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Britain, Ireland and Europe, 1994-99: Peace, Devolution & Development.   Leave a comment

LSF (1947) Nobel Peace Prize obv

Unionists & Nationalists – The Shape of Things to Come:

In Northern Ireland, optimism was the only real force behind the peace process. Too often, this is remembered by one of Blair’s greatest soundbites as the talks reached their climax: This is no time for soundbites … I feel the hand of history on my shoulder. Despite the comic nature of this remark, it would be churlish not to acknowledge this as one of his greatest achievements. Following the tenacious efforts of John Major to bring Republicans and Unionists to the table, which had resulted in a stalemate. Tony Blair had already decided in Opposition that an Irish peace settlement would be one of his top priorities in government. He went to the province as his first visit after winning power and focused Number Ten on the negotiations as soon as the IRA, sensing a fresh opportunity, announced a further ceasefire. In Mo Mowlem, Blair’s brave new Northern Ireland Secretary, he had someone who was prepared to be tough in negotiations with the Unionists and encouraging towards Sinn Feiners in order to secure a deal. Not surprisingly, the Ulster Unionist politicians soon found her to be too much of a ‘Green’. She concentrated her charm and bullying on the Republicans, while a Number Ten team dealt with the Unionists. Blair emphasised his familial links with Unionism in order to win their trust.

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There were also direct talks between the Northern Irish political parties, aimed at producing a return of power-sharing in the form of an assembly in which they could all sit. These were chaired by former US Senator George Mitchell and were the toughest part. There were also talks between the Northern Irish parties and the British and Irish governments about the border and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the future. Finally, there were direct talks between London and Dublin on the wider constitutional and security settlement. This tripartite process was long and intensely difficult for all concerned, which appeared to have broken down at numerous points and was kept going mainly thanks to Blair himself. He took big personal risks, such as when he invited Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein-IRA to Downing Street. Some in the Northern Ireland office still believe that Blair gave too much away to the Republicans, particularly over the release of terrorist prisoners and the amnesty which indemnified known terrorists, like those responsible for the Birmingham bombings in 1974, from prosecution. At one point, when talks had broken down again over these issues, Mo Mowlem made the astonishing personal decision to go into the notorious Maze prison herself and talk to both Republican and Loyalist terrorist prisoners. Hiding behind their politicians, the hard men still saw themselves as being in charge of their ‘sides’ in the sectarian conflict. But Blair spent most of his time trying to keep the constitutional Unionists ‘on board’, having moved Labour policy away from support for Irish unification. In Washington, Blair was seen as being too Unionist.

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Given a deadline of Easter 1998, a deal was finally struck, just in time, on Good Friday, hence the alternative name of ‘the Belfast Agreement’. Northern Ireland would stay part of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority in the province wished it so. The Republic of Ireland would give up its territorial claim to the North, amending its constitution to this effect. The parties would combine in a power-sharing executive, based on a newly elected assembly. There would also be a North-South body knitting the two political parts of the island together for various practical purposes and mundane matters. The paramilitary organisations would surrender or destroy their weapons, monitored by an independent body. Prisoners would be released and the policing of Northern Ireland would be made non-sectarian by the setting up of a new police force to replace the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), whose bias towards the Unionist community had long been a sore point for Nationalists. The deal involved a great deal of pain, particularly for the Unionists. It was only the start of a true peace and would be threatened frequently afterwards, such as when the centre of Omagh was bombed only a few months after its signing by a renegade splinter group of the IRA calling itself ‘the Real IRA’ (see the photo below). It murdered twenty-nine people and injured two hundred. Yet this time the violent extremists were unable to stop the rest from talking.

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Once the agreement had been ratified on both sides of the border, the decommissioning of arms proved a seemingly endless and wearisome game of bluff. Though the two leaders of the moderate parties in Northern Ireland, David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists and John Hume of the Nationalist SDLP, won the Nobel Prize for Peace, both these parties were soon replaced in elections by the harder-line Democratic Unionist Party led by Rev. Dr Ian Paisley, and by Sinn Fein, under Adams and McGuinness. Initially, this made it harder to set up an effective power-sharing executive at Stormont (pictured below). Yet to almost everyone’s surprise, Paisley and McGuinness sat down together and formed a good working relationship. The thuggery and crime attendant on years of paramilitary activity took another decade to disappear. Yet because of the agreement hundreds more people are still alive who would have died had the ‘troubles’ continued. They are living in relatively peaceful times. Investment has returned and Belfast has been transformed into a busier, more confident city. Large businesses increasingly work on an all-Ireland basis, despite the continued existence of two currencies and a border. The fact that both territories are within the European Union enables this to happen without friction at present, though this may change when the UK leaves the EU and the Republic becomes a ‘foreign country’ to it for the first time since the Norman Conquest. Tony Blair can take a sizeable slice of credit for this agreement. As one of his biographers has written:

He was exploring his own ability to take a deep-seated problem and deal with it. It was a life-changing experience for him.

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If the Good Friday Agreement changed the future relationship of the UK and Ireland, Scottish and Welsh devolution changed the future political shape of Great Britain. The relative indifference of the eighteen-year Tory ascendancy to the plight of the industrial areas of Scotland and Wales had transformed the prospects of the nationalist parties in both countries. Through the years of Tory rule, the case for a Scottish parliament had been bubbling under north of the border. Margaret Thatcher had been viewed as a conspicuously English figure imposing harsh economic penalties on Scotland, which had always considered itself to be inherently more egalitarian and democratic. The Tories, who had successfully played the Scottish card against centralising Labour in 1951, had themselves become labelled as a centralising and purely English party. Local government had already been reorganised in Britain and Northern Ireland in the early 1990s with the introduction of ‘unitary’ authorities.

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Scotland had a public culture further to the left than that of southern England, and therefore the initiatives on devolution came from the respectable middle-classes. A group of pro-devolution activists, including SNP, Labour and Liberal supporters, churchmen, former civil servants and trade unionists to found the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly. In due course, this produced a Constitutional Convention meant to bring in a wider cross-section of Scottish life behind their ‘Claim of Right’. It argued that if Scots were to stand on their own two feet as Mrs Thatcher had insisted, they needed control over their own affairs. Momentum increased when the Scottish Tories lost half their remaining seats in the 1987 election, and, following the poll tax rebellion, the Convention got going in March 1989, after Donald Dewar, Labour’s leader in Scotland, decided to work with other parties. The Convention brought together the vast majority of Scottish MPs, all but two of Scotland’s regional, district and island councils, the trade unions, churches, charities and many other organisations, in fact almost everyone except the Conservatives, who were sticking with the original Union, and the SNP, who wanted full independence.

Scottish Tories, finding themselves increasingly isolated, fought back vainly. They pointed out that if a Tory government, based on English votes, was regarded as illegitimate by the Scots, then in future a Labour government based on Scottish votes might be regarded as illegitimate by the English. In a 1992 poll in Scotland, fifty per cent of those asked said they were in favour of independence within the European Union. In the 1992 election, John Major had made an impassioned appeal for the survival of the Union. Had the four countries never come together, he argued, their joint history would have never been as great: Are we, in our generation, to throw all that away?  He won back a single Scottish seat. Various minor sops were offered to the Scots during his years in office, including the return of the Stone of Destiny, with much ceremony. However, the minor Tory recovery in 1992 was wiped out in the Labour landslide of 1997, when all the Conservatives seats north of the border, where they had once held the majority of them, were lost, as they were in Wales. Formerly just contestants in middle-class, rural and intellectual constituencies, in 1997 Scottish and Welsh nationalists now made huge inroads into former Conservative areas, and even into the Labour heartlands, and the latter despite the Labour leadership being held consecutively by a Welshman and a Scot.

By the time Tony Blair became the party leader, Labour’s commitment to devolution was long-standing. Unlike his predecessor, he was not much interested in devolution or impressed by it, particularly not for Wales, where support had been far more muted. The only thing he could do by this stage was to insist that a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly would only be set up after referenda in the two countries, which in Scotland’s case would include a second question as to whether the parliament should be given the power to vary the rate of income tax by 3p in the pound. In September 1997, Scotland voted by three to one for the new Parliament, and by nearly two to one to give it tax-varying powers. The vote for the Welsh Assembly was far closer, with a wafer-thin majority secured by the final constituency to declare, that of Carmarthen. The Edinburgh parliament would have clearly defined authority over a wide range of public services – education, health, welfare, local government, transport and housing – while Westminster kept control over taxation, defence, foreign affairs and some lesser matters. The Welsh assembly in Cardiff would have fewer powers and no tax-raising powers. The Republic of Ireland was similarly divided between two regional assemblies but unlike the assemblies in the UK, these were not elected.

