The British roots of the Olympic Games

In a few days’ time, the world will descend on Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games. It is acknowledged that the modern games have their roots in Ancient Greece, most notably the games at Olympia and Nazi Germany where parts of the opening ceremony such as showcasing the host nation’s history and culture as well as the journey and lighting of the Olympic flame were introduced.

What have been overlooked or forgotten are the British roots of the modern Olympic Games, something that London was keen to emphasise when it hosted the Olympics four years ago. When the Olympic and Paralympic mascots were unveiled to the press by Lord Coe, much was made about their names Wenlock and Mandeville. Both mascots were named after places from where the Olympic and Paralympic movements traced their origins. In particular, Wenlock was named for the town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire where since 1850, the Wenlock Olympian Society have been organising the Wenlock Olympian Games. In 1890, the games were attended by a French educator and aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin and what he saw that day in Much Wenlock would play a part in his idea for reviving the Olympic Games.

However there is more to the British roots of the modern Olympic Games than the Wenlock Olympian Games. The whole ethos and ideals of the Olympics – the concept of amateurism, the emphasis on taking part rather than winning, the role of sport in character building and the notion of fair play all has its roots in the nineteenth century British education system. While amateurism in its purest form has largely disappeared from the Olympics, the others have remained the bedrock of the games despite all the controversies that recur every four years that the games are held.


Character and Manliness in Victorian Britain

When well-known sports people such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Nicola Adams, Andy Murray and Chris Hoy are interviewed they frequently cite the benefits of sport, not only in the physical sense but also in the psychological – sport can instill a sense of team work, sense of accomplishment, discipline and develop character. None of these ideas are new in fact, they have been around for more than a hundred years and the roots of these ideas can be traced in the Victorian education system anchored by middle class values and respectability.

The 19th century Victorian education system was male dominated and geared towards not only providing boys with academic knowledge but crucially and more importantly it was aimed towards developing and moulding their characters.  The notion of “character” was pervasive in nineteenth-century British political, social and educational discourse. As Stefan Collini detected, aspects of Victorian political discussions on character can be seen as a way of imposing middle class values on both upper the working classes as well as the impact of diverse influences ranging from religion to literature and even science!

A recurring theme in discussions about character is the concept of manliness which was used by religious personalities, social commentators and educators in what John Tosh described “an extraordinary variety of contexts”.  In addition, the concept of manliness was an important aspect of Victorian thoughts on gender that included the rigid designation of the sexes and the ideal qualities associated with both. Manliness was usually synonymous or used interchangeably with “character” and “self-reliance” where it was seen as a way to describe so-called masculine virtues and refer to the way that those virtues governed a man’s relationship with his fellow men and with women as well. The language of warfare was frequently used as metaphor and “success was viewed as a personal achievement, and adversity could only be overcome by calling on personal reserves of character.”

Instilling manliness in middle and upper class males was taken seriously and the transition from boy to man was accomplished by several rituals. First was by the age of six, he was recognised as a male child and began wearing breeches or trousers. The trousers enabled the boy to engage more in outdoor play and sports with other boys. This was also the time where a boy’s home education with a governess or tutor came at an end. By the age of eight, he would also be sent away to public school in the belief that schooling prepared boys for the wider world – not just for a future occupation but also the discipline that would hopefully stand him in good stead throughout his life.

Also being sent away to school meant reinforcing the gender divide between masculine and feminine roles. As it was observed, “manliness was as much to do with separating from the feminine as with affirming the masculine” and this resulted in a further social gap between men and women as well as reinforcing the bias among men that the company of women was generally not stimulating due to their supposed inferior intellect.  Public schools were basically all-male environments in which camaraderie, obedience and excellence were instilled in the pupils. As there were virtually no women in schools manliness could be instilled by discouraging any reference to female members of the family as well as family pictures and room décor that might be perceived as “feminine”.


