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‘God’s Own People’ – Welsh Puritans, The New Model Army & The Commonwealth.   Leave a comment

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‘Williams alias Cromwell’ – God’s Welshman?:

Christopher Hill

Writing recently on the 375th anniversary of the founding of the New Model Army, I was reminded of the fact that its cavalry commander, Oliver Cromwell, given the epithet ‘God’s Englishman’ as the title of his biography, by Christopher Hill (right), was of ‘good Welsh stock’. Indeed, his ancestors’ story is very much synonymous with the union of England and Wales under the Tudors. Oliver himself was born in 1599, one of ten children, in Huntingdon, towards the end of the reign of the last Welsh-speaking monarch of Britain, Elizabeth I.

Oliver Cromwell’s father, Robert Cromwell (alias Williams), was the younger son of Sir Henry Cromwell (alias Williams), the ‘Golden Knight of Hinchingbrooke’. Henry’s father was born Richard Williams, grandson of a Welshman said to have accompanied Henry Tudor when he seized the throne of England from the Plantagenets at the Battle of Bosworth and became Henry VII in 1485. So the family’s estate derived from Oliver’s great-great-grandfather Morgan ap William, the son of William ap Ieuan of Wales. William was a great archer and a kinsman of Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke. Morgan was a brewer from Glamorgan who settled at Putney near London and married Katherine Cromwell (born 1482), the daughter of the local blacksmith, Walter Cromwell. She was also the sister of Thomas Cromwell, the famous chief minister to Henry VIII. The Cromwell family acquired great wealth as occasional beneficiaries of Thomas’s administration of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Of course, he was known as the ‘hammer of the monks’ and was the architect of the English Reformation. The story of his fall and execution in 1540 has just been re-chronicled by historical novelist Hilary Mantel in the final part of her hugely popular ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy, something else that prompted me to write about Oliver Cromwell’s Welsh connections.

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Henry VIII believed that the Welsh should adopt surnames in the English style rather than taking their fathers’ names (patronyms) as Morgan ap William and his male ancestors had done. Henry suggested to Sir Richard Williams, one of the king’s most favoured knights, who was the first to use a surname in his family, that he might adopt the surname of his uncle Thomas Cromwell. For several generations, the Williamses added the surname of Cromwell to their own, styling themselves “Williams alias Cromwell” in legal documents (Noble 1784, pp. 11–13). Richard Williams took the name of his famous uncle and acted as his agent in the suppression of the monasteries. He had his reward: three abbeys, two priories and the nunnery of Hinchinbrooke, worth perhaps two-and-a-half thousand pounds a year, came into his possession; and he married the daughter of a Lord Mayor of London. His son, Sir Henry, built the magnificent mansion out of the ruins of Hinchinbrooke, fit to entertain royalty, on the site of Ramsey Abbey. In the year of the Armada, 1588, he ordered all his copyhold tenants in the manor of Ramsey to be ready to attend him at an hour’s notice. He too married the daughter of a Lord Mayor of London, represented his county in the House of Commons and was for times sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. He was one of the two wealthiest landowners in Huntingdonshire.

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An integrated Britain becomes visible first in the major migration of the Welsh to the centre of power in the sixteenth century. Dafydd Seisyllt from the Welsh-speaking ‘enclave’ of Ergyng in Herefordshire went up to London as a sergeant of Henry VII’s guard. He bought land and installed his son as a court page. His grandson was William Cecil, Elizabeth’s potent statesman and spy-master. William’s son, Robert Cecil, became chief minister of James I, and in 1605 ‘uncovered’ the Gunpowder Plot. As we have seen above, the family of Morgan ap-William, the brewer who married Thomas Cromwell’s sister, changed its name and its base from Glamorganshire to Huntingdonshire during this time, producing Oliver Cromwell three generations later. A horde of less well-known Welsh people colonised some of the London professional classes, the armed forces and some branches of commerce which in a few sectors became historically significant. The law and education are major examples of this. They also helped to establish Bristol as Britain’s major Atlantic port as trade routes switched from the eastern English coasts to the west. The Welsh moved resolutely into every conceivable avenue of advancement, from the Court, the Great Sessions, the Council of Wales, JP patronage and the academic world, through minerals, commerce and politics, to smuggling and piracy.

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Under Elizabeth I, Welsh intellectuals concentrated in force behind the first thrust for naval growth, American colonisation and empire. For the first time in centuries, the Welsh Church ceased to serve as the provider of sinecures for English clerics; thirteen of the sixteen bishops appointed to Wales were crusading Protestant Welshmen. Elizabeth’s coronation oath referred back through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Histories of the Kings of Britain to claim her right to call herself Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church independently of the ‘Bishop of Rome’, tracing the origins of the churches in Britain to the Celtic missionaries. When these claims came under attack from the ‘Italian School’, most Tudor Renaissance humanists came to the defence of what had become official ‘doctrine’.

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Among the new scholars were Sir John Price of Brecon and Humphrey Llwyd of Denbigh. In 1571, Jesus College, Oxford was created specifically as a Welsh college. Central to this burst of British imperial energy was the seminal figure of the European Renaissance, Dr John Dee, the London-Welshman, originally from Radnorshire, who is credited with the coinage of the term ‘British Empire’. He was a brilliant mathematician and foundation fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. In the 1580s, from the twin Calvinist bases of Bohemia and the Palatinate, he launched a scientific and mystical movement which cultivated a new world view. In 1614, Elizabeth Stuart, James I’s daughter, married Frederick, Elector Palatine, and in 1618 they became the ‘Winter’ King and Queen of Bohemia, an event which led to the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe.

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Court & Country in Stuart Times:

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Henry’s son, Sir Oliver, also a knight of the shire and high sheriff, was the uncle of Oliver Cromwell. Despite prudent marriages, Sir Oliver, living to almost a hundred, managed to dissipate the family fortunes. He entertained James I at Hinchinbrooke (above) in the most lavish way when the King was on progress from Scotland in 1603 and on many later occasions. Like other country gentlemen who entertained the impecunious monarch, Sir Oliver got little in return. Like Sir John Harington of Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire, tutor and guardian of James’ daughter Elizabeth, Sir Oliver is a classical example of a man ruined by ‘courtesy’. He had to sell his great house to the Montague family, who were to play a major part in the civil wars.

