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The Labour Party & The Left, 1934-39: Case Study II – Immigration & Working-Class Politics in the ‘new industry’ centres of Oxford & Coventry.   Leave a comment

For ‘Migration’ read ‘Transference’? Processes of Resistance & Retention:

The terms ‘Migration’ and ‘Transference’ were continually conflated in contemporary usage. Certainly, ‘migration’ was (and still is) used as an inclusive term covering voluntary and assisted forms of population movement. In simple geographical terms, it refers to that part of the ‘population equation’ which cannot be accounted for by natural increases or decreases brought about by an excess of births over deaths and vice versa. However, in previous chapters on the ups and downs of the Labour Party, the trade union movement and the Left, I have already established that there were important differences in the causes and catalysts involved in the processes of migration, retention and resettlement. The term is not, however, synonymous with importation or deportation, as a form of enforced movement of population. It was in the interests of many contemporary politicians of diverse ideological persuasions to blur these definitions and distinctions to suit their own purposes. In addition, the National Government and its officials in the Ministries of Labour and Health were naturally concerned to demonstrate that the large volume of unassisted migration, which they estimated as being over seventy per cent of the men known to have migrated in 1936-37, was closely related to their efforts to promote transference as the main policy of dealing with mass unemployment. Social Service agencies and social ‘surveyors’ were concerned to demonstrate the need for their intervention in the migration processes and therefore tended to exaggerate and generalise from the worst consequences of ’emigration’ rather making only passing references to the role of autonomous organisation.

Welsh ‘nationalists’, both of the old ‘Cymric-liberal’ and the ‘new’ narrowly partisan variety, were concerned, by 1936, to represent it as expatriation rather than repatriation, as an imposed deportation or ‘diaspora’ rather than as an exodus. These fringe ‘extremists’ developed their viewpoint into a complete inversion of the truth, claiming that:

… sporadic investigations into and reviews of the living conditions of the transferees … are strictly materialist in scope and ignore for the most part the evil consequences of transference – the loss of corporate life, … of religious life, in many cases the enforced change of language, in fact all that goes to putting off one culture and putting on another … the majority of those who leave Wales for work in England do so under compulsion.

The Welsh Nationalist, October 1937.

Propagandists on the ‘Marxist’ Left also tended, quite deliberately, to conflate state-sponsored and voluntary migration, principally because they saw the ‘free movement’ of workers as a capitalist device aimed at the creation of a ‘standing army’, the dilution of labour and the undermining of trade union organisation in the ‘new industry’ centres. Their propagation of a negative image of the immigrant did not allow for an analysis of differences in the organisation of migration. The negative image was again produced by a narrow focus on the worst experiences of the younger transferees. Thus, the interests of both nationalist and communist propagandists combined to ensure that much of the contemporary literature related to migration was ‘pessimistic’ in nature, dominated by the view that it was something which was done to the unemployed against their will. It is therefore understandable that more recent studies, particularly those done in the 1980s, have tended to maintain that narrow focus. These tended to characterise migration from the Coalfield as an act of defeatism, demoralisation and desperation. But although transference was the only significant aspect of Government policy in respect of unemployment in the period to 1936, the actual level of state involvement was quite limited. Even when the scheme was revived and revised, and despite the publicity given to it by a growing body of opposition, the majority of workers who left the ‘Special’ areas chose to ignore its provisions.

The Strange Case of the Cowley ‘Garwites’:

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The researchers for Barnett House in Oxford which published its local Survey in 1936 found a distinct ‘lumpiness’ in the migration streams to the city over the previous decade, providing clear evidence of familial and fraternal networking. This, they noted, militated against the Ministry of Labour’s plans for a more rational and even distribution of manpower in accordance with with the shifts in the demand for labour and the assimilation of the new elements by the old. Of the 1,195 Welsh workers in Oxford at this time, 215 had employment books which originated in the Maesteg District (covering the Llynfi, Ogmore and Garw valleys). By comparison, the numbers from all the Rhondda and Pontypridd districts combined amounted to 224 and those from Merthyr and Dowlais to fifty-five. An even more striking statistic was that a hundred and fifty, or one in six of all the Welsh ‘foreigners’ in the city were from the Pontycymmer Exchange area (i.e. the Garw Valley).

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This prompted the Barnett House enquirers to consult their fellow ‘surveyors’ in South Wales, who advised them that the flow from the Garw to Oxford started in 1926 when a few men made the journey, found employment for themselves and subsequently for friends and relatives. From that point onwards, Oxford attracted a large percentage of those leaving the valley. In the period 1930-36, out of the 1,841 people whose unemployment books were transferred from the Pontycymmer Exchange, 270 (15%) went to Oxford and ‘local observers’ stated that the percentage in the late 1920s was probably in the region of a quarter. The Oxford University sociologist, Goronwy Daniel, lent further support to the view that considerable networking had taken place, as forty-six of the sixty immigrants interviewed by him said that they had chosen Oxford because they had relatives living there.

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From the summer of 1934, the Welsh migrants who found themselves in Cowley, Oxford, began to make major contributions to the Labour and trade union movement in the city. Part of the impetus for the early and extensive migration from the Garw to Oxford was the deliberate act of collective victimisation on the part of one of the colliery companies in the wake of the lock-out. Some of the earliest migrants, like Tom Richards of Pantygog, did not wait until the end of the six-month lock-out in 1926 to leave, setting out on foot for London. Having walked to Oxford along the A40, they had found jobs at the giant US-owned Pressed Steel Works, newly-opened, which supplied Morris Motors and other car manufacturers with ready-pressed bodies for their products. A major strike at the factory for better conditions and union recognition was successful, partly as a result of its being led from ex-miners from South Wales. By that time, a number of older men from the Garw and other valleys, with considerable experience of trade union organisation in the SWMF, had arrived at the works. Whilst the Communist Party in Cowley played a significant supporting role in shaping the course and outcome of the strike, the agitation for it from within the works came from the ‘DA’ (depressed areas) men, among the largely immigrant workforce.

There is a significant body of both documentary and oral evidence to support the assertion that the retention of the trade union ‘complex’ by these workers was a critical factor in the formation and development of the TGWU 5/60 Branch from 1934 to 1939, which contrasted sharply with the failure of the movement to make headway at the Morris Works. That failure can only in part be explained by Willam Morris’ determined anti-union stance since the management at the US-owned Pressed Steel factory was equally hard-line in its attitude to trade union organisation, both before and after the 1934 strike, and organisers continued to be victimised for related activities throughout the latter part of the decade. Also, wages at the Morris Works remained lower by comparison throughout these years. Most observers from the time shared the perception that this was due to the difference in the cultural background among the two workforces.

Haydn Evans, originally from Merthyr Tydfil who took an active part in the strike and who later became a shop steward and foreman at the Pressed Steel, felt that the Oxfordians and Oxonians, mainly farm workers at Morris’, didn’t know what a union was about, weren’t interested and didn’t want a trade union, their fathers having been used to living off the crumbs from the rich men’s tables in the colleges. On the other hand, the Welsh workers had been brought up in the trade union movement, … had lived on ‘strike, strike, strike’ and had been taught “fight back, fight back!” In fighting back, they were just as much at risk from victimisation as the Morris workers but were more willing to run this risk. Haydn Evans again explained:

We had to win … We’d come from a distressed area. We were battling for our livelihood. It was a matter of life and death. If we had lost, many of us would have been blacklisted by other car firms.

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A ‘neutral’ observer from the Barnett House Survey, writing in 1937, also remarked that the distinction between the two forces was widely acknowledged by contemporaries:

It is said … that workers in the Cowley plant are mostly natives of Oxford and lack therefore any trade union tradition; in Pressed Steel on the contrary the men are largely from other parts of the country …

Thus, there is a strong case to be made for the primacy of social and cultural factors in the growth of trade unionism in Oxford; the sense of heritage and solidarity, or ‘clannishness’ among immigrant workers providing a powerful motivation to getting organised by infusing a quiescent trade union movement with militancy.

This is not to say that the Welsh were ‘nearly all Reds’, as they were popularly labelled by Oxonians. The number who joined the Communist Party was probably as small as those who wittingly undercut wages on building sites. But those who were thrust into the leadership of the trade union movement in the city soon also found themselves in leading positions in left-wing politics either as members of the Labour Party or the Communist Party and sometimes, from 1935 in the period of the ‘United Front’ as members of both parties.

One of them, Tom Harris, was a crane operator in the crane shop. He was born in Monmouthshire in the early 1890s, and emigrated to Scranton, Pennsylvania, in his early twenties. There he worked as a miner and helped John L Lewis in building up the United Mineworkers (UMWA). He then returned to South Wales in the mid-1920s, possibly to Maesteg, becoming active in the SWMF. It was with this transatlantic experience of migration and union organisation that he arrived in Cowley shortly before the 1934 Strike. Dai Huish, probably from the Garw, was also an experienced member of the ‘Fed’ before arriving in Oxford. Huish was one of those elected to serve on the deputation which, once outside the factory gates, met to discuss the strike situation. Although Huish had been planning the strike action over the previous weekend, it was the idea of his wife, who joined the lengthy meeting, that the deputation should send representatives to the Local of the Communist Party. She suggested this because the Communist Party had provided invaluable help and assistance in organising the miners’ struggles in Wales. In this way, they soon became involved in the city’s trade union and political life more broadly, thus reflecting a growing sense of permanence and a growing mood of regenerated confidence among the immigrants to Cowley.

Images of the Immigrants – Coventry, Slough & London.

In Coventry, it was not until 1934 that the engineering employers faced difficulty in recruiting semi-skilled workers, who were previously available locally through the City’s traditional apprenticeship schemes. It was then that they were forced to look to the Government training centres and transference schemes for a fresh supply of labour. Even then, however, the employers were insistent on such youths, aged between eighteen and twenty-five, having ‘factory sense’ and felt it necessary to ‘earmark’ funds in order that the men could be given a period of training in the works, in the hope that they might be absorbed. Not all engineering employers were as progressive as this, and many trainees faced the ignominy of failing to make the grade and being forced to return home disillusioned and discouraged from making any further attempt at resettlement. Even in those cases where the ‘improver’ from the depressed areas was capable of acquiring enough skill to survive, he was not always made particularly welcome by workmates who generally regarded him as a pawn in a ploy by the employers and the government to reduce wage rates.

Even Wal Hannington, although severely critical of the training centres, was also concerned by the attitude of the conservative-minded craft unionist who refused to allow the recruitment of trainees on the grounds that to do so would represent an acceptance of dilution. Hannington argued that to admit them to membership would enable the unions to control their wages and conditions. His admission that this argument was ‘unorthodox’ is a measure of the extent to which the engineering unions deliberately ostracised men who themselves were firmly rooted in trade unionism. A perusal of the minutes of the Coventry District of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) for this period provides strong supportive evidence that little or nothing was done to integrate trainees and that this inaction stemmed from a policy of principled opposition to the importation of labour in this manner, a policy that was consistently applied throughout the period. Craft-unionists in the engineering industries scapegoated the immigrants for the revolutionary structural changes that were taken place in them, rather than re-organising their unions on an industrial basis, a form of organisation which the immigrants themselves were familiar with and did much to recreate in their new work environments. They were, however, too often seen as perpetrators of dilution rather than as participants in the process. Accusations of under-cutting became generalised to the point where Labour leaders, like Aneurin Bevan, in opposing transference, reinforced the negative stereotype themselves:

… resistance should be made, for considerable resentment and hostility was shown in the South East of England, and Welshmen had acquired a bad reputation for offering their services at wages below the standard Trade Union rates. …

In making this remark, Bevan was probably echoing comments made to A. J. ‘Archie’ Lush in Slough (Lush was a close friend of Aneurin Bevan and acted as his political agent for most of his parliamentary life – see below). It is therefore of paramount importance that, in studying the contemporary sources, historians should distinguish between prejudicial statements and accurate observations based on the actual reality of the impact of immigration upon the new industrial centres. A detailed study of newspaper and oral sources reveals that the Welsh working-class immigrants to these centres were able to counter the negative propaganda and prejudice which confronted them by making a significant contribution to the growth of trade unionism, municipal socialism and working-class culture in these cities. The problem of distinguishing between image and reality was highlighted in contemporary debates concerning the role of Welsh immigrants in trade unionism in the new industries. In 1937, A. D. K. Owen wrote an article for the Sociological Review in which he assessed the Social Consequences of Industrial Transference. Despite his generally negative attitude towards immigration, he concluded that it did have some redeeming features:

It appears that some transferees from South Wales are already enlivening the fellowship of some London political associations and that the tradition of Trade Unionism respected by transferees from Wales and the North is now being appealed to with some prospect effective results as a starting point for organising the workers in many of the new industries in which Trade Unionism has so far obtained no footing.

The following year, Michael Daly published a reply to Owen’s article in which he claimed that, after several months of research into the difficulty of organising the workers in the South East and the Midlands, he was convinced that… the most difficult people to organise are the Welsh transferees. He asserted that the fact that the Welsh came from an area with a low standard of living made them more willing to accept low wage rates and that they were universally hated because of their alleged tendency both to undercut wages and to ‘rat’ on their fellow workers. From this flawed analysis, based largely on the experiences of Welsh transferees in Slough, Daly went on to produce a caricature which undermines his validity as a dependable source. He concluded that the staunch trade unionists among the Welsh had remained in Wales:

For the most part, they are the older type of craftsmen  whose belief in trade unionism is emotional rather than reasoned, and who tend to appreciate unduly the beer-drinking aspect of branch activities … even if they had transferred to the newer areas, it is doubtful if they would be given a hearing.

Unsurprisingly, Daly’s remarks met with stinging criticism in Owen’s rejoinder:

I have personal knowledge of far too many Welshmen who are pulling all their weight in trade union branches in the London area to accept Mr Daly’s broad generalisations on this subject. Moreover, his remarks about the social characteristics of the ‘staunch trade unionists among the Welsh’ are … completely wide of the mark … The ‘older type of craftsmen’ are far from being characteristic of the active membership of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. A ‘reasoned attitude’ to trade unionism is probably commoner in South Wales than in most other parts of the country with a long tradition of working-class organisation. …

‘Archie’ Lush, who was conducting his researches in Slough and elsewhere in the South East, also found considerable anti-Welsh feeling which was usually attributed to a tendency of Welsh workers to work for less than Trade Union rates. Both he and Owen accepted that this allegation was true only in a small number of cases, and in particular where a long period of unemployment had preceded transference, but what is most significant in Lush’s report is the remark that he found no evidence of trade union activity anywhere on the estate. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that Slough was less typical of the experience of Welsh exiles than was made out by Daly, and it is also important not to confuse the role played by individual Welshmen, either positive or negative, with a collective assertion of trade union values among the Welsh in London. Unfortunately, some contemporary politicians, like Nye Bevan, some in the social service movement and some historians, writing in the 1980s, adopted and restated Daly’s unfounded assertions, and those of Lush, uncritically, the latter in the context of assessing the role of the Welsh in trade unionism elsewhere in the South and Midlands of England. Eli Ginzberg recorded that:

… it was repeatedly said of the Welsh that they would work for wages that no Englishman would dream of accepting. 

006Owen also heard many of these criticisms of the transferees who were often subjected to very hostile criticism of their fellow-workers who resented their presence on the grounds that they depress wages. Although much of this criticism was completely unfounded, he found that it sometimes had a basis in fact. The NCSS’s 1939 report on Migration to London from South Wales was equally equivocal in dealing with the issue:

… there have been, and still are, criticisms made of Welshmen  that they are ready to work for low wages, accepting as little as 8d or 10d an hour. Such stories, some mythical and some authentic, are at the root of a certain prejudice against Welshmen on the part of Londoners. … It is, however, not difficult to understand the temptation to a man who has managed to scrape up enough money for a trip to London to take work at any wage rather than go home defeated, or to face unemployment in a strange and impersonal city with no friends behind him.

The Immigrants in Industry – Propaganda & Prejudice:

Of course, this image of the immigrant as one brow-beaten into submission by long-term unemployment which had broken his courage was one which suited the purposes of the ‘social surveyors’. But the reality was that the vast majority of those who migrated had been unemployed for comparatively short periods, if at all. That reality was often conveniently ignored by those who needed to paint the destitution and demoralisation of the ‘depressed area’ men as bleakly as possible. Although more frequently heard in Slough and London, the accusation also carried some potency in Oxford, where it seems to have derived from the immigrants who secured jobs in the building trade and in particular in relation to the Merthyr-based firm of Moss and Sons. This firm was said to have brought many workers with it from South Wales and to have employed them at rates which were below the standards which existed in the Midlands. It did not take long for this to lead to a widespread prejudice against Welsh immigrants in general, wherever they worked. One of Goronwy Daniel’s interviewees remarked about how she had been offended by hearing a woman commenting on a bus that the Welsh were stealing jobs by working for low wages. Marxist propagandists also asserted that the ‘DA’ immigrants depressed wages in order to show that they were in need of the leadership which only the Communist Party could provide. Abe Lazarus, the Party’s leader in Oxford, regurgitated this myth in his article for the Communist Review in 1934:

They came from Wales, from the North-East Coast, glad enough many of them to accept low standards after years of unemployment.

