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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… )

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The Long March of Every Woman: Gender, ‘Community’ & Poverty in British Labour History, 1928-38; III.   Leave a comment

Chapter Three: Patterns of Poverty & Kinship Networks.

The predominance of ‘King Coal’ in the valleys of South Wales was revealed in the occupational statistics of the 1921 Census, showing that more than seventy-five percent of the total occupied male occupation in the Garw Valley was engaged in mining, with only five percent engaged in commerce, finance or the professions. An equally important statistic was that only twelve percent of the female population, aged twelve and over, was ‘occupied’ outside the home, with thirty-nine percent of this number engaged in personal service and thirty-seven percent in commerce, finance and the professions. In addition, besides the eight clergymen in Pontycymmer in 1926, there were only three other ‘private residents’. Outside the home, the world of waged work was overwhelmingly male and working class, even more so than in the towns at the heads of the valleys.

By 1931, there was no evidence to suggest that unemployment had prompted a shift in employment patterns in the Garw. According to the industry tables, which excluded the unemployed, more than four-fifths in the Ogmore and Garw Urban District were to be found in mining. There was an increase in the proportion of both male and female workers in commerce, finance and the professions, but only thirty percent of women were to be found in this category; there was still more than thirty-six percent in personal service. These ‘dead-end’ valleys were so dependent upon coal-mining that the ‘knock-on’ effect which unemployment in that industry had upon other industries and trade within them, had nothing to counteract it. Merthyr and Brynmawr, by comparison, could at least offer themselves as shopping, distributive and entertainment centres to a large number of people within a wide radius.

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A Section of the 1921 Edition of the Ordnance Survey Map showing the Garw Valley from Blaengarw to Pontycymmer.

In June 1937, it was reported that the coal industry had been in recovery since January, with each of the three collieries in Blaengarw working at full pressure… with bright prospects of regular employment. In these six months, many new hands had been taken on, resulting in a steady decline in the numbers signing on at the local exchange. Later that year, the new oil-from-coal plant at Wentarw and the beginning of full production at the Bridgend shell-filling factory relieved the unemployment situation still further. The first of these provided work for between two and three thousand workers; the second went on to become the largest ammunition filling factory in Britain, employing 34,000 workers at its wartime peak. It also altered the gender balance in employment, as the majority of these new workers were women and girls drawn from a wide radius around Bridgend and from as far afield as Aberdare. A third means of relief was the establishment of a trading estate at Port Talbot, which also recruited many female workers. By August 1939 there were just twelve percent registered unemployed at the Pontycymmer exchange in the Garw and the insured population had risen dramatically, by fifty-five percent between July 1937 and July 1938, almost regaining its 1926 level. Besides the recovery in the coal industry, a significant part of the increase must have been to the numbers of young women who entered employment for the first time to work in Bridgend.

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Therefore, the coal villages of the Garw Valley, for so long so overwhelmingly dominated by male employment, were undergoing a process of major transformation, which was further accelerated by the advent of war. The Garw valley undoubtedly enjoyed a significant share of these new industries from 1937 onwards, with the economic focus of the valleys as a whole shifting from top to bottom. However, both the establishment of the new industries and the recovery of the collieries still left a residual problem of unemployment among older men throughout the valleys, not just in the communities at the valley heads. In many mining families, like the Allports in Pant-y-gog in the Garw, the wives had also been shop-keepers, taking as much as a hundred pounds a day in the prosperous early twenties. By 1927 this prosperity had turned into a struggle for survival. The children recalled how…

… the shop kept going but people got poorer and unemployment crept in… The amount of money coming into the shops got less and less and we were practically giving the stuff away, making no profit. The windows became empty and the bottles of sweets went. Eventually we stopped taking any stock… the trade in the shop had gone; there was insufficient to live on. The shop was only rented and we gave it up. I think mother had something for the goodwill, not very much because the trade had gone.

Thus, the effects of widespread unemployment and impoverishment were often felt most acutely by shopkeepers in terms of a comparative fall in the standard of living and this was precisely the group which were least able either to ask for or to find support within mining communities. Despite their involvement in institutional activities, especially in chapel life, there would inevitably be a certain ‘distance’ between them and mining families, even members of the shopkeepers’ family worked as miners.

These points are exemplified, in pathetic detail, by events of July 1928 concerning one shop-keeping family in the valley. The Glamorgan Gazette reported how one Saturday morning, Blaengarw was plunged into gloom and overwhelmed by poignant sorrow when the bodies of a married shop-keeping couple, who had carried on a grocery business in Nanthir Road, Blaengarw for many years and were faithful adherents of Tabernacle C M Church. The tragedy became the sole topic of conversation and when the bodies were brought home on Saturday afternoon an immense crowd had collected, women shedding tears at the pitiable sight they witnessed. The couple had commenced on the bottom rung of the ladder and had worked their way up to being ‘comfortably off’ before the strike of 1921. However, since that date, they had given all of their surpluses away in goods to local people and were threatened with bankruptcy. They were both in their mid-forties and had a fourteen-year-old son. The woman was the daughter of a former under-manager at the Ocean Colliery and her brother was a teacher in the Garw. Her husband wrote the following messages for their niece, their son, and the chapel:

Goodbye, Gwyneth fach; always serve God well… Oh! How hard it is to leave you behind, Ewryd annwyl… but we can’t bear the strain any longer…

Christian friends… we have been unable to do our part for a long time owing to financial troubles… Haven’t done anyone wilfully down, but all is against us.

The funeral was reported a representative of every trade and profession in the district. The suicide was seen as a marker of the loss of power and status endured by the community as a whole since it stemmed from the couple’s sense of isolation, demoralisation, and loss of respectability. As the depression progressed, their case was followed by others.

Housing conditions in the valley varied a great deal. Houses in Pant-y-gog, lower down the valley, were comfortable and spacious, with a parlour, living room, kitchen and three bedrooms. Those renting terraced cottages from the colliery companies frequently had three adults and eight children living in fur rooms.  One house in Nanthir Road, Blaengarw not only ad an outside toilet but an outside water supply and pantry as well, no modernisation anywhere. Many of the houses were erected in the 1880s before housing bylaws were introduced to the Garw Valley, and the degree of control exercised over housing stock by the coal companies was far greater than in the heads of the valleys’ towns. In 1926 the Ogmore and Garw UDC had discussed the acute housing shortage within the District, and the following year it heard how a terrace in Pontycymmer was plagued with dampness, extensive dilapidation and cracked external walls which were leaning dangerously towards the road. The report went on:

Movement of the houses is occuring almost daily, as evidenced by falls of plaster from bedroom ceilings. The houses are a source of danger to the inhabitants.

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Porth, in the Rhondda, also suffered continually from ‘subsidence’ because deep pits found their own levels, downwards. According to Gwyn Thomas, who grew up there in the 1920s, these land-slips not only brought houses down, quite literally, but they had a further impact on a community already coming to terms with economic instability:

…the valley seemed like a living gloss on the holy texts. We saw clear signs of God’s wrath in the antics of the sub-soil. When the foundations beneath a house slipped ans set the rooms awry we could not be convinced that the tenants had not been up to something… A whole culture of instability flourished. Constant oratorios were warned that our game of insolence with God had been lost and the final bill would be delivered shortly… it was the malaise underfoot that underscored most of the images that we were to carry through life begetting jokes of exasperating stamina, and giving to us all a sense of absurdity that was far and away the fittest thing about us… These elements in our private myth, under pressure of a wider awareness, created their own kind of psychological subsidence.

Despite the worsening conditions of the housing stock, many families were also threatened with eviction. Much of the housing was privately-owned, and evictions for non-payment were a regular occurrence.  In Council-owned property, rent arrears had reached such crisis proportions by May 1931 that the Ogmore and Garw UDC decided to reduce rent by two shillings per week. Many houses were said to be in a dilapidated condition for want of tenants, so it was hoped that, by reducing rents, the UDC would get these occupied again. The collection of rates was also a difficult issue for the local council. As early as 1928, The Glamorgan Gazette commented that large numbers of people in the district who paid their rates willingly in times of prosperity were finding it impossible to do so under the new conditions of poverty. Arrears were mounting alarmingly and it was therefore with the greatest reluctance that the UDC had decided to summon a number of defaulters. In total 144 people were prosecuted and despite the pathos surrounding their undoubtedly bad circumstances, the magistrates were compelled to make orders. This process kept them occupied for several hours, under circumstances which would have taxed the well-known ingenuity and wisdom of Solomon. Most of those who attended were women, most of them having pathetic stories to tell. 

Besides these fixed outgoings for rent and rates, many residents in the valley also made regular contributions to their own health care, and appear to have continued to do so in spite of the impact of the depression on their incomes. There was a widespread feeling in the valleys that the National Health Insurance Scheme provided inadequate cover in times of sickness. Medical Aid Societies and hospital contributory schemes continued to be popular throughout the coalfield. In the Garw there were 3,519 insured contributors to the Garw Valley Medical Society, with a further 2,800 dependents standing to benefit from this. This form of ‘self-help’ was one of the major strengths of the valley, running through an institutional life which some disparaged as the multiplicity of small clubs and benefit societies. Perhaps due to being ‘hemmed in’ geographically, the community felt the need to provide for itself in terms of a complete range of social services, facilities for cultural activities and entertainment as well as forums for discussion, debate and education.

The Pontycymmer Industrial Co-operative Society was perhaps the best example of this. In May 1927 its members totalled 3,444 members with a further 1,400 dependants, and a modest shop in Pontycymmer had developed into extensive central premises with offices, a bakery, a garage and stables. Although its sales within the valley were considerable, they comprised only a third of its total sales of 63,465 pounds throughout the District and beyond. A dividend of a shilling in the pound was paid to members, amounting to 2,694 pounds in total. Having survived the six-month coal stoppage, the Pontycymmer Co-op Society was in good shape to face the depression years and must have enabled many housewives to survive them.

To many working-class women throughout Britain during the thirties, the ‘divi’ was as important as payday and the declaration of the amount to be paid as a dividend on purchases was awaited with desperate anticipation. The dividend on purchases had been a wise element in the pioneers’ scheme of co-operation, for it was popular with the poor, according to their ideas on justice and equity that those who had been most loyal in shopping at the Co-operative should be better regarded and rewarded as consumers. Despite the depression years the Co-ops flourished, having a close knowledge of the requirements of working-class families and the prices they could afford to pay. The cash dividend would be paid twice a year, varying from Society to Society but often paying two shillings in the pound. To a housewife who had traded steadily during the year, the money could bring an additional week’s wages, arriving in time to buy new boots for the children or provide a few luxuries for Christmas.

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Deep loyalty was bred during the inter-war years between working-class families and the Co-operatives, the movement frequently lending support to trade unions at times of distress, as well as to the Labour Party and its MPs. Free boot repairs for hunger marchers, free bread for strikers’ children, extended credit in the form of food vouchers, interest-free loans to unions during prolonged strikes and constant support for the Labour cause through the Co-operative paper, Reynolds News, could not be matched by the Home and Colonial Stores and The Daily Mail, supporting the Conservative Party. The photograph above shows the ‘divi’ at the Co-operative Union in Manchester in the thirties.

