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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…)



Magyar-British Relations in the Era of the Two World Wars, 1914-44: Documents and Debates, 1943   Leave a comment

Documentary Appendix Part Five:


Hungary’s Second Attempt at ‘Breakaway’ from Nazi-German Hegemony, 1943


A. Important Hungarian and International Events, January-December 1943:

1 January – Institute for the Research of the Jewish Problem

12-14 January – Casablanca Conference (Churchill-Roosevelt)

24 January – Collapse of Hungarian 2nd Army (Don-Army)

31 Jan – 2 February – Capitulation of Field Marshal Paulus at Stalingrad

12 April – Two new Cabinet ministers (Lukács and Antal)

17-18 April – First Klessheim Meeting; Horthy and Hitler

30 April – First Veesenmayer Fact-Finding Report

15 May – Dissolution of the Communist International (Comintern)

May (second half) – Unofficial discussions between Bethlen, Barcza and the British

June – Dissolution of Communist Party in Hungary; replacement by the “Békepart” (Peace Party)

12 June – Minister of National Defence, V. Nagy, replaced by Gen. L. Csatay

9 July – Landing of Anglo-American units in Sicily

24 July – E. Ghycy, Minister of Foreign Affairs

15 July – Mussolini arrested; Badoglio Cabinet

August – Secret negotiations between Hungary and Britain in Istanbul

8 September – Unconditional surrender of Italy; Hungary issued with terms for surrender by Great Britain

9 November – Pact of United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) signed by 44 nations

22-25 November – First Cairo Conference (Churchill, Roosevelt, Chang Kai-Shek)

28 November – Teheran Conference (Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin)

29 November – Tito, Chairman of National Defence

12 December – Benes signed Soviet-Czechoslovak Treaty in Moscow

December (Late) – Veesenmayer’s second Fact-Finding Report in Berlin


B. On The ‘Provocation’ of Germany, February-April 1943:

The Government by now (February 1943) had arrived at the point where it became necessary to give to its agents and emissaries instructions appropriate to the new situation… Ullein gave the instructions Frey had received before leaving Budapest in January:

“… Hungary did not intend to oppose Anglo/American or Polish troops if they reached the Hungarian frontier and advanced into the country. Hungary wished for nothing in return for this… Frey left Budapest in the last days of January, arriving in Istanbul on 1st February… The National Bank had… legitimate business abroad, and one of its officials, Baron Antal Radvánszky, was due to go to Switzerland on its affairs in Early February. Kállay… gave him oral instructions to ask Mr Allen Dulles and Mr Royall Tyler what diplomat they would accept as a permanent partner for secret talks. He was to emphasise to the Americans the Hungary was very anxious to enter such secret talks ‘with a view to preparing the ground for continuous co-operation between Hungary… and the Americans and British, this co-operation to lead eventually to Hungary leaving the Axis camp… Other people were being sent abroad at this time… A. Szent-Györgyi, Nobel Laureate went to Istanbul; he was keen to keep his eyes open as well as to ‘enlighten the Allies on Hungary’s standpoint’. …

“It was a mixed bag of emissaries, and the results of their missions were various … the most unfortunate of them was Szent-Györgyi. The famous Professor was contacted in Istanbul by persons representing themselves as American agents who were, in fact, agents of the Gestapo. To them he told his whole story, which thus reached Hitler within a few days… although he appears to have talked also to some genuine agents of the Anglo-Saxons, as well as bogus ones, his conversations had… no practical sequel.” (Macartney)

Day after day, week after week followed without getting any positive result out of the manifold negotiations and contacts.

“Kállay was already irritated by the delay and nervous on account of what appeared to have been leakages. He was also extremely perturbed by the fact, which Frey reported, that the agent chosen by the British to receive the communications was M. Pálóczy-Horváth, who was all too well known in Hungary. In the 1930s he had, evidently, been a man of Gömbös’: later he had moved Left-ward and was credited with Communist sympathies; the Government strongly suspected him of being in Russian pay. He was extremely hostile to the Hungarian regime.” (Macartney)

The wonder is, not that the Germans reacted, but that they did not do so earlier. It was only in March, when numerous reports… on Kállay’s negotiations with the West came in from the German missions in Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey, that Ribbentrop sent his expert for South-Eastern Europe, Vessenmayer, down to Hungary to check these, and to make a general survey of the situation… Meanwhile, the definite refusal to send troops to the Balkans and the demand for the return of the Second Army, formulated on 31st March, had reached Germany… on about the 10th April Hitler sent Horthy an invitation to meet him at Scloss Klessheim, Salzburg, ’to discuss the military situation and the question of Hungarian troops’.” (Macartney)