Another aspect of manliness apart from the physical was the revival of the medieval idea of chivalry. Along with the Gothic revival in art, architecture and literature (Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe being a classic example), there was also the interest in how the ideals of chivalry could be adapted and translated to a nineteenth-century audience. It was asserted that the revival of interest in such an idea “helped to make the old chivalry a valuable imaginative resource in the midst of the social and economic dislocations of the industrial revolution- ” –  the earnest middle classes appreciated chivalry as a “timeless and classless moral ideal,” although many of the manifestations of chivalry during this period were mostly concerned with producing replicas such as Queen Victoria’s medieval themed ball and homes in the style of medieval castles for the aristocracy. Others were bordering on the ludicrous such as the Egremont Tournament of 1839.

The Evangelicals added a Christian and moral dimension to manliness and chivalry: for them, what was important was the presence of the “inner moral resources of a man which should determine his dealings with the world.” Manliness in the evangelical sense meant channeling one’s energy into work that led to true freedom from dependence. Work was also meant as a means for self-discipline, and thinkers like Thomas Carlyle extolled the virtues of work as another way to avoid falling into the trap of idleness. For evangelicals, manliness and the work ethic went hand in hand.  In addition it also referred to the home: the evangelicals sought to disassociate manliness from sexual licence and instead focus on the man as a paterfamilias figure with the ability not just to provide materially for his family and household but to strengthen the bond between his wife and children.  Emphasis was also placed on purity – the ardent love of a man for his wife steering him away from sexual temptation. The regime of cold baths and ceaseless physical activity was designed to keep impure thoughts at bay and the evangelical notions of a strong work ethic, fidelity and a close knit family were instruments in the constant battles against temptations of the flesh.

In the case of chivalry, its ideals appealed strongly to the evangelicals as well. There was the appeal of qualities like nobility and virtue that were juxtaposed with so-called Victorian values such as steadfastness and duty. To be a man meant discipline, self-sacrifice and stoicism, the evangelicals anchored the belief that a true Christian man accepts and “acknowledges Christ as [his] captain and master.”  Aspects of Christian manliness and chivalry could also be found in the literature of the day. Novels such as Westward Ho! and Tom Brown’s Schooldays promoted the ideal of a true Christian man who “should dedicate his body, mind and will to the service of God.” Consecrating masculinity for the greater glory of God in all endeavours was another major theme of Christian manliness.



Another Victorian ideal that was connected to character and manliness was self-help and one of its most prolific and famous exponents was the author Samuel Smiles whose various publications most notably Self Help (1859) was  a bestseller during its time and translated into various languages, remaining in print to this day in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.  Kenneth Fielden, in his article on Samuel Smiles noted that self-help as a doctrine was vague – the way it was presented was not coherent enough, “it did not appear in the form of abstract, logical argument, but through biographical tales, by parables, stories, aphorisms, proverbs.”  Smiles’ books profiled personalities according to categories such as military heroism, achievers in the arts and culture and what is termed as “new heroism” found in scientists, engineers and inventors. Smiles believed that the formula for success rested on traits such as hard work, diligence, self-control, sobriety and cultivation of potential. He disagreed with the idea that innate genius determined success; quoting the painter Joshua Reynolds that hard work was also a road to success sometimes even more than natural talent.

samuel smiles

What then, is the connection between character, manliness and self-help? Mandler writes that during the nineteenth century, there was the assumption that many British men had all three in spades. Certainly, the achievers that Smiles profiled were seen as the epitome of improvement via self-help where they overcame their handicaps by dint of hard work, integrity and perseverance.  Max Jones in The Last Great Quest mentions that heroic exploits exemplified the notion of character and manliness. Like Fielden, Jones also mentioned Smiles’ contribution to nineteenth-century notions of character. The emphasis on manliness was in line with the dominant Victorian discourse on gender and the rigid separation of male and female roles. It is therefore not surprising that in Smiles’ pantheon of self-help icons, only two were women.