Although most ‘respectable’ women in coalfield communities would never go into a pub, and children were not allowed to visit houses where a woman was known to drink, there was a ‘rough’ or ‘common’ sub-culture in public houses and clubs, which does not seem to have suffered unduly from the depression. Judging from the fairly frequent reports of drunkenness in the local press, there were a large number of people in the valley with enough surplus money to be able to buy alcohol on a regular basis. Thomas Baker Williams, the Licensee of the Royal Hotel in Pontycymmer, was summoned for permitting drunkenness on his premises on more than one occasion. At his appearance in Court in June 1928, evidence was given of a night on which the Bridgend Road was, by ten O’clock, crowded with men and women many of whom were drunk and the men were shouting and quarrelling. Two women had started to fight in the jug and bottle department and had used the most filthy language. In all, there were some 250 people on the scene, many of them under the influence of drink. Williams defended himself in somewhat comical style by saying that the cause of the trouble was the fact that he sold the best beer and thereby drew the biggest crowd.

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The Rhondda writer Gwyn Thomas’ 1979 lecture told of how drunkenness in Porth was of a savage intensity, especially on a Saturday night when his family’s street that ran a thousand feet up the hillside filled with a roaring rout of inebriates from the five or six local pubs. There was such frequent and fierce fighting that it was a wonder that murder was not more often done, probably due to the difficulty of placing a good punch on the sloping ground. Thomas recalled a particularly devout and zealous chapel-going neighbour who lay in wait in her little front garden that overlooked the swaying tide of reprobates:

She swung a brass-bound Bible at any heads that came near and if she brained a drunkard or two her week was made. Repairs to her Bible were done free by a pious locksmith. The desperate infantilism of the drunks was easy to understand because the contract with reality was never more bleakly reaffirmed on the Sabbath than between those hills… The anguish of intelligent, overburdened men with hangovers must have been considerable as the marvellous valley acoustic brought home to them the rub of folly in a double-dealing and wholly inadequate world. The plight of women in that time of dark philogenetic romps and squalors is something from which I still turn my mind.

The choice was clear for women: if you went to the pub, to the ‘snug’ at least, you couldn’t go to the chapel. Nevertheless, much of the social life of the valley continued to revolve around the chapels, despite the financial and other difficulties which beset them. Each of the seventeen places of worship in the valley supported choirs, each with a reputation, and the Tabernacle Welsh Congregational Church Choral Society consisted of over a hundred voices and performed before crowded audiences. Choral festivals, Eisteddfodau and Gymanfa Ganu (Community Singing events) continued to attract huge congregations throughout the thirties. Thus, although many chapels felt at first hand the full impact of the impoverishment of a large number of its members, they were certainly not abandoned by them and left to stagnate in a process of terminal decline. Nor, in turn, did the chapels abandon their unemployed members. In fact, The Gazette reported that the chapels were continually vying with each other in efforts for the alleviation of the widespread distress. 

It was the musical tradition established in the chapels which laid the basis for the Garw’s claim to be one of the most musical valleys in South Wales.  Its musical organisations included the Garw Operatic Society, the Garw Male Voice Society, which enjoyed success at the National Eisteddfod, Garw Ladies’ Choir, the Blaengarw Kit Kat Operatic Society and the Pontycymmer Choral Society. Some of these societies had more than two hundred members and the Male Voice Society had a membership of twice that in 1926. Both Blaengarw and Pontycymmer had orchestral societies and silver bands. The valley also produced individual vocalists of considerable ability, including Jennie Ellis who won ‘the National’ six times. In addition, the valley had a strong amateur dramatic tradition which was enhanced by the writer Jack Jones during his brief sojourn in the valley. Perhaps partly due to his departure, these societies declined after 1931, and some of the orchestras also merged, probably due to the extent of migration from the valley.

From 1928, the predominance of the Labour Party in local politics was strengthened through the active participation of women, who formed themselves into a Women’s Labour Section. Although still in its infancy in 1928, it had over a hundred members. It was pre-dated by a Women’s Section of the ILP, one of whose leading members was Mrs Sarah Jones of Pontycymmer, a pioneer of the ILP and the Suffragette movement, the Chairman of the Party in the valley and a member of the English Congregational Church. The level of political organisation of women in the valley was undoubtedly an important resource for the community, particularly during the 1929 dispute, but also throughout the thirties.

Elsewhere in depressed Britain, Salford in Manchester was aided by the women of Chichester, as a fund had been inaugurated by their Bishop in 1933. The ‘Five Silent Ladies of Sussex’ as they were known, lived in Salford for three months, collecting data. Shortly afterwards, two men’s centres and a woman’s centre were opened. Called “The Challenge”, the women’s centre did not succeed as a centre for single unemployed women, but when it invited married women to join, it was swamped with women and children. They had to cope with the problem of distributing second-hand clothing fairly.  Garments were altered by women who had been mill hands since the age of fourteen but had not learnt to sew. An instructor taught them on two afternoons per week, and the women earned their garments by the number of hours they worked at alterations, as well making bedding. The centre opened a ‘shop’ to organise the distribution of the garments, and Christmas parcels.

Tyneside had about seventy thousand unemployed in 1936. It also had some of the worse housing conditions in Britain, far worse than those in most areas of South Wales, including an incidence of overcrowding which was three-time the national average. It also had an even lower standard of living among the unemployed, but the conditions were more accepted by the local people, since mass unemployment had not been so long-term, resulting mainly from the closure of the shipyards, which did not occur until the 1930s. Social surveys proved scientifically the extent of the social murder in the towns. In 1932, the local branch of the National Council of Women launched a Tyneside Housing Crusade Week in order to present the facts about housing, the cost to the community of bad housing, to stimulate building, relieve unemployment and to demonstrate modern possibilities of living efficiently. Ten Local Authorities out of seventeen took part.

The General Election of 1931 was one of misery for the Labour Party as they fought the most divisive contest in the history of the movement, before or since. Pledged to solve the problem of unemployment, in 1929 the newly-appointed Minister for Unemployment, J H Thomas, had boasted, I have the cure, as he hob-nobbed with bankers and watched the number of registered unemployed soar from 1,163,000 on taking office to 2,500,000 within eighteen months. Wal Hannington, the Communist leader of the workless, remarked sarcastically that as Minister for the Unemployed, J H Thomas is a howling success. The government ignored the arguments of the TUC that cutting expenditure and wages would only cause further unemployment, and accepted the advice of the May Committee to cut expenditure by ninety-six million, two-thirds of which would come from cuts in unemployment maintenance. Ernest Bevin and Walter Citrine led a delegation to the Cabinet Committee and declared total hostility to the cuts. McDonald formed his National Government with the Conservatives and Liberals and the fight was a straight fight between the Labour Party and the other parties in office led by McDonald. Labour representation in the house was cut from 289 to 46. Ernie Bevin, pictured on the left in the photo below, contested the supposedly safe seat of Gateshead (Labour majority 16,700) and lost to the National Liberal, by 12,938 votes.

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At Gateshead, Rev. Maldwyn Edwards, Methodist Minister ran a centre for the unemployed connected to his church, the Central Hall, which he based on a questionnaire completed by its members. This meant that his knowledge and understanding of their problems was outstanding. He later wrote a book which was never published, but it gives an evocative insight into conditions among local families in the 1930s. In 1932, he recorded, there were three and a half thousand families living in one room and nearly thirty percent of the population lived in officially overcrowded housing. In spite of this, most houses were clean, with curtains at the windows which showed a desire for colour and beauty, but these could not hide the grim if silent battles going on inside:

The families had a constant struggle against sickness and poverty, so hope died and they became apathetic. Rats were a real problem in some areas, and the mortality from epidemics in some parts of the town was twice that of other parts.

The diet was inadequate, but most housewives baked their own bread: fresh milk and butter were rare. Breakfast was tea, bread and margarine with a little fried bacon once a week. Dinner on Saturday night might be a hot joint, stew or pot pie, then Monday cold meat, then the rest of the week peas pudding, leek pudding, occasionally fish and chips, or tripe, or just bread and margarine, always with plenty of tea… 

Clothes and household necessities could not be bought outright, so the only thing to do was to get on an agent’s list, so everything was more expensive to the very poor. In 1933 there were thirty-seven children without shoes and stockings, and 138 children with unsatisfactory footwear, so the children least nourished and therefore least fortified against the weather were worst clad.  Secondhand clothing was not easy to come by, but the Personal Service League had a huge emporium for distribution… Some insurance was organised by slate clubs which met in pubs rent-free, but there were also Brotherhood Thrift Clubs and Friendly Societies which had many members and were on a sounder basis…

But many of the unemployed did not belong to a friendly society, but went to the doctor when illness occurred and paid him weekly afterwards. Then there were dispensary letters given to contributors to hospital funds and distributed. But the amount given was half that collected: these were most wasteful of money, time and energy. The Nursing Association of Gateshead supplied a good and cheap service: the householder paid a penny a week which ensured visits from a nurse in time of need.

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It was his first-hand experience of the failure of the friendly societies to organise health insurance schemes which convinced Aneurin Bevan, as a young MP in Ebbw Vale, that there must be a free national health service funded by taxation.

There was a ‘penny in the slot’ gas meter in most homes in Gateshead: most cooking was done over the fire, however, as there were few cookers and practically no electricity installed. Families with pit connections were extravagant with coal, but people who lived in dark and damp houses needed extra heat and light. Sudden illnesses, deaths and emergencies created further expenses which could not be met; debts might mean court proceedings and belongings seized:

A desperate situation might result in a “moonlight flit”. These things were not always the result of improvidence: those who needed a doctor most could not afford to have one. The poor have a monotonous routine: they cannot have a holiday: they pay more for what they need.

The men at Edwards’ Centre were not ‘typical’ as they all belonged to a club in which drinking and gambling were not allowed, but, as the minister himself pointed out, there was no such thing as a typical unemployed man anyway. In general, there was a large amount of street betting, also an interest in boxing, football and dogs, with an alarming growth in the football ‘Pools’. The men at the centre spent an average of threepence ha’penny per head on amusements plus about a shilling per week on tobacco. They may have had a day in the country or at the seaside once or twice a year. There were daily papers provided at the Centre and there were fellowship rambles, cycle rides, services, Brotherhood meetings, young men’s classes, billiards and a mission reading room. But most men could only make use of the club after they had been out looking for work in order to earn their unemployment benefit or allowance. One of the men had been out of work for fifteen years, ever since his demobilisation. ‘Genuinely Seeking Work’ for up to twelve hours a day took its toll on bicycles as well as boots, which restricted the number of bikes available for pleasurable community rides. Often father and son had to share one bicycle in two daily shifts.

