ‘gown’ of the university colleges. In the early 1920s there was an informal, but a well-defined hierarchy of employment in the city and this was accompanied by traditional attitudes of servility and deference among the working population. A decade later, this hierarchy and the low-wage economy which underpinned it had been disrupted and displaced by a high-wage mass-production hub in its suburbs, namely the Cowley car works of William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, and the US-based Pressed Steel company. Whereas ‘kith and kin’ connections had been important in getting employment in the colleges and domestic service, a factor which had protected the essentially parochial character of the servant population, this was not the case in the new industries. The sense of ‘dilution’ and ‘devaluation’ of tradition therefore found expression in an antagonism towards the immigrants, who were seen as alien disruptors of that tradition. Moreover, their industrial trades unionism was seen by many Oxford natives in a similar light, as being alien to the City’s traditions of craft unionism in the printing and publishing companies. Among Oxfordians, whilst it was recognised that trade unions were necessary in some jobs like mining, in Oxford they caused nothing but trouble, with the chief trouble-makers being the Welsh, who were all out for all they can get. 

 

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From the very beginning, the case of the ‘migrating militants’ among the ‘Cowley Garwites’ was different from at other plants because there were a number of older men with significant experience in the SWMF and who had been active in the institutional life of the valley before migrating. There were also a significant number of Garw families who had already established themselves in Cowley by the end of the twenties, as we have already noted. These men had begun to organise an unofficial and underground movement in 1928, and by 1932 this had grown strong enough for a pamphlet to be produced and distributed throughout the works at lunchtimes. This complained that workers at the Pressed Steel factory were being degraded to the Coolie level and that, despite the Company’s increasing profits, piece-rates were being cut by as much as ten percent. In addition, workers were being forced to work overtime without pay, and female workers, it claimed, were working long hours for very low rates of pay. The pamphlet concluded that it was absolutely essential that every worker should join the Transport and General Workers’ Union as soon as a branch could be set up and that every worker should then play an active part in the union to bring about the abolition of overtime, the acceptance by the company of a workers’ representative to approve the decisions made by the rate-setters, and a fixed rate for ‘dead time’.

Although we have this oral and documentary evidence that the will for organisation and trade union recognition existed before the famous strike of 1934, we have none about what happened in response to their demands. There is nothing to suggest that any breakthrough was made until then. Seasonal unemployment remained a problem in the works throughout the early period. Whereas the company had discharged slightly more workers than it had engaged in 1930 and 1931, 1933 saw its biggest net gain of employees and this was followed by another substantial gain in 1934, as the general economy continued to recover. It then continued to show a net gain of workers each year until it reached a total labour strength of 6,411 in 1940. Also, by 1933-34 many more of the Welsh had married and moved onto the Florence Park Estate and other estates near the works. This made social conditions, in terms of the proximity of home and work, more comparable with those prevailing in coalfield communities, giving a greater sense of permanence to the immigrants. The ownership of houses provided venues for meetings and tactical discussions. The immigrants had become the ‘local’ element in the workforce, whereas the quarter of the workforce who were Oxonion, living in villages within a wide range of Oxford rose to more than a third by 1941. This factor tended to accentuate the role of the immigrants in the organisation of the works since many of the Oxonions could only be brought together at lunchtimes.

It was during a heat-wave in July 1934 that affairs came to a head. The grievances in the factory were similar to those set out in the unofficial broadsheet of two years earlier. On a Friday night, 13 July, almost every man in the press shop considered that his wage had been arbitrarily cut by the management.  When the management failed to meet the workers by the following Monday, the press shop workers walked out. They were led in this by two key figures. Tom Harris, a crane operator in the press shop, was born in Monmouthshire and had migrated to Scranton, Pennsylvania in his early twenties. As a miner, he was active in the United Mineworkers of America before returning to South Wales in the mid-1920s to work in a Maesteg colliery, becoming active in the SWMF. He arrived in Cowley shortly before the strike in 1934. Dai Huish, probably from the Garw, was also an experienced member of the SWMF before arriving in Cowley. Huish was one of those elected to the deputation which, once outside the gates on that Monday night, met to discuss the situation and to find a way of persuading the day shift to support the action taken by the night shift in the press shop. They went to Huish’s nearby house, where Huish had been planning the strike action over the weekend. Significantly, it was the idea of his wife, joining in the lengthy discussion, that the deputation should send delegates to ask for assistance from the Local of the Communist Party. Her rationale for this was that The Communist Party had provided invaluable help and assistance in organising the miner’s struggles in Wales.

The decision to involve the Communist Party was not taken because there were already CP members active in the deputation. The impetus for it was based entirely upon a response to the immediate conditions in the light of a long-held desire of a largely immigrant workforce to retain and re-establish their trade union principles in their new industrial context. The Local advised the deputation to extend the strike to bring in other departments with similar grievances. It was also decided to put forward broad demands on wages and conditions, to press for a closed shop for all semi-skilled men and women, and to demand trade union recognition.  A leaflet was drafted and printed overnight, to be handed out to every day-shift worker the next morning. The press shop shift, comprising 150 men and thirty women, came out after ten minutes. The women elected representatives to the Strike Committee, as the ‘deputation’ had now become. They proceeded to lead a demonstration through the factory and on through the town.

The strike involved over a thousand workers and lasted for a fortnight, and by the time they returned to work at the end of July, 98% of the unskilled workforce at the factory had joined the T&GWU. Of the eleven members of the provisional strike committee, two were Scottish, two were from the North East of England, one was from Manchester and five from South Wales. Only one was Oxonian. Tom Harris became Chairman of the new 5/60 branch, and Dai Huish became its Secretary. Unfortunately, the sources reveal little more about his wife, or about the women press shop workers and their representatives, but they do testify to the strength and significance of familial ties in the growing self-confidence among the immigrant workers at Pressed Steel. In April 1938, at least six of the shop stewards were ‘DA men’, though there were undoubtedly others about whom little or no information is available. We do know that only six of the shop stewards lived at any significant distance from the works so that local residence appears to have continued as an important aspect in the leadership of the union within the works. This pattern continued, although forty percent of Pressed Steel’s workers lived outside Oxford. Considering this, the ‘DA men’ undoubtedly continued to play a disproportionate role in the leadership of the 5/60 branch. Thus, the settled immigrant community which was contiguous to the works provided an important support system for the development of trade unionism within it.