Jones goes further: “The Victorian idea of character was rooted in four core qualities: self-restraint, perseverance, strenuous effort, courage in the face of adversity.” In Smiles’ view all four were present in the work place. For him, the work place was a “stage for moral endeavour” and the root of progress and civilisation. This represented a shift from the previous century’s preoccupation with leisure and gentlemanly politeness as well as the growing influence of middle class values such as thrift and industry against that of aristocratic indolence.  Tosh agrees, stating that manliness was also a benchmark to “distinguish the broad citizens from the privileged and idle. What ‘the people’ had in common was what made them socially useful – the dignity of labour. In popular culture this was the foundation of true manliness, and it distinguished the people from the aristocracy.”

Ironically the reality is that once some had become wealthy through hard work their aspiration shifted towards their children acquiring the traits of and becoming gentlemen. In this sense they begin to absorb the upper and middle class disdain for manual labour. Manliness then would have to be taught and instilled through another means, most notably through schools and sports.


The role of sport in instilling manliness

Perhaps the most famous way by which manliness was instilled in schools was through sports and organised games. They were heavily promoted as one way to develop and instill character as well as to channel the hormonal urges of young men in to a hopefully more positive direction.  Headmasters and clergymen were concerned with youth possibly falling into sin and impure thoughts: while many social commentators frequently harped on the “physical and moral vigour of the race.”  As a result, young men were constantly pushed into a ceaseless round of physical activity – running, cricket, rowing, archery, hiking, climbing and cycling together with cold showers (even in the dead of winter). It was believed that the constant stream of activities as well as the Spartan lifestyle that was demanded would prevent young men from getting into trouble, as the school authorities took seriously the Benedictine maxim that an idle mind was the devil’s workshop.

eton race

An assertion of manliness through sport was also tied to prowess in battle. The Duke of Wellington was alleged to have said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton and his own exploits on the hunting field were equal to his reputation as a general. It was thought that partly due to the Duke, the “connections between sporting and military manliness [was] already well-established.”  Jeremy Paxman mentions the “Breed”, an adjective to describe the embodiment of the ideal man which he describes as “fearless…..bold, unreflective and pragmatic….men you could trust.” The Breed was also poised for action and was seen as reliable in times of crises. In reality, this was not always the case but the all-male public schools did turn out some men who attempted to live up the ideals of the Breed.

Alongside cricket, another sport popular in schools and universities was rowing. Part of this appeal was the reminder of the Athenian navy which like its army was comprised of citizens.  With the emphasis on sports and organised games as means to develop character, there was also the acknowledgement of its importance to the development of the citizens’ physical and moral vigour as well as the occasional self-congratulation that to be born British meant being the most fortunate person on earth. Apart from the self-congratulatory pronouncements on the strength of the British national character, this was set against other nationalities (especially against the French during the nineteenth century) that often appeared as cautionary tales/moral of the story and served as warnings to the general public.

Cambridge-univ-cricket_1899   oxford_university_1877_photo

Apart from Christian influence, the concept of manliness was also influenced by ancient Greece. With emphasis on sports and its curriculum dominated by the classics, the public schools were bound to be attracted to ancient Greece as a role model. The admiration for ancient Greece was also apparent in both Oxford and Cambridge and by extension this admiration also filtered through a popular literary genre from the nineteenth century; the school story which always had for its heroes those who “combined dazzling feats of athletic prowess with brilliant scholarship.” Headmasters and university dons emphasized to their students the ideal balance of arête gumnastike (athletic excellence) and arête mousike (literary excellence) and as we shall see later these ideals especially the former would make their way to the revival of the Olympic Games.


Baron de Coubertin and the revival of the Olympic Games

There was also a strong sense of individualism and competitiveness in the idea of manliness as the industrial revolution gradually broke down the predominance of the landed aristocracy and led the way for others to succeed by virtue of hard work. As a result, there was the encouragement to “always to excel over others” and the competitive ethos spilled over to all aspects of life most notably in sports as played in schools and universities. Foreign visitors to Britain were always struck by the ultra-competitiveness mind-set that prevailed in school and universities as well as the British passion for sports. One visitor to Britain, the French educator Baron Pierre de Coubertin was so impressed by what he saw as the dedication to sports that he thought of applying British methods to French schools as a template for France’s recovery in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War.


