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.
Dennis Brutus (1924-2009) was a poet and human rights activist who grew up in South Africa. He taught in a high school until he was dismissed for activism against apartheid, and he became instrumental in the movement against racism in sport. He was imprisoned and, on release, forbidden from teaching, publishing his writings, continuing to study law, and attending political meetings.
His poems reflect his frustrations and sadness at the political environment, and are frequently concerned with the sufferings of fellow black or mixed-race people.
One poignant set of poems on this topic is In Memoriam: Solomon Mahlangu, published in 1979. Solomon Mahlangu was a South African who was hanged by the apartheid South African government in 1979 after a controversial verdict finding him guilty of murder, and despite the intervention of the UN. The deaths were caused by another man, who was not considered fit to stand trial, and Mahlangu was found guilty on the understanding that he had had a “common intent” with the other man. The booklet begins, and ends,
he went to war
he went to his death”.
The copy of this collection held at Brunel has a handwritten dedication to Brutus’ wife and children.
Another published booklet of poems held in the Dennis Brutus Collection is Thoughts Abroad, by Dennis Brutus but published under the pseudonym John Bruin in order that it could be published in South Africa, where Brutus’ work was banned. This copy has been updated to attribute the work correctly and explain more about Brutus and his work.
There also handwritten poems and drafts by Dennis Brutus, and various works by other poets. The copy of Restless Leaves, a booklet of poems by Mark Espin, is dedicated to Dennis Brutus in thanks for the inspiration he provided.
End of a poem written by Dennis Brutus during a UN hearing
Everyday administrative records can give valuable insights into aspects of life in the past, and often become more interesting with age. This book is a register kept as part of the standard records at Padstow station in Cornwall, from 1921 to 1952.
This station, the terminus at the western end of the North Cornwall Railway, was opened by the London and South Western Railway in 1899. As railway companies changed and merged the station changed ownership, and when it closed in 1967 it was owned by British Railways. The station was served by the Atlantic Coast Express, which ran direct from London Waterloo.
As the port at Padstow sent out a great deal of fish, the station had a separate fish loading platform. This was closed in 1950s as the trade in fish declined. This website gives more details on the freight trains, including the dedicated fish service running to Nine Elms.
The register’s full title is “L. & S. W. Ry – Register of traffic forwarded or received unentered account to follow: [blank] station”, and each page comes with instructions and ready-labelled columns to complete. This was a standard printed LSWR book issued to their stations. “Padstow” has been filled in on some pages of this one.
The register keeps note of parcels or goods being sent by train for which there is some anomaly or for which a payment is due. The information filled in by hand or stamp for each individual transaction varies in detail and legibility, and the precise directions are not always followed, but the entries as a whole give snapshots over a thirty-year period of the range of goods being sent, the stations to and from which they were sent, and the costs involved.
Many of the entries are for fish or other foodstuffs, but there is also an entry for a corpse, sent in December 1940 to Stepps in North Lanarkshire: perhaps a fallen soldier? Kept in the pages for 1940 is a loose memo, written in pencil and dated 20th September 1940, concerning a delayed delivery and noting that “during the current emergency” (that is, during World War Two, owing to the disruption to rail services) the special charges for fish sent to London Waterloo would also apply to fish sent to Paddington.
Chris Wookey was born in 1957 and was a student at Brunel University from 1975 to 1979, graduating with an honours degree in applied biochemistry. He went on to teach chemistry at a school in Walton-on-Thames until his untimely death in 1989.
Chis entered fully into student life, a writer for the student newsletter Le Nurb under the pen name “Big K”, an active member of the Christian Union, and captain of a five-a-side football team. His other great interest was railways, and his football team was named “Locomotive Brunel”. He was chairman for two years of the Brunel University Railway Society, and was a keen railway photographer.
King’s Lynn station
Brundall signal box
Brundall Gardens station
In 1989 Chris Wookey’s railway photographs and notes were given to Brunel University Library by his widow and parents, to form a lasting memorial. The collection comprises photographs of British railway stations and signal boxes, mainly from the 1970s, and research notes with diagrams of railway routes. It provides a unique record of operations and the lineside scenes at this time.
Diagram from Wookey’s research notes
Chris Wookey was a meticulous and knowledgeable worker, and his photographs are very clearly labelled and referenced. There are hard copy finding aids to this material: for more information please contact us.
Readers wanting to learn more about his activities while at Brunel should consult the University Archives, which may have relevant documents.