In 1999, therefore, devolved governments, with varying powers, were introduced in Scotland, Wales and, following the ratification referendum on the Belfast Agreement, in Northern Ireland. After nearly three hundred years, Scotland got its parliament with 129 MSPs, and Wales got its assembly with sixty members. Both were elected by proportional representation, making coalition governments almost inevitable. In Scotland, Labour provided the first ‘first minister’ in Donald Dewar, a much-loved intellectual, who took charge of a small group of Labour and Liberal Democrat ministers. To begin with, Scotland was governed from the Church of Scotland’s general assembly buildings. The devolution promised by John Smith and instituted by Tony Blair’s new Labour government in the late 1990s did, initially, seem to take some of the momentum out of the nationalist fervour, but apparently at the expense of stoking the fires of English nationalism, resentful at having Scottish and Welsh MPs represented in their own assemblies as well as in Westminster. But there was no early crisis at Westminster because of the unfairness of Scottish and Welsh MPs being able to vote on England-only business, the so-called Midlothian Question, particularly when the cabinet was so dominated by Scots. But despite these unresolved issues, the historic constitutional changes brought about by devolution and the Irish peace process reshaped both Britain and Ireland, producing irrevocable results. In his television series A History of Britain, first broadcast on the BBC in 2000, Simon Schama argued that…

Histories of Modern Britain these days come not to praise it but to bury it, celebrating the denationalization of Britain, urging on the dissolution of ‘Ukania’ into the constituent European nationalities of Scotland, Wales and England (which would probably tell the Ulster Irish either to absorb themselves into a single European Ireland or to find a home somewhere else – say the Isle of Man). If the colossal asset of the empire allowed Britain, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, to exist as a genuine national community ruled by Welsh, Irish and (astonishingly often) Scots, both in Downing Street and in the remote corners of the empire, the end of that imperial enterprise, the theory goes, ought also to mean the decent, orderly liquidation of Britannia Inc. The old thing never meant anything anyway, it is argued; it was just a spurious invention designed to seduce the Celts into swallowing English domination where once they had been coerced into it, and to persuade the English themselves that they would be deeply adored on the grouse moors of the Trossachs as in the apple orchards of the Weald. The virtue of Britain’s fall from imperial grace, the necessity of its European membership if only to avoid servility to the United States, is that it forces ‘the isles’ to face the truth: that they are many nations, not one.

However, in such a reduction of false British national consciousness to the ‘true’ identities and entities of Scotland, Wales and England, he argued, self-determination could go beyond the ‘sub-nations’, each of which was just as much an invention, or a re-invention, as was Britain. Therefore an independent Scotland would not be able to resist the rights to autonomy of the Orkney and Shetland islands, with their Nordic heritage, or the remaining Gallic-speaking isles of the Outer Hebrides. Similarly, the still primarily Anglophone urban south-Walians and the inhabitants of the Welsh borders and south coast of Pembrokeshire might in future wish to assert their linguistic and cultural differences from the Welsh-speakers of the rural Welsh-speakers of West and North Wales. With the revival of their Celtic culture, the Cornish might also wish to seek devolution from a country from which all other Celts have retreated into their ethnolinguistic heartlands. Why shouldn’t post-imperial Britain undergo a process of ‘balkanization’ like that of the Former Yugoslavia?

LSF RSF Lets build a culture of peace LR

Well, many like Schama seemed to answer at that time, and still do today, precisely because of what happened due to ethnonationalism in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo, where the conflicts were only just, in 1999, being brought to an end by air-strikes and the creation of tides of refugees escaping brutal ethnic cleansing. The breaking up of Britain into ever smaller and purer units of pure white ethnic groups was to be resisted. Instead, a multi-national, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Britain was coming into being through a gradual and peaceful process of devolution of power to the various national, ethnic and regional groups and a more equal re-integration of them into a ‘mongrel’ British nation within a renewed United Kingdom.

Economic Development, the Regions of Britain & Ireland and the Impact of the EU:

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The late twentieth century saw the transformation of the former docklands of London into offices and fashionable modern residential developments, with a new focus on the huge Canary Wharf scheme (pictured above) to the east of the city. The migration of some financial services and much of the national press to the major new developments in London’s Docklands prompted the development of the Docklands Light Railway and the Jubilee line extension. The accompanying modernisation of the London Underground was hugely expensive in legal fees and hugely complex in contracts. Outside of London, improvements in public transport networks were largely confined to urban and suburban centres with light railway networks developed in Manchester, Sheffield and Croydon.

Beyond Canary Wharf to the east, the Millennium Dome, which Blair’s government inherited from the Tories, was a billion pound gamble which Peter Mandelson and ‘Tony’s cronies’ decided to push ahead with, despite cabinet opposition. Architecturally, the dome was striking and elegant, a landmark for London which can be seen from by air passengers arriving in the capital. The millennium was certainly worth celebrating but the conundrum ministers and their advisers faced was what to put in their ‘pleasure’ Dome. It would be magnificent, unique, a tribute to British daring and ‘can-do’. Blair himself said that it would provide the first paragraph of his next election manifesto. But this did not answer the current question of what it was for, exactly. When the Dome finally opened at New Year, the Queen, Prime Minister and celebrities were treated to a mish-mash of a show which embarrassed many of them. When it opened to the public, the range of mildly interesting exhibits was greeted as a huge disappointment. Optimism and daring, it seemed, were not enough to fill the people’s expectations. Later that year, Londoners were given a greater gift in the form of a mayor and regional assembly with powers over local planning and transport. This new authority in part replaced the Greater London Council abolished by the Thatcher government in 1986.

However, there were no signs that the other conurbations in the regions of England wanted regionalisation, except for some stirrings in the Northeast and Cornwall. The creation of nine Regional Development Agencies in England in 1998-99 did not seek to meet a regionalist agenda. In fact, these new bodies to a large extent matched the existing structures set up since the 1960s for administrative convenience and to encourage inward investment. Improving transport links were seen as an important means of stimulating regional development and combating congestion. Major Road developments in the 1990s included the completion of the M25 orbital motorway around London and the M40 link between London and Birmingham. However, despite this construction programme, congestion remained a problem: the M25, for example, became the butt of jokes labelling it as the largest car park on the planet, while traffic speeds in central London continued to fall, reaching fifteen kilometres per hour by 1997, about the same as they had been in 1907. Congestion was not the only problem, however, as environmental protests led to much of the road-building programme begun by the Tory governments being shelved after 1997. The late nineties also saw the development of some of the most expensive urban motorways in Europe.

In the Sottish Highlands and Islands, the new Skye road bridge connected the Isle of Skye to the mainland. A group led by the Bank of America built and ran the new bridge. It was one of the first projects built under a ‘public finance initiative’, or PFI, which had started life under Tory Chancellor Norman Lamont, five years before Labour came to power when he experimented with privatising public projects and allowing private companies to run them, keeping the revenue. Although the basic idea was simple enough, this represented a major change in how government schemes were working, big enough to arouse worry even outside the tribes of political obsessives. There were outraged protests from some islanders about paying tolls to a private consortium and eventually the Scottish Executive bought the bridge back. At the opposite corner of the country, the Queen Elizabeth II road bridge was built joining Kent and Essex across the Thames at Dartford, easing congestion on both sides of the Dartford tunnel. It was the first bridge across the river in a new place for more than half a century and was run by a company called ‘Le Crossing’, successfully taking tolls from motorists.

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Undoubtedly the most important transport development was the Channel Tunnel rail link to France, completed in 1994. It was highly symbolic of Britain’s commitment to European integration, and millions of people and vehicles had travelled from London to Paris in under three hours by the end of the century. The town of Ashford in Kent was one of the major beneficiaries of the ‘Chunnel’ rail link, making use of railway links running through the town. Its population grew by over ten per cent in the 1990s. By the end of that decade, the town had an international catchment area of some eighty-five million people within a single day’s journey. This and the opening of Ashford International railway station as the main terminal in the rail link to the continent attracted a range of engineering, financial, distribution and manufacturing companies to the town. In addition to the fourteen business parks that were established in the town, new retail parks were opened. Four green-field sites were also opened on the outskirts of the town, including a science park owned by Trinity College, Cambridge. Ashford became closer to Paris and Brussels than it was to Manchester and Liverpool, as can be seen on the map below. In addition to its international rail link, the town’s position at the hub of a huge motorway network was in a position to be an integral part of a truly international transport system.