But Lazarus also acknowledged that the major factors involved in wage depression were automation, rationalisation and the dilution, or de-skilling of engineering jobs which the new processes of production entailed. He also accepted that it was the Oxonian agricultural workers who were far more likely, given their non-industrial background, to accept low rates of pay in the car industry, rather than the Welsh miners. In fact, the evidence shows that although at first, the American managers at Pressed Steel tried to use DA men to depress wages, they were unsuccessful in doing so and that, by the time of the 1934 strike, this was not an issue among a largely immigrant semi-skilled workforce whose wage rates were better than those paid to skilled engineers at Morris Motors, where there were far fewer DA men employed. Nevertheless, popular prejudices prevailed. One of Daniel’s interviewees who had migrated to Oxford in 1933 recalled how he had found:

… a strong dislike of Welsh people on the part of Oxford men, who thought the Welsh were taking their work and were all ‘reds’. 

The juxtaposition of these two remarks provides a graphic illustration of the irrational nature of much of the invective which was directed against the Welsh immigrants; they could be branded as ‘diluters’ and militants literally in the same breath. There were others among Daniel’s witnesses who found these labels freely applied to them and their fellow countrymen. One man who moved to Oxford in the late twenties said that the native Oxfordians regarded the Welsh as rowdy and nearly all communists. In turn, the same man’s attitude towards the natives had not changed in the decade he had been in the city. He saw them as insular and prejudiced and politically dead … A much younger man, with little direct trade union experience before leaving Wales also found Oxford natives to be:

… very reserved and independent, and found it hard to understand their Conservative politics and apathetic attitude towards trade unions. 

As late as the 1950s, industrial trade unionism was still seen by many Oxfordians as being alien to the City’s traditions and as a means for the immigrants to exploit a high-wage economy. Unions such as the TGWU were seen as primarily the province of ‘the Scotch and the Welsh’ and whilst it was acknowledged that trade unions are necessary in some jobs like mining, in Oxford they caused nothing but trouble with the chief trouble-makers being the Welsh who were out for all they can get. 

The minute books of the Coventry District AEU demonstrate a continual concern about the impact of immigrant labour upon wages and, in particular, about the tendency of some DA men to go to the factory gates and offer themselves ‘at any price’. However, the frequency with which complaints like this appear in the minutes is perhaps more indicative of a Union which was struggling to overcome its own conservatism and to come to terms with the transformation of work patterns in the engineering industry, than of a tendency among immigrants to accept lower wages. If some of the younger transferees and migrants were involved in undercutting, propagandists such as Wal Hannington had no doubt where the responsibility for this should be laid. However, rather than taking up the challenge of developing new solutions to the problem of dilution, the craft unions simply gave justification to their members’ prejudices. This sometimes gave rise to abusive behaviour on the part of, and even to disciplinary action against some AEU members. When a Welsh shop steward gave evidence to a sub-committee of the District AEU set up to investigate complaints against Bro. Underhill, a particularly uncooperative and belligerent member at the Humber works, Underhill stated that:

… they were not likely to have harmony in the shop when the other members were Welshmen but were only paying into the trade union for their own advantage.

Well into the 1930s, the possibility that Welsh migrant workers might transfer their trade union traditions to their new environments was a major concern of the industrialists participating in the Industrial Transference Scheme. Their image of the Welsh miner, ever since the 1926 lock-out, had remained one of a potential disease-carrier: the disease was ‘Militancy’. The same applied in the new industries more generally; personnel departments were ordered not to hire Welshmen; employment exchanges were asked not to send Welshmen for interviews; the immigrants were blamed for strikes regardless of the origin of the dispute. As Eli Ginzberg, this evidence suggests that the Welsh were no favourites with English foremen and managers. He also suggested that, while in general terms the Welsh were not the major instigators of the drive for organisation, they frequently lent their support to that drive and were seldom as uninterested as they appeared to be in Slough. At the same time, he thought it not unreasonable to expect that out of half a million immigrants there would be some who cut wages and many who would obtain work locally before the local unemployed had been absorbed. When she conducted a survey among the young immigrants in London in 1939, Hilda Jennings was difficult to understand why previously loyal SWMF members were so slow to join trade unions in the capital. One of the reasons given was that membership of the Federation was seen as a tradition to which they had subscribed without exercising much thought:

It was felt generally that Welshmen are not unduly backward at joining the Trade Union movement compared with Londoners and workers from other parts of the country. Indeed, several key positions are held by men who have recently come from the mining valleys. But, considering the traditions of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, it was urged by the Trade Unionists who had contributed to the enquiry that there were too many Welshmen  in London outside the movement, and too much tendency to apathy among them. 

From this evidence, it is clear that it would be wrong to assume that strong, collective trade union traditions could simply and easily be transferred from the coalfield context of homogeneous, close-knit communities to the diasporic and atomised existence which many migrants found themselves living in a large and heterogeneous metropolis. Conditions within the recipient areas needed to be favourable in order for retention to take place successfully. By contrast, although some of the trade unions in Coventry were concerned about dilution to the point of being slow to organise among the unskilled and semi-skilled immigrants, there is little doubt that by the end of the decade these immigrants had settled well into the pattern of militant trade unionism which had already been well established in the city’s factories before they arrived. Also, from about 1934, trade union membership began to grow again in Coventry, as elsewhere, though it wasn’t until 1937 that this became more rapid. Richard Crossman, the Labour parliamentary candidate at this time and subsequently MP, wrote of the DA men in 1970 that:

Once they had uprooted themselves they looked back with horror on the distressed areas they had left, and accepted both the management’s insistence on ever increased intensity of labour in return for the swelling wage packet, and the collective solidarity and discipline on which the shop-stewards from the first insisted, as the price of admission to the mass production line.

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The St. John Ambulance Brigade leads a parade along Cross Cheaping in Coventry in 1933 (photo by Sidney Stringer).

The ‘Influx’ to the Cities & its Impact on Local Politics:

Organisationally, the local Labour Party in Coventry was successful in drawing together a team of spokesmen and women who could handle municipal politics. More time and effort was required to prepare for municipal power, and Labour slowly came to attract candidates who were not active in their union or working in factories. Of the thirty-one Labour councillors and aldermen whose occupations can be identified in 1936-38, only seven were, or had close links with engineering workers. There were a number of middle-class activists, including clergymen, a number of women recorded as housewives, and about one-third were Co-op employees. A number of Labour activists got jobs with Coventry Co-op because jobs in engineering would not give them enough time off to attend Council meetings and carry out Council business.  The Co-op was the only source of patronage, and thus a useful refuge for Labour activists. However, it’s clear that Labour in the 1930s was also able to attract some non-working-class support, while its leadership was only able to remain in office because they had severed many of their links with the trade unions.

Over a period of fifteen years, Labour leaders had succeeded in taking the Party from a situation where it had ill-defined policies and no clear electoral strategy to one where it concentrated all its energies into the drive for municipal power. The result of its victory over ageing if not senile opposition meant that Labour, far from having stormed a citadel of capitalism, had to preside over the renewal of the city, making up for several decades of neglect. Though many of Labour’s policies were aimed at improving the conditions among working people, such measures were bound to improve the services to employers as well.

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By 1937, the car industry in Coventry was enjoying unbridled expansion and the editor of the Telegraph acknowledged that Coventry’s problem was not one of a shortage of employment, but rather one of a shortage of the right type of labour. Such unemployment as existed, he suggested, was due to an increase in the number of people who had come to the city to try to find work for which they were unsuited. Thus, the continuation of unemployment at five per cent could largely be accounted for by these ‘industrial misfits’. In an interview with the enigmatic Captain Black of the Standard Motor Company, the Telegraph discovered that over five hundred additional workers had been taken on by the Company in the previous twelve months. New factories were being built or planned and existing workshops reorganised to cope with the demand for increased supplies. The output of one large manufacturing works was fifty per cent up on ‘the normal’ for September. Thousands of cars were leaving the city every day. The following month it was reported that two firms of body-builders were setting up new factories on the outskirts of the city, giving employment to a further seven thousand workers. The expansion was so overwhelming that some elected representatives began to ‘call halt’ and to reflect the growing national concern about the concentration of industry. In October 1937, the Midland Daily Telegraph was reporting almost daily on the debate among councillors which was becoming non-partisan:

Councillor J. C. Lee-Gordon … questioned whether Coventry required these new factories, and raised the issue of the new schools and houses that would have to be provided to meet the needs of the labour which, he assumed, would have to be imported … Similar opinions have been heard in Labour circles … The viewpoint has been expressed that towns situated in the prosperous areas should not encourage the construction of new factories, but that industrialists in search of these sites should be quietly shepherded into the distressed areas. …

By this time the Labour Party in the distressed areas and nationally had begun calling unequivocally for the end of the Transference policy and its replacement with the planned relocation of new industries. Its report on the ‘Distressed Areas’ had been published earlier in the year, produced under the chairmanship of Hugh Dalton MP. Its recommendations included these two points. Brinley Thomas’ 1938 article on The Influx of Labour into the Midlands examined the origin of ‘foreign’ employment books exchanged in the Midlands Division of the Ministry of Labour in July 1937. As in Oxford, the presence of these ‘foreign’ books in the Coventry Labour Exchange indicated that at some point between 1920 and the middle of 1937 the owners of the books had moved into the area. The Coventry and North Warwickshire area, including Rugby and Nuneaton, had 18,822 foreign books exchanged within it, of which 4,044 (21.5%) were originally issued in Wales, 2,364 in Scotland (12.6%), 2,010 (10.7%) from the North East and 3,271 (17.4%) from the North West.

In Oxford, the Communists had remained weak until the founding of the October Club at the University in December 1931. This doubled their membership and led to the reorganisation of the party branch in 1932. However, it was the Pressed Steel strike of 1934 which transformed the branch into an effective force in local politics with a significant working-class base. The ‘twelve days that shook Oxford’ provided the spring-board for the growth in tandem of trade unionism and working-class politics within the city. Soon after the strike, the party had about seventy members, though less than five per cent of these were openly members. The majority were public members of the Labour Party. Local leaders were already moving away from the ‘Class Against Class’ policy, doing their best to play down the ideological divisions between the two parties. For their part, local trade unionists and councillors had little time for the TUC circular which called for Communists to be debarred from office. The leaders of the Pressed Steel TGWU 5/60 Branch decided to appoint what delegates the branch so wished. The ‘United Front’ line won support in the Trades Council, which adopted the following resolution in April 1935:

(The Council’s) strength and activity is due in no small measure to the presence on the Council of members of the Communist Party … In our daily experience CP members have … thrown themselves into the work of strengthening the Trade Union movement … In the past twelve months, the local Trade Union membership has increased by well over three thousand and we cannot understand why the TUC should want to disrupt this splendid work …

In July 1935, the Cowley and Iffley Labour Party and the local CP agreed to a ‘United Front’ slate for the forthcoming local elections. Their decision was endorsed by the City Labour Party with only one vote against. This ‘United Front’ was led by workers from the ‘DAs’ who were beginning to gain prominence in local politics. In September, four of them were endorsed as Labour Party candidates, though they were also secretly CP members, with one nominated as an openly CP candidate on the same ‘slate’. One of the five, Tom Harris, told the Oxford Mail that he was a strong supporter of the municipalisation of all the public services… However, by the end of the local party was clearly under some pressure to adopt a more moderate slate and the CP candidate was persuaded to withdraw his nomination in order to relieve the situation and maintain the unity of the Party (presumably, the Labour Party).

At this point, a young man who had cut his political teeth helping to organise the housing campaign in south Oxford earlier in the year, Richard Crossman, was announced as a candidate for the Headington Ward. Later in life, after becoming a Labour MP in Coventry and a Cabinet minister in the Attlee Government, Crossman acknowledged the debt he owed to the working-class politicians he had worked alongside in Oxford. Another post-war national political figure, Patrick Gordon-Walker, was adopted as Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for Oxford for the General Election of November 1935, in which he was unsuccessful. Throughout 1936 and 1937, the Oxford Labour Party continued to defy the line taken by the national party, supporting affiliation by the CP. The Labour Party NEC’s rejection of this was deplored by the local party. By the Spring of 1936, the strength of the party in both the colleges and ‘the town’ was such that Oswald Mosley was forced to leave the City ‘by the back gate’.

Concern about the frequency of ‘wildcat’ strikes at the Pressed Steel, where the 5/60 Branch had come under increasing control by the CP, led to Ernest Bevin and the National Executive of the TGWU to appoint a full-time organiser for the area. Tom Harris was one of the candidates for the new post, but he was passed over in favour of Jack Thomas, who hailed from the Aberdare Valley. Thomas had become Chairman of the Lodge at Aberavon pit at the age of eighteen and then moved to Swansea to work as a labourer for the Corporation, becoming a rank and file delegate at the first TGWU Conference at Scarborough in 1925. As the Secretary of the Union’s Corporation Branch in Swansea for twelve years, he also became Chairman of the Swansea Labour Association in 1935. He began work in Oxford in January 1937. The Communists at Pressed Steel had their suspicions about his appointment which were confirmed by a speech he made to the Trades Council soon after his arrival, and they issued a stern warning to him in their factory broadsheet, The Spark:

Let him remember that the Pressed Steel Branch of the TGWU was built up by the UNITED forces of the workers long before Mr Thomas had heard of Pressed Steel. The workers in Oxford active in the Trade Union and Labour Movement believe in Unity. Mr Bevin’s anti-unity ideas don’t cut any ice here. Mr Thomas’ job is not to make anti-unity speeches … but to get our works organised.

As the Communists’ strength grew, their argument in favour of the ‘United Front’ grew louder, and a resolution was carried which led to the establishment of the Oxford Unity Committee. The Labour Party almost doubled its membership between 1936 and 1938, to over six hundred, including many Communists. The real roots of this growth were laid, not in the October Club or the University Labour Club, but in the building up of a strong party organisation in Cowley and Iffley, dominated by car workers and especially by former South Wales miners. In January 1937, in addition to the Chairman, treasurer and her husband, Frank Pakenham, all the other six ward officials were Welsh. In 1938, Patrick Gordon-Walker was selected to stand again in the Oxford by-election. The Liberal Party had selected Ivor Davies, who offered to stand down from the by-election if Labour did the same and backed a Popular Front candidate against the Conservatives. Eventually, Gordon Walker reluctantly stood down and both parties supported Andrew Lindsay, the Master of Balliol, as an Independent Progressive. Quintin Hogg, the Conservative candidate, defeated Lindsay in the by-election, but the latter was in no doubt about how the political complexion of the City had been changed by what had happened in Cowley:

We have heard a lot about Oxford ceasing to be a sleepy University town in an agricultural county. There lies the fundamental reason for Labour’s growth.

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Red ‘Influx’ – Rule by the Sweepings of Great Britain:

The phenomenal growth of working-class politics in Oxford in the five years before the outbreak of war to a point where a left-wing victory, previously unimaginable, had become possible, was a key indicator of what might have happened in other ‘new industry’ centres had a general election taken place in 1940. However, the process of political recovery on the Left had to wait a further six years to come to fruition, though the seeds were widely sown before the war. Historians have argued about the role of the war itself in bringing about the Labour ‘landslide’ victory of 1945. What is clear is that immigrant workers from the Depressed Areas played a key role in this political recovery. Their success lay in the way they were able to reflect, articulate and organise a general mood of resistance and recovery among the new working class in Cowley and East Oxford, which was forged from old traditions of trade union organisation and militancy originating in the older industrial areas. The fact that Abe Lazarus, District Organiser for the CPGB, missed election as a Cowley Councillor by only twenty votes in 1937 gives a clear indication of the extent to which the newcomers had succeeded in shifting Oxford politics to the left. The assertion of a leading Welsh immigrant – we changed their outlook – reflects the reality of the immigrant contribution to the transformation of the political life of ‘the City of Dreaming Spires’ in the 1930s.

In 1935, the Communist Party developed a campaign about the housing conditions on the new Florence Park Estate which began with a deputation of the estates’ tenants to the Sanitary Committee of the Town Council in May. It had been built on marshland which had regularly flooded and when the estate was finished there were a series of related problems, both major and minor, which resulted partly from the speed with which the houses were erected. These problems have been described by one of the first tenants on the estate, a Welsh immigrant, and are well documented in the civic archives. The Tenants’ Committee published a pamphlet entitled The Oxford Rent and Housing Scandal – Who is Responsible? But from the other sources, and in particular, from the report of the independent surveyor, it is apparent that, although the problems provided a focus for a broad-based tenants’ campaign, serious cases were isolated and that the majority of the housing on the estate provided attractive, if expensive homes, to immigrants who had generally experienced far worse housing conditions in South Wales. The Allport family from the Garw Valley described the contrast:

When we arrived we were impressed. … we were coming from Wales and the house had the old fires in the best rooms. This was a modern house with the small grates – it was heaven! I can remember how I ran around the rooms. There was a bathroom, which we had never had before – we had had baths in front of the fire. … just imagine the difference – we were delighted – like walking on air…

By the late 1930s, the militancy of the immigrants had spread to the housing estates in East Oxford. The Welsh workers interviewed by Goronwy Daniel were paying between twenty and twenty-five shillings for five-roomed houses. The average net weekly pay packet of the fifty-five men interviewed was fifty-eight shillings and their usual payment for board and lodging was twenty-five shillings, almost identical to the rent they had paid in Wales. The married Oxford Welshman, however, had rented colliery houses for his family for only 10s. 6d. in south Wales, but paid 17s. 9d. in Oxford. Moreover, the loss of the ‘sub-economy’ made available through allotments, coal ‘patches’ and slag-heaps affected the migrant family more than it did the individual migrant. Thus, the relatively high wages which could be earned in periods of full-time working in the car factories were offset to a considerable extent by high rents and other financial factors which closed the gap between income and expenditure.

