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

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Chapter Two: Fertility and Factory Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued…)

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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 Dialects of Middle English: Part One; Southern and Northern   1 comment

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Above: Middle English dialectal areas

What’s in a dialect?

Evidence from the written sources suggests that there were four main dialectical areas: West Saxon (Wessex), Kentish, Mercian and Northumbrian. In Middle English, these remained basically Danes, and the consequent influence of Norse, there was enough variation of Mercian English on both sides of the Danelaw for them to be considered as two distinct dialects. Therefore, the five principal dialects of Middle English were: Southern, Kentish, East Midlands, West Midlands and Northern. In addition, the dialects of Northern English spoken in southern Scotland were known as Inglis until about 1500, when writers began to refer to them as Scottis, now known as Scots.

Dialects are varieties of a single language which are ‘mutually comprehensible’; that is, speakers of different dialects can talk to and understand each other. An unfamiliar dialect may be difficult to comprehend at first because of its peculiar pronunciation and/ or vocabulary, but with familiarity, these difficulties disappear. This is not the case with a foreign language. So, whilst a Breton onion-seller could make himself understood to a Welsh shepherd, he would not be understood by a Northumbrian one. However, the Northumbrian shepherd would understand his ‘Wessex’ counterpart. Dialects have most of their grammar and vocabulary in common; therefore, we are able to make a short-list of the features to look for when describing the main differences between dialects. Today, dialects are usually compared to Standard English, but in the early Middle Ages and even into the fifteenth century, there was no national standard form of English, only regional standards. Within what we call a dialect, there are always other variations, so that the more closely we examine the speech or writing of a dialectal area, the more differences we observe, until we eventually arrive at the concept of an individual person’s own variety of language, an ‘idiolect’.

In the Middle English (ME) period, there was no single dialect or variety of the language whose spelling, vocabulary and grammar were used for writing throughout the country. After the Norman Conquest, Northern French replaced the Wessex variety of English as the spoken language of the Norman court. In the twelfth century, this was replaced by Parisian French, carrying more prestige. This was also the language of instruction in English schools until the late fourteenth century. After 1362 English became widely used in the law courts and Parliament was opened in English. The educated East Midland English of London was beginning to become the standard form of English throughout the country, although the establishment of a Standard English was not completed until the eighteenth century. In ME, there were only dialects, with writers and copyists using the forms of speech of their own region. The end of Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, written in about 1385, provides evidence of this:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye…

And for there is so gret divesite

In Englissh and in writing of oure tonge,

So prey I God than non miswrite the,

Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge.

Southern (Wessex) and Kentish Dialects:

In the same year, John of Trevisa wrote of the many people… and tonges of the British, not just in the form of the Welsh Language and among the Scots, but also among the Germanic and Danish English. This ‘diversity of tongues’ can be found in writings from different parts of the country in the ME period, revealing variations in the spelling of words. There are also inconsistencies within dialectal areas and even within the same manuscript. Conversely, some spellings remained the same, despite alterations in pronunciation. Writing in the 1380s, John of Trevisa described the linguistic situation at the time. His complete work is a translation of a history written in Latin earlier in the century. He was the vicar of Berkeley in Gloucestershire when he translated Polychronicon. The work is a reminder of the origins of the historical origins of English and its dialects. Trevisa’s attitude is not unlike that of some scholars today, in his talk of the ‘deterioration’ of the language, but the reason he gave for its decline in his time was the fashion for speaking French. He wrote in the Southern, ‘Wessex’ dialect of ME, although his use of the dialect is said to be ‘impure’.

Many of the contrasts between older and present-day English are matters of style rather than significant grammatical differences. We can read Trevisa’s text without much difficulty, but it does not transcribe word for word into Modern English (MnE). The phrase a child hys broche (a child’s toy) was a new construction for the possessive which did not derive from OE which survived for some time but has now been replaced by the apostrophe. The use of the infinitive construction ‘for to’ is still present in some dialects, and as a device in folk songs old and new, but is now non-standard. Prepositions were also used at the end of sentences as in told of (spoken of), considered ungrammatical in MnE.

