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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.

 

What a year that was: Britain & the World in 1947: Part I.   Leave a comment

The deep nostalgic vision of Empire was dented in 1947. The King ceased to be Emperor. The jewel in the imperial crown, India, was moving towards independence long before the war. Gandhi’s brilliant insight that through non-violence the British could be embarrassed out of India more effectively than they could be shot out, had paid off handsomely during the war years.

London was dragged to the negotiating table despite the attempts by Churchill and others to scupper every deal from the thirties to the late forties. The war delayed independence but showed how much goodwill there was on the subcontinent, if Britain was wise enough to withdraw gracefully.  During the conflict some two million Indians fought on Britain’s side or served in her forces directly, their contributions being particularly strong in the campaigns in North Africa, against the Italians and the Germans. Gandhi himself was sentimentally fond of Britain and kept a photo of his old school, Harrow, in his cell.

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As soon as Attlee’s government took power, it organised talks on British withdrawal from India. Anti-imperialism had been a genuine strand in Labour thinking since the party’s formation, but there were now other motives behind the determination to pull out of the sub-continent. There was gratitude for Indian support throughout the war, especially in North Africa and in Iraq. Attlee thought that a rapid handover to ensure a united, independent India with both Muslims and Hindus sharing power in one vast state connected by trade and military alliance with Britain. This would also act as a major anti-Communist bulwark in Asia, to stem both Russian and Chinese expansionism. He passed the job of overseeing the transition to Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had been supreme commander in south-east Asia, and as such had organised the reconquest of Burma.

The partitioning of the sub-continent had become almost inevitable by 1947. Muslims would not accept overall Hindu domination, and yet across most of India the Hindus or Sikhs were in the majority. British India was duly split into Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Hindu India. The border line was drawn up by a British lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, and kept secret until after the handover of power. Mountbatten then announced, to widespread shock, that independence would take place ten months earlier than planned, on 15 August 1947. Churchill was so appalled by this that his former Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, had to keep him away from the chamber of the Commons. While the speed of the British was a political necessity, the consequences were appalling. According to some counts, a million people died as Muslims and Hindus caught on the wrong side of the border fled their homes. Sikhs rose up against Muslims in the Punjab, Muslims drove out Hindus, as it became apparent that central authority had simply held older religious and ethnic rivalries at bay. Some 55,000 British civilians returned home, as their political masters’ scheme to hand over to a united state as a strong military ally, fell apart in chaos and killing.

The demarcation between India and Pakistan continued to be deeply  unsatisfactory, as it could not have been otherwise after two centuries during which the ‘natural’ divisions between India’s peoples had been obscured and cushioned and allowed in some places to run into each other under the vast, protective and essentially artificial blanket of the old raj. For months after the devolution of power there were massive, panic-stricken and bloody adjustments to the new gravity: wholesale exchanges of population east and west between the borders of the new states, running into millions, rioting in Delhi and elsewhere which killed more than half a million; almost immediately a war broke out between India and Pakistan which the United Nations had to step in and settle; and running disputes over contentious territories to the present day. Pakistan in the awkward bisected shape which 1947 had put it in survived for only twenty-five years. It was all something of a shambles.

Labour ministers were far less enthusiastic about dismantling the Empire in Africa. Herbert Morrison, deputy leader, agreed: He said that to give the African colonies their freedom would be like giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank-account and a shotgun. Attlee himself speculated about creating a British African army, and the Colonial Office described Africa as the core of Britain’s new world position, from where she could draw economic and military strength. For a while it seemed like the Raj would be transplanted, in fragmented form, in Africa.

Back in the mother country, in the summer of 1947 work began in deepest secret of to build a plutonium-producing plant at Windscale, a little on the coast of Cumbria. At the same time, the government sought to rescue Britain’s position as a major world power by having a nuclear bomb designed under the guidance of one of the British scientists who had been at Los Alamos, William Penney.

In the years immediately after the war Britain contained about ten million fewer inhabitants than it has today. The thirties had seen a fall in the birthrate and there was much official worry about another natural shrinkage. In William Beveridge’s war-time report launching the modern welfare state, he had suggested that a bit of fast breeding was needed, or with its present rate of reproduction, the British race cannot continue. To his generation, the British race meant the white natives of the British Isles. Before the war, 95 per cent of the population had been born in Britain, and the other five per cent was made up of the white British whose parents had been serving in the Empire in India, Africa or the Middle East when they were born. There were black and Asian people in Britain, but very few. In the thirties the Indian community numbered about eight thousand, and there were a few Indian restaurants and grocery stores in the biggest cities.