The rent strike which took place on the Great Headley Estate in July 1939 demonstrated the apparent intractability of these problems. The majority of the husbands on the estate were employed at Morris’ or Pressed Steel and were continually faced with the risk of being laid off, often for extended periods. The lowest rent on the estate was nineteen shillings and the highest twenty-four. The Gazette, the Labour Party’s local periodical paper, claimed that the risk of the landlords in building the estate was negligible compared with that taken by many of the tenants who have been compelled to emigrate from the Distressed Areas. Faced with the impossibility of getting a cheap house, they had no alternative but to take houses at exorbitant rents. The paper went on to report the case of one man who had been out of work for five years before arriving in Oxford and securing a job at the Morris Radiator factory. He then sent for his wife and family, who had only been in Oxford for a fortnight when he was thrown out of work. He received thirty-three shillings unemployment benefit for himself, his wife and two children, out of which he was expected to pay nineteen shillings per week in rent. He was being threatened with eviction. With the migration streams to Oxford drying up in 1938-39, as workers were being attracted to Coventry and elsewhere, the local Labour Party campaigned for greater security for migrant workers and their families in terms of their housing needs as well as in employment.

By 1936 in Coventry, the pressure for accommodation and the increased cost of living in the new housing estates was such that sub-letting was a common practice, especially among immigrants. Despite the Corporation’s belated attempts to catch up with the demand for cheap housing, there were regular complaints in the local press throughout the summer and autumn of 1937 that the costs were ‘greater than in most places’ and were ‘ridiculous’ with many immigrants finding themselves ‘at the mercy of landlords’. In September 1938, a local report on Coventry by the NCSS found that many migrant families had no choice but to rent housing at high rents. Nevertheless, oral evidence shows that, by 1939, migrant families were able to rent houses at fourteen shillings per week. The Labour administrations after 1937 had, by this time, led to the Corporation’s house-building programmes so that immigrants to Coventry were able to maintain a significant gap between earnings and rental payments. Neither did Coventry’s builders have similar problems to those faced in Oxford. The Nuffield Survey’s war-time report on Coventry and East Warwickshire found that in 1941, despite the effects of the November 1940 Blitz, the City’s sixty thousand houses and shops were a goodly number for the population as it had stood at the outbreak of war and that, although larger family houses were few, the great majority of houses provided accommodation superior to the average for the whole country. Mary Jones described her reaction, similar to that of the Allports in Cowley, to the change in accommodation involved in her migration from the Rhondda to Coventry:

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

In Coventry in 1929, Philip Noel-Baker had captured nearly half of all the votes cast at the general election and whilst the fortunes of the Party in the 1931 election followed the national trend, in 1935 the role of former Welsh miners in municipal affairs in England attracted the attention of leading politicians. In November, Herbert Morrison, then Chairman of London County Council, spoke at a meeting in Coventry in support of Noel-Baker. In his speech, he contrasted the practical failures of Government ministers with the successes of a new breed of working-class politicians:

Mr Oliver Stanley, the Minister of Labour, with all his university education, had made a mess of his job. The Chairman of the London Public Assistance Committee was a common workman, formerly a South Wales miner, yet in the speaker’s opinion was better than all the Oliver Stanleys in the Tory Party.

In the local elections in Coventry, the Labour Party made steady headway against the Lib-Con coalition until it finally won control of the City Council in 1937, becoming one of the first local parties in the country to take control of a municipal authority. The taking of municipal powers by the Party had no impact on class relations within the city, nor on industrial relations in the workplace, but it remained dedicated to advancing the cause of municipal socialism. By the outbreak of the Second World War, the gulf between workplace and municipal politics was such that the growing power of Labour in the Council was not challenged by the growing power of the Communist Party in the unions. It seems from this that ‘activism’ in the trade union movement, especially among engineering workers, did not generally lead to candidacy for the city council. There appears to have been a clear division between the two representative roles.

The tendency of Welsh migrants to Coventry towards left-wing politics reinforced a pre-existing tradition, in marked contrast to the situation in Oxford. This tradition was primarily ‘syndicalist’ in nature since it focused its attention upon industrial struggles within the factories. Immigrant trade unionists such as Jock Gibson were already spreading the influence of the Communist Party in the 1930s to the point where it had a ‘significant presence’ at forty factories throughout the city. However, its growing industrial strength was not reflected in the general party politics, since those engaged in ‘the struggle’ in the economic field did not show any great interest in the social field, unlike in Oxford, mirroring the position adopted by many of the leading employers who, despite many appeals, refused to involve themselves in local politics. Hence the dominant political élite in the life of the city remained a group of small businessmen and professionals who formed themselves into a Lib-Con coalition which by the Thirties had remodelled itself as ‘the Progressive Party’. Their loss of supremacy, from 1937 onwards, was attributed by their supporters, not to an overspilling of militancy from the factories into the social sphere but, according to the Midland Daily Telegraph to:

… the rapid drift of population from the depressed areas … a steady stream of potential left-wing supporters. 

The truth was that, with no common principles other than the opposition to socialism, no policies other than curbs on public spending, no electoral machinery and a declining social base, it was clear by the mid-thirties in Coventry that the Con-Lib Coalition had been clinging to power by default. It had been able to protect itself as the social leadership of the city and use its powers to look after its social base but had lacked the will and ability to develop policies that could have encouraged industry to support it, or to attract working-class voters to it. Its inability to plan to meet the needs of the city and develop a modern infrastructure meant that its removal ended an obstacle to progress, not just for working people, but to a wide range of commercial and industrial interests. It had outlived its usefulness, and Labour’s victory in November 1937, besides making possible the application of genuinely progressive policies, also provided an opportunity to make the city more responsive to the needs of modern mass manufacturers. The ‘influx’ in itself provided a further factor in Labour’s progress to power in Coventry, but it was not a primary one. Nevertheless, in the 1938 municipal by-election, the ‘Progressive’ (Lib-Con) candidate in St. Mary’s Ward, near the city centre, had played upon the prejudices of electors who were predominantly ‘old Coventrian’ in winning his seat. This ploy was attacked in a Labour eve-of-poll leaflet, which in turn brought a strong retort from the Progressives’ leader:

They had picked out from Mr Friswell’s speech at his adoption a sentence referring to rule by the sweepings of Great Britain, and had divorced it from its context … What Mr Friswell had indicated was that the coming of so many of the Labour Party’s supporters to Coventry had had a serious effect on Council elections. He was sure that the old Coventry people did not want Socialists in control of their affairs.

Midland Daily Telegraph, 20 July 1938.

The ‘context’ referred to was Friswell’s claim that when he had spoken of ‘the sweepings of Great Britain’ he was quoting what a small shopkeeper had said to him about his district. However, in the full civic elections the Labour Party, surprisingly, did not advance on its 1937 position. This was due to the fact, as George Hodgkinson noted, that many of the newcomers had not yet been registered to vote despite the rapid growth of artisan dwellings reported by the Telegraph. Evidently, the immigrants to Coventry from the South Wales valleys were not as settled in the city by the late thirties as were their compatriots in Cowley, although larger in numbers. Thus, the argument advanced by Conservative agencies within the City that it was the large influx of labour from socialist areas over the year preceding November 1937 that was the major factor in the Labour victory reflected their belief in ‘the myth of the old Coventrian’ as much as it did the reality of the processes of migration and settlement.

The 1937 victory was greatly facilitated by the creation of a large individual party membership which enabled many managerial, professional and clerical workers to play an increasingly important role alongside shop stewards, conveners and trade union officials. It was an ‘alliance’ which was carefully nurtured by strong leaders like George Hodgkinson and Sidney Stringer who shaped the Party into an organisation which was capable of winning elections and running the City successfully. In addition, the radical liberalism of many chapel-goers in the City was transformed into support for Labour’s progressive provision and planning of social services at the municipal level. In particular, the advocacy of Christian Socialism by Rev. Richard Lee, the Unitarian minister; George Binns, Methodist lay-preacher; John Fennel, Ivor Reece (Congregationalist) and Howard Ingli James (Baptist), led to growing support among their congregations fuelled by the influx of workers from areas of the country, like South Wales, where Nonconformity was still comparatively strong. All of these pastors spoke on Labour platforms within the city.

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The Immigrant Road to 1947:

Many of the Welsh immigrant workers, like ‘Jehu’ Shepherd, were attracted to Queen’s Road Baptist Church in the city centre, where Ingli James had his ministry in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Shepherd became the organist and choirmaster and for many years ran a Male Voice ‘Glee Society’ in the city for the young Welsh immigrants. Besides supporting the initiatives which the immigrants had taken to establish an image of respectability in their new environment, such as the Glee Singers, Ingli James also affirmed to a wide audience, the society and culture from which they had come. He continually referred to the miners in his sermons, and his unashamed championing of working-class causes and politics brought him into conflict with the established professional Coventrians among on the diaconate in the church and more broadly in the city. May Shepherd recalled one of his sermons:

Ingli James was a great preacher, very down to earth, and a pacifist. He was a strong Labour man and he upset quite a few people because he just said what he felt – he was true to himself, he would not say one thing and mean another, or say something to please people. Ingli was not bombastic and what he said was true. I always remember once when he talked about the miners, he said:

“I had a load of coal the other day, and paid for it. Did I say I paid for it? No, never, when I think what those men had to go through to get that coal for me to enjoy, and then I say I paid for it. No money would pay for what they did!”

I can see him now in that pulpit!  

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James’ sermons also dealt constantly with unemployment. In 1942, he preached a sermon entitled How Green Was My Valley, coinciding with the distribution of the Holywood film in Britain. The politics of the young immigrant men and women in his congregation, like the Shepherds, had a major effect on the development and direction of James’ ministry, as his 1936 article for the Midland Daily Telegraph reveals:

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

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‘Before the Blitz’: Broadgate, Coventry City Centre in 1939.

Some of these newcomers were among the convinced and articulate group of Christian Socialists with strong pacifist convictions. James shared their impetus to social reform, which he articulated in his book, Communism and the Christian Faith, published in 1950, in which he acknowledged his indebtedness to the Queen’s Road congregation for the way they had given him a new vision of what a Christian community in a busy industrial city might be and do. He then went on to describe how he came to his vision of Christian Socialism during his ministry in Swansea before arriving in Coventry:

The depression of 1929-33 left a profound mark on my mind. All around me I saw the bitter struggle of the unemployed … I also realised that the world contained an abundance of the necessities of life which the system denied to the people. However, these ideas were all vague, and I played no active part in the struggle of the unemployed.  At the end of 1934, I read my first copy of ‘the Daily Worker’. What I read filled the gaps in my political development…  

Of course, many of those he ministered to in Coventry had experienced ‘the struggle’ first hand but came to their visions via a variety of routes. But in his writing, as in his sermons, he was also distilling the essence of the shared experience of a significant section of the British working class between the wars, the migrating millions from the Depressed Areas. Compared with Cowley, some of the most prominent Welsh figures in the local party in Coventry did not arrive in Coventry until the later 1930s and made their impact after the Second World War. These included Ernie Roberts, AEU District Chairman, William Parfitt from Tylorstown and Harry Richards from Tonypandy, both of whom became Lord Mayor, and Cllr. Elsie Jones, who, in 1958, made the following poetic contribution to a Party publication celebrating twenty-one years of Labour rule in the City:

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

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

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

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

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

How green and beautiful was my valley. How black the despair in the heats of its people.

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More broadly, it is apparent that together with Elsie Jones, the political attitudes of those living in Coventry’s new housing estates were largely conditioned by their memories of the ‘depression years’ elsewhere in Britain. When the Labour Government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Aneurin Bevan chose to defend it in Coventry and issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue and, according to the Coventry Tribune (Labour’s own local paper) was given a great reception from the people of Coventry, in particular from members of the Welsh Community, many of whom knew him in their native valleys. If we are to take this statement literally,  there certainly was quite a large ‘lump’ of exiles from the Monmouthshire Valleys in Coventry at the end of the thirties, so it is quite possible that a number of them would have known him personally as their former MP. The growth of municipal socialism in Coventry, from 1937 onwards was, like Bevan’s own role as Minister for Health and Housing, a practical expression of the principles of progress and planning which arose out of the determination of both leaders and led to attain to better living conditions than those which they had been forced to endure between the wars. Reflecting on his experience of the ‘two Britains’ he witnessed in the Thirties, Ingli James recognised that although Marxism was ultimately incompatible with his Christian Faith, it provided an empirical means for Christian Socialists to explain the injustices and inequalities of the capitalist system:

Probably the most powerful weapon ever put into the hands of the British Marxists was the prolonged period of widespread unemployment between the wars. Those who wonder why ten thousand electors voted Communist in the Rhondda Valley in 1945, should reflect on the plight of the valley during that period, when streets of empty shops testified to its bitter poverty, when every male member of many a church was unemployed, when thousands of eager youngsters were compelled to seek employment far from home.  The memory of what happened to Merthyr, to Jarrow, to many a small town in Lancashire during these years is still the most powerful weapon the Marxist propagandist can use. Conversely, the most convincing argument against Marxism would be a demonstration that we can build a relatively just society in which every citizen is assured of useful employment and a decent livelihood, without infringing the rights of the individual and without resorting to violence. … we must show how it might be done.

Labour’s coming to municipal power in 1937 proved to be a harbinger of their post-war supremacy in local and parliamentary politics; the election of Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman as the City’s two MPs in 1945 confirmed the Party’s status as the leading political party in Coventry. By that time, the migrants from the Depressed Areas, and in particular those from the coalfield valleys of South Wales had shown, by their various contributions to the economic, political, social, cultural and religious life of the new industry towns, that they were not prepared to be treated as mere pawns in an economic and political system which had displaced them. Nor were they prepared to be acquiescent in the face of stereotyping, which was often grotesque and prejudices which were always difficult to overcome. In the retention and transposition of their traditional values and institutions, they made an ‘ark of the covenant’ for themselves and thereby found a powerful means of confronting and overpowering those stereotypes and prejudices, and of fostering a positive self-image in their new environment. In doing so, they enabled and enhanced the recovery of working-class politics and culture in the 1930s. When the Lord Mayor of Oxford visited the Garw Valley in 1960, he told those assembled that those who had left the valley thirty or so years before had…

… entered into the life of the community of Oxford to the fullest, … in churches, chapels, football matches and in the Council; in all walks of life … they were highly respected citizens of Oxford.

The memory of the depression years had become a powerful motive force throughout industrial Britain, old and new, long before 1945. Those who had lost everything had also lost their fear; they had everything to regain and were determined to be in control of their own remaking. The trade union movement and the Labour Party were the major and long-term beneficiaries of this resistance and recovery.

Sources (for both ‘case studies’):

A. 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. 1920-1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD thesis.

Dai Smith (1984), Wales! Wales? London: George Allen & Unwin (Publishers).

Tony Curtis (ed.) (1986), Wales: The Imagined Nation. Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press. (Especially Peter Stead’s chapter on ‘Wales in the Movies’).

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (eds.) (n.d.), Life & Labour in a Twentieth-Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press (University of Warwick).

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

 

 

 

 

Posted January 26, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Assimilation, Birmingham, Britain, British history, Charity, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, clannishness, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Commemoration, Communism, Coventry, democracy, Deportation, Economics, Education, Egalitarianism, emigration, Ethnicity, Factories, First World War, Genesis, George VI, History, Immigration, Integration, Journalism, Labour Party, liberalism, manufacturing, Marxism, Methodism, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, morality, multiculturalism, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Oxford, Poverty, Proletariat, Remembrance, Respectability, Russia, Scotland, Second World War, Security, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Spanish Civil War, Technology, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, United Kingdom, Wales, Warfare, Welfare State, Women's History, World War One, World War Two, xenophobia

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The ‘Other England’ of the Sixties: The Changing Faces of the West Midlands.   2 comments

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The National Division – the ‘Two Englands’:

In 1964, the well-known Guardian correspondent, Geoffrey Moorhouse (pictured above), ‘ventured’ out of his metropolitan England, caught up in the cobweb of roads and rails around London, into the interior of England to see how the other three-quarters live. The Penguin Special he produced was the first of its kind since J.B. Priestley published his English Journey thirty years beforehand. Looking behind the Cotswold stone and the dereliction of the Black Country … the vaunted development schemes of Birmingham, he attempted to uncover England as it was in the 1960s – beauty, traffic, tradition, negroes, noise, and all.

One side of the debate about the migration debate, was the problem of the continued drift of the population to the industrial Midlands and South-east of England, foreseen in the Barlow Report of 1937. But there had never been such a fixation with the division of England into North and South on almost every count as there was in the sixties. Moorhouse argued that while two Englands did visibly exist in 1964, the demarcation was vague and misleading and that the ‘two Englands’ could be more precisely defined. The nine county boroughs with the highest mortality ratios in England were in the industrial North, and the ten with the lowest rates were south of a line drawn from the Severn estuary to the Thames estuary. Traditionally, the boundary between the Midlands and the North was drawn along the upper reaches of the Severn and then following the Trent from its source to the River Ouse on the Humber estuary. One observer commented that without financial intervention, it will not take a generation to complete the establishment of two nations, or, in contemporary language, two cultures, divided by a line from the Humber to the Wirral. 

