The Fires of Perfect Liberty: Labouring Men and Women of England, 1851-1951: Part Seven   Leave a comment

Looking for a True England, 1921-41: Section 3/4

001In my own maternal family, the Gullivers, starting married life in the early 1920s was not easy, even for those who were relatively well settled either in the city or on its outskirts. This was largely due to the lack of suitable accommodation. With four children still at home, and the factories expanding again in the early twenties, great-grandfather George Gulliver (below, right) had decided to take the better wages offered there, even though it meant leaving their farm tenancy and moving into a rented house in Foleshill. So he went to work for Armstrong-Siddeley as a stoker in the early twenties. While working on the farm, he had been kicked in the stomach by a horse, and soon fell ill with cancer, although according to Jessie, he worked himself to death, dying at the age of sixty-five in 1927.

GeorgeGulliverHe had to have a room to himself and there were still four children at home, two sisters and two brothers. Irene and Bertha were working, and Arthur and Frank were still at school in 1924, aged thirteen and eleven. Their mother shared a second room with Bertha and Irene, until Irene married, and the two boys, Arthur and Frank, were in the third. Mother had to sleep in the girls’ room, because she got so little sleep if she slept with George. So Jessie could not go home, as there wouldn’t be enough room in the girls’ room for her. Also, with George not working, there was very little money coming in, so Jessie wrote from her place of service in Finsbury to her boyfriend Tommy to tell him that she would have to save some money in order to come home.

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

Alfred_Gulliver_2.Although he married Jessie in 1924, Tommy was still in single lodgings, which he didn’t like much, so Jessie got him to go and live with her sister, Millie. She’d got two little girls and she used to take policemen in. They had to live in digs, because they didn’t have apartments or rooms attached to the police stations then. So Millie always used to have a policeman lodging, because her husband only rode the buses, or drove buses, and the money wasn’t very good. So Tommy went to live with her, and he was very happy there. The children loved having Tommy because he used to bring them a bar of chocolate every Friday night. But Millie didn’t offer that Jessie could go and live there when she found out that they had married in secret. The couple used to go round and see her brother Alf, who was in the Navy (left). Lilly, his wife, had one little boy, and she was there on her own with him.

They used to go and see her quite a lot, partly because she had a piano and Tommy could play anything on the piano. But they found it increasingly difficult to keep their marriage a secret:

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

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

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

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

011 Tommy and Jessie did not have children of their own, and there was indeed a close relationship between the lack of suitable accommodation for couples and the low birth rate in the 1920s. Although the population of Coventry grew from 167,083 in 1931 to 224,247 in 1939, more than forty-two thousand of these new citizens were immigrants. Pressure upon local housing was undoubtedly acute and was a continual source of alarm to the Ministry of Housing. Despite this, house building had increased only slowly in the late twenties and early thirties.



021However, a major leap in the supply of housing occurred in the mid-1930s, with the development of land incorporated into the City, including that previously owned by the Stoneleigh estate. It is surely more than coincidental that the birth rate should rise in Coventry during 1934, a year which not only saw a general recovery in the engineering and motor industries, but also one which witnessed a fifty per cent growth in local house building. Throughout the second half of the 1930s, this correlation between the growth of housing and the rise in the birth rate continued, so that by 1939, when 4,600 new homes were erected, the birth rate had risen to nearly eighteen.

VeraGulliver(Brown)photo2Members of my family benefited from the early housing developments in Walsgrave, following its addition to the City in the late twenties. After his marriage to Vera Brown (right) in 1918, Seymour Gulliver and Vera set up home in one of the gardeners’ cottages belonging to the Wakefield Estate. Their first child, Gwen, was born soon after. When Jessie was courting Tommy, they would go round and play cards with Seymour and Vera, walking home to Foleshill often very late. Both Seymour and Vera were strong trade unionists and Labour Party supporters. Seymour had inherited a strong sense of fairness from his father.

Vera’s family, the Browns, weavers and founding Baptists in Walsgrave going back two generations, were also strong supporters of the Labour Party, from before January 1924, when it first won a General Election under Ramsay MacDonald. Daphne (b. 1931) remembered the following song, to the tune of Men of Harlech, which Vera (pictured below with Seymour in their seventies) used to sing around the house long after MacDonald’s expulsion from the Party for his betrayal in forming the National Government in 1931:


Voters All of Aberavon,

Wisdom show in this election,

Don’t be misled by Protection,

Ramsay is the Man!


Ramsay, Ramsay, shout it!

Don’t be shy about it!