C. On The First Klessheim Horthy-Hitler Entrevue, 17-18 April, 1943:

… The accusations brought up by Hitler and Ribbentrop against the Kállay regime were presented in writing to Horthy. Besides the military co-operation of Hungary, the main topic of the conversations was the alleged “Hungarian defeatism”. The paper presented bz the Germans contained the names of certain well/known Hungarians who had been allegedly sent abroad by Ullein to inform the Western Allies about the real sentiments and intentions of the Kállay regime. That was the first fiasco of the policy of drawing-away as carried out under the direction of Ullein: it did not bring any advantage for Hungary but on the other hand it aroused the suspicion of the Germans which then led to the catastrophe of Hungary in 1944-46…


“… Hitler asked that at least a joint communiqué should be issued, ‘to show the world that Hungary had no intention of cutting adrift and was standing squarely and unmistakably on the side of the Axis Powers.’ Horthy agreed to this; but the text submitted to him by Ribbentrop also contained a phrase which expressed Hungary!s ‘determined resolve to continue to continue the war until the final victory’ not only ‘against Bolshevism’ but also ‘against its Anglo-Saxon allies’… the Germans issued a communiqué in… fuller terms while the Regent was still on the train…:

‘Hungary, Italy and Romania have now made it perfectly clear that they will continue the war until victory. They make no distinction between the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union’s Westen Allies, who both pursue the same aim – destruction.’ When the Germans rang up the Hungarians, said what they were publishing… and asked the Hungarians to publish the same text, Kállay refused to publish anything until Horthy came back. He then got the Regent’s assurance that he had not agreed to this wording and then issued a short text which, besides appearing a day later than the German, omitted any reference to the British and Americans. Later an official comment in the ’Pester Lloyd’ confined itself to enlarging on Hungary’s defensive study against Bolshevism. Thus a concentrated spotlight was thrown on the glaring discrepancy in the attitude of the two States towards the West.”

Bárczy tells us how it came that two different communiqués were published… the Regent had refused his approval to the text of the communiqué as drawn up by Ribbentrop and he had repeated his refusal when he was boarding the train which was to take him back to Budapest.

From the time Hungary entered the Second World War, and in particular since Hungary’s occupation by Germany on 19 March 1944, practically no secret could be kept without the Germans becoming aware of it. Most of the important telephone lines were tapped and every important office and bureau the German Fifth Column had its own informant…

D. On the Re-establishment of Contacts with Britain, May 1943:

In the second half of May 1943, Barcza finally succeeded in establishing contact with the British. He presented himself to his interlocutor as a private person, representing a group, headed by Count István Bethlen,… a patriotic opposition to all pro-Nazi policies in Hungary, whether governmental or party-political. He also placed stress on the impossibility of Hungary breaking away from the Axis camp for the time being…Other contacts were… of a nature to discourage Premier Kállay.


“… the ferocious communications which he was receiving from Pálóczy-Horváth and the incessant objurgations lavished on him by the BBC… and the Voice of America, both of which ceaselessly and abusively denounced him and every other member of the regime… for ’Quislings’… left all Hungary under the impression that the only element in the country which the West was not determined to destroy was the extreme Left. It may well be that the nervous irritation produced in Kállay by these outpourings… aroused in him a determination even stronger than he would otherwise have felt to preserve every possible detail of the regime and to refuse any concession to democracy.”

As secrets could no longer be kept very well in Hungary, not only Kállay, but also other individuals were frightened by the aspect of the victorious Western powers eliminating and destroying everything of past and present Hungary…

E. On the period of the ’Second Attempt’, Summer 1943:

… in the Summer of 1943… with the re-shuffling of the Foreign Ministry, a new period in Hungarian foreign policy, that of the Second attempt began. The appointment of Ghyczy to Foreign Minister preceded by just one single day the fall of Mussolini (25 July 1943)

(The editors: ‘Mussolini’s fall was preceded by a series of defeats Italy suffered on the fronts. By 1943 the Allies pushed the Axis powers from North Africa; in July 1943 the British and American forces marched into Sicily and bombed Rome as soon as 19 July; and preparations were underway for the Normandy landings… Mussolini was arrested and… kept under house arrest. On 3 September… Badoglio concluded an armistice with the Allies. The German army subsequently occupied Central and Northern Italy…rescued Mussolini from prison, and he was made head of the Nazi puppet state…)

It was an event which considerably influenced Hungarian foreign policy of July 1943 – March 1944.


On the morning of 27th July Hungary suddenly learned that Mussolini had fallen. The effect of the news, which was quite unexpected, on the volatile national public opinion, was electrifying. All Hungary jumped to the conclusion that within a few days Italy would have joined hands with the Allies, whose triumphant forces would be within a few days’ march from the frontiers of Hungary, or a few hours by parachute.

