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

Chapter Six: Motherhood, Domesticity & Recreation.

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Between the wars, high maternal mortality and infant mortality rates continued to disfigure most industrial districts in Britain. While deaths in childbirth affected all classes of women, Hans Singer showed in his 1937 reports for the Pilgrim Trust that there was a clear relationship between poverty and maternal mortality rates (I have written about this in the previous series of articles). The high rate of maternal was a national disgrace. It was the result of numerous causes, including a moral attitude to women and conception that contributed to their suffering. In England and Wales, four women in every thousand lost their lives in childbirth every year. As we have seen in an earlier chapter in this series, the rate was seven per thousand in the distressed areas of South Wales, a fact masked by the continuing high birth-rate in the area throughout the inter-war period. In January 1936, the Prime Minister announced that a bill to establish a national midwives’ service would be put before Parliament. Under the Act, all maternity cases would, from July 1937, be conducted by a properly qualified midwife, whether working under a local authority or a voluntary service. With the agreement of the Chancellor, the service, costing half a million pounds, was to be funded by central government. Conservatives responded to the call of their leader and his wife, while Labour MPs welcomed the establishment of a national medical service in tune with their party’s pledge to provide a universal national health service. One of them, Arthur Greenwood, author of the play Love on the Dole, referred to the eugenic advantages of improving the maternity care of mothers:

… what this nation may in future lack in numbers, it ought to be the aim of statesmanship to make up in quality. That has a very distinct bearing upon the problem of maternal well-being.

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As Susan Williams has pointed out, it was the first time that the principles of a state medical service had been put into effect, scotching the myth that the NHS sprang to life fully formed in 1948 as the brainchild of Aneurin Bevan (see the caption above). Nevertheless, the relationship between poverty and infant mortality was even clearer. In Coventry, although the rate of infant deaths at the beginning of the interwar period, 92 per thousand, was lower than in many other major West Midland towns and cities, it was still far too high. The vital statistics taken from an average of the seven years ending 1931 showed an overall death-rate of 12.1 for England and Wales as a whole, compared with 11.6 for Birmingham and 6.5 for Bournville, Cadbury’s ‘model village’ area of the second city. Infant mortality rates for England and Wales over the same period were 69, for Birmingham 72 and for Bournville 56. In the earliest of these years, the heights and weights of Bournville children were compared with one of the children of one of the more deprived areas of Birmingham, and the Bournville children were found to be between two to four inches taller and between four and nine pounds heavier.

More than a decade later, a survey carried out on behalf of the Birmingham Social Survey Committee in 1939 was concerned with the relationship between poverty and the size of families on a new housing estate in one of the city’s poorest suburbs, Kingstanding. It found that, at a time when the volume of both employment and earnings were higher than ever before in Birmingham’s history, fourteen percent of the 5,300 families with dependent children on the estate had insufficient income to buy the minimum diet prescribed by the British Medical Association (B.M.A.). This meant that one-third of the children on the estate were living in poverty. The investigators separated these families into groups according to the number of dependent children they had. They found that whilst only five percent of the families with one or two children under fourteen were in poverty, forty percent of the families with three or more dependent children were below the minimum line.

Across the country as a whole, although contraception was not readily available, it was becoming widespread, thanks to the work of the Marie Stopes clinics. Many married couples across Britain were using some method to prevent pregnancy. As a result, families were declining in size, leading to widespread fears of a shrinking population. Eugenicists warned of a decline in the country’s ‘human stock’, as the families with many children tended to be from the poorer working class. One of the motivations behind Marie Stopes’ publicising of the effects of the benefits of contraception was the eugenicist belief in the necessity of limiting the ‘poor quality’ offspring of this class. Despite Stopes’s efforts, there were still large families in solidly working-class towns and poorer districts of London and cities such as Birmingham and Coventry. Margery Spring-Rice, the pioneering social reformer, studied the lives of 1,250 mothers in these districts for her book, Working-Class Wives. Alongside the poverty and hardship, she drew attention to the number of pregnancies the women endured. Nearly five was the average, but a third of those she studied had six or more confinements, which led to large families, despite the high rates of infant mortality. In 1936, for every thousand births, fifty-six babies were dead before the age of one, compared with fewer than five per thousand today. Only half of the poorer families Margery Spring-Rice researched used any form of birth control.

Oral evidence for Coventry reveals how a group of self-organised working-class women determined to combat this ‘social ill’ through their practical involvement with mothers and children in its poorer, but growing suburbs. Six members of the Women’s Cooperative Guild were elected to the City Council between the wars, lobbying powerfully for the expansion of Maternity and Child Welfare clinics. Cooperative guilds-women also became voluntary workers in these clinics as they were established by independent committees in the expanding city. A daughter of one of these women, interviewed in the mid-1980s, had fond memories of her mother’s work in a voluntary clinic. She recalled that, as a twelve-year-old, she had helped her mother tear old sheets into strips to make the ‘belly bindings’ which had formed parts of the contents of maternity bags issued to mothers in need. In 1935, Alderman Mrs Hughes spoke to Lower Stoke Branch of the wonderful way our guilds-women have taken to the Maternity and Child Welfare work, a new clinic having been opened at Radford, staffed with guilds-women. 

Right up until the reorganisation of health services into the NHS in 1948, voluntary workers played a large part in Maternity and Child Welfare work in the city. During this period there was only one clinic administered by the City Council, although after the 1929 Local Government Act it did provide medical and nursing staff for the voluntary clinics. Statistics showing the number of children attending clinics (above) provide evidence of the extent of the voluntary commitment. Proximity was probably the biggest factor in the popularity of the voluntary clinics for they were held in church halls and similar buildings in residential areas, whereas the municipal clinic was held in the city centre. The attitude of the volunteers at the clinics may also have been important. As well as being deterred by personal difficulties such as the inability to afford to pay the fare to a centre or to attend at awkward hours, ‘poor people’ may also have been put off by a harsh or wooden administration or unacceptable personnel. These problems could be overcome by the use of voluntary workers who had both a genuine concern for the mothers and a thorough understanding of their problems.

Ivy Cowdrill was involved both in the establishment and the day-to-day administration of a clinic which was opened in Tile Hill in 1937. Her account of her work shows that when voluntary workers were part of the community in which a clinic was established they had a shared experience which helped them to understand the mother’s problems. She begins with an explanation of the circumstances in which her local clinic was opened:

… they were starting to build up here … and the people used to come along the lane here … it was all fields then … They (the mothers) used to go down with the prams all the way to Gulson Road (the municipal clinic in the city centre) to get the cheap food … I used to feel sorry for them. Well, we all did. And Pearl Hyde talked to us about it and asked if we’d help her. We certainly would! … There were several of us in … the Coop Guild … We talked about it at the Guild but it was when Pearl started to come round that we got to talk about it more.

Pearl Hyde was the Labour Party candidate for the ward. Although she did not win the seat in the 1937 municipal elections in which the Party won control of the Council, she was successful shortly afterwards in a by-election in another ward. Due to her local government commitments and her work with the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, Pearl Hyde’s practical involvement with the clinic soon ceased but the enthusiasm of her followers remained and many of those originally involved were inspired to carry on until 1941 when ‘the (Ministry of) Health’ took over. Ivy Cowdrill’s testimony conveyed the enthusiasm and energy of the women involved:

We got talking about it and they all said they’d help … we used to go out every day. My daughter used to go with me, knocking on doors, enquiring … to see how many babies and who would come.

With the approval of the Ministry of Health and with professional personnel provided by the city council the clinic was opened in October 1937. Ivy Cowdrill went on to give a detailed description of activities at the clinic and the duties of voluntary workers:

We bought aluminium bowls and we used to put a clean piece of tissue paper in the bowl … to put the babies’ clothes in, by the side of every chair. We used to go early and do that before the clinic opened. And put everything ready and the scales … One would be weighing the toddlers this side and one the other side weighing the tiny babies. And we had a couple of nurses (health visitors) and a doctor. We had a doctor’s room. We used to take it in turns or it wouldn’t be fair or someone would have the dirty jobs all the while, washing the aluminium bowls out, washing the cups and saucers.

From the evidence in the local Medical Officer of Health reports it appears that the majority of voluntary clinics were organised in this way. The volunteers administered the clinics and were ancillary workers whilst the councils provided the health visitors and doctors. A criticism of voluntary clinics in this era was that voluntary workers were inclined to usurp the duties of the health visitors but there is no evidence that Coventry volunteers took over any of the health visitors’ educational or advisory duties. Indeed, they did not receive training in such matters. What many of them did have, however, was the experience of being mothers and that would qualify them as experts on baby matters in the eyes of many of the young mothers who attended the clinics. In this capacity, they passed on common sense advice and words of encouragement as they handled the babies. Not only were many of them experienced mothers, but most of them had experienced a similar lifestyle to the women who attended, and they spoke the same colloquial language.

The usual image of a voluntary worker is of a middle class ‘lady bountiful’, but in the thirties working class helpers were fairly common in baby clinics, in Coventry and elsewhere. They often had part-time jobs in the factories or in local hospitals as, for example, laundry workers. Although they might be more financially secure than many of the young mothers, many of them had endured periods of hardship themselves in younger days. Apart from the weighing of babies, the main tasks of a voluntary worker at a child welfare clinic centred around the sale of baby foods and food supplements. Here too their knowledge of working-class life was useful, as they were immediately aware when some of the mothers needed flexible arrangements regarding payment:

We used to sell Bemax, Marmite, Ovaltine and every food there was until the National Food came out; orange juice, vitamin pills, the lot … It was very big welfare. You can tell by the money we took ’cause the food was … very cheap … And the Ovaltine was only about a shilling … If anyone said, “I’ve no money”, I’d say, “We’ll get it”. I’d lend them the money and they’d bring it back here … And I’ve come home like a packed mule ’cause the soldiers’ wives used to have their money on a Monday and the clinic wasn’t till Thursday, so … they’d no money come Thursday … I used to bring the food home and they used to come here for it here … My husband used to shout “Shop!”

The volunteers were also aware of other needs among their clients. The concept of ‘welfare’ was extended and clinic attendance was made into a social occasion by the provision of tea and biscuits. Special social events, including day trips, were organised, and Cadbury’s donated bars of chocolate for the children for Christmas parties. The Coventry clinic seems to have been the sort of centre which could have developed into the type of women’s club advocated by Margery Spring-Rice of the Women’s Health Enquiry Committee in 1939. Such a centre would enable women to meet their fellows … form social ties … talk and laugh and eat food which they had not cooked themselves. The efforts made in this direction by the Tile Hill volunteers were appreciated by the women of the district throughout the thirties and early forties. Not only were the volunteers deeply committed to the work, but they also gained a great deal of satisfaction from what was, in effect, an extension of the traditional female role of nurturer within the private domain of the family. Ivy Cowdrill’s recollection typified this:

It was great. I loved it. Thursday was my day out … and I just lived for Thursday every week. You know it was so great to be involved in it … It wasn’t only working at the welfare, we was interested in the life of the children altogether. You seem to live for them really. You got so interested in it, it seemed to occupy your mind all the while.

