Archive for the ‘Betty Nuthall’ Tag

Family Life, Labour and Leisure: The Forward March of Women in Britain, 1930-40.   Leave a comment

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Chapter One: Semi-detached Britain.

The experience of women between the wars was part of a broader re-making of the main social classes, especially the professional middle classes and the working classes, a social reformation on a scale not witnessed for almost a century, with the maturation of the first industrial revolution. As early as 1934, a woman Oxford graduate commented:

Both the new rich and the new poor have learnt that the old social orders were not immutable, that the roles of Lazarus and his patron were interchangeable. It is significant that you seldom hear nowadays the phrase which was once so common, “know my station”…

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During the 1930s, well-to-do families could enjoy a rising standard of living, and it was possible for them either to evade the problems of society and, despite the declining number of domestic servants, to escape from them. Even the less well-to-do, provided they were employed, could react in these ways to their circumstances since, for the first time in modern times, the benefits of industrialisation began to be applied on a large-scale to the home as well as to the factory. New industries, geared to consumer demand, prospered while old basic industries declined. Meanwhile, ‘mass entertainment’, becoming an industry and sustained by new technical media, often encouraged the flight from the uneasy present, and the holiday resorts boomed.

The experience of the thirties remained fragmented and divided, yet as the decade went by it proved increasingly difficult completely to ignore the international ‘crises’. There was no domestic crisis equivalent to the General Strike of 1926, but the economic recovery after 1934 which raised the country out of the trough of unemployment and hunger was limited and precarious. It was recognised that, in part, the recovery depended on a rearmament programme which might ultimately involve Britain in another World War. Even after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, there was still no sense of common direction. The government, still the ‘National’ government which had been returned to power with a huge majority during the economic crisis of 1931, was not fully representative of the nation, even after its re-election in 1935. The war was fought so fitfully at first that it was called ‘the phoney war’ at the time.

It was not until the ‘Blitzkrieg’ of the summer and autumn of 1940 that Churchill’s new government was able to mobilise the full support of the vast majority of the British people. Their support was forthcoming not just because it was commanded, but because there was a strong popular feeling that the world could not remain safe or happy so long as Hitler was dominating Europe. With the ‘Blitz’, the ‘semi-detached’ period of British social history came to an end. With hindsight, the years between 1919 and 1940 looked like ‘the years the locust had eaten’, years of wasted resources and people. Yet this was not what they seemed like at the time to growing numbers of people who felt themselves to be ‘middle-class’, for whom there was much to enjoy and be thankful for. The contrasting measurements of the main social indexes – in health, employment, education, housing, food and leisure – revealed exactly how fortunate they were. One Yorkshirewoman, quoted in F. W. Hirst’s The Consequences of the War to Great Britain (1934), was convinced that…

… class distinctions have been positively toppled over since the Great War, or rather social barriers have been removed, not entirely by the upper class becoming less exclusive but much more by a general uplifting in the standard of living… Luxuries once enjoyed by the few are now regarded as ordinary expenditure by young people whose immediate antecedents were accustomed to such amenities, … Take for example the telephone, wireless, electric light, motor-cars, pictures. It might be said that these are all recent inventions brought into common use by the developments of science; but unless the standard of living had been considerably raised, these would still have been considered great luxuries to be used only by the wealthier classes. … (Yet) the landed aristocracy have been almost taxed out of existence, and are mostly living in a much less luxurious way than before the War; and the middle classes are undoubtedly labouring under a burden of taxation such as they have never before been called upon to bear. 