During the war, Irish people came over to Britain to fill the labour shortage left by mobilization. Immigration continued at a rate of thirty to sixty thousand per year through the forties. The cabinet committees excluded them from debates about immigration as they were considered to be effectively indigenous. There were more ‘exotic’ groups by the end of the war, like the 120,000 Poles who had fled both the Soviets and the Nazis, many of them serving in the British forces, most famously as pilots. Most chose to stay and 65,000 found work in coal-mining and factory work.

It would be wrong to portray Britain in the forties as relaxed about race. Despite the refugees who had come to Britain in large numbers since 1938 and the widespread revelation of the horrors of the concentration camps, anti-Semitism was still evident throughout British society. It was no longer the ‘property’ of the aristocratic establishment of the 1930s who had promoted the policy of appeasement, or of Mosley’s Blackshirts who had eventually been disbanded and interred by the wartime government.  in the five years before the war, sixty thousand  Jews from Germany and central-eastern Europe arrived in Britain, many of them highly qualified, helping to transform the scientific, musical and intellectual life of forties Britain. In their invasion plans for 1940, the German SS reckoned the Jewish population to be above 300,000, and hugely influential. After the war, the assumption that ‘they’ dodged queues or somehow got the best of scarce and rationed goods, erupts from diaries and letters as well as anecdotes from the time. After Jewish attacks on British servicemen in Palestine in 1947, there were anti-Jewish demonstrations in several British cities, including attacks on shops and even the burning of a synagogue, mimicking the actions of the Nazis in the late 1930s. More widely, trade unions were quick to express hostility to outsiders coming to take British jobs – whether European Jews or Gentiles; Poles, Czechs, Irish or Maltese. Belief that people belonged to different genetic ‘races’ was underpinned by the government continually referring to the central importance of the British race and, by implication, to a largely unquestioned belief in its superiority to all other ‘races’. Today’s post-modern multicultural Britain would leave a visitor from immediate post-war, post-medieval Britain totally bewildered.

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Yet in the 1930s some parts of England, especially its cities and industrial conurbations, had already become quite mixed in terms of their white populations. In Coventry, for example, the proportion of migrants rose to 40% of the local population in 1935, the majority of newcomers coming from other UK regions than the Midlands. This continued during and after the war, so that immigrants from outside the UK made up just under two per cent of the local population. Of these, 1,046 were Poles, 953 were Ukrainian, and the third significant workers were the 1,100 unskilled textile workers recruited during the war who had stayed on and settled.

The small wartime Indian community expanded to an estimated four thousand by 1954. They soon ‘colonised’ some of the more rundown housing stock in the Foleshill Road area to the north of the city. Like other migrants in Coventry the Indians were anxious to protect their own identity and cultures. However, the ‘coloured’ minority represented less than 1.5 per cent of the city’s population and coloured workers were never a threat to the jobs of those employed in local engineering factories. Nevertheless, by the late 1940s Coventry had become predominantly a city of newcomers. Estimates were given that only thirty to thirty-five per cent of the city’s population of 258,000 had been born in the city, though it needs to be borne in mind that some ‘new’ areas like Walsgrave-on-Sowe were, in fact, as in Oxford, which had been incorporated from rural areas, still retaining something of their village characteristics. Nevertheless, they were incorporated because they had also outgrown their status as villages, also having their share of British ‘foreigners’. The birthplace information for the 1951 Census reveals that over 97,000 of the population were born outside the West Midlands and that, of these, 32,000 were from the industrial areas of south Wales, the North West of England and Northern England.

These ‘newcomers’ were divided roughly equally between the three ‘depressed districts’, each one contributing more than the 10,034 from London and the South East and the 9,993 from Ireland. There had been only 2,057 Irish in Coventry in 1931, but this number expanded rapidly during the building boom of the 1930s and the post-war reconstruction of the blitzed city centre. The streets surrounding St Osburg’s and St Mary’s churches had a distinctively Irish atmosphere. These two inner-city areas were well supplied with lodging houses and multi-tenanted buildings, whilst their proximity to Roman Catholic churches, increasing to six in number by 1939, made them an ideal port of call for itinerant building workers or those ‘after a start’ in local factories. The Irish also began to settle more permanently in the post-war period, forming a more permanent community. The expansion of Catholicism illustrates both the Irish determination to retain their religious identity and the establishment of Ukrainian and Polish congregations at separate churches. Three already large chapels in the city centre developed a distinctive Welsh identity, attracting large numbers of migrants who first arrived in the city during and following the miners’ lock-out of 1926, now forming the largest ethnic minority.