In identifying the alphabetical symbols used and their relationship to contrasting sounds of dialectal accents, we have to be careful not to assume that there is a one-to-one relationship between sound and letter. Some differences of spelling in ME texts are not the result of differences in pronunciation, but rather of the fact that spellings tend to be retained long after changes in pronunciation had transpired. These difficulties in dating shifts in pronunciation and spelling are compounded by the fact that manuscripts were rarely dated. That is one reason why the book translated by a monk of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, Michael of Northgate, is so significant. He finished the book, Ayenbite of Inwyt, ‘the remorse of conscience’, a translation from a French original, on 27 October 1340. The other reason is that he spelled consistently throughout the text. It therefore provides us with accurate evidence of the Kent dialect at that time. Here is a passage in word-for-word translation:

Now I wish that you know

How it is went (how it has come about)

That this book is written

With English of Kent.

This book is made for lewd men*

Them for to protect from all manner sin

(*common folk)

This is as near to a ‘pure’ dialect as we can get, remembering that the written form can never really provide an accurate idea of how the spoken dialect sounded. Also, as Michael was translating from French, it is possible that some idioms as from that language, rather than being genuine ME expressions. Nevertheless, we can identify differences in word order and collocation which highlight differences between dialects and between ME and MnE. Even limited observations suggest that Kentish was a ‘conservative’ dialect, retaining more features of the OE system of inflections, even though greatly reduced. Many of these features were similar those found in the ‘Wessex’ texts of John of Trevisa. This is to be expected when one considers the way that the Thames, with few crossings between London and Oxford, acted as a barrier between the South as a whole, especially Kent, and the Midlands.

Below: Extract from Ayenbite of Inwyt,1340

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Northern (Northumbrian) Dialects:

The Northern dialects of ME came from the Northumbrian dialects of OE. The present-day dialects of Scotland and the North of England are still markedly distinct from Standard English and other dialects in grammatical features and vocabulary, and from RP, Midlands and Southern English accents in pronunciation. John of Trevisa’s remarked that the citizens of fourteenth century York spoke in a way which was ‘scharp slyttyng and frotyng and unschape’. The modern equivalents of these descriptions can be heard today among southerners unfamiliar with Geordie, Glaswegian and North Yorkshire accents, and Northerners make equally disparaging remarks about RP speakers from the South. One person’s ‘thick accent’ is another person’s familiar speech, and beauty is in the ear of the listener rather than an objective standard. Besides, television series and films in the 1990s made regional varieties of English more accessible to the country as a whole, and radio announcers now speak with a wider range of regional accents than in the last century.

As we cannot reproduce the actual sound of the dialects of the past, we cannot follow up this aspect of linguistic diversity. The only evidence we have of the phonics which once existed is in their transcription into manuscripts. Since spellings are not always phonetic and are inconsistent even in their reproduction by a single scribe, we can only speculate about pronunciation in the abstract, recognising some of the major shifts, but not properly hearing them. Most of the linguist’s focus must therefore be on grammar and vocabulary.

The Bruce is a verse chronicle of the heroic deeds of Robert (the) Bruce (1274-1329), written by John Barbour in about 1375 as The Actes and Life of the Most Victorious Conqueror, Robert Bruce King of Scotland. Barbour was the Archdeacon of Aberdeen and had studied and taught at Oxford and Paris. The following extract comes from the first book, written in the Northern (Scots) dialect:

A fredome is a noble thing

Fredome mays man to haiff liking

Fredome all solace to man giffis

He levys at es yat frely levys

A noble hart may haf nane es

Na ellys nocht yat may him ples…

In word-for-word transcription, this reads more like Modern English, more so than many Southern dialects of ME, which still retained many of the inflections of OE:

Ah freedom is a noble thing,

Freedom makes man to have liking (= free choice),

Freedom all solace to man gives,

He lives at ease that freely lives,

A noble heart may have no ease,

Nor else nought that may him please.