Volunteers like Ivy Cowdrill made their mark by transferring the caring values of the private domain into the public one of the clinic and putting a human face on what was otherwise an impersonal service. The people who flooded into Coventry during the thirties, attracted by jobs in the new factories, were mainly young people. The proportion of the population aged over forty-five in the City was lower than almost anywhere else in Britain. The people had more consistent and better-remunerated work than in most other industrial areas and yet infant mortality remained high and old vested interests resisted the modernisation of medical services. The women of the Coop Guild, with little help from the State, set about tackling this problem and confronted it with zeal and zest until the onset of war and then the foundation of the National Health Service prepared the way for the bureaucratization of health care. Many of the ‘clinic activists’ gave up their positions with reluctance having hoped for a role for their voluntary work within the healthcare schemes devised by the state.

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Oral testimony is also a crucial source of information about attitudes towards family life in the past. In many respects, Coventry interviewees might be speaking for members of working-class families of any industrial town in Britain. Peter Lynam’s article on Domestic Life in Coventry 1920-39 draws material from a wider study of Coventry car workers based on sixty interviews with couples from three generations. Most of the evidence was drawn from talking with the women who, apart from relatively short periods at work either just before marriage or during the second world war, spent most of their time on the domestic front. Many of those interviewed, although resident in Coventry for many decades, had spent their formative years in other towns and regions. Even those proud to have been born in the City were children of at least one parent who had come from outside. Marjorie Clark remarked of her own parents, for example:

Mother was a cook in service in Cheshire, and dad was an engineer, a toolroom man, in Altrincham … Dad came first, got a job in Coventry and got lodgings. Then mother followed and, of course, being in Coventry, as cook-housekeeper. And they got married in Coventry and stayed afterwards … They must have come to Coventry about 1906-1907, married about 1909 …

June Bream came as a very young child to Coventry in the early twenties. Her background displayed the peculiar characteristic shared by the families of tradesmen working in the motor industry at an early stage of its development:

I was born in Liverpool, in Wavertree, West Derby … My grandma had a boarding house in Southport and before I was born my father worked in Scotland … My father was an old coach-builder and in those days they had to travel to where the work was. So they had a big tool box and the man was known by his tool box whether he was a tradesman or not. And then after I was born my father moved down to Coventry, looking … for work. … after he’d been here a couple of years … the family moved down with him.

 

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Housing was always a problem for working people but the flood of migrants into Coventry produced a housing shortage which lasted almost thirty years. Moreover, most of the housing was small and lacking in modern conveniences, prompting frequent attempts to find something better. It was unusual for those born in one house still to be living there a decade later. The family would move from rented accommodation according to the price charged for it and the space provided, taking into account added children or those leaving home on marriage, thus making payment for unused space an extravagance. Irregular employment or unforeseen adversity could prompt a move to more restricted but cheaper living space. Marjorie Clark described her family’s mid-thirties move to a ‘nicer house’:

We lived in a house in Kingston Road without a bathroom, just a two up, two down. Mother and dad wanted a house with a bathroom and we had a chance to move into a slightly larger house. That was the reason we moved into Queensland Avenue.

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‘Two up, two down’ was the most common form of accommodation, even though many families had more than two children. Some older people lived in the old weavers’ or watchmakers’ houses with large windows and an extra floor that was one large room, originally a workshop. The Midland Daily Telegraph had been calling for three-bedroom houses to be built since 1919, as young families would grow and need more space. As it was, families with a number of children slept several to a bed in the back bedroom, with curtains dividing boys from girls, while parents slept in the front bedroom with the baby in the cot when required. Very large families would have older boys and girls sleeping in the downstairs back living room. In many homes, the front room would still be kept for special occasions. The usual furniture consisted of a large crockery cupboard, a dining table and set of chairs. By the mid-thirties, most families would also have a radio, and there might be a piano in the front room.

The home was ‘mother’s domain’. She did the cooking, washing and mending. Sometimes other family members – especially daughters – helped with the cooking and cleaning. Younger children were often assigned domestic tasks like swilling out the yard, polishing the fireplace, dusting mantelpieces, or polishing the ‘lino’ in the hall. A woman’s work was particularly laborious. Without washing machines, an exception in the thirties, washing clothes would take the best part of a day. Preparing meals also took time, and traditional mid-day dinner times for men and young workers in the family often involved them returning home from workplaces to eat cooked ‘dinners’, along with children of school age who were not entitled to free school meals. They would not be long out of the house before their evening meal was having to be planned and prepared. June Bream had to miss most of her last school year when she was thirteen because her mother was confined to bed after losing a baby. She had to look after her mother ill in bed, her father and two brothers and a sister. She went to school in the mornings one week, and the afternoons the next week, fitting her domestic duties in as best she could. When her father came home on a Friday night, wages night, she put her clean ‘piny’ on so that he could throw his wages in it. He told her, you’re the mother of the house … till your mother’s well now.

Although June missed some schooling due to her domestic responsibilities, an experience which was far from unique for girls of her age, the notion of the woman’s place being in the home was strongly reinforced by the education given to girls. June would normally have had lessons in sewing, cooking, and laundry, and in the senior, there was a specialist ‘housewifery’ teacher:

She used to teach you to be a housewife, a mother. They used to have this part (of the school) where it used to be like a house and you used to have old grates in it … and gas stoves where they were all black-leaded, and of course you had to do all that. … you had special times, and it was either cookery or washing and ironing … or housework. … you had to go in every room; you had a kitchen and a living room and a bedroom. And if you were doing cookery … you had to cook the meal in the morning and then the teacher and the rest of the class … used to stop for dinner and you used to have to wait on table. They showed you how to set the table.

Since most women stopped paid employment on marriage, the home became the focus for most women by their mid-twenties. Imelda Wintle remembered her mother’s working hours with appreciation:

She used to describe herself as a “poor old slave” … I mean she was on the go all the time. She used to do her own decorating and things like that, and cutting down clothes … and making do.

When money was tight, housewives would also take in washing, which they would also press and iron. Many Coventry housewives would also have a locally made Singer sewing machine, often received as a wedding gift, with which she would mend clothes as well as making clothes for the children. Most clothes were either made at home or by a local dressmaker or tailor. Many of the dressmakers would be ordinary housewives with a skill in dressmaking.

Sunday (afternoon) dinner was the best meal of the week, with the mother going personally to the butcher’s shop, knowing exactly what she was looking for. The week’s meals then followed a set pattern, with variations according to income. Kath Smith recalled:

Sundays we had roast, always … and of course we had the cold meat on Monday. And we always had … meat and potato pie on Tuesday. I suppose it could have been sausage, or something, on Wednesday or Thursday.  It was always fish on Friday and … a makeshift dinner on Saturday. It may be sometimes on a Saturday we would have fish ‘n’ chips instead of faggots and peas. … fish ‘n’ chips was thre’pence , tu’penny fish and a penny worth of chips … and on Sunday for tea we’d always have salmon and fruit and cream … a tin of salmon was eleven pence ha’penny and a tin of pineapple was five pence ha’penny …

The pattern was determined by other domestic tasks, like Tuesday being washday which meant the stew could be left to cook slowly and then finished off with pastry. Pay-day was usually on a Thursday or Friday, so the mid-week days often required ingenuity to keep the family going on shrinking resources. Feeding the breadwinner was the top priority, next came the children. The housewife often ate very little at these meals. Eva Shilton commented:

I’ve seen her eat bread and mustard, and she’d eat a sandwich of cabbage and things like that. Since, later on in life, I’ve mentioned it to her and she said, “Well, I couldn’t see you lot go without”. And she’d make do, she was a typical mother …heart and soul for her children … She didn’t like cooking but she would always cook for my dad because he liked the things we didn’t … I think with him having so much ill-health, when he was well she would look after him to keep him well.

The death of a parent was a dreadful experience for young children especially. A father’s death also meant the loss of the breadwinner. The family was in deep trouble unless older children were in employment, still single and part of the parental household. It often necessitated a move to cheaper accommodation and the mother’s quest for employment, at least cleaning work or taking in washing, or at best factory work, which was not well-paid where women were concerned because most female workers were young, single and cheap. The loss of a mother had its emotional impact and needed older members of the family to ‘rally round’. Vera Langford’s fiance was confronted with this situation when his mother died, having to return to Coventry from London to look after the younger children in a large family. It took him, his father and his elder brother to bring them up between them.

Industrial injury or recurrent illness suffered by a male breadwinner also led to a wife’s search for paid employment. Although fathers were ultimately responsible for disciplining children who misbehaved, mothers were usually responsible for nurturing ‘respectability’ and protecting the family’s reputation:

Well, we always classed ourselves as being respectable. “And don’t bring trouble home” and that kind of thing. I think if we had’ve done we would never have been able to enter the house again … my mother was like that … she meant it. She just wanted us all to be happy and respectable and live a decent life … and that was what we did; no one ever brought trouble to her …

In an immigrant family, relatives were not likely to be near at hand. In such circumstances, a family wedding was a major event. For native Coventrians, however, the city’s growth provided little reason to move and find work elsewhere, so local extended families gathered easily for wedding celebrations. Marriage was approached in a practical fashion. Vera Langford recalled her wedding at the Registry Office:

We hadn’t got any money for a big ‘do’. What we had got we kept, … we sort of spent on necessities … Just family.

Many couples started married life in inauspicious circumstances. The city’s motor industry provided many with a living, as many as it provided with spells of unemployment. Together with a number of other women, Marjorie Clark was made redundant from Standard Motors just six weeks before her wedding. Nonetheless, preparations for it had been going on for some time, so she was determined to go ahead with the celebrations:

We got engaged on New Year’s Day in 1937 and got married on New Year’s Day, 1938 … We saved enough for the deposit on the house, that was fifty pounds, … a lot of money then! … mother helped me in a lot of ways, even if it was only with a bottom drawer, that sort of thing. And for the year that I was engaged she had no money from me for my keep. I kept all my money … and saved every penny of it for the wedding and everything like that … It was a white wedding at an Anglican church and… it was bitterly cold … It was a very happy wedding … There was no reception, no photographer, no honeymoon because I was out of work and my husband was on short time … So my mother saved the turkey from Christmas, cooked it and we had that for the reception … at home. 

By 1939, Coventry car ownership was surpassed only by that of London. This increased mobility opened up new possibilities for travel. Cycles, motorcycles and sidecars were used particularly by young workers for some distance from the city with boyfriends or girlfriends. On the other hand, most women confined themselves to the home after marriage and some mothers rarely went out when the children were young. Mothers spent recreation time in the evening either sewing, knitting, making clothes, listening to the radio or reading. All this went on in the living room, keeping an eye on the children not yet in bed. Public houses in Coventry had long been the ‘marketplace of the working class’ and when work was erratic the companionship found in them might lead to information about which firms were hiring at their factory gates.  The dominance of engineering topics in pub discourse was the reason given by the head porter of J. B. Priestley’s hotel, during his stay in Coventry in 1933, for avoiding the city’s pubs:

You go into one of these pubs … All right. What do you hear? All about gears and magnetos and such-like. Honest. That’s right. They can’t talk about anything else here. Got motor cars on the brain, they have. I hardly ever go into a pub. I go home and have a read.