Nevertheless, the Centre helped to improve the quality of life in the family, if not the standard of living. One man said that since going to the centre he did not nag his wife and children so much. Another said that walking in the sunshine built him up to face the winter:

Being unemployed is a nightmare, but somehow I thrust away the worried feeling I used to endure, but I lack concentration as work is always at the back of my mind.

Several men gave regular times to help to help their wives, have family walks, and visit their parents. A few visited the Training Centre to do cobbling on a regular basis. One man had done extra-mural university courses, but he too found it difficult to persevere due to…

… the haunting sense of insecurity and the continual worry of not being able to balance the family budget; in times of stress he could not concentrate on subjects of only academic interest, saying, “The stomach does not give the soul a chance!” Unemployment is not leisure: the latter implies peace of mind, a quiet place to retreat, so education for leisure cannot help the unemployed very much if men have acute financial, family and work problems.

Rev. Maldwyn Edwards wrote that the gap between the real needs of people and their actual purchasing power had to be understood: Production does not reach saturation point until every man, woman and child have sufficient for their needs, so it is purchasing power that is needed. People needed goods but could not buy them. He also pointed out that there was important work to be done amongst the wives and children of the unemployed, who often needed more help and support than the men. There were women’s institutes and ‘sisterhoods’ in most towns and villages in the country, but the problems of juveniles, both male and female, needed more thought, especially those of school-leavers, who did not all take advantage of scouts, guides and similar organisations. Mr Edwards thought that no club was better than a church club wisely conducted, since, at the very least, it could offer housing and heating. Some in his congregation thought that the men would not respect the rooms, but Edwards found this to be false and argued that a church should open its doors to the community and make its premises useful to club members who in return may develop an interest in the church.

Men in particular thought that the church was an ally of the ruling classes and dope for the workers. And yes, it was possible to keep talking about the Christian ideal of service without ever doing anything: man cannot live without bread, but he does not live by bread alone. The church’s role was to restore self-respect by showing that each of us is known to God and each of us has an individual destiny to fulfil. But there was no credal test for the membership of the club and the only activity the members of the club were obliged to attend, but which was not compulsory, was the weekly brotherhood meeting every Tuesday afternoon, lasting for ninety minutes and consisting of popular hymns, solos and a devotional address. Naturally, no drinking or gambling was allowed, and card games, whist drives and dancing were forbidden. These prohibitions meant that some men would not associate with the Methodist club, but it was still the largest Centre on the whole of Tyneside. Edwards argued that many other churches could have run an unemployed centre without great extra cost, since the church premises had to be moderately heated anyway, ready for church use. For Edwards, however, the imperative for the church’s involvement lay in the psychological and spiritual effects of unemployment on men and their families:

No one is quicker than the unemployed man himself to feel the loss of his old status, so those who try to help must be careful not to increase his sense of inferiority… The overstrained unemployed man may break out in his family circle, later he may attend classes in economics to try to understand his position, but he feels puny and unavailing… especially if he is over fifty years… it is very difficult to persuade men to cobble shoes, to undertake carpentry, to use the workshop, to continue to attend keep fit classes, because they have lost their initiative and perseverance. The many clubs and centres only touch the fringe of the problem: most unemployed remain behind the curtains of their own rooms in loneliness and bitterness. The black-coated workers are probably in the worst position as they do not come to the Centre or mix with others. There is the fruitless search for work and looking at advertisement files for the thousandth time. It was a particularly galling situation when a son or daughter’s wages were virtually supporting the family. It was hard for the young people but most humiliating for the parents. Employment gives direction to a man – a life without direction is like driftwood upon the sea.

In the midst of mass unemployment, trade depression and crippling poverty, private landlords continued to exact a terrible tribute from the working classes. The conditions in which the vast majority of industrial and agricultural workers lived were appalling, crammed into dilapidated houses that were breeding grounds of pestilence. The slums of Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester and London ranked with the worst in the world and the landlords had first call on the wages of the workers, exacting an average of twenty percent of their income, always enforcible by the power of eviction. In the London Boroughs of St Pancras, Holborn, Finsbury, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Poplar, Bermondsey and Southwark, four hundred thousand were living more than two to a room. In Shoreditch alone, a hundred thousand people were packed into one square mile. Workers lived in nineteenth-century tenements, like the one shown below, sharing lavatories and taps. Baths in working-class houses were virtually unknown. Others continued to live in basement flats, in a world of perpetual twilight while those fortunate enough to live in a terraced house invariably took in lodgers to meet the rent or shared the house with married sons or daughters.

In 1930, the medical officer of Hammersmith told of a man with a wife and four children living in three rooms, his income forty-five shillings a week, his rent one pound. In St Pancras, where wages were nearer fifty shillings per week, the average rent was eighteen shillings and sixpence. These did not represent the worst instances, neither were they isolated examples, since the stories could be repeated in thousands of homes throughout the land. Poverty, overcrowding and slum conditions existed not only in the ‘depressed areas’ but also, in pockets, throughout the towns and cities, including those in London, the south-East and the Midlands of England. Back-to-back houses with narrow allies between, where a dozen families shared a single communal tap like that depicted in the photograph below of Long Bank, Sunderland, were common in the north of England where overcrowding was endemic. The effects of bad housing and chronic overcrowding of the working classes were accurately reflected in the disparity between the figures for infant mortality and disease for the lower paid against those of the better paid. Tuberculosis, rickets, scarlet fever and diphtheria proliferated among the poor, rotten housing combining with undernourishment to take a wicked toll on the health of working-class children.

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In 1931, the Newport School Medical Officer found that boys at the age of fourteen at the High School were two inches taller and five pounds heavier than their contemporaries at the elementary school while the girls at the municipal secondary school were four inches higher and twenty-one pounds heavier than girls at the elementary schools. In May 1937, the South Wales Report of the Labour Party’s Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas argued that,

Special and immediate attention must be paid to nutrition. All children at school, and all juveniles and young persons receiving education or industrial training under public authorities, should receive a ration of milk and at least one good meal per day, all the year round, free of charge.

Under the maternity and child welfare services, similar provision should be made for children under five, and free milk and food should be available for expectant and nusing mothers wherever needed.                                                                           

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The Commission consisted of Hugh Dalton, MP, George Dallas, JP and Barbara Ayrton Gould, JP., as well as George Hall (MP for Aberdare) and Arthur Jenkins (MP for Pontypool), members in respect of South Wales. Written and/or oral evidence was received from Women’s Sections and Women’s Organisations from all over South Wales. The Commission also issued reports on West Cumberland, Durham and the North-East Coast, Mid-Scotland and Lancashire. A final report dealt with the problem of the Depressed Areas as a whole.

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In earlier surveys of poverty, Booth and Rowntree had developed their own definitions of poverty, but in 1933 the British Medical Association had appointed a committee to determine the minimum weekly expenditure on food which must be incurred by families of a varying size if health and working capacity are to be maintained. In the years before the war (1937-39) this minimum diet cost roughly 7s 6d per week for an adult man, with a lesser cost for women and children. In Bristol, the average cost per man in 1937 was 7s 4d, per woman 14-65, 6s 3d, and for an unemployed man or woman, it was 4s 5d. The cost per child aged 10-13 was 6s 3d, aged 5-9 4s 7d, and aged 0-4, 3s 8d. Thus, for a family made up of a man of forty with a wife who was at home looking after three children aged twelve, eight and four, the cost of the minimum diet necessary to maintain the family in health was 28s 1d. If the family spent less than this on food its health would suffer.

It was from these figures that most investigators in the second half of the thirties built their definitions of poverty. Broadly, they decided that where a family, after paying for rent, the barest minimum for clothes, fuel, lighting and cleaning, had not enough money left to buy this minimum diet, then the family was in poverty. If in the example given already, the man had been earned fifty shillings a week and paid ten shillings for rent, 16s for clothes and 5s 3d for fuel, lighting and cleaning, there would have been available 28s 9d to feed his family of five, they would have been considered to be above the “poverty line”.  Each of the main surveys modified this method of definition slightly; fundamentally, however, they all used it. When applied to a 1928 Survey of London, it was found that nearly ten percent of all working-class families in the city had to live on less than the BMA minimum. The fundamental and persisting causes of this poverty were found to be old age, the absence of a male earner and largeness of family. In addition, thirteen percent of the children and twenty-two percent of all those over sixty-four years of age in London’s working-class families were in poverty.

In any particular week, however, the numbers of those chronically impoverished would be substantially augmented by those falling temporarily below the minimum income line as a result of unemployment or illness. In any selected week of the generally prosperous year of 1928 almost ten percent of London’s working-class was in poverty, and of these thirty-seven percent were children under fourteen, and thirteen percent were over sixty-four; twenty-eight percent were wage-earners, aged fourteen to sixty-five, mostly unemployed. Practically all the balance of twenty-two percent were the women dependents of the unemployed. The relative importance of the causes of poverty found in the investigation week (out of ten) was unemployment, six, illness or absence of a male earner, three, full employment but on earnings insufficient for the size of the family, two, and old age, one.

In York in 1936, thirty-one percent of York’s working men failed to reach the meagre standard set by Seebohm Rowntree, which was below the BMA standard. The wages of adult males in the city were not, however, abnormally low compared to the rest of the country, but they were too low in relation to the numbers of mouths to be fed. What was judged adequate to remove adequate to remove poverty at most periods of the working man’s life was substantially inadequate when between the ages of thirty and forty-five, he added two or three children to his household. The average family in poverty because of inadequate wages had two dependent children. Children’s allowances at a flat rate of five shillings for every child would have lifted practically the whole of this group over the poverty threshold and wiped out nearly three-quarters of the city’s poverty. Without such an allowance in the 1930s, long years of poverty was the price a low-wage family had to pay for containing three or four children. In addition, nearly fifteen percent of all poverty in the city was caused in families where the elder members were “too old to work”. Their available income was only sufficient to provide seventy percent of the minimum diet. Two-thirds of the people in these households were aged sixty-five or over, and the bulk of their income came from state pensions and Public Assistance. Half of all the old age pensioners in York were, at the time of the survey, living in poverty.

Similar surveys were also carried out on Merseyside (1929), in Southampton (1931), Bristol (1937), and Birmingham (1939). Using the BMA’s London minimum standard, found that up to twenty percent of all working-class families in these centres were living in poverty in the week of the investigation. None of these centres was in the depressed or ‘Special Areas’ and some, like Bristol, were centres of new engineering industries. Summarising the findings of these six surveys, including London and York, the Fabian Society drew the following conclusions on the pattern of poverty in Britain between the wars,  as part of a study published in 1945:

1. In the decade before 1939, even during periods of trade boom, at least fifteen to twenty percent of all working-class people were unable, in spite of all the help of our inter-war social insurance schemes, to afford a diet that would save them from ill-health; but this figure is arrived at only if  we assume that the bottom half of the working-class is sufficiently austere to spend absolutely nothing on the comforts and pleasures of life. If we drop this unreal assumption, then it is certain that more than twenty percent were, in fact, not obtaining the minimum diet.

