55 years ago today the world’s first passenger hovercraft entered service. The very first service ran across the Dee Estuary between Rhyl in North East Wales and Moreton Beach, Merseyside.
The first hovercraft was invented and patented by Christopher Cockerell in 1952, although several other inventors before this had experimented with technology along similar lines. The Patent Office was initially unsure whether to class the new invention as an aircraft or a boat, and the hovercraft seemed like a sci-fi dream come true when it first appeared. In 1959 one crossed the English Channel to huge enthusiasm from the public. Sir Christopher was knighted for services to engineering in 1969.
The crossing of the Dee Estuary was revolutionary, as previously the journey, by road, had taken more than two hours. The new hovercraft passenger service was scheduled to make 12 trips per day, taking 30 minutes per trip, at a cost of £2 for a return ticket. The hovercraft involved, a Vickers VA3, weighed 12 tons, and was run by British United Airways.
Unfortunately it soon ran into problems, despite launching in the summer, weather problems meant it only operated for 19 days out of a scheduled 54, and rarely managed the proposed 12 trips a day. Eventually disaster struck and the engines failed halfway through the journey. Passengers were taken off and attempts made to moor the hovercraft, but it broke free and drifted out to sea, eventually smashing into the promenade wall at Rhyl.
If you want to find out more about the invention of hovercraft, design, construction and their impact on passenger transport then our Transport History Collection is the place to look!
When she was ten years old, May Owen (b. 1895) moved with her family to a small mining village near Sheffield, in South Yorkshire. In an autobiographical letter she wrote some seventy years later, she still vividly remembered her initial shock at a particular custom in the community: “If a woman misbehaved herself,” she wrote, “the colliers used to perform a certain act. They would take a large barrow, build an effigy of the woman and wheel it round the parish, and stones and mud would be thrown.”
I believe this account fits well with what most people imagine sex and gender relations to have been like in Yorkshire in the early twentieth century. Within popular imagination, Yorkshire working-class culture, with its industrial history and its mining and steel workers’ communities, conjures an image of sexual conservatism and gender antagonism. While this image may correspond to reality in some parts of Yorkshire at the time, this generalisation also obscures a great deal of variation in experiences and behaviours. Helen Smith’s recent book on same-sex desire between working-class men in the north of England in the first half of the twentieth century provides a much needed antidote to these kinds of generalising assumptions. As Smith also explained in a NOTCHES post, work, region, and class defined working-class masculinity in a way that was not incompatible with casual sex with other men.
As I was reading surviving personal stories of Yorkshire working-class women who lived in the early twentieth century (most of which came from the valuable Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies), I was faced with accounts of gender relations and sexuality that ranged from very conservative, patriarchal attitudes, to far less rigidly policed sexual experimentation. After all, ‘Yorkshire working-class women’ were in no way part of a homogeneous group, and just as their lives were shaped by their work, gender, class, and region, so too were their sexual lives. For this reason, I argue that looking at occupational patterns and cultures, and exploring their impact on gender and sexuality, can shed light on these overlooked variations and forgotten experiences, and contribute to a better understanding of working-class sexuality in the past.
If we take the example of mining communities, as well as towns organised around heavy industry such as Sheffield or Middlesbrough, what we get is a picture of a primarily male-dominated culture. An all-male working and social environment fostered a culture of virility, which depended on the systematic exclusion of women and a patriarchal social structure. Men did not see their spouses as companions with whom they could discuss ideas, and preferred the company of their mates. In this context, it is possible, as some historians have suggested, that husbands and wives lacked the tools to communicate on issues such as birth control. And yet, this does not mean that women refrained from sexual experimentation before marriage: a young Bessie Wallis (b. 1904) once warned her older brother, “You’ll be in trouble with Pops if you land a lassie with a bairn!”, only to be answered by the fifteen year-old that, “[t]he lasses egg us on. (…) Anyhow, they like it.”