Although the Ministry of Labour insurance book exchanges highlighted a dearth of migrants from the coalfields to Coventry other than from Wales before 1940, the war had apparently increased the Geordie’s willingness to move while Coventry’s high engineering wages helped to keep him in the city once he had arrived. Early studies also suggest that, in this period, almost as many people were leaving the city as were moving in. Reports suggest that this was not simply due to failures to find suitable accommodation or work, but due to a more general failure of integration. Besides overt racial prejudice, Coventrians were reputed to be anything but welcoming to newcomers generally. Friendship and social networks typically followed regional and ethnic lines. Clubs, pubs and religious institutions often catered for particular migrant groups. The reputation of Coventry as an immigrant city since the early twentieth century mitigated against some of the standoffishness of the indigenous population. New immigrants therefore felt encouraged to socialize inside their own regional or ethnic networks, rather than establishing neighbourhood friendships.

At the same time, there were many among the migrants became overtly involved in public life. It is apparent that the political attitudes of those living in Coventry’s new housing estates were conditioned, in part at least, by their mythologized memories of the depression years elsewhere, especially as they were predominantly from older industrial areas such as the coalfields, iron and steel-producing areas, or desolate shipbuilding towns of south Wales and the north-east of England, being joined now by tens of thousands more relocating from Lancashire’s declining textile towns. It is therefore not insignificant that when the government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Tredegar-born Aneurin Bevan should choose to defend it in Coventry. He issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue and was given a great reception from the people of Coventry, in particular from members of the Welsh Community, many of whom knew him in their native valleys. The growth of Coventry’s own distinct brand of municipal socialism from 1937 onwards can be seen, like Bevan’s own work, as a practical expression of an ideological impetus to reform, progress and planning which arose out of the determination of both leaders and led to obtain better living conditions to those which many had been forced to endure for much of the inter-war period.

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Above: On the line in Cowley, in 1946

Coventry was not the only new industry town where immigrants from the south Wales valleys made a political impact and rose to positions of public prominence as councillors through their determination to improve conditions for their fellow workers in their new environments. A string of former Welsh miners turned car-workers, militants who became moderates, won seats on councils in Oxford, for the Cowley and Headington wards in the east of the city. Frank Pakenham, Patrick Gordon-Walker, Philip Noel-Baker, Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman were among those of this first generation of Labour leaders to come to power as a result of rubbing shoulders with those whom one Coventry Conservative councillor had referred to, in 1938, as the sweepings of Great Britain. In Birmingham, William Tegfryn Bowen, born in the Rhondda in 1902, became a real ‘Dick Whittington’ in the making. After working as a collier from the age of fourteen until the General Strike of 1926, he moved to Birmingham and studied economics, social services and philosophy for a year before entering employment with the Austin Motor Company. In 1929 he became a trade union official and led a strike against the introduction of the Bedaux system in defiance of more senior officials. He was victimized for doing so and endured various spells of unemployment and odd jobs. He became a city councilor in 1941, an alderman in 1945 and in 1946 became both the Chairman of the Health Committee, Bevan’s right hand man in the second city. Later, on becoming Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1952, Bowen was asked to account for the Labour hold on city which, under the Chamberlain dynasty,  had been considered a conservative ‘fiefdom’. His answer referred to the large influx from other areas, with a different political outlook.

One of the former Welsh miners who became a car worker and foreman at the Pressed Steel Works in Cowley also claimed, we changed their attitude. This role in municipal affairs in England attracted the early attention of leading politicians in London too. As early as November 1935 Herbert Morrison, then Chairman of London County Council, spoke at a meeting in support of Labour’s successful parliamentary candidate for Coventry, Philip Noel-Baker. In his speech, he contrasted the failures of government ministers with the successes of a new breed of working class politicians, remarking that the Chairman of the London Public Assistance Committee was a common workman, formerly a South Wales miner, yet… better than all the Oliver Stanleys in the Tory Party. 

Interviewed for a post-war social survey, Coventrian women often repeated a stereotype of Welsh women, as well as Scots and ‘Geordie’ women, that they were unemancipated compared with themselves. The related charge that Welsh women were ‘highly sexed’ was one which was first made in a 1942 book by an American writer, Eli Ginzberg. Statistical studies found no correlation between migrant women and rates of fertility, though there is some anecdotal evidence relating to the ‘moral’ consequences of overcrowding among immigrants in Coventry. The Employment Exchange officer, Philip Handley, gave anecdotes to the Civic Aid Society in 1937 of three recent cases in which the husband had gone on night shifts and the lodger had run away with his wife. Social Service agencies in both Oxford and Coventry were continuously sensitive to charges that migration led to greater immorality.