Matt Nelson, from a North-east mining community, remembered that it was taboo for a woman to enter a pub ‘up there’, as was also the case with pubs ‘down there’ in south Wales. In Coventry, however, wives might respectably join husbands in pubs or clubs, meeting others from the locality. However, for many from chapel-going working-class families who regarded themselves as ‘respectable’, they shared the views of the workers from the depressed areas, regarding pubs as ‘low dives’, not the sort of places that either they or their daughters should be found in. Priestley made a brief visit to the bar of his hotel, where a barmaid with an enormous bust and a wig was busy exchanging badinage with four friends, two male (drinking ‘Bass’) and two female (drinking Guinness):

“He did, didn’t he, Joe?”

“‘S ri’, ”

“Cor, he didn’t ever,”

“Well, you ask Florrie,”

“I don’t mean what you mean,”

” ‘s ri’ ”

“‘Ere, Joe you tell ‘er.”

Men and women would also go to the cinemas and theatres together and mothers sometimes went to ‘matinée’ film shows with female friends. Social circles were sometimes organised through local churches providing companions for women otherwise tied to the home, but mothers seemed to have little time to themselves: their ‘recreation’, such as it was, was often home-based and spent with the family, making clothes, baking cakes, and so on.

Although a number of the city’s firms had established recreation clubs by the late thirties which attracted large numbers of employees, very few women seemed to take up these opportunities. The Secretary of the Alfred Herbert Recreation Club, E. Thomas, observed in 1939 that a relatively small number of women were involved in club activities. The nature of women’s recreation at this period is not clear. Certainly, they constituted at least half of dancers, a large part, even a majority of cinema-goers and, at least in inner-city areas, a sizeable proportion of pub-goers. However, in addition to the domestic roles of married women, the practice of leaving work on marriage, either through a ‘marriage bar’ operated by the company they worked for, or through a choice made under familial and cultural pressure, excluded them from works’ clubs unless they were in the company of a husband who worked for the company. Married women were occasionally referred to in works magazines in recreational contexts, but it is not clear whether they were widows or were challenging the convention of ceasing to work after marriage. The involvement of unmarried women in works’ activities also presented something of an issue for employers like Courtaulds and London Laundry for whom recruitment and moral discipline among female employees was central to business efficiency.

When women workers did participate in works’ recreational activities, they were rarely given any control over their use of leisure facilities. The Alfred Herbert Recreation Club had no female members on its management committee until 1940 and the Magnet Club committee welcomed women only as representatives of all women’s sections such as women’s hockey. In part, this reflected the lack of women as foremen and skilled workers in these firms because it was from the ranks of these that the committee personnel were usually drawn. It is particularly noticeable that women were never chosen to represent activities that were evenly mixed, such as cycling and swimming. Firms’ magazines were always patronising towards women, and cartoons, jokes and pen-portraits cast them in subservient roles. Women’s pages were purely domestic in focus and rarely successful. For the most part, they did not celebrate the achievements of individual women workers, nor their collective activities. Therefore, they lacked the appeal that team news had for male workers.

Firms and clubs showed intermittent bursts of enthusiasm for encouraging women’s participation. In particular, many firms tried to capitalise on the keep-fit craze from the mid-thirties on , often under the auspices of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, mentioned in chapter one, since it had the attraction of providing women employees  with discipline and exercise at the same time, at little cost and in large numbers. Instructresses pointed out how it helped girls to enjoy life and work much better than before and that it was consistent with the belief that the success of the mass depends entirely on the individual. There is, however, no evidence that the League’s eugenic beliefs in the achievement of racial health and beauty by natural means were ever treated with any degree of seriousness in Coventry. Indeed, such initiatives met with varying success. The London Laundry branch of the Everywoman’s Health Movement folded after just over a year in 1939 through lack of support. It had never achieved a membership of more than twenty-five. The GEC Ladies’ Physical Culture Club, affiliated to the League of Health and Beauty, had over two hundred members in 1937 in two classes, but despite displays in Coventry, Birmingham and London, it experienced declining enthusiasm and finished after the outbreak of war.

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Not all women’s recreational activities were doomed to failure, however, and there are several examples of autonomous women’s sections and activities providing sociability for employees over long periods. Women’s sports, even women’s soccer, common during the First World War, continued until the ending of munitions work and the dispersal of the hostel labour force in 1918-19. By 1930, the Magnet Club ran two women’s cricket teams and several departmental teams, although these came in for a certain amount of ridicule in The Loudspeaker. In 1932, there was the first of series of women’s cycling camps. The fashion for departmental outings had meant that trips such as that of the coil-winders and the assembly section at GEC were virtually all-women affairs, and women began holding their own annual dinners as early as 1928. It is not apparent, however, how such occasions related to women’s prospects of advancement at work or their status within the company, unlike the complex rituals of competitive displays at full staff dances.

The relationship between works social clubs and the recreation of the city as a whole was at its closest, and most beneficial to both parties, in the regular dances which were held on factory premises. Dances were already being put on by some of the city’s chief companies in 1921. There were only two commercial ballrooms, the Gaumont and the Rialto, in Coventry, so the factories provided the main alternative to church hall dances, and their dancehalls and ballrooms were far grander. They also had the specially sprung floors which were favoured by dancing enthusiasts. The dance craze was most popular among skilled manual workers and clerical staff, people who had served time and could afford to pay 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. for admission. For them, the refined, formalised ritual of the dance halls provided an appropriate setting for courtship and social aspiration.The halls banned drink, although men would go to the pubs first, and the doors were closed at 9.30 in order to exclude those who had drunk too much. Young women, who therefore arrived first, at about 8 p.m., would not tolerate men whose breath revealed that they had spent too much of the intervening time in the pub. Men were also expected to carry a second handkerchief for their right hand so that they didn’t soil their partner’s dresses, or inadvertently touch any exposed skin.

Dancing was enjoyed most by the young women, who spent time at home and work trying out the latest steps with sisters and friends, often to the radio or gramophone. The complexity of the dances of the thirties – foxtrots, waltzes, quicksteps and tangos, required tuition, and men needed to be confident of their dancing before they could be among the first to venture out onto the floor. Ability to dance was, therefore, an asset in successful courtship, and while many learnt from their sisters or other female acquaintances, others went to one of the city’s many dancing schools. There were beginners’ nights at the major ballrooms. The dance halls also offered camaraderie. Groups from different areas of town would rendezvous at set pitches in each dance hall, but courtship no doubt provided the basic motivation. Male toolroom employees met few women at work because they were segregated by skill and they rarely met the office and shop girls they aspired to marry. Courting couples were left to other areas of the dance floor where they would try to be lost to the group.

No doubt, there were some for whom the attraction of a particular hall lay in its resident dance band. The biggest firms’ hall, which most effectively escaped the canteen atmosphere and rivalled purpose-built commercial halls, was the GEC ballroom (shown below), often referred to as ‘The Connor’. Attendances were large, averaging over six hundred by 1936. Special occasions, in particular, the New Year’s Eve dances, drew massive audiences, as many as 1,350 in 1930. Attendances thereafter were limited to eight hundred, and in 1937 a second dance was organised for New Year’s Day, to accommodate the 750 dancers who had been unable to get tickets for the previous night.

 

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This ‘new leisure’ was the subject of many contemporary social investigations and surveys conducted by organisations such as the Pilgrim Trust and the NCSS. Following his visit to Coventry in January 1939, Sir William Deedes wrote to its local Employment Exchange Officer, Philip Handley, to express his alarm at what he referred to as a lack of social and recreational provision in the form of community centres, boys’ clubs, churches and hostels. His distaste for working class preferences in leisure activities is clear from the following extract from his subsequent report, which he attached to his letter:

Cinemas are thronged and on a Saturday afternoon queues ‘a quarter-mile-long’ and mainly of young people are to be seen. I was informed that on Saturday and Sunday nights also Road Houses within a twenty-mile radius of Coventry are full of young people dancing and entertaining themselves. The night I was there a small road house four miles out of Coventry had fifty cars and four charabancs outside and some three hundred persons inside dancing. A football match the same afternoon was attended by thirty thousand to forty thousand people and ‘the Dogs’, I am told, never fail to draw large numbers… Is it proper to ask oneself whether, if there were better facilities for playing games, both out and indoor, use would be made of them? An answer to the question cannot be given in Coventry because the facilities are not there!

Handley might have replied that Deedes seemed to have ignored the facilities provided by local firms in making this assertion, but we do not have such a letter. Deedes may have had in mind the ‘model’ which Bournville in Birmingham provided in terms of recreational provision. J. B. Priestley, who visited Cadbury’s Birmingham ‘village’ in 1933, pointed out that they had long been in the top class of the school of benevolent and paternal employers. Their workers had been provided with magnificent recreation grounds and sports pavilions, with a large concert hall in the factory itself, where midday concerts are given, with dining-rooms, recreation-rooms, and drama facilities. The factory was almost as busy in the evenings as it was in the daytime, with games, music, lectures, classes, plays, hobbies, conferences all keeping the place in full swing. The membership of the various clubs and societies ran to several thousand for whom no form of self-improvement, except those that have their base in some extreme form of economic revolution, was denied. The only form of pastime which was precluded was the ancient one of getting drunk. The factory had all the facilities for leading a full and happy life and, he asserted, what progressive people all over the world are demanding for humanity was what the Cadbury workers already had. Those in charge insisted that the firm used no compulsion whatever and never moved to provide anything until it knew that there was a real demand for it. He added his conviction that…

 … whether all this is right or wrong, the employers themselves have acted in good faith … Is it right or wrong? … It is easy for some academic person, who has never spent an hour in a factory and does not really know how people live, to condemn it on philosophical grounds … Now there is no getting away from the fact that here, owing to this system of paternal employment, are factory workers who have better conditions, more security, and infinitely better chances leading a decent and happy life, than nearly all such factory workers elsewhere … who worked in bad conditions, who had no security, and whose employers did not care a rap if their people drink themselves silly in their leisure … No factory workers in Europe have ever been better off than these people. 

Despite this accolade, however, Priestley has his doubts as to whether, taking a longer view, it was good for people to see the factory where they worked as the centre of their whole lives, even if it offered them so much. A worker whose whole life was centred on the factory might, he suggested, enjoy many unusual luxuries, but one obvious ‘luxury’ they could not enjoy was a spirit of independence. Pensions and bonuses, works councils, factory publications, entertainments and dinners,  garden-parties and outings, all organised by the firm, were all very well, but they could easily create an atmosphere injurious to the personal growth and ‘self-help’ of the men and women working for the firm. Although he conceded that workers in such places as Bournville had so many solid benefits conferred upon them that they were better placed than the ordinary factory worker, who is probably not so content at either work or play, …

On the other hand, I for one would infinitely prefer to see workers combining to provide these benefits, or a reasonable proportion of them, for themselves, to see them forming associations far removed from the factory, to see them using their leisure, and demanding its increase, not as favoured employees but as citizens, free men and women.   