Towns organised around mills and factories, and in particular textile towns such as Bradford and Leeds, provide an interesting contrast. While it was commonly expected that women would leave the workforce after marriage, economic necessity meant that they tended to stay longer in employment. The higher rates of female full-time employment produced a female occupational culture that shaped sexuality and gender relations in different ways. For instance, because most women worked the double-shift of wage and domestic labour, they supported access to birth control. The workplace also facilitated the creation of informal networks of information and emotional support for women. Mrs. Brown (b. 1895), from York, remembered how her mother told her that there was “[n]o need to tell girls anything,” as they would get to know all they wanted when they started working at Rowntree’s factory.
In the mills and factories, women usually worked alongside men, which created different possibilities, as well as potential dangers. Workers engaged in courting and sexual play, and remembered weddings of pregnant brides as a matter of fact. At the same time, anxieties about male predators and the consequences of sexual promiscuity also fed into this female occupational culture. Maggie Newbery, who was twelve years old when she started working in a mill in Bradford in 1913, recounted in her autobiography how “Old Harriet” warned her on her first day to be careful around machinery, and “cheeky buggers.”
Female solidarity against sexual exploitation sometimes took on extreme forms. The Bradford mill girls, in particular, were renowned for their sexual aggressiveness. The tradition of ‘sunning,’ a ritual form of sexual humiliation, was one of the ways in which these women used their sexuality to reverse the power relations which put them at risk of sexual harassment. J.B. Priestley, who lived in Bradford before the war, remembered in his memoir, Margin Released, how he felt intimidated by the crowd of loud women leaving the mill on his way home from work: “something (…) would set them screaming at me, and what I heard then, though I was never a prudish lad, made my cheeks burn. And it was still the custom (…) for the women to seize a newly-arrived lad and ‘sun’ him, that is, pull his trousers down and reveal his genitals.”
These accounts could be compared with those of farming villages in the countryside, where “everyone knew everyone else’s business,” or with port towns such as Hull, with the infamous reputation of the docks and their sailors and casual prostitutes. It would be impossible to go through an exhaustive list here, of course, but my point is that because sexuality never happens in a socioeconomic vacuum, the study of working-class sexuality can gain much from a regional approach, which allows us to get a richer understanding of these people’s concerns, opportunities, and experiences. Engaging with social history by looking at occupational patterns and cultures can be one way of producing a more nuanced account of sexual attitudes in the past.
Claire Martin is a PhD candidate in modern history at the University of Leeds. Her thesis focuses on Yorkshire working-class women c.1900-1940 and examines the relationships between knowledge and experience in relation to menstruation, sex, pregnancy, and menopause. She tweets from @claireplmartin
12 May, the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth, is International Nurses’ Day, when people around the world celebrate the contribution that nurses make to society. We thought we would join in by sharing a story from our Special Collections about nurse training in the past.
A few of the autobiographies in our Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies recount experiences of nursing, including that of a male nurse in the 1930-50s, plus women who worked as nurses and housemaids at different times in their lives. This post will focus on Winifred Relph, who was born in 1912.
Winifred worked firstly as a housemaid after leaving school, then as a nurserymaid. She tried applying for nurse training at several London hospitals, but was told that her education wasn’t good enough, and advised to try small, provincial hospitals instead. Eventually she was accepted for training at Todworth General Hospital on the borders of Kent/Sussex.
As a probationer nurse she earned a salary of £20 a year and also had to supply much of her uniform, including:
14 linen aprons
6 stiff linen collars
6 stiff linen cuffs
black woollen stockings
flat laceup black shoes
She lived on-site in the Nurses’ Home and shared a room with another probationer. Nurses’ rooms were inspected by the matron and expected to be kept as neat as on the ward. In the evenings the senior nurses played the piano and sang in the nurses’ sitting room.
She describes some of her typical tasks, such as starting each day with making thirty beds, with 90 seconds allowed for each bed (including removing the patient from it and putting them back again!). Nurses worked 12 hour shifts, including two hours off each day and three meal breaks. After six months of learning practical skills on the wards (Winifred worked on both the Children’s and Men’s wards) lectures on nursing theory were started, but unfortunately Winifred never got this far, as she became ill with acute rheumatism and was unable to carry on nursing.