What became clear in the early sixties was that all the generalised observations that were bandied about on the comparative wealth and health of England North and England South were based on the haziest possible conceptions of where they were. Commentators had got into the habit of talking about a generally poor North and a generally rich South, based on inadequate definitions of these areas. Two damaging consequences followed: the North was painted blacker than it was and the South whiter. Certainly, no-one who lived in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the North-East during the late fifties and early sixties could fail to be aware that these areas were gradually falling behind the national averages in many ways – in housing conditions, in mortality, in investment, and, above all, in employment. But many generalised assumptions were made about ‘the North’ based on the perpetuated, negative impression that it was almost wholly covered in the worst residue of the Industrial Revolution. This stereotype of an area of utter depression with no real future meant that financial investment was slow and grudging.

Scarcely less unfortunate in its side effects was the tacit assumption that all was well, in economic terms, with the South. The theory that this was a land flowing with milk and honey from end to end was not one that would find ready acceptance among the thousands of homeless people in London, or the unemployed of Norwich, where the rate of joblessness was above the national average. In fact, the highest rate was to be found not in the North-east, or on Merseyside, but in Cornwall. In March 1964, the national rate was 1.9 per cent, on Merseyside, it was 4.5 per cent, in the worst parts of the North-east at 8.8 per cent, and in Falmouth 10.8 per cent. Like London’s homeless, Falmouth’s unemployed tended to be overlooked. Unemployment in the North was a more striking problem than in the South because of the absolute numbers involved.

Between 1952 and 1960, the London region, with twenty-seven per cent of Great Britain’s population, acquired forty per cent of the new jobs created. Those who lived within the ‘golden circle’ of the Home Counties, within an hour’s journey of their workplace, were members of a giant migrant society which moved great distances both for work and for pleasure. Their allegiances were divided between their ‘dormitory’ town and the great city itself, and their feeling for ‘community’ in both places tended to be weaker than it was in places where the population did not have this split personality. It was one of the more remarkable things about London and its suburbs to anyone who had lived in other parts of the country, how many people there made scarcely any contact with their neighbours. Instead, their contacts were with people they met through work or pleasure who lived miles away, and so gatherings of ‘soulmates’ took place in a kind of no man’s land. Of course, this was very much a professional and middle-class way of life.

A very high proportion of those living within the ‘Golden Circle’ had never been anywhere in England north of Whipsnade or the Norfolk Broads. They took their holidays on the South Coast or in the West Country and then turned their attention to the Continent. After all, Paris was nearer than Cumberland, more urbane and metropolitan. This widespread inexperience of the North was strikingly illustrated by one of the Observer’s professional travel writers. In April 1964, after describing the playgrounds of Europe and beyond, she visited the English Lake District for the first time in her life. The message that came loud and clear out of London was that if anyone wished to be smart and up to date then these were the attitudes they must adopt, the values they must hold, the fashions they must follow. The old provincial community feeling – the instinctive regard, warmth, and understanding for someone from the other side of town or even region which gently pressed people to place themselves at the disposal of each other – was broken. Moorhouse commented on the parallel process at work in the South-east and the ‘Home Counties’:

Meanwhile we become implicated in the structure of the Golden Circle, with its ephemeral relationships, with its unparalleled amenities of one kind or another, with its own introspective regard for things. And such are the pressures of this new society that after a time, I think, we too look towards the other England and wonder how on earth it could be so provincial, so backward, so completely out of step with the times. And then we turn our backs on it like so many before us. That is the really alarming thing about this national division.

There was much talk of modernizing Britain in 1964, and the country had clearly reached a point at which its whole shape and appearance was going to be drastically altered within a decade or two. Quite apart from the fact that the facilities Britain had were inadequate for its needs at that time, there was also the future to think of. The population was going to run away with itself and there was nothing that could be done to stop it, short of war or natural disaster. The advent and availability of the contraceptive pill did have a moderating effect, but the population still advanced beyond fifty-five million towards the estimated seventy-two million by the year two thousand. In just over thirty years, the population was expected to grow by almost a third.

Various prophecies had been made about the appearance of England at the turn of the century, and none of them bore much resemblance to what it looked like in the mid-sixties. One suggestion was that, by the year two thousand, there might be thirty conurbations of one to three million living in areas of forty square miles. From Dover to Bristol, and from the Home Counties to Lancashire and Yorkshire, there would be more people living in metropolitan conditions than there were in the whole of Britain in 1964. Two-thirds of them would be confined to virtually unbroken conurbations. Peter Hall, in his book London 2,000, sketched a prototype for the ideal Fin-de-siecle new town. It had a population of 95,000 and was constructed so artfully that seventy thousand of its citizens could walk to the central shopping area within a quarter of an hour. What, asked Moorhouse was to become of the lovely country towns in such an age? The answer, as it has turned out, was that few people suggested that it would be beneficial to raze everything and start all over again, as was the case in Sheffield and, due to its war-time destruction, to Coventry. No one but a blind iconoclast would have suggested that places like Ludlow, Shrewsbury, Worcester, and all the smaller towns of the West Midlands deserved the same treatment.

The ‘rural’ West Midlands:

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In the 1960s, the West Midlands was defined as the region between Bristol and Crewe going north and between Birmingham and the Welsh border from east to west. It therefore included the largely rural areas of Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire, whereas today it is thought of as comprising the main metropolitan areas of Coventry, Solihull, Birmingham, Sandwell and Wolverhampton. The latter two of these areas roughly correspond with what was, and still is, known as ‘the Black Country’, the industrial area stretching across southern Staffordshire. When Moorhouse wrote that there is no part of England lovelier than this he was not thinking of the Black Country, which he wrote about in a subsequent chapter together with Birmingham. Thus, what Nikolaus Pevsner wrote about Herefordshire, Moorhouse suggested, could be said to be true of the rest of the West Midlands as defined in the sixties:

There are not many counties of England of which it can be said that, wherever one goes, there will not be a mile which is visually unrewarding or painful.

Moorhouse added that there was certainly no other comparable stretch of country which had been more enhanced rather than spoiled by man. This was a man-made landscape which over the centuries has been broken in, tamed and softened in a way that some of the most attractive of Scotland, Wales and Ireland – the Highlands, Snowdonia, Connemara – have not. In the rural West Midlands are the Cotswolds, the Wye Valley, the Vale of Evesham, the Malverns, the Long Mynd, Wenlock Edge and the upper Severn Valley of Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale. In these areas there was a little industry, formed early in the Industrial Revolution but never developed; where Birmingham and the Black Country spilt over the Worcestershire boundary they did so because of pressure from their foundries and factories. Industry in these West Midlands was…

… more a matter of cider-making, hop-gathering, pear-picking and cattle-herding than anything they understand the word to mean in Birmingham and surrounding districts. Here the towns were built mostly to market farm products … We remember them best for their picturesque qualities: Worcester, with the prettiest county cricket ground in England; Shrewsbury, with probably the finest collection of half-timbered Tudor buildings; Hereford, because it is less industrialized than any place of its size; Cheltenham, for the elegance of its Promenade and parks; Ludlow, for its charming disorder beneath the castle; Gloucester, for its cathedral and especially for that staggering east window.

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What made these cities and towns so iconic was not just their possession of a high proportion of buildings which are aesthetically pleasing or of considerable historical value, but that more often than not by their very disordered arrangement, their textures and their colouring, they actually enhance the landscapes in which they are set. Somehow the planners were pressured into preserving them either as the core or as the adjunct to the bright new towns of the future. Yet some of the most abysmal hovels in England continued to lie behind some of the prettiest facades (see the picture of Spon Street, Coventry, above). There were already thousands of examples of reclamation of country cottages and market townhouses without damage to the exterior or the context. But the example of Gloucester was not one to be followed. Everything that was obsolescent for practical purposes was knocked down to make way for the latest urban device when more thought would have shown that by careful adaptation and selective demolition the same practical result could be achieved. In 1964, there was a clear danger that many other Midland towns might fall into the same trap as Gloucester. Fortunately, it was not the last chance we had to look around and see things as they always seemed to have been. Coaching inns, Tudor gables, and Regency mansions have remained into the current century. The Georgian face of Worcester has survived the widening of the High Street and the erection of a shopping centre opposite the cathedral. Yet at the time Worcester seemed generally quite oblivious of what was happening to it. An overspill population of forty thousand rolled in from Birmingham, yet it had no overall plan for development. Unlike Coventry’s Donald Gibson, Worcester had no city architect to start thinking about one, and to ensure that what was being done in the centre of the city was properly co-ordinated.

Birmingham & The Black Country:

Above: The local government structure within North Worcestershire and South Staffordshire – Prior to the West Midlands Order 1965 reorganisation

Strictly speaking, the Black Country is a quadrilateral of towns whose four corners are Wolverhampton, Walsall, Stourbridge and Smethwick. Most of it lies in the South-western angle of Staffordshire but it has spread over into Worcestershire as well. Not far from the geographical centre of England, it fizzles out on two sides into some of England’s most unspoilt countryside. It is itself the heart of industrial England and has become England’s unloveliest and most completely spoiled parcel of land. It is crammed with boroughs which have traditional specialities of manufacture: locks at Willenhall, chains at Cradley, nails at Blackheath, springs at West Bromwich, enamels at Bilston, glass at Stourbridge, leathers at Walsall, and so on. As Moorhouse remarked,

These places are so close to each other that it is only by keeping an eye on the signs outside the post offices as you pass through the Black Country that you can be sure which town you are in. Together with the Potteries it is the only part of England I know that I would not at any price exchange for life in South Lancashire… Here there is nothing but endless vistas of ugliness in stone, brick, mortar, rusting iron, and waste earth. Look at the streets and the factories here, peer into the canals, sniff the air, and you can be sure that they weren’t kidding when they called this the Black Country.

Strictly speaking, Birmingham has never part of the Black Country, which lies just over the south-eastern boundary of the region at West Bromwich, Smethwick and Bearwood, where the old counties of Warwickshire and Worcestershire met. The boundary was literally at the end of the long back garden of our ‘manse’ in Edgbaston, the Baptist Church being in Bearwood. Yet in an economic rather than a geographical sense, Birmingham is at the centre of the Black Country. Like the towns spilling out from its northern suburbs it was built from the start upon industry, but whereas specialization was the general rule in the Black Country’s boroughs, Birmingham spread itself over an enormous variety of trades. The typical working-class Brummie was, as the folk-song had it, a Roving Jack of many a trade, of every trade, of all trades. More than any other city in Britain, including Manchester, by the mid-twentieth century Birmingham could claim to be the unrivalled workshop of the world. By the 1960s its reputation rested on its heavy engineering and its part in the growth of the car industry, but it was still the home of about 1,500 separate trades, making everything from pins to hundred-ton presses.

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Birmingham was never as wholly bleak as the area to the north, though. Its southern suburbs became a dormitory for the middle and upper classes, almost devoid of factories, except for the Austin motor works at Longbridge and the Cadbury factory at Bournville which, like his predecessor J B Priestley, Geoffrey Moorhouse writes about at some length in his chapter on the Black Country.  I don’t intend to focus on it in this article. These suburbs were spacious and tree-lined, running eventually out into the Shakespeare country of the former Forest of Arden, along the Stratford Road. Birmingham was one of the very few places in England which lived up to its motto – in this case, ‘Forward’. It was certainly going forward in the mid-sixties. Nowhere else was there more excitement in the air, and no other major British city had identified its problems, tackled them and made more progress towards solving them than ‘the second city’. Not even in London was there so much adventure in what was being done.

Moorhouse suggested that you would have had to have gone to some of the Dutch and German cities to see something changing in shape and its approach to life as dramatically as Birmingham had been doing in the early sixties. If you entered the city by way of Snow Hill station and went along Colmore Row towards Victoria Square and the Town Hall nothing much seemed to be happening. But if you turned down New Street, at the bottom of the street you walked straight out of the nineteenth century into the mid-twentieth, or maybe even into the twenty-first. You could carry on into the Bull Ring, at that time the centre of the transformation, and stand with your back to St Martin’s Church. Looking up, the sky was cut across at one end by a great horizontal slab of concrete, embellished with a fierce symbolic Taurus in metal at one end. That was the then new Bull Ring market. Behind it was a cylindrical office block, ‘the Rotunda’, all glass with a concrete frame. No-one had ever thought of making one of these in England before. At ground level was an open market, its stalls sheltered by huge individual umbrellas in lollipop colours.

This was Birmingham moving ‘forward’. Out of sight, there were streets along which traffic could pass without being stopped by crossing pedestrians because someone had the bright idea that it was possible for people on foot to get from one side to the other by going under the main thoroughfare. A portable flyover was also set across a junction so that cars, buses and lorries could go up and down it like trippers on the Big Dipper. Birmingham had been moving forward in this fashion since 1957, the year I was born, and when I went to live there in the summer of 1965 much of the new city centre around St Martin’s in the Bull Ring had been completed. At the time, it was probably the most extensive programme of rebuilding and redevelopment to take place in any European city not already demolished by the war. Plymouth, Exeter and neighbouring Coventry had no alternative but to rebuild.

Birmingham had to start its own demolition before it could proceed to re-creation. It started with a new inner ring road, costing twenty-five million, followed by the Bull Ring development which cost five million out of a total cost of forty million for the city centre as a whole. This was followed by the Midlands Arts Centre and a new civic theatre, the Repertory.  Plans for New Street station were first drawn up in 1958, an underground construction at an estimated cost of twelve million. In all, the city council reckoned in 1964 that they would spend another fifty million on various projects in the centre and at Edgbaston, including the test cricket ground. Not all these schemes were to be funded from the public purse, but the freedom of civic spending was the envy of many other cities. Birmingham’s forward movement was impressive enough to attract the best architects of the day to produce plans there, whereas other provincial cities had their futures shaped by trusty local architects, whose worthiness was generally equalled only by their lack of imagination. 

The danger, however, was that all this central enterprise would distract the city from looking too closely at its unfulfilled needs. Life in Sparkbrook or Balsall Heath didn’t look nearly as prosperous as it did from St Martin’s. Birmingham could have done itself more good by concentrating more on its tatty central fringes, what became known in the seventies and eighties as its inner-city areas. Something like seventy thousand families were in need of new homes and since the war it had been building houses at a rate of no more than two to three thousand a year. This compared poorly with Manchester, otherwise a poor relation, which had been building four thousand a year over the same period. However, more than any other municipality in the country, Birmingham had been successive ministers of Housing and Local Government to force lodging-house landlords to register with their local authorities. In 1944, it was the only place in England to take advantage of an ephemeral Act of Parliament to acquire the five housing areas it then developed twenty years later. At Ladywood, Lee Bank, Highgate, Newton and Nechells Green 103,000 people lived in 32,000 slum houses; a mess sprawling over a thousand acres, only twenty-two acres of which were open land. More than ten thousand of these houses had been cleared by 1964, and it was estimated that by 1970 the total number of people living in these areas was expected to dwindle to fifty thousand, with their homes set in 220 acres of open ground.

The other tens of thousands of people who lived there were expected to have moved out to Worcester, Redditch and other places. The prospect of Birmingham’s excess population being deposited in large numbers on the surrounding countryside was not an attractive one for those who were on the receiving end of this migration. At the public enquiry into the proposals to establish a new town at Redditch, the National Farmers’ Union declared, with the imagery that pressure groups often resort when their interests are threatened, that the farmers were being sacrificed on the altar of Birmingham’s ‘overspill’, which was the latest password among the planners. Birmingham needed to clear its slums before it could start talking about itself with justification as the most go-ahead city in Europe. Yet it already, in the mid-sixties, felt much more affluent than the patchwork affair among more Northerly towns and cities. It had more in common with the Golden Circle of London and the Home Counties than any other part of England. In 1964, forty-seven per cent of its industrial firms reported increased production compared with the national average of twenty-five per cent. Above all, Birmingham felt as if everything it set itself to was geared to an overall plan and purpose, with no piecemeal efforts going to waste at a tangent. The people living in Birmingham in the mid-sixties had a feeling, rare in English life at that time, of being part of an exciting enterprise destined to succeed. As for the city itself, it was not prepared to yield pride of place to anyone on any matter, as a quick glance at the civic guide revealed:

Many of the world’s finest organists have joined with the City Organist in giving recitals on the Town Hall’s massive organ, admittedly one of the finest in the country.

Such off-hand immodesty neatly caught the tone of Birmingham in the sixties, and when all the projects were completed, it was a city to crow about and for schoolboys like me to sing in, whether in the choir stalls at St Martin’s in the Bull Ring at Christmas or in front of that massive organ in the Town Hall, together with thousands of other choristers from all over the city.

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There was some ‘overspill’ of Birmingham’s bouncing vitality to be seen in the Black Country proper. The worthies of Wolverhampton had their own six million pound development plan on their plates, and in the town centre they had cleared a wide open space and started to build afresh. The city was especially proud of its football team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, which under its manager, Stan Cullis, had won the League Championship three times (also finishing as runners-up three times) and the FA Cup twice between 1949 and 1960. They had also played a number of European club teams in a series of floodlit mid-week games at their Molineux Stadium, beating the crack Hungarian Champions Honved, led by the legendary Ferenc Puskás, earning them the unofficial title of ‘Champions of the World’.  They drew with Honved 1-1 at Molineux in 1962 and lost 2-1 to them in Budapest in ’63, but in 1964 Stan Cullis suffered a long illness and after a disastrous start to the season Chairman John Ireland sacked him on 15 September 1964. The Wolves were then relegated at the end of the season, not returning to the top flight until 1967, when I began to go to ‘the Moli’ with my dad, who was originally from Bilston. Of course, their great rivals were their Black Country neighbours, West Bromwich Albion, known as ‘the baggies’. In the first home game of the season, attracting a crowd of 51,438, Wolves were winning until ‘Bomber’ Brown punched the ball into the Wolves net with only a couple of minutes to go. The referee didn’t spot the infringement, and the match ended in a 3-3 draw.