In reality, the ‘new leisure’ cut across class and regional demarcations, especially in Coventry, where it mixed, mingled and blended with older forms of leisure, some of which had migrated with their adherents from the older industrial areas. There were, evidently, many in key positions within the social service movement in both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ industrial areas, who regarded the development of mass, commercial forms of entertainment  as undermining their patronage, and when these critics wrote of the lack of leisure provision or of the absence of a communal ethos, they were writing from an ‘establishment’ perspective. Meanwhile, the Coventrian workers themselves, whether newcomers or ‘established’ citizens, both at work and at play, were re-modelling and re-making their city in their own image and shaking off the bonds of both patronage and paternalism.

The reactions of the migrants themselves to the social life of the new industry areas, documented in previous chapters, are more relevant in comprehending the wider cultural factors at work within the processes of migration and settlement. In Coventry, the streets themselves, the neighbourhoods and districts reflected the migration of labour. Some areas were completely cosmopolitan in this respect, with neighbours from all parts of the Midlands and North of England, Scotland and Ireland. In other neighbourhoods, there were concentrations of certain nationalities, Welsh, Scottish and Irish. Certainly, from the mid-1930s on, Coventry was a stronghold of the affluent worker. The roast every Sunday, the buying of your own house, early TV and car ownership all bear witness to rising living standards. Not everyone experienced the improvement in quite the same way or to the same degree, but enough did for it to constitute a trend. From the late thirties onwards, and especially with the onset of war and after, married women found that they had jobs to go to. Women began, increasingly, to have dual roles, providing the family with two wage packets, allowing many to enjoy a short period of affluence before the privations of war and the Blitz hit home.

Women at War in Coventry:

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Women in fire masks, Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London, 1941. Photo by Lee Miller.

While the main onslaught of the ‘Blitz’ of the autumn of 1940 was directed at the capital, other ports and cities were subjected to severe attacks over short, concentrated periods, or to single raids. The ten-hour incendiary and explosive blitz upon Coventry caused tremendous damage, overnight, in November 1940 (I have written more extensively about this elsewhere on this site). Most of the ‘inner’ city’s factories sustained some damage, with the Daimler factory, the GEC and British Thomson Houston being badly hit. In 1981, Muriel Jones, then a young worker in the city, recalled her experience of that night:

 The night of the November Blitz, I was on day shift with my sister and two friends. Just as we left work the siren sounded so we ran as fast as we could, hoping to get to our digs or a shelter. One of my friends stopped along the road to say goodbye to her sailor boyfriend; it was their last goodbye, they were never seen again. We made it to one of the four shelters, and ours was the only one that escaped the bombs, all the other occupants were killed. About sixty people. After the raid we had to dig ourselves out as best we could, to face all the damage. Around us our digs were gone along with a lot more houses. Our landlady and husband with them, although they were in a garden shelter.

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 Coventry,  14 November 1940

“Those of us who lost everything in the war will never forget. We don’t need anniversaries and war films and books, we just remember … everything seemed so vast, so much happened, we thought that nothing more could happen. We often believed that things would never come right again.”

– Two elderly ladies who had survived the blitz, interviewed by The Coventry Standard on the twentieth anniversary of the raid.

“Please don’t let it die Coventry. We managed to survive then when all the odds were against us. We can do it now if we try.”

 – A ‘young lady’ interviewed by The Coventry Evening Telegraph in 1980, about the previous evening’s television documentary.

 

Sources:

Denys Blakeway (2010), The Last Dance: 1936: The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray.

Mark Abrams (1945), The Condition of the British People, 1911-1945: A Study prepared for The Fabian Society. London: Victor Gollancz.

J. B. Priestley (1938), English Journey: Being a Rambling but Truthful Account of What One Man Saw and Heard and Felt and Thought During a Journey Through England During a Journey Through England During the Autumn of the Year 1933. Leipzig: Bernard Tauchnitz

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (eds.) (1986), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

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

René Cutforth (1976),  Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbott: David & Charles.

Andrew J. Chandler (1988), ‘The Re-Making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, c. 1920-40. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Cardiff.

 

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

Chapter Five: Migrant Women, Work and Marriage in the West Midlands of England.

In BirminghamCoventry, and other areas of the West Midlands, where juveniles or young adults were placed in large-scale industrial concerns, the government Transference Scheme appears to have been more successful throughout the thirties. Such employment was better-paid and facilitated the maintenance of some measure of group identity in the work, domestic and leisure experiences of the transferees. The regional dimension to this contrast is highlighted by a 1934 memorandum from the Midland Divisional Controller to the Ministry:

There is really no comparison between the Midlands Division and say, London, because all the London vacancies are hotel and domestic posts.

Those local Juvenile Employment Committees who considered the transference work a priority ensured that the juveniles were met at the station and escorted to their lodgings. They might also ensure that social contacts were made and that parents were kept informed of the progress of their son or daughter. The officers of the Birmingham Juvenile Employment Bureau were involved with the Merthyr Bureau in each stage of the transference process. They visited Merthyr to interview the juveniles and to explain to their parents the various types of vacancies available. In 1937, this resulted in sixteen boys and seven girls being transferred. The link between the local officials led to a firm of electrical engineers employing an entire family from Merthyr. They were given a bungalow from which the mother looked after a number of the apprentices. Much of this work was undertaken under the auspices of the special After Care Committee of the JEC, and the effectiveness of their work was recorded by A J Lush, in his report for the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service:

A large number from South Wales have secured employment in the area of South Birmingham. It is gratifying to note that from the employers, comparitively few complaints have been received. With regard to the boys themselves, the general difficulty experienced is that having been in Birmingham for a month or two, they wish to experiment by changing their lodgings and also their jobs, just to see what other kinds of work and other parts of Birmingham are like…

The lack of after-care provision in smaller ‘Black Country’ townships such as Cradley Heath and Halesowen was reported as being the cause of much concern to Ministry officials. On the other hand, juvenile transference to Coventry and Rugby was said to be of fairly considerable dimensions. The relative success of the Scheme to these centres was due in no small part to the ability of local officials to change attitudes among local employers. At the beginning of 1928, the Coventry District Engineering Employers’ Association was ‘unanimous’ in its opinion that it was very dangerous proceeding to bring large numbers of boys and girls into any area without parental control. By 1937, the employers’ attitudes had changed to the extent that they were willing to consider the provision of a hostel, as in Birmingham, and to guarantee continuous employment for the juveniles over a period of twelve months.

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In Coventry, Welsh immigrants were not as concentrated in either domestic or industrial terms as they were in Cowley. In 1937, the Juvenile Employment Committee recognised that the wide dissemination throughout the city of those requiring supervision was a major cause for concern. Oral evidence reveals that it was also a cause of anxiety and homesickness among many of the immigrants. However, although it was more difficult to recreate a sense of neighbourhood, it would be wrong to assume that the majority of immigrants felt scattered and isolated. In the first place, there were pockets of Welsh immigrants in Longford, Holbrooks and Wyken. The Hen Lane estate, in particular, was said to have a large concentration of Welsh workers. Secondly, there is evidence that familial and fraternal relationships were just as significant as in Cowley. Labour was engaged in a similar way, usually at the factory gates, except that Coventry firms actively recruited in the depressed areas by means of advertisements and ‘scouts’. This encouraged still further the tendency towards networked migration, and many men in well-paid jobs found definite openings for friends and relatives. Some, like Haydn Roberts, were ‘second stage’ migrants, attracted to Coventry from metropolitan London by the better pay and more secure terms of employment on offer. The prospect of a more settled, married life in Coventry was a huge incentive:

I met my fist wife, she was a girl from Nantymoel. She was a maid in Northwood College for girls… I went to Nantymoel and met Bill Narberth and the bands… He came to Coventry in 1934 to play for Vauxhall Crossroads Band… He got a job in Alfred Herbert’s in the hardening shop. He came up for the Band… they wanted cornet players in the Vauxhall and he applied and got the job… and quite a few others… I met Bill and he was talking about the money he earned… So I threw up my job and got a single ticket, came up by train… There were quite a few Welsh people around that area in Longford and Holbrooks because the factories were there… Herberts, the Gasworks, Morris Bodies and Morris Engines.

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The importance of these kinship and friendship networks can be traced through the electoral registers and civic directories of the period, as well as from The Roll of the Fallen: A Record of Citizens of Coventry who fell in the Second World War, 1939-45 (published in 1945, including the birthplaces of those killed in action, 1939-45/ by enemy action, i.e. bombing of the City in 1940-41) and the Queens Road Baptist Church Roll. From these, it is possible to reconstruct eighty-six ‘Welsh households’ in Coventry, forty-eight of which showed clear signs of sub-letting, in many cases to obvious adult relatives or friends of Welsh origin. Jehu Shepherd married and bought a house in 1939, but he was one of the earliest Rhondda immigrants to Coventry, who remained a powerful influence on Coventry Welsh life throughout the period and well beyond. He was one of a family of nine, all of whom left Wales. He left the Rhondda just before the General Strike and was found a job at the Morris Works by his brother-in-law, going to live in his sister’s house. He then found a job at the same factory for his brother Fred, who brought his wife Gwenllian with him, and they were followed by Haydn who got a job at Courtaulds. Another sister, Elizabeth and her husband moved to Coventry in 1927. The family in general, and Jehu, in particular, appear to have given early cohesion to the Welsh community in Coventry, especially through the formation of the Coventry Welsh Glee Singers. He met and married Mary, from Ystradgynlais, in Coventry in the late thirties, and they bought a house together in 1939. She was a nurse who later became a senior sister and ward matron in the Gulson Road Hospital and Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital in the post-war NHS.

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Aneurin Bevan, Minister for Health and Housing, meeting NHS nursing staff.

Jehu was also choirmaster at Queens Road Baptist Church from 1926, but in 1937 he decided that he had to give up this duty in favour of keeping the Gleemen together because most of them didn’t go to church, some of them liked a drink… and he felt he must keep them together. In February 1929, the Society and the Gleemen had combined to give a performance in aid of the Lord Mayor of Coventry’s Fund for the Distressed Areas. The Midland Daily Telegraph praised the careful training given by Mr Shepherd to his singers during their weekly rehearsals. The exiles’ empathy with those they had left behind in the valleys was portrayed to full effect when Miss Chrissie Thomas played God Bless the Prince of Wales on her mandolin, in reference to the Prince’s recent visit to the distressed areas. 

There can be little doubt that, as with the Glee Singers, the majority of the Welsh immigrants to Coventry did not attend church regularly, and that the working men’s clubs in Holbrooks and Wyken were more important centres of Welsh life than were Queens Road Baptist Church or West Orchard Congregational Church. Nonetheless, these churches attracted larger numbers of them than their counterparts in London. The attractiveness of these chapels was due, in no small part, to their inspirational Welsh Ministers, Howard Ingli James and Ivor Reece, respectively. From his induction in 1931, Ingli James provided strong leadership for those among the Welsh who were chapel-goers. When Mary Nicholas and Martha Jones, sisters from Tonypandy, first started attending Queens Road on arrival in Coventry in 1932, they found that there were a great many Welsh already in the congregation. In his sermons, Ingli James affirmed to a wide audience, the society and culture from which they had come, as Mary Shepherd, recalled:

I always remember once when he talked about the miners he said, “I had a load of coal and paid for it the other day – did I say ‘paid for it’ ? No, never, when I think what those poor men had to go through to get that coal for me to enjoy – and then I say, ‘I paid for it’ – no money would pay for what they did!” I can see him now in that pulpit.     