Coubertin was heavily influenced by the writings of contemporary educators such as Jules Simon and Thomas Arnold, the latter introduced to him via reading Notes on England by Hippolyte Taine, a historian and philosopher. From Taine’s work, Coubertin was “intrigued by the concept of the British gentleman and by stories about the Englishman’s attitude to sport. Britain seemed to be an enviably successful imperial society.” (p. 68)

He undertook trips to the US, Germany and the UK to study their education systems and how they might be adapted to France. Coubertin was impressed with the British public school and university system especially what he saw as the balance between intellectual and sporting pursuits which was in contrast to the French system which he felt was too much tilted in favour of the intellect over the body. If France was to recover from the humiliation of defeat in 1870 and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine then reform and a re-think in attitudes would be needed.

Coubertin strongly believed that the British education system would provide the template and suggested an injection of sports and healthy physical content into the existing French curriculum to balance out the intellectual content. Playing fields and playgrounds together with changing facilities should be introduced together with a variety of sports for French schoolchildren. He asserted that sports and games could help suppress vice and impure thoughts among the young by diverting their energy into physical activities. To critics who accused him of promoting sport as a form of militarism and military training, Coubertin argued that that on the contrary, channeling the energy into sport was a form of freedom. Sport for him provided moral lessons in fair play, sportsmanship and character building. Crucially he believed that sport had the capacity to bring people together united in the common pursuit of excellence and passion for sport.

Gradually Coubertin began to further take his ideas about bringing people together through sport by talking about the idea of reviving the Olympic Games which were last held in 393 AD when the Emperor Theodosius put a stop to them for what he saw as their pagan characteristics. The “Olympian Games” he saw at Much Wenlock convinced him that it was possible and in a meeting in Paris in 1894, he spelled out his main motivation for such an undertaking:

It is clear that the telegraph, railways, the telephone, the passionate research in science, congresses and exhibitions have done more for peace than any treaty or diplomatic convention. Well, I hope that athletics will do even more…Let us export our oarsmen, our runners, our fencers into other lands. That is the true Free Trade of the future; and the day it is introduced into Europe the cause of Peace will have received a new and strong ally.

This is enough to encourage your servant to dream now about the second part of this programme; he hopes that you will help him as you helped him hitherto, and that with you he will be able to continue and complete, on a basis suited to the conditions of modern life, this grandiose and salutary task, the restoration of the Olympic Games.

This set the motion for the eventual staging of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. Since then every four years, they have been held in a different city and while the Games have more often than not fallen short of the ideals set by their founder, the notion of sport as character building, instilling discipline and fostering the values of sportsmanship and fair play with its roots in 19th century Britain still lives on.



Further reading:

Peter Mandler. The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair (Yale, 2006)

Stefan Collini. ‘The Idea of “Character” in Victorian Political Thought’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (1984), pp. 29-50

John Tosh. ‘Gentleman Politeness and Manly Simplicity in Victorian England’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 12 (2002), pp. 455- 472

John Tosh. A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-class home in Victorian England (Yale, 2007)

Mark Girouard. The Return to Camelot (Yale, 1981)

Jeremy Paxman. The English: A Portrait of a People (London, 1999)

Norman Vance. The Sinews of the Spirit: The ideal of Christian manliness in Victorian Literature and religious thought (Cambridge, 1985)

Kenneth Fielden. ‘Samuel Smiles and Self-Help’, Victorian Studies 12 (1968), pp. 155-176.

Max Jones. The Last Great Quest: Captain Scott’s Antarctic Sacrifice (Oxford, 2003)

Michael Llewellyn Smith. Olympics in Athens 1896 (London, 2004)

David Wallechinsky and Jamie Loucky. The Complete Book of the Olympics 2012 edition (London, 2012)

Christopher R Hill. Olympic Politics (London, 1996)

John J Macaloon. This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games (London, 2007)



Women in Black: Mourning Fashion and Etiquette, 1870-1939

On 30 June and 1 July, the Queen and members of the royal family took part in events to observe the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. It was telling that the Queen and Duchess of Cambridge were both in grey and white while the Duchesses of Cornwall and Gloucester were in navy blue. The clothes worn by the royal women were respectful but not sombre, the colours being a dignified choice for the solemnity of the occasion. The choice of colours was redolent of half-mourning, a custom that disappeared with the end of the First World War: with only women of a certain generation and the Royal Family observing a variation of this mourning etiquette.