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The Wolverhampton Coat of Arms and Motto (also worn by the football team).

In West Bromwich, they had come up with a seven million pound scheme for a pedestrian centre covering thirty-seven acres. Moorhouse felt that this was long overdue since no-one seemed to have spent a penny in the last century on the appearance of the place. He commented that whilst this was officially the most affluent place in the other England, with unemployment standing at just one per cent compared with the national average of 2.2, it was a curious unbalanced people who can satisfy itself indoors with its television set, washing machine, its hair dryer and modish lamp standard, and put up with West Bromwich as it looks from the outside. For West Bromwich, he wrote, you could substitute the name of any town in the Black Country and draw the same conclusion. Taking a bus from West Bromwich to Wolverhampton via Wednesbury and Bilston, he concluded that there is nothing to be seen which would induce anyone to go and live there unless he had to. I have to admit that, visiting my father’s brothers and sisters a few years later, I often wondered, and still do, as to what drew his parents there. My father worked as a draughtsman in the GKN works before the war, so perhaps his father did too. Wednesbury, where he had his first ministry as a young man, had a steep main street of market stalls, which gave it an almost rural air, reminding you that once there was open country running out of the bottom of the hill. Otherwise, Moorhouse’s description matches accurately my own childhood recollections:

Where the decrepit buildings of the Industrial Revolution peter out, bleak and gritty housing estates have been allowed to sprawl with here and there patches of waste ground full of broken glass, fractured brick, garbage and willowherb. The bus lurches through a maze of side streets whose corners are so sharp and narrow that it is surprising that it doesn’t finish up in somebody’s front parlour. … It is a picture of desolation, and no-one yet seems to have made a start in cleaning it up.

Certainly, for all the money that must have been made in these parts since industry moved in, precious little was spent on the needs of the local communities. Tipton was so bereft of civic facilities that the mayor had to entertain either in the local pub or the Territorial drill hall. As far as Moorhouse could tell, there was not a scrap of difference between Tipton, Coseley, Bilston and Willenhall, not a rusty piece of iron that you could insert between one boundary and the next. The only advantage that this gave them was that they were obviously all in the same boat together and that they might as well pool their resources and try to work out an overall plan. The Local Government Commission came to a similar conclusion in 1962, resulting in a reorganisation of the Black Country with the small towns being amalgamated into larger groupings or assimilated into the bigger places – Wolverhampton, Walsall, West Bromwich, Smethwick, and Dudley. These changes were not brought about without a fight, however, as civic jealousies were strong among the Black Country towns. The hearing of objections to the Commission’s plan lasted over five weeks and was the costliest in the history of British local government; some of the local authorities even threatened to sue the Minister of Housing and Local Government. With the consolidation of the Black Country, there was some hope that some of Birmingham’s ‘bright ideas’ might get transfused to its hinterland.

Immigration: The Case of Smethwick in 1964.

The Black Country outside Birmingham may have appeared to have been standing still for a century or more, but by looking at its population it was possible to see that an enormous change had come over it in the late fifties and early sixties. The pallid, indigenous people had been joined by more colourful folk from the West Indies, India and Pakistan. In some cases, the women from the subcontinent could not speak English at all, but they had already made their mark on Black Country society, queuing for chickens on Wolverhampton market on Saturday mornings. The public transport system across Birmingham and the Black Country would certainly have ground to a halt had the immigrant labour which supplied it been withdrawn. Several cinemas had been saved from closing by showing Indian and Pakistani movies, and a Nonconformist Chapel had been transformed into a Sikh Gurdwara. The whole area was ‘peppered’ with Indian and Pakistani restaurants. Several years before the national press discovered the West Indian cricket supporters at Lord’s in 1963, they were already plainly visible and vocal at Edgbaston Cricket Ground.

The overseas immigrants had been coming into Birmingham and the Black Country in a steady trickle since the end of the war for the same reason that the region attracted migrants from all over the British Isles since the mid-twenties: comparatively high wages and full, stable, employment. The trickle became a torrent in the months before the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill was enacted in 1962. By 1964, the region had one of the biggest concentrations of immigrants in the country. Their integration into the communities of Birmingham and the Black Country had proceeded without the violent reaction which led to the race riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill in 1958. But tensions had been building up in the region as they had in every mixed community in Britain. One of the first open antagonisms took place in Birmingham in 1954 over the employment of coloured migrants as drivers and conductors on the local buses. After that, little was heard of racial pressures until the end of 1963, when events in Smethwick began to make national headlines. The situation there became typical in its effects on traditional allegiances, and in its ripeness for exploitation, of that in every town in England with a mixed community.

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With a population of seventy thousand, Smethwick contained an immigrant community variously estimated at between five and seven thousand. It was claimed that this is proportionately greater than in any other county borough in England. The settlement of these people in Smethwick had not been the slow process over a long period that Liverpool, Cardiff and other seaports had experienced and which had allowed time for adjustments to be made gradually. It had happened at a rush, mainly at the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties. In such circumstances, the host communities learnt to behave better, but it was always likely that a deeply rooted white population would regard with suspicion the arrival of an itinerant coloured people on its home ground, and that friction would result. In Smethwick, the friction followed a familiar pattern. Most pubs in the town barred coloured people from their lounge bars. Some barbers refused to cut their hair. When a Pakistani family were allocated a new council flat after slum clearance in 1961, sixty-four of their white neighbours staged a rent strike and eventually succeeded in driving them out of, ironically enough, ‘Christ Street’.

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Looking for lodgings on Gillett Road, west Birmingham, 1955.

Most of the usual white prejudices were keenly displayed in Smethwick, the reasons offered for hostility to the migrants being that they made too much noise, that they did not tend to their gardens with the customary English care, that they left their children unattended too long, and that their children were delaying the progress of white pupils in the schools. The correspondence columns of the local weekly newspaper, the Smethwick Telephone, have provided a platform for the airing of these prejudices, as a letter quoted by a correspondent of The Times on 9 March 1964 shows:

With the advent of the pseudo-socialists’ ‘coloured friends’, the incidence of T.B. in the area has risen to become one of the highest in the country. Can it be denied that the foul practice of spitting in public is a contributory factor? Why waste the ratepayers’ money printing notices in five different languages? People who behave worse than animals will not in the least be deterred by them.

At the time, no-one seems to know who originated the slogan: If you want a Nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour, which was circulating in Smethwick before the 1963 municipal elections. The Conservatives were widely reported as using the slogan but Colin Jordan, leader of the neo-Nazi British Movement, claimed that his members had produced the initial slogan as well as spread the poster and sticker campaign; Jordan’s group in the past had also campaigned on other slogans, such as: Don’t vote – a vote for Tory, Labour or Liberal is a vote for more Blacks! Griffiths denied that the slogan was racist, saying that:

I should think that is a manifestation of the popular feeling. I would not condemn anyone who said that. I would say that is how people see the situation in Smethwick. I fully understand the feelings of the people who say it. I would say it is exasperation, not fascism.

— quoted in The Times (9 March 1964).

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The specific issue which the Labour and Conservatives debated across the Smethwick council chamber was how best to integrate immigrant children in the borough’s schools. Many of them had very little English when they arrived in Smethwick. The Conservatives wanted to segregate them from normal lessons; Labour took the view that they should be taught in separate groups for English only and that the level of integration otherwise should be left to the discretion of the individual schools. But the party division soon got far deeper as the housing shortage in Smethwick, as great as anywhere in the Black Country, exacerbated race relations. The Conservatives said that if they controlled the council they would not necessarily re-house a householder on taking over his property for slum clearance unless he had lived in the town for ten years or more. While the local Labour party deprecated attempts to make immigration a political issue, the Conservatives actively encouraged them. Councillor Peter Griffiths, the local Tory leader had actively supported the Christ Street rent strike.

At the municipal elections in 1963, the Conservatives fared disastrously over the country in general, gaining no more than five seats. Three of these were in Smethwick. In the elections for aldermen of 1964, the Conservatives gained control of the council, the ‘prize’ for having been consistently critical of the immigrant community in the area. The Smethwick constituency had been held by Labour since 1945, for most of that time by Patrick Gordon Walker, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary. His majorities at successive general elections had dwindled from 9,727 in 1951 to 6,495 in 1955 to 3,544 in 1959. This declining majority could not, obviously, be solely attributed to Labour’s policy on immigration, either nationally or locally. It reflected a national trend since 1951, a preference for Tory economic management. But the drop in 1959 seemed to be in part, at least, a reaction to local issues. Moorhouse, writing in mid-1964, just before the general election, found few people who would bet on Gordon Walker being returned to Westminster, however successful Labour might be in the country as a whole. His opponent in the election was Councillor Griffiths, who was so convinced of the outcome by the end of 1963 that he had already fixed himself up with a flat in London. Moorhouse wrote:

If he does become Smethwick’s next MP it will not simply be because he has attracted the floating voter to his cause. It will also be because many people who have regarded themselves as socialist through thick and thin have decided that when socialism demands the application of its principles for the benefit of a coloured migrant population as well as for themselves it is high time to look for another political creed which is personally more convenient.   

There had been resignations from the party, and a former Labour councillor was already running a club which catered only for ‘Europeans’. The Labour Club itself (not directly connected to the constituency party) had not, by the end of 1963, admitted a single coloured member. Smethwick in 1964 was not, he commented, a place of which many of its inhabitants could be proud, regardless of how they voted. That could be extended to ‘any of us’, he wrote:

We who live in areas where coloured people have not yet settled dare not say that what is happening in Smethwick today could not happen in our slice of England, too. For the issue is not a simple and straightforward one. There must be many men of tender social conscience who complain bitterly about the noise being imposed on them by road and air traffic while sweeping aside as intolerant the claims others about the noise imposed on them by West Indian neighbours, without ever seeing that there is an inconsistency in their attitude. It is not much different from the inconsistency of the English parent who demands the segregation of coloured pupils whose incapacities may indeed be retarding his child’s school progress but who fails to acknowledge the fact that in the same class there are probably a number of white children having a similar effect. One issue put up by Smethwick (and the other places where social problems have already arisen) does, however, seem to be clear. The fact is that these people are here and, to put it at the lowest level of self-interest, we have got to live amicably with them if we do not want a repetition of Notting Hill and Nottingham, if we do not want a coloured ghetto steadily growing in both size and resentment. …

Smethwick is our window on the world from which we can look out and see the street sleepers of Calcutta, the shanty towns of Trinidad, the empty bellies of Bombay. And what do we make of it? Somebody at once comes up and sticks a notice in it. ‘If you want a Nigger neighbour, vote Labour.’   

Smethwick Town Council

The 1964 general election had involved a nationwide swing from the Conservatives to the Labour Party; which had resulted in the party gaining a narrow five-seat majority. However, in Smethwick, the Conservative candidate, Griffiths gained the seat and unseated the sitting Labour MP, Patrick Gordon Walker. Griffiths did, however, poll 436 votes less in 1964 than when he stood unsuccessfully for the Smethwick constituency in 1959. He was declared “a parliamentary leper” by Harold Wilson, the new Labour Prime Minister (below).

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Griffiths, in his maiden speech to the Commons, pointed out what he believed were the real problems his constituency faced, including factory closures and over 4,000 families awaiting council accommodation. The election result led to a visit by Malcolm X to Smethwick to show solidarity with the black and Asian communities. Malcolm’s visit to Smethwick was “no accident”; the Conservative-run council attempted to put in place an official policy of racial segregation in Smethwick’s housing allocation, with houses on Marshall Street in Smethwick being let only to white British residents. Malcolm X claimed that the Black minorities were being treated like the Jews under Hitler. Later in 1964, a delegation of white residents successfully petitioned the Conservative council to compulsorily purchase vacant houses in order to prevent non-whites from buying the houses. This, however, was prevented by Labour housing minister Richard Crossman, who refused to allow the council to borrow the money in order to enact their policy. Nine days after he visited Marshall Street, Malcolm X was shot dead in New York. The Labour Party regained the seat at the 1966 general election when Andrew Faulds became the new Member of Parliament.

The actions taken in Smethwick in 1964 have been described as ugly Tory racism which killed rational debate about immigration. However, colour bars were then common, preventing non-whites from using facilities. As already noted, The Labour Club in Smethwick effectively operated one, as, more overtly did the local Sandwell Youth Club, which was run by one of the town’s Labour councillors. Moorhouse pointed out that had the community been on the economic rocks, it might have been possible to make out a case for controls on immigration. Had there been a high rate of unemployment, where the standard of living was already impoverished, there might have been a case for keeping migrants at bay so as to prevent competition for insufficient jobs becoming greater and the general sense of depression from deepening. But that was not the case in west Birmingham and the Black Country in 1964, or for at least another decade. It may have been as ugly as sin to look at, at least in parts, but outside the Golden Circle around London, there was no wealthier area in England and no place more economically stable. When the Birmingham busmen had objected to coloured colleagues a decade earlier, it was not because these would be taking jobs which might otherwise have gone to ‘Brummies’ but because it was feared they might have an effect on wages which a shortage of labour had maintained at an artificial level. These were real fears that had led to prejudice against previous immigrants to the region, most notably from Wales in the thirties and Ireland in the forties. At root, this was not a problem about colour per se, though there were cultural stereotypes at play, as there were previously and as we have seen there were in the early sixties. It was essentially about wages. This is how Anthony Richmond summarised it in his book The Colour Problem:

The main objections to the employment of coloured colonials appeared to come from the trade unions, but less on the grounds of colour than because, if the number of drivers and conductors was brought up to full establishment by employing colonials, their opportunities for earning considerable sums as overtime would be reduced.

fearful social sickness?

Smethwick’s problems in 1964 sprung from the same root, if not over wages, then over rents, with tenants fearing that competition for housing would drive these upwards, and quickly. According to Moorhouse, this was part of a fearful social sickness affecting the Midlands as a whole which seemed to be compounded of a desire to make money fast while the going was good, a willingness to go to any lengths to achieve this. For the first time in the industrial history of the West Midlands, it was possible for the working classes to reach their target of acquiring a surplus through full employment. This left no space or energy for any other considerations. It was an attitude of mind which had been copied from those higher up the social scale in industry and was most in evidence in the car factories. There men were earning over twenty pounds and sometimes thirty pounds a week on the production lines, putting them up among the highest-paid manual labourers in the land. The Coventry Evening Telegraph made it clear what it thought of car workers striking for higher pay in 1956 by juxtaposing the two photographs below:

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Wages in Coventry motor firms were undoubtedly higher than elsewhere during the fifties and sixties, but the caricature of the ‘greedy car worker’ was somewhat misleading, both in Coventry and the West Midlands more generally, as economic historians have pointed out. I have written about these observations in other articles on this site. Nevertheless, Moorhouse identified, that emerging from the works around Birmingham was…

A new race of artisans… which makes cars and the bits and pieces that go into cars. An increasing number live in mass-produced semi-detached houses with fitted carpets and all the latest domestic gadgets, mostly acquired on hire purchase. They take their wives out to dinner in the poshest hotels in the district rather than for a drink in the local pubs as their fathers did. They spend weekends in country in their own cars, and holidays touring the Continent. In some cases they even dabble on the stock exchange and think of buying plots of land in the Bahamas against the day of retirement. And why ever not, if they can afford it? There seems to be no good reason why such things should be synonymous with only with a front seat on the board and a back seat in the Rolls. But the price they pay for this taste of affluence is, it seems to me, a form of sweated labour. They spend their days doing a repetitive job alongside a conveyor belt, the most deadly dull thing imaginable. Their wages are high because they work ridiculous extra stints in overtime. When they get home, some of them say, they are fit for nothing but flopping down in front of the television set or a supine contemplation of their other riches. They are so worn out by this headlong pursuit of wealth that they cannot even enjoy normal family activity. How can a feeling for community expect to survive in such a climate? How can anyone be surprised that in such a single-minded environment, with everything geared to acquisitive purpose, there appears to be little contentment but plenty of hostility for anything likely to hinder the chase?

But Moorhouse presents no evidence to suggest that immigrant workers either hindered – or threatened to hinder – this ‘chase’ for ever- greater affluence among the indigenous population. We do know that in Coventry, the Caribbean and Asian immigrants were excluded from high-paying engineering jobs. Even on the less well-paid buses, the unions operated a colour bar more or less openly until 1960 when Morris Minta, a Jamaican, became the first coloured busman in Coventry. The only inroads they made into engineering were in the lowest-paid and dirtiest end of the trade, particularly the foundries, of which there were many in Smethwick and the Black Country. Even there they were they were confined to the lowliest jobs by a tacit consensus of management and workers. As early as 1951, the management of Sterling Metals in Coventry, under union pressure, stated at the Works Conference that it was their main desire to recruit white labour and agreed to keep black and white gangs segregated. The white labourers were given guarantees against the upgrading of Indians. At the ‘paternalistic’ Alfred Herbert’s works in 1953, the AEU Chief Steward threatened strike action if Indians were upgraded from labourers to machines and management gave them informal assurances that this would not happen.