… The Allies apparently shared for a few days the illusions of the Hungarian Opposition about the situation in Italy. All the broadcasting stations, Western as well as Russian… thundered abjurations at Kállay to act while there was still time, and most of them… denounced him ferociously… when he failed to do so.”

Under the effect of the events in Italy, Hungarian activities in Istanbul, Lisbon, Stockholm and Switzerland gained new impetus… but all these activities… remained fruitless. Not only were the ’negotiators’ “representing Hungary”… of secondary importance and quality, but so too were the foreign personalities.


… a Trade Union official called Gibson, who after a visit to Stockholm found fit to announce in ’The Daily Telegraph’ that he had been meeting ’politicians from Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, who had direct contact with their own countries. He had conveyed to these ’politicians’ ’ the views of the British Labour movement, which has… representatives in the Cabinet’. Mr Gibson went on to tell the journalist who was interviewing him that… Hungary must give a guarantee that she will return to Czechoslovakia and other Allied nations territory she had acquired since the start of the war… Mr Gibson made it clear to those whom he met… that only on these lines would Hungary and the Balkan countries under Axis domination be able to command the support and goodwill of those nations which could rescue them from the grip of the Axis… The fact was that all this was the outcome of the unofficial negotiations initiated in the preceding summer… The Hungarian ’politician’… was simply M. Böhm,… now… engaged in reading the Hungarian Press for the British Government. The ’views’ had been concocted between… Gibson and M. Böhm. When all this came out, the Hungarian Right had the time of its life… Firstly, it pointed out with gusto that in spite of her hypocritical assurances to the contrary, Great Britain had now herself ’authoritatively’ declared that it was her intention to mutilate Hungary again at the end of the war. Secondly, it was able to enlarge on its familiar theme of the treachery… of all Hungarian Jews… and of the Social Democratic Party. No incident during the whole summer gave it so much pleasure, or brought it so much advantage.”

With the exception of Teleki, Bethlen, Barcza, Baranyai and a few others, there were very few Hungarians with influential friends and connections abroad…

Passing through Rome, Barcza went to Switzerland where he established himself in Montreux and soon began contacting Royall Tyler. It was Tyler who brought about a personal meeting between Barcza and a certain gentleman, described by Barcza as “Mr H.” who… was cleared to talk to him. The contacts and conversations between Barcza and ’Mr H’ started in May 1943 and were continued in 1944. Already in 1943, Mr H was stressing the attitude of the British Government which wanted action and not promises. In July 1943, after Mussolini’s fall, Mr H went on to declare that Hungary should follow the example given by Italy taking all possible opportunities to bring about such a conclusion, as he put it was Hungary’s ’last chance’…The Hungarian Government was now considering the possibility of leaving the Axis… The military was strictly opposed to such an action; they viewed it as very dangerous and impractical. Then came the news that the King and Badoglio had declared their loyalty to the Axis… Kállay came to the conclusion that an open rupture with Germany was not only unfeasible but it would produce disastrous results. The Germans would simply occupy Hungary and install a quisling Government… Even the British accepted the realities of the new situation. On 16 September 1943 “Mr H” told Barcza that London was no longer expecting Hungary to jump ship immediately.

F. On the Hungaro-British Negotiations in Istanbul (Macartney):

“On his own admission, he (Kállay) had temporised… in favour of a diplomatic agreement with the West. He had even vetoed as too dangerous proposals for more vigorous action made by Szombathelyi and Kádár themselves, who had wanted to send down an officer to arrange for an Allied parachute landing, under cover of which Hungary should rise.          

Finally, however, the British in Istanbul had sent an ultimatum. Something definite must be done by 20th August or they would break off negotiations altogether. Kállay did not dare risk this happening before the alternative line through Barcza was secure, and at the beginning of August he… sent Veress down… to wait in Istanbul. If he received, via the Consulate General, a coded telegram with a pre-arranged meaning, this meant that he had ’full powers to negotiate’… also on behalf of the General Staff,… to give… whatever undertakings the demands of the British made unavoidable.

On 7th August… the military themselves agreed that it was unsafe to cut the Istanbul line. Veress was sent his telegram, which he received ’some time between the 10th and 16th’. He and Ujváry now pressed for a meeting with some ’authorised and responsible British representatives’, indicating that they had an important message to convey. They concocted this between them, using as a basis Veress’ earlier message and later instructions; but since Veress was convinced that ’there was no basis on which conversations, political or military, could take place unless Hungary decided to bring her interests fully into line with the political and military interests of the Western Powers’. The message ran as follows:

’… if the Western allies reached the frontiers of Hungary she would in no case oppose them, but would turn against Germany to the extent of placing her airports and transport system at the disposal of the Allies. She would accept the guidance and instruction of the Allies, and although at the moment no General Staff officer was available, she would establish wireless contact and provide information. She asked that this offer should be taken as an advance notice of unconditional surrender, and asked the British to communicate their ’preliminary conditions’.