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Modern-day affluence at the turn of the century was reflected in the variety of goods and services concentrated in shopping malls. They are now often built on major roads outside towns and cities to make them accessible to the maximum number of people in a region.

Economic change was most dramatic in the Irish Republic, which enjoyed the highest growth rates in Europe in the 1990s. The so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy boomed, aided by inward investment so that by the end of the decade GDP per capita had surpassed that of the UK. Dublin, which remained if anything more dominant than London as a capital city, flourished as a result of a strong growth in the service industries. Growth rates for the ‘new economy’ industries such as information and communications technology were among the highest in the world. Generous tax arrangements and the city’s growing reputation as a cultural centre meanwhile helped to encourage the development of Dublin’s ‘rockbroker belt’. Even agriculture in the Irish Republic, in decline in the early 1990s, still contributed nine per cent of Ireland’s GDP, three times the European average. In the west of Ireland, it was increasingly supplemented by the growth of tourism.

Nevertheless, while the expansion of Ireland’s prosperity lessened the traditional east-west divide, it did not eliminate it. Low population density and a dispersed pattern of settlement were felt to make rail developments unsuitable. Consequently, Ireland’s first integrated transport programme, the Operational Programme for Peripherality, concentrated on improving: the routes from the west of Ireland to the ferry port of Rosslare; the routes from Belfast to Cork; Dublin and the southwest; east-west routes across the Republic. Many of these improvements benefited from EU funding. The EU also aided, through its ‘peace programme’, the development of transport planning in Britain, with infrastructure projects in, for example, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. In 1993, the EU had decided to create a combined European transport network. Of the fourteen projects associated with this aim, three were based in Britain and Ireland – a rail link from Cork to Larne in Northern Ireland, the ferry port for Scotland; a road link from the Low Countries across England and Wales to Ireland, and the West Coast mainline railway route in Britain.

The old north-south divide in Britain reasserted itself with a vengeance in the late 1990s as people moved south in search of jobs and prosperity as prices and wages rose. Even though the shift towards service industries was reducing regional economic diversity, the geographical distribution of regions eligible for European structural funds for economic improved the continuing north-south divide. Transport was only one way in which the EU increasingly came to shape the geography of the British Isles in the nineties. It was, for example, a key factor in the creation of the new administrative regions of Britain and Ireland in 1999. At the same time, a number of British local authorities opened offices in Brussels for lobbying purposes and attempts to maximise receipts from European structural funds also encouraged the articulation of regionalism. Cornwall, for instance, ‘closed’ its ‘border’ with Devon briefly in 1998 in protest at not receiving its EU social funds, while the enthusiasm for the supposed economic benefits that would result from ‘independence in Europe’ helped to explain the revival of the Scottish Nationalist Party following devolution. ‘Silicon Gen’ in central Scotland was, by the end of the decade, the largest producer of computing equipment in Europe.

The European connection was less welcome in other quarters, however. Fishermen, particularly in Devon and Cornwall and on the North Sea Coast of England, felt themselves the victims of the Common Fisheries Policy quota system. There was also a continuing strong sense of ‘Euroscepticism’ in England, fuelled at this stage by a mixture of concerns about ‘sovereignty’ and economic policy, which I will deal with in a separate article. Here, it is worth noting that even the most enthusiastic Europhiles, the Irish, sought to reject recent EU initiatives which they felt were not in their interests in their 2001 referendum on the Treaty of Nice. Nevertheless, the growth of physical links with Europe, like the Channel Tunnel, the connections between the British and French electricity grids, and the development of ‘budget’ airlines, made it clear that both of the main ‘offshore’ islands, Britain and Ireland were, at the turn of the century, becoming increasingly integrated, both in economic and administrative terms, with the continent of Europe.

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At the beginning of 1999, however, a debate began over British membership of the euro, the single currency which was finally taking shape within the EU. Though he was never a fanatic on the subject, Blair’s pro-European instincts and his desire to be a leading figure inside the EU predisposed him to announce that Britain would join, not in the first wave, but soon afterwards. He briefed that this would happen. British business seemed generally in favour, but the briefing and guesswork in the press were completely baffling. For Gordon Brown, stability came first, and he concluded that it was not likely that Britain could safely join the euro within the first Parliament. When he told Blair this, the two argued and then eventually agreed on a compromise. Britain would probably stay out during the first Parliament, but the door should be left slightly ajar. Pro-European business people and those Tories who had lent Blair and Brown their conditional support, as well as Blair’s continental partners, should be kept on board, as should the anti-Euro press. The terms of the delicate compromise were meant to be revealed in an interview given by Brown to The Times. Being more hostile to entry than Blair, and talking to an anti-euro newspaper, his team briefed more strongly than Blair would have liked. By the time the story was written, the pound had been saved from extinction for the lifetime of the Parliament. Blair was aghast at this.

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The chaos surrounding this important matter was ended and the accord with Blair patched up by Brown and his adviser Ed Balls, who quickly produced five economic tests which would be applied before Britain would enter the euro. They required more detailed work by the Treasury; the underlying point was that the British and continental economies must be properly aligned before Britain would join. Brown then told the Commons that though it was likely that, for economic reasons, Britain would not join the euro until after the next election, there was no constitutional or political reason not to join. Preparations for British entry would therefore begin. This gave the impression that once the tests were met there would be a post-election referendum, followed by the demise of sterling.

In 1999, with a full-scale launch at a London cinema, Blair was joined by the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy and the two former Tory cabinet ministers Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine to launch ‘Britain in Europe’ as a counter-blast to the anti-Euro campaign of ‘Business for Sterling’. Blair promised that together they would demolish the arguments against the euro, and there was alarmist media coverage about the loss of eight million jobs if Britain pulled out of the EU. But the real outcome of this conflict was that the power to decide over membership of the euro passed decisively from Blair to Brown, whose Treasury fortress became the guardian of the economic tests. Brown would keep Britain out on purely economic grounds, something which won him great personal credit among Conservative ‘press barons’. There was to be no referendum on the pound versus euro, however much the Prime Minister wanted one.

Very little of what New Labour had achieved up to 1999 was what it was really about, however, and most of its achievements had been in dealing with problems and challenges inherited from previous governments or with ‘events’ to which it had to react. Its intended purpose was to deliver a more secure economy, radically better public services and a new deal for those at the bottom of British society. Much of this was the responsibility of Gordon Brown, as agreed in the leadership contest accord between the two men. The Chancellor would become a controversial figure later in government, but in his early period at the Treasury, he imposed a new way of governing. He had run his time in Opposition with a tight team of his own, dominated by Ed Balls, later an MP and Treasury minister before becoming shadow chancellor under Ed Miliband following the 2010 general election. Relations between Team Brown and the Treasury officials began badly and remained difficult for a long time. Brown’s handing of interest control to the Bank of England was theatrical, planned secretly in Opposition and unleashed to widespread astonishment immediately New Labour won. Other countries, including Germany and the US, had run monetary policy independently of politicians, but this was an unexpected step for a left-of-centre British Chancellor. It turned out to be particularly helpful to Labour ministers since it removed at a stroke the old suspicion that they would favour high employment over low inflation. As one of Brown’s biographers commented, he…

 …could only give expression to his socialist instincts after playing the role of uber-guardian of the capitalist system.

The bank move has gone down as one of the clearest achievements of the New Labour era. Like the Irish peace process and the devolution referenda, it was an action which followed on immediately after Labour won power, though, unlike those achievements, it was not something referred to in the party’s election manifesto. Brown also stripped the Bank of England of its old job of overseeing the rest of the banking sector. Otherwise, it would have had a potential conflict of interest if it had had to concern itself with the health of commercial banks at the same time as managing interest rates. As a result of these early actions, New Labour won a reputation for being economically trustworthy and its Chancellor was identified with ‘prudent’ management of the nation’s finances. Income tax rates did not increase, which reassured the middle classes. Even when Brown found what has more recently been referred to as ‘the magic money tree’, he did not automatically harvest it. And when the ‘dot-com bubble’ was at its most swollen, he sold off licenses for the next generation of mobile phones for 22.5 bn, vastly more than they were soon worth. The produce went not into new public spending but into repaying the national debt, 37 bn of it. By 2002 government interest payments on this were at their lowest since 1914, as a proportion of its revenue.