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This may have been the root cause of the family feud which was the background to Oliver’s own quarrel with Sir Edward Montague, the Earl of Manchester, pictured right, which led to the ‘Self-Denying Ordinance’ removing Manchester and his fellow peers from command of the Parliamentary Army, and the establishment of the ‘New Model’ Army under Sir Thomas Fairfax and Cromwell. The immediate result of the sale was that Robert, as the younger son, inherited little of the patrimony; but he did retain some of his own former church property. Cromwell’s father Robert was of modest means but still, a member of the landed gentry.

As a younger son with many siblings, Robert inherited only a house at Huntingdon and a small amount of land. This land would have generated an income of up to £300 a year, near the bottom of the range of gentry incomes. Oliver’s mother was Elizabeth Steward, the anglicised surname of ‘Stewart’ or ‘Stuart’. On both sides, the fortunes of the family had been founded by the ‘spoliation’ of the Roman Catholic Church. At the Reformation Elizabeth Steward’s great-uncle, Robert had been the last Prior of Ely and its first protestant Dean. Her father William and after him her only brother Sir Thomas farmed the lands of Ely Cathedral. The connection between the two families went back two generations: for the man who persuaded Prior Robert Steward to throw in his lot with Thomas Cromwell was Sir Richard Cromwell, previously known as Richard Williams.

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Above. Ely Cathedral from Cromwell’s House.

Oliver was born in a house which had been part of the hospital of St John in Huntingdon since his father had acquired property which had formerly belonged to the Austin friars: from his maternal uncle Sir Thomas Steward, Oliver was later to inherit extensive leases from the Dean and Chapter of Ely. But he must have grown up conscious of the fact that he was a poor relation. He visited the splendours of Hinchinbrooke from time to time, but his father’s three hundred pounds a year was less than Sir Oliver would have spent on a fleeting visit from King James. Young Oliver had many rich and important relations, but his own upbringing was modest. Cromwell himself in 1654 said,

“I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in considerable height, nor yet in obscurity”.

Above: Cromwell’s House and parish church, Ely

Along with his brother Henry, Oliver had kept a smallholding of chickens and sheep, selling eggs and wool to support himself, his lifestyle resembling that of a yeoman farmer. In 1636 Cromwell inherited control of various properties in Ely from his uncle on his mother’s side, and his uncle’s job as tithe collector for Ely Cathedral. As a result, his income is likely to have risen to around £300–400 per year.

Cromwell’s House in Ely is a museum today, as shown above, and below.

 

By the end of the 1630s, Cromwell had returned to the ranks of acknowledged gentry. He had become a committed Puritan and had established important family links to leading families in London and Essex. In his seminal book The World Turned Upside Down (below), Christopher Hill argued that the familiar civil war division between the ‘Royalist’ North and West and the ‘Parliamentarian’ South and East, was also a division between the ‘relatively backward’ North and West, and the ‘economically advanced South and East’. Yet, with hindsight, these contemporary stereotypes were already changing as the first civil war got underway and by the second the growth in Atlantic trade was already beginning to transform the fortunes of war in the West. Yet, the North and West were regarded by Parliamentarians as the ‘dark corners of the land’, in which preaching was totally inadequate, despite the early attempts made by many Puritans to propagate the Gospel. In 1641, Lord Brooke (Earl of Warwick) observed that there was…

… scarce any minister in some whole shires, as in Cumberland, Westmorland, Northumberland and especially in Wales.

Eighteen years later, the evangelical minister and Parliamentary chaplain, Richard Baxter, argued that…

 … multitudes in England, and more in Wales, Cornwall, Ireland, the Highlands, are scarce able to talk reason about common things. Are these … fit to have the sovereign power, to rule the Commonwealth?

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But the radicals puritans’ vision already included a reformed educational system, which would realise something of Comenius’ ideal: universal education in the vernacular for boys and girls up to the age of eighteen, followed by six years at university for the best pupils. On a visit to England in 1641, he wrote that…

… they are eagerly debating on the reformation in the whole kingdom … that all young people should be instructed, none neglected.

Wales in the Civil Wars – Royalists to Roundheads:

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In the first civil war, Wales was seen as solidly in support of the King, but by 1645 the royalist coalition in Wales, bludgeoned by repeated levies of men and money, murky deals with the Irish and an inflow of royalist refugees, began to break up. In Glamorgan, ‘peaceable armies’ demonstrated for compromise and throughout Wales, there was wholesale defection. By 1646 the ‘Pembroke party’ was also working for a compromise peace with the Presbyterians in the face of a radical army. From that army came Independent chaplains such as Vavasour Powell, who became itinerant preachers among the Welsh. In response, moderate royalists, Presbyterians and disgruntled parliamentarians shuffled into an alliance in support of the imprisoned king. This led to a rising focused on south Pembrokeshire in the summer of 1648 when there were also revolts in south-east England, followed by an invasion of Northern England by the Scots. The rising in South Wales was led by former Parliamentarian officers, renegades against whom Cromwell was particularly bitter. After their defeat, one of their leaders was shot. In this second civil war, the New Model Army won a victory against the rebels at St Fagans near Cardiff and Cromwell himself brought about the final reduction of Pembroke Castle, the boyhood home of Henry Tudor. Early in 1649, Charles was executed and Wales was exposed to the full force of ‘the British Republic’.

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But the ‘transformation’ of Wales from a Royalist ‘fiefdom’ into a Roundhead republic by no means simply an orgy of expulsions and confiscations. Many of the men who gained control in Wales were ‘crusaders’ for the puritan cause. John Jones, a freeholder from of Maes-y-Garnedd in Merioneth and a convert of Morgan Llwyd’s preaching, married Cromwell’s sister, served the Protector in Ireland and died heroically on the scaffold as an unrepentant regicide. Colonel Philip Jones of Llangyfelach, a distinguished soldier, was close to the visionary Hugh Peter, and it was this circle that the notion evolved of evangelising Wales around a ‘commission’ to propagate the gospel. To them, Wales was a dark corner, ripe for a radical experiment in godly government. It was this abused régime with its army men and preaching cobblers which proved to be the only English administration to date to treat Wales as a separate nation. The Rump Parliament at Westminster had disappointed even moderate reformers by its failure to ensure that the word was preached in every parish, for there were still too many lazy, ignorant and absentee parsons who left their flocks hungry in what was a sermon-hungry age. It did set up two local Commissions for the Propagation of the Gospel early in 1650, one for Wales and the other for the northern counties, but it made no progress at all with a bill intended to do the same for England as a whole.