On then, comrades, on to glory,

It shall be told in song and story,

How we beat both Lib and Tory,

Ramsay is the Man!


Seymour had a strong sense of social justice, and was a keen member of the Binley lodge of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. On one occasion, he stuck up for a fellow collier who was being bullied by a foreman, and was dismissed from Binley Colliery on the spot. He had to go to Newdigate Colliery to get work there. The conditions there were far worse than at Binley, and when he undressed to bathe in front of the living room fire, his clothes would stand up by themselves, from the combination of mud, coal-dust and sweat which had caked them in the pit and then dried on them during his long walk home at the end of each shift. His body was covered with boils and he had to have special treatment at the Coventry and Warwick Hospital, where they made an experimental serum to cure his condition. Eventually his wife Vera told him, you’ll just have to put your pride in your pocket; you can’t go back down Newdigate; you’d better go back to Binley and ask for your job back. So he went back to Binley Colliery, apologised, and got his job back.

010In 1926, Seymour was out on strike and was locked out of the colliery for seven months in support of the miners, especially those in South Wales, who worked in difficult places and were having their wages cut. There were many miners in Walsgrave at that time, so the Lock-out hit the village hard. Vera had to go back to work as a skilled weaver at Cash’s, and Seymour took over the housekeeping and looked after the children. He and the other colliers could only earn money from tree-cutting up at the Coombe, a wooded area on the adjoining Craven Estate around Coombe Abbey (above left), between Binley and Walsgrave. The miners earned a little money from the timber they cut, and they caught rabbits, pinched the odd pheasant and were given scraps from the Abbey kitchens, bowls of dripping and left-overs from banquets held there, which Seymour would bring home. The miners in the Warwickshire Coalfield were not too badly paid at the start of the Lock-out, as the pits they worked in were generally not as difficult to mine as in some of the older pits in other coalfields. However, they supported the call from the Miners’ Federation for solidarity with those working in ’difficult places’ in other coalfields. Nevertheless, when they went back in the winter of 1926/7, they also had their wages cut.

001Following the return to work, victimised miners from the south Wales valleys began arriving in the village with all their possessions and their whole families on carts. Vera and Seymour helped them to move in and settle as neighbours, and eventually to become leaders of the lodges and social clubs. Walsgrave Hospital stands today in the grounds of what was once the old Walsgrave Hall. It was almost two hundred years old when it was demolished in 1962 to make way for the hospital, but during the early part of the twentieth century the Wakefield family lived there, and owned a large amount of village property, including terraced houses rented by miners and other workers. Seymour’s family lived in a gardener’s cottage belonging to them. During the Miners’ Lock-out of 1926, many of these tenants could not pay their rent, and some never did settle their debts. However, they were not evicted.

003By 1928 Seymour had earned and saved enough to make a down payment on a new semi-detached house with a bay window, next to Walsgrave School, in School House Lane. Almost as soon as they moved in, their front room became the Headquarters for the Labour Party during the 1929 General Election campaign, and the bay window was full of posters. Of course, it was in a strategic position, next to the polling station, the Village School, and so no-one could be in any doubt about Vera and Seymour’s allegiances. In July 1931, Daphne Gulliver (pictured with Seymour above in 1979) was born to Vera and Seymour, their youngest of four children.

She grew up at School House Lane, Walsgrave in the thirties, enjoying such local events such as The Walsgrave Show, a very big agricultural and horticultural event, at which her father won prizes for the vegetables he could now grow in his back garden, as well as on his allotment. The children made bouquets out of wild flowers to be judged at the Show. It was a show run by local farmers like Harold Green, whom the Gullivers had worked for, but it attracted farmers, showjumpers and other participants from far and wide. It eventually combined with the Kenilworth Show, and became the forerunner of The National Agricultural Show at Stoneleigh.

As prosperity returned with a boom in Coventry, local coal-miners’ wages also improved, though many chose to desert the pits for a cleaner, high-wage job in engineering in the City, especially in the car factories. The fall of France in 1940 meant the loss of Britain’s most important overseas market for coal, causing a consequent rise in unemployment among miners. With a shortage of labour in the war industries, it hardly needed the exhortation of Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour, to persuade the miners to seek work that was safer, cleaner and better paid in the munitions factories and there was a further exodus from the pits. In encouraging this, however, Bevin failed to heed warnings by mining MPs that the further dispersal of coalmining labour would lead to a crisis in coal production for the war effort. Seymour stuck to his job at the colliery, however, because he liked the economic security that came with it, as well as the sense of camaraderie in the pit. When, by 1943, there were not enough men and boys available to produce the required tonnage, Bevin (below right, reviewing the Home Guard in a London park) sought to correct his mistake by introducing compulsory conscription for mining among the youths of Britain, chosen by ballot. Seymour was made an overseer for these Bevin boys, not always an easy task, as although they were given a friendly welcome by the colliers, there was a deep resentment among the youths who had been arbitrarily chosen for the pits and paid inadequately to cover lodgings, fares, laundry and pit clothes. Strikes were threatened from Newcastle to Kent, and wages had to be increased to three pounds per week from two pounds ten shillings and sixpence. The picture (below left) of the Bevin boys leaving St Pancras for Chesterfield in January 1944 to commence training perhaps demonstrates their lack of enthusiasm for life as a miner.