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The Nuffield Survey’s war-time report on Coventry and East Warwickshire found that the City’s sixty thousand houses and shops were a goodly number for the population as it stood at the outbreak of war and that, although large houses were few, the great majority of houses provided accommodation superior to the average for the whole country. Mary Nicholas, originally from the Rhondda, described her reaction to the change in accommodation which her move to Coventry involved:

Comparing the house I was living in with the house I came from I thought I was in heaven. I thought of the old house and black leading the grates…

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In Birmingham, the connection with a particular coalfield area again played an important part in establishing a significant immigrant community. A significant proportion of those who settled in South West Birmingham during the period was from the Monmouthshire mining villages of Blaina, Nantyglo and Risca. In particular, there seems to have been a close link between Cadbury’s at Bournville and the authorities and officials in Blaina and Nantyglo; a large number of juvenile transferees, girls and boys, from this area went to Bournville direct from secondary school. The Quaker-founded Company had always operated a strict marriage bar, so there was a constant demand for single women. J. B. Priestley described the type of work done by the young women at the ‘works’ when he visited in the Autumn of 1933:

The manufacture of chocolate is a much more elaborate process (than that of cocoa) … there were miles of it, and thousands of men and girls, very spruce in overalls, looking after the hundred-and-one machines that pounded and churned and cooled and weighed and packed the chocolate, that covered the various bits of confectionery with chocolate, that printed labels and wrappers and cut them up and stuck them onand then packed everything into boxes that some other machine had made. The most impressive room I have ever seen in a factory was that in which the cardboard boxes were made and the labels, in that shiny purple or crimson paper, were being printed: there is a kind of gangway running down the length of it, perhaps twenty feet from the floor, and from this you had a most astonishing view of hundreds of white-capped girls seeing that the greedy machines were properly fed with coloured paper and ink and cardboard. In some smaller rooms there was hardly any machinery. In one of them I saw a lot of girls neatly cutting up green and brown cakes of marzipan into pretty little pieces; and they all seemed to be enjoying themselves; though I was told that actually they preferred to do something monotonous with the machines. I know now the life history of an almond whirl. There is a little mechanical device that makes the whirl on the top, as deft as you please. I saw thousands of marsh-mallows hurrying on an endless moving band… to the slow cascade of chocolate that swallowed them for a moment and then turned them out on the other side, to be cooled, as genuine chocolate marsh-mallows…

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There was a girl whose duty it was, for forty-two hours a week, to watch those marsh-mallows hurrying towards their chocolate Niagara. “Wouldn’t that girl be furious,” I sad to the director who was showing me round, “if she found that her Christmas present was a box of chocolate marsh-mallows?” But he was not at all sure. “We consider our staff among our best customers,” he told me. … Such is the passion now for chocolate that though you spend all your days helping to make it, though you smell and breathe it from morning until night, you must munch away like the rest of the world. This says a good deal for the purity of the processes, which seemed to me exemplary…  

By the autumn of 1934, the Monmouthshire migrants were well-enough settled to form an organisation known as the Birmingham Association for the Relief of the Distressed Areas (BARDA), together with immigrants from Durham. Its aims were to help families who already had one or more members settled in Birmingham to remove their homes to the city. It had a membership of about two hundred, whose meetings were held at the Friends’ Meeting House in Cotteridge, just along the Bristol Road from Bournville. Over the period over a hundred individual members of families were reunited in this way, and the families were often related. Fifty-five of this hundred, including mothers not seeking paid work, had members in regular employment by the early months of 1937; twenty-two were still at school and only four of the fathers who had followed their daughters and sons to Birmingham were without full-time, permanent work. Of these four, two were approaching pensionable age, and the other two had temporary or part-time work.

Once a young migrant had become sufficiently established to ask her or his parents to join them and make a home, the Association set to work finding a house for them. Since landlords were averse to accepting unemployed tenants, BARDA’s recommendation of an employed son or daughter as a responsible tenant helped to overcome this problem.In some cases, houses were purchased on a new estate from a fund created for the purpose and in others, help was given in order for families to furnish their new homes adequately. By these means, BARDA enabled a large number families to become independent, self-supporting and self-confident. Its meetings provided an opportunity for them to come together, deal collectively with individual problems of settlement and family reunification and to discuss the broader issues relating to unemployment, migration and the problems of the distressed areas.

BARDA entered into lengthy correspondence concerning the way in which the means test regulations presented a major obstacle to the reunification of families in Birmingham. Parents were already faced with the prospect additional household expenditure in the provision of equipment for the reunited family, in the replacement of clothing and in the higher costs of lighting and heating which obtained in Birmingham. They were therefore understandably reluctant to move unless they could be sure that the unemployment allowances would not be decreased before they had had a reasonable period to look for work and establish the household. BARDA had written to various officials, setting out specific cases which showed the obstructiveness of the regulations to their work:

The kind of case we have specially in mind is of a family where two youths over school age have been successful in obtaining employment in Birmingham  – one in a regular position and the other in more temporary employment. The father is about forty-two years and has a wife and two children of school age. Presumably, whilst living in a distressed area the parents with their two children obtain full public assistance but if they transfer to live with their two sons,… they would receive no public assistance as the wages of the two sons would be viewed as sufficient for the household. There would be the added risk that the one son in temporary employment might become unemployed so that the parents and four children would be dependent upon the earnings of one youth. The alternative appears to be for the family to continue to receive public assistance until they qualify for old age pension, in which case the two children, now of school age, might also become a charge on the public assistance. Whereas if the whole family removed to this area there might be a prospect of the whole family obtaining employment. 

This case illustrates graphically the disjunction which existed between unemployment policy and voluntary migration and why so many migrants chose to have nothing to do with the transference schemes of the Ministry of Labour. To solve this most peculiar paradox in policy, BARDA advocated that no deductions should be made from parental unemployment allowances for a minimum of six months. Nevertheless, its advocacy was of no avail. Although, as an example of autonomous organisation of migration, BARDA was successful in attracting interest in government and the national press, its practical influence was limited to South West Birmingham and did not extend to the nearby town of Smethwick, where Rhondda people had been able to find homes in close proximity to each other and were working in the Tangyies Munitions Factory by 1936-37. Instead, they made good use of the local chapels and, as in Oxford and Coventry, formed a male voice choir. However, the Welsh causes which existed in the centre of Birmingham, like those in London, had been founded in the early and mid-nineteenth century, their congregations mainly made up of professional, Welsh-speaking people from rural Wales, the language of worship also being Welsh. The mostly English-speaking immigrants from Monmouthshire who were able to afford the bus fare into the city centre soon found that they had little in common with their Welsh-speaking country cousins. The new exiles took little interest in the activities of the two Welsh societies, Y Brythoniad and Y Cymrodorion.

Haydn Roberts, who had moved from London to Coventry in the mid-thirties, and became foreman at the GEC, recalled how trade unionism spread to the factory from the Standard Works when the latter sacked a lot of trade union members. He remembered a Welsh shop steward in the Model Room who had been at the Standard Works and was a bit militant because Sir John Black had kowtowed to them. Again, although Roberts acknowledged the importance of strong trade union traditions to the mining community he had left as a teenager, he had seen no need for those traditions in the new industrial context in which he found himself. He had not been a miner or a member of the SWMF himself, but had followed his father’s sense of grievance against the mine owners, and saw no relevance in applying these grievances to his new industrial context. Moreover, the jobs and processes involved at the GEC were far more diverse than at the Standard Works, and Roberts was responsible for the supervision of ‘girls’ or ladies who had just got married but continued to work on a part-time track. Although women workers elsewhere in Coventry had been instrumental in resisting the introduction of the Bedaux System, involving the speeding-up of production lines, according to Roberts the GEC women were uninterested in trade unionism. Some of these women were Welsh in origin, and all of them shared Roberts’ perception of their new environment. However, as noted in chapter three, there were some ‘wildcat’ or spontaneous strikes involving women in the late thirties, but these occurred on the full-time track involving younger, single women.

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When J. B. Priestley visited the city in 1933, there were still plenty of unemployed there, about twelve thousand he was told. The graph above shows this estimate to be quite accurate for the time of year (autumn) of his visit. By then, the city had got well past the worst period of the depression in 1931-32, when unemployment had risen to over twenty percent. Factories that were working on short time in that period, were back on double shifts in 1933. He saw their lights and heard the deep roar of their machinery, late that night of his sojourn.

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In Coventry, the factors which led to Labour gaining control of the City Council in the 1937 municipal elections were more complex than in either Oxford or Birmingham. They included a general shift away from shop-floor ‘syndicalism’ towards a more rounded concept of municipal socialism. Unlike in the Chamberlains’ Birmingham, the ruling Liberal-Conservative Progressive Coalition in Coventry had failed to respond to the demands of a spiralling population through proper planning and provision of social services. The Labour ‘take-over’ was also greatly facilitated by the mushroom growth of a large individual membership section in the local Party which enabled many managerial, professional and clerical workers to play an increasingly important role alongside shop stewards and trade union officials. This growth was carefully nurtured by a number of key local politicians, shaping the Party into an organisation which was capable of winning elections and of running the City successfully. In addition, the radical Liberalism of many chapel-goers in the City became detached from its more Gladstonian leadership, much of it being transferred into support for the Labour Party.

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This ideological shift was reinforced by the Christian Socialism advocated by leading Unitarian, Methodist and Baptist preachers, some of whom defied deacons and elders to speak on Labour platforms. This ‘social gospel’ influence was fuelled by the influx of workers from the depressed areas in general, and South Wales in particular, where it was still comparatively strong among those who had continued to attend the Nonconformist chapels, as an alternative to the outright Marxism of many in the SWMF. The Progressive candidates, Tories and Liberals, often made the mistake of disparaging this shift by playing upon the fears and prejudices of ‘old Coventrian’ electors. They suggested that Labour’s 1937 victory resulted from the coming of so many of the Labour Party’s supporters to Coventry, whom they referred to as the sweepings of Great Britain. The local Labour leader, George Hodgkinson, however, considered that the low turn-out in 1938 was

… an index that the municipal conscience was by no means fully developed, probably through the fact that many newcomers had not got their roots in Coventry and so had not formed political allegiances. 

Clearly, whilst the immigrants may have been predominantly socialist in outlook, this did not mean that this general allegiance was automatically and immediately translated into a particular interest in local politics. Even by 1937-38, many migrants did not regard their situations in Coventry as anything more than temporary, especially with the economic recovery of South Wales underway, and therefore did not see themselves as having the right and/or duty to vote as citizens of Coventry. Comparisons of oral evidence with the electoral registers reveal that many were not registered to vote for as long as five years after their arrival in Coventry. In many cases, this was due to the temporary nature of their lodgings, which resulted in multiple sub-lettings and transient residence among the migrants. They were far more scattered around the city than their counterparts in Cowley and were therefore not as settled by the late 1930s. Thus, the argument advanced by The Midland Daily Telegraph and other Conservative agencies within the City in November 1937 that the large influx of labour from socialist areas was responsible for Labour’s victory reflected their belief in the myth of the old Coventrian at least as much as it did the reality of the situation.