Nursing only forms a small part of Winifred’s autobiography. You can find out more about different aspects of her life and writing at Writing Lives. Find out more about our other autobiographies on this blog.
You’ve chosen your dissertation topic because it’s something you’re really interested in discovering in more detail. Then delving into the sources in Special Collections can take your dissertation to the next level by making it more original, as well as helping you to develop your research skills.
Recent topics that people have researched using Special Collections include:
Special Collections is home to a huge array of material that can support your research. You can find out more by using our A-Z list of collections, or consulting our Special Collections guide, where we’ve highlighted collections of particular interest to English or History students.
If you are looking for collections beyond Brunel you will find a list of resources on our guide.
Using Special Collections
Our collections are kept in closed access, so you will need to make an appointment to come and see them. If you haven’t used Special Collections or archival material before there is a guide on our blog.
To tie in with the University’s 50th anniversary celebrations during 2016, Special Collections have been showcasing the Library by running a blog series of 50 Library objects that tell us about the building, holdings, and services. We put up one post on the Special Collections blog every week for fifty weeks during 2016 and the last post went up on 16 December. Check out the blog series here or on twitter via #BrunelLibrary50objects and see the range of collections we have!
In this blog series we’ve discussed many items and collections the Library makes available to staff, students, and visitors, but we haven’t discussed the mechanics of how that happens. The reality is that the Library couldn’t function in the same ways to support research and teaching without its staff.
The Library employs some sixty staff. Some of them you see often doing outward-facing tasks such as staffing the enquiry desk, helping find particular items, and teaching information literacy, but the ones behind the scenes are no less important to the smooth running of Library services.
There are people who buy the physical and electronic resources, who catalogue them, and who work on the systems and databases that enable you to search for them online. Staff work in research data management, meaning that data generated by research at Brunel is made freely available for further study. Others build displays and generate posters and social medial posts. There are administrative staff who make sure everything runs smoothly, and there are the Library Management Team who fight for and direct the Library’s budget, resources, and best practice.
In addition there are around fifty student staff members, who do invaluable work in helping to keep the library open 24/7 in term time. The Library is a more pleasant environment because of those who move the furniture to accommodate different teaching and learning styles, and who clean the floors and empty the bins.
Of course people aren’t objects, but the objects we’ve discussed in this series are made accessible and meaningful by people: a library is always more than a space with books in, and Brunel is fortunate in having a team of skilled and dedicated staff who make the Library an excellent resource.
A skilled martial artist single-handedly defeating 30 opponents whilst blindfolded. A Miami cop speeding in a Ferrari after a drug baron in a Lamborghini. An iconic grunge band performing live. One may not associate such things with a University library, but they can all be found on the shelves at Brunel. Although it exists primarily for academic purposes, the library hosts a wealth of material that can be enjoyed purely for its entertainment value, including fictional works, DVDs and Music CDs, all available free to check out for Brunel students and staff.
There are many popular and critically acclaimed novels available, from authors such as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, George Orwell, JG Ballard, Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk, and Terry Pratchett. Popular series such as Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and His Dark Materials are also available.
There is an eclectic library of movies that cater for every taste, including blockbusters such as Avatar, and Back To The Future, comedies such as Spinal Tap and Little Shop Of Horrors, horror films such as 28 Days Later and Psycho, martial arts films such as The Raid, and anime such as Ninja Scroll. The library also holds an extensive collection of public lectures, documentaries and musical performances on DVD.
You can also find a wide library of musical recordings in the library, including Jazz, Classical, Electronic, Rock, Pop, Soundtracks and music from around the world. Beethoven, Jeff Buckley, Miles Davis, and countless others can all be found in the music department.
On the top floor of the library there is an extensive selection of journals and periodicals dealing with a very wide range of subjects, including dance, sports, theatre, politics and video games amongst many others, so whatever your interest it is likely that there will be something of interest. Whether you want to take up a new hobby such as photography, learning a new language, film-making, or become adept at chess, learn to paint or get to grips with a new software program, it is likely there will be a book or electronic resource available from the library.
There are many things to discover here at the library, so next time that you visit keep an eye and an ear out for the unexpected.