The pronunciation of the final ‘e’ in a word where followed by a consonant was all that was left of the many OE inflections, but even the use of this was a matter of choice for speakers and, therefore, for writers like Chaucer. Some of his characters use it, others don’t. In Barbour’s verse there is no evidence of its continued use, and Scots writers had adopted the convention of using the ‘i’ as the means of making vowels longer, as in haiff in the second line of Barbour’s poem given above. As it is an infinitive, haiff has no inflection; neither do knaw and pless.

There is evidence of the development of ‘gerund’ forms, a noun drived from a verb, as in liking. The word order of verse is often more abnormal than that of prose, as in Fredome all solace to man’s giffis, which cannot provide good evidence of normal spoken word order. Nevertheless, the third person ‘is’ or ‘ys’ inflections and the past participles with ‘yt’ make the verse seem closer to MnE.

Below: John Barbour on the siege of Berwick, from ‘Bruce’, c.1375

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The York ‘mystery’ plays provide evidence of the development of another Northern dialect, that of York and North Yorkshire. These plays are a cycle of fifty short performances which tell the story of the world according to medieval Christian tradition, from the Fall of the Angels and the Creation to the Last Judgement.   Each craft guild of the city was responsible for the costs and production of a play, which was performed in procession on a pageant-wagon around the streets of York. Some of the plays were assigned to guilds whose occupation was featured in the story. For example, the bakers played the Last Supper, the shipwrights built the Ark, the fishermen and mariners performed the Flood, and the vintners provided the wine for the Marriage at Cana. The cycle was produced each year for the feast of Corpus Christi, from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century. Twelve stations were set up in the streets and each pageant-wagon moved in procession from one station to another to perform its play. The procession of wagons began at 4.30 p.m. and was concluded long after midnight. Banners representing the respective guilds marked the position of the stations in the cycle, and proclamations were made, written down on parchment in order to be read out theatrically. One of these survives for the year 1415, but the only copy of all the plays to have done so was written in 1470, originally the property of the corporation of the city. It was probably compiled from the various prompt copies belonging to each of the performing guilds, so the language probably belongs, like the proclamation, to the earlier part of the fifteenth century. The dialect is Northern, but the scribes introduced a number of modifications from the East Midland dialect, the evidence for this being in the variations of spelling. The use of some East Midland forms marks the beginning of a standardised system of spelling. Since the plays are written in a variety of verse stanza patterns, with both rhyme and alliteration, so that they cannot be read as everyday speech, in spite of the vividness of the dialogue.

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On becaming Archbishop of York in 1352, John de Thoresby found many of his parish priests ignorant and neglectful of their duties. As one remedy for this, he wrote a ‘catechism’ in Latin, setting out the main doctrines of the faith. It was translated into English by a monk of St Mary’s Abbey in York in 1357. This version is called The Lay Folk’s Catechism and was extended a little later by John Wycliffe, who was born in the North Riding of Yorkshire, but worked and lived for long periods in Oxford and Leicestershire. His writings were therefore a variety of the Midlands dialect. By comparing the two versions of Thoresby’s Catechism, we can therefore distinguish between the dialects of the North and the Midlands.

Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale features two undergraduates, ‘yonge poure scolers’ from the North. He marks their speech with some of the features that his readers would recognise. He wrote in the educated London accent which differed greatly in its grammar and pronunciation from the Northern dialect. In this extract, Aleyn and Iohn have arrived at a mill and greet Symkyn, the miller. They intend to supervise the grinding of their corn, since millers were notorious for cheating their customers:

Aleyn spak first: All hayl Symkin in faith

How fares thy faire doghter and thy wife?