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The Act for the Better Propagation of the Gospel in Wales of 1650 gave the country a peculiar form of autonomy under Colonel Thomas Harrison and seventy commissioners. There were a few members of the gentry of Independent temper like Sir Erasmus Philipps of Picton in Pembrokeshire, though most, of necessity, were English military missionaries. Philip Jones and John Jones were prominent, but the core around Harrison were men like Powell, Cradock, Llwyd, John Miles (who had created the first Calvinistic Baptist church in Gower), men whom later generations would see as founding fathers of modern Wales. They threw out nearly three hundred clergymen, but the propagating venture got a bad name when the Welsh commission was powerfully infiltrated by Fifth Monarchist firebrands, most notably Vavasour Powell and Morgan Llwyd, who had strong links with Colonel Harrison and his faction in the Army. They were not only seen as perverting the organisation in order to preach socially subversive ideas about the irrelevance of worldly rank and the imminent rule of the saints, but they were unjustly accused of misappropriating the tithes and other revenues of the church in Wales to their own sectarian ends. This was only one symptom of growing polarization between moderate and extreme puritans. The year 1652 saw a spate of radical pamphlets and petitions, tending to the removal of religion from the state’s authority, as well as the rapid expansion of Quakers and other heterodox sects. But it also saw the emergence of a group of moderate Independents led by John Owen who put a set of proposals before the Rump prefiguring the ecclesiastical régime of the Protectorate. They sought to preserve a broad established church, with generous freedom of worship and association outside it.

As a political and religious ‘Independent’, Lord General Cromwell favoured the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in both England and Wales, though he maintained the need for a national Church, supported through tithes, possibly because he himself was a tithe-collector for Ely. Yet Parliament did nothing to achieve this. It was not until February 1653 that the Rump took up the relatively conservative but nonetheless reforming scheme of Owen and his group. But Parliament and the Army remained suspicious of each other, and the Rump showed particular animosity towards Harrison, whom the hostile MPs blamed for the radical actions taken under the auspices of the Commission for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales. He had lost his place on the Council of State in November 1651, and there was even a move to expel him from parliament. This was not only unjust but also foolish, for though Cromwell did not share Harrison’s fifth monarchist beliefs, there were still strong ties of friendship and mutual trust between the two seasoned soldiers. According to contemporary sources, Cromwell played up to Army radicalism by saying that the Rump intended to support ‘the corrupt interests of the clergy and the lawyers’. So far from reforming the Anglican Church, Parliament aroused resentment by refusing to renew the Commission for Wales, the Army’s favourite instrument for evangelising what had proved to be a politically unreliable country.

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Cromwell and the generals also advocated the disappearance of Parliament and the handing of power to a provisional government, in which they themselves would naturally predominate, to supervise and control elections. How otherwise, he asked, could one know …

… whether the next Parliament were not like to consist of all Presbyterians. … Thus, as we apprehended, would have been thrown away the liberties of the nation into the hands of those who had never fought for it.

When a meeting between officers and MPs on 19 April 1653 ended in deadlock, the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between them to engage in further discussions was breached the next day by backbench MPs who started to rush through a bill for dissolution without meeting the officers’ demand for an interim authority under their control, revealing that parliament intended to control the election of its successors itself. Cromwell felt that his hand had been forced, and intervened with the army just in time to stop the new bill from becoming law. He flew into a rage, by all accounts, declaring to the Commons:

You are no Parliament, I say you are no Parliament …

So ended the Long Parliament, which had sat for twelve and a half years. Despite the repeated attempts by many to ‘paint’ this as an act of tyranny in the form orchestrated ‘coup d’état’, it is quite clear that what Cromwell was seeking to do was to end the dictatorship of an undemocratic ‘élite’ which was clinging to power and trying to ensure the continued predominance of presbyterian rule both in Westminster and the country at large. His ‘righteous indignation’ stemmed from the manner in which they sought to dissolve themselves in order to ensure that they could rig the subsequent election to this effect. Their betrayal of the compromise reached with the Army took him by surprise.

The ‘Coral Growth’ of the Welsh Independents:

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Above: The British Republic, 1649-60.

During the civil wars, new universities were proposed for Bristol, Shrewsbury, Ludlow and Aberystwyth. There were also proposals for an increase in the number of schools and in Wales a great number of new schools were actually started. Despite the negative stereotypes quoted above, according to Laurence Stone, there was a substantial increase in lower-class literacy throughout the revolutionary decades. One of the paradoxes of the period was that of the most radical sectarian groups, the Quakers started almost exclusively in the North of England and the Baptists were at their strongest in Wales. William Erbery claimed that the new English Independency had already been overthrown by the Welsh and that…

… baptised churches have the greatest fall (harvest) from the northern saints in both in England and Wales … John’s spirit is in the North of England and the spirit of Jesus rising in North Wales is for the fall of all the churches in the South. The whirlwind comes from the North. 

From the early 1650s, there was a rapid expansion of Particular Baptists in Wales and of Quakers all over the North of England. In 1654, one of their enemies, Ephraim Pagitt, said of them in 1654 that they were made up out of the dregs of common people … thickest set in the North Parts. Earlier, in 1649, Hugh Peter and others had noticed that the Welsh border counties, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, were ‘ripe for the gospel’ and emissaries were sent from Glamorgan to London asking for preachers. When the Quakers turned south in 1654 they made great progress among ‘that dark people’ of Cornwall, as well as in Wales, and among weavers generally, notably in Gloucestershire. The paradox was further intensified by the fact that such Puritan ministers as there were in the North had mostly been cleared out in the Laudian persecutions of the 1630s, under Richard Neile, Archbishop of York. Those remaining were further reduced in the North and Wales when they fled from their parishes the civil war to escape the Royalist occupation in those territories. As early as 1646 Thomas Edwards had noted that…

… emissaries out of the sectaries’ churches are sent to infect and poison … Yorkshire and those northern parts, … Bristol and Wales. … Sects begin to grow fast … for want of a settlement in discipline.