On 17th August the two Hungarians met Mr Sterndale-Bennett, Councillor of the British Embassy, and handed him this message, which he took away for communication to the competent quarters. While this was going on, an unofficial approach… had also been made to the Russians.The Hungarian concerned was the honorary Consul in Geneva, M. Honti… It was actually a British diplomat who advised M. Honti to turn to Russia, saying that ’it was there that the fate of Hungary would, for the present, be decided’.

G. On Hungary’s attempts at Rapprochement with Romania and Yugoslavia:

In mid-July Count Miklós Banffy, Bethlen’s Foreign Minister in 1921, was sent to Bucharest…

(Editors: ’Motivated by an identity of interests vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, the idea of a Romanian-Hungarian reconciliation was initiated by Crown Prince Nicolae of Romania, who lived in Switzerland and advocated British-American orientation. Rapprochement on an official level was opened with bilateral negotiations between Ion Antonescu and… Miklós Kállay in December 1942 concerning a possible joint pull-out of the war… However, negotiations broke down on the issue of Transylvania, which ruined the possibility…)

The views of the two Governments were very far apart and since the Romanians had, just like the Czechs and the Serbs, much better connections and standing in London than Hungarians, they were not in haste to arrive at a settlement with Budapest… As to Hungary’s southern neighbour, secret contacts had been established between the Hungarian Government and the Mihailovic camp, which also remained fruitless, mainly because… of the growing support given to Tito by the USSR and Great Britain.

H. On The British Conditions for Hungary’s Surrender, 8 September 1943 (Macartney):

The British had kept Veress waiting a long time for his answer; if the Hungarians understood aright, their messages had been submitted to the Quebec Conference and also passed to Moscow. On the 8th September, Veress was told to meet Sir Hugh Knatchbull-Hugesson at midnight on the latter’s yacht in the Sea of Marmara. Sir Hugh, after showing Veress his own authorisation in the form of a telegram from Mr. Eden, informed him in the name of the United Nations that HM Government had ’taken note’ of Hungary’s communication, and read out the… ’preliminary conditions’ which Veress took down from his dictation:

… The agreement to be kept secret until published at a moment to be agreed, which in no case should be before the Allies reached the frontiers of Hungary.

… Hungary progressively to reduce her military co-operation with Germany, to withdraw her troops from Russia and to assist allied aircraft flying across Hungary to attack targets in Germany…

… Hungary to resist if Germany attempted to occupy her, and to that end to reorganise her High Command so that her army should be able to attack Germans…

… At a suitable moment, Hungary to receive an Allied air-mission, to advise on the preparations for the breakaway…

It was only on the 14th that Veress reached Budapest, with a memorised account of the document and two wireless transmitters… Kállay objected on principle to the formula of unconditional surrender. Keresztes-Fischer, however, pressed strongly that the agreement should be ratified, and eventually Kállay consented… (However), he regarded the agreement as a political gesture from which Hungary expected political consequence… to be ’struck off the list of enemies’ and given ’British Protection’… to operate as much against Russia as much as, or even more than, against Germany; while the Allies ’sought only to derive military advantage’ from it… he (went on) to complain with acerbity of the way in which the British, in particular, sought to obtain this military advantage. It is true that they had given up asking for an immediate ’jump-out’; there is fairly good evidence that they had dropped this demand as early as August… But they insistently demand(ed) actions in various fields, in particular sabotage on a serious scale. Kállay… maintained at the time that fulfillment of these demands would at once have brought about the occupation of Hungary by Germany, and rejected it stubbornly because he thought that the Allied agents were actually anxious to see this come about, in the calculation that would provoke resistance from the ’democratic elements’ in Hungary (whom, according to their view, Kállay was holding back), hamper production and tie down an appreciable German occupying force in Hungary.

Kállay’s reply was that… the regime was not… holding the forces of resistance back…. an occupation would entail frightful sufferings for precisely those elements whom the Allies desired to see spared. Consequently, he could not undertake any action that would provoke an occupation. These arguments, however, did not convince the Allies, who retorted that Kállay was simply stringing them along. He was giving them fair words and excuses, while really collaborating against them with the Germans. His only real object was to save his regime.

There was one point of the agreement – and it was, of course, a very important one – which the Hungarians honoured in full from the first. They refrained scrupulously from interfering with the Allied aircraft which, after the beginning of October, were flying over Hungary almost daily; they for their part leaving Hungary unbombed. This tacit mutual understanding was observed throughout the entire autumn and winter, being also applied to the Soviet aircraft which in the later months were flying to and from Yugoslavia (a journey which … used to carry them directly over Budapest).”