Even by 1941, by no means all of His Majesty’s subjects were enjoying such luxuries. For those on B. S. Rowntree’s poverty line’, whether in the depressed areas or in the ‘pockets’ of poverty in the more prosperous towns and cities, such luxuries remained far out of reach. Theirs was a more basic daily ‘fayre’:

Breakfast, Wednesday: Bread and dripping, tea. Dinner: Liver and onions, bread and butter and tea. Tea: bread and butter, beetroot, tea. Supper: Cocao … Breakfast, Friday: Bread and dripping, tea. Dinner: Cod and chips, bread and butter and tea. Tea: Bread and butter, tomatoes, jam, tea. Supper: None. Breakfast, Saturday: Bread and dripping, tea…

In his 1941 report, Poverty and Progress, he also found that taking the average figure for children of all ages there was a difference of five and three-quarter pounds between the average weight of girls in social classes A and B and D and E, while the girls in class X were on average twelve and a quarter pounds heavier than those in A and B. The boys in classes D and E were four and three-quarter pounds heavier and those in class X were eight and a quarter pounds heavier than those in classes A and B. Thus, the ‘weight gap’ between social classes was far greater among girls than boys of the same age. By the end of the thirties, impoverishment had also taken its toll on the diets of older women among the ‘respectable working classes’. William Cameron wrote in Common People of how…

Mother was glad to see Dick, and Catherine was glad to see him too. Visitors were rare. No one goes to see poor people. Even relatives stay away… Dick belonged to that aristocracy of Labour who have hot dinners with vegetables every day, eat real butter on Sundays, and have fresh cows’ milk with their tea. Mother made him a cup of tea and cut him a slice of bread and margarine, a sincere gesture of hospitality. She wanted him to feel at home.

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Thus the growing prosperity among many working-class families helped to underline the widening of divisions between sections of that class. However, with the decline of domestic service, the wealth and powers of both the aristocracy and the upper middle classes were also declining rapidly. The Quakers had long-held an antipathy for the inducement of men and women into selling themselves into service in exchange for shelter, food and clothes in order to gratify the ostentation and indulgences and lusts of their fellow-men. These objections, voiced by Shipley N. Brayshaw in his Swarthmore Lecture, Unemployment and Plenty (1933), were beginning to find a wider appeal among middle classes consciences:

Wealth should enlarge a man’s capacity for useful work and culture. Morally it is not a charter for an idle life while monopolizing the services of others. In the ideal state there would be no shortage of domestic help for responsible people or for those engaged in work of outstanding value to their fellows. The attendants, or servants, of such people would be taking a useful and worthy part in the work of the community, but if they gave the same advice to an idle rich man they would be flunkies…

On the other hand, obsequious service would be withheld, neither man nor woman would accept domestic service of the old humiliating type with its low status. It would be difficult to obtain any personal service which ministered merely to laziness, luxury, or vanity. To serve another, who serves no one, is to be the underlying of a parasite. There is always something humiliating in giving such service, and not many people with a decent alternative would submit to it.                                 

The towns of Britain greatly changed their appearance between the wars: in the twenty years between 1919 and 1939 four million houses were built and the towns spread outwards in all directions. Most of these were built by private enterprise so that the outer suburbs of most modern cities and towns are still quite largely a legacy of the thirties. Between January 1935 and the outbreak of war, 1,807,682 houses were built, more than three-quarters of them by unsubsidised private enterprise. In 1939, one-third of all the houses in Britain had been built during the previous twenty years. These figures were a sign of how much, and how quickly, England in particular, a country of smaller families, was changing. The old Victorian or Edwardian family terraced house was a dreary home, long and narrow and dark, with a tiny front garden in which nothing would grow after the hedge had been planted, and a very narrow strip at the back giving a view of countless others of the same sort. Quite apart from being cramped and dark, it had the added inconvenience that coal had to be delivered through the house, and if you owned a motor-bike that too had to go through the front door, down the passage and out at the back.

 

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So the new semi-detached house was very popular, even if the ‘detachment’ was no greater than a few feet. The earlier semi-detached were usually pebble-dashed plain square boxes with the slate roof of the nineteenth century, but by the thirties, they were mostly of brick and had red tile roofs. Terraced housing was still being built, but the romantic English ideas of privacy and a decent bit of garden all to yourself defeated the best intentions of the town planners. The most expensive semi-detached houses had a variety of features stuck on to give the much-desired air of individuality – bow windows and porches, turrets and latticed windows, even battlements. Many looked like miniature Tudor manors. In some streets, no two were alike, so strong was the reaction against uniformity, and they had names as well as numbers, all in the strong tradition of the English country house. Superior people mocked them, but they were a great improvement on their predecessors for their incumbents and the accusation that they were ‘jerry-built’ was untrue of the vast majority.