Traditional southern middle-class Puritanism of the Presbyterian variety had a hold only in isolated areas of the North, and hardly at all in Wales, except for the area of Harley influence along the borders with Worcestershire and Herefordshire. There, Sir Thomas’ planting of godly ministers … backing them with his authority made religion famous in his little corner of the world. Clarendon testifies to the existence of support for the Parliamentary cause among the common people and popular religious movements in North Wales and in the Forest of Dean at the end of the first civil war. This helps to explain why the New Model Army, …

… having marched up and down the kingdom, to do the work of God and the state … met with many Christians who have much gospel-light … in such places where there hath been no gospel-ministry.

Presbyterian Puritanism took little hold of any depth in Wales. The defeat of the Royalist armies and the bankruptcy of the traditional clergy created an even greater spiritual void than in the more traditional Puritan areas of the South and East. Yet the period was one of much greater prosperity in the pasture farming areas of Wales and the borders. This combined with a growth in ‘cottage’ industries as confirmed by a shift in population to the west midland counties of England and the re-building of peasant houses in stone. Contemporaries explained the ‘whoredoms of the Welsh’ by the mountain air: the modern historian more wisely sees them as the natural product of a society which refused to accept English protestant marriage laws.

In these areas, it was the Particular Baptists who initially filled the spiritual gap, though in some parts they were superseded by Quakers, as in the North of England. The more politically radical Fifth Monarchists had only a superficial influence in Wales, being a mainly urban movement, and they had little connection with the Forest of Dean before the 1670s. It seems to have been mainly in response to this radical challenge that the outlying clergy joined in the movement led by Kidderminster’s Richard Baxter to build up voluntary county associations of ministers, a sort of ‘Presbyterianism from below’. The radical Independents of the Cromwellian period in Wales and along the Welsh border included Vavasour Powell, Morgan Lloyd, Walter Cradock and William Erbery, to which might be added Thomas Harrison and Henry Danvers, the Fifth Monarchists from Staffordshire, and the Leveller William Walwyn of Worcestershire.

There was also a broader cultural impact of Wales and the borders upon the ‘more advanced’ south and east. John Donne, the greatest of the metaphysical poets, is separated by just one generation from the Welsh forbear who sent his younger son to London to be apprenticed, and George Herbert and Henry Vaughan were both Welsh. Thomas Traherne came from the Welsh ‘marches’ and in the second rank of border ‘bards’, we might include Lord Herbert of Cherbury and John Davies of Hereford. Inigo Jones, the great architect who re-built St Paul’s before the Great Fire destroyed it completely, was of Welsh descent. Turning to the field of mathematics and science, Robert Recorde, John Dee, Robert Fludd, Matthew Gwynne, Edmund Gunter, Thomas Vaughan and Edward Somerset, Marquis of Worcester, were all Welsh or, like Cromwell himself, of Welsh descent. The cultural consequences of the union of Great Britain, begun by the Tudors, and extended by James I, were further developed through the creation of the New Model Army and its role in the political and religious matters of the mid-seventeenth century.

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The Cromwell Coat of Arms (on Oliver’s ascent to Lord Protector in 1653)

The Bible & Radical Puritanism in the Protectorate:

Late twentieth-century historians re-examined the nature of Cromwell’s faith and of his authoritarian regime. In his extensive 2002 book (see below), Austin Woolrych explored the issue of “dictatorship” in depth, arguing that Cromwell was subject to two conflicting forces: his obligation to the army and his desire to achieve a lasting settlement by winning back the confidence of the nation as a whole. He argued that the dictatorial elements of Cromwell’s rule stemmed less from its military origin or the participation of army officers in civil government than from his constant commitment to the interest of the people of God and his conviction that suppressing vice and encouraging virtue constituted the chief end of government. Historians such as John Morrill, Blair Worden, and J. C. Davis have developed this theme, revealing the extent to which Cromwell’s writing and speeches are suffused with biblical references, and arguing that his radical actions were driven by his zeal for godly reformation.

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It is difficult to overemphasise the role of the Bible in the radical Puritanism of the first half of the seventeenth century. By mid-century, eschatological prophecy had become a major part of protestant controversial literature, aided especially by the invention of printing. Scholars, including Newton, approached the Bible authorised by King James in 1612 in a scientific spirit and reached a consensus which indicated the advent of remarkable events in the mid-1650s: the fall of Antichrist, the second coming and the millennium. This underlay the confident energy and utopian enthusiasm of the Puritan preachers of the 1640s and ’50s. In this spirit of optimism, they called upon their fellow commoners to fight the Lord’s battles against the Antichrist. Cromwell was chief among these men to take up that calling.

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Ordinary Bible-readers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wanted to democratise the mysteries that lay behind the sacred texts of the Scriptures, previously known only to scholars, for themselves. They believed, on good protestant authority, that anyone could understand God’s word if he studied it carefully enough and if the grace of God was in him. Then the Bible could be made to reveal the significance of the events of his own time. Bibles were no longer expensive as book prices then went, 3s 2d in 1649 and later just two shillings. Soldiers in the New Model Army were issued with The Soldier’s Bible, containing key passages which justified their war with the ‘Antichrist’. The Geneva Bible, on which the Authorised Version was based, was published in pocket-size editions so that men could take it to church or the ale-house, as Henry VIII had observed with alarm, to knock down an argument with a text. Those coming to the Bible with no broad historical sense but with high expectations found in it a message of direct contemporary relevance. A young Welshman delighting in the name of ‘Arise’ Evans (a forename probably derived from ‘Rhys’, ‘ap-Rhys’ or, in its anglicised form, ‘Rice’) who arrived in London in 1629, witnessed as to how his attitude to the Bible changed in the decade before the Revolution:

Afore I looked upon the Scripture as a history of things that passed in other countrie, pertaining to other persons; but now I looked upon it as a mystery to be opened at this time, belonging also to us.