I. On the pro-German Backlash in Hungary and Veesenmayer’s Second Report:

On 1st October, Imrédy presented the Government with a long memorandum in which he maintained that ‘in the event of an Anglo-Saxon victory all Eastern Europe would be handed over to Russia’ and adding… that it was useless to dream that when that happened only the extreme Right would be made the scapegoats… only those elements which had gone over to Communism would be rewarded.’… Kállay… refused to accept such a thesis ‘or to strengthen in their belief those inside or outside Hungary who reckon on this.’”

It was in early October that the MFM (Hungarian Independence Movement) received the first alarming news of the growing dissatisfaction of Germany about the “over-optimistic pro-Anglo-Saxon atmosphere” in Hungary… it was at this time that we were informed about a planned second mission of Veesenmayer to Hungary… the Germans would undertake military occupation of Hungary should the Kállay regime continue its hazardous policy. Veesenmayer’s stay in Hungary this time was this time considerably longer than in April of the same year… This time Veesenmayer spent more time on writing his report and it was only in January 1944 that his report was read by Ribbentrop, Himmler and Göring… Veesenmayer’s conclusions and suggestions were as follows:

… in consideration of the given situation and circumstances the only route to take was to win the co-operation of the Regent and persuade him to replace Kállay with a more pro-German politician…

… As the Kállay regime had already been in secret negotiations with the Western Democracies, the “Hungarian problem” needed solving soon.

During and after Vessenmayer’s second fact-finding mission, the negotiations of the Hungarian emissaries and agents were continuing. Their reports, however, were misleading and increased the optimism in Government circles in Hungary. Thus, still after the Teheran Conference of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin (28 November…) Wodianer’s reports remained optimistic and he assured his Government that the settling of Central Europe’s problems had been assigned to Great Britain and the United States.

Eckhardt… told Bethlen in December 1944 that ‘the fate of Hungary was sealed and it would pass under Russian rule for many years’. Bethlen replied on 19 March that ‘he was confident that Eckhardt would prove mistaken’.

J. On the Changing Attitude of the British:

On 12 December Benes signed in Moscow a Soviet-Czechoslovak Treaty which carried the message in Hungary… that Czechoslovakia was becoming the most western outpost of Pan-Slavism as well as Pan-Bolshevism, both dangers which had always been the most feared bugaboos in Hungarian public opinion. In addition, through “reliable, secret” sources it was soon known in Hungary that Stalin had promised Benes to back Romania’s claims on the whole of Transylvania. Maniu even went as far as to declare that as a compensation for losing Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, Romania was to get at the final settlement not only Transylvania but also the adjacent territories up to the Tisza river. Here we quote again Macartney:

“The West – this was the worst – did not seem to be opposing all this. Mihályi Károlyi spoke on the BBC, advising Hungary that her road led through Prague and Moscow… The British were obviously uneasy, but were… not opposing the Russian demands in full, nor opposing her suggestion that Poland’s frontiers with Germany should be shifted westwards. Then came Mr Churchill’s extraordinary statement that the Atlantic Charter did not apply to Germany as a matter of right, nor forbid territorial transferences or adjustments in enemy countries.”

The result of the attitude of Britain and her Press alienated a great part of the pro-Anglo-Saxon sentiments from the Western Democracies… The result of the not very encouraging attitude of Great Britain and the fateful advance of the Red Army had its effect on political parties… and circles: the criticism exercised upon the Government’s, theoretically secret, negotiations abroad became sharper and many former Kállay regime supporters turned away from the Government’s policy.

At this stage of negotiations the situation was that the Government, or at least a circle in the Foreign Ministry, was engaged in talks with emissaries and agents of the Western Democracies, while Hungarian public opinion and even Kállay, himself, were concentrating their attention on the approaching Soviet danger. And Kállay declared (to Ullein):

“We have repeatedly explained that so long as the Russian menace is not only unchanged but constantly increasing, we cannot turn against Germany, and the execution of the three conditions involved (in the British surrender plan) would inevitably involve this. Faced with a choice between Russia and Germany, we cannot opt against the latter, for we cannot identify the Russians with the Anglo-Saxons.”  


“The Hungarian diplomats who had been in contact with the Allies now realised that their role would soon be ended, and it was in these days that, under Barcza’s… auspices, a shadow organisation of ‘dissident diplomats’ took form, with the purpose of providing some sort of machinery for the continuance of diplomatic contact if Hungary was occupied… Barcza got from the British and American Governments assurances that they would regard such an organisation with favour… “

K. On the Secret ‘Parachute’ Plan of Prince Sapieha and Col. C. T. Howie:

Prince Sapieha, a fugitive, represented the Polish Underground Army… Col. Howie, a South-African was a POW who… was permitted to stay in Budapest as a free man. Howie had escaped from Germany and after some adventurous travels arrived safely in Hungary.