2. Approximately one-third of this poverty was due to the fact that unemployment benefits were inadequate; approximately another third was due to the fact that the ordinary worker’s earnings, even when he was in full and regular work, were often insufficient to feed, clothe and house more than two or three people. About half the remaining poverty was due to the fact that many working-class people, once they had passed the age of sixty-five, had little to live on except an inadequate old age pension.

3. Probably not less than twenty-five percent of working-class children were born into families that could not afford the BMA minimum diet. As they and their brothers and sisters grew up and started work the family’s hardships diminished… Often, however, this was only an interlude of comparative prosperity for the working-class man; with old age… he was left with declining earning capacity to face a degree of poverty even grimmer than that in which his grandchildren were starting life.

4. The evidence collected from half-a-dozen great cities in the ten years before the war shows that the way out of this dreary cycle is not, for the most part, in the hands of the individual worker.

Richard Titmuss’ studies in Poverty and Population, published in 1938, also looked back over the previous decade in an attempt to survey the extent, character and causes of social waste and relate the findings to the problem of an ageing and diminishing population. These studies had to be quarried from hard factual bedrock in order to break through governmental apathy and ineptitude. Titmuss set out to analyse two factors which were of great significance:

(1) that those regions suffering from economic under-privilege and most exposed to malnutrition-inducing conditions contain by far a higher proportion of our children; and…

(2) that it is only higher fertility in these regions that has prevented an earlier and probably calamitous fall in the size of the population.

He produced statistics showing that in 1936 over ten percent of deaths in south Wales occurred in children under four, compared with 8.5% in the south East of England. Infant mortality was sixty-three per thousand deaths in south Wales, compared with just forty-seven in south-east England. He calculated that five thousand excess deaths occurred among infants under one in the North of England and Wales during 1936, amounting to approximately excess deaths in the five years since the slump of 1931. Deaths from measles were twice as high in Wales as in England and Wales as a whole, implying a widespread prevalence of rickets… malnutrition and poverty. In the period 1931-35, whilst south-east England showed a considerable improvement in the number of infant deaths, South Wales showed a continuing deterioration.

Similarly, maternal mortality rates in south Wales were well over twice those in south-east England and Titmuss felt able to state that if the maternal mortality rates in the North of England and in south Wales had been the same as those for Greater London, the lives of nearly six hundred mothers would have been saved in those regions. Female deaths from tuberculosis in the 15-35 age range in south Wales were seventy percent above the average for England and Wales as a whole. From this series of statistics, Titmuss went on to calculate that the number of avoidable, premature deaths among women in the North of England and Wales in 1936, a year of relative prosperity, was 54,000 and that the number over the previous ten years was probably of the order of half a million.

These high levels of infant, child and maternal mortality can only be fully understood when it is realised that forty percent of the total child population in England and Wales was concentrated in northern England and Wales at this time, compared with thirty-eight percent in south-east England. H W Singer’s 1937 unpublished study for the Pilgrim Trust, Unemployment and Health is helpful in separating out the economic and social causes of mortality. It isolates the effect of the general trade depression of 1929-34 from the long-term factors related to climate, housing and the quality of social services in the different regions. Correlating the unemployment statistics for these five years with a range of health indices for seventy-seven boroughs throughout England and Wales, Singer identified a rise of twenty percent in infant and maternal mortality resulting from rising unemployment and poverty during this period.

None of the data examined by Singer failed to exhibit some sort of correlation with unemployment, and it was certainly the view of those who visited south Wales that, anecdotally, there was a direct qualitative correlation between the economic distress of the population and their health. They reported that levels of health and welfare provision in south Wales were greatly inferior to those in other regions though varying considerably within the Region itself. In his 1937 Portrait of a Mining Town, Philip Massey pointed out that the majority of the unemployed in Blaina and Nantyglo, a coalfield community with one of the highest recorded unemployment levels throughout the thirties, could be described as having a diet which was inadequate for perfect health in all the constituents considered by Sir John Orr’s standard, set out in his 1936 report, Food, Health, and Income. Those families whose weekly expenditure on food was five to seven shillings per head would have a diet which was adequate only in total proteins and total fat. Those families with members in work were able to afford total expenditure of up to nine shillings per head on food, providing a diet adequate in energy value, protein and fat, but below standard in minerals and vitamins. 

Massey also confirmed the view of Titmuss, Singer and others that it was the women in these coalfield communities who suffered most in terms of health in a variety of ways. Whilst the men seemed to look their age, except for those obviously suffering from industrial diseases, the women generally looked older than they were due to the hour by hour strain of making do and the lack of holidays or any opportunity to leave the home apart from the weekly shopping or the occasional visit to the cinema. Women were often reluctant to enter a hospital, in cases of childbirth and illness, as they thought that the household would get into a muddle in their absence. Massey also noted that there was no birth control clinic in the district and that many women, fearful of having to rear more children on the dole, would undermine their health by the use of aperients. Even in those households with men in work in the mines, the reliance of the mine owners on the shift system to keep the pits open took its toll on the women in those homes, as a Durham miner, Monty Lowther, later recalled for the BBC:

We lived in a colliery house, and me mother, she was such a conscientious woman she would never go to bed except on a Saturday, because you had me father in one shift, our Jimmy in another shift, me in another shift and Tommy in another.

And it sometimes meant the clock round, one coming in and one going out, and she was so conscientious that if there was an hour or two hours to spare between one and the other, she would just sit in the rocking chair in front of the fire, and I’ve known for months on end the only time me mother got to bed was a Saturday night when there was no work at the pit.

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This account is very similar to the personal recollection of Alice Pattison, the daughter of a miner from Horden in Durham who, in turn, found the photos above and below a mirror of her own memories of life in a miner’s cottage during the late twenties and thirties. Her grandmother had five boys, ‘all in the pit’, and because they worked on different shifts, she was tied to a treadmill of endless toil to feed and care for her sons.

Working between the fore-shift (5 a.m. to 1 p.m.), the back-shift (1 p.m. to 9 p.m.) and the night shift (9 p.m. to 5 a.m.), her grandmother also slept at intervals in a rocking-chair by the fire. As each shift ended she had to boil water in the copper pan on the range, or in a bucket on the hob, in readiness to fill the tin bath in front of the fire. She would carry the hot water in an enamel bowl to the bath where the men would kneel beside it, washing away the coal dust from their top half first, all but their backs. They believed that the coal dust strengthened their backs, protecting them from the rock above the narrow seams.

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While her father bathed, Alice would ‘dash’ his pit clothes, banging them against the yard wall to remove the loose dust and then hang them to dry. In some cottages, there was a brass rail fitted above the fire as shown in the second picture. Sometimes there were families of eight or nine working in the colliery, albeit in separate shifts. Usually, the Dad bathed first, then the eldest son down the line to the youngest. Sometimes the children in the household had to go out into the street while their fathers and brothers bathed.

On Thursday nights, Alice’s mother would let the fire die out to clear all the dead ash and clean the range. The range would be blackleaded, the firebricks whitened and the back of chimney polished with blacklead as high as the arm would reach. The brass fender would be shone, the poker polished and ashpan burnished and for a few hours, the altar of family life would be as she loved it to be, spotless. All the cooking would be done on the fire and in the ovens on the range, with working-class ingenuity stretching the meagre pay to provide appetising and nourishing food. ‘Panackelty’ was a favourite dish made of layers of potato, onion and corned beef covered with ‘Oxo’ gravy. Other dishes would be leeks fried with bacon, a thick broth made from soaked peas, bacon and stock and thick stew with barley and dumplings.

The life of a miner was hard, but the life of a miner’s wife was no less so, if devoid of danger. The daily round of unremitting housework, childbearing and caring for the men, husband and sons, on wages that at the best of times were never enough to provide for more than a life of subsistence, took a heavy physical toll. Alice Pattinson recalled that her grandmother, having reached the ‘grand old-age’ of fifty-four, told her one day that she was tired out and would go and lie down for a little while. Within the hour, she was dead. No illness was recorded on the death certificate. The doctor said she was simply worn out.

It was especially hard for the mother where men were working in wet places. These were not only found in the older steam coal areas. My own grandmother, who also worked as a ribbon weaver, recalled my grandfather returning from work at Newdigate Colliery near Coventry covered with boils all over his body. His moleskin trousers were so caked with sweat, dust and mud that they stood by themselves in front of the fire without need of a chair to support them. As the working clothes dried, the muck from the colliery would dry and drop off all around the house on the old stone floors, which made it very difficult for the housewife to sweep it outside, especially on wet days. Of course, detergents were unknown in those days, so that most of the dirt had to be removed by vigorous use of a dolly tub and a rubbing board (see photo below). One Rhondda miner’s wife, born in 1895, commented:

Strong soap, you know, and soda. Any amount of soda to boil them, init? There was no other washing powders like they’ve got today… Handful of soda until your hands – there’s no wonder we haven’t got nice hands, init?

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One woman from Dowlais, near Merthyr, born in 1896, estimated the value of washing the miners’ clothes at two pounds per week. A miner from the same village, born 1893,  recalled:

Women used to cry when you brought working trousers home to them, because with the sweat and everything, they’d get as hard as iron. They had to patch them, didn’t they? You’d see great lumps of soap by the side of them – they’d push the needle into the soap first. And they had to have a strong needle to do the job as well.   

The girls in a family went to work as maids, unless there were a number of them in a family, in which case the eldest daughter had to stay at home, to help the mother. Some might also go out washing or sewing. If there was a seamstress in the village, the daughter would sleep over at the customer’s house, sewing only for that family for three days, but providing their own machines, carrying them from house to house. Some women ran parlour shops, using their front rooms to sell produce like meats which she had cooked herself:

My father’s health broke down, d’you see, and she just had to do something, you know. And that’s the way she kept going. Talk about smells, they were gorgeous, because she cooked everything. She sold all kinds of sweets – like a kind of tuck shop, you know. She also sold butter and biscuits and cooked meats. But the most of the cooking was done by herself. I think it maybe broke my mother’s heart to give up her sitting room, but I mean, she coped. Because we didn’t get unemployment or sick pay in those years, you see.

The combination of poverty, poor housing and overcrowding experienced by a large proportion of South Wales’ population took its disproportionate toll upon the health of its women. In Merthyr in the late 1930s the number of women suffering from tuberculosis was nearly two-and-a-half-times the standardised average for England and Wales; among men, it was one and a half. One infant in every five died before the age of five, and malnutrition, rickets, diphtheria and pneumonia were widespread among schoolchildren. While the provision of basic welfare services may have mitigated the effects of poverty on the health of children, they were almost non-existent as far as the adult population was concerned, because they were often under such great financial pressure themselves. In 1928 a small deputation led by George Hall, MP pressed the case of Blaina Hospital to the Ministry of Health. The hospital’s income was dependent upon weekly contributions from the miners so that the disastrous effect of the closure of all the mines in the district had suddenly deprived it of all its funds. Its account was already overdrawn by two thousand pounds and whilst income for the forthcoming year was estimated at 2,500 pounds, costs were expected to rise to four thousand.