In Coventry, the marked tendency of Welsh women to select their own countrywomen as friends rather than their immediate neighbours was noted in the University of Birmingham’s Survey conducted at this time. So, too, were the continuing stereotypical ‘mirror’ attitudes towards the immigrants. Interestingly, as well as being accused of being ‘clannish’, ‘all out for themselves’ and ‘rootless’, they were also said to be ‘thrusting’, trying always to get on committees and councils and to ‘run the town’, thereby showing a lack of respect for the true Coventrians. By this time, however, it was very difficult to tell who the latter were anyway. In Oxford, more so than in Coventry, the paradoxes of the stereotyping led to the Welsh becoming even more ‘clannish’ 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 the was their contribution to the social and cultural life of the cities and the greater their integration into full citizenship. In finding their inner strengths in collective action and solidarity, they found the means to overcome a plethora of prejudice. They were able to define, develop, articulate and promote a self-image of ‘respectability’ which could counter the one of ‘rawness’ which was so often reflected on them. For example, a Coventry Welsh Rugby Club, originally founded in May 1939, became the cradle for the City of Coventry Rugby Club after the war, with many of the latter’s post-war players being nurtured by the Welsh Club. In Oxford, Cowley FC nurtured various Welsh players who went on to play for Oxford City and then West Bromwich Albion. One of them was Eddie Wilcox, the youngest son of the Wilcox family who had moved, like many other families, to Oxford from the Garw Valley. He became ‘wing half’ for ‘the Baggies’ at the age of twenty-one. J M Mogey’s post-war study of Oxford reveals that the tendency for the immigrants to be more actively involved in autonomous and collective forms of working class culture than their Oxford fellows was a major feature of the social and institutional life of the city in this era. The origins of the active leaders in the establishment of the community centre were in Scotland, Wales, or London, rather than in Oxford itself or its surrounding villages. Whilst Oxford people might continue to resent this domination by ‘foreigners’, they themselves did little to redress the imbalance. In both cities, Welsh Male Voice Choirs had been established early in the interwar period and, alongside the chapels, continued to maintain a distinctive contribution to cultural life in the post-war years. I have written more extensively about these in other articles.

Over the previous century, India had been regarded as the keystone of the British empire; the raison d’être of much of the rest of it, including Egypt, east Africa and the Transvaal, which were supposed to secure Britain’s sea-lanes to the sub-continent. With India gone the rationale for the rest of the Empire might seem to have gone: but some did not see it that way. Traumatic though it may have been, the transfer of power to India and Pakistan was not necessarily the beginning of the end, for the empire’s rationale in recent decades had changed quite considerably from what it had been in the nineteenth century, and could now accommodate what earlier might have seemed like the removal of its heart. In addition, the ‘inevitability’ of general decolonisation did not seem as inevitable then as it seems in retrospect. Of course, in 1947 the imperialists saw the ‘danger signs’, but not necessarily the death-knell of Empire.

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The Bevin Boys leaving St Pancras in 1944 for training as miners – mixed messages?

At ‘home’, patriotic pride cemented  a sense of being one people, one race, with one common history and fate. But, besides the divisions between ‘natives’, immigrants and internal, long-distance migrants, there were also profound barriers between classes. Estimates suggest that about sixty per cent of the nation was composed of the traditional working class – factory workers, agricultural labourers, navvies, riveters, miners, fishermen, servants and laundry workers. War aside, most would spend all their lives in their home cities, towns or villages, unless they were long-distance migrants from industrial Wales, Scotland, and the north and north-west of England to the Midlands and Home Counties of England. The war had softened class distinctions a little and produced the first rumblings of a coming cultural revolution, as men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds found themselves jumbled together in the services, and lower middle-class or even upper working-class officers found themselves ordering well-spoken ‘toffs’ around. The ‘Blimps’ – the older, more pompous upper-class senior officers of World War One ‘infamy’ became the butt of popular humour in the forces, a symbol of a Britain which was dying, if not already dead. On the ‘Home Front’, middle-class women worked in factories, public schoolboys went down the mines as ‘Bevin boys’ (supervised in Coventry by my collier-grandfather), and many working-class women had their first experiences of life away from the sink and the street.