During the 1938 strike at Pressed Steel, the wives of the strikers were refused public assistance by the Relieving Officer. Councillor Evan Roberts was able to take up their case with the Public Assistance Committee, informing them that the Relieving Officer had hounded them out of his office and shown bias and prejudice. Roberts was born in Cwm-y-Glo in Caernarfonshire in 1898, and was a monoglot Welsh-speaker, brought up by his grandmother on Anglesey until the age of eight when he rejoined his remarried father in the Garw Valley and went to work in the Glenavon Colliery at the age of fourteen. In 1923 he became Lodge Secretary in the SWMF and in the 1926 General Strike and Miners’ Lock-out was on the Council of Action, helping to organise the soup kitchens and the sporting activities in the valley. Following the strike, Roberts was one of those victimised and he and his young wife coped with eighteen months of unemployment before finding work at the sugar beet factory at Eynsham. He then became a building labourer in Headington, and during a brief period working for the City Highways Committee led a successful deputation to its Chairman about the payment of tea money.

Roberts then became involved in the Trades Council in Oxford and was asked to fight the City’s West Ward for the Labour Party in 1935. Later that year, he became Chairman of the City Labour Party. Though the Public Assistance Committee rejected his claims about the treatment of the strikers’ wives, Evan Roberts had demonstrated that a working-class voice could be heard in the corridors of local power. In true Dick Whittington-style, he was made an alderman in 1956, Sherriff of Oxford in 1957, becoming the first Lord Mayor of Oxford five years later. Few human stories could better epitomise the setbacks and achievements of the British Labour movement over the inter-war and immediate post-war period. But it was also closely related to the growth of the Labour Party in Cowley and Iffley, dominated by car workers, and especially by former South Wales miners and their wives. In January 1937, Enid Harris was its social organiser and a Mrs Rees was also a member of the Executive Committee.

In Oxford, as the camaraderie of the Pressed Steel factory began to develop, much of the antagonism between the Welsh and Oxonian men began to subside and turned to good-natured jibes at the Taffies, some of which is recorded in the company’s magazine, Pressings. By the mid-thirties, as the new estates were built, the pressure on accommodation was relieved to a considerable extent. Then it was the women and children who had to bear the brunt of the residual hostility against the Welsh, through more subtle forms of discrimination. The essential companionship of the terraced neighbourhood which the women had known in their coalfield communities was almost entirely absent from the new estates and many women suffered acute loneliness in their new homes. Whereas in the valleys the neighbour’s door was always unlocked, there was no such welcome in many English family homes. 

 

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The erection of the new housing estates brought the possibility of renting or even owning a newer, more spacious property with better facilities well within the reach of those who left Wales with some savings or those who had been successful in maintaining relatively high wage levels in Cowley despite seasonal unemployment. In the mid-thirties, houses with three bedrooms in Headington and Cowley could be bought for under five hundred pounds, with a deposit of twenty-five pounds and weekly payment of 13s. 2d. These were all terraced, brick houses with bay windows and good gardens. By the mid-thirties, many migrants were able to cross the divide and join the significantly high proportion of owner-occupiers in Cowley. The Allports were able to raise the deposit for their Cowley home from the sale of their house and shop in the Garw in 1927. Iris Allport described the contrast between these new living conditions and those they had been used to in South Wales, and her reaction to it:

When we arrived we were impressed. Don’t forget we were coming from Wales and the house had the old fires in the best rooms. This was a modern hose with small grates – it was heaven – I can remember how I ran around the room! There was a bathroom, which we had never had before – we had baths in front of the fire. You just imagine the difference – we were delighted, like walking on air!…

The Allports were by no means typical of the first wave of Welsh migrants to Cowley, many of whom could not afford the deposit necessary to secure a new property, and had to wait eight years or more before they could afford to do so. Nevertheless, many of those interviewed in the 1980s shared their impressions of the quality of craftsmanship and the contrast with conditions in South Wales whether they owned or rented the houses to which they moved. Those interviewed for Goronwy Daniel’s 1940 survey were content with their housing conditions, though not with the rents they had to pay for them.

Better housing conditions, modern conveniences and labour-saving devices meant that Welsh women in the new housing estates suddenly found that they had more ‘free time’ than they had had when living in the coalfield terraces. They no longer had to spend whole days each week on washing pit clothes by hand or on cleaning and blackleading the grates. Yet when they tried to take advantage of this by venturing out and joining local women’s associations, they were often met with prejudiced attitudes and behaviour. In one case, a minister’s wife was overheard discussing with her gossips whether it is wise to accept wild folk from South Wales. The effect of such attitudes and behaviour, involving acts of both commission and omission, upon Welsh women is fully revealed in the following comments by two of Goronwy Daniel’s interviewees. A husband and wife from the Rhondda who moved to Oxford in 1933 both felt ‘very lonely’ during his first few months in the town. In the Rhondda, they had gone to chapel, to concerts and occasionally to the cinema. They had also gone for long walks together. In Oxford, they felt isolated from the ‘little cliques’ of men from the works who spent their time in public houses or at football matches or sometimes went to dances with their wives. The wife commented:

“People are so independent here. At home they wouldn’t ask, but come in and help if the children were ill; if things were bad they would bring a loaf of bread with them. In Oxford we could all be dead and no one would know until the rent collector came round at the end of the week.”