This attitude was, no doubt, shared by many of the victims of economic and political crisis who turned to the Bible for guidance in that perplexing period. The 1640s and ’50s were indeed the great age of ‘mechanic preachers’, laymen like the Quakers George Fox and James Nayler, who led a procession into Bristol in 1656 symbolically riding on an ass, and the ex-soldier and Baptist John Bunyan, interpreting the Bible according to their own untutored ‘inner lights’ with all the excitement and assurance of a new discovery. Many Quaker leaders were also ex-soldiers, like James Nayler, and some had been dismissed from the Army in the 1650s for disciplinary reasons, but others seem not to have found military service compatible with their values. Quakers also continued to serve in the Navy. George Fox was offered a commission in 1651. In his Journal he recorded that he refused it on pacifist grounds, but in 1657 he urged ‘the inferior offices and soldiers’ of the Army on to conquer Rome. After 1658 he was more cautious, but as late as 1660 a leading south Welsh Quaker asked Fox whether Quakers were free to serve in the Army. The first official declaration of absolute pacifism was made by the Society of Friends in January 1661, after a number of Quakers had been arrested in the aftermath of the unsuccessful Fifth Monarchist Revolt. It was intended to protect them against charges of sedition, but also marks the beginning of refusal among them to accept civil or military offices. However, it is more likely that, in the previous decade, the early refusals of Fox and others sprang from political objections to the government of the Commonwealth rather than from pacifist principles. In fact, in 1659, when the political situation was more to their liking, many Quakers re-enlisted in the Army. As late as 1685, Quakers are said to have turned out with their ‘pitchforks’ in the west country to join Monmouth’s rebellion.

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The Growth of Quakerism in Wales & the West of England – The Strange Case of Dorcas Erbery:

The coral growth of Quakerism, especially in Wales and the Western Counties of England, from Cumberland to Cornwall, was largely the product of the nurturing of lay-preaching in the radical regiments of the New Model Army. These soldier-preachers, like Nayler, took it for granted that fellow Quakers had supported and, in most cases, fought for Parliament in the civil wars. George Fox made similar assumptions, though by the mid-1650s he was resisting James Nayler’s ‘simple teaching’ and writing to Nayler that his style of mechanic preaching had made him a shelter for the unclean spirits, the beasts of the field; they made thee their refuge. The controversy led to disunity, as elsewhere, while Nayler himself remained silent. Nayler was born in the Yorkshire village of West Ardsley, near Wakefield in 1618, where he followed his father’s occupation of a ‘husbandman’ before moving into the nearby town. In 1643 he had joined the Parliamentary Army and served seven years in a foot regiment before becoming quartermaster in Lambert’s Regiment of Horse, taking part in the third civil war, including the battles of Dunbar and Worcester.

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In the summer of 1656, along with a number of other Quakers, Nayler was imprisoned in Exeter Jail. Amongst these were a number of women, including Dorcas Erbery, the daughter of an “honest minister” in Wales, probably William Erbery. One of the women died, and when Dorcas, some days later, fell into a prolonged faint, the excited women about her declared that she was also dead. Nayler was called to see the lifeless body and laid his hands upon it, and at his touch, the girl revived and stood up. That was sufficient to prove to his followers that he was Christ, though he himself never claimed this, contrary to the charges made against him later that year. When the Bristol magistrates quoted from the letters found in his pockets, one of which referred to him, from John’s Gospel, as the Lamb of God, in whom the hope of Israel stands, and asked him whether he was himself that Lamb, he responded:

If I were not his Lamb, I should not be thus sought for to be devoured. The hope of Israel stands in the righteousness of the Father in whomsoever it is.

Such a reply scarcely seemed to merit imprisonment, and it may be that if Nayler’s followers had not shown such an uncompromising spirit in their hero-worship he would have been allowed to go free. Martha Simmonds and Dorcas Erbery both stoutly maintained that he was indeed Jesus. No cross-examination could shake Dorcas from her belief that Nayler had raised her to life after she had been dead two days. Under these circumstances, a seventeenth-century Bench had no alternative but to send them back to jail. The two male Quakers who had played a modest part in the demonstration in the courthouse, which had included continual shouting of ‘hosanna’, were sent home without charge and attended the Friends’ meeting later that day. Nayler and his companions were not completely disowned by the Bristol Quakers, and a local Quaker apothecary brought them supplies and “comforts” before Nayler was sent to Westminster to answer the charge of ‘blasphemy’ before Parliament. But a note from Thomas Simmonds, the printer, to his wife Martha, one of the women involved, concludes with an affectionate but somewhat bantering strain:

Dear heart, my love is to thee and to J.N. and to J.S. and H.S. But this I could not but write to warn you that you stand single to the Lord and not believe every sprit. Your work is soon to come to an end: part of the army that fell at Burford was your figure.

The reference to Burford is to Cromwell’s suppression of the Leveller mutiny in the Army of 1649 when the mutineers were locked in Burford Church and a number of them were shot. This ‘turning point’ in the Revolution was clearly still fresh in many minds, and the reference to it may also point to the quarrel between Nayler and Fox, whose ‘authority’ over the movement he continued to dispute. When one of Fox’s letters to him was used in evidence against Nayler in court, the latter had called his erstwhile leader a liar and firebrand of hell, which must have alarmed the local Quakers who were present and given them a measure of his alienation from Fox’s leadership. Nayler’s ‘excitable women followers’ were also bitterly critical of Fox, but Nayler had refused to restrain them at Fox’s request, made in a letter of September 1656, possibly the letter produced in court. Nayler later justified his refusal by saying that he did not wish to quench whatever was ‘of God’ in what they said and did. The modern-day Quaker writer, John Lampen, has stated (1981) that:

It has been generally assumed that at the time he did not have the emotional strength to withstand their influence, and this is borne out by contemporary descriptions of his passive, exhausted demeanor. However he was still justifying his behaviour by appealing to divine guidance, and so implicitly challenging Fox’s spiritual insight.