Despite his growing reputation for prudence, Brown’s introduction of ‘stealth taxes’ proved controversial, however. These included the freezing of income tax thresholds so that an extra 1.5 million people found themselves paying the top rate; the freezing of personal allowances; rises in stamp duties on houses and a hike in national insurance. In addition, some central government costs were palmed off onto the devolved administrations or local government, so that council tax rose sharply, and tax credits for share dividends were removed. Sold at the time as a ‘prudent’ technical reform, enabling companies to reinvest in their core businesses, this latter measure had a devastating effect on the portfolios of pension funds, wiping a hundred billion off the value of retirement pensions. This was a staggering sum, amounting to more than twice as much as the combined pension deficits of Britain’s top 350 companies. Pensioners and older workers were angered when faced with great holes in their pension funds. They were even more outraged when Treasury papers released in 2007 showed that Brown had been warned about the effect this measure would have. The destruction of a once-proud pension industry had more complex causes than Brown’s decision; Britain’s fast-ageing population was also a major factor, for one. But the pension fund hit produced more anger than any other single act by the New Labour Chancellor.

Perhaps the most striking long-term effect of Brown’s careful running of the economy was the stark, dramatic shape of public spending. For his first two years, he stuck fiercely to the promise he had made about continuing the Major government’s spending levels. These were so tight that even the man who set these levels, Kenneth Clarke, said that he would not actually have kept to them had the Tories been re-elected and had he been reappointed as Chancellor. Brown brought down the State’s share of public spending from nearly 41% of GDP to 37.4% by 1999-2000, the lowest percentage since 1960 and far below anything achieved under Thatcher. He was doing the opposite of what previous Labour Chancellors had done. On arriving in office, they had immediately started spending, in order to stimulate the economy in classical Keynesian terms. When they had reached their limits, they had then had to raise taxes. He began by putting a squeeze on spending and then loosening up later. There was an abrupt and dramatic surge in public spending, particularly on health, back up to 43%. The lean years were immediately followed by the fat ones, famine by the feast. But the consequence of the squeeze was that the first New Labour government of 1997-2001 achieved far less in public services than it had promised. For example, John Prescott had promised a vast boost in public transport, telling the Commons in 1997:

I will have failed if in five years’ time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It’s a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it.

Because of ‘Prudence’, and Blair’s worries about being seen as anti-car, Prescott had nothing like the investment to follow through and failed completely. Prudence also meant that Brown ploughed ahead with cuts in benefit for lone-parent families, angering Labour MPs and resulting in a Scottish Labour conference which labelled their Westminster government and their own Scots Chancellor as economically inept, morally repugnant and spiritually bereft. Reform costs money and without money, it barely happened in the first term, except in isolated policy areas where Blair and Brown put their heads down and concentrated. The most dramatic programme was in raising literacy and numeracy among younger children, where Number Ten worked closely with the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, and scored real successes. But unequivocally successful public service reforms were rare.

At first, Labour hated the idea of PFIs, which were a mixture of two things associated with Thatcherite economic policies, the privatisation of capital projects, with the government paying a fee to private companies over many years, and the contracting out of services – waste collection, school meals, cleaning – which had been imposed on unwilling socialist councils from the eighties. Once in power, however, Labour ministers began to realise that those three little letters were political magic because they allowed them to announce and oversee exciting new projects and take the credit for them in the full knowledge that the full bill would be left for the taxpayers of twenty to fifty years hence. In this way, spending and funding of new hospitals or schools would be a problem for a future health or education minister.

PFIs were particularly attractive when other kinds of spending were tightly controlled by ‘Prudence’. Large amounts of capital for public buildings were declared to be ‘investment’, not spending, and put to one side of the public accounts. The justification was that private companies would construct and run this infrastructure so much more efficiently than the State and that profits paid to them by taxpayers would be more than compensated for. Ministers replied to criticisms of these schemes by pointing out that, without them, Britain would not get the hundreds of new school buildings, hospitals, health centres, fire stations, army barracks, helicopter training schools, prisons, government offices, roads and bridges that it so obviously needed by the nineties. Significantly, the peak year for PFIs was 1999-2000, just as the early Treasury prudence in conventional spending had bitten hardest and was being brought to an end.

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.

Simon Schama (2000), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

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

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Beyond their Graves: The Lives and Times of the Gullivers: Part 3 (chapters 3-7)   Leave a comment

Chapter Three: An Edwardian Childhood

Jessie was the eighth child born to George and Bertha Gulliver, and the first of the new Edwardian era. She was born the year Queen Victoria died, 1901. Her earliest memory was from when she was about two and a half, and the Gulliver family was living at Ufton. She sat on the school wall and the teachers came out and told her to get off, because the children couldn’t concentrate with her sitting on the wall. She went home to her mother and asked what concentrate meant, and she couldn’t speak it very well. Her mother told her she could sit on the wall at play-time and dinner-time, or in holidays, but she mustn’t sit on the wall when the children were in school, because they couldn’t concentrate when she was playing on the wall. She thought that was a bit hard, really, for one two and a half years old.   She used to go around Ufton with her elder brothers, Seymour and Arnold, and they’d play around Harbury Cement Works. Her brothers once got an old door and put two pieces of wood under it and used two other pieces for oars, taking Jessie out on a small brook. Their mother and father were very angry with the boys because they could have fallen in the brook and drowned. Looking back on this incident, Jessie remarked, you know what they say, God looks after children and drunkards!   So her mother and father spent their young days at Ufton. She could remember the primroses, violets and bluebells in Ufton Wood and the part where the Chamberlains, the people who owned the cement works, were buried, railed off right at the end of the wood. She came across that a few years after going back on a visit to Ufton from Coventry, taking her mother round to see her father’s sister.

Jessie remembered leaving Ufton. Her father left his job as a coachman at the Chamberlain’s house to work at Harbury Cement Works. So first they went to live in a rented cottage in Bishop’s Itchington, not far from Ufton. They paid half a crown a week for it in rent. However, the cement works didn’t suit her father, because the cement dust got on his chest and he had to go back onto the London work, riding the coaches between Leamington and London. Jessie could remember how ’hard up’ they were at this time. One Sunday, when she was about three or four, she came home from Sunday School, where they’d been reading about Joseph with the coat of many colours. Her mother had bought her brother Arnold a little navy blue coat and he’d left it on Harbury Cement Works, and she was ever so upset and crying when Jessie went in and, of course, all Jessie could say to the rest of the family was he’s lost the coat of many colours! But, it was a job for my mother to get clothes for us in those days, and she liked us to be dressed nicely. I don’t know how she managed to do it, but she did.

So it was that, in 1904, George accepted an invitation to work on Lord Dugdale’s estate near Wroxall, along the old coaching road running west from Warwick and Leamington. He was under-manager on one of the four estate farms. The Dugdales were very generous to all their labourers, who were given comfortable houses with gardens, and at Christmas each family would receive a ton of coal and a piece of beef, plus some money for the children’s shoes. For each birth, the Dugdales sent a hamper of things, including coverings with golden embroidery. So now the family felt a lot better off. The only problem was that the children had to walk a mile and a half to school, which was run by the nearby abbey, hence the shoe allowance, no doubt. Otherwise, they were comfortable enough, even with two more additions to their family.   Jessie discovered her love of poetry in Wroxall, at first by attending The Band of Hope there. This was a temperance society for children which she began attending when she was four and five years old. Even at so young an age, the children had to promise never to drink and to help them understand what this ‘pledge’ was all about, she had to learn to recite by heart moralising poems. She could still recite a lengthy narrative piece called, The Convict’s Little Jim, word-perfect, ninety years later. However, she had always thought it was a terrible thing to teach a child, with scenes of domestic violence, murder and execution!

George had trouble with the manager over ’harvest money’. Vinson and Alfred had to work longer hours alongside their father, but when they were payed out only George received the overtime payment. George went to see Lord Dugdale, who said the money had been paid through the manager. However, the manager had pocketed the money himself, so he was then made to pay it on to the boys. After that, however, the manager made life difficult for George, so he decided to leave, and that was why the family moved to Caludon Lodge in 1909.   So, when Jessie was about eight, in 1909, the family moved from Wroxall to Walsgrave, then still in Warwickshire, on the other side of Coventry. The children all went on the van. There must have been about eight of them, she thought, but their mother decided to come by train from Berkswell into Coventry, with the youngest, Arthur. When the van got to the house where they were going to live, Caludon Lodge, near Walsgrave, the people (who were leaving) hadn’t got out, so there we were, all us kids, stuck with the furniture and my Dad worried to death. He didn’t know what to do. So, they all ended up at Green’s Farm where George and the older boys were going to work. At first, Mrs Green didn’t know what to do with so large a family, but it was a large enough farmhouse for them to have a kitchen and one bedroom and a landing. So the whole family was staying there.   Their mother had to walk all the way from Gosford Green (Bus Station) with Arthur, who was only four years old. In those days, the trams only ran around the city, and Walsgrave was outside the area of the County Borough. So, she was already planning to walk a distance of nearly three miles, which would now be extended by at least another half mile down the farm lane. When the rest of the family arrived at Caludon Lodge, the lady next door gave Jessie an old pram to go and meet her mother. She met her on Ball Hill, a long and somewhat steep climb out of the city, already tired out, but Jessie had to tell her the bad news, that the people couldn’t get out of the Lodge because the people were still in the house that they were going to, and that her dad had taken all the furniture down to the farm.   They managed very well in the kitchen, and Jessie slept on the landing with two of the others, on their mattresses. They were there six weeks and Mrs Green said she didn’t even know we were there, we were such good children. They had good fun on the farm, especially the girls, because the Green’s had a family of boys, so they had a good time with them in the hay!