(Editors: Polish aristocrat Prince Andrzej Sapieha arrived in Budapest in 1943 as the representative of the Polish government-in-exile in London. He had free access to the highest political circles… He stayed in Budapest until its Soviet occupation. He was last seen in spring 1945. He disappeared amidst mysterious circumstances.)

Sapieha succeeded in acquiring a wireless transmitter, and now the two men… began exchanging messages with the British. In a few days…the…Americans, British and Poles were working together. As the British had promised that the mission as planned, American and British officers to be parachuted over Hungary, would not involve organising sabotage, Kállay finally gave his assent… Col. Howie… wanted to act at once… the arrangement was reached by means of the transmitter set of Sapieha and Howie with the British in Istanbul…

L. On the Military Situation, Autumn-Winter 1943:

The Red Army, during the fall of 1943… was continually advancing. The question for Hungary was not any longer whether the Russians would reach the Carpathians, but when they would… Kállay’s idea remained the same: fight the Russians until the arrival of the Anglo-Saxon forces. Thus Kállay’s strategy was to prepare for the defence of the Carpathians and arrive at an agreement with the British and American military leaders for an Anglo-Saxon airborne landing in Hungary… As Kállay wrote in a letter:

“Everyone, including the pro-British circle, agrees that we must, if need arises, defend the Carpathians against the Russian danger. No one regards this as a question on which opinions might differ. It is simply a question of the vital interests of the country.”

Magyar-British Relations in the Era of the Two World Wars, 1914-44: Documentary Appendix, Part One – Between the Wars, 1919-39.   Leave a comment


Magyar-British Relations in the Era of the Two World Wars, 1914-44

Extracts from Domokos Szent-Iványi’s book, edited by Gyula Kodolányi and Nora Szeklér (2013),

 The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1936 – 46.


Documents and Debates


Part One: Between the Wars, 1919-39

A. On Churchill:

It was not just the authors of the system of peace treaties of 1919-20 who failed to appreciate what it was they were doing; Churchill was also late in perceiving the upheaval that was to befall Europe.

In his “The Second World War”, Churchill gives a short account of his conversation with the Turkish Prime Minister… on the 30th and 31st of January, 1943, in the course of which he writes… “I thought to… recreate in modern forms what had been in general outline the Austro-Hungarian Empire of which it has been well said, ‘if it did not exist, it would have been invented’.”

B. On the Paris Peace ‘Settlement’:

One thing that particularly struck me was the way in which the case of Hungary, and even Hungary itself, was hurriedly dropped by France and Great Britain, despite the fact that Hungary had been an important member of the European family but also the bulwark shielding and protecting Western civilization.

All efforts by Hungary to have the Treaty of Trianon revised were frustrated by France and Britain and the votes of the Little Entente states which had the majority in the League of Nations. Their vain attempts led many to believe that peaceful attempts at revision were doomed, and by the beginning of the thirties all hopes of revision had essentially vanished.

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C. On Rapprochement with Italy:

The attitude of Great Britain to a possible rapprochement with Italy was rather favourable. The British felt that such a development would, to a certain degree, reduce the influence of France in the League of Nations, where France, with the supporting votes of the three Little Entente satellites,,, was, most of the time, able to push through decisions in her interest…

Conversations between the Hungarian Premier, Count István Bethlen and… the British Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Sir Austen Chamberlain, encouraged the Hungarian government to adopt a pro-Italian stance.

In 1927, one of Britain’s leading newspaper tycoons, Lord Rothermere, had a long conversation with Mussolini concerning the political isolation of Hungary after which he published a long article in one of his dailies, the Daily Mail. The article, appearing shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Friendship (5 April 1927) between Italy and Hungary, voiced the opinion that the Peace Treaty of Trianon was unjust and politically unsound and made a call for its revision.

(Editorial Note: … on 21 June 1927 Lord Rothermere published an editorial… in which he suggested the restoration to Hungary of Hungarian-inhabited pieces of territory along its borders with Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia, lest tensions created by the Treaty of Trianon jeopardized security in Europe. The article elicited huge international reaction. The British government distanced itself from Lord Rothermere’s stance, which Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain communicated to the Hungarian government in December 1927).

D. On Trade Talks and Nazi Economic Influence on Hungary:

Alarmed by the increasing (Nazi) influence, leading moderate circles then (from 1932) began exercising pressure on the government in order to lessen German economic and political power in Hungary. Negotiations followed with London and Paris in the hope of securing economic aid which would reduce Hungary’s dependence on Germany for trade. Among other efforts, Hungary tried to have her surplus wheat taken by Britain and France. These actions proved fruitless since London, on account of the wheat-producing members of the British Empire… took little if any interest in the matter.