 

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There was surprisingly little ‘vox pop’ on radio programmes, but there was a great vogue for cinema documentary particularly among the politically conscious minority in the late 1930s, and in 1937 ‘Mass Observation’ was founded to note directly, without intermediate comment or theory, what people were saying about anything and everything in streets and public houses. J. B. Priestley portrayed the setting of all this in his English Journey (1934) which is comparable in its significance with Cobbett’s Rural Rides of the previous century. In it, Priestley wrote of an…

… England of … filling stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance halls and cafés, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworth’s, motor-coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses, greyhound racing and dirt tracks, swimming pools, and everything given away for cigarette coupons. 

As well as providing a useful corrective to the pessimistic view of the thirties typified by George Orwell’s work, among others, Priestley shows that the ‘two nations’ view of later historians such as E. J. Hobsbawm, was grossly oversimplified. There was certainly widespread depression and appalling human suffering, but it was regionalised, if not localised, rather than general. He identified ‘three Englands’, the first that of ‘Old England’, the country of the cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire. Then there was that created by the nineteenth century, the industrial England of coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool, railways, making up the larger part of the Midlands and the North. His third England was the new post-war England, belonging to the contemporary age. This was the one described above, which he went on to describes as…

…essentially democratic… You need money in this England, but you don’t need much money. It is a large-scale, mass-production job, with cut prices. You could almost accept Woolworth’s as its symbol… In this England, for the first time in history, Jack and Jill are nearly as good as their master and mistress… Most of the work … is rapidly becoming standardised… and its leisure is being handed over to standardisation too. It is a cleaner, tidier, healthier, saner world than that of nineteenth century industrialism. 

Here then were the three Englands I had seen… and as I looked back on my journey I saw how these three were variously and most fascinatingly mingled in every part of the country…

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Most English people were enjoying a richer life than any previously known in the history of the world: longer (and paid) holidays, shorter hours, higher real wages. They had the motor car, cinemas, radio sets, electrical appliances. Yet the result of the National Government’s actions to save the pound resulted in the children of the unemployed having less margarine on their bread, while government ministers, along with the government ministers were able to enjoy Christmas 1931 in their warm, comfortable homes. Such was the equality of sacrifice experienced in Britain in the early thirties. Unemployment continued to rise through the winter of 1931-2, reaching a peak in the third quarter of 1932 when there were almost three million out of work throughout Great Britain. From that point onwards, as the map below shows, the divergence between depressed and prosperous Britain widened in terms both of levels of unemployment and the overall standard of living, due to the cuts in unemployment benefit and the introduction of the means test.

 

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Source: Ministry of Labour

 

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The politics of the post-1945 era were fought out on the record of the pre-war years. As late as 1951 the Labour Party campaigned with election slogan ‘Ask your Dad!’, an illustration of the way in which the emotive image of the ‘hungry thirties’ had become part of the repertoire of political cliché. Perhaps the slogan, ‘Ask your Mam!’ would have evoked a different response, as for most women the thirties were a release from domestic drudgery and an opportunity to do useful work outside the home. Nevertheless, the popular view of the decade as a period of unrelieved failure was undoubtedly hardened and reinforced in the years after the war; a view which became sharpened against the background of full employment and affluence of the 1950s and 1960s. Even in the next period of mass unemployment in the 1970s, the ghost of the thirties stalked political platforms and the media as a symbol of economic disaster, social deprivation and political discontent. A concentration on unemployment and social distress does not, however, represent an accurate portrayal of the decade. Beside the pictures of the unemployed and the impoverished, of the dole queues and hunger marches must be placed those of another Britain of new industries, prosperous suburbs and a rising standard of living for most if not all.