Trade union officials began to be more critical of such attitudes as time went on, but they rarely took a firm stand against them. Overt discrimination within the workplace was comparatively rare, however, especially since most black workers never got inside the factory gates. Most significant engineering employers had long-since stopped recruiting at the gates anyway. Modern recruitment practices at the major firms were a sufficient barrier in themselves, since hiring through union offices gave advantages to local, skilled engineering workers. Informal networks of friends, relatives and personal links with foremen remained, as it had been for Welsh workers in the thirties, the other main mode of hiring. These methods kept out the new Commonwealth immigrants, who lacked access to channels of information and influence, especially as they were usually barred from pubs and clubs in any case. These practices were common throughout the industrial West Midlands. The engineering workers of the West Midlands had their hierarchies and, while many were changing districts, occupations and factories all the time, the newly arrived immigrants were at the bottom of the tree and unlikely to topple it, or undermine the fruits it provided for those near the top.

Therefore, the case of Smethwick in 1964 cannot easily be explained by reference to economic factors, though we know that the social and cultural factors surrounding the issues of housing and education did play significant roles. The main factor underpinning the 1964 Election result would appear to be political, that it was still acceptable, at that time and among local politicians of both main parties, together with public and trade union officials, for racial discrimination and segregation to be seen as instruments of public policy in response to mass immigration. In this, Smethwick was not that different from other towns and cities throughout the West Midlands, if not from those elsewhere in England. And it would take a long time for such social and industrial hierarchies to be worn down through local and national government intervention which went ahead of, and sometimes cut across the ‘privileged’ grain of indigenous populations. Smethwick represented a turning point in this process; four years later Wolverhampton and Birmingham would become the fulcrum in the fight against organised racialism. I have written about these events elsewhere on this site, especially about the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech made by Wolverhampton MP, Enoch Powell.

Sources:

Geoffrey Moorhouse (1964), Britain in the Sixties: The Other England. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

John Shipley (2003), Wolves Against The World: European Nights, 1953-1980. Stroud: Tempus Publishing.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (1980), Life & Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press, University of Warwick.

The Latter Day Elizabethan Britons, 1952-2002; Chapter Two   Leave a comment

Chapter Two: A Social Revolution?

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The main achievement of the first quarter century of Elizabeth II’s reign was to be found in the significant expansion of education across England and Wales, caused mainly by the post-war baby boom and the continuing rise in birth-rates throughout the fifties and sixties. This was largely the achievement of the Local Education Authorities, given their statutory responsibilities by the 1944 Butler Act. In Coventry, the Labour-controlled Authority used the selective system to establish most of its initial comprehensive schools and, of the schools that opened in the 1950s, only Binley Park began with a predominantly secondary modern intake. The first head of the Woodlands School told his audience of Rotarians in 1954, that the Comprehensive School is not revolutionary; all the things have been tried time and time again; we have only brought them together. In 1954, the Chairman of the Education Committee was reported as saying that Coventry had decided to build schools where a variety of courses could be provided rather than building a number of different schools. However, Coventry continued to provide secondary education in a variety of different schools alongside its comprehensives: secondary modern schools, two selective grammar schools for girls and a boarding school for boys. In addition, it continued to provide places for boys to attend the two Direct Grant Grammar (later independent) schools in the city.

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At this point, it looked as if Labour would win the local elections in 1955 and be able to carry through this plan itself. However, the local elections of May 1955 were preceded by a month of high Cold War controversy. Objections had appeared in the local press as well as among Conservatives against Labour’s opposition to the civil defence plans of the Conservative Government. Councillor Hodgkinson had consistently argued the futility of implementing precautionary measures against a nuclear attack. His wartime experience of Coventry’s Blitz had convinced him that international fraternity was of far more value than local defence expenditure. However, prior to 1955 the issue had been somewhat marginal. The situation changed dramatically in 1955 when a party of delegates from Stalingrad were invited to Coventry by the City Council to repay a visit of the previous year to Russia by its members. The lavish hospitality provided for the guests, no doubt an attempt to match that received in Russia, was widely reported. An article in the Coventry Standard reported how,

Mellowed by an eight course dinner at which vodka and five different kinds of wine were served, the two hundred people who attended the banquet in St Mary’s Hall… to mark the end of the Stalingrad delegation, (listened as the leaders) spoke affectionately of each other’s countries.

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The new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, who had commanded the Soviet troops in Stalingrad during the war.

The visit, albeit during the thaw in the Cold War following Stalin’s death and the speech of Khrushchev (above) to the CPSU Congress, proved to be the moment the Conservatives had been waiting for. The Standard told it readers that the issue before them on polling day was simple, … the Kremlin versus Coventry. It’s Conservatism versus Communism. The Conservatives entered the local election with the slogan, Clear out the Reds. It was also pointed out that the local Labour Party’s view of Civil Defence and the H-bomb was the opposite of the national Party’s policy. The Standard reported that its own survey of the population revealed that Coventrians were equally divided on the Stalingrad issue, but the Conservatives were able to use it to claim that the local Labour Party was dominated by a few extremists who did not represent the views of ordinary Labour voters. Certainly, despite the special relationship with Stalingrad that had been developed through the popular wartime campaign for the opening of a second front, the Party leaders had seriously misjudged the mood of the local population. The city was highly prosperous and enjoying the fruits of Eden’s mixed economy. The Conservatives were enjoying rising fortunes nationally. Moreover, many local workers, particularly those in the aircraft industry, were dependent on the continuation of defence contracts for their livelihood. Five seats, both in the city centre and around the outskirts, including Lower Stoke and Walsgrave were lost by Labour. Most of these wards were relatively affluent areas dominated by skilled or semi-skilled factory workers. Although Sidney Stringer claimed that the campaign had been the most vile in all my years in politics and blamed the result on the local press, they really had only themselves to blame in taking their voters for granted and not guarding against a well-known enemy in the Tory press.

However, the Coventry Labour Party soon appeared to have learnt the lessons of their 1955 losses. Civic adventurism in bricks and mortar, either in the rebuilding of the centre, or the schools around the outskirts, were entirely acceptable, but taking a firm stance on foreign and defence matters was not what local government, even a municipal socialist one, was for. In future, although civic links were established, through the Blitz commemorations, with town and cities around the world, these were low-key in nature and, in the case of eastern Europe, were largely abandoned after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The message from Labour supporters in the local elections of May 1955 was underlined in the Parliamentary elections that took place the following month. Not only were Labour majorities reduced in Coventry but the eve of poll ritual march from the major factories to Pool Meadow in the city centre, to hear the addresses of the Labour MP’s, Crossman and Edelman, were poorly attended.

There was a cruel irony for Labour in the events of 1955 in that the main energy of the local Party since 1945 had been directed into the rebuilding of the central area of the City. By 1955 the precinct was just beginning to take shape and Coventry’s affluent workers had a shopping centre commensurate with their spending power. Yet the connections between the availability of consumer goods in bright new shops and the ideals of municipal socialism were difficult to make, even amongst the better informed members of the population. What mattered more was the availability of money to spend and Coventry’s capitalist owned industry was providing this in abundance. Perhaps more attention to housing, health, education and housing would have provided a more solid long-term political allegiance for Labour, particularly in the delivery of a top-class comprehensive secondary school system.

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Above: Grammar School Boy, Harold Wilson, Labour leader and PM

However, the debate about grammar schools was not simply one which existed between the two main political parties, but also within the Labour Party, which had sought to expand grammar school education before the war as a means of social mobility, and a route out of poverty for many working-class children. Ellen Wilkinson, left-wing Education minister in the Attlee Government, had continued with this policy within a tripartite framework which would include multi-lateral schools. Even in the 1960s, it was not unusual for comprehensive schools to be compared with grammar schools by leading members of the Labour Party, including Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson, who referred to comprehensive schools as grammar schools for all, a strategy that was only partly designed to overcome the fears of the general public, especially parents, who resented the abolition of grammar schools. As products of grammar schools themselves, Labour’s local and national politicians well-understood the emotional attachment and sense of aspiration that many respectable working-class parents still had for these schools. However, hard choices about local priorities needed to be made, and these involved building schools which could serve children of all backgrounds and abilities, however they might choose to structure the curriculum.

A similar strategy was used by Alderman Callow, who chaired the Education Committee between 1958 and 1961, and who compared Coventry’s comprehensive schools with grammar schools when writing in the Coventry Evening Telegraph. He argued that comprehensive schools were both grammar schools and secondary modern schools. All eight of the City’s comprehensives provided the same courses in grammar schools but in addition offered all the courses available in secondary modern schools, having the additional advantage of the possibility of changing from one type of course to another within the same school as aptitudes developed. For Callow, therefore, the Coventry comprehensive was little more than one school that combined all the courses that were available in different schools under one roof. Six years later, Alderman Sidney Stringer, then Chairman of the Education Committee, stated that the Authority was bringing into existence many more schools that were equal to grammar schools, providing courses through which pupils could maximise their intellectual abilities.

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The city still operated a selection examination at eleven plus, provided places at the Direct Grant schools for boys and maintained two grammar schools for girls, and allocated selective places within the comprehensives. The headmaster of Caludon Castle School commented in his speech day address in 1960 that a truly comprehensive shool hasn’t even been brought into existence… though Coventry has created comprehensive buildings it was still without a single comprehensive school because the schools’ incomplete intake prevented their becoming what their names, size and cost proclaimed them to be. In 1964 the head of Whitley Abbey School concluded that Coventry now needed to choose between returning to a grammar and secondary modern school system or go fully comprehensive. He thought that if the Authority continued to abolish secondary modern schools while retaining grammar schools it would result in a situation whereby the comprehensive schools would be little more than secondary moderns within a selective secondary system.   Therefore, in the early 1960s at least, grammar schools and selection were still at the heart of Coventry’s so-called comprehensive revolution.

In Britain as a whole, the paradox was also apparent. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. In the 1950s, almost everything changed in British society, but only a little. No segment of society, no corner of the kingdom, no aspect of life remained untouched. So, part of the story of the fifties is the story of emergent patterns of change and a sense of discontinuity with the prewar past. However, there was also considerable continuity over the decade itself compared with the decades which were to follow. There was, as yet, no social revolution, unless we mean that the wheel of change came full cycle and returned to exactly where it had been at the beginning of the decade without taking society very far forward.

In October 1963 Harold Wilson, then Labour leader of the opposition, predicted that Britain would be forged in the white heat of the technological revolution. Certainly, living standards continued to rise, aided by the discovery in the North Sea of natural gas in 1965 and oil in 1969, and consumer goods became even more common. But there were also disquieting signs that Britain was approaching an as yet undefined crisis, cultural as well as financial. British economic growth rates did not match those of competitor states, and it was partly for this reason that Britain applied to join the European Economic Community, in 1961 and 1967, entry both times being vetoed by France. In addition, television programmes like Cathy Come Home made the public aware that poverty remained in the midst of Britain’s affluence. The Teddy Boys of the fifties were gradually replaced in the early sixties by Mods and Rockers, their social alienation being fuelled by the new vogue for high-rise flats in which they felt like caged animals. Britain was also becoming a more secular and iconoclastic, as well as a more materialistic society. Sexual intercourse began in 1963, wrote the Coventry-born poet Philip Larkin, perhaps with not a little exaggeration! The 1960s were certainly dramatic years in Britain: demographic trends, especially the increase in the proportion of teenagers in the population, coincided with economic affluence and ideological experimentation to reconfigure social mores to a revolutionary extent.

In 1964 a Labour government had again taken office, under Wilson, after thirteen years of Conservative rule. It promised economic and social modernisation. In an attempt to tackle the residual problem of poverty, public expenditure on social services was expanded considerably, resulting in some small degree of redistribution of income. It issued Circular 10/65 which requested that LEAs provide details of their plans for secondary education with a view to ending selection at the age of eleven in favour of introducing comprehensive schools. Coventry already had a working party in existence which was considering the pattern of secondary education across the city. It was the work of this group which resulted in a shift of emphasis within the LEA and brought about a change in mood on the Education Committee by September 1966. The proposal which emerged was to move towards a fully comprehensive system involving the abolition of the girls’ grammar schools and the disappearance of the remaining secondary moderns.

However, Labour’s ups and downs in the local elections had closely followed national trends since 1955 and in 1966 the Party’s rule in the City was again threatened, this time by the new austerity measures of the Labour Government under Harold Wilson in 1966. Economically, the real problems of the decade arose from the devaluation of the currency in November 1967, and the increase in industrial action. Employment in manufacturing nationally declined, until it accounted for less than a third of the workforce by 1973. Car production slumped and some Coventry firms declared redundancies, as their long boom appeared to be faltering. The incomes policy declared by the Wilson Government was hard to swallow for local engineering workers who had long enjoyed the benefits of free collective bargaining and wage differentials. Thus Coventry began to suffer for the first time since the early thirties with the twin problems of rising unemployment and stagnant wages. By way of contrast, employment in the service sector rose, so that by 1973, over half of all workers in the UK were employed in providing services.

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Local idealism in Coventry had been toned down since 1955 and by the mid-sixties the Coventry Labour Party had become a party of civic administration. It had run out of new ideas and was failing to attract new, younger members. After a presentation to mark his twentieth year as an MP in December 1965, Richard Crossman wrote in his diary:

I have tended to get depressed about Coventry. … I am… aware of a decline in the Party and a decline in its quality on the council. Mostly it was old people who were there for the presentation; only a handful were young.

This generation gap was to present long-term problems for the local party as the lack of new blood in the sixties and seventies made the party staid and unadventurous. The local Conservatives, by contrast, were able to fight the 1967 local election as the party of opposition to central government as well as local government. They had developed policies on four key local issues. Top of this list was the protection of grammar schools, popular with working-class parents with high aspirations for their children. Secondly, and   predictably, they proposed to prune the rates. The third policy promised council tenants the right to buy their own homes, and the fourth was an especially attractive one on public transport. They proposed a major reduction in fares, which they claimed would produce an increase in passenger numbers and an improved service. They were ably led in the election by Gilbert Richards, and their offensive on national issues, coupled with a new brand of local Tory populism proved decisive.

Labour lost control of the council after thirty years of continuous rule. The average overall turnout across the city was 49 per cent, but in some key marginal wards, such as Wyken, over 60 per cent of the electorate voted. The Tories stayed in power for another three years. Apart from a small degree of financial retrenchment, however, there were few new policy initiatives. Labour’s secondary education proposals were put on hold when the Conservatives gained control of the council. Nevertheless, during their period in power, although the Tories kept their promise to retain the girls grammar schools and continued to purchase places at the direct grant grammar school for boys, the phasing out of the secondary moderns also continued, a further comprehensive was opened, and building programmes went ahead for further comprehensives. After the 1967 local elections, Labour was never again able to recapture the commanding majority it enjoyed in the immediate postwar period. Yet, on the whole, Coventry remained a distinctly Labour city, holding three of the four local Parliamentary seats.

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Young people were most affected by the changes of the 1960s in Britain as a whole. Education gained new prominence in national government circles and student numbers soared. Higher education in Britain saw particularly rapid expansion over the whole quarter century. In 1938 there had been just twenty thousand students, but by 1962 this figure had increased by nearly a hundred thousand. However, the real increase in numbers came after this, as new plate-glass universities were formed and former colleges of advanced technology were given university status.

By 1972 there were forty-five universities, compared with just seventeen in 1945. By 1966, seven new universities had opened, including the University of East Anglia and the University of Warwick at Canley in Coventry. More importantly, students throughout the country were becoming increasingly radicalised as a growing hostility towards what they perceived as the political and social complacency of the older generation. They protested loudly against poor student accommodation, the unfairness of examination systems, restrictions on academic freedom, civil rights in Northern Ireland, dictatorial decision-making by academic hierarchies, support for the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the Vietnam War. The latter of these issues placed immense strain on the special relationship between the US and British governments. Although protests were generally less violent than those in the US, due partly to more moderate policing in Britain, there were major protest all over the country in 1968 and some, like the one which took place in Grosvenor Square in London, involved police charges against hundreds of thousands of protesters.

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Anti-establishment and anti-capitalist values spread much wider than the student population. The cultural revolution had a profound effect on sexual behaviour and on women’s rights. Sex before marriage became less taboo and there was a more general feeling of sexual freedom. The Women’s Liberation movement gained considerable ground, leading to the 1970 Equal Pay Act. The family also underwent important changes, many of which had begun in the 1950s with smaller family sizes, aided by changes in the laws on abortion, more widely available and effective contraception, including the pill from 1962, and increased domestic technology. In 1956 only seven per cent of household had had refrigerators; by 1971, this had increased to seventy per cent. By this time, sixty-four per cent of households also had a washing machine. In addition, the rapid and real growth in earnings of young manual workers, sustained over the past decade, had, by the early sixties, created a generation who had money to spend on leisure and luxury. The average British teenager was spending eight pounds a week on clothes, cosmetics, records and cigarettes. In London, their attitude was summed up by the fashion designer Mary Quant, whose shop, Bazaar, in King’s Road, provided clothes that allowed people to run, to jump, to leap, to retain their precious freedom.

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If London was swinging, Liverpool was providing the beat. No band was more important than the Beatles, though there were others who helped to produce the distinctive sound which emerged from Merseyside. The fab four expressed both a vibrant, diverse youth culture and a keen commercial outlook, the latter largely due to their clever manager, Brian Epstein. They provided British teenagers with an identity that cut across the barriers of class, accent, nationality, region and religion. First known as The Quarrymen, they formed in July 1957 and by October 1962 they had hit the all-important top twenty singles’ chart with Love Me Do. In April 1963 From Me to You became their first number one hit single. Between 1957 and 1970 they performed live in eighty-four different venues in England, fifteen in Scotland, six in Wales and two in Ireland. In Dublin, teenagers sang She Loves You on the double-decker buses which had replaced the trams, children imitated them with tennis-raquets, using tree houses for stages in suburban Middle England, each pretending to be a different member of the group, and young mothers sang I Wanna Hold Your Hand as they crossed busy streets to the brand new precincts in Coventry when out shopping with their children.