E. On the Anglophile Group in Hungary, 1930-36:


In international matters… Group A (Anglophile) carried greater weight than the combined influence of all other groups. The two focuses of Hungarian foreign policy were centred on Britain and Rome…This situation was, in part, created by the very strong links the constituent members of Group A had with the City of London, the Holy See and Downing Street in the period 1920-1939: the rich aristocracy, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, formed their political views in accordance with that of the Holy See and the English aristocracy; finance and industry felt at home in the City; and even a large section of the Hungarian middle classes found many similarities between themselves and with one of these three forces. Britain served as a model in sport, lifestyle (in particular so, as W. S. Churchill himself pointed out to Pál Teleki, in the case of the landed gentry) and even in outward appearance (clothing, manners and so on). These common points of reference, also rooted in strong links with the British conservatism and liberalism of the nineteenth century, were strong enough to foster a pro-English way of looking at international problems in the circles of Group A. The attitude of two eminent politicians of that Group, i.e. Bethlen and Baranyay, to the political situation of 1942-44… illustrates this outlook. Even when the hostile military and political supremacy of the USA and Soviet Russia was more than evident, these two Hungarian politicians were still standing fast by an essentially pro-Britain and pro-Holy See Foreign Policy.

F. On Count István Bethlen and Great Britain:

… he turned in the direction of Great Britain. As a Transylvanian nobleman he bore a striking resemblance to the English aristocrat. His pastimes consisted of reading, hunting and engaging in sport… Bethlen endeavoured to harmonise Hungarian policy with that of Britain… A policy based on British orientation suited the beliefs and feelings of Bethlen… he was strongly backed not only by the Hungarian aristocracy but also by Hungarian banking and financial circles which traditionally had been oriented towards the Bank of England and the City.


G. On Premier Darányi:

… here I will quote a few lines from C. A. Macartney’s widely known work, October the Fifteenth”:

Darányi… was nothing approaching a Liberal or a Democrat in the Western sense of the terms”.

H. On the Chamberlain Government and Lord Halifax’s conversations with Hitler:

(Editorial note: ‘… with the Chamberlain cabinet coming to power in Britain, non-intervention became the standard foreign policy directive. During his visit to Germany in November 1937, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax assured Hitler of Britain’s yielding free way to Germany’s position as regards the revision of the peace treaties in Central Europe. From this Hitler concluded that Britain would put no obstacles in the way of the Anschluss and the occupation of Sudetenland.’)

I. On Britain and Yugoslavia, 1937:

Great Britain was not bound by Treaty obligations to any Danubian or Balkan state. She was clearly anxious to find a solution by agreement of the German problem. Her opinion was not unfriendly towards Hungary, and alone in Europe she seemed to have some feeling for the applicability in practice of theoretical principles, including that of justice. Hungary believed passionately in the justice of her cause, and thought that Britain might recognise this, and the Hungarians whose feelings and calculations we have been describing… were the more anxious to get British support because of their belief that the war which they foresaw would end in a German defeat and a British victory. (Macartney)

J. On The ’Independence’ Position in Autumn 1937, before The Berlin Negotiations:

The most important individuals representing the position above were Bethlen, Teleki and Gyula Károlyi. They were, in addition, pro-British, as was the Regent himself, due to his former career as a naval officer. Horthy was convinced that “a naval power would certainly beat a land power in war, and that the British were the only people capable of dominating the world, whereas the Germans were so rude and tactless that they made themselves disliked wherever they went”… But even Bethlen and Baranyay, as late as the winter of 1943/44, still believed that it would be the British who would have the greatest influence on the shaping of a future Europe.

K. On the Austrian Anshluss of 1938 and Eden’s Resignation:

… on the twelfth of a sensational meeting took place at Berchtesgaden between the Austrian Chancellor, Mr Schusschnig and Hitler, in the course of which the former was forced to promise to remodel his Cabinet with the addition of pro-Nazi elements. On 20 February, the British Foreign Secretary, Mr Eden, having found Mr Chamberlain’s Central European policy too weak, resigned.