017 016

Although not a hard-drinker, like many colliers, Seymour naturally liked to call into the pub for a much-needed pint on his way home after a hard shift at the coal-face. The Baptists frowned upon and shunned the pubs in the village, because there were many well-known heavy-drinkers, but they understood that it was natural for the miners to enjoy a drink together on the way home. The only problems in some families came on weekly pay days, when they received their wage in cash. On these days all the wives would send their children, and Daphne was one of these, to wait for their fathers and get their pay packets from them in case any of them might be tempted to donate too much of it to the pub’s profits! Every mother would send their kids to stand outside The Craven Arms and The Red Lion to collect the wages. This, of course, was more of a show of solidarity by the wives than an act of necessity, especially as the local publicans were strict about not serving those who had, in their opinion, had one too many.


Overall, the growth of Coventry in the 1930s exceeded even the Edwardian boom. The turn around from the stagnant early 1920s was dramatic. Coventry was one of the few communities to have an excess of males in its population in the late thirties, the proliferation of jobs in the rapidly expanding motor and engineering industry being the initial attraction, followed by the growth of armament production after 1936. As is evident from the graphs below, there was little unemployment, except in the seasonal troughs and in the depths of the depression between 1931 and 1933. Even then, unemployment remained well below the national level for both Britain and England. The total population increased by nearly eighty per cent between 1923 and 1937, due largely to substantial immigration.

045 044 040 039

Nearly twelve per cent of all the unemployment books exchanged in Coventry and North Warwickshire in 1937 originated outside the Midlands Division of the Ministry of Labour, compared with less than seven per cent in Birmingham and less than six per cent for the Midlands Division as a whole. Apart from the significant streams of male immigration from the South Wales Valleys, there was also a significant pool of women workers from the slump in the Lancashire cotton industry, and many of these workers, who had a long tradition of factory work, found their way to Coventry between 1920 and 1939. One of the reasons for their lumpiness (twenty-three per cent of all Foreign Insured females) in the workforce may be that Coventry women tended to leave the factories upon marriage. Also, the arrival and expansion of GEC in Coventry during this period provided employment for many women workers who moved south from the company’s Manchester factory.

038Between 1931 and 1938, the total population of Coventry increased by twenty per cent, compared with an increase of just three per cent for Britain as a whole. As the graphs reveal, there was a further dramatic influx of population in the years immediately prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, largely as a result of government contracting in the aircraft industry. The primary pull factors which Coventry was able to exert were constituted by the prospects it offered or was perceived to offer in terms of wages and conditions of work. It is therefore important to assess the nature of the demand for labour and how it was met by the immigrants during this period.

In this context, Coventry’s attraction was part of a wider magnetic field which included the whole Birmingham area, if not the West Midlands in its entirety. Both cities were, of course, major centres of the car industry in the period. The motor-cycle, electrical engineering and electrical apparatus industries were directly responsible for more than a quarter of the increase of one hundred and seventy-four thousand in the joint insured population of Birmingham and Coventry between 1923 and 1937. The demand that they produced for components meant that, in reality, their phenomenal growth was indirectly responsible for a larger proportion of this increase. Also, Coventry’s long-established textile industry enjoyed a new phase of expansion, with the opening of Courtauld’s new rayon works in 1927.

Blue collar rather than white-collar workers continued to dominate the migrant streams flowing into Coventry. Inter-war economic growth demanded workers rather than managers and professionals. The 1931 census shows that while the middle classes accounted for twenty-two per cent of the national population, they formed only nineteen per cent of Coventry’s. Skilled workers represented almost half of employed Coventrians, whereas they represented less than a third of British employees as a whole. This is probably an underestimate of the differences, since census data is based on place of residence, not place of work. An unofficial survey undertaken in 1927 estimated that 27,000 workers commuted daily into Coventry, and the dovetailing of Midland seasonal employment trends could also alter the composition of the local workforce. For example, it was customary for railway carriage builders and wood workers to work in Coventry during the motor trade’s peak period during the winter months, which coincided with the slack season in the railway carriage works.