 

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Any of the objects in the photograph above, nearly all incompatible in style, could have been found together in any smart middle-class home of the thirties, exercising the primary function of making the owner feel up to date. Some of the forms claim to be austere, but the general effect is both cluttered and cosy. During the whole inter-war period, interior decoration and furnishings, like all the other arts, were in furious reaction against the Victorian belief in ‘Nature’. Man’s function in the universe was seen as intellectual. His job was analysis, not nature worship. None of nature’s curves was acceptable anymore, only segments of circles. In the twenties only those who were rich, leisured and intellectual enough cared about such fashions, but by the mid-thirties the idea of ‘modern’ and ‘bringing the house up to date’ had percolated down to the lower middle classes. The result was a softening of the austere ideal. A chair might be for sitting on, but when you weren’t sitting on it, you had to look at it. As women’s curves returned, it began to be appreciated in the decorators’ trade that Man, as well as being a machine for living, also had dreams, mostly of a sensual kind. It was the era of the suburban tennis club and John Betjeman’s adored Pam, you great big mountainous sports girl. If your quite small income was reasonably secure, you could enjoy a very happy, active, highly organised and, of course, rather snobbish social life in the outer suburbs in the thirties, with Who’s for tennis? as your watchword in the daytime and Shall we dance? in the evenings, with big bands flooding through the wireless, all glamorous under new electric lighting bouncing off walls and ‘limed’ oak furniture.

 

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Among ordinary people plastics had begun their career in the form of Bakelite, which in the early days was remarkably ugly, cast either in that chocolate-brown which rendered schools, prisons and other institutions so depressing at the time, or mottled like the cover of a penny notebook. Light fittings, switches and wireless sets were mostly in Bakelite. The wireless set was the centrepiece in most homes, with its great red-hot valves like an electric fire. Thirties furniture, angular and ugly, was meant to have a ‘structural look’. Everything from teapots to cigarette cases was cubical if possible, symbolising the discarding of sentiment and other non-essentials.

In the thirties, then, if you had a job, and particularly if you had one in the new light industries, you were not badly off, and your parents’ way of life could be dismally restricted and archaic. It was only the old-fashioned heavy basic industries, such as King Coal, which were now all but derelict: in the new industries based on electricity or petrol instead of steam, and consumer goods instead of iron and steel, there was a genuine and rising prosperity. Plastics appeared in the thirties, and man-made fabrics, beginning with artificial silk, were going well by the end of the decade. There was a great increase in the employment of women in the new electric and electronic factories, where equally new nimble-fingered techniques proved beyond the scope of the old-fashioned muscular worker, however skilled. Domestic servants, ‘the maids’, whose reluctance to come forward for employment had provoked so much indignation in letters to the middle-class press in the twenties, were now becoming even more difficult to get. They now demanded real pay, a day off in the week and tolerable rooms to live in. There was also a boom in the new ‘labour-saving’ appliances, which meant a reduction in the demand for servants and shortened the hours needed by women for domestic labour.

 

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Mass production was not confined to the emerging motor industry, and the fashion business, in particular, had adopted American methods in producing for the popular market. Though competition was fierce, clothing was an expanding home market. Montague Burton, the Tailor of Taste in every High Street could fit men out with a good suit for fifty shillings. The numbers employed in tailoring increased by a hundred percent between 1921 and 1938 to a record fifty thousand. The National Union of  Tailor and Garment Workers recruited heavily during the late thirties and despite opposition from some companies made substantial progress in the organisation of major manufacturers. The ‘Ideal Clothiers’, where the picture below was taken at their Elsden Road factory in Wellingborough, Northants, in 1937, was one of the big producers that accepted the complete unionisation of their staff. Employing more than two thousand workers at eight factories, engaged in the manufacture of men’s, ladies’ and children’s tailored outerwear, all employees were members of the NUTGW. Conditions of employment contrasted sharply with the familiar sweatshops of the tailoring trade and a progressive management offered the rare security of a non-contributory pension fund.