In Oxford, as to a lesser extent in Coventry, the Welsh faced a genuinely peculiar paradox: the more ‘clannish’ they became in their attempts to re-establish themselves in a hostile environment; the more they relied upon familial and institutional networks  as a means of mutual support and encouragement, the greater was their contribution to the social and cultural life of the cities and the greater was their integration into full citizenship. In turning inwards to defend themselves against a plethora of prejudices, they found the means to define, develop, articulate and promote a self-image of ‘respectability’ which could be held up against their reputation for ‘roughness’ which was so often held up to them.

Key figures in the social service movement, such as C. V. Butler, also appeared to a somewhat ‘matronly’ view of the ‘new leisure’ which they saw emerging among that city’s new working class. Interestingly, Butler could only explain the popularity of these new forms of mass entertainment by reference to the patterns of mass production in the new industries of the locality:

Morris’s, the Pressed Steel Works … have long periods of overtime working … periods of overtime and rush work in Oxford bring with them their own problems so far as leisure occupation is concerned. While they last, young people are at a disadvantage if they are inclined to take up something in their leisure time which demands consecutive thought or attendance; clubs, evening classes, systematic reading, for example … This often results in a tendency among them … to get the most excitement possible out of their leisure time. Perhaps this is one explanation of the popularity of dancing, cinemas and dog-racing …

That sense of responsibility which is developed in the craftsman is not brought out in the worker in the mass production factory … It is an aimless kind of work, and seems to breed an attitude of aimlessness and irresponsibility on the part of the young people who are occupied with these tasks. It is an explanation of the dance craze and the cinema craze … There is practically nothing else to do on Saturday night except dance or go to the cinema. No clubs, except the YMCA and very few churches have organised anything … The minds of the young people are being stultified by this feeding with not always wholesome material.  

These contemporary social investigators were sharply critical of the way in which rapid and unplanned development in Oxford had failed to take account of the need for a range of facilities around which communal life could be established. The local press often reflected these criticisms, as this editorial from the Oxford Times from 23 April 1937 demonstrates:

It must be admitted that in a great many cases, including that of Oxford, the authorities at first failed to look sufficiently far ahead in planning these estates, and often left them without shopping centres, churches, schools, halls and other amenities which are now recognised as essential … although in the majority of cases there are to be found … among them (the immigrants) people willing and able to start social activities, they are usually sadly handicapped by the lack of a meeting place. At best most of them have only a schoolroom in which to meet.

A Welsh-speaking couple from Neath with three adult and two teenage children felt equally isolated in their leisure time. ‘At home’ they attended chapel and Sunday School and were members of the chapel choir; a great deal of their time was spent in gardening. In Oxford they only went occasionally to the cinema and missed the social life of their village:

They (Mrs & Mr B) expected a minister from one of the local chapels to visit them and give them a welcome, but no one came. Oxford people were antagonistic. On her way home in a bus one day an Oxford woman began to say that the Welsh were stealing jobs in Oxford by working for low wages, and that they were uneducated and could not speak English properly. Mrs B. told her that she wouldn’t speak like that if she knew what it was like to have been for years out of work and to have seen her little children with faces like old men for lack of food. But Mr and Mrs B felt very upset.

The transcripts of Daniel’s interviews show that many Welsh women, despite these overt and covert forms of discrimination, did join choral societies and church groups. Some reported that their children had been teased and bullied at school, being called ‘Taffy’ and having the old rhyme sung at them:

Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief;

Taffy came to my house and stole a leg of beef …

But many of their children, particularly their daughters, who were perhaps less prone to rise to baiting, to fight and form gangs than their brothers, did make friends with English children after a short space of time in Oxford. In addition, many immigrants adapted to the ‘new leisure’ after initial loneliness and homesickness, especially when they married local women. A twenty-seven-year-old Bargoed brick-layer who spoke Welsh had felt ‘miserable’ in Oxford for a long time after migrating in 1928. In Wales, he had attended chapel regularly, played billiards and had gone to evening classes. Following his marriage to a local girl, he felt far more settled in Oxford. Another twenty-seven-year-old man, also with a wife and two small children, had also migrated, from the Garw Valley, in 1928. His social activities had changed significantly since migration. In Wales, he had spent his leisure hours in the chapel, in playing football, going to the cinema and reading novels. When he moved to Oxford, at first as a single man, he began to visit dances and public houses for the first time, followed football matches and boxed a little. He continued to read. He never went to chapel except on his occasional visits to Wales and seems to have enjoyed the freedom from chapel domination. He told of how he had persuaded his mother, on a visit to Oxford, to visit a public house with him; when she returned home, the minister there had heard of this and called to see her about it.

Daniel’s social survey was one which allowed the Welsh immigrants in Oxford to speak for themselves in response to a wide range of questions. In his illuminating 1940 article, he included an appendix containing the detailed and varied, yet edited responses of six migrants and their families. Unfortunately, the full transcripts were lost in his own migrations after the war, these edited transcripts reveal both the common and varying impressions of Oxford formed by the immigrants. None of these lent themselves to stereotypical interpretations by contemporary sociologists. Together with the oral evidence I collected from Welsh Oxonions in the 1980s, they also reveal how Historians need to take care with the available sources neither to exaggerate the extent of social conflict nor to underestimate the ability of the immigrants to withstand and transcend the various forms of discrimination to which they were subjected. For example, in examining the attitudes towards the immigrants, it was often said of the Welsh that they were untruthful and untrustworthy; that they were, as the oft-heard age-old rhyme above suggested, given to stealing.

Another frequent criticism which had little, if some, grounding in reality, was that Welsh people left their ‘digs’ and returned to Wales without paying their rent bills. One of Daniel’s female research assistants knocked at the door of a house where a Welsh correspondent was known to be lodging. His landlady came to the door and became quite agitated, saying that he had departed a fortnight earlier without paying his rent. She told her that the police had been looking for him and then asked the young researcher, You’re not the young lady he’s got into trouble, are you? 