After that, they went up to Caludon Lodge. It was a very nice house, built in brick; with railings all round it, little holly bushes all around the garden, and a porch in the middle. The kitchen and the front room were at right angles to each other and there were two passages, one from the front room and one from the kitchen. There was a big yard at the back with a long bench where mother could put about four bowls for washing. There was a big ‘copper’ (kettle) and a little one. Mother always had the little one on and the kids used to go and get sticks (for the wood-fired range), so there was always warm water in the big kitchen to wash with. There was a most beautiful garden, with pear trees, plum trees and apple trees with mistletoe growing up one of them. It was ever so long; it went right down past two houses, and Mr Green took a piece off it eventually and built two houses on it for more farm labourers.   So they had quite a happy time at Caludon. They could go to Binley, Wyken or Stoke schools. But Caludon was just outside the Parish of Walsgrave (which was still in Warwickshire at that time, outside Corporation area), so they couldn’t go to the Church of England village school. So, they were sent to Binley School, which was run by Whitley Abbey. They therefore had another two-mile walk to school across the fields, starting early with two sandwiches to eat on the way. Then they had a school dinner and a meal when they got home at about half past four. Soon after they arrived, Binley Colliery was built and a new school had to be built, so Jessie’s last two years at school were spent there. They could leave at thirteen in those days if they had a job to go to. Her mother used to get her meat from a Brown’s Butchers on Ball Hill and Mr Brown said she could have a job taking his little boy out (he was about a year old) for half a crown (2s 6d) a week. So Jessie used to walk all the way from Walsgrave to Ball Hill, a distance of about a mile and a half, for about nine o’clock. As they were sometimes still having breakfast when she arrived, they would invite her to have some. She always refused, although I was always ever so hungry, and I used to sneak into the pantry at about eleven o’clock, before I took the little boy out, and pinch a bit of bread ‘n’ cheese!    

Chapter Four: Memories of War and Work

 Jessie began working for Brown’s Butchers when she turned thirteen, a year before the First World War broke out. Then, from July 1914, anyone who had bedrooms in Coventry had to take Australian soldiers in. She didn’t know what port they came in through (probably Portsmouth, the closest to Coventry), but they all came along the Walsgrave Road into the city, and therefore all passed by Caludon Lodge. They were all dressed in khaki, with their hats turned up at the side, waiting for our government to say where they were to be quartered. So three of them were staying at Brown’s. They’d had two fellows living and working there, taking the meat around in those days, but they’d had to go to war themselves. So Mr Brown asked Jessie to take meat down to Stoke Park Hall, which had been requisitioned for ‘the ANZAC’s’ and the kitchens asked her to take their orders back to him, thinking he was my father. But he never increased her pay and if he didn’t give me my half a crown on Saturdays, I never asked him for it. Kids were funny in those days!    Jessie got another job eventually. A lady was having a baby and she was to take the little boy or girl out. She offered her 10s a week; four times what she was getting at Brown’s. However, the woman’s husband also expected her to perform extra duties. While the lady was in bed, having the baby, her husband was at home having a few days off, and he tried to kiss Jessie, though he must have known she was only fourteen. She described how..

I started to walk round the table, and he followed me. So I kept walking round, and the dog started to howl. Their dog always howled if somebody played the piano in the front room. So his wife shouted down, ‘what’s the dog howling for?’ So I said, ‘oh, Mr Prescott is in the front room playing the piano, and you know the dog doesn’t like piano music.’ As I walked round the table, when I got near the stairs I went up. He never tried it on again; of course, he was at work all the while.

She stayed there a few weeks, and there were three Jessies in the house, because the mother and the baby were both named Jessie.   It was a bad time for her own family, though, because her mother had to go into hospital with a poisoned knee. In those days you had to pay £5 per week in fees, provide your own food and pay for transport to the hospital if you couldn’t walk. But Bertha quickly got over it. Jessie thought her mother was wonderful, especially after having three little girls in five years: She never shouted at us, or hit us. She was quite a lady, who went to Church on Sunday evenings. All the children had to go on Sunday mornings and afternoons (to Sunday School), dressed in their best clothes. It took her all the next day to wash and clean, starch and press them and put them away.   Now the War was on, and women could get well-paid jobs working on munitions. Jessie got a job working at the Royal Ordinance Works, Red Lane. She got much more money there and soon had enough saved for a bicycle. Instead of having to walk all the way across by Wyken Church, right up the Black Pad to the Ordinance Works, night and morning, she could cycle:

That’s how my life went on through the war years. We were working from six in the morning till six at night on two pieces of bread and ‘dripping’ (lard) and canteen tea which you could have wrung a dishcloth out in.

Sometimes they were quite nervous about the war, although it didn’t affect the women directly very much, unless they lost a loved one on the Western Front. They did see, however, a huge airship, a Zeppelin, sailing over Walsgrave, which frightened us all to death, and made them realise some of the reality of modern warfare for the first time:

It was terrifying, just like a great big boat.

In general, however, they remained largely unaffected by the early stages of the war. Jessie recalled that:

It was only really the rationing which touched us, because my mother had about ten of us at home, and had to go into Coventry for what she could get… it was a good job we had the garden and all the stuff from it and my Dad could always keep it beautiful and grow plenty of potatoes, cabbages, etc. We survived!

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Walsgrave-on-Sowe Village Centre from St Mary’s Churchyard (drawing by Rev A J Chandler)

Chapter Five: The Twenties

When the war finished, Jessie went to Oxford, to her aunt, Molly Tidmarsh (née Sanders). Things were much better for her there, because it was impossible to get a job in Coventry; nobody could, neither woman nor man. But, when the women went to sign on at the Labour Exchange, the officials often insulted them. They asked, ‘have you been round all the factories?’ when they knew very well that there were no jobs in the factories, especially for women. Jessie’s Aunt Molly kept The Black Horse in Kidlington near Oxford. She had one daughter, so she told her sister, ‘send Jess over to the pub; I’ll give her 10s a week, that’ll keep her in clothes. She’ll be a friend for Doll’ (her daughter).

Living in the country and having a can of milk twice a day meant Jessie became much healthier too. With her cousin, she went dancing in Oxford with the undergrads, who would bring them home in a taxi to Kidlington. She began to speak much better and dress better. She had a boyfriend in Coventry whom she used to write letters to, but when she went home to Walsgrave he said there was a vast difference in her, and that he couldn’t believe she’d changed so much. They eventually broke off their relationship when he began going out with a girl from the Baptist Chapel in Walsgrave. Jessie stayed at Kidlington for about two years, but as her uncle used to drink the whiskey and they didn’t make much profit, they decided to leave Kidlington and her uncle got a job with the Peak Freane biscuit company in Bermondsey, London, as their cricket grounds man, being given a cottage on the ground, near the Pavilion.   Jessie had also decided to go up to London, because she’d been offered a job there, but she wasn’t able to stay with her aunt and uncle because the cottage wasn’t big enough. So she went into service at Primsbury Park. She came home to Coventry only on short holidays, when she was able to go to dances. Many soldiers were there in uniform, not yet ‘demobbed’. She danced with a young man named Tommy Gardner, looking very smart in blue dress uniform with gold braiding all across his chest:

Girls were not supposed to fancy soldiers or sailors in those days, because we always thought they were common. But I liked him, so I danced with him all that evening and he asked to see me home. I had come with a girl from next door, so I found her, and the three of us went home together. As we stood talking by our house, he asked if he could see me again the next day. I agreed, but told him I was returning to London on the Monday. He suggested that I write and ask for another week, so I did. We kept on writing after that, and he asked me to come home again, because he was feeling very lonely.

