Women’s History

The Phoenix Works

I recently visited the refurbished York Art Gallery, with my cultured friend, to see the exhibition, “British Art of the First World War”. It’s a very impressive display, with many large-scale, and strikingly evocative paintings. The kind of images generally associated with the war on the Western Front feature strongly. We can all envision the muddy trenches, the shell-blasted landscapes, the branchless, shattered tree-trunks, and the dispirited, broken soldiery. But there are other, less familiar, depictions of the conflict on view in the exhibition.

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We Are Making a New World, 1918, by Paul Nash, collection of the Imperial War Museum, London, IWM Art 1146

The above work, with its ironic title (“We are making a new world”) and its new-day sun rising over a scene of total desolation, epitomises how we have come to picture the war. But my attention was most powerfully drawn to a painting of women war-workers taking a canteen break at the Phoenix Dynamo Manufacturing Co factory at Thornbury in Bradford.

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Women’s Canteen at Phoenix Works, Bradford, 1918, by Flora Lion, collection of the Imperial War Museum, London, IWM Art 4434

The women pictured are clearly tired, but a strong sense of purposefulness and solidarity shines through all the same. Painted by a female artist, the depiction points the way to a new world that was in the process of being created. The women represented would have been doing the sort of industrial jobs that, before the war, would have been an exclusively male preserve. In wartime, women filled men’s places in all sorts of home-front occupations they were not previously thought capable of, or were not thought suitable for them. As a result of this massive contribution they won (partially) the parliamentary vote in 1918. The prospect also dawned of their entrée into broader walks of life than housekeeping, and into higher occupations than the ones of drudgery and servitude that had hitherto been the norm. Even the most atrocious events are not always without beneficial consequences.

Edith Eskrigge and the Suffragists

On the eve of the First World War, just over a century ago, the militant “Suffragette” movement demanding votes for women was in full-swing. The names of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, who founded the suffragette Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903, are still widely recalled, as is their campaign of direct, often violent, agitation. But mention of the peaceful “Suffragist” movement, which had been going for almost fifty years by 1914, produces blank looks nowadays. My great-great aunt Edith Eskrigge (1872-1948) was an active suffragist, and deserves to be celebrated for her lifetime of selfless public service.

Unlike the Pankhursts and their followers, Edith did not go in for window-smashing, or fire-setting, or painting-slashing or attacking cabinet ministers with dog-whips. Nor did she endure terms of imprisonment and bouts of force-feeding. She was also unlike the socially influential Pankhursts in having a provincial middle class upbringing, being the sixth child of seven born into a prosperous merchant’s family at Liscard Vale, Wallasey, on the opposite bank of the Mersey from Liverpool. Her father worked as a cotton broker in Liverpool, and a photograph, taken in the 1890s, has the family posed outside their large house (which stood where Vale Park is now, in New Brighton) in all their sober, but splendid, late-Victorian self-assurance. Edith, then in her early twenties, is standing, second from the right.

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(An Eskrigge Family Portrait: Private Collection)

A keen sense of social concern was instilled in Edith by her non-conformist background (Quaker on her mother’s side and Congregationalist on her father’s), which discouraged bright girls from living lives of moneyed idleness. Starting out working in London’s East End at the Canning Town Settlement, she became immersed in voluntary social work. On her return home, she taught disabled children and undertook charitable work on their behalf, particularly in establishing Invalid Children’s Aid, later the Child Welfare Association. During the First World War she was Chief Officer of the Soldiers and Sailors Family Association in Liverpool, when she worked closely with Eleanor Rathbone. Afterwards she became Hon. Secretary of the Liverpool Women’s Citizen’s Association, which was concerned with preparing women for their duties as citizens. Later she took an active interest in the Lancashire and Cheshire Child Adoption Society. But she declined to become a magistrate, being dubious of the value of imprisonment and unwilling to be responsible for imposing it.

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(A Youthful Edith: Private Collection)

My mother remembers her great-aunt Edith, by then an elderly lady, as an influential role model. In order that opinion about the place of women in society be altered, it was necessary for women like Edith to demonstrate their suitability to public office by means of pioneering example. But my mother also remembers the private Edith as a generous woman with a great gift for friendship, who was the pivotal member of the extended family and who took responsibility for the care of its ailing members. Edith had a horror of violence and war, and hoped that the influence of women in public affairs would be for peace. But she was broad-minded and undogmatic in her approach to any given issue, always being able to see both sides of an argument. Although briefly engaged in the 1890s, she never married. She was outgoing, nevertheless, and was a lifelong enthusiast for the outdoor pursuits of walking, climbing and cycling. She also travelled a good deal abroad.