When we think of women in mourning, the first person that comes to mind is Queen Victoria after 1861 when on the death of her husband Prince Albert; she went into prolonged mourning and wore black in his memory until her own death in 1901. By the time of the Prince’s death in 1861, the standards and etiquette of mourning which originated from the observation of court mourning in previous centuries had already been established, but Queen Victoria’s own mourning for her husband was echoed by the widespread observation of mourning etiquette by almost all classes high and low.


Fashion, clothing and etiquette

As Jessica Regan observed in her 2014 lecture, Women in Black: Fashioning Mourning in the 19th century, mourning rituals reached its peak in the 19th century as fashion became aligned with mourning and the resulting elaborate mourning codes became widespread in society. A number of factors contributed to this; first, high mortality rates were still prevalent during this period, the expansion of the middle class and finally the development of the retail sector and advances in technology meant that the use and production of black fabric became much more widespread than in the past.

The use of black is one of the most highly visible of the ritual of mourning with regards to clothing. In the past, black was not the exclusive colour for mourning; other colours such as brown, grey and dark blue and even white were also used while black was mostly used by religious orders to depict sobriety and their renunciation of the world. However by the 19th century, black became the norm for mourning, the colour speaking of the “desolation within” as well as a sign of the deprivation of a life. Additionally, black as the opposite of light represented the analogy of death as darkness extinguishing the light of life.

As photographs, illustrations and accounts of the period show, mourning was also a social ritual. It was seen as a sign of respect, suffering a loss that should be honoured and those feelings being matched by the sobriety of the garment being worn. It was also seen as a burden as several surviving letters and diary entries of the period showed, many women found having to don mourning as an inconvenience especially as for a set amount of time they could not wear any coloured clothes or take part in society.

Mourning rituals were precisely and minutely calibrated and defined: and breaches or perceived breaches of the code were looked at very much askance. For the first few weeks after a bereavement the family remained secluded, while letters telling of the death were written by a family member on black-edged paper and sent in a black-edged envelope, the thickness of the borders being indicative of the social position of the deceased, his or her relationship to the letter writer and the time that had elapsed since the death. Thick black borders indicated a recent death, narrow ones a sign that time had passed and the family was ready to resume their ordinary way of life.

However mourning was also a useful mean of articulating that sense of loss and for some it became a central part of their image. This is especially the case with Queen Victoria through the dissemination of the image of the “widow of Windsor” in photographs, paintings, drawings and engravings. Mourning became that key aspect of her identity and the clothes worn were both seen as a manifestation of middle class respectability.

It was women who bore the brunt of mourning especially if they were widowed. Widowers, because of work and duties outside the house were expected to go back into society quickly, with their only sign of bereavement being a black tie, black arm- or hatband, but it was very different for women. As Lou Taylor in her book Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History wrote:

Women were bound by the labyrinth of mourning dress etiquette for a much longer period than their menfolk. They were burdened with the duty of wearing depressing, and often in their eyes, ugly clothes for many years of their lives, whereas the men, once the funeral was over, needed only to wear an armband. The difference is symbolic of the whole social position of women in the second half of the nineteenth century. Women were used, albeit willingly and even eagerly by most, as a show piece, to display their family’s total respectability, sense of conformity and wealth. Amongst the ‘respectable’ classes, the whole way of life of women was built on these foundations and with these goals in mind. Mourning dress was perhaps still the most perfect vehicle for this purpose as it had been in the past.” (pp. 135-6).