Aleyn welcome, quod Symkyn, by my lif

And Iohn also. How now what do ye here?

By god, quod Iohn, Symond need has na peere.

Hym bihoues serue himself that has na swayn

Or ellis he is a fool, as clarkes sayn.

Our maunciple, I hope he will be deed,

Swa werkes and wanges in his heed.

And therefore is I come and eek Alayn

To grynde our corn and carie it heem agayn…

The northern words and expressions are highlighted in bold type. MnE equivalents are given in the glossary below:

heem = home

hope = hope/ believe

hym bihoues = (him behoves), he must

swa = so

swayn (ON) = swain, servant

wanges = back teeth

workes = aches

 

The Impact of ‘Old Norse’ and Norman French on English.   Leave a comment

One of the important results of Danish and Norwegian settlements was its effect on the English language, though archaeological evidence suggests that, apart from the obvious variations in place-names, this may have been exaggerated, especially given the relatively short periods of Danish hegemony, even in northern England. There are a large number of proper names, including place-names, of Scandinavian origin in both OE and Middle English (ME) documents. Also, English and Norse speakers lived in communities which were close enough for exchanges in transactional language to take place, and sometimes they lived in the same settlements, albeit, as in York or ‘Jorvik’, in distinct districts.

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Above: A tenth-century Anglian helmet found in Jorvik (York) during the Coppergate excavations.

In these trading centres, inter-marriage took place, as in Ireland, but the distinctive patterns of English and Viking villages suggest that rural farming and family life was not widely integrated. In time, some of these communities merged, but English dialects emerged as the dominant forms of everyday speech, with some modifications in pronunciation, vocabulary and, to a lesser extent, in grammar. The earliest written evidence, however, does not appear until the Middle English period, as most written forms of late OE are in the Wessex dialect, which had become the standard form under the ruling House in England from the mid-tenth to the mid-eleventh centuries. Nevertheless, the long-term effects of Norse are still present in the modern-day dialects of East Anglia, the Midlands, northern England and lowland Scotland, the latter in the Scots dialect based on Northumbrian English.

Unlike the English, the Danes and Norwegians did not develop a system of writing other than in runes, so no contemporary evidence of the Norse spoken in the Danelaw is available. Norse must have been spoken throughout the territory, and would have continued in large Viking settlements like York throughout the tenth and early eleventh centuries, but in most areas it must have become assimilated into English. Some physical evidence of this can be seen in a small church in Kirkdale, North Yorkshire, St Gregory’s Minster. In the porch, a sundial dating from about 1055 has been preserved, with the following inscription carved in stone (given here in translation):

ORM GAMALSON BOUGHT ST GREGORY’S MINSTER WHEN IT WAS ALL BROKEN (AND) FALLEN DOWN… HE CAUSED IT TO BE MADE ANEW FROM THE GROUND TO CHRIST AND ST GREGORY IN KING EDWARD’S DAYS… IN TOSTI’S DAYS… HAWARTH (AND) BRAND PRIESTS MADE ME.

 

Tostig was Earl of Northumberland and brother of Harold Godwison, who became King Harold in 1066, on the death of Edward the Confessor. Orm and Gamal were Norse names, but the languages of the inscription are Old English and Latin. ‘Orm Gamalsuna’ (in the original) meant Orm, son of Gamal, and this way of creating personal names by adding a ‘patronymic suffix’ (a name derived from the father) was a Scandinavian custom, just as the Welsh custom was to add the prefix ‘ap’. This custom must have been adopted throughout the Danelaw, if not other parts of England, hence its prevalence in modern surnames such as Davidson, Jackson, Johnson, etc. The fact that even the Saxon Earl Godwin’s sons were christened in this way is testimony to its widespread use in England, probably from the time of the Danish King Cnut, possibly a means by which they could demonstrate their loyalty to the foreign ruler, who was, by the end of his reign, keen to represent himself as a naturalised King of the English as well as the Danes.