033While the smoothness of a natural progression from watchmaking and sewing machine manufacture to cycle-making and light engineering, to motor and aircraft engine manufacture is often exaggerated and mythologised in the case of Coventry, there was no obvious reason, apart from William Morris’ personal investment and involvement, why Oxford should become a centre for car manufacture. Although the headquarters of the Morris/ Nuffield empire lay in Oxford by 1925, William Morris’ personal connections with the Coventry car industry in his pioneering period were strong, stretching back to 1910, when he regularly spent an average of three days a week in the city. He had many contracts for supplies of component parts in Coventry, as well as friends. White and Poppe, for instance, which had been operating in Coventry since 1899, supplied him with carburetors. Similarly, he purchased car bodies from Hollick and Pratt, another Coventry concern, until 1922 when after a serious fire damaged their premises all their bodywork operations were moved to Oxford. A near identical pattern evolved with the supply of radiators from the Doherty Motor Components Company which was eventually persuaded by Morris to open a branch factory adjacent to the Cowley Works under the title of Osberton Radiators. By 1923, both the Coventry and Cowley Works had been purchased by Morris and brought under direct control. Also that year, he bought the French engine manufacturers’ works in Coventry, which had been supplying him with the engines for his cars, and named it Morris Engines. He invested almost as much again as he paid for it, doubling its output to over six hundred engines a week, so that by 1934 all Morris engines were produced on the Coventry site.

This helps to illustrate that, whilst Coventry’s industrial structure became more specialised than Birmingham’s as a result of the expansion of motor manufacture, it still remained far more diverse than that of Oxford. Partly as a result of this, Oxford suffered major fluctuations in unemployment levels as a result of seasonal fluctuations in the demand for cars. These continued to have greater significance than they had in Coventry, right up until the outbreak of war. However, average unemployment in Oxford, as in Coventry, remained well below the national averages throughout the period, including the recession years of the early thirties. The American Pressed Steel Company, originally established to produce all-metal bodies for both Morris’ and other car companies in 1926, did begin to diversify into the production of domestic appliances such as refrigerators in the late 1930s, but even then the two car companies between them employed nearly eleven thousand workers, the next biggest Oxford company employing just five hundred. This made Cowley, Headington and much of South East Oxford into a one-industry area. Certainly, no other car-producing centre was so dependent on its primary industrial base. Few, if any, were so heavily dependent on immigrant labour, either.

Between 1925 and 1937 there was an increase of 15,285 in the insured population, of which net immigratrion was responsible for sixty per cent. Total net immigration into Oxford between 1921 and 1937 was over ten thousand. The number of foreigners whose place of origin as insured workers was outside the Oxford district amounted to over eleven thousand in 1936, representing more than a third of the workforce. Amongst the insured male population, nearly half were foreign to the district. Oxford was deemed to be part of the South-West Division of the Ministry of Labour, but even when the numbers of immigrants from both this Division and the Midland Division are placed together, there were still nineteen per cent of the insured population who originated from other divisions, a significantly higher proportion than was the case in Coventry. Between 1931 and 1931 the general population of the Oxford district increased by over eighteen per cent and in the period between 1931 and 1937 its growth even outstripped that of Coventry in proportionate terms, adding twenty-nine per cent to its population. Thus, a similar mushroom growth was taking place, albeit in a somewhat smaller and very different industrial and social context.

046 (2)For the upper-class citizens of Oxford, the idea of their City of Dreaming Spires being transformed into an industrial centre with a large, if not dominant working class, was anathema. William Morris’ enterprise and the resultant development at Cowley was regarded with extreme suspicion as an alien accretion to an academic city whose only traditional industry was the honourable craft of printing. Cowley was a genuinely new industrial area by the late 1920s, the Morris Works and the Pressed Steel plant having transformed what fifteen years previously had been to its Oxfordshire inhabitants a sleepy little village. This was also the adjective used by one contemporary trade unionist to characterise the Labour Movement in Oxford before the advent of the car factories.

Whilst a Trades’ Council had operated for many years, it had been dominated by the University Printing and Railwaymen’s Unions. This image contrasted sharply with that of Coventry, which by the early twenties was already renowned for the militancy of its shop stewards in the engineering dispute of the early twenties. The impact of immigration from traditional trade union areas on the life of Oxford was therefore viewed with some concern both by the employers and the trades unions alike. One of the new breed of militant trades unionists put it like this:

… Workers poured in from South Wales, Merseyside, the North East and elsewhere. This reached the proportions of a ’mini-Klondike’ rush… by 1932 Oxford and Cowley were suffering from severe social strains and conflicts and the ancient serenity of Oxford finally disappeared.