Other friends expected Fox to settle the issue by his personal authority. In the unity so often felt at the start of a great venture, they had not yet needed to discover ways of reconciling different perceptions of the Truth, and Nayler was considered by many contemporaries to be their most notable preacher, even if Fox was the chief pastor of their flock. The over-enthusiastic atmosphere which developed around Nayler was created by men as well as women. When one man wrote to him, Thy name shall be no more James Nayler, but Jesus, he put it straight in his pocket, overcome by fear, intending no-one to see it, as he could not own its contents, but he did not, as far as we know, reprove the sender. Fox was not without fault in their quarrel. When the two men eventually met, Nayler went to kiss Fox on the head, but Fox recoiled, instead offering him his foot to kiss. However, Fox refused to publish a statement condemning Nayler, but he did repudiate some of his ‘followers’ including Martha Simmonds, for their lies and slanders. Beneath the inter-personal conflict lay a fundamental issue as to whether the ‘Guidance within’ which was claimed by individual Quakers could be viewed as an infallible spirit. Fox could see in Nayler the possibility of unchecked individualism diverging from the divine illumination in which he believed. Following Nayler’s release from prison, the two were finally reconciled in 1659 shortly before his death. Early Friends believed that one of the ‘offices’ of Christ was judgment and Fox could assert that he did not judge Nayler himself but ‘set the Power of God over him’, while Nayler could claim that he felt this ‘inward judgment’ while in prison and it saved him.

In this context, it is quite clear that whatever interpretation Nayler’s followers might have placed upon their actions, he regarded himself simply as a symbol of the Christ whom they all worshipped, and that the ‘triumphal’ entry into the city on 24 October 1656 was simply a sign of his second coming. Viewed in this light, the episode falls into line with the frequent going naked for a sign and the other revivals of symbolism from the Bible practised by primitive Quakers, Baptists and other sects. The rift between the supporters of George Fox and those of James Nayler that had extended throughout the movement, and far into Wales, was eventually healed, and it showed that it was not as vulnerable as its enemies had hoped. But treachery lurked in the ‘inner light’. In a time of defeat, when the wave of revolution was ebbing, the inner voice became quietest and pacifist. This voice only was recognised by others as God’s. God was no longer served by the extravagant gesture, whether Nayler’s entry into Bristol or the blasphemy of the Ranters. Once the group decided this way, all the pressures were in the direction of accepting modes of expression not too shocking to the society in which men had to live and earn their living. In 1656, John Lewis urged the religious radicals in Wales not to go too fast or too far in inveighing against old customs and against the superstitious Welsh regard for church buildings.

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When Nayler was pilloried for his ‘blasphemy’ in London at Christmas (pictured above), the three women prisoners, including Dorcas Erbery, were also present, and in what was (no doubt) intended as another ‘acted parable’, took their seat at the foot of the pillory in imitation of the women at the crucifixion of Christ. Dorcas and the others who had been imprisoned with Nayler in Exeter and Bristol remained in prison until the following May. In February, they attended a service at Westminster Abbey, which was presumably part of their punishment. The following is from a contemporary account in Mercurius Politicus:

This day being the Lord’s day, the persons called Quakers who were brought from Bristol with James Nayler, remaining yet undischarged under the custody of the Sergeant at Arms, but now somewhat altered in their carriage, went to the Abbey morning and afternoon, where they gave ear civilly and attentively to the sermons of Mr. John Rowe, an eminent preacher; whose spritual doctrine so far wrought upon them that they intend to hear him again – which gives hopes that they may be rectified in their judgment.

However, it does not appear that Dorcas Erbery’s judgment was so completely rectified as was supposed, for in two years from this date she was again in prison in Bristol, …

… with many others … for preaching and declaring the truth to the people in the public places of resort and Concourse, a Duty which they esteemed themselves under an indispensable necessity of performing.

The Welsh Prophet, ‘Arise’ Evans:

‘Arise’ (Rhys) Evans spoke of his own humble origins with reference to the apostles:

I am as the Paul of this time. … he was a mechanic, a tent maker. Acts 18:3. I am a tailor.

Evans was born about 1607 in Llangelynnin parish  (near Barmouth) and was apprenticed to a tailor at Wrexham. While living in Wales he had seen visions and prophetic dreams which were accentuated when he went to London in 1629. In London, he made vain efforts to warn Charles I of perceived dangers but succeeded in telling the Earl of Essex to his face of his future promotions. Evans also seems to have suffered from mental illness. He hung around Charles I’s court for days on end, in order to deliver his message from God to the King announcing that he and his kingdom were to be destroyed. Meanwhile, bishops ran away at the sight of him, and the royal Secretary of State asked for the prayers of ‘God’s secretary’. In the 1640s, Evans got a brief spell in the Bridewell for telling the City’s Deputy Recorder that he, Arise Evans, was the Lord his God. Later, he called upon Oliver Cromwell and stayed to midnight: he pestered the Council of State to restore the son of the King whom they had executed, and republican officers defended him in long arguments at Whitehall.

But the Commonwealth did not even imprison him as Charles and the Deputy Recorder had done. As long as the ‘imbecile’ had no disciples, he or she was allowed a great deal of latitude. Prophets were often tolerated because they could be used to further the political purposes of powerful men, as Arise Evans may have been. In 1653, indeed, he gave a forecast of the course of events in England following Cromwell’s death that came remarkably near the truth. His Narrations, Voices from Heaven, and Echoes of those Voices contain weird and impossible extravagances, but there are passing references of great interest, notably to John Jones (1597 – 1660) the regicide’s acquaintance with the lake of Tal-y-Llyn, to Christopher Love speaking to him in Welsh, to the Welsh connections of Oliver Cromwell. In the freer circumstances of the 1640s and ’50s, most so-called ‘mad’ people appear to have been political radicals. A mental breakdown could be seen as a form of social protest or at least a reaction to intolerable social conditions: those who break down, like Arise Evans, may, in reality, be truly sane. This is certainly an explanation to bear in mind when considering those radicals often dismissed as ‘the lunatic fringe’.