The reporting of isolated incidents of this kind sometimes led to a general withholding of credit from Welsh families, which made it still more difficult for them to remain in their new environments during spells of unemployment. Such incidents were frequently blown out of all proportion by the press until they became a significant source of open conflict. The other common stereotype which developed from incidents like the one reported above concerned the sexual behaviour of the Welsh. It was said of Welsh men that they had loose morals and would marry a girl only after they had impregnated her. According to Daniel’s calculations, fifty-two percent of Oxford Welshmen who were already married before migration caused conception before marriage and fifty-seven percent of those married after arrival caused conception before marriage, in those cases where marriages were accompanied by the birth of children. The equivalent figure for Oxford natives was forty-seven percent.

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In addition to the effects on men labouring on the production lines, periods of seasonal unemployment in the new factories were a factor in significant increases in infant mortality and increased susceptibility to a range of diseases.  Despite its apparent general prosperity, Oxford’s infant death rate increased from 30.5 per thousand in 1935 to 47 per thousand in 1936. Thus, although there was a widening gulf between the prosperous and the depressed areas in health terms as the 1930s progressed, the image of these new areas as havens of health and wellbeing was far from the reality. While the former Welsh miners were generally more healthy than those who had gone back down the pits in 1936-38, as the coal industry recovered, it was, again, the women who bore the greatest cost of migration to their mental health.

One of the expanding leisure areas in which the Welsh had the most success in projecting their self-image was that of sporting activities. Three well-known gymnasts from the Garw Valley comprising Stan Davies, Evan Harris and Billy Cooper, also known as Chick, Will and Comrade, helped to organise the ‘Oxford Physical Culture Club’. Cooper had also become its instructor in October 1927 when he had promised that within six weeks of his election he would produce the finest troupe of local acrobats. By the following February, the Club had gained its first female celebrity, in the shape of a Mrs Parker, who had already become ‘Champion Lady Swimmer of Wales’. At its first display in February 1928, she gave an exhibition of club-swinging before joining the musicians to perform a series of songs during the interlude. By 1933-34, the Club was meeting three times a week and had a large membership, forty-eight of whom were under twenty-one.

Finally, nowhere could the immigrants’ self-image of ‘respectability’ be better expressed than in the religious culture of the cities. Temple Cowley Congregational Church was a small chapel in the 1920s, holding between sixty and seventy people for worship. Within five years of the arrival of the first Welsh immigrants, the number of regular worshippers had swollen to five times that size. In October 1929, The Oxford Times reported that the need of Cowley for a larger Congregational Church was emphasised on Sunday when the existing church was packed to the doors for the harvest thanksgiving services. The foundation stone of the new church was laid later that month and the role of the Welsh in the church was affirmed by the presidency at the ceremony of Isaac Edwards of the Union of Welsh Independents. It has been estimated that roughly half of those who packed the new church every Sunday was Welsh. By 1935 many of the young immigrants had married and started families and their children made up a large part of the 360-strong Sunday School. The Welsh immigrants provided a real lift for the Church especially in their singing, and it became a United Nations’ Chapel with the Welsh and the Scots and a few Irish.

(to be continued)

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

Chapter Three: Migrant Women, Work and Marriage:

In the early 1930s, migration to the new factories for both men and women was hampered by prevailing economic conditions. Despite payments of fares and expenses for the removal of household goods, only 1,200 families had been removed from the depressed areas under the provisions of the Transference Scheme up to the end of 1931. In the seven years which followed, approximately ten thousand more families migrated under government assistance. Apart from the difficulties associated with finding employment for adults in the ‘new areas’ during the general depression, local Ministry officials at both ends of the transference process were also very conservative in procedure, rarely committing time and resources to finding openings for families in the same way as Juvenile Employment Officers were prepared to in the case of young men and women moving independently of their parents.

For much of the period, Ministry officials would only advance rail fares in cases where the transferee had definite employment to go to. In 1935, however, this was broadened to the provision of free fares plus a loan equivalent to one week’s wages for men with good prospects of finding work. Since such prospects were dependent upon the residence in the ‘new area’ of friends and relatives, transference in this form amounted to the subsiding of voluntary migration. Even then, the subsidy was ‘hedged around’ by bureaucratic stipulations, which deterred people already suspicious of government motives and cautious about making a commitment to permanent resettlement, to become entangled in this way.

The state subsidies were sometimes made use of, however, when the head of a family had established himself a new area and was confident enough of the of the prospects for his family to apply for a grant to help with removal expenses. The assistance in this form was in the region of ten pounds in the mid-thirties, and this was probably the most successful aspect of the adult transference scheme. However, its successful operation came too late for large numbers of actual and potential Welsh migrant families. In the case of the Oxford Exchange District, with its huge Morris and Pressed Steel car plants in Cowley, hardly any use was made of the Family Transference Scheme until 1933 when thirteen families were assisted to migrate into the district. By the end of 1936, 186 families had received help, 115 of which were from Wales, including the Wilcox family among thirty families from the Pontycymmer Exchange in the Garw Valley. It would be more accurate to describe this as ‘assisted migration’ rather than transference, as most of the work was found by the migrants themselves, with help from friends and relatives already in Cowley, many of them working in the building trades. It was only after settling in Oxford that the migrants found more stable employment in the car factories.

Where the state machinery was used to direct and control the movement of workers via placements notified through the exchanges, the processes involved in resettlement were largely alien to the experience of these individuals so that the end product was frequently accompanied by a sense of atomisation and alienation. In turn, these feelings often led to large-scale re-migration to South Wales; of the ninety thousand men transferred by the Ministry of Labour from the depressed areas between 1930 and the middle of 1937, forty-nine thousand returned home. Despite the after-care provided for juveniles, it was estimated that between October 1934 and September 1937 approximately forty percent of boys and fifty percent of girls transferred by the Ministry returned home. The Ministry classified ‘homesickness’ as the most important reason for this and the social environment was as important in fuelling this as the working conditions. As one commentator put it, parents became convinced that it was better for their children to be half-starved in Wales than hopelessly corrupted in London. 