The fact that South Wales maintained a low crude death rate throughout the inter-war period enabled it to end the period with an age-structure roughly comparable to that of England and Wales as a whole should not blind us to the overall loss of population from south Wales by avoidable deaths and migration which may have involved as many as a million people over the period 1920-40 as a whole. The problems created by this loss were further compounded by the fact that the bulk of those who moved away was in the age group which would produce the next generation, and that those who left also left behind an increasing proportion in the population of those who were economically inactive.

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The only choice that the individual worker had was whether to remain in their home area or to move away to more prosperous towns in the Midlands and South-East of England. For the most part, the migrants were young and adaptable individuals in pursuit of economic opportunity. Those who passed their years in these parts of Britain had seen not only a constant growth in total numbers, due largely to migration but also an appreciable increase in the number of young people getting their first jobs and starting married life. In Wales, where with the dereliction of that accompanied unbroken depression not only did total numbers decline but, between 1921 and 1938, those under twenty-five years of age fell by twenty-five percent, only the ranks of the aged expanded. Gwyn Thomas described the impact on his Rhondda in graphic terms:

A half the valley’s population drifted away. It was a Black Death on wheels conducted with far less anguish… The great mass moved south to Cardiff and east to the Midlands and London, and the permanent guard on all the trains operating the great dispersal bore the name of Thomas Malthus, who warned the migrants about humanity’s way of concentrating huge battalions in tasks seemingly secure for eternity, then suddenly changing the scenery and telling the extras that they are in the wong picture.

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The next chapter will be examining the two important factors in the migration which took place from South Wales. In the first place, the majority of people who chose to go did so without assistance from the Government, despite the offer of payment of rail fares, removal expenses, initial accommodation and, in the case of juveniles, wage subsidy. Secondly, the migration which took place on a voluntary basis was not so much a ‘dispersal’ as Gwyn Thomas suggested, as an ‘exodus’. In some cases, it was organised through kinship and communal networks which extended far beyond normal family ties.

For instance, a 1937 Survey of Oxford found that 150 or one in six of the 1,200 ‘foreign’ employment exchange books in Oxford which came from Wales were from the Pontycymmer employment exchange, whereas considerably larger communities such as Bargoed and Ferndale sent only sixty-nine and sixty-six migrants respectively. The flow from the Garw Valley to Oxford appears to have started during the coal stoppage of 1926 when a few young men made the journey on foot and set up an informal kinship, institutional and communal ‘network’ so that in the period to 1930 to 1936, 270 out of 1,841 people whose employment whose unemployment books were transferred to other exchanges (15%) went to Oxford (Cowley) and it was estimated by local observers that in the previous four-year period, 1926-30, the proportion was as high as 25%.

This tendency towards ‘collective’ migration was noticeable only in the case of South Wales among the depressed areas. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that Welsh women were at least as instrumental in the organisation of migration streams from the valleys as their militant menfolk. In this way, it can be seen that migration cannot be characterised as a desperate rush for the lifeboats. In its organisation on a network and largely voluntary basis, as an alternative to the official Transference Scheme, it became a form of coalfield resistance and a uniquely autonomous ‘institution on wheels’.

( to be continued…)

 

 

The Long March of Every Woman: Gender, ‘Community’ & Poverty in British Labour History, 1928-38   2 comments

Chapter One: The Brambles of Poverty in a Distressed Area.

‘Women’s History’ in Britain has too often been viewed through the prism of ‘Great Men’s History’ by emphasising the roles of well-known individuals rather than focusing on the everyday lives of the masses of working-class women and their families. This is sometimes blamed on the lack of sources with which to describe and analyse these lives, but women and women’s experiences and ‘issues’ were by no means overlooked in the social documents of the inter-war period. In fact, given the pace of change in both working-class life in general and the lives of women in particular, which was of particular concern to social investigators, there is a wealth of relatively unused primary source material of both quantitative and qualitative types. At the time, it took almost a decade before their social surveys to break through the fog of denial which emanated from Neville Chamberlain’s Ministry of Health:

Our observations did not disclose any widespread manifestation of impaired health which could be attributed to insufficiency of nourishment. In this view we are confirmed by the opinions of the medical practitioners who have the best opportunities of watching the physical condition of families.

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Although women had won the vote in 1928 on the same basis as men, the struggle of working-class women for better rights and conditions in the home, at work and in society was, in many respects, still in its infancy. Much was expected from the first majority Labour government which came to power at the beginning of 1929 under the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister. The photograph above, taken by Arthur Lovegrove in Reading in 1929, shows a group of women supporters of The Daily Herald, which became an important campaigning mouthpiece for the Labour movement throughout the years of financial crisis and economic depression which followed in the 1930s. The experience of mass unemployment and widespread poverty in Britain reached into all areas of Britain, including relatively prosperous towns such as Reading, but it was in the older industrial areas of South Wales and the North-East of England where it was most protracted, leaving a lasting legacy of bitterness as well as a determination to fight back by the working-class communities located in these ‘distressed’ areas. But though they were particularly dense and piercing in places, the ‘brambles’ of poverty did not grow evenly throughout the depressed coalfields of Britain in the 1930s.  They did not even grow evenly in the same street, in the same terrace, and neither did they ensnare one individual or family in quite the same way or to the same degree as the next. They grew at different rates in differing places. This diversity of growth has much to do with the nature of the places in which they grew.

It is therefore imperative that historians should move away from the contemporary, stereotypical images left behind by propagandists, investigators and politicians and seek out how working-class communities were defining and redefining themselves during the period. It is necessary to examine the intricate cultural and institutional web of coalfield societies before judgement can be made about the relationships between impoverishment and demoralisation. Considerable evidence has already been advanced that, during the early part of the century, coalfield society developed its own autonomous culture alongside the received one, a culture which rejected values that did not stem from the community’s own sense of economic and social solidarity. This alternative culture reached its zenith during the 1926 lock-out, and, despite the impact of the depression, there was tangible continuity in its institutional life over the succeeding decade.

This alternative culture was allied to a revolutionary counter-culture in other parts of Britain, including London, and increasing involved women. The picture below shows The Women’s Red Army marching through East London to Epping Forest, 1928. This is a rare shot of the LLX, the women’s section of the Labour League of Ex-servicemen. The women and some men, about two hundred in all, had assembled at Gardiner’s Corner in the East End and marched through Mile End, Bow and Stratford, held a rousing meeting at Leytonstone and continued onwards to Epping Forest, closely followed by plainclothes officers of the Special Branch.

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On practising their marching in a forest glade, an urgent message produced the arrival by car of the Commissioner of Police who accused them of performing military movements. Apparently, they succeeded in convincing him that they were only practising their marching in readiness for May Day and the police withdrew, leaving the ‘red army’ to dance on the greensward and make their way back by bus, having been forbidden to march.The uniform was first seen in public on Sunday 11 March 1928 when thirty-five women, led by Mrs J R Campbell, marched into Trafalgar Square for an International Women’s Day meeting and took up a position on the plinth, along with the speakers who included A J Cook, Marjorie Pollitt, Beth Turner and Hanna Ludewig from Germany. The uniform was officially described as a fawn coloured blouse and serviceable short skirt, stockings to match, flat-heeled brown walking shoes, khaki berets, red tie and regulation armbands. An official Communist Party pamphlet described the LLX as having ‘guarded the plinth’ and it would seem that they and the uniformed men drew their inspiration from the Workers’ Guard in Germany where the Red Front Fighters numbered some three hundred thousand.

The picture below shows the Prince of Wales on his extensive tour of the depressed areas in South Wales, Tyneside, Scotland and Lancashire, where he is shown shaking hands with a worker at Middleton. He met families who had been unwaged for years and seemed sincerely and visibly shaken by their plight. He is reported to have said,

Some of the things I see in these gloomy, poverty-stricken areas made me almost ashamed to be an Englishman… isn’t it awful that I can do nothing for them but make them smile?

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Eight years later, after his accession to the throne, he made his noted second tour of South Wales and witnessed the effects of a decade of ‘the slump’ in the Rhondda and Monmouthshire valleys. After being shown the derelict steelworks at Dowlais, that once provided employment for nine thousand, he uttered the words that are remembered to this day as something must be done to find them work, though others have argued that his words were more direct, and specifically aimed at the government ministers who travelled with him, something will be done.The young MP for Ebbw Vale, Aneurin Bevan, was furious at the whole event, however…

To organise an expedition to Wales as if it were an unknown, barbarous and distant land, much in the same way as you might go the Congo was an outrage.

He said that the king was being used to mask persecution and that Ernest Brown, the Minister of Labour who accompanied the king, was the instrument of that persecution. He declined a suggestion that he should meet Edward VIII at Rhymney, saying:

I cannot associate myself with a visit that would appear to support the notion that private charity has made, or could ever make, a contribution of any value to the solution of the problem of South Wales.

In 1938, the authors of a Review of the decade-long Industrial Transference Scheme (1938) suggested that it was ‘the clan spirit’ found in the depressed areas of South Wales and northern England which continued to represent the major source of political opposition to National Government policy towards them. The Review characterised these areas as small, self-contained communities in which most of the residents are known to each other and cited their geographical position as a major factor in the intensification of ‘parochialism’. Coalfield ‘communities’ were defined in negative terms by politicians and government inquirers; they were no longer ‘real’ communities with a proper social leadership provided by a resident, benevolent middle class. Neither did they any longer serve any useful economic purpose, but were infamous for their industrial militancy before the world war, and for the obduracy of the miners’ leaders in 1926.

Many of the national voluntary agencies shared these negative stereotypes of the coalfield communities, although their social investigators managed to produce, both in print and on film, a generally softer image than the official one, showing far greater sensitivity to their plight without wallowing in sentimentality. Nonetheless, some of them set about their task as if they were embarking on an anthropological expedition, to echo Bevan’s condemnation of Edward VIII’s 1936 tour of South Wales. The editor of the journal Fact, prefacing Philip Massey’s Portrait of a Mining Town, asserted the need for an attempt to survey typical corners of Britain as truthfully and penetratingly as if our investigators had been inspecting an African village. He stated that, like African villages, mining communities are isolated and relatively easy to study and went on to make the dubious assertion that they were so cut off from the neighbouring townships like Cardiff and Newport that in the latter a ‘collier’ was regarded as a sort of strange being. 

