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Corbyn, Anti-Semitism and the Radical Critics of Imperialism.   Leave a comment

Imperial theorist J. A. Hobson. Photograph: Elliott & Fry/Getty Images

Introduction – The Clash of World Views:

This May Day morning, another row erupted within the British Labour Party over the proximity of its leader’s ‘world-view’ to those of radical anti-Semites in the party since its beginnings. An article by Danny Finkelstein (pictured above) has drawn attention to the foreword to a recent republication of J A Hobson’s influential 1902 ‘Imperialism’, written by Jeremy Corbyn which, apparently, lauded Hobson’s radical critique of imperialism, while failing to acknowledge the problems it raised and continues to raise in respect of anti-Semitism. Hobson argued in the book that global finance was controlled in Europe by “men of a single and peculiar race, who have behind them many centuries of financial experience”, who were “in a unique position to control the policy”. By contrast with Corbyn’s 2011 preface, books written by historians Bernard Porter (1984) and Niall Ferguson on imperialism have drawn attention to these problems in the context in which Hobson himself was writing. I have given some examples below, which I first wrote about in an article on the Cecil Rhodes controversy at Oxford elsewhere on my website.


Extracts from Niall Ferguson’s (2003), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World:

So close was Rhodes’s relationship with the Rothschilds that he even entrusted the execution of his will to Lord Rothschild, specifying that his estate should be used to fund an imperialist equivalent of the Jesuit order – the original intention of the Rhodes Scholarships. This would be ‘a society of the elect for the good of the Empire’… Rothschild, in turn, assured;

‘Our first and foremost wish in connection with South African matters is that you should remain at the head of affairs in that Colony and that you should be able to carry out that great Imperial policy which has been the dream of your life’.

Not only was imperialism immoral, argued the critics, but, according to these ‘Radicals’, it was also a rip-off: paid for by British taxpayers, fought for by British soldiers, but benefiting only a tiny elite of fat-cat millionaires, the likes of Rhodes and Rothschild. That was the thrust of J. A. Hobson’s profoundly influential ‘Imperialism: A Study’, published in 1902. ‘Every great political act’ argued Hobson,

‘must receive the sanction and the practical aid of this little group of financial kings… They have the largest definite stake in the business of Imperialism, and the amplest means of forcing their will upon the policy of nations… Finance is the governor of the imperial engine, directing the energy and determining the work.’

H. N. Brailsford, another contemporary radical, took Hobson’s argument further in his ‘The War of Steel and Gold: A Study of the Armed Peace’, (written in 1910, but not published until 1914). ‘In the heroic age,’ Brailsford wrote,

‘Helen’s was the face that launched a thousand ships. In our golden age the face wears more often the shrewd features of some Hebrew financier. To defend the interests of Lord Rothschild and his fellow bondholders, Egypt was first occupied and then practically annexed by Great Britain… The extremest case of all is, perhaps, our own South African War.’

Was it not obvious that the war had been fought to ensure that the gold mines of the Transvaal remained securely in the hands of their capitalist owners? Was not Rhodes merely, in the words of the Radical MP Henry Labouchere, an…

‘… Empire jerry-builder who had always been a mere vulgar promoter masquerading as a patriot, and the figurehead of a gang of astute Hebrew financiers with whom he divides the profits?’

Like those modern conspiracy theories which explain every war in terms of the control of oil reserves, the Radical critique of imperialism was an over-simplification (Hobson and Brailsford little knew what a liability Rhodes had been during the siege of Kimberley.) And like those other modern theories that attribute sinister power to certain financial institutions, some anti-imperialism conveyed more than a hint of anti-Semitism. (283-4)

The ‘Crux’ of the Issue:

Above: Image from a map of the world in 1900, showing the extent of the British Empire.

In this last comment by Niall Ferguson, we reach the crux of the issue. Certainly, Rhodes was a colonialist and imperialist, as were most leading figures of his day, not just within the British Empire, but within all the European empires. In Africa, as noted here, the French were equally aggressive in their pursuit of land and resources, and the Belgians and subsequently the Italians also used what, even within the terms of this ‘scramble’ were excessive means against the native African populations. That is not to justify the actions that Rhodes was involved in, but just to place them in a broader context. It also needs to be noticed that his while his strategy for developing Rhodesia was a classical colonialist one, through the control of trading companies, his involvement in the Transvaal and later in the relief of Kimberley was concerned with achieving British supremacy over a white race, the Boers and that, if anything, his attitudes towards the original natives were far more liberal than those of the Afrikaners, certainly than those of Kruger. There is also evidence that, as a businessman, he retained a practical antipathy for everyday racial discrimination. On this question, he should not be judged by today’s standards, but as living at a time when theories of racial hierarchy and paternalism were dominant throughout Britain and Europe.