 

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It was in the thirties that the British middle-class scene turned visibly modern. The huge iron kitchen range had owned a red-faced cook or ‘cook-general’, often an apt title for a tyrant of the kitchen. When she failed to appear in her place of duty to be roasted alive at the range until she was properly scarlet, preferring to work in a factory, the range had to go, to be replaced by a gas or electric cooker. In turn, this relieved the maids of the desperate weekly chore of black-leading the monster and since, during the decade, hundreds of thousands of people were employed as door-to-door salesmen demonstrating vacuum cleaners, and stainless steel knives came into use, along with electric fires which eliminated most of the coal-heaving, a kitchen full of girls became more and more of a luxury. Only the copper and the great iron mangle stayed on for years to prolong the penal servitude of the past.

Americans, it was well-known, had washing machines, but only a few of the eccentric and under-bred ‘new rich’ were hardy enough to transplant them to into British society. For many years after the refrigerator had become standard domestic equipment in the USA, a cold slate slab in the north-east corner of the house where the larder with its gauze window still had its place was the Britons’ main line of defence against food poisoning. Every one of the labour-saving domestic appliances had to be begged, prayed and fought for by women against a strong male rearguard action, which resented each one of them as it arrived as a part of a process called Americanisation, which aimed at destroying good old high-bred British stoicism and the cold bath ethic, and would lead us all into decadence and ruin. As one small concession to modernity, the earliest pieces of electric equipment to be found in the British home was the hair-dryer. Women themselves sometimes shared men’s resistance or ambivalence to modernity, particularly to changes in the ways of bringing up children. F. W. Hirst’s Oxford graduate interviewee commented:

The post-war generation suffers from a sort of inward instability, a lack of character, due, probably, to the somewhat hysterical atmosphere of their childhood. There seems nowadays to be no desire to provide for the future or look beyond tomorrow. The war shattered that sense of security which brooded over Victorian homes, and made men buy estates and lay down cellars against their old age and for the benefit of their sons… Before the war children (in better class families at least) were kept apart from elders, had their own good plain food in the nursery and found their own simple amusements. Now they mix more with their elders, sit down to table with them, play the same games, and expect and get much more attention and amusement… But it is a great reflection on the common sense of parents of today that the indulgence and lack of discipline which were pardonable in wartime should be allowed to remain, and the fact that for four years Age had to stand aside and admire the feats of Youth is a poor defence for the absence of respect from the younger generation to the older in 1933. 

The new industries also produced a new style of worker and greatly augmented the middle class at its lower-paid end; it was these people, together with the old middle class of independent shopkeepers, tradesmen and small businessmen, with the professional upper middle class, the new financial and managerial upper class and the remnants of the land-owning democracy, who could have been expected to vote solidly for the National Government. In the event, they were joined by at least half of the old working class who were in dire straits, in what was a clear vote for tradition and stability at a time of crisis, both in 1931 and 1935.

With the upper classes more or less relegated to their crumbling estates in most areas of the country, it was the middle classes who took over the administration of English example and precept. In their hands, gentility became a furious competition and strange arbitrary rules grew up about clothes and fashion. Both men and women took an active role in this competition. Women’s judgements on the appearances of human beings had more of a biological than a social bias, and they were undergoing a profound transformation. The contemporary journalist René Cutforth observed that…

The old Twenties air of raffish individuality allied with a cool, if gin-soaked alienation was on the way out, along with the slate-pencil silhouette, the cloche hat, the cropped hair and the long cigarette holder. Breasts, hips and bottoms made a sudden and welcome comeback to the rapturous applause of their old fans, and this coincided with the introduction of the permanent wave. Overnight, it seemed, there was scarcely straight-haired woman with any pretensions to fashion to be seen throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom; dresses became longer as curves came in again and clothes were suddenly very soft and pretty, even fussy, and crepe de chine was the fashionable material. These were middle-class fashions. The upper class bought its clothes in Paris or Saville Row. The working-class had not enough money to affect fashion at all.