By this time, the early twenties, the Gulliver family had left Caludon Lodge. They had lived there for about twelve years, since Jessie was eight. However, with four children still at home, and the factories expanding again in the early twenties, George had decided to take the better wages offered there, even though it meant leaving their farm tenancy and moving into a rented house in Foleshill. So he went to work for Armstrong-Siddeley as a stoker in the early twenties. While working on the farm, he had been kicked in the stomach by a horse, and soon fell ill with cancer, although according to Jessie, he worked himself to death, dying at the age of sixty-five in 1927.  He had to have a room to himself and there were still four children at home, two sisters and two brothers. Irene and Bertha were working, and Arthur and Frank were still at school in 1924, aged thirteen and eleven. Their mother shared a second room with Bertha and Irene, until Irene married, and the two boys, Arthur and Frank,  were in the third. Mother had to sleep in the girls’ room, because she got so little sleep if she slept with George. So Jessie could not go home, as there wouldn’t be enough room in the girls’ room for her. Also, with George not working, there was very little money coming into the household. So Jessie wrote to Tommy to tell him that she would have to save some money in order to come home.

Tommy’s father was a lithographer and head printer, but had died, leaving Tommy an orphaned child. He was raised in Dr Barnado’s orphanage, and then, from the age of thirteen, by his aunt. He had joined the army when he was only sixteen, but he’d said that he was eighteen, just to get away from his aunt’s family. Tommy had learnt woodwork in the Army, and he began working at the General Electric Company (GEC), making cabinets for wirelesses. That was his first civilian job and his money was £2. 5s. a week.   So, Jessie came home eventually, in 1924, and got work straight away. She went to work in a café, so her mother did not go without money for her, and she had most of her meals there. After Irene married, she was able to take her place in the room her mother was sharing with her daughters. Tommy would come down to the café every night. They were both twenty-three, not that young in the twenties, so he was very keen to get engaged straight away and wanted to get married quickly. But Jessie said, how can we get married with only twenty pounds between us and my father ill?!’ So they got married at a registry office and said nothing to anyone. Jessie wore her wedding ring around her neck on a chain.

VeraGulliver(Brown)photo2

After their marriage in 1918, Seymour and Vera (left) had set up home in one of the gardeners’ cottages belonging to the Wakefield Estate. When Jessie was ’courting’ Tommy, who had secretly become her husband in 1924, they would go round and play cards with Seymour and Vera, walking home to Foleshill often very late. By this time, Seymour and Vera had had their first child, Gwen. Both Seymour and Vera were strong trade unionists and Labour Party supporters. Seymour had inherited a strong sense of fairness from his father, perhaps because he was old enough to understand why they had had to leave Wroxall in 1909. Vera’s family, the Browns, were also strong supporters of the Labour Party, from before January 1924, when it first won a General Election under Ramsay MacDonald. Daphne (b. 1931) remembered the following song, to the tune of Men of Harlech, which Vera used to sing long after MacDonald’s expulsion from the Party for forming the National Government in 1931:

001Voters All of Aberavon,

Wisdom show in this election,

Don’t be misled by Protection,

Ramsay is the Man!

 

Ramsay, Ramsay, shout it!

Don’t be shy about it!

On then, comrades, on to glory,

It shall be told in song and story,

How we beat both Lib and Tory,

Ramsay is the Man!

Seymour had a strong sense of social justice, and was a keen member of the Binley lodge of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. On one occasion, he stuck up for a fellow collier who was being bullied by a foreman, and was dismissed from Binley Colliery on the spot. He had to go to Newdigate Colliery to get work there. The conditions there were far worse than at Binley, and when he undressed to bath in front of the living room fire, his clothes would stand up by themselves, from the combination of mud, coal-dust and sweat which had caked them in the pit and then dried on them during his long walk home at the end of each shift. His body was covered with boils and he had to have special treatment at the Coventry and Warwick Hospital, where they made an experimental serum to cure his condition.   Eventually his wife Vera told him,

you’ll just have to put your pride in your pocket; you can’t go back down Newdigate; you’d better go back to Binley and ask for your job back.

So he went back to Binley Colliery, apologised, and got his job back.

Although secretly married to Jessie in 1924, Tommy Gardner was still in single lodgings, which he didn’t like much, so Jessie got him to go and live with her sister, Millie. She’d got two little girls and she used to take policemen in. They had to live in digs, because they didn’t have apartments or rooms attached to the police stations then. So Millie always used to have a policeman lodging, because her husband only rode the buses, or drove buses, and the money wasn’t very good. So Tommy went to live with her, and he was very happy there. The children loved having Tommy because he used to bring them a bar of chocolate every Friday night. But Millie didn’t offer that Jessie could go and live there when she found out that they had married in secret.   The couple used to go round and see her brother Alf, who was in the Navy. Lilly, his wife, had one little boy, and she was there on her own with him. They used to go and see her quite a lot, partly because she had a piano and Tommy could play anything on the piano. But they found it increasingly difficult to keep their marriage a secret:

Alf’s wife asked us one night, when we’d been married about three months, ‘when are you two getting married?’ I said, ‘I’m not getting married!’ She said, ‘don’t be so silly! You’re just made for each other! What are you going out with him for? You can’t treat him like that!’ I said, ‘I am married!’ ‘What?’ she said, ‘you are married?!’ I said, ‘yes, I’ve been married three months!’ ‘Oh, my God!’ she said, ‘I can’t go and tell your mother and your dad!’ So Tommy said, ‘well, I’ll go round and tell them!’ So he went round straight away and told my mother that we’d been married in a Registrar’s. I don’t know whether he told her how long, and then he saw Dad, who said, ‘oh, that’s alright, my lad, I always liked you!’ When Mother went to Church on Sunday nights, we used to stop in and look after him when he was ill, so he was all right about it, but I don’t think my mother thought much about it. She said, ‘well what are you going to do? Where are you going to live?’ Lilly said, ‘I’ve got an empty room, so why don’t you come and live with me? I’m away half the time down at Portsmouth when the ship comes in! There’s a spare room; you can furnish that.’

So they went there, furnished the spare room, and that’s where they started married life. Jessie kept her job and they were able to save quite a bit of money. In fact, they were only there about six months before they’d got about a hundred pounds, enough to furnish a place in those days. So they started to look for a place of their own. Eventually, they got a bungalow. They only paid 6s 1d a week rent for it. It had two bedrooms, and a long living room, which took a dining table. After George died in 1930, Jessie’s mother had a three-bedroom one. They were built as temporary accommodation for war-workers coming into Coventry, but they were very comfortable inside. There was a communal bathhouse where clothes washing could also be done. Some were built for people with better positions and they had all got baths in and Millie had one of these. After the First World War ended, these managers left these houses. They were prefabricated cottages, and therefore fireproof. Tommy made a fireplace, with a mantelpiece for ornaments, and a wardrobe;

He built a porch and a garden fence all around with a gate, and made a beautiful garden. He built a garage out back made of laths, screwed together. He didn’t use a single nail. There was also a fireplace in the bedroom and whenever anyone brought children to visit they all played in the bedroom on the beds, because we’d built a fire in there and it was warm. The men would go into the spare room and play cards while we cleared the table in the living room, and then they’d come back. Those were the days!  

That was in 1925, when Tommy earned an average wage of about £2. 10s. But he had brains, so he decided to leave his trade, though it was difficult to leave your place of work in those days, and he was out of work for about eight weeks while Jessie kept them from her earnings as a waitress. He went into the motor-trade at the wood place of the Riley Car Works, on Woodrington Road, near Foleshill Station. They used to make the dashboards out of wood. They needed semi-skilled workers and because he had made cabinets he could read a drawing, so they gave him a job. The GEC couldn’t stop him going there, because it wasn’t a federated ‘shop’, as it had only just opened. They were hard up for workers as well, because all the men were in work at that time. There he’d earn about £10 a week, with overtime, £6 on ordinary time. He’d be out of work for about three months (laid-off in the summer), but could always put some money away for those times. It used to be three months out, three months short time and three months mad-time. He soon got enough for a motorbike, and then they had a car.