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West Saxon, Latin and Old English:

The Saxon suffix was –ing, shown in the naming of the young Edgar, son of Edward the Exile, as the Aetheling, the rightful heir of King Aethelred and the Kings of Wessex, and therefore a rival to the throne of both Harold and William I. Henry I’s unfortunate son was also known as ‘Edward Aetheling’. The names with the ‘ing’ suffix were also incorporated into place names such as Walsingham, Billingham, Birmingham, Kidlington, but the ‘ing’ was also used in a more general way as well, so that it must not always be taken to mean son of the family of… The suffixes that indicate place-names in OE included –hyrst (copse, wood), -ham (dwelling, fold), -wic(k)(village), -tun (settlement) and –stede (place), as in Wadhurst, Newnham, Norwich, Ipswich, Heslington and Maplestead. The detailed study of these place-names provides much of the historical evidence for the serttlement of Danes and Norwegians in England.

Some words of Latin origin in OE had already been adopted by the West Germanic languages brought over by the Angles and Saxons. The Germanic peoples had long been in contact with the Romans. However, since there are no written records from this period, the evidence for the early adoption of Latin words lies in the analysis of known sound changes. Although Latin words were spoken in Britain during the fifth century by educated Britons, and transferred into Brythonic and Old Welsh, hardly any words were passed on to the Anglo-Saxon invaders. One exception were the –caster/-chester suffixes in names like Doncaster, Cirencester and Manchester meaning camp, and the –car prefixes in name like Carshalton and Carstairs, meaning fort. Other Latin words were adopted into OE in later periods in the Anglo-Saxon settlements, mainly through the conversion of the kingdoms to Christianity and the gradual establishment of the Roman Catholic Church from the seventh century onwards. The only available version of the Bible was in Latin, the Vulgate, and church services, learning and scholarship all took place solely through the same medium.

 

In Old English, the order of words in a clause was more variable than that of Modern English, and there were many more inflections (prefixes and suffixes) on nouns, adjectives and verbs. So, one of the main differences between OE and MnE is that the latter has lost many of inflections of OE. We can observe the beginnings of this loss of suffixation from the evidence of the surviving manuscripts, in which spelling irregularities become frequent. Therefore, although in late OE times the West Saxon dialect had become the standard written form of OE, and therefore did not reflect differences of pronunciation, scribes sometimes ‘mis-spelt’ because changes in pronunciation were not matched by changes in spelling.

Change and Continuity: The Conquest and Middle English:

In 1066, when Duke William of Normandy defeated King Harold at Hastings and went on to become William I, there were profound effects of the subsequent ‘Conquest’ of England on every level of society, but especially in every sphere of the language – spelling, vocabulary and grammar, but it was Anglo-Saxon, in the form of Middle English, which remained the dominant written and spoken language of the new Norman territory, not Norman French. However, this was no longer the standardised West Saxon of the House of Wessex and its scribes.

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Above: The Anglo-Saxon (Peterborough) Chronicle for 1066, written in the West Saxon standard OE  

We call the linguistic period from 1150 to 1450 Middle English (ME), because from the Modern point of view in time it comes between the periods of Old English and Early Modern forms of English. The evidence for change and continuity from in Middle English comes from before the setting up of the printing press by William Caxton in 1476, and therefore comes in the form of manuscripts, just as with OE. Every copy of every book had to be written out by hand, as well as copies of letters, wills and charters, but only a few of the existing manuscripts in ME are originals, in the hand of their author. On the other hand, some works are known through a single surviving original copy.