L. On the British Reaction to the Return of Teleki as Premier, May 1938:

In many respects Teleki was the best man whom Hungary could have chosen to guide her through the crisis now so fast approaching. While he was there, the mere fact was an asset to her. The Western Powers, Great Britain in particular, who were usually very quick to suspect the good faith and intentions of a Hungarian, made an exception in the case of Teleki, who was probably the only Hungarian Prime Minister since 1918 whom they sincerely regarded, and treated as a friend; and they took much from him that they would have allowed no one else…

The messages sent by Churchill, through Cadogan, Sargent and/or Barcza, to Premier Teleki were of the utmost importance. In one of his messages Churchill stressed the similarities between the British and Hungarian peoples, declaring that the majority of the British people felt a strong liking for Hungary and Hungarians and stating that as long as Horthy was the Head of State and Teleki was the head of the government, the British would feel assured as to the future developments in Hungary notwithstanding the approaching Nazi evil…

Some authors claim that Teleki was too much of an idealist to be able to embrace the political realism required of the time. This, however was not so. And here I am quoting from my manuscript…

“In connection with the rumours of German troops passing across Hungary. …the British ambassador called… on Premier Teleki. The latter did not deny that German troops ‘in civilian clothes’ were travelling across Hungary on collective tourist-passage’ passports, which did not allow holders of such passports to stay in Hungary. At the end of their conversation O’Malley asked the Premier whether he was not afraid of the R.A.F. Teleki, sadly smiling, answered: ‘Yes, very much. But for the time being I am much more afraid of the Luftwaffe’.”

M. On Imrédy’s Premiership, May-August 1938:

Undoubtedly, after Teleki, Imrédy was the best known of Hungarian political leaders abroad, particularly in financial and business circles in Britain and France. Macartney writes:

“The appointment of this Cabinet… was… well received in the West: The Times, for instance, wrote of it on 30 May that it was one ‘of which nothing but good may be expected’.

Imrédy tried to encourage stronger Hungarian and British commercial and cultural connections, and in that respect he made some practical efforts.

His foreign policy, still directed by Kánya, aimed at the breaking up of the Little Entente, the first step of which was the policy attempting to isolate Czechoslovakia. But the rapidly deteriorating situation between Germany and Czechoslovakia, the British intervention, first through the so-called Lord Runciman mission, and the increasingly menacing Polish attitude towards Prague, led to a rapid change in Imrédy’s foreign policy.

N. On the Entry of the Reich’s Armies into Prague, 15-16 March, 1939, and the coming conflagration:

At the beginning of writing my report, I believed that with Germany occupying the German’ part of Czechoslovakia, absorbing Austria, breaking up the Little Entente, establishing a strong army and establishing better relations with Poland, Hitler had achieved what he had set out to…I also thought that with Chamberlain and Deladier in power, Hitler would enjoy several years of peace during which he would be able to strengthen his dominant position in Europe… As soon as I heard of Hitler’s latest offensive, I felt sure that it would prove a catalyst for France and Britain to declare war. My report… had concluded that the situation in Central Europe would not, at least for a few years, spark off a world conflagration. I now realised I was wrong…

Accordingly I went to work and changed my conclusions. Instead of predicting a period of peace and reconstruction for Europe, I now rewrote my conclusion… The main points of my argument were the following… A world conflagration would break out within ten months; the ensuing Second World War would be lost by Poland, Italy, France, Germany; the British Empire would crumble; the colonies would free themselves, breaking up the British, French and Italian Empires; Europe would be devastated by aerial attacks against which there was no defense (as demonstrated in 1938 the Spanish Civil War); two victorious powers would emerge from the struggle, i.e. the USA and the Soviet Union; in consequence of the devastation of Germany, France and Italy, the Soviet-Boshevik expansion in Europe would intensify.

… As to land forces, I came to the conclusion that Germany, unless she was able to conquer Great Britain within a year and a half, would lose any war that dragged on for more than two years.


O. On Teleki’s taking up of the Premiership, February 1939:

Immediately on taking office, he sent Barcza a telegram charging him to assure the Foreign Office that ‘although Hungary’s geographical and political situation compelled her to co-operate loyally with Germany up to a point, he was absolutely determined that such co-operation should never go so far as to impair, much less sacrifice, Hungary’s sovereignty, independence or honour. The Government attached great importance to the understanding and support of the British Government, and would never do anything to injure the interests of Great Britain’.

P. On the idea of a Hungarian Government in Exile, July 1939 (from Macartney):

On 14 May Sargent told Barcza that he understood Teleki to have told O’Malley some days earlier that if Germany asked permission for the transit it would be given her. The Foreign Office now made Hungary an offer of considerable importance: Sargent said that if Germany forced a passage and Hungary at least protested, this would put her in the same position as Denmark. Cadogan repeated the advice three days later, and further suggested that if the Hungarian Government (the existing one, or another nominated by the Regent) would go abroad, HM Government would recognise it as the legitimate Government of Hungary. Teleki, however, does not seem to have taken up the suggestion… The question… was the subject of various conversations the Hungarian Minister to Britain, Barcza, conducted with Sir Alexander Cadogan the Permanent Under Secretary and with Sir Orme Sargent the Head of the Political Department of the Foreign Office.

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