In 1926, Seymour was out on strike and was locked out of the Colliery for six months in support of the miners, especially those in South Wales, who worked in difficult places and were having their wages cut. There were many miners in Walsgrave at that time, so the Lock-out hit the village hard. Vera had to go back to work as a skilled weaver at Cash’s, and Seymour took over the housekeeping and looked after the children. He and the other colliers could only earn money from tree-cutting up at the Coombe, a wooded area on the adjoining Craven Estate around Coombe Abbey, between Binley and Walsgrave. The miners earned a little money from the timber they cut, and they caught rabbits, pinched the odd pheasant and were given scraps from the Abbey kitchens, bowls of dripping and left-overs from banquets held there, which Seymour would bring home. However, Lord Craven was himself in financial difficulty, and eventually committed suicide by jumping off a ship in the middle of the Atlantic.   The miners in the Warwickshire Coalfield were not too badly paid at the start of the Lock-out, as the pits they worked in were generally not as difficult to mine as in some of the older pits in other coalfields. However,  they supported the call from the Miners’ Federation for solidarity with those working in ’difficult places’ in other coalfields. Nevertheless, when they went back in the winter of 1926/7, they also had their wages cut. Following the return to work, victimised miners from the south Wales valleys began arriving in the village with all their possessions and their whole families on carts. Vera and Seymour helped them to move in and settle as neighbours, and eventually to become leaders of the lodges and social clubs. Walsgrave Hospital stands today in the grounds of what was once the old Walsgrave Hall. It was almost two hundred years old when it was demolished in 1962 to make way for the hospital, but during the early part of the twentieth century the Wakefield family lived there, and owned a large amount of village property, including terraced houses rented by miners and other workers. Seymour’s family lived in a gardener’s cottage belonging to them. During the Miners’ Lock-out of 1926, many of these tenants could not pay their rent, and some never did settle their debts. However, they were not evicted.

By 1928 Seymour had earned and saved enough to make a down payment on a new semi-detached house with a bay window, next to Walsgrave School, at 21 School House Lane. Almost as soon as they moved in, their front room became the Headquarters for the Labour Party during the 1929 General Election campaign, and the bay window was full of posters. Of course, it was in a strategic position, next to the polling station, the Village School, and so no-one could be in any doubt about Vera and Seymour’s allegiances.

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 Seymour and Vera in the/their seventies

Chapter Six: Growing up in Walsgrave in the Thirties and Fourties:

In July 1931, Daphne Gulliver was born to Vera and Seymour, their youngest of four children.  She grew up at School House Lane, Walsgrave in the thirties, enjoying such local events such as The Walsgrave Show, a very big agricultural and horticultural event, at which her father won prizes for the vegetables he could now grow in his back garden, as well as on his allotment. The children made bouquets out of wild flowers to be judged at the Show. It was a show run by local farmers like Harold Green, whom the Gullivers had worked for, but it attracted farmers, showjumpers and other participants from far and wide. It eventually combined with the Kenilworth Show, and became the forerunner of The National Agricultural Show at Stoneleigh.   As prosperity returned with a boom in Coventry, coal-miners’ wages also improved, though many chose to desert the pits for a cleaner, high-wage job in engineering in the City, especially in the car factories. Seymour stuck to his job at the colliery, however, because he liked the economic security that came with it, as well as the sense of comraderie. Although not a hard-drinker, like many colliers, he naturally liked to call into the pub for a much-needed pint on his way home after a hard shift at the coal-face. The Baptists frowned upon and shunned the pubs in the village, because there were many well-known heavy-drinkers, but they understood that it was natural for the miners to enjoy a drink together on the way home. The only problems in some families came on weekly pay days, when they received their wage in cash. On these days all the wives would send their children, and Daphne was one of these, to wait for their fathers and get their pay packets from them in case any of them might be tempted to donate too much of it to the pub’s profits! Every mother would send their kids to stand outside The Craven Arms and The Red Lion to collect the wages. This, of course, was more of a show of solidarity by the wives than an act of necessity, especially as the local publicans were strict about not serving those who had, in their opinion, had one too many.

When war broke out in 1939, the good spirit in Walsgrave continued. The most noticeable difference, at first, was in the availability of food, and rationing. There were queues for tomatoes, but the Co-op was fair to everyone, and the vegetable cart continued to do its rounds of the village. One day, Daphne went out with her mother to buy oranges, which were rationed to one per person per week. So, they could have five. A group of internees were going up the Lane to the farm at the top. Vera asked Albert, the vendor, for a knife and cut all five into pieces. She went over to the boys and gave each one a piece of orange. Daphne, being a child, protested, but she said, oh well, these lads are very young and they’ve been living off potatoes up at the farm, so they need that orange much more than you do.   People were encouraged to produce their own food on their allotments. As well as growing vegetables, Seymour also kept pigs and poultry on his allotment along Woodway Lane. You could keep pigs during the war, but you had to have a permit to kill them. You could sell them to the authorities, but they did not pay very much for them. So Seymour decided to take his sow into hiding in their house when her time came. Daphne remembered these war-time pigs and piglets well:

 …we had a litter of pigs, we decided we were going to have a litter, and then we had some sleeping quarters for these piglets, and when the time came, the wretched sow had all those little piglets on the hearth, and we were giving them drops of brandy, trying to revive them and keep them going. I think we saved about five.

 But they got to be little suckling pigs and one of them wasn’t quite right. So they decided they were going to ‘knock this one off’. So Bill Gately worked up the abattoir and we persuaded Bill to come and knock this little pig off. They’d just gone up the garden, ’cause he was working all day so it was dark now, and the air-raid siren went. So, no-one dared shine a flash-light or anything and well, you can imagine these little pigs running and squealing all over the sty, and them trying to get hold of this particular one; and Bill was muttering and stuttering, you know. Well eventually we caught this pig and killed it quietly at the kitchen sink.

 We had no permit, and then someone came around afterwards, knowing that we’d done this, and he asked, ’what did you do with the Tom Hodge?’ So Seymour says, ’what’s that?’, and they said, ’well, you know, its innards!’ Dad says, ’oh! We buried them up  the garden’. ’Oh, oh dear!’ he says, ’the best part of the pig!’ Anyway, he comes back after a few minutes and says, ’well, if I know Seymour it won’t be buried deep!’ So he goes up the garden with his fork and forks all this up. Eventually, he took all these chittilings and well, of course, to anyone who likes chittilings…but it put me off pork for the rest of my life!  

Daphne also remembered the first significant air-raids, and the first use of the communal shelter at the school. The Anderson shelters that people had put up in their gardens by the summer of 1940 had become flooded, so they had to go to the shelter at the school, which had been put there for the school children. However, as there were no day-time raids, it had not been used, and was still locked. The schoolmaster, Gaffa Mann, refused to open it, however. A pick axe had to be sent for to break the lock, and all the residents of School House Lane went in.

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Though Walsgrave itself was of no military importance, Capability Brown’s huge landscaped pool at Coombe Abbey was in the German map books and was used as a landmark by the German bomber crews. The Rolls Royce Engine Factory at Ansty was less than a mile from this, manufacturing aircraft engines. There was also an aerodrome there, built before the war, and the then Rootes assembly plant at Ryton was only a few miles away on the same side of the city, with its shadow factory producing aircraft and military vehicles. Built after 1936, these factories did not appear on the Luftwaffe’s maps, hence the importance of incendiary bombs dropped around the outlying areas of the City, as well as on the city itself. The Germans were searching for the shadow factories on the ground, using the Coombe Pool as a focal point. Huge craters were left on the landscape around the village for many decades afterwards. Seymour described his arrest, as an ARP Warden, of a German pilot who had bailed out over Coombe Park, landing in the farm lane and breaking both his legs. Seymour had to use his bicycle to get the airman the mile or so to the village police station.

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Cover collage from the 1983 book by Bill Lancater and Tony Mason

On the night of November 14th, Coventry was subjected to an eleven-hour sustained Blitz, giving the German dictionary the word Coventration as a synonym for blanket-bombing rather than lightning raids, which had been the previous strategy in attacking London and other regional ports. Daphne recalled the effect of the bombing of the city centre, three miles away, as they ran for the shelter:

We put up the cushions from off the furniture and put them on our heads and went running up the shelter. It was a bright moonlit night and tracer bullets were flying around like tracer bullets everywhere and the whole city was on fire. Everything was lit up like it was daylight; it was a most awesome sight and of course, for days afterwards, the burnt paper was coming down.

The School Log for 15th November echoes this description of destruction:

School reassembled – about only 130 were present – this is due to the results of a terrific 11 hour raid on Coventry and immediate neighbourhood. The Church Hut used for 70 to 80 infants had to be used as a home for the people who were bombed out of the city.

Seymour was on air-raid duty that night and recalled one bomb that fell in what was known as The Hollow, just past The Mount Pleasant. He said that the old, cruck-beamed cottage was quite badly damaged as the patrol went towards it, and he was sure there would be at least one person dead inside. But when they went inside they found that the main beam had fallen across the fireplace and the family were all protected by it, around the fireplace. No-one was hurt.