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Later in the decade, women’s fashions produced a round hat in black felt, of exactly the cut and shape of a parish priest’s. This was the ‘Puritan’ hat and originally indicated that its wearer was a bigoted fanatic dedicated to sex in its purest and most clinical form, unadulterated by any other kind of feeling whatever, a high priestess of the erotic, according to René Cutforth. There was no doubt in his mind that the British of that time were more inhibited sexually than most other Europeans, but he was also convinced that the followers of Freud, enthusiasts in stripping sex of its romantic trappings and of any feeling other than physical excitement, produced as many casualties as cures.  The sexual missionaries claimed D. H. Lawrence as their ally but by the time he had died in 1930, he had already detested and disowned them. Women in Love had shown that he was on the side of intuition against intellect, of feelings against concepts, of the sense of touch against the kingdom of the eye, of feminine sensibilities against masculine lust. Instinct, in his view, had been bossed around by the mind for far too long: it was time it staged a comeback. It did, in the thirties, as his influence continued to grow.

Another infection of mass conditioning which also crossed the channel, but whose virus bred much milder mutations in the British atmosphere was the Wandervogel, very much in vogue in the twenties in Germany.

 

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The Women’s League of Health and Beauty, led by Prunella Stack, was another manifestation of this continental vogue for mass parades. Women in every town and village in the land disported themselves of physical training, rolling about on the floors of gymnasiums, drill halls and village institutes, clad in a uniform of shorts and white satin blouses. ‘Hiking’ also began in the early thirties. ‘Going for walks’ in the countryside had been a British pastime for centuries. In the thirties, the countryside was much more attractive than it was after the second world war for two main reasons. Firstly, agricultural labourers, unable to live on their wages during the Depression, had moved in large numbers to the towns, so fields were ill-tended and wild plants grew everywhere. Secondly, chemical insecticides had not yet arrived to achieve the dull uniformity of efficient farming which became ubiquitous in later decades of the twentieth century.

 

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Walking, therefore, became a mass pursuit, with a uniform of shorts and open shirts. Carrying a knapsack or a rucksack on their backs, the hikers, the majority of them women in groups of five or six as shown in the picture above, ‘invaded’ the countryside in vast numbers. Special trains were laid on from the big cities to take them out into the wilder spots. The body, which had simply meant sex in the twenties, now came to mean health and hygiene. Sunbathing and nudism were also pursuits which, for some reason, had to be done in groups. These were derived from nature therapies devised by the Germans to help children who suffered from malnutrition in the days of the Allied blockade.

 

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The figures for car ownership also indicated rapid social change towards a more democratic society. The roads to the seaside were jammed with family cars and swimming pools were crowded. Thousands of people had tasted the delights of flying in Alan Cobham’s Air Circuses, and in the thirties flying was still glamorous. Amy Johnson was the ‘Truly British Girl’, brought up in Hull where her father owned a fish business, and flying for her was an escape from the humdrum into the high altitude where popular heroes lived. She was a solicitor’s typist but had made herself a fully qualified pilot and mechanic, a rare combination. She wrote to Sir Sefton Branker, the Civil Aviation Chief, about her ambition and Sir Sefton found sponsors for her. Amy bought an old green Gipsy Moth, called it Jason, rebuilt it with her own hands and flew single-handed to Australia in 1930. She became an instant success, ‘our’ Amy as much as Gracie Fields, the Lancashire mill-girl singer, was ‘our Gracie’. That was not because of any warm proletarian solidarity on Amy’s part, but merely the result of her Yorkshire accent. She filled the role of popular heroine and played the part of wonder-woman for years. She married Jim Mollison (pictured bottom), another record-breaking flyer and they became the first husband and wife to fly the Atlantic, but Mollison was something of a playboy and never really as good a flyer as Amy. Her serial came to an end when she crashed, unpublicised, during the war while flying a transport plane. She was, perhaps, the first modern British heroine. Heroes and heroines were much sought after in the thirties, particularly in sport. Thousands crammed into Wimbledon to watch British players Bunny Austin and Betty Nuthall (below) fight bravely and long against the great Americans.

 

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                                                                                                                                                                    (to be continued… )                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

 

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