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(An Elderly Edith: Private Collection)

Her capacities for organisation and public speaking were used to the fullest extent in the suffragist movement. She was much involved in running the pre-war West Lancashire, West Cheshire and North Wales Federation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led nationally by Millicent Fawcett. This explicitly non-political and non-militant organisation set out to campaign by persuasion on a range of social issues, as well as on the cause of women’s suffrage. Edith was especially prominent in promoting the educational side of her federation’s work, particularly at the summer school held at Talybont in North Wales to train women working in the federation. It was through her great-aunt’s connections in Talybont that my mother and her brother were evacuated there as children from Wallasey, during the Second World War blitz.

In 1913 the suffragist NUWSS staged a Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage, wherein its constituent federations marched to London during June and July and combined in a great demonstration at Hyde Park on July 26th. Edith organised and led her federation of the NUWSS’s contingent (of about 450 participants) which joined members of other federations to march on the “Watling Street” route from Carlisle to London. The Times estimated that about 50,000 people attended the eventual Hyde Park rally, which was conducted in a peaceful atmosphere designed to show the strength and extent of the non-violent suffrage movement. Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison had stepped to her death in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby only weeks before, and it is interesting to note that this lone act of horror is routinely replayed in modern media accounts of the period whilst the peaceful activities of thousands of women like Edith seldom rate a mention.

Of course such efforts did not secure parliamentary votes for women before the First World War, but then again neither did the more sensational actions of the suffragettes. It is not generally appreciated that the organised suffragist movement traced its origin back almost half a century to the formation of the “Kensington Society” in 1866, since when it had been advocating a broad range of women’s rights with a fair degree of success. It had secured the important objective of legal property rights for married women, and had seen female ratepayers obtain the right to vote and stand as candidates in local government. For the first time, in the late nineteenth century, women established themselves in large numbers as members of public bodies. In such ways suffragists like Edith were influential in shifting opinion toward an acceptance that women had a rightful place in public life as well as in the home. The question of the franchise was not, in any case, a clear-cut gender divide, because a large minority of men did not themselves have the vote in parliamentary elections before the First World War. It took the wartime sacrifices of men and women alike before this right was extended to all adult males, and to women over the age of thirty, at the war’s end in 1918. Full electoral equality between the sexes was not granted until 1928.

A good friend of hers wrote that Edith “was one to whom cultural pleasures of the mind came as naturally as breathing and throughout her life she absorbed knowledge like sunlight and made it part of herself.” That friend also wrote that Edith “remained to the end essentially an open air person of country tastes and with a primitive gypsy element in her composition…She would say that mountains intoxicated her, and that nothing gave her such pleasure as nature. She had indeed great knowledge of natural objects and wild creatures, and acute powers of observation; she was also something of a weather prophet…On long walks she would often sleep on the ground, a form of rest which gave her instinctive enjoyment and fulfilled some primitive urge…The ‘sense of wonder’ never failed her…There were no windows closed on life…Her essential wisdom, her readiness to appreciate the good in life and accept the painful, made her a restful as well as a profoundly stimulating companion.”

I would love to have known her.

A collection of papers and photographs relating to Edith Eskrigge is held at The Women’s Library at the LSE (Ref: 7EES)

The Strange World of Arthur Munby

Like Hugh Shimmin and Henry Mayhew, Arthur Munby was a well-heeled gentleman who liked to observe Victorian society’s lower reaches. But unlike them Munby was not a professional investigator who published his findings, indeed he stipulated that his papers should be kept locked-up until forty years after his death. This was because they were full of writings, drawings and photographs that (whilst not being positively pornographic) fetishised labouring women. I am currently reading Munby: Man of Two Worlds (Derek Hudson, 1972) and think that this eccentric individual’s writings deserve to be more widely known.