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School records for 1940 show that a total of six hours and ten minutes was spent in the school shelter, with one visit lasting over two hours. Of course, nearly all the raids took place during night-time. Even the raid of the 14th/15th November was not detected until after 3 p.m., the end of the school day, and the bombing had ended in sufficient time for the school to open on time the next morning. Though the sirens went off earlier than usual that evening, most people recall being at home having had tea or supper when the bombing started. The schools nearer the centre were far more badly affected, and many of those rescued in these areas were still under rubble until about 7 a.m., having been trapped for more than twelve hours in some cases. Walsgrave escaped lightly compared with the mass destruction of the city centre and the older factory areas in the suburbs, though it might have been a different story had the Luftwaffe been able to locate the Ansty and Ryton factories. Many in the village realised this vulnerability, and though not forced to, sent their children away to safer rural areas, if they could. Daphne was sent away to relatives near Bridgwater in Somerset for a while. In addition to his ARP duties, being in a reserved occupation as a collier, Seymour took on responsibility for the Bevin Boys, the well-educated young graduates and undergraduates who were sent to work in the pits.

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 One of the few medieval buildings left standing after the 1940 Blitz, in Priory Row (painting by Rev. A J Chandler)

Chapter SevenThe Road from 1945 and Some Reflections on the Century

English: Photograph taken on 1 Feb 2007 by me ...

English: Photograph taken on 1 Feb 2007 of St Mary’s Church (side view), Walsgrave, Coventry, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the early part of the twentieth century, the most significant social division in the village was between Church and Chapel.  This was sharpened by a dispute over a refusal to bury nonconformists in the parish churchyard, leading to the establishment of a cemetary on Sowe Common. The cemetary was near the canal, and Vera could remember Baptisms taking place there because there was no baptistry at the original Little Chapel  from 1840 to 1902. By the time Vera and Seymour were married at the Chapel in 1918, it was well-established in the village, with a membership of keen spiritually-minded people, a good set of buildings…a minister of our own and a Manse for him to occupy.

A small, relatively poor community had achieved a lot in hard times. A real period of growth was enjoyed until the coming of the Second World War. Daphne remembered Sunday School Anniversary excursions to Hawkesbury, Lenton’s Lane, Potters Green, Shilton and Wolvey. For many children, these were the first occasions they had been outside the village, unless they had been into Coventry. However, the Nonconformist children sometimes found themselves in conflict at school, because, as Daphne explained:

 ..it was very much a Church of England School. The Conscience Clause used to be up on the wall…We used to be marched down to the Church on ’High Day’ and that was very nice and I never opted out of that but I could have done…You see, I was one of those wretched Non-Conformists. But I used to enjoy that. Well I took it upon myself one day, when Miss Florence Verrall, a school governor was there for assembly, to refuse to say the catechism. I don’t know why, because I knew it all, but my mother had told me I needn’t say this, it didn’t apply to me. I was very much frowned upon after that. I never did quite live it down. I never did like the village school, not many did, and I was glad to leave when I was about eleven. Gaffa Mann was the master. One of his sayings was ’spare the rod and spoil the child’. With Miss Verrall we all had to stand to attention when she came in, as she was a very important person.

Daphne also remembered the famous Rev. Howard Ingli James, the Welsh Minister at Queens’ Road Baptist Church in Coventry in the thirties and forties, preaching at Walsgrave Chapel. She described him as a Welsh ranter, a very famous socialist, and extremely funny. Walsgrave had the kind of pulpit in which you could walk up and down and he used to shake all his black hair into his eyes. There were marvellous harvest festivals after the war and everything was decorated. Then the produce would be sold off to raise money and there would be a concert to follow. The choirmaster was quite strict and if anyone wasn’t behaving themselves, he would throw a hymn book in their direction to bring them to attention.

English: War memorial (1914-1918) in Walsgrave...

The names on the village war memorial contained the names of many young people who gave their lives, but there were other losses sustained by the chapel.

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After the war, the chapel was taken under the wing of  Queens Road and the Rev Gordon Wylie, succeeding Rev H. Ingli James, brought the thirty-four year-old Rev Arthur J Chandler to Walsgrave from Wednesbury, Staffordshire (above right and below, with Daphne Gulliver), in 1948. In addition to overseeing Ansty and Shilton chapels, he helped to build up the Walsgrave congregation again.

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English: War memorial (1914-1918) in Walsgrave...

English: War memorial (1914-1918) in Walsgrave, Coventry, England. St Marys church is in the background. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Daphne worked as a short-hand typist at the Ansty Factory after the war, using her bicycle to get up the farm lane on the other side of the Sowe and up the hill each day. In July 1952, she celebrated her twenty-first birthday with all the family in the School Hall next to where they lived. Her aunt Jessie asked her, ‘have you got a boyfriend?’ She said she’d had one, but she didn’t have one then, so Jessie asked her, ‘who’ve you got your eyes on?’ Daphne answered that the Baptist minister was often in their house and that her mother, Vera, made him cups of tea. His own mother, Emma, had died the previous year. Daphne married Arthur at Walsgrave Chapel the following summer, in the coronation year of 1953. Jessie went down into the village when she got married at the chapel, together with her husband, Tommy and her two foster children from Dr Barnado’s home. Tommy Gardner worked for forty-five years at the Austin Motor Carriage works in Holbrooks. For the last fifteen years they became caretakers for the Factory and lived on site, in a comparatively big house provided by the Austin factory. They didn’t have to pay rent or bills and so were much better off. Jessie recalled these years in the fifties and sixties with great affection. Although she had no children of her own, she fostered two children from the Barnado’s Home her husband Tommy had been in before the First World War:

That was the happiest part of my life, with two foster children. We were married for fifty years, and on our Golden Wedding Anniversary we had a big party with the Mayor and his wife there. But Tommy had not been well for some time, and that same night he died. After that I came to live in Jephson Court in Alderman’s Green Road.

In the late 1970s, Vera Gulliver wrote in the Walsgrave Baptist Church magazine that she was proud to have grandchildren who were seventh generation Baptists, keenly committed to Christ, and a nephew, Geoffrey Brown, who was a Deacon at Walsgrave Baptist Church.

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Seymour and Daphne on a visit to south Wales in 1980

Following Arthur Chandler’s retirement and their move back to School House Lane in November 1979, Daphne continued to work for the National Health Service, as she had done in Birmingham since 1965. She became chief officer of the Coventry Community Health Council until her retirement and move to Shaldon in Devon in July 1991. She died following a tragic road accident while cycling near her home in Shaldon on St Andrew’s Day in 1993. At her funeral at the Baptist Church in Teignmouth, her cousin Geoffrey gave an oration and Daphne’s love of bicycles was highighted by the following reading from the stories she contributed to Walsgrave Remembered:

Tommy Hatfield had a sort of workshop and you could go up there and say you wanted a bike, and he’d measure you up for size and look through all these frames, and find one the right size. Then he’d dip it in acid, then he’d dip it in a stone enamelling vat. I suppose they were always black. He’d tell you which day he’d finish it, and then you’d come home riding your bike, pleased as punch. Lovely thing a bike. We didn’t go further afield than the boundary near Sowe Common cemetary.

Daphne was not buried on Sowe Common, like her parents. Instead, her ashes were scattered under the yew tree near the south door of St Mary’s Church. The ashes of her husband Arthur had been buried in a casket on the north side, overlooking the Walsgrave Road in the centre of the village which he drew and painted. He died of heart disease at Walsgrave Hospital on 28th February, 1985, aged seventy. Both their names are entered in the Book of Remembrance displayed in St Mary’s Church, Walsgrave.   Jessie Gardner (née Gulliver) lived to be 102. In her recollections, recorded in 1992, she included the following reflections:

There’s a lot of the family scattered around. My niece, Julie, is in America, there’s a nephew in Australia, and a grandnephew in Hungary, all doing very well for themselves.

Give me these days now. I don’t think much of the old days. They were good for the rich, but not much good for the poor. I don’t know how many more years I shall sit here, looking out of this window, perhaps quite a few. One cannot tell from one day to the next.

So, they (the Gullivers and Tidmarshes) were good people and that’s where it’s coming out in these generations, because we came from good stock; honest, God-fearing workers. We all seem to be doing very well these days, after all these years. So, I can’t say much for the good old times that they talk about. I’m all for these times.  Some things are better, some things are worse, I will admit. But, on the whole, we are looked after much better in our old age now.

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Andrew J Chandler   Kecskemét, Hungary, 2013.

P.S. Sadly, while re-editing this, my mother’s cousin, Geoffrey Brown, died suddenly, aged just sixty. He had bought Seymour and Vera’s house from me, and we were close during my years based in Coventry from 1986 to 1996. I was unable to attend his funeral in Walsgrave, so these chapters, featuring his aunt’s story as well as that of the Gullivers, are dedicated to him.

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