Many of the philanthropists of the 1930s used this image of isolation to justify their concept of social service ‘settlements’ in the valleys, as a means by which the ‘outlook’ of the communities might be ‘broadened’. They were attempting to infuse their middle-class notions of ‘citizenship’ of a wider community extending beyond the boundaries of the valley. The Pilgrim Trust Annual Report for 1936 described each valley as being a self-contained community with its own traditions accustomed to leading its own life in isolation from its neighbours. Stereotypes such as these had as much to do with the projection of an image for specific ends as with reflecting the reality of coalfield communities, no matter how sympathetic the process and product of the investigations might appear. Thus Hilda Jennings, the author of the 1934 book, Brynmawr: A Study of a Distressed Area wrote in a similar vein,

The small town or village environment is predominant. Mining communities, often separated from each other by a bleak stretch of moor or mountain, and dependent on one industry, naturally have a distinctive character. Local attachments are strong, family connections widespread, and modes of thought remarkably homogenous. There are few if any wealthy or leisured inhabitants, and the children of teacher, shopkeeper, and miner attend the same elementary and county schools. Men, women, and children, are so intimately known to their fellows that their doings are invested with a personal interest which gives warmth, colour and drama to day-to-day events. The influence of public opinion and local tradition is correspondingly strong.

Hilda Jennings’ book consisted of a detailed, ground-breaking survey of the coalfield towns on the northern, Breconshire edge of the south Wales coalfield. This most ‘untypical’ coalfield community had been stranded like a beached Leviathan by the receding tide of the coal industry well before the miners’ six-month lock-out of 1926 and the ‘slump’ of the late 1920s. Her survey was conducted in co-operation with the Coalfields Distress Committee of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service (SWMCSS). It first led its readers, not into a Miners’ Institute full of unemployed men, but into the bedroom of a terraced collier’s house:

In one of the older streets containing a large proportion of back-to-back houses with very small, airless rooms, little access to sun, and leaking roof and walls oozing with damp as many as seventeen cases (of consumption) were notified from the twenty-nine houses in the street… In one such case one of the two small bedrooms was given up to a dying girl, while the father and mother and six children crowded into the second bedroom and living room (used also as a bedroom). It is not to be wondered at that two other children contracted the disease, and that two out of three infected children died within two years.

This tragic tale needs no literary embellishment and is a narrative which is typical not just of the older mining towns at the heads of the valleys, with their high rates of home-ownership among once-prosperous workers, but across the steam-coal valleys from Nantyglo in Monmouthshire to Neath and the Swansea Valleys. The ‘Brynmawr Experiment’ was started by Quakers but was not run by them. To understand the problems of Brynmawr Peter Scott, with others, decided to have a comprehensive social survey undertaken.  Scott had served since 1926 the Society of Friends as Field Officer for the Society’s relief work in South Wales. In November 1926, Horace Fleming reported to the Society’s Coalfields Distress Committee on the possibilities which the work in the Rhondda had opened up:

It seems clear that the spirit expressed in and being kept vigorous by the mens’ and womens’ groups, is the living root on which an educational movement may be grafted… Being cul-de-sacs, the mental ventilation of the valleys is poor, with the result that the inhabitants are much more self-centred than non-valley dwellers. This movement (the National Council of Labour Colleges) with its condemnation of existing economic conditions and its doctrine of class war, has spread with remarkable rapidity throughout South Wales… To a people who, for generations, have been dependent on the spoken word, the clergy’s failure has meant the demagogue’s gain.  Nor is this surprising, when it is remembered that the only advocacy, with rare exceptions, of a new world heard in these valleys, was that of the Marxist, even though his new world was only to be entered through war… the present defeat is being traced to the theories of the extremists…

Fleming added that this tide of criticism was beginning to undermine the NCLC and that the Quakers could grasp the opportunity to address the educational needs of adults who were conscious of the failings both of the chapels and the communists. There was, he felt, a desire for a more constructive approach than that offered by the NCLC. The strategy proposed was that ‘a fluid movement’ should be built upon the foundations of the existing groups. Such a movement would not be dependent on bricks and mortar but would flow into the Miners’ Institutes and the chapels. A more sympathetic organisation could follow later, but the immediate priority was to provide a fellowship wider than sect, party or class.

The Quakers who settled in Brynmawr eighteen months later had similar concerns. In the summer of 1928, Peter and Lilian Scott, together with a number of other single male and female ‘Friends’ had gone to the Welsh coalfields due to their concern for the unemployed. They had held Quaker meetings for worship standing in groups in the marketplaces and street corners in the towns and villages they visited, starting in Abertillery, trying to give spiritual comfort and fellowship to the people among whom they lodged, the local unemployed, by first getting to know them and their problems. One of the Quaker women remembered the puzzled reaction of local people to their meetings, which appeared to be so different to their own nonconformist religious services, dominated by male preachers, deacons and hymn-singing:

These open air meetings were held under conditions very different from today. There was little wheeled traffic: the few bicycles and carts made very little noise and motor-cars were rarely seen. In every street, but particularly in market squares and on street corners, there were men in typical ‘miners’ squat’, unemployed and with no money for recreation, just talking, or silent.

During the morning the group of Friends would decide where to hold their meetings and would go to perhaps two places to advertise them, one for the afternoon and one for the evening. Advertising was done mainly by chalking the on pavements, with an occasional handbill in some prominent place.

At the time agreed, the group of Friends, usually six or eight,… would gather standing in silence. The men around would watch, unmoving, until someone spoke. Then by ones and twos the men would get up and gather round to hear what we said, and if held by the speaker would move in closer until there was quite a crowd.

The messages given were mainly concerned with the presence of that of God in each of us, of the love of God for us all, and with the love we should bear to one another in all circumstances. These meetings might be illustrated by a gospel reading, a prayer, a story of early Friends, a personal experience: all the things one might expect in any Quaker meeting… at the end of the meeting men would come to one or another to ask questions – why were we doing this and who were we anyway?

Occasionally there was a hostile reaction. On one such occasion the men crowded around threateningly, interrupting the meeting. ‘Who were we to come talking like this? What did we know of unemployment and the conditions under which they were living, why didn’t we do something for them?     

At Brynmawr, the Quakers faced a challenge from trade union leaders and other local people who also told them, You say you want to help us: prove you mean what you say; stay here and do something for us. So that is what they did. Peter went back to Friends’ House in London and said food and clothes were vital, so Joan Fry from the Coalfields Distress Committee went to Brynmawr and later addressed a public meeting at Golders Green. Brynmawr was a good place to start for a project which, from the start, was concerned with the unemployment ‘black-spots’, by contrast with the earlier ‘settlements’ in the Rhondda. The coal seams were nearer the surface on these northern ridges, and the coal on this higher ground had been mined in ‘levels’ for a century and a half so that they were practically worked out. The deeper, more modern mines further down the valleys were still working, albeit on ‘short-time’ and to keep the pits from flooding. However, they had enough labour in the colliery villages close by, so the heads-of-the-valleys towns had higher levels of long-term unemployment. Those in work were mostly bank clerks, ministers of religion, policemen, shopkeepers and teachers.

Peter Scott was a utopian visionary and his experiment, from the start, was of a different nature to that of the Maes-yr-Haf settlement. He was more interested in the social and economic reconstruction of the town than in the concept of an educational settlement. Nevertheless, both projects were species of the same desire, one which they shared with the liberal-Cymricists, of promoting unifying spiritual values above the interests of the working classes. Both experiments opened up important channels of communication into a crisis-ridden society. The Baldwin Government and its civil servants viewed the approach of the winter of 1928-9 with some trepidation. The Mansion House Fund had begun to deal with the immediate need for relief as well as aiding the work of the newly established Industrial Transference Board. However, they also began to realise that longer-term measures were required to deal with the problems of ‘demoralisation’ and their perceptions of the real threat of social disorder. To the middle-class social workers, many of them Quakers or Oxford graduates, ‘demoralisation’ meant not just the psychological effects of impoverishment, but also the extent to which the workless in these communities would espouse ‘desperate remedies’ in response to their condition, and uphold loyalty to ‘class’ above that to a broader ‘community’ and sense of ‘citizenship’.

Later in 1928, Peter and Lilian made their home in Brynmawr, where they were joined by a few others moved by a similar compassion to share in the life of a suffering community.  Disillusioned as so many were at that period with the existing social and economic order and inspired by a Utopian vision, the Scotts concluded that it was just in those areas where the breakdown of the old order was most complete that there lay the greatest opportunity for the creation of a better one. Margaret Wates arrived in Brynmawr from London at the beginning of December 1928, having joined the Society of Friends at the beginning of the year. She was full of youthful enthusiasm and idealistic socialism.

She was put in charge of the Relief & Service Centre as relief was reluctantly regarded by both government and the social service agencies as an unfortunate necessity in the winter of 1928-29. She was supported by local women, most of whom were twice her age. An empty shop in the main street, Beaufort Street, was adapted for the purpose, to which second-hand clothing came pouring in. She recalled that all her local helpers were neatly dressed, not just Mrs Price, the local policeman’s wife, who was regarded as comfortably off, but also the wives of the unemployed miners.  It seemed to her that the Welsh women were more tastefully and neatly dressed than their English counterparts. They would also clean, brush and put away their husbands’ Sunday clothes on Mondays so that they were ready to be worn the following Sunday. Their working clothes also looked cleaner, now they no longer had to go underground. In these ways, married couples were able to keep up a veneer of respectability and to cover up their poverty. She discovered later that they stitched paper together to make extra bedding for themselves.

Margaret was also responsible for placing girls in service, almost the only work available for women at the time. A few men and boys were also placed through Worthing Friends (the town was twinned with Brynmawr through the Mansion House Fund), and other Quakers helped to find employment in other areas, but most of these returned to Brynmawr in the end. Margaret was particularly involved in the work with women, helping organise them into self-help sewing groups in neighbouring places. It was easier for the outside volunteer workers to get hold of premises and get people to work together, as they were trusted not to have an “axe to grind”. They had gifts of material and sewing machines to help these groups establish themselves. She ran a playgroup once a week for the families of the poorest children in the district, who lived in shacks on the hillside. The idea came to her on one of her evening walks “up the mountain” and saw the pathetic settlements, made of bits and pieces. She talked to the women, who struggled to look after their children in sickness, but discovered that they were, in some ways, better off than the unemployed miners with homes to maintain that they couldn’t afford to keep or sell, or rents that they couldn’t afford. The “tent dwellers” at least had a home of their own, however primitive, each with a little fire.

Margaret Wates had a secretary, Marion Richards, who was younger than her, who called her by her Christian name, which was unusual in professional relations at that time but was the kind of relationship that the Quakers wanted to encourage. The local people were very loyal to the local chapels otherwise and showed little interest in meetings for worship or Quaker business methods. Marion Richards was the youngest of a large family whose men were colliers, her father unemployed. They were heavily involved in local politics and she later became a County Councillor. She helped Hilda Jennings with the Survey. Jennings was an Oxford graduate and a well-qualified and tactful social worker as well as an experienced leader of local committees. Although not a Quaker herself, she shared Peter Scott’s outlook on many things, and he gave her a free hand with her work. The book, published in 1934, was subtitled A Study of a Distressed Area and was said to be a classic of its kind. She later became the admired, loved and respected Warden of Bristol University Settlement, where she worked for twenty years.