These theories are certainly evident in the architecture of Oxford, Bristol, Liverpool, London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and other cities which grew rapidly in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. If every surviving reminder of slavers, colonialists and imperialists were to be torn down, the city-scapes of Britain would look radically different, and greatly impoverished. More importantly, much of modern human history has been about the replacement of one great ‘construct’ with another, whether in economics, politics, or art and architecture. As Niall Ferguson has pointed out in more recent and specific publications on the issue, the liberal imperialism of the late Victorian period was criticised by Radicals who revealed themselves as overtly anti-Semitic. The new empires of fascists and communists which characterised the 1930s and 1940s were far more universally destructive than the old ones, yet we do not seek to remove every trace of them. Finally, far from being an ‘architect of apartheid’, as recently asserted in the Oxford student debates over the potential removal of his statue there, there is a fundamental ‘disconnect’ between the imperialism of Rhodes and his contemporaries in Africa and the post-1948 racist regimes in Southern Africa. They drew their inspiration from a heretical view of sectarian Calvinism which was very far removed from the Victorian ‘Anglican’ paternalism of ‘the white man’s burden’ to which Rhodes subscribed.

In an article in ‘The Guardian’ (1 May 2019) another academic historian has pointed out how deeply Hobson’s hatred of all forms of imperialism ran, and his book is certainly a compelling read, an essential one for all undergraduates studying the dominant themes and events of the first half of the twentieth century. Taylor, a professor in modern history at the University of York, wrote in his article that:

“He understood the terrible consequences of European conquest overseas like no one before. He described how jingoism and support for empire inveigled its way into popular culture at home via the media and populist politicians. It remains a signature text and influenced Lenin, the philosopher Karl Kautsky, the political economist Joseph Schumpeter and other classics of the anticolonial canon. Hobson himself went on to become an éminence grise within the Labour party after the first world war, helping draft its economic policy as it entered government for the first time in 1924. He was later tipped for a peerage.

“However, his antisemitism is inseparable from his attack on imperialism. Only alluded to once in the book to which Jeremy Corbyn added his thoughts, Hobson’s virulent assault on Jews is a recurrent theme of another book that first brought him fame and acclaim, 1900’s The War in South Africa. Sent out to cover the Boer war for this newspaper when it was known as the Manchester Guardian, Hobson let rip his racism. Reporting on his visits to Pretoria and Johannesburg towards the end of 1899, he mocked Judaism, described the control of the gambling and liquor industries by Jews, and their behind-the-scenes influence over the warmongering newspapers. Indeed, “the Jewish factor” received an index entry all of its own in this book. Without The War in South Africa, and its antisemitism, Hobson would not have shocked his way into the public eye and received the commission for his most famous work of all.”

Today the Labour Party seeks to draw a line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that few would have understood a hundred years ago. The Radical anti-imperialists like Hobson had a direct influence on the development of the early Labour Party’s foreign policy. By the mid-twenties, there were those within the Labour Party, like the Fabian Beatrice Webb, who began to question the aims of the Zionist movement:

… I admire Jews and dislike Arabs. But the Zionist movement seems to me a gross violation of the right of the native to remain where he was born and his father and grandfather were born – if there is such a right. To talk about the return of the Jew to the land of his inheritance after an absence of two thousand years seems to me sheer… hypocritical nonsense. From whom were descended those Russian and Polish Jews?

The principle which is really being asserted is the principle of selecting races for particular territories according to some ‘peculiar needs or particular fitness’. Or it may be some ideal of communal life to be realised by subsidised migration. But this process of artificially creating new communities of immigrants, brought from many parts of the world, is rather hard on the indigenous natives!

In other statements, Beatrice Webb was also quite open about her antipathy for Zionism. In 1929, the new Labour government in Britain appeared to repudiate the Balfour Declaration. Beatrice’s husband, Sidney Webb, by then Lord Passfield and Colonial Secretary, published a white paper which threatened to restrict Jewish immigration and the sale of Palestinian lands to Jews. This was viewed as a provocative act, and was greeted by a furore of protests from Zionists worldwide, from Conservative imperialists in Britain and from some Labour MPs. This enabled the Zionists to sweep away this hurdle; the British government quailed beneath the storm and gave way. This was a crucial decision because, although afterwards pro-Zionist feeling in Britain was never again as strong, control of migration was taken out of Britain’s hands. The Jewish population of Palestine more than doubled in the five years between 1931 and 1936.

What determined the outcome in Palestine, the creation of the state of Israel on the left bank of the Jordan in 1948, and its subsequent expansion into Arab territory, was the balance of strength on the ground between the two populations, which had changed in favour of the Zionist settlers by 1936. Between the wars, however, Palestine had to remain a British mandated territory. The British were unable to delegate their responsibilities to the Zionist organisation, as many wanted them to do. It remained in the same state as the ‘dependent’ territories within the British empire, a colony ruled directly from London, like Kenya.