Beatlemania swept the British Isles, and pretty soon they became a global phenomenon, playing all over Europe, as well as Australia, Japan and, of course, the USA. Meanwhile, a more working-class sub-culture emerged, particularly in London and the South-East, as rival gangs of Mods and Rockers followed hard rock bands like The Who and The Rolling Stones. In the summer of 1964, they rode their mopeds and motorbikes from the London suburbs down to Brighton, where they met up on the beach and staged fights with each other.

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The BBC held a monopoly over the radio waves and, in a deal with the Musicians’ Union and record manufacturers, ensured that popular music was not given much air time. Anyone wanted to listen to the new artists and groups had to tune into Radio Luxemburg, but reception was often very poor. At Easter 1964, however, the first illegal pirate station, Radio Caroline began broadcasting from a ship just off the Sussex coast. Within months, millions of young people were listening to the station and to others which sprang up, often, to begin with, from transistor radios hidden from prying parents under their bedclothes. Not only did these stations broadcast pop music, but they also warned that any attempt to silence them would constitute a direct attack on youth. Eventually, the BBC gave way and set up Radio One and, in 1967, the Marine Offences Act outlawed the pirate ships.

005The event which marked the high point in popular culture for many in Britain, not just England, was the English national football team’s victory in the 1966. The tournament was held in England for the first time, and the team, built around Bobby Charlton, the key Manchester United midfielder who, along with Nobby Stiles, had survived the Munich air crash earlier in the decade, and Bobby Moore, the captain, from West Ham United, who also had two skilfull forwards in the team in Martin Peters and striker Geoff Hurst. Manager Alf Ramsay had been part of the team which had lost 6-3 to Hungary at Wembley thirteen years earlier, their first ever defeat to continental opposition at home, in the run up to the 1954 World Cup. On 3 August they faced the unlikely winners from that year, West Germany, now a much stronger team than the one that had squeaked past a magical but tiring Magyar team in that final. Although a colour cine film recording of the match was made and released later, people watched it live on TV in black and white. Only the hundred thousand at Wembley that day saw the red shirts of the England team raise the Jules Rimet trophy after the match. People’s memories of the details of the whole match vary somewhat, but most remember (in colour, of course) Geoff Hurst’s two extra-time goals and Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary because they have watched them replayed so many times. After the match, people dressed up in a bizarre, impromptu mixture of sixties fashion and patriotic bunting and came out to celebrate with family, friends and neighbours just as if it were the end of the war again, or at jubilee street party, copying Nobby’s knobbly-kneed skipping they had just seen on the box. After that, it was downhill all the way to Mexico in 1970 where England’s 3-2 defeat by Beckenbauer, Müller and company seemed to sum up the change in the fortunes and mood of the nation compared with those of a resurgent West Germany. At least, this time, we could watch the golden Brazilian team thrashing the Azurri in colour, usually at a middle-class friend’s house.

Despite the dramatic increase in wealth, coupled with the emergence of distinctive subcultures, technological advances and the dramatic shifts in popular culture, there was a general feeling of disillusionment with Labour’s policies nationally. In the 1970 General Election, the Conservative Party, under its new leader Edward Heath, was returned to power. When the Labour group regained the ascendancy in Coventry in 1970, they sought to press ahead with the plans for fully comprehensive secondary education they had made four years earlier. The Conservatives accepted the demand for comprehensive education but continued to argue that the rights of parents to have their children educated in a grammar school should be respected. Despite this dogged resistance, the Labour proposal was approved by the Council and subsequently by the government, ending the purchase of direct grant places, reorganising the girls’ grammar schools as comprehensives, and ending the eleven plus.

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Edward Heath

In addition, the comprehensive schools would be reorganised as community colleges, each serving a defined neighbourhood. The first of these were opened in the academic year 1972-73, one near the city centre (Sidney Stringer) and the other on an estate on the outskirts of the city (Ernesford Grange). These schools were to have a dual function, operating as community centres which would open for up to fifty weeks of the year, six days a week, and for twelve to sixteen hours each day, with the provision of additional buildings, equipment and recreational facilities. However, this development was not fully completed until 1979, when the ninth of these colleges, Alderman Callow, was finally completed to its planned size. These purpose-built colleges took several years to complete due to the need to build by instalments at that time. However, the comprehensive schools within them were all opened by September 1975. The community element provided facilities covering a range of activities and organisations with playgroups, pensioners, parents and children coming together on one site. The concept of the community college was originally developed from Henry Morris’ idea of the village college, but applied to the urban and suburban context in Coventry. Robert Aitken, the Director of Education responsible for its application in the city, also argued that the community dimension would help to overcome the clash between home and school which existed on many working-class housing estates in the sixties and early seventies, developing pupils’ self-respect and utilising the skills of parents and teachers in tandem.

The principles and practices of the Sidney Stringer School and Community College were the best-documented of all the Coventry schools, both by a succession of headteachers and by its general teaching staff and through evaluation in the wider community. The school population was fifty per cent of Asian background, forty per cent European and ten per cent Caribbean. It opened in August 1972 with an intake of nineteen hundred pupils, a hundred and forty teaching and community staff and seventy non-teaching staff. Among the distinctive features of the school were its mode of government, its House system and its curriculum. Arfon Jones, its second head, claimed that two of the key aims of the school were to raise the consciousness of the people in the area and to develop a mode of democratic control. In these terms, the LEA decided to delegate authority and accountability to local people through the governing body, combining its statutory responsibilities with the strengths of a Community Association. Under this system, the Association elected a Council, some of whose members represented it on the Governing Body, which then involved pupils, parents, staff, local residents and LEA representatives in equal numbers. Besides determining the policy of the school and college, the governors had responsibility for the plant, finance and community development. Although there were some gaps between the scheme and the practical realities of managing the facilities, it did represent a bold attempt to make the school government more broadly and genuinely representative of an albeit loosely defined local community.

 

Contrary to popular mythology about Coventry, comprehensive education was only fully established in the 1970s; first in the voluntary controlled sector, when the Catholic schools became fully comprehensive in 1970 and subsequently in 1975 when no further selective places were available for girls and the Authority no longer purchased places outside the maintained sector for boys. The development of comprehensive education was therefore as slow in Coventry as it was in many other LEAs, including Birmingham. Coventry was still operating secondary school selection well into the 1970s, concerned to offer grammar school courses in many of its schools. By that time, the school-leaving age was raised from fifteen to sixteen in 1973. By 1975 the number of comprehensives in Coventry had increased to twenty-one, five of them Church controlled, with an additional LEA boarding school. In total, the number of enrolled pupils stood at 28,538, compared with 20,385 in 1960.

From the early 1950s to the mid 1970s was a long period of economic expansion and demographic growth which helped to fuel educational development in England in general and Coventry in particular. Over these decades the city’s Director’s of Education, the LEA and the schools themselves pioneered different forms of comprehensive schooling and education, so much so that, in the educational imagination, Coventry became synonymous with educational innovation. Yet the evidence suggests that while Coventry was among the first authorities to build schools with the purpose of comprehensive secondary education in view, this was, for the most part, the result of practical imperatives following the war. In common with many other authorities, it then struggled with the process of developing the principles of comprehensive education. Whether, by 1977, a truly comprehensive system of education had been achieved was open to question, at a time when primary school rolls had begun to fall and practical priorities had to be confronted once more. With the benefit of hindsight, through subsequent decades of economic and industrial decline, it still is open to question.

The Fires of Perfect Liberty: Labouring Men and Women of England, 1851-1951; part eleven   Leave a comment

The Road to 1945 and Beyond (4/4)

 

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As the debts mounted for maintaining Britain’s global status and its benevolence at home, so did the doubts about the ideological basis on which the new Jerusalem could be built. Even those who had been the most ardent supporters of the collectivist approach, like Stafford Cripps, became, after 1949, equally determined supporters of the mixed economy. Attlee set the date of the general election as 23 February 1950, and the Labour Party fought the election on the manifesto Let us win through together, an endorsement of Cripps’ economic policy.

Despite polling a record 13.3 million votes, the Labour majority was cut to six. Nevertheless, the social reforms enacted by Labour were clearly popular with the British people, since it not only succeeded in winning more votes, but also won more seats in the 1950 election than it had done in 1945, on an even higher turn-out.

 (Above: The end of sweet rationing in 1949)

012Although it polled nearly fourteen million votes, slightly more than the Conservatives, Labour lost the October 1951 election. Historians have argued that this was, in part, because its achievements in the postwar years had been accompanied by continued, and sometimes intensified, austerity for the British people. Wartime rationing of some essential foods continued into the new year following the government’s re-election. However, there were clear signs, for instance in the Festival of Britain celebrations of that summer, that the drabness of the period was coming to an end. Interestingly, one woman, a wartime child, recalled in 1963, that a great deal was determined by differing expectations within the population. Not everyone’s experience of the prewar years was of prolonged economic depression, of course, but it should be remembered that those born after 1930 did not yet have a vote:

002For those who remembered the years between the wars the gradual climb back to prosperity was a long, dispiriting haul, echoing with prewar memories of better days. For the wartime children it was different. Those years were not a return but a revelation. They were lit by surprises; between 1945 and 1951 we saw not only the first pineapples and bananas of our lives, but the first washing machine, the first fountain, the first television sets.

The world opening before us was not a pale imitation of the one we had lost but a dip of extraordinary things we had never seen before. If later, we seemed to snarl with baffled rage at the disillusionment and apathy of our elders, perhaps this was why. They treated it all as a dreary mess; they forget that for us it could have been a brave new world.

 

As this wartime child suggested, many older, ordinary people had become tired and disillusioned by Labour’s Big Brother style. We work or we want, proclaimed the irritating government posters. Many had worked hard, and industrial production increased by a third between 1946 and 1951, but people wanted more consumer goods in the shops, even, as a tantalising 1946 advert suggested, some lovely lingerie, and ’Lux’ to look after these pretty things. They remembered how pure, safe Lux preserved the beauty of these delicate fabrics… and how easily it rinsed out. For the time being, they had to wash their treasured things with the soap or flakes available. Of course, there were ways and means of getting some of these goods on the black market:

 

The spivs were tense, dubious, insecure. Yet the essence of spivvery was deeply English, a small, boyish lust for life, and eagerness to play practical jokes on the clumsy, long-winded motions of a bureaucracy.

 

One woman, quoted in a radio broadcast, said she was happier when she lay listening to bombs and daring herself to tremble; when she got romantic letters from abroad; when she cried over Dunkirk; when people showed their best side and we still believed we were fighting to gain something. However, for many (now) teenage evacuees, like Daphne Gulliver, returning home after five years, was a much longed-for occasion and they were keen to settle back into their families and communities, to finish school and salvage whatever they could of their childhood and teenage years. Daphne left school at sixteen in 1947 and then went to work as a short-hand typist at the Rolls Royce engine factory at nearby Ansty, using her bicycle to get up the farm lane on the other side of the river Sowe and up the hill each day. She remembered how much she treasured her cycle which one of her relatives put together with true Coventrian craftsmanship:

Tommy Hatfield had a sort of workshop and you could go up there and say you wanted a bike, and he’d measure you up for size and look through all these frames, and find one the right size. Then he’d dip it in acid, then he’d dip it in a stone enamelling vat. I suppose they were always black. He’d tell you which day he’d finish it, and then you’d come home riding your bike, pleased as punch. Lovely thing a bike.

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Daphne was also happy to be able to take part in chapel life again. There were marvelous harvest festivals after the war and everything was decorated. Then the produce would be sold off to raise money and there would be a concert to follow. The choirmaster was quite strict and if anyone wasn’t behaving themselves, he would throw a hymn book in their direction to bring them to attention. After the war, the chapel was taken under the wing of Queens Road and the Rev Gordon Wylie, succeeding Rev Ingli James, brought the thirty-four year-old Rev Arthur J Chandler (left), my father, to Walsgrave from Wednesbury, Staffordshire, in 1948. In addition to overseeing Ansty and Shilton chapels, he helped to build up the Walsgrave congregation again. As Daphne’s mother, Vera, was a deacon at the chapel, he was a regular visitor to their house and around the time of Daphne’s twenty-first birthday in 1952, they got engaged. Her Aunt Jessie’s husband, Tommy Gardner, worked for forty-five years at the Austin Motor Carriage works in Holbrooks. Although they had no children of their own, Jessie and Tommy fostered two children from the Barnado’s Home Tommy had grown up in before the First World War. Jessie lived on in Coventry to be a hundred and two. Aged ninety-one, in 1992, she concluded her memoirs with these remarks about the heritage of her family:

So, they (the Gullivers and Tidmarshes) were good people and that’s where it’s coming out in these generations, because we came from good stock; honest, God-fearing workers. We all seem to be doing very well these days, after all these years. So, I can’t say much for the good old times that they talk about. I’m all for these times.   Some things are better, some things are worse, I will admit. But, on the whole, we are looked after much better in our old age now.

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George Orwell died in January 1950, in a London hospital. His last published piece was a review of Churchill’s memoir, Their Finest Hour which had been published the previous year. He wrote that Churchill’s memoirs read more like those of a human being than those of a public figure. There was, Orwell felt, a certain largeness and geniality about the wartime PM, soon to become a peacetime leader too, which made him cherished by ordinary people, and the stories circulating about him testified to that affection. The same year that Churchill published Their Finest Hour, Orwell published what many consider to be his finest work, Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is usually remembered as a nightmare vision of the doublespeak future, in which the tyranny of Big Brother presides over an English state where War is Peace and Lies are Truth. However, it needs to be read as an English novel, and its title simply as a reversal of the numbers four and eight, rather than as an extended essay, warning of future abuses of power.

For Orwell, as for many others in the world, the themes of the novel were evident in current and recent experiences. In fact, the fundamental conflict in the book is between history (as collective memory) and tyranny. When O’Brien, the arch-deceiver who has persuaded Winston Smith that he is running a resistance group, suggests sealing his recruitment with a toast to the future, Winston lifts his glass and drinks instead To the past. O’Brien agreed, The past is more important. By encouraging forgetfulness, the Party became free to impose on its subjects its own version of whatever past it chose. But, somehow, memory was not quite obliterated from Winston’s consciousness, so that he had a sense that things had not always been as they were in the present. Gradually, the past starts to come back to him through a series of encounters with objects and people. Finally, he denounces the revolution and the Party for destroying all archives: History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right. He also dreams of a Golden Country, in which nature, love, liberty and history are all interlaced. This is Orwell’s vision of a True England. Searching for a True Coventry, the sociologist, Leo Kuper, made an astute observation on the gap between workers’ perceptions of Coventry in the late 1940s, and the realities of working class life there:

It is as if there were many worlds; a world of objective reality, Coventry and its people and neighbourhoods, and the worlds of interpretation of this objective reality, the images projected from many and contrasted points of view.

 

Kuper showed how many of those who considered themselves real Coventrians viewed the image of post-war cosmopolitan Coventry in wholly negative terms which led to racial stereotypes being applied to those who were seen as being the major contributors to this image. A leading Coventry official referred to the Rhondda Valley section of Coventry, where he said that there was continual trouble among the Welsh, second only to the centre of the city. He also portrayed the Irish as having to fight every Friday night, after receiving their wages, in order to complete the evening’s revelries; Indians as creating troubles with young girls and living like pigs; Negroes, like the Irish and Scots, as having little respect for the police and the Poles as being unable to understand why they were not beaten up for committing misdemeanors. He went on to suggest that the only real solution to these problems was to segregate these different national groupings until they had come to appreciate our way of living. Kuper commented, with not a little understatement, that there was more in these comments than cool observation of ethnic differences.

In any case, even in 1951, the description of Coventry as a cosmopolitan city, heterogeneous throughout, was as misleading as it had been in 1931. The Census showed that the overwhelming majority of immigrants to the city were of British origin, with just under ten thousand from Ireland. This was a new migrant stream in the postwar period. In the 1931 Census there were only just over two thousand Irish in Coventry, but this number may have expanded rapidly during the building boom of the later 1930s. At the close of the second world war the streets surrounding St Osburg’s and St Mary’s Roman Catholic churches had a distinctive Irish atmosphere. These two inner-city areas were well supplied with lodging houses and multi-tenanted buildings, and the two churches provided useful ports of call for itinerant building workers or those after a start in local factories. Although casual building workers formed an important part of the Coventry Irish community, many more workers began to settle permanently.

The Polish community in Coventry, as in Britain as a whole, came about as the result of three waves of immigration corresponding to the period up to 1940; the decade 1940-50, known as the Emigracja and then the period after 1950. It has been estimated that during the wartime Emigracja some 165,000 Poles arrived in Britain, though numbers decreased by about thirty thousand after 1950 through onward migration to other countries or voluntary repatriation to Poland. The Polish exile community was made up of members of the Polish Armed Forces who escaped to the west through Hungary following the Nazi-Soviet invasion and partition of their country in September 1939 which led to the surrender of the forces in Poland, together with political prisoners from concentration camps in Germany and Russia. Many of the latter, perhaps several hundred, were people with professional qualifications which could be used in Britain, especially doctors and dentists. In addition, there were about two thousand skilled engineers. Later, a rather larger group of unskilled workers, including some disabled and elderly relatives, entered the postwar British economy. Many ambitious immigrants with lesser qualifications set up small businesses, becoming householders and small-scale landlords. The location of Polish forces during the war largely determined the places to which Polish immigrants gravitated. Most of those in the Midlands were airmen, based in Nottingham or Leicester. London, as the home of the Polish government-in-exile became the largest Polish resettlement area, accommodating a quarter of the total immigrants. Birmingham and Manchester were the recipients of the next largest groups of four to five thousand each, but Coventry accommodated as many as three thousand.