With severe skill shortages and a national drive for exports, wages rose after the war, especially in the engineering factories in and around Coventry. The trades unions became powerful and self-confident, organising production in gangs almost independently from management. In other European countries, however, trade unions became fiercely political, but not so in Britain, where they remained more focused on the immediate cash-and-hours agenda of its members. This didn’t mean they were quiet, however, as many younger shop stewards had taken control from the older organisers who had crossed the line into management, especially in the newly nationalised coal industry, which came into being on 1 January 1947.

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For Labour MPs, nationalising the coal industry was what they were in parliament for, as well as sweet revenge for 1926 and all that. The job was given to one of the government’s older and more ideological members: Manny Shinwell  had been a tailor’s boy in London’s East End before moving to Glasgow and emerging as a moving force on ‘Red Clydeside’.He was a stirring speaker and veteran MP but when handed the task of nationalising coal and electricity, he found there were almost no plans or blueprint to help him, except for a single Labour pamphlet written in Welsh. Shinwell managed the job by the day, but this timing was catastrophic, since the freezing weather stopped the coal being moved and the power stations began to fail. Added to this, many mines operated under Victorian conditions by families which had owned them for decades, simply needed to be closed. In other parts of the coalfields, new mines needed to be sunk for, by 1947, Britain was producing a lot less coal than before the war. Modern cutting and winding gear was desperately needed everywhere. So was a better relationship between managers and miners to end the history of strikes and lock-outs, bred of mistrust. The miners got new contracts and a five-day week but the first major strikes spread within months of nationalisation. Over time, however, relations between the miners and the managers improved as former colliers became overseers and inspectors, and investment did occur. But the naive idea that simply taking an industry into public ownership would improve it was punctured early.  Yet there was still a broad assumption by government and workers alike that the future of industry in general would be like the past, only more so – more cars and ships, more coal, more foundries and factories.

The classes which would do better were the middle classes, a fast growing minority. Government bureaucracy had grown rapidly during the war, and was continuing to do so. Labour’s Welfare State required, in addition to more professionals, hundreds of thousands of new white-collar jobs  administering national insurance, teaching, and running the new National Health Service, about to be born.

The problem for the old ruling classes was whether the arrival of a socialist government was a brief and unwelcome interruption, which could be st out, or whether it was the beginning of a calm but implacable revolution. The immediate post-war period with its high taxation was a final blow for many landowners. Great country houses had to be passed over to the National Trust. It was hardly a revolutionary seizure of estates, yet to some it felt that way. Tradition was being nationalised. In 1947 the magazine Country Life protested bitterly that the aristocratic families had been responsible for civilisation in Britain:

It has been one of the services of those currently termed the privileged class, to whom, with strange absence of elementary good manners, it is the fashion not to say so much as a thank you when appropriating that which they have contributed to England.

Evelyn Waugh, an arriviste rather than a proper toff, sitting in his fine house in the Gloucestershire village of Stinchcombe, considered fleeing to Ireland:

The certainty that England as a great power is done for, that the loss of possessions, the claim of the English proletariat to be a privileged race, sloth and envy, must produce increasing poverty… this time the cutting down will start at the top until only a proletariat and a bureaucracy survive.

A day later, however, he was having second thoughts:

What is there to worry me here in Stinchcombe? I have a beautiful house furnished exactly to my taste; servants enough, wine in the cellar. The villagers are friendly and respectful; neighbours leave me alone. I send my children to the schools I please. Apart from taxation and rationing, government interference is negligible.

Yet he smelt the reek of the Displaced Persons’ Camp in the English air, and he was not alone in this. Noel Coward said that, immediately after Labour’s 1945 victory, I always felt that England would be bloody uncomfortable in the immediate post-war period, and it is now almost a certainty. These fears had some substance in reality, but the changes in atmosphere had very little to do with Attlee and Bevan.The old British class system, though it still retained a feudal air, much exploited by novelists and screen-writers, depended in practice on the Empire and a global authority that Britain was about to forfeit. Nevertheless, there was a sense of grievance and abandonment which hung about the political Right in Britain for decades.