The survey was different from the other social surveys done by trained social workers, as it was done by local people themselves. All sections of the Brynmawr community took part in this self-study, in order to understand the long-term effects of unemployment on many aspects of the town. There were two hundred volunteers involved in the Survey Committee which became ‘the Community House’, work starting in the attic. It was divided into eight sub-committees dealing with Commerce, Education, Health and Housing, Industry, Municipal Services, Population and Transport. These were led by people with a professional interest in a special area, chosen not elected. However, the Trade Unions and the Labour Party refused to co-operate with the survey, as they felt their dignity and authority had been undermined; they considered themselves to be the truly representative body since they had been elected. Two models of democracy were in open conflict, and it was a conflict which could not be resolved easily. This was, however, more of a loss to both the Urban District Council and the Miners’ Federation than to the survey itself.

Hilda Jennings insisted on using Quaker business methods, refusing to take votes on difficult issues, although this inevitably slowed down the processes of investigation and the overall progress of the survey. She was undaunted in her belief also in the educational value of conducting the survey by these means, helping to develop open-mindedness and raising people above sectional interests, since pooling experience enriched the common life. The community should raise itself to a higher level because it aimed to give the fullest life to everyone. It could and it wished to work with the elected bodies: this would benefit all, and help to create a more inclusive and harmonious society.

The idealism applied to the means by which the survey was conducted is evident in the ends, the text of the survey. The evidence it presents is both quantitative and qualitative, especially when dealing with family life. Although other surveys of the unemployed contain moving references to the lives of women, they tend to regard their roles as secondary, or adjunctive, to those of both employed and unemployed men. In the Brynmawr Survey, full details are given of how the mothers in these families were the first to suffer privation, and so became dispirited, debilitated and apathetic. The school children had free school meals and free milk provided for them, and there was milk given at the infant welfare clinics. But family relationships were strained. The diet was poor, even when the miner was working, and for those unemployed, it mostly consisted of tea, bread and margarine, with some meat and vegetables on Sundays. Men’s health suffered as a result, making them unemployable and destroying their self-respect, so that women would increasingly ‘go without’ in order to maintain these factors in their husbands in particular, but also in their adult sons, if they still lived at home and were unemployed, as was most likely the case in Brynmawr.

It was difficult for miners of any age to settle in other forms of work elsewhere, as they could only become labourers and unskilled factory workers. They were very proud of the crafts of the collier, timberman, fireman, haulier, etc. They were also proud of their dangerous and manly occupation. They resented having to take work as labourers, road-menders and gardeners, even though such work often required great physical strength, if not the same level of skill as that of a collier. Some work was available in the English coalfields after the General Strike, and some Welsh colliers were prepared to uproot their entire family in order to take it, but from the end of 1929, the trade depression took away much of this demand in, for example, the industrial towns of the English Midlands which had been expanding in the 1920s. When relative prosperity returned to these areas in 1934, most of the available jobs were in unskilled engineering, especially in the automotive industries. Some families moved to cities like Oxford, Coventry and Birmingham, but most of those who continued to leave the coalfields were single men, or at least childless. For the older family men, it was often too late.

The Welsh collier also had very strong roots in his locality and in his loyalty to his family and the wider human relationships within solidly working-class communities. Jennings’ Survey revealed this to be nowhere more the case than in Brynmawr. In addition, the climate at the top of the valley meant that the houses were continually damp. The houses were also older than in many colliery villages further down the valleys. Many were over a hundred years old and in a deplorable condition, unable to give protection from the frequent heavy rains and gales. Walls oozed with damp so that rheumatism, influenza and bronchitis were common complaints. There were 93 back-to-back houses of which there were seventeen cases of tuberculosis in 29 houses. Some unemployed families took lodgers in order to boost family income, but, as most houses had only two bedrooms, this created overcrowding, despite there being a large number of empty houses in the town which their owners couldn’t afford to sell or let.

One Brynmawr volunteer remembered visiting a house near the town centre with the living room, as was traditional, opening directly off the street: it had a tea-chest as a table and some boxes to sit on and was miserable-looking beyond belief. Many of these houses had shared yards and toilets, and rarely had gardens, so their occupants were unable to improve their diet by growing fresh food unless they had access to an allotment. Yet family pride meant that with local traditions of polished brass hangers and black leading inside and colour washing outside, plus the need to keep the fire burning day and night, mainly using coal dust, these homes seemed more weathertight and snug than they were in reality.

Moreover, as there were no collieries in Brynmawr, just the ‘levels’ cut into the hillsides, this meant that there were no colliery companies and therefore no company houses available for miners to rent, or as “tied houses” in Brynmawr. There was a Council-run housing estate as well as some more modern, bigger hoses that miners had built for themselves in more prosperous times. If a family owned or expected to inherit a house, they would, therefore, be far less willing to move away to find work. Some unemployed house owners had to mortgage their houses before they could claim poor relief, later known as Unemployment Assistance, which was all that the long-term unemployed could claim after using up the insured benefits they were entitled to. The Council tenants who were unemployed had also been allowed to accumulate very large rent arrears. Since these could not be collected, the Urban District Council, already deeply in debt due to the local poor rate system, could not afford to repair these houses, thus adding to the general dilapidation and deterioration of the housing stock.

By 1928, as Margaret Wates recalled, there were already youths of eighteen who had never worked, having left school four years earlier. They went about in groups up the mountain, or out in the streets after dark, as they did not want to be seen in their shabby clothes. She knew a mother and daughter who shared one pair of shoes so they could not go out together. One family of ten members had two cups between them, so the children were always late for school! When savings were exhausted there was nothing left for sickness or replacements, or even to do repairs.

The Brynmawr experiment, under the dynamic leadership of Peter Scott, maintained a certain independence in its operation. Scott insisted that anything done must spring from the community and not be imposed from the outside. His determination that the work should not be controlled by any outside committee led him into direct conflict with the Friends’ Coalfield Distress Committee to the extent that,  at the end of 1929, he severed his connection with the official Quaker undertakings in the area, thereafter working independently with a group of volunteers. In December, a general town’s meeting was called, chaired by the local MP, with two thousand people in the hall. The rather emotional approach taken by Scott’s group alienated the hard-headed trades unionists, but it was successful in rallying several hundred people of different backgrounds to volunteer to community service over a period of three years, including hard manual work. Significant opposition to this was raised by some unemployed on the basis that the only commodity they had for sale was their labour. They did not want to surrender this right and ruin their chances of future employment, or of losing their dole if they did voluntary work.

A compromise was agreed that the unemployed miners would always be deemed available for, and thereby genuinely seeking work as far as the employment exchanges were concerned. Nevertheless, the Labour Party and the Miners’ Federation continued to shun the scheme. They insisted that all labour should be paid for at trade union rates. They were also suspicious of a group of English Quakers with middle-class backgrounds interfering in the town, even if they supplied help that was desperately needed. Thus, the claim that the work at Brynmawr sprang from the community was not borne out by reality. The cautious welcome which Brynmawr had initially given to the Scotts’ activities soon waned and his group’s relationship with the local community deteriorated. The newcomers were never fully integrated into the town’s civic life and, as a result, the Quakers became known, disparagingly, as ‘the BQs’ – ‘the Bloody Quakers’! 

Soon after the big meeting, and despite the ostracism of voluntary workers, their wives and children, a small group of local men started work on a piece of land near the railway station, converting it into a garden, and planting trees on a nearby ‘tip’. The men slept in the two large empty rooms above a shop, while the women shared another large building. They had meals on site – the food was plain, plentiful and cheap. Local women helped with the cooking as well as with the laundry, mending, cleaning and first aid, in addition to doing colour washing and gardening. There were also men’s and women’s clubs. By 1936 these were ‘vigorous’ and would have expanded had they had more accommodation. The men repaired furniture, tapped boots, made bows and arrows for an archery range, and wove scarves. The men did not make much use of the boot repairing and carpentry facilities, but the women’s club had seventy-five members and joined the Federation of Women’s Institutes and the Townswomen’s Guild. Needlework and foreign language courses were started in 1931. The women made leather gloves and other useful and ornamental things. There was also a demand for cookery classes, including food values. The keep-fit classes were crowded out.

In January 1934 some of the group around the Scotts formed themselves into ‘An Order of friends’, choosing to dedicate themselves to the new community of their vision, as expressed in Jennings’ book, published the same year. Thereafter all the Scotts’ undertakings were carried on in the name of ‘An Order’, though in fact its members never had more than a nominal responsibility for its administration. The most successful efforts made were in the two new industries of furniture and bootmaking. These conformed to the accepted pattern of industrial life and were more readily tolerated by local people on that account. Subsistence Production, the largest, most costly and most visionary of Scott’s undertakings, diverged too far from the current industrial mores to be readily accepted. The theory which lay behind it stemmed from J W Scott (no relation to Peter), a Professor of Philosophy at University College Cardiff, who in the 1920s had worked out an elaborate theory for producing and distributing goods as far as possible free from the constraints of the monetary system. He had envisaged groups of men, each working at his own trade without wages, producing goods for exchange within the group.

The Welsh tradition of spontaneous community singing, Gymanfa Ganu, was also revived. Brynmawr and the heads-of-the-valleys towns were usually more culturally, if not linguistically Welsh, than the anglicised colliery towns further down the valleys where many English ‘immigrants’ had settled. There ‘Welshness’ was based on the surviving Welsh-medium chapels founded by the earlier Welsh immigrants. Margaret Wates remembered one old lady who gave Welsh lessons to the English volunteers at the Centre using her Welsh Bible. For many of the older women, their lives outside the home, when time allowed, continued to revolve around the chapels, whether services and activities were in Welsh or English. Many men had long-since abandoned the chapels in favour of the Workmen’s Institutes, built earlier in the century. Since membership of these was based mainly on colliery employment, the institutes had been built in colliery villages, rather than in the heads-of-the-valley towns. Their activities were almost exclusively male until well into the 1930s, and in this respect, they were slow to adapt to the impact of mass unemployment on the social lives of men and women. On the other side of the northern outcrop, Resolven Institute near Neath was one of the first to allow women access to certain ‘new’ activities, as one local woman recalled:

 In Resolven now there was a reading room, you see. There was a lot of debating. You could say that the Reading Room was the House of Commons of the village. And I remember the first wireless coming. It came to the Reading Room. And women were allowed to listen to the wireless for the first time. It was a very important evening!