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A.J. Munby with collier Ellen Grounds at a Wigan photographer’s, 1873

Arthur Munby (1828-1910) was a barrister and civil servant (also a minor poet and rather iffy sketcher) who lived an ostensibly bachelor life in London. But such was his fascination with women who earned a physically hard living that he secretly married one of them – a maidservant named Hannah Cullwick – and henceforth lived a sort of double life. He kept detailed diaries which, on one level, chronicle a privileged life spent in predominantly male artistic and literary circles, wherein he rubbed shoulders with the creative great and good. But he also records a concealed existence in which, hiding behind his big beard and guileless manner, he roamed on his own freely and struck-up conversations and acquaintanceships with lower class women. Naturally his intentions in doing so were routinely misinterpreted, though he does seem to have been genuinely innocent of soliciting sexual relations. Again unlike Shimmin and Mayhew, who largely presented themselves as passive spectators of the low-life they portrayed, Munby puts himself at the centre of the action he describes.

In the summer of 1859, for instance, Munby travelled alone to Boulogne, apparently for the sole purpose of coming across female objects of interest on the beach and quayside. He sees ‘strong brown bathing women…sat on their benches by the roadside knitting…their bare wet legs crossed idly, their big feet buried in the sand…’. He watches with admiration as female porters haul heavy luggage off an incoming boat. He falls in with a group of mussel gatherers and considers that ‘to stand in the middle of a knot of fine young women with brown bare limbs, coarse wet seafaring clothes, faces full of health and spirits, and nothing about them to remind you of the women you have met in London drawingrooms is refreshing…’. One fishergirl particularly catches his eye: ‘As she stood there leaning on her shrimp net…wet through from the armpits downwards, the water dripping from her red kilt and glazing the brown of her shapely legs, I regretted much that I had not brought my sketch book.’ This girl’s elder sister draws Munby’s attention to how pretty her sibling is, and, though he does not take the apparently proffered solicitation, the women do successfully importune him for ‘sous’. At one point he pays a fisherwoman to carry him on her back through a puddle of seawater, to save his genteel attire from a soaking. One feels that he is often seen in such situations as a figure of fun, as well as a potential source of financial largesse.

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‘Female Mudlark’: Drawn by Munby from life

And sometimes Munby gets more than he wants or expects. Back in London, in 1860, he goes to see ‘a masquerade of a very singular character at the Victoria Theatre. The ball took place on the stage, the house itself being densely crowded with spectators of the lowest class, many of them young women – orange girls, coster girls, servants and the like.’ He sits in a private stage box, but ‘to me entered two uninteresting young women, rather tawdrily dressed, one of whom, though not at all immodest, paid me the most unnecessary & undesired attention.’

His narrative is often informatively unconventional. When he goes to a posh ball at Inverness Terrace he tells us nothing about the occasion itself, instead noting that ‘a kitchenwench was washing dishes in the scullery under the hall steps of a house, within a few doors of where the sumptuous young ladies…were disembarking from their carriages…’. On departing the ball in the small hours of the morning he falls in step with ‘a woman dressed like a coster girl, with a large empty basket on her arm, striding heavily along…’. She tells him that, to her, the hour is early rather than late, because she is commencing work by walking all the way from Shepherd’s Bush to Farringdon Market to buy watercress which she will then lug all the way back and sell from door-to-door. Munby reflects that she could not be more different from the girls he has just left in the ballroom, but thinks that ‘her companionship in its way was as interesting as theirs.’

He follows the careers of some of the women he acquaints and is capable of performing acts of disinterested kindness towards them, for instance when he obtains a mask for a beggar girl whose face is disfigured by illness. He first meets one girl, named Sarah Tanner, in the Strand when she is a maidservant. A year or so later he catches up with her in Regent Street when she is in ‘gorgeous apparel’, and is working by her own free choice as a prostitute. After several further encounters with her in this guise he eventually finds her in the Strand when, ‘She was stouter & healthier than ever, and was dressed, not professionally as a “lady”, but quietly & well, like a respectable upper servant.’ She tells him that she has used her immoral earnings to set herself up in a coffeehouse, and he subsequently takes it upon himself to visit the named premises to check out her story (which turns out to be true). This is not the only time that Munby seems to act the busybody. One day he takes an omnibus all the way out to Tooting, just to confirm a story he has heard that a tradesman there has a maidservant who is the daughter of a clergyman. He finds this to be correct, but dismisses the apparent incongruity on the basis that the clergyman was only ‘a dissenting preacher.’