Initially, it was unclear how well the monarchy would fare in postwar Britain. The leading members of the family were popular and Labour ministers were careful never to express any republicanism in public, and there is little sign of it in their private diaries either, though there were many Labour MPs pressing for a less expensive, stripped-down, more contemporary monarchy, along Scandinavian lines. Difficult negotiations took place over the amounts of money provided by cash-strapped taxpayers. Yet the Windsors triumphed again, with an exuberant display which cheered up many of their tired, drab subjects. The wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth II and the then Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947 was planned as a public spectacle.   Royal weddings had not been so well organised in the past, and this was an explosion of colour and pageantry in a Britain that had seen little of either for ten years, a nostalgic return to luxury: Presents ranging from racehorses were publicly displayed, grand cakes made and a wedding dress of ivory clinging silk by Norman Hartnell.

There had been interesting arguments before the wedding about patriotism and Philip’s essential Britishness. The nephew of Lord Mountbatten was sold to the public as thoroughly English by upbringing despite his being an exiled Greek prince, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and having many German relatives. In the event, Philip’s three surviving sisters were not invited to the wedding, all of them being married to Germans. The wedding was a radio event, still, rather than a television one, though the newsreel film of it packed out cinemas throughout the world, including in devastated Berlin. In lavishness and optimism, it was an act of British propaganda and celebration for bleak times, sending out the message that despite everything Britain was back. The wedding reminded the club of European royalty how few of them had survived as rulers into the postwar world. Dusty uniforms and slightly dirty tiaras worn by exiles were much in evidence: the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret remarked that people who had been starving in little garrets all over Europe suddenly reappeared.

(to be continued)

What is Christian Socialism? Part Two.   1 comment

 

Working Class Politics in Britain Between the Wars:             

My grandmother was a ribbon-weaver, a fifth generation Baptist, who was a deacon in her village chapel. She was a founding and active life-long member of the Labour Party in Coventry from the early 1920s. My grandfather was a staunch member of the Miners’ Federation (later the NUM), from 1918, a self-taught man who died of pneumoconiosis, aged eighty-two. He had once lost his job underground for defending a fellow collier from a bullying foreman. The fight of my grandparents against injustice left a strong impression on me. In the 1980s, while reading and researching for my doctorate on the migration of south Wales miners to the Midlands of England between the wars, I also became aware of the contribution of Welsh nonconformists to the development of Christian Socialist values and the Labour Party in cities like Birmingham, Coventry and even Oxford. They took on and finally defeated the ‘establishment’ patriarchs (like the fellow nonconformist Chamberlains) in these cities. This was due largely to the influx of workers from those areas which had already become Labour strongholds, during the ‘Depression’ years. I interviewed many of these workers, ex-miners who became car-workers. They told me of the important roles played by chapels, choirs and sporting teams, as well as trade unions and social clubs, in this transformation of working class culture and politics in the ‘new industry areas’.

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19 November 1940; the remains of Coventry Cathedral following the Blitz on the city

Some of these newcomers to Coventry were among the convinced and articulate group of Christian Socialists with strong pacifist convictions which Rev Howard Ingli James’ ministry at Queen’s Road Baptist Church in the city centre produced in the late 1930s and 1940s. For them, as for Rev. James himself, their experience of the ‘two Britains’ of the inter-war period resonated in their post-war visions of a more just and equal society. James articulated this impetus to social reform in his 1950 book, Communism and the Christian Faith. In it, he acknowledged his indebtedness to his congregation, who helped to give him a new vision of what a Christian community in a busy industrial city might be and do. He then went on to describe the means by which he came to his vision of Christian Socialism:

The depression of 1929-33 left a profound mark on my mind. All around me I saw the bitter struggle of the unemployed… I also realised that the world contained an abundance of the necessities of life which the system denied to the people.

However, these ideas were all vague, and I played no actual part in the struggles of the unemployed. At the end of 1934, I read my first copy of ‘the Daily Worker’. What I read filled the gaps in my political development…

Though recognising that, empirically, both Marxism and Christian Socialism derived their inspiration from the same root he found them incompatible:

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

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In his writing, Ingli James was not only giving expression to a vision which he shared with many of his congregation at Queen’s Road. He was also distilling the essence of the experience of a significant section of the British working class between the wars.

The migrating millions from the depressed areas, and in particular those from the coalfield valleys of South Wales showed that they were not prepared to be treated as mere pawns of the economic and political system which had displaced them. Instead, they made significant and diverse contributions to the economic, political, social, cultural and religious life of the ‘new industry towns’. They were present in churches, chapels, football matches and in the city councils, indeed in all walks of life. Their collective memory of the depression years had become a powerful motive force throughout industrial Britain long before 1945, but it finally found its fullest expression in the landslide election victory of the Labour Party in that year, and in the subsequent achievements of the governments of 1945-51.

011Aneurin Bevan inspecting the National Health Service, 1948.

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