Of course, these first generation Polish wartime exiles had every intention of returning to their homeland, and therefore made every effort to maintain their language and to cultivate their Polish heritage. The wartime Emigracja determined the later shape and character of the life of the Polish community in Britain. It was an exile community which arrived with a network of various military, civilian and religious institutions, as well as welfare associations such as the Polish Red Cross, the Polish Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), servicemen’s clubs and a Polish press. There were over two hundred periodicals published in Britain between 1939 and 1949. Factors such as patriotism, class and the negative attitudes towards Polish immigrants ensured a high level of community participation in these institutions and strengthening ethnic identity and vitality. These conditions gave shape to the social, religious, economic life of the community, allowing it to meet a variety of needs among new Polish immigrants. The Polish YMCA was founded in 1949 as a dynamic organisation responsible for the promotion of Polish history and cultural heritage not only within the Polish and British communities but all over the world through exhibitions of Polish art, folklore, song, dance and music.

Paradoxically, just as Britain was retreating from its formal imperial commitments, Commonwealth immigration into Britain, principally from the West Indies and South Asia, was becoming an increasingly salient issue in British domestic politics. The census of 1951 recorded just seventy-four thousand New Commonwealth immigrants; ten years later, this number had more than quadrupled. The 1948 Nationality Act reaffirmed the right of British citizenship and free entry to the United Kingdom to all Commonwealth citizens and colonial subjects, without restrictions. But as growing numbers of Caribbean and South Asian people began to take up this right to abode, the British authorities became increasingly alarmed. The most significant group of Commonwealth workers in Coventry were those of Indian origin who took up the right to settle in Britain under the 1948 Act, though a small number but significant number of them had been employed in the textile industries in the thirties. By the early fifties they were estimated to have expanded to about four thousand, though the 1951 Census only showed less than two thousand Commonwealth immigrants in total. They took over some of the more rundown housing stock in the Foleshill Road area near the textile factories. However, even as early as the summer of 1951 there was evidence of colour prejudice when the Indian workers tried to get semi-skilled jobs in engineering and metal-working factories. At the Sterling Metals works, the management, under union pressure, stated at the Works Conference that it was the main desire to recruit white labour. It also agreed to keep black and white gangs segregated and to give white labourers guarantees against the upgrading of Indian workers.

Certainly, by 1951 Coventry was predominantly a city of newcomers. It has been estimated that in that year only thirty to thirty-five per cent of the city’s population of a quarter of a million were born in the City, though when those born in outlying and incorporated areas of Warwickshire are taken into account, this proportion must have been somewhat higher. Of the thousands who came to the city many soon left, having failed to find accommodation or work. One study claimed that in 1949, while eighteen thousand newcomers entered Coventry, but that nearly the same number left. Surveys suggested that Coventrians were far from welcoming to newcomers generally, so that friendship and social networks followed regional and ethnic lines. Clubs, pubs and churches often catered for specific migrant groups, and there was a lack of interest in establishing neighbourhood friendships. However, there is little evidence to suggest any hostility or negative stereotyping between immigrant groups, perhaps because of Coventry’s general status as a city of immigrants. The London area continued to send just under ten per cent of the total immigrants, but by the late 1940s there were more from Northumberland and Durham. As recently as 1940, insurance book analysis highlighted a dearth of migrants from coalfields other than Wales. Perhaps the general increase in mobility of labour during wartime encouraged Geordies to move, together with the high wages available in Coventry.

Paul Addison, in his well-known book, The Road to 1945, attributed the Labour victory to the growth of middle opinion among English intellectuals and to the impact of the war upon popular consciousness. He paid scant attention the pressures from below to the new industrial areas of the Midlands and South East of England, including the contributions to the growth of trade unionism, the Labour Party and working class culture made by immigrants to these areas before and during the Second World War. Besides the role played by migrating militants in the unionisation of the Pressed Steel works in Cowley and later at Morris Motors, there were a number of significant individual immigrants involved in the development of the Labour movement in Oxford, Coventry and Birmingham. For example, Evan Roberts, a former Welsh miner and railwayman, became the first Labour Councillor for the East Ward of Oxford in 1945 and eventually became the first Lord Mayor of Oxford in 1962.

William Parfitt, a former miner from Tylorstown in the Rhondda, came to Coventry to work for Daimler, after which he became Industrial Relations Officer for the West Midlands Region of the National Coal Board. He was elected to Coventry City Council in 1945 and in 1965-6 became Lord Mayor of Coventry. William Tegfryn Bowen worked as a miner in the Rhondda between 1916 and 1926, moving to Birmingham in 1927, where he studied at Fircroft College, the workers’ college in Selly Oak, before working for the Austin Motor Company in 1928. In 1929 he became a trade union official and led a strike against the introduction of the Bedaux system in defiance of more senior officials. He then endured long periods of unemployment before becoming a City Councillor in 1941, an Alderman in 1945 and between 1945 and 1949 was Chairman of both the Council Labour Group and Chairman of the Health Committee. This latter position led to his becoming a member of the Executive Council of the NHS and a member of the Regional Hospital Board. On becoming Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1952, Bowen was asked to account for the Labour hold on a City which, under the Chamberlains, had been considered a Tory stronghold. In his answer he referred to a large influx of workers from other areas, with a different political outlook.

 

Harry Richards was from Tonypandy in the Rhondda. Between 1939, aged seventeen, and 1945 he was an apprentice draughtsmen at Armstrong Siddeley Motors and a design draughtsman at Morris Motors. He then became a schoolteacher and was elected to the City Council in 1954. He also became Chairman of the Coventry Welsh Rugby Club, and became Lord Mayor of the City in 1979. Roberts, Parfitt, Bowen and Richards shared the motivation for their involvement with other immigrants from the depressed areas like Elsie Jones, who born and reared in a mining area… realised the need for reforms very early in life. It is also apparent that the political attitudes of many of those living in Coventry’s new housing estates were largely derived from their memories of the depression years elsewhere in Britain.

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The result of the 1945 general election in Coventry had been the confirmation of the Labour Party’s local supremacy since taking control of the Council in 1937. Between them, Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman took just over sixty per cent of the votes cast. Crossman’s majority in Coventry East, which included Walsgrave, was nearly twenty thousand. When the Labour government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Aneurin Bevan chose to defend it in Coventry. He issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue and was given a great reception from the people of Coventry, in particular from members of the Welsh Community, many of whom knew him in their native valleys. The growth of municipal socialism in Coventry, from 1937 to 1947, can clearly be seen, like Bevan’s own political progress, as a practical and ideological expression of an impetus to reform which arose out of the determination of Labour leaders to attain better living and working conditions than those which they had been forced to endure for much of the inter-war period.

After 1945, the housing crisis presented an even greater challenge for Coventry’s municipal socialists than it did for Aneurin Bevan, who was Minister of both Health and Housing. The shortage of housing was not simply a short-term crisis for the Labour Government, but remained a huge national problem for the whole decade and a half after the war. In Coventry, for obvious reasons, it was particularly severe. By 1948 there were fifteen thousand families on the waiting list, widespread squatting in old military buildings and an illegal campsite facing the Council House, yet politicians and planners failed to act swiftly, preferring to concentrate on the city centre development. It was not until a decade later that the worst of the housing crisis was over. In the late 1940s, the large, so-called neigbourhood units of Canley, Tile Hill, Bell Green and Willenhall were designed to accommodate between fifteen to twenty thousand residents in decent dwellings within a planned environment. Several social surveys were conducted by the planners and the University of Birmingham on behalf of the council. What the authorities wanted to find out was what the attitude of the residents of this type of estate was, and the potential services they required. They concluded that the residents had only a thin attachment to their particular neighbourhood. The survey revealed that neighbourhood friendship networks were generally narrow, usually confined to immediate and very near neighbours.

Coventrians in these areas thought of the Welsh, Scots and Geordie women in their city as being unemancipated by comparison with themselves. They were more content than Coventry women to accept traditional roles as housewives, nurses and maidservants. Both oral and documentary sources suggest that very few Welsh women entered insurable employment in Coventry before the war, compared with both native women and immigrant women from Lancashire. However, there is little evidence to suggest that immigrant women were more fertile, as was suggested, or that they had more children. In Coventry, there was, however, a marked tendency for them to select their own countrywomen as friends, rather than their immediate neighbours. This clannishness was perhaps understandable if they were from the more strongly Welsh-speaking western valleys, and were not working, but it cannot have helped them to integrate, and in some cases reinforced the stereotypes of them held by Coventrian women. The Welsh immigrants in general were also accused of being all out for themselves… rootless… thrusting, trying to get on committees and councils in order to run the town, thereby showing a lack of respect for the true Coventrians.

002Of course, this stereotyping reveals a classic pattern of a dominant majority irked by a foreign minority in its midst, except it was not always based on prejudice, but sometimes on real experiences. Seymour Gulliver (pictured on the right with his wife, Vera, in the 1970s), who had himself born outside Coventry, in 1900, albeit in Warwickshire, moving into Walsgrave with his family in 1909, recalled an occasion on which he fell out with the Welsh miner he had helped to settle into Walsgrave and Binley Colliery. This neighbour, Chairman of the Lodge at Binley, was delayed getting to an emergency strike meeting, so Seymour had started the meeting without him. He was annoyed when he arrived at the meeting to find that his place had been usurped, and became even more irate when the men voted for Seymour to continue in the chair. The two men had words after the meeting. Seymour commented that this incident had taught him that the Welsh miners always wanted to be in charge.

On the subject of who was a real Coventry kid, in his survey of Tile Hill, a district of Coventry, conducted in the late forties, Leo Kuper found that only thirty-two per cent of the community were Coventry born, while twenty-five per cent were from the North of England, sixteen per cent from other parts of the Midlands, ten per cent from Wales, and about five or six per cent each from Scotland, Ireland and the South of England. In Coventry, by the late 1940s, it was impossible to tell who the real Coventrians were.

In terms of facilities, especially shopping, the Coventrians of the late forties were unanimous in their desire for a large, well equipped central retail area with suburban outlets confined to the provision of everyday essentials. The findings of these surveys tended to reinforce the major thrust of the reconstruction plan and convinced the civic officers and councillors that they were providing what the people wanted. The residents on the new estates could also look forward to the provision of the ten form entry comprehensive schools, large health centres and new parades of small shops. Even so, the prosperity of the mid-fifties and sixties was still unimaginable, even in high-wage Coventry, in the late forties. In addition, neighbourliness was difficult to achieve on these new estates. It wasn’t just the Welsh who found it difficult to mix, but also the migrants from the North of England, Scotland and Ireland, who often found Coventrians cold and unfriendly.

Earlier immigrants continued to provide a warmer welcome through churches and chapels. One of the leading Welsh personalities at Queen’s Road Baptist Church in the centre of Coventry was Jehu Shepherd, who became organist and choirmaster during the ministry of Ingli James in the 1940s. The Welsh newcomers that Shepherd had formed into a Glee Party in the thirties, found themselves at home among the convinced and articulate group of Christian Socialists which James’ preaching helped to produce in this period. James was from Barry, where his father had been pastor of Bethel Baptist Church before the First World War. In 1917 he was ordained and became Minister at Stoneygate, Leicester, followed by powerful ministries at Cannon Street, Accrington and, from 1923, at Pantgwydr in Swansea. During these ministries, according to a Baptist Union memoir, he saw that the working classes in this country were drifting from the churches and he set himself resolutely to stop the drift. He began his ministry at Queen’s Road in 1931. Besides supporting the initiatives which the immigrants had taken to establish an image of respectability in their new environment, such as the Glee Singers, James also affirmed, from the pulpit, the culture from which they came, continually referring to the miners and unemployment in his sermons. However, his unashamed championing of working class causes and politics, including his appearance on Labour Party platforms (along with Rev Ivor Reece, of West Orchard Congregational Church), brought him into conflict with some of the established professional Coventrians on his diaconate. Jehu Shepherd’s wife, Mary Shepherd, originally from Ystalafera, near Neath, remembered him well:

 

He was a strong Labour man and he upset quite a few people because he just said what he felt – he was true to himself, he would not say one thing and mean another, or say something just to please people. Ingli was not bombastic and what he said was true. I always remember once when he talked about the miners, he said, ’I had a load of coal and paid for it the other day – did I say paid for it? – no money would pay for what they did!’ I can see him now in that pulpit.

 

In 1942 he preached a sermon entitled, How Green Was My Valley, coinciding with the distribution of the Hollywood film of Richard Llewellyn’s book in Britain. Daphne Gulliver remembered the Rev. James preaching at Walsgrave Chapel after the war. She described him as a Welsh ranter, a very famous socialist, and extremely funny. Walsgrave had the kind of pulpit in which you could walk up and down and he used to shake all his black hair into his eyes. James articulated his impetus to reform in his book, published in 1950, Communism and the Christian Faith. In it he acknowledged his indebtedness to the Queens Road congregation for the way they had given him a new vision of what a Christian community in a busy industrial city might be and do. He then went on to describe the means by which he came to his vision of Christian socialism:

The depression of 1929-33 left a profound mark on my mind. All around me I saw the bitter struggle of the unemployed… I also realised that the world contained an abundance of the necessities of life which the system denied to the people. However, these ideas were all vague, and I played no active part in the struggle of the unemployed. At the end of 1934, I read my first copy of ’the Daily Worker’. What I read filled the gaps in my political development…

 

Probably the most powerful weapon ever put into the hands of the British Marxists was the prolonged period of widespread unemployment between the wars. Those who wonder why ten thousand electors voted Communist in the Rhondda Valley in 1945 should reflect on the plight of the valley during that period, when streets of empty shops testified to its bitter poverty, when every male member of many a church was unemployed, when thousands of eager youngsters were compelled to seek employment far from home. The memory of what happened to Merthyr, to Jarrow, to many a small town in Lancashire during these years is still the most powerful weapon the Marxist propagandist can use. Conversely, the most convincing argument against Marxism would be a demonstration that we can build a relatively just society in which every citizen is assured of useful employment and a decent livelihood, without infringing on the rights of the other and without resorting to violence… we must show how it might be done.

 

In this passage, Ingli James distilled the essence of the experience of a significant section of the British working class between the wars. The migrating millions who found their own way to Coventry, as opposed to being sent there by the Ministry of Labour, showed, by their contributions to the economic, political, social, cultural and religious life of the new industry towns, both in the prewar and postwar periods, that they were not prepared to be treated as mere pawns of an economic and political system which had displaced them.

Coventry’s 1951 Development Plan was the culmination of a scheme designed by a new class of professionals, implemented by newcomers for the benefit of a population with shallow roots in the city. The shopocracy had been routed in 1937 and the vice of old Coventry continued to be associated with narrow-minded backwardness. The defeat of this old elite was compounded by the support of the Evening Telegraph for the reconstruction plan. The isolation of the Chamber of Commerce, the main opponents of the plan, was increased by the tendency of many of Coventry’s firms, both in retail and manufacturing, to come under the control of outside owners. There was almost an element of irrelevant antiquarianism in the announcement in 1951 that the new Lord Mayor, Harry Weston, was the first Coventrian to hold the office for eight years, at a time when eighty-four per cent of the ruling Labour group on the Council between in the decade after 1945 were born outside Coventry. In November 1945 thirty Labour councillors were returned to face an opposition of eighteen Progressives, an amalgam of Conservatives and Liberals. Despite continuing austerity, Labour maintained its two-to-one majority in 1947 and 1949. The Evening Telegraph, in its editorial on the 1949 poll, concluded that newcomers to Coventry were strengthening the Left. Labour had an apparently unbreachable majority and the Conservative candidates who stood for election in 1951, the year of Conservative victory in the general election, were an assortment of small businessmen, managers and retired publicans. They were the champions of small shopkeepers threatened by municipal socialism.

The newcomers to Coventry prepared to play along with the prejudices and stereotypical images which confronted them. Instead, and in response, they set about fostering a positive self-image in their new environments, and in the process they enabled and enhanced the recovery of working class politics and culture in the Midland cities of England. The memory of the depression years had become a powerful motive force on the road to 1945 and well beyond it. Those who had lost almost everything had also lost their fear; they had everything to regain, and were determined to be there at their own remaking, as part of an integrated and relatively united, British working class. In the 1945 government film A City Re-born, a soldier and his fiancée are shown viewing Donald Gibson’s model of the new Coventry. They cannot contain their optimism and enthusiasm about the city where they are going to live, looking forward to their own little home… with a nice little garage… and a nice little nursery, while the film commentary enunciated the official mythology about the City:

Coventry is going to be a place to live where people can believe how pleasant human life can be… It must not be every man for himself, but every man for the good and happiness of all people living… Every man must believe in the good and happiness that is to be shared… to be shared, equally.

By 1951, Everyman had come to Coventry. The city had become not simply the identifiable symbol of the Tue England, but also of the New Jerusalem of the British working class which had relocated and recreated itself there.

Printed Sources:

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Barry Cunliffe (et. al., eds.), (2001),The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. London: Penguin.

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

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain, III: 1776-2000; The Fate of Empire. London: BBC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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