Paradoxically, the Munby who so loves lower-class women is also a High-Church snob who is not afraid to disparage people who are ‘in trade’. At a ball in St James’s Hall he describes ‘a most sumptuous affair’, but laments that ‘the guests looked unworthy of all this luxury: the women were to a striking extent wanting in beauty, in grace of motion and manners, & even in the fine symmetry of make that one sees in real ladies.’ He adds, ‘I never saw so clearly that there is a real difference in physical and mental breeding, between these rich tradesmen’s families – for they were all of that class, nearly – and those above them.’ At the Crystal Palace (the building was relocated to South London from Hyde Park after the Great Exhibition in 1851) he is sniffy about ‘holiday people’ who he thinks ‘not refined, but blunted and vulgarized still more by eating sandwiches (and they will eat sandwiches) on the tombs of Kings, and drinking pots of porter in the Courts of the Alhambra.’ (Such settings of antiquity were constructed as standing exhibits at the Crystal Place).

But it would be unfair not to mention that Munby’s diaries are illuminating on multiple aspects of Victorian life, beyond his snobbery and his fixation with labouring women. Indeed, he would probably have found our modern-day tendency to obsess over people’s sexuality equally strange. He commits a rather doleful prediction to his diary following a summer Sunday spent in the then still semi-rural environs of Guildford. He bemoans that ‘it was sad to see standing at an old time-honoured cottage door, a grey old peasant in his Sunday smock, with his strong hearty wife beside him, in her high cap and old-fashioned russet gown, whilst a couple of pert flimsy girls, in worthless garments of a pseudofashionable kind, stood talking to them, gaudy with ribbons and crinoline.’ He goes on to anticipate that industrial progress will eventually destroy all the ‘refreshing ruggedness’ and ‘charming differentia’ of country life, and laments that it will bring a sort of homogenous sameness to everyone. ‘God forbid that one should live to such a time,’ he writes, ‘when all England shall be one dead level of Americanised halfeducated vulgarity!’ How does this prediction sit in relation to our own times?

Excess in Amplitude of Skirt

I watched the recent programmes presented by Suzannah Lipscomb on the subject of “Hidden Killers of the Victorian home” with great interest. Some research I’ve been doing concerning women’s rights issues in the mid-nineteenth century has revealed another of these hidden killers, though the hazard was in fact the all-too-visible one of outrageously wide and inflated crinoline dresses. One programme touched on the later presence of celluloid in dresses as a fire hazard, but in the mid-nineteenth century it was “the excess in amplitude of skirt” that threatened women with a fiery death. It’s easy to imagine the vulnerability to immolation of such unwieldy garments at a time of coal fires and unguarded gas and candle flames. The Illustrated London News of 31st January 1863 reported:

“At Nice the English community has been thrown into mourning by the dreadful death of a beautiful young lady, who was burnt to death on her return from a ball given in honour of the King of Bavaria. Her dress caught fire from the embers of an open hearth. Her mother, in endeavouring to succour her, was so frightfully burnt that she has since died.”

The periodical described several similarly horrifying instances of the same, before concluding:

“The outcry against crinoline has been renewed with redoubled vigour in consequence of these catastrophes, and all the misery and suffering of burning alive are laid at the door, or rather the ribs, of hoop-petticoats. Against the immoderate use of crinoline all sensible persons protest…”

The issue of votes for women was becoming active in the 1860s and it’s not surprising that there was a link between fashions and questions of women’s rights around this time, due to the highly restrictive nature of their dress generally. Having to wear murderous corsetry, umpteen layers, and being required to change several times a day for different occasions must have been highly oppressive. (Though it is often forgotten, when generalisations are made about the Victorian era, that the dictates of fashion only applied to a prosperous minority. Many poor people were just glad to have something to wear.)

Attempts to introduce codes of “rational dress” did not get very far and excited much mockery. When Amelia Bloomer came over from America to Britain in autumn 1851 to advocate “trousers for women” she, and her supporters, were subjected to waves of ribald laughter and coarse derision. A gossip column of the time stated, “A party of ladies in Bloomer attire made their appearance among the crowds at the Great Exhibition on Friday last. The novel and unfeminine costume attracted, as may be imagined, no small share of public interest; and in a very short time the fair wearers found it convenient to call a cab.”

Admittedly the hybrid look she sought to introduce was not of the most pleasing nature, as appears from the following drawing of Mrs Bloomer (from whom the term “Bloomers” is of course derived):

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Despite my passion for the nineteenth century, I must admit to preferring the freedom of modern times when there is no dictatorial nonsense about correct modes of dress.

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