100 years ago, on 1 July 1918, there was a devastating explosion in a munitions factory in Nottinghamshire, where shells were filled for use in trench warfare. The disaster killed 134 workers and injured many more. One of our autobiographies, part of the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, contains an eye-witness account of the explosion.
The munitions factory had been set up in 1915 at Chilwell, which had good road and rail links, and supplied over half of the shells fired during the war, including most of those used at the Somme. Lottie Barker, the author of our autobiography, had joined the factory in April 1916 with a friend, Polly. They were known as ‘Canary Girls’ because the chemicals involved in the manufacture turned their skin yellow and their hair green.
The explosion was the biggest loss of life during a single explosion during the First World War but was downplayed at the time, less it lead to loss of morale. At the time it was only reported in the newspapers as “60 feared dead in Midlands factory explosion”. Most of the dead were buried in a mass grave in Attenborough without being named, and a memorial wasn’t erected for fifty years. The cause of the explosion was never made public.
Lottie had, fortunately, been at home doing the washing up when the explosion happened, and her autobiography describes the house shaking, and what she found when she ventured out to the factory.
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
Special Collections at Brunel holds a range of material useful for studying the changing role of women in society, and for more general women’s history. One item giving a window onto women’s lives in a different time is this framed poster warning women to make sure they have respectable, safe, accommodation before travelling to a new town – advice still relevant for everyone today.
The Travellers’ Aid Society was set up in 1885 by the Young Women’s Christian Association in collaboration with organisations such as the Girls’ Friendly Society and the National Vigilance Association. The aim was to have accredited workers meet female passengers on arrival at stations, to help them travel safely and find safe accommodation and work. The Society could vet potential employers or accommodation providers on request. At this time there was a constant stream of young women travelling from rural locations to London to seek jobs in domestic service, many of them vulnerable to exploitation.
From 1939 the Society was run by the National Vigilance Association, and it was wound up in 1952.
For other records of the Travellers’ Aid Society and the National Vigilance Association, contact The Women’s Library which is based at the London School of Economics.
Mary Anning: Letters ed. Bill Griffiths, 1973; Pirate Press.
Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847) was a fossil-hunter, searching along the cliffs at Lyme Regis for remains from the Jurassic period, which she sold to collectors. Arising from this work she is said to be the subject of the tongue-twister “She sells seashells by the sea shore“. She made many significant finds, including a number of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. She became acquainted with several recognized scientists and members of the Geological Society of London, which did not at that time allow female members. Anning’s work led to Dr William Buckland’s publication of the conclusion that certain Jurassic animals had used ink for defence, just as modern cephalopods do; and it was she who worked out that the stones known as “bezoar stones” were in fact coprolites, fossilized faeces.
Buckland credited her publicly for this work, but she was not always acknowledged. Her great contributions to palaeontology and related sciences were not properly recognized during her lifetime, since, as a rural working-class woman, she was outside the scientific community and the influential groups. Her letters fit in with many other items in Brunel’s Special Collections which can be grouped thematically as marginal voices or unheard stories.
In recent years there have been many publications on her life and work, including children’s books and fiction based on her story; you can find a range of these via our Library catalogue or via union catalogues such as COPAC.
This is a small and plain booklet, the only illustration being the simple but effective cover. There is a short preamble about Anning’s life, but no indication of why this subject was chosen for the Pirate Press, or why these particular letters, amongst the whole of Anning’s surviving correspondence, were chosen for publication. The introductory text reflects Bill Griffiths’ interests in local history, dialect, and language change, noting that in Lyme Regis in Anning’s time vertebrae were called “verteberries” and fossil fish “turbot”.
The text of the letters is given, with some corrections and clarifications in brackets, but as the original letters are not reproduced it is hard to gauge the accuracy of the transcription. There are some mistakes, such as “dof” for “dog” and “leyyer” for “letter”, which are clearly typing mistakes in the transcription, rather than faithful copies of mistakes in the original, but other unusual readings are less clear-cut.
The letters here are mainly to Mrs Murchison, wife of geologist Roderick Murchison, who became Anning’s lifelong friend. Perhaps the most vivid writing is this spirited description of being caught by the tide when digging out a plesiosaur, from February 1829:
“I [was] so intent in getting it out that I had like to have been drowned and the man I had employed to assist me, after we got home I asked the man why he had [not] cautioned me [about] the tide flowing so rapidly he said I was ashamed to say I was frightened when you didn’t regard it, I [wish] you could have seen us we looked like a couple of drowned rats”.