There were a number of Welsh workers, some of them women, who came to the City in the late 1930s and who began to play a significant role in local politics following the war. William Parfitt started work in the mines at Tylorstown in the Rhondda at the age of fourteen, becoming Secretary of his Lodge at the age of twenty-one. In December 1926, he appeared in Court with a number of others, charged with riotous assembly at Tylorstown for leading a crowd who attacked a crane being used to transfer coal from a dump to be sent to Tonyrefail. When Sergeant Evans spoke to Parfitt, he replied we are driven to it, we cannot help ourselves. He later became an organiser for the National Council of Labour Colleges, enduring periods of unemployment before leaving the Rhondda. William Parfitt arrived in Coventry in 1937 and began work as a milling machinist in the Daimler factory. After the war, he became Industrial Relations Officer for the National Coal Board. He was elected to the City Council in 1945 and twenty years later became Lord Mayor of Coventry.

Harry Richards was also born in the Rhondda, at Tonypandy, in 1922. On moving to Coventry in 1939, he became an apprentice draughtsman at Armstrong Siddeley Motors and a design draughtsman at Morris Motors. He then became a schoolteacher after the war and was elected to the City Council in 1954. Like Parfitt, he went on to become Lord Mayor in 1979-80. No doubt Parfitt, Richards and other immigrants who became involved in post-war politics, shared the motivation for their involvement which arose out of the determination of both leaders and led to attain better living conditions than those which most of the immigrants from the coalfields had been forced to endure for much of the inter-war period. Similarly, Councillor Elsie Jones,   made the following poetic contribution in 1958, celebrating twenty-one years of Labour rule in the City, in which she both echoed and transposed some of the themes she drew from Llewellyn’s 1939 book and the subsequent popular war-time film:

Born and reared in a mining area I realised the need for reforms very early in life –

Because I loved light and sunshine I knew men and young boys who, during winter, seldom saw either –

Because I loved peace and a tranquil home, and I saw peaceful men become violent at the spectacle of their semi-starved families –

Because I loved music and culture, and the arts, and I knew boys and girls with wonderful natural gifts who would never get a chance to express them –

Because I loved freedom and independence, and saw proud men grovelling for the ‘privilege’ of working for a week for a week road-mending.

How green and beautiful was my valley.

How black the despair in the hearts of its people.

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It is significant that when the post-1945 Labour Government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Aneurin Bevan chose to go to Coventry to defend it. It would seem that his choice may not have been entirely coincidental, as when he issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue, he was given…

…a great reception from the people of Coventry, in particular from members of the Welsh community, many of whom knew him in their native valleys. 

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The Cheylesmore Estate in Coventry, newly built after the war.

The growth of municipal socialism in the City from 1937 onwards can clearly be seen as a practical expression of that impetus to reform, progress and planning which Bevan himself epitomised. Another Welsh ‘Dick Whittington’, this time in Birmingham, was William Tegfryn Bowen, who worked as a miner in the Rhondda between 1916 and 1926 before leaving for Birmingham in 1927.  He studied economics, social services and philosophy at Fircroft College in Selly Oak before going to work at the Austin Motor Company’s works further down the Bristol Road in 1928. There he led a strike against the introduction of the Bedaux system in defiance of more senior union officials. Following this, he endured several periods of unemployment and odd-jobbing until the war, when he became a City Councillor in 1941, and an Alderman in 1945. Between 1946 and 1949 he was both Chairman of the Council Labour group and Chairman of the Health Committee. This latter position led to his appointment as a member of the Executive Council of the NHS and also as a member of the Regional Hospital Board. Effectively, he was Bevan’s architect of the NHS in Birmingham, a city which, under the Chamberlain ‘dynasty’, had been first a Liberal Unionist and then a Tory stronghold for many decades since mid-Victorian times. On becoming Lord Mayor in 1952, Bowen was asked to account for Labour’s currently and apparently secure hold on the City. He referred to the large influx of workers from other areas, with a different political outlook.

In Coventry, from 1929 onwards, it was musical engagements which enabled Philip Handley, the City’s Employment Officer, to champion the immigrant cause, often in the teeth of criticism from other civic leaders, trade unionists and employers, and to attempt to construct a far more positive narrative and vision of a progressive, cosmopolitan city:

The Welshman’s love of music and art, the Irishman’s physical vigour and courage, the Scotsman’s canny thoroughness, the tough fibre of the Northumbrian, the enterprise of the Lancastrian – Yes, the Coventrian of twenty-five years hence should be a better man in body and possibly in brain… 

Of course, Handley meant ‘man’ in the generic sense, and the contribution of these ‘new Coventrians’ of both genders in terms of ‘brain’ cannot be underestimated or marginalised, certainly not in the second and third generations. Through the better system of secondary education which existed at that time in Wales and the high standard of adult education in the coalfield communities, the new industry towns acquired significant numbers of youngsters whose talents lay in their heads as well as their hands. In their new environment, there were a number of ways in which these talents could be expressed. As was also the case in Cowley, Welsh families had a more positive attitude towards education, so that local schools, both elementary and secondary, suddenly found themselves with some very able and highly motivated pupils, a theme which was revisited by local politicians after the war.

There is some evidence to suggest that in Coventry the impact of these immigrant children was quite dramatic, both in terms of quantity and quality. In 1936-37, the number of school children admitted from other districts exceeded those leaving Coventry by more than 1,100. In February 1938 The Midland Daily Telegraph then carried out research for a major report entitled Coventry as the Nation’s School in which it claimed that Coventry’s school problem was being aggravated by the influx of newcomers from the Special Areas. For the previous twelve months, it went on, children had been pouring into the city at a rate of a hundred a month. Most of them went to live on the new housing estates on the city’s outskirts where few schools had been built. Sufficient children were moving into the city every year to fill ‘two good-sized schools’ and although there were enough school places available throughout the city to accommodate the newcomers, the schools were in the wrong places.

Coventry’s schools remained significantly more overcrowded than the national average throughout the decade, and despite the increasing press speculation, no new secondary schools were built, although six new elementary schools were added between 1935 and 1939. Despite this, throughout the period 1925-37, the cost of elementary education per child Coventry schools remained below the average cost in county boroughs in England and Wales. Whilst the school rolls were falling in most English authorities, in Coventry they were rising sharply. It is in this context that the Education Committee’s gradual shift towards the idea of building bipartite comprehensive schools, combining grammar and technical ‘streams’ began in the late 1930s. The idea of academic and technical secondary education working in tandem on the same sites made sense as a solution to cater for the sons and daughters of immigrants who valued secondary education. The emphasis which was placed on education in coalfield societies was a positive dividend of interwar migration to the City’s schools after the war.

There was also a dearth of shopping and general social facilities in Coventry, throwing an increased burden on the central shopping area. Philip Handley, as the Employment Exchange Officer, was clear that the City’s obsession with the elemental question of housing and employment had been to the exclusion of any significant attempt to develop social and cultural amenities, with the result that the new housing areas lacked halls, churches and libraries. Since he was responsible for the reception and after-care of young immigrants, he shared some of the concerns of those in the social service movement who viewed the ‘new areas’ as lacking the ‘right sort’ of social and cultural institutions to receive them. In particular, in his correspondence with Sir William Deedes, he referred to the problems they faced in the ‘settling in’ period, during which the public house and the cinema are more attractive than the strange church which may be, and usually is, some distance away. 

Many who migrated, both men and women, were in a poor physical condition and sometimes unable to stand the strain of their new employment, and others were simply not fit enough to find employment in the first place. Social and healthcare services often simply could not cope with the problems that the influx of men and women on the borderline destitution created. In the year 1935-36, despite an increase in the population of Oxford of two thousand, only one bed was added to the city’s hospitals. In Coventry, the Public Assistance Committee was forced to either make the cases of sick immigrants chargeable to the local authority from which they came or remove them entirely, as was the case with one family from Burry Port. Lack of adequate financial provision for young adults in time of sickness was one of the main causes of their early return to the depressed areas. Those whose migration and settlement were aided by financial support from voluntary agencies stood a greater chance of ‘survival’ in the new area, as in this case:

Case E434. This family came from a distressed area, to seek work, the husband having been out of work for four years. The United Services Fund … made a grant for the removal of the household goods and supplied the railway fares. The man obtained work after a few weeks as a labourer, earning two pounds ten shillings weekly. The eldest daughter, aged seventeen, was found a situation, which proved very satisfactory. The daughter of fourteen , who had been a tubercular subject most of her childhood was in a debilitated state of health, and the CCAS (Coventry City Aid Society) did not think she should take up work until she was quite strong. She was sent to Eastbourne for three weeks, and was placed in a situation on her return. Unfortunately, the husband, a builder’s labourer, contracted rheumatism.  Through the office he was sent to Droitwich for three weeks. He is convalescing at the present time, and we hope will soon be back to work in some occupation more suited to his health.

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Coventry’s churches and chapels provide ample evidence of religious activity, the diversity of which seems a natural corollary of mass migration from numerous points of origin with attendant religious traditions. All children attended Sunday school, with parental encouragement, either to get them out of the house or to get that religious instruction which even agnostic guardians seem to have regarded as a positive stage in constructing a morality for their children.  For children, it was enjoyable; there were stories, and outings at least once a year. ‘A bun and a ha’penny’ attracted any waverers. Also, it provided companionship on an otherwise quiet day for boisterous young children. But family observance was a minority feature of Sundays in Coventry. Families, generally, did not pray together or say grace. A minority of families attended church or chapel regularly, perhaps sang in the choir, so that for those children Sunday school was only one of a number of religious services they might participate in on a Sunday.

As has been stated already, in Coventry many of the Welsh immigrants were attracted to those churches with Welsh ministers, most notably to the ministry of Howard Ingli James at Queen’s Road Baptist Church and Ivor Reece at West Orchard Street Congregational Church. Since the Welsh population in Coventry was not as geographically concentrated and as stable as in Cowley, it was not as easy for the immigrants to be appointed as deacons. Nevertheless, the impact of immigration upon the congregation and upon the city was a major factor in the development and direction of Ingli James’ ministry, as his 1936 article for The Midland Daily Telegraph reveals:

Coventry is today faced with the difficult task of welding a host of newcomers into a community, in fact of making a city, which is not the same thing as a mere collection of streets, or conglomeration of people…  Almost every week strangers appear in our congregation, often in such numbers that one has difficulty in getting into touch with them. Many are young, and trying their wings for the first time. It is an important part of our work to meet their needs both spiritual and social, to provide them with a place where they may find friends and feel at home.