The new clubs were, therefore, had a more immediate practical purpose for women than for their unemployed men, since the latter were able to maintain their access to the local Miners’ Institutes through continuing to pay their subscriptions to the Miners’ Federation, which set up Unemployed ‘Lodges’ in parallel to those for miners still in work. Women were also more receptive to the new cooperative ideas than men, however. Nearly all the men over forty-five in Brynmawr had been unemployed since 1921. They were more regular volunteer workers than the younger men but regarded the Subsistence Production Society (SPS) as second best. Faith in Socialism as a Utopian form of Christianity, if not Marxist Communism, was almost universal. They had a strong family life and were resigned to lower standards of living, but they were opposed to the means test, and to irregular working hours and differentials in wages. Their outlook was set in the industrial unionism of the pre-1914 years, and these traditions were fiercely maintained among them. They distrusted “An Order of Friends” and the SPS, which they regarded as they did any other large industrial undertaking, as fundamentally capitalist and therefore automatically opposed to the interests of labour. At the same time, it was not quite real, but a pastime, so they were not prepared to work so intensively on it. The principles behind the scheme were either not understood or not trusted by many of the older men. To those behind the SPS, they meant benefiting people according to their needs.

The women, by contrast, wanted the cheap milk and other necessities provided by the SPS. The opposition of the men lessened as time went on, but few were interested in creating a new order of society through the schemes, as Jennings and the Quakers advocated. Other groups, not just the Communists, the trades unions and the Labour Party were opposed to the SPS, but even the Co-ops and the and the shopkeepers, who were also fearful of the involvement of government. A Viennese psychologist, Dr Marie Jahoda, concluded (after a four-month local sojourn and study of the Cwmavon Scheme in 1937/38) that while the SPS was ‘a valiant experiment’ and ‘a heroic attempt to tackle a problem at the right point’, it was doomed to failure because the leaders’ eyes were blinded by their glorious mirage of the future to the extent that they were unable to see the numerous pitfalls of interference from outside the normal development of the community.

Marie Jahoda noted that the scheme could never surpass the limits of charity. In the absence of a sufficient number of idealists from other social classes who would resign voluntarily the advantages offered to them by their privileged position, it was necessary to employ technical staff at normal rates of pay. As long as this remained the case it was not possible, she argued, for the organisers to preach the necessary idealism and to create a common ‘ideology’ within the scheme while maintaining a standard of living high above that of the members. Without this community of interest there was no chance of making the experiment fully successful; without paternalistic supervision, there was no chance of making it work at all. Nevertheless, she concluded, the SPS was small enough to be understood in its general operation by every member and big enough to provide an insight into various social processes and a comparison with normal social life:

The colliery system with its problem of export trade and finance, extending over the whole world, is far too complicated to allow the average miner to understand its working; the family unit or a handicraft job is too small for the same purpose in the modern world. The amount of collective social experience represented by the membership of the SPS is one of the main positive effects.

This was no doubt why Dai Payton of Nantyglo, an unemployed miner, and his wife Phoebe, who had a fine family of eight children themselves, remained sympathetic contributors to the Brynmawr schemes. Margaret Wates came to know the family well during and after her brief sojourn in Brynmawr and the Eastern Valley:

They lived in a company room at Nantyglo with one bedroom and one living room, no ‘parlour’. This one-up-one-down had a spiral staircase joining the two rooms, which was dangerous for their small children. They had a ‘longish’ yard in front of the house with a gate to the main road through a low front wall. Next to this was the coal-shed and toilet!

Just inside the front door was flimsy wooden partition with a shallow stone sink beside it. They had a blackleaded oven which went under the stone stairs and was also used for drying the wood. The fire was kept going with a few lumps of coal to the front and dust to the back, carefully flattened, where the teapot could be kept warm. The fire irons were kept polished. I think there was a good-size table, a few upright chairs and boxes.

I visited Phoebe when she was ill, and found there were two double beds and an upright wooden chair… there was a cheap curtain between the beds, but it was very Spartan. Phoebe’s parents lived at the back of them, so some of the children slept in their house…

… every morning they had toast and margarine, and tea with condensed milk: on Easter Sunday they had half an egg each and fresh milk, which wasn’t bottled, but scooped out of the milkman’s churn on wheels. For tea on Sundays they had rice pudding. On Friday they had four faggots and sixpence worth of peas for dinner – “it was delicious”. On Sundays some of them had dandelion pop or nettle pop, a sort of home-made wine. The family never went hungry.

The children had school dinners, after the forms had been filled in about earnings, etc.: these were called “feedings”, and they had a half-pint of bottled milk a day at school. The school attendance officer… would call at the house if a child had been away from school for only two days.

Dai always gave his wife his unopened pay packet. She would buy his tobacco, pay his bus fare and his union subscription, and might give him tuppence to go into the welfare ground to watch a match. She would be responsible for paying the doctor when necessary…

Dai and Phoebe had been given a striking clock as a wedding present, which must have been the only thing of any value they possessed.

There was a traditional “Grace”… before meals, that was sung to a Welsh tune… remembered in 1930:

O Lord have mercy upon us

And keep us all alive;

There’s round the table nine of us

And food enough for five. 

Dai and Phoebe were exceptionally strong people, working so hard to ensure that their family survived under such difficult conditions. Despite all their best efforts, one of the children did not survive, however, a little sister who died at the age of four. Phoebe seems, in some ways, to correspond to the image of the ‘Welsh Mam’ that recent historians have become somewhat obsessed with, based on Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel, How Green Was My Valley:

As soon as the whistle went they (the women) put chairs outside their front doors ans sat here waiting till the men came up the Hill and home. Then as the men came up to their front doors they threw their wages, sovereign by sovereign, into the shining laps, fathers first and sons or lodgers in a line behind. My mother often had forty of them, with my father and five brothers working.

This image is not exclusive to the south Wales valleys, however. It was a regular practice in mining families throughout Britain for the woman to collect the wages of the men, before they were given back their beer and tobacco money. At Binley, near Coventry, if the men went to the pub on the way home, the children in the house would be sent out to intercept them and bring home the sovereigns. This practice continued into the 1940s. Neither did women scrub their husbands’ backs, which were generally left coal-black in order to harden against conditions underground. What perhaps typified the ‘Welsh Mam’ as compared with miners’ wives in other coalfields was that they never worked outside the home, except as shopkeepers, whereas in Coventry many women did shifts in textile factories, working around their husbands’ shifts and depending on whether sons were also miners. In Coventry, they usually became car-workers and engineers in the 1930s.

The ‘Mam’ was, of course, primarily a wife and a mother, clean and pious, and had the responsibility in and for the home. She was certainly as prevalent in other depressed areas where industrial work outside the home was essentially the province of men. By the end of the thirties, this pattern was beginning to change among the younger generations, especially at the southern end of the valleys, but in the heads-of-the-valleys, it remained the same throughout the thirties.  Here, it was women like Phoebe Payton of Nantyglo who continued to scrimp and go without.

As Gwyn A Williams and Dierdre Beddoe have pointed out, although aspects of the portrait of the ‘Welsh Mam’ were dominant in coalfield communities into the inter-war period, the image was essentially a nineteenth-century creation. In Wales, there was nothing really comparable to the industrial out-work done in domestic settings across the West Midlands of England by weavers, chain and nail-makers. Moreover, the British middle-classes were alarmed by the Chartist demonstrations and uprisings of 1831-51 into thinking that there might be a revolution, similar to those which had happened in France, in Britain. One of the chief ways that the middle-class sought to bring about stability was through the strengthening of the idea and role of the family. They advocated a bourgeois view of the family: male breadwinner, dependent ‘domesticated’ wife and dependent children. It was this version of the family that the middle class wished to impose upon the working classes and which working-class families came to aspire to: the dependent wife was to become the symbol of working-class male success. This message about the woman’s role was essentially domestic was trumpeted from the pulpit and reinforced by religious tracts, poems, magazines, paintings, prints and manuals of behaviour for women.

One of the myths which emerged from this stereotypical image which mining women aspired to conform to was that women and men had equal power and that, with the onset of male unemployment, women became the dominant power in unwaged households. The handing over of the sovereigns to the wife is often cited as evidence for this, but this act also involved the passing over of the burden of managing the household. Women’s authority was entirely limited to the private, domestic sphere. Not until the end of 1928 were working-class women able to exercise the vote in parliamentary elections on the same basis as men, but even then very few had access to the public sphere of politics. Besides this, they still had no control over their bodies and its reproductive functions. Miners were oppressed by coal-owners and poverty. Their wives were doubly oppressed by poverty and patriarchy. As one woman said, we were slaves because they were slaves to the coal-owners.

Of course, this does not mean that all miners treated their wives badly, either physically or psychologically, whether in work or out of it. Neither did they consciously ‘enslave’ them. If anything, there is a sense in the evidence that unemployment often brought about a more equal relationship between husband and wife. On the other hand, the poverty it brought often placed great strains on the household, and men, by their own admission, sometimes took out their frustrations and loss of personal pride on their wives.  Dai Payton worked at the level at Coalbrooke Vale for the SPS. A Brynmawr resident had transferred the lease of the level, a mile from Brynmawr, which supplied work for forty older men for eighteen months. After twelve months the management was handed over to the men, but in 1931 the Miners’ Federation called a strike, so the co-operative was also asked to join the strike, although they were both workers and owners. If they had agreed, they might have ruined the small enterprise, since they had not yet established if the plans of the old workings there had been correct. When they refused, they were called “blacklegs” and “traitors”, showing how difficult it was for co-operative ventures and trades unions to work together. The unemployed miners overcame all the technical difficulties, but the coal seam did not yield as much as was expected, though the group struggled on with courage and patience. By 1934, Dai Payton, together with a ‘butty’, made a success of it for a time, until nature forced them to retire. The unemployed were forced accustomed to going up “the mountain” to get a sack of coal, which they would bring back long distances on their backs. Working cooperatively decreased unnecessary physical strain, enabling the group to achieve a more rational way of working as well as running a successful if small, industrial enterprise for some years.

The Brynmawr Experiment was an attempt, unique in Britain, to encourage a whole community afflicted by desperate levels of unemployment, averaging 75% throughout the period 1928-38, to fight back on a number of fronts, tapping an entire range of resources, from the enterprise of volunteers to social service agencies and central government. The national network provided by the Society of Friends was crucial to the work as it supplied management and technical skills and money to get things done. But a community that has suffered such levels of long-term unemployment needs even more than a revivalist inspiration to overcome its paralysing effects. Immediately, it needed relief work, as an absolute necessity. In the medium-term, reconstruction projects were put in place, including a swimming pool, a park and a nursery school. Then the industrial decline had to be offset by starting small co-operative enterprises in boot and furniture making, which by the end of the period were achieving considerable success.

Another enterprise was stocking-making, in which a dozen women worked under a trained forewoman, making long, thick miners’ stockings, but mass production and keen competition proved too much for the group. They produced fine quality socks for a time but had to close down in the end. A further group of about a dozen women and girls made Welsh quilts of silk material, padded with lambswool, to traditional Welsh designs. They also made tea-cosies and other products to order. They worked in a big room above an empty shop for a period of a couple of years. As these ventures received no government support for five years, they had to be funded over this period by grants from private individuals and charitable organisations. The aim was not to replace the volume of jobs lost in the coal industry, but, in the words of Hilda Jennings, to…

… build up a new and better community in which the human spirit will be released from bitterness and divisions, and find outlets for creative energies in craftsmanship and right human relationships.

(to be continued)

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