McGowan, Christopher. The dragon seekers. Persus Publishing, 2001.
Allaby, Michael, (ed.). A Dictionary of Geology and Earth Sciences (4 ed.), OUP, 2015 online edition.
The International Labour Organization describes its origins like this: “The ILO was created in 1919, as part of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, to reflect the belief that universal and lasting peace can be accomplished only if it is based on social justice. […] The driving forces for ILO’s creation arose from security, humanitarian, political and economic considerations. Summarizing them, the ILO Constitution’s Preamble says the High Contracting Parties were ‘moved by sentiments of justice and humanity as well as by the desire to secure the permanent peace of the world…’ ”
When the ILO closed its London office and library in 2005, Brunel University Library inherited its collection. We are the only institution in the UK to house such material: it is a collection of international materials, including books, journals and treaties, relating to employment and labour law, and reflecting ILO’s emphasis on the need for social justice in contrast to the exploitation of workers that was common in the interests of economic gain. The books and journals can all be found in the Library catalogue.
Much of the material reflects enduring concerns and problems; for example, there are debates in the International Labour Review from 1966, fifty years ago, which are still relevant today: the index includes the introduction of the forty-hour work week in Finland; occupational disability insurance in the Netherlands; employment of women with family responsibilities in Japan; a new law on holidays and a weekly rest day in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
The breadth of subjects the collection touches on is shown by this volume of conference papers, covering the employment aspects of three very different areas.
The collection as a whole is a valuable resource for the study of politics, international law, employment history, and trade.
One of the research methods used was to set up eight reading groups of University of the Third Age members across London in order to read, write about, and discuss postwar novels featuring different representations of ageing. The data generated by these reading groups now forms part of Brunel’s Special Collections, and is available for further research. Aspects of the participants’ writing complements the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, in reflecting the everyday ups and downs of the lives of ordinary people; they also give first-hand accounts of issues related to ageing and to the way society views the elderly.
Some of the books used in the reading groups
A flavour of the content is given by a brief study of the information given by one participant. Each reader was given a unique identification code in order to preserve anonymity; this one is known as SEL003, and she participated in a reading group in South-East London. From SEL003 we have a brief life history, and three diaries recording her reading of the set novels, her views of their representations of aspects of ageing, and her group’s discussions of them.SEL003 was born in Dublin in 1938 to a well-off family, reared by a nanny, and sent to a Quaker boarding school. Her favourite school subjects were maths and handwork, and since neither she nor her mother could think of a career formed of those two things, she became a teacher. She is now thoroughly enjoying her retirement, and her writing constantly reflects her joy and optimism about her current, fulfilling, lifestyle.
The end of SEL003’s “Life History” document
She writes in a lively, enthusiastic, style. The reading diaries cover her thoughts in general of the books, characters, and authors, but also her perspicacious comments on subjects arising, including how one’s writing style changes with age; whether it’s possible to predict which individuals will get Alzheimer’s; how society is geared towards younger people and how the young patronise the elderly; whether it’s appropriate for an agile old lady to run for a bus.
She is insightful about character attributes and how world-view and morals change over time, and she adds in anecdotes about her own experiences and those of her family and friends.
Reading through the diaries gives the impression of someone lively and thoughtful, who analyses the problems that ageing can bring but who enjoys life to the full.
The collection of documents on Norah Elliott is number 2:242 in the Burnett collection of working-class autobiographies, held in Special Collections.
Norah was born into the Pilch family in 1903, and writes of her early life and her memories of her grandparents. Disaster struck in 1913 when her father was drowned; the family went to the workhouse, and Norah was adopted. She recalls her work as a teacher, and her life in Australia, sending food parcels home to her siblings in the UK, during the second world war.
Norah’s poem on her Aunt Susan
Her file includes several handwritten workings not only of her own story, but also of substantial research by her and other family members into her family history. The writing is interspersed with maps, copies of primary sources, family trees, and poetry by Norah, and accompanied by original documents including a birth certificate, a union card, and burial records.
Another interesting aspect of this collection is the insight given into Norah’s writing and editing process: there are several drafts, with footnotes and amendments, and a few comments on the writing process. A late diary entry states “I’ve finished last night’s crossword and got up to date with this mish-mash. I don’t think I want to read what I’ve written”. She may not have wanted to, but the file is well worth reading.