As William Dell of ‘the Apostles’ claimed, Poor, illiterate, mechanic men, turned the world upside down. The effort to grasp new truths, truths which would turn the world upside down, may have been too much for men like Arise Evans. The Bible was the accepted source of all true knowledge. Men as different as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes and Gerard Winstanley, the ‘Digger’ from Wigan, both illustrated from the Bible conclusions at which they had arrived by rational means. Simpler men like Arise Evans believed the Bible to be divinely inspired and applied its texts directly to problems of their own world and time, with no idea of the difficulties of translation, nor of the historical understanding required to do so. So Evans thought that Revelation 8 and 11 gave an account of the civil war, that chapters 8 and 9 of Amos set down all that came to pass since the beginning of the Long Parliament, and that in Amos 9:1, the lintel of the door, which is to be smitten that the posts may shake, must refer to Speaker Lenthall. As Christopher Hill pointed out, unlike the Puritan divines who had cited the Bible against bishops and tithes, …

The Evanses studied it very carefully, if less skilfully, in order to understand and so be able to control what was going to happen.

Evans became interested in the multifarious sects that flourished under the relatively liberty of the late 1640s, opposing most of them, especially the tenets of the Fifth Monarchists. In 1649, he had a vision in which he went through France to Rome, where a voice came to me saying, “So far as thou art come, so far shall Cromwell come”. But Evans made a distinction between the ‘history’ and the ‘mystery’ of the Bible, as did William Erbery, who in his Testimony recalled that a chief one of the Army would … usually say that the flesh of Christ and the letter of scripture were the two great idols of Antichrist.

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Propagating the Gospel & Protecting the State – Vavasour Powell & Oliver Cromwell:

According to Welsh historian, A. H. Dodd (1957), the Committee for the Propagation of the Gospel became ‘the real government of Wales’. Those who administered Wales could not afford to alienate Baptist or Quaker missionaries, many of whom were ex-New Model Army soldiers and chaplains, who still, in the years 1651-53, continued to support the Parliamentary cause. J.P.s protected the preachers as a lesser evil than papists or pagans. The Committee’s ‘Approvers’, dominated by republican intransigents, created the first state schools, fifty-nine of them, open to both sexes and offering Latin and Greek, but trying to preach regeneration to the Welsh in English, although most sermons had been delivered in Welsh since the publication of Bishop Morgan’s Welsh Bible in 1588, which may help to explain why many Independent English preachers failed to ‘connect’ with their Welsh congregations. They had even more trouble finding replacements for the ministers. In came the itinerants and in came men from the hitherto invisible classes, to battle forward, often in the gales of hostility. Vavasour Powell, travelled a hundred miles a week, preaching in two or three places a day. He was probably the outstanding Welshman of his time, a brilliant and fearless man not afraid to address A Word for God … against Wickedness in High Places to Cromwell himself. Converts sprouted wherever he spoke, especially in the uplands of the south and the border. In north Wales, Morgan Llwyd, a writer of powerful Welsh classics and a man of mystical temper, sent John ap John of Ruabon to contact George Fox to gain his help in starting an often anarchic movement of Welsh Quakers, which may be from where Dorcas Erbery, Nayler’s ‘prophetess’ sprang. George Fox, on his own mission, found God raising up a people around Cader Idris in mid-Wales in 1657. Cromwell himself said that ‘God had kindled a seed’ in Wales. As Presbyterians penetrated Flintshire, Baptists, Congregationalists and Quakers multiplied along the eastern border and also began to plant in the west.

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As Protector, Cromwell sought to act as the guarantor of an accepted constitution while elected assemblies came and went, to check the evident tendency of an all-powerful single-chamber parliament to veer towards elective dictatorship and to secure for the executive a degree of independence and separation from the legislature. As Protector, he became a strong believer in the separation of powers. But he didn’t find it easy to pursue a moderating course. It brought him into conflict with the influential millenarian preachers in London, including Christopher Feake, Walter Cradock, Vavasour Powell and John Goodwin, who all had a considerable following in the Army. The open hostility of many Rumpers towards army officers did not help the situation. Skippon, clearly a moderate, was dropped from the Council of State at the same time as Harrison, leaving the army almost insultingly under-represented.

The Power & the Glory:

In the Interregnum, the Councils of in the North and in Wales, created by the Tudors, were abolished, the local power of the feudal aristocracy curtailed, and the authority of Whitehall and ‘London’ extended over the whole of the two countries. It seemed obvious to historians like Christopher Hill that the Revolution established a much greater unity among the regions of England, and indeed of the three kingdoms and the principality. But contemporaries worried about centrifugal tendencies. They were no doubt influenced by the examples of the Netherlands, where the republic’s unity derived mainly from the dominance of Holland, while the other provinces clung onto their independence, often with paralysing effects on policy. They were also disturbed by the case of Switzerland, where protestant and Catholic cantons were at war, which Cromwell himself insisted was brought on by external papist intervention. In the early 1650s, England had nearly intervened in the French wars of religion, an intervention which might have created a breakaway republic in the south-west. There were also revolts from Spanish sovereignty of Portugal, Catalonia and Naples, and Cossack risings in Russia and Poland.

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John Lilburne (pictured above) became a Quaker after retiring from the Army in the 1650s. The radical ‘Levellers’ proposed a great deal of decentralisation for England, including local courts at York, and greater county autonomy. William Walwyn, one of their leaders, said that the Swiss cantons were nearest to his ideal. In 1647, Cromwell had argued against such constitutional projects:

Would it not make England like Switzerland, one canton of the Swiss against another, and one county against another? And what would that produce but an absolute desolation in the nation?

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By the time the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales Act lapsed in 1653, the enterprise had spilt out to produce a myriad of sects and creeds, many like the ranters or Anabaptists, often called ‘Quakers’. Such men, rivalling even the most radical Baptists, offered a serious threat to tithes and all established order. They were appearing in many places, from Dolgellau to the Vale of Glamorgan. As Cromwell made himself Lord Protector, the Welsh Republicans moved into opposition. Vavasour Powell tried to organise insurrection in Wales and Ireland. The Blackfriars’ fulminators were also blasting the parliament, the council, the army, and everyone in power in scurrilous terms, and by late November 1653, they too were concentrating their shafts upon Cromwell himself, calling him the man of sin, the old dragon, and many other scripture ill names. Harrison was reportedly railing against him every day and the Anglo-Dutch peace negotiations, and there were allegations that he and his party were planning to take over the command of the army. He was certainly capable of seriously dividing it, and his favourite preachers were, according to Woolrych, …

… aspersing the loyal majority of its officers as janissaries and pensioners of Babylon, corrupted by wealth and power.