While official reports attempted to play down the cases of re-migration as hopeless cases of homesickness, unpublished sources show a growing concern among officials with the unsuitable nature of many of the domestic situations into which the juveniles were being placed, particularly in the London area. Wages paid to boys under eighteen were insufficient for them to maintain themselves; they were ill-prepared for the kind of work involved, which was often arduous, involving long hours and little time off, certainly not enough for an occasional weekend at home in Wales. As a consequence, many boys returned home without giving local officials the chance to place them elsewhere.

The Ministry recognised from the early thirties that the success of the scheme in placing a large number of boys in the South East of England would depend on finding them industrial placements. By this time, Welsh girls were also becoming increasingly resistant to being placed in domestic employment. In its Annual Report for 1930, the Oxford Advisory Committee for Juvenile Employment stated that only eight boys and fourteen girls from Wales were placed in employment, compared with forty-nine boys and eighteen girls in the previous year. This was due to fewer suitable vacancies being notified to the exchange. The reasons for this were seen as being very specific:

… An employer who has previously had in his employment Welsh boys or girls who have not proved satisfactory has declined to consider any further Welsh applicants for his vacancies. Of the Welsh boys who have been brought into the area during the past year, six boys and two girls have already returned home.

The young people concerned had been placed in hotels, as domestics in the colleges, or, in the case of many of the girls, in resident domestic situations. In small private houses where only one maid was kept, evidence of the increase in middle-class prosperity, Welsh girls were said not to settle easily. Their sense of isolation intensified and the resulting homesickness led them to return home. By contrast, those girls and boys who were placed in ‘bunches’ in the colleges were far more settled and were also able to return home during the vacations. However, even these young people found the expense of return rail fares a powerful disincentive to returning at the end of the vacations. Thus, by 1931, the experiment in placing juveniles in domestic service in Oxford had largely failed, and employers were showing a distinct preference for local labour.

Far more significant than the involvement of the Ministry of Labour in the reception and settlement aspects of transference was the role played by voluntary agencies. At a national level, organisations such as the YMCA and YWCA were keen to look after the social and moral well-being of the young immigrants. ‘Miss’ Allen, Secretary to the organisation’s Unemployment Committee, was thus able to report in October 1936 that all the organisers were working very closely in cooperation with the Ministry of Labour in the matter of the transference of girls… and were very much alive to the necessity of commending girls so transferred to the YWCA in places to which they went. Two months later, the Ministry informed the National Council of Girls’ Clubs that it was prepared to make a grant available for the establishment or extension of club facilities in certain areas to which juveniles were being transferred. In the following year the NCGC, the Central Council for the welfare of women and girls and the YWCA were involved in a conference on the problem of Transferred Girls and Women.

Concern for the moral as well as the material welfare of transferees is also evident in local sources dating from the late 1920s. These reveal an early provision of support for young transferees to the industrial Midlands which contrasted sharply with the lack of after-care provision in Greater London found in the mid-thirties. In 1935, Captain Ellis of the NCSS was no doubt mindful of this contrast when he arranged for Hilda Jennings to be released from the Brynmawr Settlement, where her survey of the Distressed Area was finished, to conduct a six-week enquiry into the efficacy of the methods of the various Welsh Societies in the Metropolis which catered for the welfare of Welsh migrants. The enquiry was paid for out of ‘private funds’ but was conducted with the fullest cooperation of the Divisional Controller of the Ministry of Labour.

The enquiry found that most of the transferees to Greater London were in the eighteen to thirty group, and were single men and women. It was critical of the London Welsh societies which it claimed were concerned mainly in preserving in the Welsh colonies the Welsh language, culture and traditional interests. As Jennings pointed out, most of the transferees from South Wales knew little or nothing of these. The problem was further compounded by the deliberate policy operated by the Ministry of mixing transferees from different home areas in order to diminish the overpowering “home” affinities and thus increase the chances of assimilation in the new community. Given the evidence identifying the importance of migration networks based on particular coalfield localities to successful settlement in the industrial towns of the Midlands, this policy was undoubtedly counter-productive, and a further example of the way in which the official Transference Scheme worked against the grain of the voluntary migration traditions of Welsh communities. 

The Ministry’s policies exacerbated the sense of isolation and meant that migrants were forced to meet at a central London rendezvous rather than being able to develop a local kinship and friendship network in the suburban neighbourhood of their lodgings and/or workplace. Moreover, the local churches displayed a complete incapacity to provide an alternative focus for social activity except for the minority of migrants who possessed strong religious convictions from their home backgrounds. However, Jennings’ suggestions for a strong central committee to coordinate and develop local district work met with considerable resistance from ‘the Welsh Community’, who resented both her criticisms and her dynamism, by the NCSS which by 1936 was divided on the issue of transference and therefore unwilling to provide the funds for such a project, and by the Ministry, who doubted its practicability. Consequently, the young adult migrant to London, lacking the conditions favourable to self-organisation which existed in smaller industrial centres, was left largely unorganised by the social service movement and its voluntary bodies.

It was the experiences and responses of those scattered throughout Greater London which received most contemporary attention from social investigators such as Hilda Jennings. This research into the new London Welsh, which formed the basis of a radio broadcast by Miles Davies, were focused on forty-five men and women living in different parts of London, working at different trades and occupations and coming from various parts of South Wales, most of whom were young, single people who had been in London between one and five years. A significant proportion had been transferred by the Ministry; others had arrived ‘on chance’; only a few had migrated with the help of friends or relatives already working in London. It is therefore not surprising that the respondents complained of the feeling of being adrift … the feeling of foreignness, of being among strange people. They generally contrasted the ‘bottling up’ of home life and the ‘latchkey’ existence in London with the ‘open door’ of the valleys. The impersonal and business-like visits of the tradesmen in London left the newly-arrived housewife in London with a real sense of isolation and loneliness. Of course, there were many older established districts of London in which more neighbourly contacts were the norm, but few Welsh people could afford accommodation in these districts.