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Above: Coventry City centre (Broadgate) in 1939

James wrote in his book Communism and the Christian Faith in 1945, that he had had little contact with either socialists or communists during his time as a minister in Swansea in the twenties and early thirties, but had become ‘radicalised’ through his contact with the young migrants in his congregation and, no doubt, by the municipal socialists he met in the city more widely. Finding friends was often a dilemma faced by the Welsh immigrants to Coventry, as in Cowley. In Coventry, the marked tendency for Welsh women to select their own countrywomen as friends rather than their immediate neighbours was noted in the University of Birmingham’s Survey of the early 1950s. So, too, were the continuing stereotypes of the immigrants used by ‘Coventrians’. In particular, Coventrian women thought of the women from the older industrial areas in their cities as being unemancipated by comparison with themselves. Interestingly, and paradoxically, as well as being labelled as ‘clannish’, ‘all out for themselves and ‘rootless’, they were also said to be ‘thrusting’, trying to get onto committees and councils whereby they could ‘run the town’, showing a lack of respect for the real Coventrians.

The confused and contradictory nature of this stereotyping reveals what Ginzberg described as the classic pattern of a dominant majority irked by a foreign minority in its midst, except that, by the 1950s, it was difficult to tell who the real Coventrians were. However, before the ‘Blitz’ of 1940, Coventry was primarily identified as an engineering city, as testified to by J. B. Priestley following his 1933 sojourn in the city. In his English Journey, he describes walking at night to a hill from which he had a good view of the old constellations remotely and mildly beaming, and the new Morris works, a tower of steel and glass, flashing above the city of gears and crank-shafts. Its high-paid factory work acted as a powerful magnet to migrants from far and wide, who generally found in it a welcoming working-class city without the social hierarchy which existed in Oxford and London and, to a lesser extent, in Birmingham. Although many of the women migrants may not, at first, have gone into the factories, this changed dramatically after 1936, with the growing demands of the shadow factories for labour, and they also made a broader contribution to working-class life and politics throughout the city.

(to be concluded… )

Posted May 3, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Assimilation, Birmingham, Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Coalfields, Commonwealth, Coventry, democracy, Elementary School, Empire, Factories, History, Immigration, Integration, Marriage, marriage 'bar', Marxism, Maternity, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, Mythology, Narrative, Nonconformist Chapels, Oxford, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Respectability, Second World War, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, Victorian, Wales, Warfare, Women at War, Women's History, World War Two

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

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Chapter One: Semi-detached Britain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Source: Ministry of Labour

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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                                                                                                                                                                    (to be continued… )                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

 

The Latter Day Elizabethan Britons, 1952-2002: Chapter One, Part Two.   Leave a comment

Chapter One (cont.): Never Had it so Good?

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In the Home Counties of Southeast England, Macmillan’s Bedford speech in 1957 may have rung true, but it soon began to have a hollow ring to it, as job insecurity by the mid-sixties was replaced by the return of serious structural unemployment by the mid-seventies. Real wages grew, on average, by fifty per cent between 1951 and 1964. In Coventry, this was partly due to the strength of shop floor bargaining in the motor industry. Until the early 1960s Coventry stood in a different league of union organisation to the biggest motor manufacturers – Morris, Austin, Ford and Vauxhall. The district conditions of Coventry clearly provided a favourable environment for union development, especially the pressing demand for labour, the drive for high output and the relatively slack cost constraints on products before the 1960s. At Ford, Vauxhall and Morris’, the managements determinedly set themselves to restrict the role of unions with considerable success: the case of Herbert’s shows that such dogged resistance was probably not out of the question in Coventry either. However, at Standard management opted positively to promote certain aspects of union organisation in pursuit of wider business goals, while Rootes and Jaguar both found it convenient to abdicate large areas of traditional managerial control and allow the piecework system to act as a rough proxy for works management. In Luton, Cowley and Dagenham, wartime union development was very patchy and the unions faced a long, hard uphill slog in the postwar years before they could achieve critical mass.

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Above: The Standard Strike of 1956 as seen by the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 30 April.

Wages were undoubtedly higher in Coventry motor firms than they were elsewhere during the 1950s and 60s. Yet the caricature of the greedy Coventry car worker out for all he could get, who worked half as hard as his counterpart in Cowley and yet was more prone to strike, is at best misleading. It may have become useful to the local and national press and politicians, particularly as a way of explaining the decline of engineering in the late seventies, but it does not match the evidence of what was actually happening on the shop-floors in the period of relative prosperity which preceded it. High wages certainly made motor firms magnets of attraction for semi-skilled workers, but against a background of general shortages of engineering labour there was still intensive competition to get these jobs. They were certainly not accessible to allcomers. There were already very definite bars to the entry of women and Indian workers. Those who got into these firms then climbed a ladder of jobs, moving from firm to firm and playing the paid-up union card to secure higher-paid work. On the other hand there were periodic intakes of green labour cutting across this. For example, in 1971 there was a large-scale intake at Ryton which coincided with a slump in the nearby Hinckley hosiery trade. The result was an influx of woollybacks and knickerstitchers into the plant, though there appears to have been little difficulty in their absorption into the industrial relations traditions of the plant. Previous to this, even in the mid-sixties and even in a firm like Jaguar, half the labour force had less than five years service. The fact that there was a loss of managerial control on the shop-floor, does not mean that the converse was true.

The shop steward system under piecework was fraught with inequity, lack of security, constant haggling and divisiveness. The results of sectional, fragmented bargaining were only partly satisfactory for stewards who recognised the bargaining advantages of piecework but were also critical of the system as dog-eat-dog and in the sometimes vicious way it both drove and divided the workforce. One result of the prolonged piecework system was the chaotic and widespread use of differentials with neither a managerial nor a trade union rationality behind them. The unions were able to disrupt the differentials imposed by the management, but could not impose their own. This meant that workers at the same skill grade had widely differing earnings within the same plant as well as the same job receiving different ratings within different plants. While differentials in the American automobile industry had become highly compressed by the 1960s, they remained very wide in the British motor industry. Moreover there was no incentive or natural tendency within the piecework system to change this, and shop stewards were often bargaining to maintain differentials even among semi-skilled workers. Perhaps because the system had become so complex and confused, workers on individual piecework were ready to tolerate surprisingly wide differentials between similar jobs. In fact, stewards had more influence over the internal plant hierarchy of wages than over the absolute levels of earnings of the workforce as a whole. Neither were the stewards very effective in mitigating job insecurity and instability of earnings, except perhaps at the Standard works.

So, exactly how effective was shop floor bargaining in raising earnings and what impact did it have on the economic performance of the firms concerned? Stewards were generally unable to develop broader strategic goals. Much of their bargaining advantage in the shops derived from astute manipulation of custom and practice, but this should not be confused with unilateral regulation of conditions in the workshops. There is a general correspondence between high wages and high levels of shop-floor bargaining, but there is an unresolved question of cause and effect. Standard was the best organised firm in Coventry when it offered the highest wages during its expansion in the late forties and early fifties, but it was still the best organised when its wages fell back towards the district average under the impact of economic decline. Nor did the onset of powerful shop floor bargaining in the motor inustry nationally result in carworkers outstripping the wages of workers in other manufacturing industries.

Workers in Ford, Morris, Austin and Vauxhall were poorly organised until the late 1950s, whereas in Coventry the trades unions had consolidated their position a decade earlier. However, the extension of union organisation to Cowley, Dagenham and Luton plants did not lead to a divergence of earnings in the motor industry compared with other trades. However, whereas earnings in motors were twenty-one per cent higher than the national industrial average in the period 1949-59, rising to only twenty-four per cent between 1959 and 1963, falling back to sixteen per cent from 1964 to 1968, and recovering only slightly to nineteen per cent in 1968-73. Given that motor industry productivity was above average and that union density was growing in the period 1949-63, more quickly than in the manufacturing sector as a whole, this could be an indicator that shop floor bargaining did not have a significant comparative effect on wages. Even in the mid-sixties, the rise in average hourly earnings in motors (19.2%) was below that for engineering as a whole (20%), and marginally below that for chemicals (19.7%). The case that shop-floor bargaining was a major determinant of motor industry wage levels is a weak one.

Certainly, at least on the surface of early sixties’ society, many British people were at last able to experience the affluence that they felt was their due. By 1963, three out of every four households had a vacuum cleaner, one in three had a fridge, and one in five a washing machine. BBC TV had begun in 1936, though it had been suspended during the war. Now it went from strength to strength. In 1955, commercial television began, and by 1959 new transmitters allowed over ninety per cent of the population to receive pictures, by which time three-quarters of the population had a television set, increasing to four-fifths by 1963. In 1962, J. B. Priestley took a critical look at the state of the new medium:

Television here suffers from a false importance… Outside light entertainment, where rewarding reputations can be made, it is nothing as important as programme controllers and producers imagine it to be. One enquiry had already proved that its political influence has been enormously exaggerated. It can make reputations very quickly, but they are not solid reputations, they are easy-come-easy go… The sheer quantity of attention that television receives is of course formidable, but the quality of that attention is dubious. If it were sharper and more demanding, half the stuff – particularly all those empty interviews – would never be tolerated. Most of us – enjoying a smoke after dinner, are content to stare at programmes we would never leave the house and go fifty yards to see. We watch and listen in an idle dream, passing the time digestion takes. No urgency is communicated. We could smile or yawn at scenes of torture or murder. Very little appearing on that tiny screen in the living-room seems quite real, even less of it excitingly significant. There may be something we all watch till our eyes ache – I for one drop all work when Test Matches are being televised – but out of programmes designed to pass everybody’s time painlessly we cannot expect much that will be either urgent or delightful. Really good television, I believe, will begin when we have to pay for something, on the night, to see it. We shall give it a different kind of attention, and demand value for money.

 

Some of Priestey’s criticisms began to be addressed by programmers and programme-makers when, in 1964, BBC2 started, providing more high-brow programmes, and in 1969 colour sets were introduced. Watching television soon became the most popular leisure activity in the country, while cinema audiences declined from twenty-seven million in 1950 to under four million in 1970. For those who preferred more physically healthy activities, ten national parks had been designated between 1951 and 1957, protected fom industrial and commercial development.

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Despite these outward signs of affluence, there were also warning signs of serious weaknesses in the economy as a whole, but especially in manufacturing industries. These were largely ignored by both Conservative and Labour governments until it was too late. By the mid-sixties there were growing government pressures for engineering employers to put their houses in order and to develop more orderly systems of collective bargaining. The Labour Government which was returned in 1964, led by Harold Wilson, was particularly concerned over the inflationary risks of payment by results. However, even the Coventry District Engineering Employers Association (CDEEA) recognised in 1968 that there were advantages in the piecework systems as they allowed management to have a flexible wage system which could readily and unobtrusively be manipulated in order to improve wage levels to attract or retain labour. They also recognised, however, that it was difficult to manipulate them in a controlled fashion. This was mainly due to the fluctuating increases in output and productivity which persisted in the motor industry, partly due to fluctuating and shifting demands, particularly in Coventry’s luxury car markets.