Vavasour Powell, in particular, told the generals that:

… that the Spirit of God had departed from them; that heretofore they had been precious and excellent men, but that their parks, and new houses, and gallant wives had choked them up.

At Sunday service on 18 December, he denounced the ‘Lord Protector’ from the pulpit, calling him a perjured villain, leading to his imprisonment, but the Fifth Monarchist’s excesses were losing them such public sympathy as they still commanded, and they ceased to be a serious danger when they lost their seats of power, both at Westminster and in the Army. Harrison was quietly cashiered when he refused to give any assurance that he would support the Protectorate, but only two or three other officers followed him in resigning their commissions. Not so long ago it was customary to account for this by portraying the Protectorate over-simply as a conservative reaction, but this was at best a half-truth. At least in its earlier years, it showed a stronger impulse to reform than the Rump had done. Although Cromwell was at heart a constitutionalist, with a strong respect for parliament as an institution, he still believed that he had a higher duty to promote what he called the interest of the people of God than to bow to the wishes of an unregenerate majority. And while he was conservative to the extent of preserving a national church and respecting the rights of tithe-holders, he upheld broader religious liberty than any elected parliament did in his lifetime. During the early weeks of the Protectorate, the first concern was to secure it against those, mainly the Fifth Monarchists, who were publicly denying its legality, prophesying its early fall and inciting their flocks to disobey it. Feake and Powell were against it again immediately after their early release and were consequently rearrested, though Powell escaped to Wales.

Restoration, Revolution & Toleration:

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As the system started to come apart, there was a revival of the old alliance of royalist moderates and Presbyterians to engineer the restoration of Charles II. Independents and Baptists, far more numerous in Wales than the Presbyterians, caught the first full blast of repression. Nearly a hundred and twenty ministers were thrown out of their livings and subjected to harsh controls. In December 1656, the Fifth Monarchists in south Wales seemed to have followed Morgan Llwyd and Vavasour Powell in renouncing militancy and from current plans for a rising. The Quakers were pursued like mad dogs and Vavasour Powell died in jail. Whole communities braved the horrible Atlantic crossings to create pioneer settlements in ‘the New World’. In the 1670s, as Charles ‘flirted’ with the Dissenters in order to secure toleration for Catholics, moderates in Wales tended to drift back towards the old Parliamentarians and away from the radical puritans. The Welsh Trust, an educational enterprise of Puritan temper which allied moderate Dissenters and Anglicans in 1672 when Charles issued his Indulgence, came to serve as an opposition to the court. When the indulgence ended within a year, to be replaced by the Test Act excluding non-Anglicans from office. At the time of the ‘Popish Plot’ of 1678-79, there was a violent incident in southern Wales when the Catholic seminary Cwm was raided and sacked, priests were thrown into jail and there was heavy confiscation. Four Welsh priests, two of whom were Jesuits, were hanged in savage persecution.

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In 1679, eleven of the twenty-seven Welsh MPs voted for the Exclusion of James II. In these circumstances, many of the old Roundheads came bubbling back to the surface and there was a return of the Quakers and Vavasour Powell’s radicals. In consequence, there was a sharp reaction in the 1680s, a massive renewal of persecution of Dissenters, and major further emigrations to Holland and America. In ‘matters of religion’, therefore, the monopoly of the national church had been broken, and while the House of Commons remained hostile to the idea of religious toleration, nonconformity shook off its revolutionary political associations and, despite continuing persecution, proved that it had come to stay. Those who remained survived through the indulgences offered by Charles II and James II until at the Glorious Revolution of 1688, they won a limited but essential measure of toleration in the Toleration Act of 1689 recognised these facts. Presbyterianism and Congregationalism were not included in the Anglican church, but that church was subjected to Parliament and government. The Puritan Revolution within the state church may have been defeated by 1660, but the Great Britain of the succeeding two centuries was unique among the great powers of Europe for the strength of its evangelical tradition and its toleration of diverse traditions.

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Not until 1685 was some degree of calm restored to Welsh politics with a restoration of Toryism among the gentry classes. It was only after 1688 that governments came to assume that ‘trade must be the principal interest of England’, and that warfare should be confined to supporting this objective through its Navy. Even Charles II in 1680 could not be persuaded of this. By then, Parliament controlled foreign policy, and used the newly mobilised financial resources of the country, through aggressive use of sea power, to protect and expand the trade of a unified empire. The anti-Dutch policy which had continued to be pursued by the pro-Hapsburg Stuart Kings was replaced by the policy of colonial expansion into the western hemisphere, first against Spain and then against the French. It enjoyed more support among the gentry and gradually won over a majority in the House of Commons as Dutch power declined and French power increased.

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England itself had by then had been united under the dominance of the London market; separate courts no longer governed Wales and the North. Therefore, ‘cantonisation’ was no longer a danger. William III’s political and economic subjugation of Ireland was thoroughly Cromwellian and complete: the Union with Scotland in 1707 was on the same lines as that of 1652-60. A union of crowns became a union of peoples, a significant punctuation point in the process which made the new and far more real Great Britain into the greatest merchant empire in the world. England, Wales and Scotland emerged from the seventeenth-century crisis geared to the new world of mercantilism and colonialism. Bristol, pictured above in the early eighteenth century, quickly grew as Britain’s most important port, with its ‘Welsh Backs’ for traders from across the Severn estuary. The Atlantic trade was becoming more important than the trade of the East Anglian ports with the continent and Wales, though still controlled by squires, was becoming an important sector of an Atlantic empire and a British nation.

Sources:

Austin Woolrich (2002), Britain in Revolution, 1625-1660. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gwyn A. Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Christopher Hill (1970), God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books.

Christopher Hill (1984), The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. Harmondsworth: Peregrine Books.

John Lampen (1981), Wait in the Light: The Spirituality of George Fox. London: Quaker Home Service.

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

Chapter Six: Motherhood, Domesticity & Recreation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He did, didn’t he, Joe?”

“‘S ri’, ”

“Cor, he didn’t ever,”

“Well, you ask Florrie,”

“I don’t mean what you mean,”

” ‘s ri’ ”

“‘Ere, Joe you tell ‘er.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women at War in Coventry:

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

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

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

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 Coventry,  14 November 1940

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

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

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

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

 

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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