One of the young women interviewed, however, pointed out that friendships in London had to be doubly precious and long-lasting, as against the casual half-hearted friendships of the village. The Welsh societies and chapels were unable to compensate for the loss of companionship; they stood aloof both culturally and geographically from their potential recruits. There was no easily-identifiable Welsh colony for them to serve. The eighteen respondents who were members of Welsh associations had to travel considerable distances to attend, and few migrants could be expected to go to the lengths of one girl who had actually learned Welsh in London in order to worship with Welsh people.

When the spotlight was shifted away from London and the South-East Division of the Ministry of Labour to the industrial Midlands, a more positive picture of the experiences of migration becomes more apparent. Captain Geoffrey Crawshay commented in his survey for his Special Areas Commissioners’ 1937 Report that there were many cases known to him personally where Dai in the Midlands finds a job for Ianto at home. Professor Marquand of Cardiff University also noted that younger men were subject to waves of feeling connected to the receipt of letters from friends who had already left Wales and he concluded that a programme of training and transfer would only prove successful if it were employed through a policy of group transfer.

That individuals should migrate with the help of friends or relatives already established in the new area is, in itself, hardly remarkable. What is significant is the way in which this informal ‘networking’ extended far beyond the ties of kith and kin and became, in itself, almost an institution. Often it was a daughter or son who secured the first job and the strength of familial solidarity would lead, eventually, to reunification in the recipient area. In turn, once a family, especially one of some social prominence, had become established in the new area, a new impetus was given to the migration of additional relatives and friends, and eventually to that of casual acquaintances and even comparative strangers.

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In this way, a ‘snowball’ effect was created whereby large numbers of people migrated from a particular locality in South Wales to a particular place in the Midlands. For instance, one family from Cwmamman were responsible for the removal of a further thirty-six families from the village. By the end of the 1930s, substantial pockets of people from particular coalfield communities were located in particular Midland towns. Workers from the Llynfi, Ogmore and Garw valleys were dominant among the migration streams to Oxford while there appears to have been a preponderance of Rhondda people among the migrants to Coventry, and Birmingham seems to have attracted a good many workers from the Monmouthshire valleys. Although there is some evidence to support the view that workers from other depressed areas were influenced in their choice of destination in a similar fashion, the geographical patterns are not nearly as distinct. Moreover, the Ministry noted that a significantly higher proportion of Welsh people found work for themselves than was the case among migrants from Northern England. Indeed, the Welsh networks were so strong that many of those who accepted help from them were actually employed when they made this decision.

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Besides this independent and collective organisation of familial networks supplying information and support to fellow migrants, the retention of cultural traditions and associations helped to reinforce a collective identity and to establish a sense of stability and respectability in the recipient communities. These associations, or institutions, which the exiles carried with them, were outward expressions of an internal idealised image among the immigrants, an image which came complete with its ‘Welsh mam’ in Miles Davies’ 1938 radio broadcast:

What is there in this Rhondda Valley which is missing from… London? Climb with me for a moment to the top of mountain overlooking Tonypandy … past rows of cottages, with their slate roofs glistening in the sun … across the valley are the long streets of Penygraig, some tilted up the hill, some terracing the mountainside. It is all so near and so clear. You can pick out Dai Jones’ house below. There is the wash that his wife has just put out blowing in the wind; a brave show of colour. You can perhaps see Mrs Jones herself talking to her neighbour over the fence … That is the kind of picture that often comes to the mind of the Rhondda exile.

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Dunraven Street, Tonypandy, circa 1914

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Above: Glamorgan Colliery, Llwynypia, Rhondda, circa 1920

It was precisely this type of imagined scene which helped to provide the invisible binding ties for the Welsh exiles in the Midlands, ties which proved strong enough to hold them together in solidarity and resistance against the tangible tensions which were brought to bear on them in an atmosphere of economic precariousness and social/ cultural prejudice.

The Welsh working-class immigrants in England, men and women, like many other immigrant communities before and following them, found that their attempts to propagate a self-image of industriousness and respectability were in open conflict with a powerful panoply of counter-images and prejudices forged within host societies and reinforced by a variety of social and political commentators. Although long-distance and international migration was a major component of the social and cultural experience of many of the rural and older industrial areas of Britain, it was alien to the experience of most of the ‘new industry towns’ which had obtained their craftsmen in previous generations predominantly from surrounding rural artisans and labourers. The ‘local’ character of the populations of these centres meant that they were essentially conservative in social and cultural, if not in political terms.

The accusation that Welsh immigrants habitually undercut wages was a prevalent one. An American writer recorded that it was repeatedly said of the Welsh that they would work for wages that no Englishmen would dream of accepting. This view was a myth without much grounding in reality. Among the immigrants to London interviewed for the NCSS Report on Migration to London from South Wales in the late 1930s, eighteen young men and women had either left Wales upon leaving school, or held no job between leaving school and moving to London, or were too young to join a union in Wales. Twenty-one men had belonged to trade unions in Wales, eighteen of them to the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF, or The Fed). Only ten of the interviewees, nine men and one girl, had joined unions since arriving in London. Those among the contributors who were active in the trade union movement in London said that they found it difficult to understand why previously loyal SWMF members were slow to join unions in London. They did, however, suggest a number of reasons, including that membership of The Fed had been accepted as a tradition to which they had subscribed without exercising much thought. On finding themselves in London trades, industries and services where no such tradition existed, they did not bother to seek out and join the appropriate union. Some complained that in the course of years of employment in London they had never been asked to join a union.