Certainly, the unions’ near obsessive focus on sectional earnings prevented progress on wider issues such as status, overtime pay, holidays, sick pay, pensions and fringe benefits, in other words on longer-term security for the unionised workforce. In addition, the Coventry Tool Room Agreement of 1941, which was introduced to control poaching by employers of essential skilled workers under wartime conditions, or playing the market by the workers themselves, was still operating throughout the factories, holding down the wages of skilled workers by comparison with the semi-skilled pieceworkers. Toolmakers were simply paid the average wage in each factory, but did not have the same opportunity for additional payments. However, both unions and management found the Toolroom rate useful in having a publicly agreed average wage as a pace-setter and bargaining tool for pieceworkers, averting attention away from peak earnings. When the CDEEA considered terminating the agreement in 1965, the argument that it was a stabilising element and a symptom rather than a cause of wage drift led to its retention by the employers, until it was finally scrapped in 1972, when British Leyland threatened to withdraw from the Federation otherwise. It was then, belatedly accepted that its continuation would hamper the wider restructuring of payment systems in the District and there was strong pressure from the Department of Employment and Productivity to get rid of it as an anti-inflationary measure.

The widespread working of weak piecework systems in Coventry was illogical, inelegant and erratic, leading to what the Employers’ Association itself called a wider derogation of managerial control. For over twenty-five years, management paid almost no attention to the need to control the labour process, to the integration of production engineering and workshop organisation, to the flow and scheduling of production in the workshops and to front-line supervision. The role of the foreman had shrunk in status, not least because he was often paid less than the men he supervised. Management had come to believe that it was not worth wasting resources on training shop-floor supervisors. Ford, who had always operated their day-work system had one supervisor for every twenty workers, while at Rootes it was 1:50 and in the mid-sixties the Coventry average was 1:45. However, by the late sixties employers had come to realise that the haphazard operation of loosely controlled incentives were a poor substitute for a properly managed workplace. However, since they had abdicated their roles for so long, they did not realise the range of managerial tasks that they would have to face in replacing piecework. Changing the workplace culture from one of working by incentive to one of coercive practice based on established and maintained norms required specialist personnel, knowledge and training techniques to be put in place. They lacked these at the outset, and it took another decade for them to acquire them, by which time the Coventry motor and engineering industries had already been decimated in terms of employment and seemed to be on a downward spiral of almost terminal decline.

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Predictably, in the short-term, the Coventry car companies found themselves unable to get continued sustained effort without incentives. Stewards ceased to attempt to correct production problems as they occurred, or to chase up materials in short supply, and inferior work was allowed to go down the lines since this no longer had any impact on earnings. However, instead of the focus of bargaining being exclusively on pay, it did shift towards effort, conditions and security of earnings. Extra labour was now welcomed on the sections because it eased labour without reducing earnings. Nevertheless, it was only after several years that management began to adapt to the new tasks of maintaining the flow of materials and the continuity and quality of production. Employers also began to integrate their new payments systems with the restructuring of shop-floor organisation and managerial systems and to follow through on quality control.

The elimination of piecework curbed wide variations in wages, but also opened up new patterns of comparability bargaining. For instance, workers at Chrysler’s Linwood plant became to demand the same wage levels as existed at the Ryton plant near Coventry. At the same time, pay differentials became an intense focus of conflict and disputes, especially among craft unions representing skilled workers like the toolmakers, who now re-emerged on the bargaining scene following the abolition of the CTA. In the early seventies these groups were involved in a string of strikes that were disproportionately costly to the numbers involved as they sought to re-establish themselves in the wage tables and achieve status and bargaining rights. The operation of the Labour Government’s wage restraint policy also made it difficult to resolve conflicts, settle disputes and develop more rational pay structures. Nonetheless, the dominance of semi-skilled and unskilled production workers was eroded, partly by the redistributive effects of government incomes policies and equal pay legislation which brought significant catching up by low-paid workers in society as a whole. At the same time, after 1975, vigorous workplace bargaining by skilled workers finally successfully re-established skill differentials and took them to the top of the wages tree.

Even in the recession-hit Coventry car industry of the mid-to-late 1970s, most employers preferred to enhance the authority of senior shop-stewards and convenors in continuingly close bargaining relationships with management, dealing with more hierarchical and centralised shop-steward organisations rather than seeking to abolish them. As a result the scope of bargaining widened, albeit at the cost of more direct shop-floor democracy. This, together with the general atmosphere of economic and political crisis, has helped to channel and control sectional militancy. However, throughout the period from 1952 to 1972, sectional bargaining was always more cooperative and less confrontational than was often portrayed in the media, both at the time and in the period of crises which followed. However, such bargaining techniques were primarily opportunistic, weak on co-ordination and longer-term strategy, and paid little attention to many broader aspects of workers’ lives. It also depended, in most cases, on a weakness of management which could not persist if the industry was to survive in the competitive export market of the last quarter of the century.

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Two parties shared between them the government of Britain in the thirty years that followed the second world war. Both had as a prime aim the restoration and expansion of the British economy by restoring and expanding industry and exports. Perhaps we should discount the period of the post-war Labour governments of 1945-51, given the handicaps it faced both in terms of wartime debts and continuing foreign and imperial obligations. Nevertheless, by 1977 both parties had had multiple opportunities in national government to create the conditions for growth in Britain. Both failed, and by the end of the seventies the downward spiral of the British economy was accelerating out of control. The country seemed to be in terminal economic and social decline. In the debate about the conduct of public affairs throughout these years, the focus was on what the government of the day was doing, and on whether what it was doing was right or wrong for the economy. This shows how government policy and action had become central to the management and direction of the economy, even though many industrialists deplored or sought to evade this development.

P. Calvocoressi, writing at the end of this period and just before the accession of Margaret Thatcher, and taking a long view of the British economy to 1975, saw the failure of successive governments as the result of their unwillingness to dismantle the mixed economy of private and public sectors:

Every government acted within the established system. None tried radically to change it. This system was and remained a capitalist system. Labour governments made significant changes in emphasis with the system by acts of nationalisation which diminished the area of private capitalism and extended the public sector, but there had long been these two sectors and both were and remained capitalist in structure and operation. The mixed economy… was mixed in different proportions… All governments accepted an obligation to contribute positively to the prosperity of both sectors… governments provided money or facilitated credit, and with this money private and nationalised businesses would invest, modernise and grow. At the same time… governments of both colours also saw it as part of their job to intervene in economic affairs to keep wages in check, whether by bargaining with the unions or by subsidising the cost of living by law… Government intervention of this nature was inflationary… A modern democratic capitalist economy is based on inflation, and in these years the wherewithal for recovery and expansion was provided to a significant degree by government…

 

Failures in economic policy led to criticism not only of the policies of successive governments, but also of the role of Government in the economy. Whilst there had been arguments within governments over the right means to stimulate the mixed capitalist economy, no-one had sought to deny that this was governments ought to be doing. Still less had they questioned the existence of the mixed economy. However, the failure of this economy to expand led to serious questions about its viability. In the sixties, before Bogdanor and Skidelsky wrote The Age of Affluence in 1970, it was usual to look back at the fifties as an age of prosperity and achievement. This was certainly the verdict of the electorate in 1959 who returned a Conservative Government to power for a third term in succession, with a handsome majority. However, by the seventies it was being reflected on by the above historians as:

an age of illusion, of missed opportunities, with Macmillan as the magician whose wonderful act kept us too long distanced from reality… what has altered the verdict on the 1950s has been the experience of the troubles of the 1960s, which stem in part at least from the neglect of the earlier decade. Already by 1964 the appeal of the slogan ’Thirteen Wasted Years’ was strong enough to give Labour a tiny minority; in the years following it has been confirmed almost as the conventional wisdom… perhaps the period of Conservative rule will be looked upon as the period of quiet before the storm, rather like the Edwardian age which in many ways it resembles. In that case its tranquility will come to be valued more highly than its omissions.

 

In his book The Affluent Society (1958), J K Galbraith had intended to sketch an outline of a developed society which had in large part solved the problem of production and could therefore concentrate its energies on other things, including the more even and fairer distribution of the wealth it created. The class struggle in such a society would be obselete and so also the ideologies which propped it up. Politics would no longer be about general choices but about incremental changes. Uncritical transference of Galbraith’s thesis into the British context helped obscure the fact that Britain had not, in fact, solved its production problems. While the optimism of the early 1950s was understandable, the production boom at that time was largely built on random, temporary circumstances. From 1955, the British was bedevilled by a series of sterling crises which gradually forced the politicians to pay attention to difficult structural problems they wished to avoid. From the early seventies onwards it became possible to see that the years 1952-64 were neither a period of continuous and uninterrupted expansion as the Conservatives pretended, nor the Thirteen Wasted Years of Labour propaganda.

As the Kennedy’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, commented in 1962, Britain had lost its empire and now needed to find its role. Macmillan was slow to see that that role was not to be found in its special relationship with the United States, which, without the Empire, was bound to become more and more unequal, if there was ever any real equity in it, but in relation to the changes occuring within Europe. In economics, as in foreign policy, consensus reigned supreme, signifying the common political ground over the mixed economy and the Welfare State. It humanised and civilised the adversarial political system in Britain and ensured its emancipation from the ghosts of the past; unfortunately, as Bogdanor and Skidelsky pointed out, it also imposed a moratorium on the raising of new and vital issues, because it was based on traditional assumptions about Britain’s political and economic role in the world. The need to make real political, maco-economic choices was submerged under a generalised commitment to the objective of economic growth, without an effective strategy with which to bring this about. The Conservatives became convinced that…

capitalism could provide affluence for the working class while at the same time preserving the gains of the well-to-do… Consensus was the natural product of a lessening class antagonism, which in turn reflected a seeming trend towards embourgeoisement… Indeed, one of the striking characteristics of the 1950s was the absence of any major intellectual challenge to the dominant political assumptions…

 

Certainly, there was no-one of George Orwell’s stature to provide such a challenge, following his death in 1950. Writing in the year after Calvocoressi, on the cusp of the Thatcher era, Sked and Cook agreed that, on the surface, the thirteen years of Tory rule appear to have been successful ones. Great Britain still behaved as a world power internationally, while at home people experienced the affluent society and were told that they had never had it so good. They felt that they had earned the right to take things easy for a while and to take full advantage of Mr Macmillan’s hire-purchase society. In reality, as far as fiscal and economic policy was concerned, the Tories did little with their long period in power. Cushioned by the turn in the terms and balance of trade, largely the achievement of, if anyone, Stafford Cripps in the previous Labour government, they abolished rationing, reduced taxes and manipulated budgets, but they gave little impression of knowing how the economy really worked. Scant attention was paid to sluggish growth or to the long-term challenge posed by the resurgent economies of West Germany and Japan. Industrial relations were treated with an us and them managerial attitude and any thought given to the inflationary problems created by prosperity was little and late. Most of the time their energy was devoted, as in the Suez Crisis of 1956, to maintaining Britain as a world power whatever the cost to the economy. Sked and Cook concluded that:

Tory economic complacency ensured that the necessary economic growth would never be generated. Not enough money was channelled into key industries; stop-go policies undermined the confidence of industry to invest in the long-term; too much money was allowed to be exported abroad; and too much money was spent on defence… With the economic crises of the early 1960s… it began to be apparent that Tory affluence would soon come to and end…

 

It may have been the case that in 1957 a large slice of British society had indeed never had it so good. But this was hardly due to Conservative fiscal and economic policy, and may even be said to have happened in spite of it. Certainly, those policies, together with its continuing expenditure on defence and foreign policy in the face of economic and political realities, combined to ensure that, after 1963-4, the British people would never have it so good again.

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