Morris continued to organise his factories on the basis of paternalism, providing welfare schemes and ensuring that wages were at least comparable with other firms. The Pressed Steel works, although instigated by Morris in 1925/6, was not organised on this basis, and the character of its workforce was entirely different. It was from the first dependent upon immigrant labour, chiefly from among South Wales miners with extensive experience of ’industrial organisation’. This distinction between the characteristics of the two works was maintained throughout the period. Such a distinction was bound to reinforce the stereotype of the Welsh workers as militant and disruptive Klondyke gold-diggers. It was an image which was prevalent elsewhere in the Midland factories. For example, when a Welsh shop-steward gave evidence to a sub-committee of the Coventry District AEU set up to investigate complaints against Bro. Underhill, a particularly uncooperative and belligerent member of the Humber works, Underhill stated that they were not likely to have harmony in the shop when the other members were Welshmen, but were only paying into the trade union for their own advantage.

Unlike Coventry, Oxford did not have a tradition of industrial trade unionism, let alone militancy. Those who were attracted to Morris’ Cowley Works from Oxford and the surrounding rural districts had no experience of working in large industrial concerns at all. At an Oxford branch meeting of the craft union, the National Union of Vehicle Builders (NUVB) in August 1927, one member spoke of his experiences in the Morris works at Cowley, stating that all kinds of tradesmen and unskilled men were working there, assembling bodies… who seemed to lack any of the principles of trade union spirit. The Society’s officials at the works found it impossible to organise these men, many of whom lived in villages at considerable distances from the plant. It also proved to be almost as difficult to organise the skilled workers who moved in from Birmingham but failed to transfer their membership. Many of these workers brought in by Morris were content to exploit his piecework system with little regard for the semi-skilled or unskilled local workforce. When Arthur Exell began working at the radiator factory in the late 1920s he found that many Oxonions regarded the Cockneys and Brummies as the scum of the earth… gold-diggers.

062Following the opening of the Pressed Steel works at the end of 1926, The possibility that DA men employed there might transfer their trade union traditions to their new environment was a major concern for industrialists in Oxford. When they were asked to participate in the government’s scheme of Industrial Transference from the South Wales and Durham coalfields, which began in 1928 and continued until 1937. The Ministry of Labour noted some apprehension that these workers (miners from the depressed areas) will impart into areas which they may be transferred contagious elements, unrest and disturbance. Following the General Strike and seven-month lock-out of 1926, the image of the miner in industrial and ministerial circles, at least, was clearly one of a potential disease-carrier. As a contemporary American writer put it towards the end of the period, the Welsh were no favourites with English foremen and managers. It might be added that they got on far better with the American foremen and managers at the Pressed Steel works, but that is another story, one I have told elsewhere. As far as Pressed Steel was concerned, both the AEU and the NUVB showed some interest in organising the very limited number of skilled workers engaged there, but not the mass of unskilled workers, who only became organised by the TGWU after a successful strike in 1934, led by the DA men. However, trade unionism failed to make progress at the Morris works in the period between 1935 and 1940. It took war-time conditions to force recognition for the unions from William Morris, who had become Lord Nuffield in 1934.

To many of the Oxford academics who began investigating the sudden cancerous growth on the edge of their City, these American growth conditions had produced societies which were just as unbalanced as the one-industry depressed areas from which the immigrants came. In their many surveys and articles there are constantly recurring warnings of the dangers of unplanned industrial expansion and of the failure to provide adequate welfare and social amenities for the new populations. The philanthropist Henrietta Barnett visited Cowley in 1932 and went to see some of the new housing estates there. She wrote that she wished that William Morris could be persuaded to build a Garden Village like the one she herself had founded at East Hampstead, and like the Cadbury and Rowntree families had done for their workers. Three years later, by which time a large number of houses had been erected, she received a letter from the editor of her Oxford Survey stating that the clergy of the parishes involved in the present mushroom growth were concerned about the way in which the houses were built, with no provision whatever for community life, above all in the way of meeting halls. The concern for planning as a mechanism of social control is evident in this extract from the unpublished third volume of the Survey:

The coming of the motor industry to Oxford, without reference to any local or central authority responsible for the community, is an example of the process by which the location of industries in modern Britain is generally determined. The migration of labour to Oxford, without either the positive or the negative control of any public body is likewise typical… Instead of club rooms and churches, houses were strung out in ribbons along the main roads. This design does not encourage the growth of community life… the district now contains a large number of heterogeneous elements… In particular, many of the industrial workers who have immigrated from other parts of the country are unhappy at Oxford…

Surveys like this, although providing a useful body of evidence, need to be read today with great care, since they were often inspired by a contemporary mania for planning modern Britain, so that many workers felt they were being planned against by people who wanted to control their leisure time, while industrialists controlled their working time. In August 1923, the Coombe Abbey estate, near Coventry, was also put up for sale, following the death of the fourth Earl of Craven, as a unique site for a garden city. It was bought by a Coventry businessman, who pledged that the land would not be used for development and would continue to remain as unspoilt estate, with farmland and a deer-park. Although subsequently bought by a Coventry based builder, John G. Gray, he confined his alterations to the House itself, leaving the two farms and the estate land untouched by development. From the perspectives of the migrants themselves, there were many positive aspects to the new industry towns, apart from work and wages, including the proximity of the Warwickshire and Oxfordshire countryside and the possibility of a healthier lifestyle being one of them. If they could enjoy a spot of poaching at the same time, they could also supplement their family’s meagre diet. During the miners’ lock-out, both Gray and the farmers on the Coombe Estate turned a blind eye to what the Binley colliers were up to in the woods.

By contrast with the rather negative stereotype of Klondike Cowley, Coventry was often described in the thirties, in positive terms, as a cosmopolitan city. It was a catchphrase which suited both Capital and Labour by this stage. This, like the other popular catchphrases referred to earlier, was a somewhat misleading image, however. The population was certainly mixed, and the proportion of immigrants rose to forty per cent in 1935, but the majority of newcomers were from other regions of the UK, and this remained the dominant trend throughout the war. Coventry did attract eleven hundred imperial immigrants by 1931, and a further thousand Indian textile workers were recruited during the war; in addition, there were a significant number of wartime refugees from eastern Europe, but these numbers were very small compared with the numbers of Coventry’s workers who were born in other regions of Britain and Ireland. It was only in the post-war industrial era that Coventry became truly cosmopolitan, but the acceptance of Commonwealth immigration in that era was undoubtedly aided and facilitated by the City’s willingness to absorb immigrants from other nations and cultures within the British Isles in the pre-war period.

However, we should not lose sight of the fundamental similarity between the inter-war experiences of Coventry and Oxford, which lay in the fact that the expansion of their motor industries led to a demand for semi-skilled and unskilled labour which could not be met locally. In Oxford, the extension to the Morris Works and the completion of the Pressed Steel factory towards the end of 1926, coming at a key juncture in working class history towards the end of the miners’ lockout, meant that they were able to attract labour from the depressed areas as well as from the surrounding rural areas, which were also facing hardship due to the agricultural depression. Despite local protests that jobs were being given to strangers from long distances away from Oxford, in preference to the local unemployed, it is apparent that demand was in fact far in excess of local supply.

Large numbers of skilled engineers from Birmingham, Coventry and London were needed to work at the Morris Works and there was a rapid growth in demand for unskilled workers at Pressed Steel. The Directors of Morris Motors, which became a limited company in 1926, reported a profit of a million pounds for that year. Before the First World War, the Works had been producing forty cars a week; in some weeks of 1926 output had reached two thousand per week, a figure which was reported to be the highest in Europe. Approximately three thousand were employed at the works, and Pressed Steel was already employing a further eight hundred. Just over a thousand of these workers had settled in the Parish of Cowley, which was not at that stage part of the City of Oxford; its population was estimated to have grown from 2,790 in 1921 to approximately 4,500 in 1926. A meeting of Oxford and District Local Employment Committee in September 1927 heard that the number of insurance books in use in the district had grown from sixteen thousand in 1925 to over twenty thousand in 1927, due mainly to the continuous expansion of the two factories. A year later, a Pressed Steel manager told the same Committee that it had been impossible to recruit the five to six hundred additional workers recently taken on, from local sources alone.

The impression gained from local newspaper and statistical sources is that the general recession of 1929 onwards did not seriously affect local employment in Cowley until the early part of 1931, when nearly three thousand workers registered as unemployed at the local Employment Exchange. However, conditions improved rapidly in 1933, leading to a further increase in the demand for unskilled labour. Thereafter, there was a steady demand for the rest of the decade.