The age-old stereotype of the Welsh as being dishonest, even to the extent of thieving, was also alive and kicking. When it was revived and reinforced by the agents of authority in society, most notably by magistrates and the press, it was difficult to counteract. In 1932, Merthyr’s Education Committee resolved to send a letter of protest to the Lord Chancellor concerning remarks reported in the press as having been made by a Mr Snell, a magistrate at Old Street Police Court, London, during the hearing of a charge against a young ‘maidservant’ from Troedyrhiw:

Did your friends tell you when you came to London from Wales you could steal from your master, as I find a great many of you do?

The Committee protested that these remarks cast a very serious aspersion upon the integrity of the people of Wales, and in particular upon the inhabitants of the Borough. Of course, not many magistrates were as prejudiced in their attitudes, but cases of theft by Welsh immigrants were given pride of place in reports from the police courts. For example, in 1928, another domestic servant, nineteen years old, from Cwm Felinfach, pleaded guilty to stealing from a bedroom at the house in Oxford where she was employed, the sum of five pounds, six shillings. She was arrested at the GWR station, presumed to be on her way back to South Wales. Her employers asked the bench to be lenient with her as she had not been in trouble before. She was therefore remanded in custody for a week while enquiries were made with a view to helping her. Naturally, such individual cases were a considerable hindrance to those who were attempting to break down this popular prejudice against the Welsh, though they occurred with far less frequency than Mr Snell suggested.

In 1937, the National Council of Social Service made an application to the Special Areas Commissioner for funds to establish a reception service for Welsh immigrants to London. They presented detailed evidence from both London and Slough to show how, among the migrants, a certain amount of hostility had developed between those of Welsh extraction and other migrants. Hilda Jennings, one of the key social service figures in this proposal for a Government-funded initiative, emphasised the degree of prejudice and hostility which  immigrant girls from the depressed areas had to contend with from ‘local’ people as well:

In many districts to which migration takes place there is a growing uneasiness on social grounds. Sometimes, in default of precise knowledge, prejudice, due to the failure or misbehaviour of a few individuals, is allowed to determine the prevalent attitude to newcomers. Generalisations with regard to the ‘roughness’ of girls from Durham or the instability and ‘difficult’ temperaments of the Welsh, make it less easy for even the most promising persons from those areas to take root in new communities. Many of them make good, but others, for lack of better company, gravitate to the less socially desirable groups and reinforce existing anti-social tendencies.

In addition, Welsh women were often stereotyped as being ‘highly sexed’. Many commentators certainly took the view that they were more feminine than their English cousins. On the whole, they were more content than Oxford or Coventry women to accept traditional roles as either maidservants or housewives and mothers. Both oral and documentary sources suggest that very few Welsh women entered insurable employment in Oxford or Coventry before the war, compared with ‘native’ women or immigrant women from Lancashire. If the ‘highly-sexed’ charge related to a stereotype of the Welsh immigrants as having larger families than the natives, then the charge was as fallacious as the stereotype. Research showed that while the fertility of married migrants in Oxford differed little from that of the South Wales population, the fertility of both of these populations was less than that of the Oxford natives.

Given the scope and level of prejudice with which the immigrants had to contend, it would hardly be surprising to find that they also tended to conform to the stereotype of them as ‘clannish foreigners’. However, this was not only a tendency common among Welsh women, whether married or single. In this regard, the dilemma that both men and women migrants found themselves in was clearly articulated in the NCSS report of the late thirties on Migration to London from South Wales:

… instead of being encouraged to use the gifts of sociability and social responsibility which he has brought with him from the small community, he does not seem to find any demand for his services except in gatherings of his own people… The more Welshmen are able to keep together, the happier they will be. But at the same time they are building up a reputation for clannishness which does not help them to find a place in the mixed community in which they live.

There may be a danger that men and women from South Wales coming to London after, perhaps, long years of unemployment, tend to lose their courage. They use the Welsh churches and societies that they find in London as something of a shelter and do not make efforts to integrate themselves into the life of the metropolis. If this is so, then some of the blame must lie with London for presenting to the stranger the face it shows. 

In a 1936 edition of their journal, the ‘Middle Opinion’ group, Political and Economic Planning published statistics showing that immigration into the South East of England was in excess of total emigration from Britain as a whole, claiming that while the national importance of emigration has long been recognised, the practical significance of internal movements has often been overlooked. The pressure which groups like P.E.P. brought to bear led a year later to the appointment of Sir Montague Barlow to head a Royal Commission on the distribution of the population. Although the Commission’s full report was not published until 1940, it began receiving evidence in March 1938. By  then, there was considerable disquiet among the British public about events on the continent, not least in the Spanish Civil War in which bombing by Italian and German planes had led to a mass refugee problem.

On its sixteenth day, the Commision received evidence from a group of councillors, industrialists and academics from South Wales. They pointed out that in 1934, South Wales still possessed a high birth-rate compared with the other regions of Britain, at 16.1 per thousand of its population, compared with a rate of 15.4 in the West Midlands and 13.9 in the South East. However, Professor Marquand of the University College in Cardiff also pointed to the falling fertility rate due to the migration of men and women likely to have families elsewhere. This was borne out by the fact that, in the period 1937-39, there were on average sixty-six births per thousand South-Welsh women aged fifteen to forty-four, a rate less than that produced by women in the West Midlands. Demographic historians have highlighted the role played by the involvement of women in manufacturing industry in the Midlands, the North-west and South-east as an important factor in spreading birth-control techniques; the highest birth rates continued to be recorded in those areas where employment was mostly dominated by males.

Even before the Barlow Commission began to sit, concerns about the increasingly uneven distribution of the population had begun to be heard, especially from those living in London, as the following extract from The Round Table reveals:

London and its satellite towns have already expanded too far and too fast, from the social, health, and ascetic points of view. The heaping up of population in the quarter of these islands nearest to Europe constitutes a grave and growing strategic liability.