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As a result of the social and political upheaval caused by the Norman Conquest, the standard West Saxon system of spelling and punctuation gradually went out of use. Writers used spellings that matched the pronunciation of their spoken dialect. After several copies, therefore, the writing might contain a mixture of different dialectal forms. As a result, there is plenty of evidence for the survival of different OE dialects into ME. After the Conquest of England, from 1066 to 1086, Norman French replaced the West Saxon standard English as the language of the ruling classes and their servants, because nearly all of the former Saxon greater nobility were dispossessed of their lands. The chronicler Robert Mannyng, writing in the NE Midlands dialect in 1338, referred to this takeover of estates by Franks, Normans, Flemmings and Picards who came over with the Conqueror. Another short account of the Conquest, written anonymously in the fourteenth century, in the dialect of the South West Midlands, and in metrical ‘verse’, reveals continuing Saxon hostility towards Norman domination of England:

After reigned a good man

Harold Godwin’s son

He was called Harefoot

For he was runner good

But he ne-reigned here

But nine months of a year

When William bastard of Normandy

Him disposed that were a villainy

Harold lies at Waltham

And William bastard that this land won

He reigned here

One and twenty years

Then he died at (the) home

In Normandy in Caen

 

(Word-for-word translation).

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William’s policy of dispossession of the Anglo-Saxon nobility from their tenures held even more firmly in the Church. The invasion had begun as a ‘crusade’, undertaken with the blessing of the Pope who had been angered by the ‘independence’ of the English church in making appointments. French-speaking bishops and abbots were appointed to the principal offices, and many French monks entered the monasteries. Latin remained the principal language of both Church and State in official documents, while French became the ‘pestige’ language of courtly life and communication with and between the King’s tenants-in-chief. This situation was described by a Plantagenet chronicler, writing in about 1300, given again in word-for-word translation:

…thus lo the English folk, for nought to ground came*…

…for a false king that ne-had no right, to the kingdom…

…came to a new lord… that more in right was…

…but their neither (of them) as one may see… in pure right was.

…thus was in norman’s hand… that land brought certainty …

 

…thus came to England, into Normandy’s hand…

…the Normans ne-could speak then, but their own speech…

…spoke French as they did at home… their children did also teach

…so that high-men of this land… that of their blood come…

…hold all the same speech… that they from them took…

…for but a man knows French… one counts of him little…

…but low men hold to English and to their own speech yet.

…i believe there ne-are in the world countries none…

…that ne-hold to their own speech… but England alone…

…but well one knows for to know… both well it is…

…for the more that a man knows… the more worthy he is…

…this noble duke William… him(self) caused to crown king…

…at London on mid-winter’s day… nobly through all things…

…by the archbishop of york, aldred was his name…

…there ne-was prince in all the world of so noble fame.

(* = were beaten)

The manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was written at Peterborough Abbey is important for both historical and linguistic reasons. Firstly, it is the only copy of the chronicle which describes events up until the middle of the twelfth century, the end of the Norman period and the beginning of the Plantagenet dynasty, in 1154. Secondly, it gives us the first direct evidence for the language change taking place in the 1150s. We know that the monastery’s library was destroyed by fire in 1116, including its original copy of the chronicle. It had to be re-written using a borrowed copy. This copy is the one that has survived to this day and is called the Peterborough Chronicle. The entries for the years up to 1121 are all in the same hand, copied in ‘classical’ West Saxon OE. But there are also two ‘continuation’ volumes of the annals, one recording events from 1122 to 1131 and the other continuing from 1132 to 1154, where the chronicle ends.

The language of these later volumes is not classical West Saxon but is markedly different, providing good evidence of the English usage of the Fenland area at that time. The Peterborough scribes were probably local to that area, speaking the (East) Mercian dialect. Since it was also within the Danelaw, there is some evidence of ON influence as well. As the annals were probably written from dictation, the scribes tended to spell the English as they heard it and spoke it themselves. As the monks were also trained in the writing of French by this time, some of these spelling conventions also influenced their record. These detectable differences in the later annals are what mark the boundary between the Old English of the House of Wessex and their scribes and the Middle English of the next three centuries before the advent of printing to Britain.

Main published source:

Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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