The success of the Morris concern also had an important impact on the growth of the labour market in Coventry, where thousands were employed in the manufacture of engines, bodies and other components for assembly in Cowley. Its growth in Coventry formed part of the general consolidation of car manufacture and engineering in the city throughout the thirties. In addition to the acquisition of the engine works in Gosford Street and the body factory in 1923, Morris also added a large machine shop for the production of cylinder blocks. Much of the work in the motor industry in Coventry was of a more skilled nature than that done in Oxford, and although the introduction of mass production techniques led to the de-skilling of many areas of work. There were often very specific shortages of labour in the city, and the Engineering Employers’ Association was continually receiving reports of the difficulties encountered by local firms in recruiting youths between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five who had factory experience. By 1937, the car industry in Coventry was experiencing unbridled expansion. The editor of the Midland Daily Telegraph argued that Coventry’s problem was not that of a shortage of labour, but rather one of a shortage of the right kind of labour. Such unemployment as existed, he suggested, was due to the increasing number of people who had come to the city looking for work for which they were unsuited. This explained the continuation of five per cent unemployment, made up of industrial misfits.

Coventry’s population had recovered from its post-war dip by 1927, when it exceeded its wartime high point, standing at 139,000. Thereafter it expanded rapidly, becoming the fastest growing city in Britain, with a relatively young population. When war broke out in 1939, the total stood at 224,247. Industrial success brought with it problems in the fields of housing, education and social services, all of which created a great deal of activity in the building industry. Throughout the inter-war period industrialists complained bitterly of housing shortages preventing the recruitment of labour, which echoed similar complaints by the local Medical Officer. Yet Coventry’s difficulties were unexceptional, in that, even without such a rapid pace of economic development a great deal of new house-building was required, especially to clear the inner city slums such as those of the St John’s Street and Much Park Street areas; in the latter infant mortality alone was four times higher than the city average. During the twenties new house-building was sited relatively close to the growing factories in the north of the city. During the thirties Coventry saw the fastest rate of growth in house-building in Britain and even then demand continually outstripped supply.

Similar pressures were apparent in education and Coventry’s long-standing problem of overcrowding in schools was exacerbated, so that in October 1925, for example, both girls’ secondary schools, Barr’s Hill and Stoke Park, contained approximately 650 pupils when they had places for only 434. A similar situation existed in the boys’ schools, and the total shortfall in secondary school places stood at 1,400. Attempts to overcome this were made through the acquisition of land for the building of the Caludon Castle School for Boys in 1938 and by the the rebuilding of Stoke Park School in 1939. The demands of science-based industries, with their emphasis on mathematics, engineering drawing and training in the design and use of machine tools, required increased provision of technical education. By the mid-thirties existing facilities were extremely inadequate and this led to the opening of a new technical college in 1936, which by 1938 had some 4,575 students on its courses.

In 1936 a group of the City’s industrialists, including John Black, William Rootes and Alfred Herbert, became involved in planning Shadow Factories with Whitehall oficials. Coventry became heavily involved in aircraft engine construction, and four of these factories were built in and around Coventry in 1936 and ’37, and over the space of two years some four thousand aircraft engines were made by them. Clearly insufficient to meet the needs of the RAF, increased factory space was imperative in order to produce new and more powerful engines, so Daimler, Rootes and Standard again became involved in the war effort in a major way. Clearly the impact of war on Coventry’s economy can only be described as stupendous. At its peak the City’s population swelled to over a quarter of a million for the first time as workers moved in from different parts of Britain.

The rapid influx of labour during the rearmament period of 1936-39 created further tremendous problems for local society, however. Education and housing provision were put under severe strain. The expansion in the motor industry had become so overwhelming by 1937 that some elected representatives began to call halt and to reflect the growing national concern about the concentration of industry:

Councillor J.C. Lee Gordon… questioned whether Coventry required these new factories, and raised the issue of the new schools and houses that would have to be provided to meet the needs of the labour which, he assumed, would have to be imported… Similar opinions have been heard in Labour circles… The viewpoint has been expressed that towns situated in prosperous areas should not encourage the construction of new factories, but that industrialists in search of these sites should be quietly shepherded into the distressed areas… (The Editor commented that… Even if Coventry must import the new labour for these factories, it matters but little, work will be found for men who are unemployed elsewhere, and further variety is added to our own local industries… )

This spiraling demand for labour was further accentuated by the Government’s abandonment of the Business as Usual rearmament policy in 1938, which led to the building of shadow factories under Ministry of Defence contracts, next to the new car factories on the outskirts of Coventry. To begin with, the labour requirements of these factories were substantially met by workers stood off from the motor industry due to the recession in general engineering of 1937-38. However, by 1939 this supply had been exhausted and a crisis meeting of the directors of Coventry firms was called to consider the question of the shortage of skilled labour in Coventry, earnings of workpeople and the housing position, in view of the proposal to extend the shadow factories in Coventry, involving the employment of five to six thousand further workpeople. The Engineering Employers’ Association, eager to counter poaching of key workers, urged the Government to obtain additional employees from other areas.