Although the increasingly dangerous international situation referred to created nervousness about the excessive concentration of the population in the Midlands and South East, it also created increased demand for labour in the industries which were responsible for rearmament, most of which were located in these areas of the country. It was not until 1939 that the economy of South Wales began to be transformed by rearmament in general and the resultant mushroom growth in women’s industrial employment in particular.

 

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In this context, the work of the Barlow Commission, completed in August 1939, was too late in taking cognisance of the widespread agitation for regional planning in response to the twin concerns about the denuding of the Special Areas and the threat from the continent. Its conclusion served as an indictment of pre-war governments and their piecemeal and paradoxical policies on the planning of population:

It is not in the national interest, economically, socially or strategically, that a quarter of the population… of Great Britain should be concentrated within twenty to thirty miles or so of Central London.

However, this still did not mean an end to the policy of Transference or to the continued voluntary exodus of workers from South Wales, especially since the rearmament boom meant that engineering centres like Luton and Coventry were swallowing up more and more labour by offering ever higher wages in their shadow factories producing aircraft. Welsh Nationalists denounced MPs and civil servants alike as ‘collaborators’ in the ‘murder’ of their own ‘small, defenceless nation’, a theme which was repeated in the Party’s wartime pamphlet, Transference Must Stop. Nevertheless, the Transference Policy had long-since ceased to occupy centre-stage by the time the Nazis occupied the Sudetenland, and there is evidence to suggest that the ‘Blaid’ leadership was itself slow to give priority to the issue, favouring a policy of deindustrialisation and being opposed on pacifist grounds to the location of armament industries in Wales.

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On 3 September 1939 Neville Chamberlain made his famous radio broadcast to tell the British nation that it was at war with Germany. In London, an air-raid siren sounded in earnest for the first time, though it was a false alarm; a Royal Proclamation was issued calling up the Reserves. The lesson of the fascist bombing of Guernica on 26 April 1937 was not entirely ignored by the Chamberlain government, despite their acquiescence. Cities were vulnerable to air bombardment and the civilian population would be a prime target in any Nazi attack. Such an attack would not discriminate in terms of gender or age, so women and children would, for the first time in British history, become the primary targets of the large-scale bombing. By September, a year before the beginning of the blitz on London began, the government had published plans for the evacuation of two million from London and the southern cities, and by 7 September, three and a half million had been moved to safe areas. The social effects on all sections of the community were traumatic, though the greatest hardship fell upon the working classes, of whom a million were still unemployed at the outbreak of the war.

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Billeting arrangements were often discriminatory against both girls and women. Pamela Hutchby, a ten-year-old girl, exhausted and travel-dirty after a slow train journey to Stafford recalled being driven from house to house, the billeting officer asking, do you want an evacuee? The reply came, what is it? A girl? Sorry, we wouldn’t mind a boy, but not a girl. Sarah Blackshaw, a cockney mum with a baby, remembered standing on Ipswich station and being left unchosen from a line of evacuees as farmers took their pick as though selecting cattle, their first choice being for strong lads who would be of most help on the farm. Elsewhere, middle-class families recoiled as billeting officers attempted to place poorly-dressed and underfed kids into their genteel homes, a world of oak biscuit barrels and fretwork-cased radiograms. Happily, there were those who took in and treated the city refugees as their own children and formed deep relationships which survived the war. The picture below shows children from Walthamstow, London, on their way to Blackhorse Road Station for evacuation.

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At 3.50 a.m. on 7 September 1940, the Nazis began their blitz on London, the target being the London docks and the solidly working-class areas around them. In the small terraced houses that had back gardens, the people took to their Anderson shelters, dug into the earth, but for tens of thousands in tenements and houses without gardens there were no deep shelters, only inadequate surface shelters built of brick. Buildings with large cellars opened them to the public and conditions were often appalling as thousand crammed into them night after night. People looked enviously at the London Underground stations, deep, warm and well-lit, but the official policy was against their use as shelters. In Stepney, the people broke down the gates when the stations closed and went down to the platforms. The authorities then relented and opened the underground stations as night shelters. At first, people simply took a few blankets and slept on the platforms like those in the photograph taken in October 1940 at Piccadilly. Seventy-nine stations were used as shelters and at the peak, 177,000 people were sleeping in them each night.

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In 1940, the general willingness of the British people to meet the demands of mobilising an entire economy for war production was a remarkable feature of the nation’s experience of the war.  This economic mobilisation had to be achieved while several million men were in the services. To meet Britain’s labour needs, therefore, over seven million women were drawn into the workforce. Recruitment campaigns were mounted by the government to encourage women to enter the factories, but ultimately compulsion had to be used. This was a controversial step, given existing social values and the fact that women were paid far lower wages than men.  It was made plain that female employment was a wartime expedient only: women were expected to return to domesticity once the war was over. Of course, many didn’t, partly because this profound social change towards a ‘dual role’ for women had already begun five years earlier in many engineering centres like Coventry.

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Nevertheless, the scale of the rearmament and restructuring task is best illustrated by the aircraft industry, in which the workforce increased from about thirty-five thousand in 1935 to nearly two million in 1944, some forty percent of whom were women. It became the largest industry in Britain, employing about ten percent of the total workforce. One typical company, De Havilland, builders of the Mosquito, had to expand rapidly from its Hatfield base into nearby ‘shadow factories’.  Factories in Luton, Coventry and Portsmouth, also built Mosquitoes. It was one of the most successful aircraft of the war, with nearly seven thousand produced and large numbers repaired. Those women who remained as housewives became involved in government initiatives such as the ‘Saucepans into Spitfires’ campaign (see the photo below). In 1940, housewives saved forty shiploads of paper and enough metal to build sixteen thousand tanks.

(to be continued)

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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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004 (2)

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.

004

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…)

…..

 

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