Right: Sidney Webb (Lord Passfield)

What emerges from these portraits and documents concerning Zionism, imperialism and Palestine in the period 1916-36 is that there was no imperialist conspiracy to create the state of Israel as it existed after 1948. Certainly, there were good relations between leading Zionists and imperialist politicians in Britain, including those in Attlee’s government, but it was the confusion of competing claims and rights in Palestine itself, together with the inability to control the flow of migrants and refugees under the terms of the British mandate which led to the development of the country through settlement into the self-governing state of Israel following the handover of the mandate to the United Nations in 1948. It is difficult to imagine how the outcome of these events could have been any different, especially given the refugee crisis created by the war. The idea that the state of Israel was an artificial creation, a ‘mistake’ as Ken Livingstone has called it in his more recent interview on Arabic TV, does not match the reality of the emerging patterns of the population on the ground in inter-war Palestine. There was no rational alternative to the decisions that were made and no other alternative humanitarian solution.

The Labour Party needs to accept the burden that history has given it to bear from the past hundred years. Either it continues to support the creation of the state of Israel, as Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee finally did in 1949, or call for its dismantling and destruction, by one means or another, which is what the current leadership of the Labour Party, in the Fabian tradition of the Webbs, wants to do. The continuing tropes about global capitalist conspiracies with Israel and Jewish individuals/ organisations (like Georges Soros and ‘Open Society) at the centre of them have been shared among populist leaders from Viktor Orbán’s extreme right-wing government in Hungary to Corbyn’s hard- left supporters. Even if they wanted to, their opportunism and ideologies (respectively) would not allow them to jettison these anti-Semitic tropes.

The Debate Continues in ‘The Jewish News’, 3 May 2019:

While a spokesman said this week Corbyn “completely rejects the antisemitic elements in his analysis”, the veteran MP made no mention of this in his lengthy endorsement. Instead, the Labour leader described Hobson’s book as “a great tome”, and praised the writer’s “brilliant, and very controversial at the time” analysis of the “pressures” behind western, and in particular British, imperialism at the turn of the 20th century.

After the Board of Deputies wrote to him to demand an explanation, Corbyn responded yesterday to say he was “deeply saddened” that the…

…“mischievous representation of my foreward will have caused real stress within the Jewish community” and rounded on the “false accusation that I endorsed the antisemitic content of this 1902 text”.

“While writing the foreword, I reserved praise for some of the broad themes of Hobson’s century-old classic study of imperialism in Africa and Asia. As with many book written in this era, the work contains highly offensive references and observations. I totally deplore the language used in that book to describe Jews and people from colonised countries.

“The accusation is the latest in a series of equally ill-founded accusations of anti-Jewish racism that Labour’s political opponents have made against me. I note that the Hobson story was written by a Conservative Party peer in a newspaper whose editorial policy, and owner, have long been hostile to Labour. At a time when Jewish communities in the UK, and throughout Europe, feel under attack, it is a matter of great regret that the issue of antisemitism is often politicised in this way.”

Board of Deputies president Marie van der Zyl wrote to Corbyn, telling him that the …

… “community is entitled to an apology for this failure to speak out against prejudice against our community when confronted with racism.

“There is ‘an impression that you either do not care whether your actions, inadvertently or deliberately, signal support for racist attitudes or behaviours” …

“Whilst you, quite correctly, explicitly commended Hobson’s criticism of caricatures of African and Asian people, there is a failure to make even a passing reference to the blatant antisemitism in the book that you enthusiastically endorse.”

“In your letter, you claim only to have ‘reserved praise for some of the broad themes’ of Hobson’s book and that you ‘totally deplore’ the antisemitism that was commonplace in ‘this era.

“However, we note that your lengthy and detailed foreword of over 3500 words, variously describes Hobson’s work as “great”, “remarkable”, “interesting”, “brilliant”, “painstaking”, “very powerful”, “attractive”, “valid”, “correct”, “prescient” and “very prescient”, without any qualification referring to the antisemitism within it.”

The Jewish Labour Movement has submitted an official complaint to the party over this week’s revelation and asked the EHRC to include Corbyn’s endorsement of Hobson’s book in any investigation of the party for institutional antisemitism. “A fish rots from the head”, it said in a strongly-worded statement, adding that any other Labour member would have been suspended and calling on Corbyn to consider his position.

Conclusion – More Tropes & Conspiracy Theories:

Corbyn’s ‘foreword’, written well before he became Labour leader was not a critical appraisal of Hobson’s work, which would have been scholarly and circumspect, but an uncritical and ahistorical whitewashing of a text which not only criticises the ‘Liberal’ imperialism of the time, but also contains anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories which dominated the thinking of many Left-wing theorists within the Labour Party in the early part of the twentieth century. It helped to create a popular intellectual climate which led directly to the persecution of Jews throughout Europe in the years that followed. In this context, Corbyn should explain himself and/or apologise for his slipshod and shoddy writing, which has caused considerable offence to the Jewish Community.

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


Chapter Two: Fertility and Factory Work

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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




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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



004 (2)

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

(to be continued…)



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