The problem of overcrowding resulting from the influx of new workers persisted long after the outbreak of war, though the erection of four thousand six hundred new houses in 1939 must have done much to mitigate it. In all, something of the order of eleven thousand new homes had been built within the city between 1935 and 1939. The Nuffield Survey’s wartime report on Coventry and East Warwickshire found that the City’s sixty thousand houses and shops were a goodly number for the population as it stood at the outbreak of war and that, although large houses were few, the great majority of houses provided accommodation superior to the average for the whole country. However, in 1940-41 bomb damage and the increasing labour force resulted in notorious overcrowding in the suburbs. The Ministry of Labour reported sending three hundred new workers to Coventry every week, and the National Service Hostels Corporation was formed in May 1941 to build fifteen hostels in and around the City to house over eight thousand workers. Even this rudimentary form of accommodation was preferable to shift workers sharing beds in lodgings, or other migrants forced to live in derelict buildings, makeshift shelters, caravans and tents. Life for the majority of migrant workers in wartime Coventry was undoubtedly uncomfortable, though this was compensated for by the high wages earned in the munitions factories. Nevertheless, in addition to the accommodation problems, there were frequent complaints about the lack of social and leisure amenities. These were also in evidence in the Oxford Times, commenting on the growth of the new estates in   April 1937:

It must be admitted that in a great many cases, including that of Oxford, the authorities failed to look sufficiently far ahead in planning these estates, and often left them without shopping centres, churches, schools, halls or other amenities which are now recognised as essential… although in the majority of cases there are to be found… among them (the immigrants) people willing and able to start social activities, they are usually handicapped by the lack of a meeting place. At best most of them have only a schoolroom in which to meet.

Key figures in the social service movement in Oxford, such as C V Butler, also took a more negative view of the new leisure which they saw emerging from the City’s new working class. In particular, Butler saw this as the result of the uneven patterns of work in the new industries:

Morris’s, the Pressed Steel works… have long periods of overtime working… periods of… rush work in Oxford bring with them their own problems so far as leisure occupation is concerned. While they léast, young people are at a disadvantage if they are inclined to take up something… which demands consecutive thought or attendance; clubs, evening classes, systematic reading, for example… This often results in a tendency among them… to get the most excitement possible out of their leisure time. Perhaps this is one explanation of the popularity of dancing, cinemas and dog-racing… That sense of responsibility which is developed in the craftsman is not brought out in the worker in the mass production factory… It is an explanation of the dance craze and the cinema craze… There is practically nothing else to do on Saturday night except dance or go to the cinema. No clubs, except the YMCA, and very few churches have organised anything… the minds of the young people are being stultified by this feeding with not always wholesome material.

In a letter sent from Coventry, Philip Handley, the local Employment Exchange Officer, wrote in similar vein to Sir Wyndham Deedes of the National Council of Social Service in March 1939 admitting that the City’s obsession with the elementary question of housing for the growing population had been to the exclusion of any significant attempt to develop social and cultural amenities, with the result that the new housing areas lacked shopping and social facilities, halls, churches and libraries. Since he was responsible for the reception and after-care of the younger government transferees in particular, he shared some of the concern of those in the social service movement who viewed the new areas as lacking the right sort of social and cultural institutions. In particular, he referred to the settling in period as a potential problem, a time during which the public house and the cinema is more attractive than the strange church which may be, and usually is, some distance away. Following his subsequent visit to Coventry, Deedes was clearly alarmed to see for himself what he referred to as a lack of social and recreational provision in the form of community centres, boys’ clubs, churches and hostels. His distaste for working class preferences in leisure activities is clear from both the tone and content of his report:

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

In fact, this new leisure cut across class and regional demarcations much in the same way as older forms of leisure had done, and continued to do. There were evidently many in key positions both nationally and locally who regarded its development as undermining their patronage, and when these critics wrote of the absence of community ethos, they therefore wrote from an established, perhaps establishment, perspective. In looking at the reactions of the working classes themselves, whether indigenous or immigrant, to the social life available in the new industry areas, it is obvious that many were not as unhappy as their image is painted by these would-be patrons.

Posted November 1, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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