Women in mourning in fact were as much the outward manifestation of a family’s status and conformity to social norms and demands as a carriage and horses, servants and household decoration. It was harder for female courtiers, those who attended to members of the royal family as ladies-in-waiting because not only did they have to observe mourning for a family member who died but also to observe court mourning. After Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria decreed that everyone in the household had to appear in full mourning while on duty for two years and although official mourning for the Prince ended in 1863, women at court still had their wardrobes dictated by the Queen. Many of the ladies in waiting were older women or widows who had experienced multiple bereavements and were well versed to cope with the Queen’s demands however it was harder for the maids of honour – young, unmarried women not yet accustomed to the rigid customs of mourning. As a concession, she permitted them to wear half mourning colours such as white, grey, purple, mauve except during official court mourning for a member of the royal family whether here or abroad, when they had to wear all back with jet jewellery.

Mourning rituals, etiquette and dress became more elaborate by the middle of the 19th century. The period of mourning lengthened and even the most distant relatives were also mourned and magazines and journals were on hand to offer advice as the more elaborate the etiquette had become the more likely a faux pas would be committed. Mourning warehouses and factories that specialised in mourning fabrics also flourished. Courtaulds for instance published a leaflet entitled Notes on Fashionable Mourning which was a summary of advice given by leading women’s magazines of the period such as Queen, Gentlewoman, The Lady, Lady’s Pictorial and Ladies Year Book. The magazines could not agree on the precise length of mourning but the overall agreement was that at least there should be a respectable length and in the end it was up to the individual depending on their circumstances and personal taste as well as to navigate the balance between fashion and respect.

A general consensus however emerged and this was with regards to the stages of mourning that the family especially the women observed. Mourning was a universally understood signal with accepted gradations (‘first mourning’ ‘second mourning’ ‘ordinary mourning’ ‘half mourning’) that meant outsiders could observe the bereaved and see from the depths of the mourning being worn how recent the bereavement was, the relation of the deceased to the mourners and that they needed to be treated with gentleness and consideration. During the first stage of mourning which lasted for a year and a day (‘deepest’ or ‘first mourning’), a woman must wear a paramatta or bombazine dress and mantle with crape applied to the skirt. Cuffs and collars were made out of lawn and the rest of the dress (the bodice) was made out of crape. The bonnet should be made entirely out of crape; inside should be a widow’s cap with a crape veil. By the second stage which lasted nine months, duller black silk fabrics were permitted and widows were allowed to divest their dress of some of their crape, although not all, in order not to appear to have recovered too quickly. Crape could be restricted to trimming into dresses, capes and bonnets; then after six months widows could lessen the crape still further and the cloth could be recycled through other means particularly as trimmings for hats or dresses.

mrs-howes-in-deep-mourning victoria_frederick_mourning

During the third stage which lasted for three months, crape was finally abandoned and silk or satin trimmed with ribbons, lace, jet and embroidery were permitted. Finally after two years of mourning, half mourning was permitted and could last from 6 months to a lifetime. They consisted of the latest fashions but in colours such as white, grey, soft mauves, violets, pansies, purple and lilacs.

Mourning also extended into underwear and accessories such as parasols, shawls, gloves and handbags. Underwear and handkerchiefs were trimmed with black ribbon or black border. Hats were also in black with a veil and a widow’s cap underneath trimmed with black crape. By the 1890s the custom of wearing a veil over the face for the full year of deepest mourning was dying out. “Mary Stuart” widows caps as helped popularised by the Empress Victoria of Germany also became ubiquitous in the 1890s.

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The strict prescription and the style of dress also reinforced the widow’s social ostracism, she could not go out into society for a year and it was considered poor form to accept invitations or appear in public, and calls were paid only by relations and very close friends. It was only in the second year could the widow resume any semblance of social life and even then, the widow could be seen both as an object of pity and a threat – the former because of the sense of loss and loneliness as a result and the latter because she was legally free to remarry or not as well as seen as much more sexually experienced. Hence the “woman in black” was seen both as a tragic figure and a temptress.

A widow emerging from her first mourning also had to reassess her position in the world – she might well have lost both her income and her social status with her husband, and women who remarried were regarded with faint distaste as being unfaithful to the memory of their husbands, which was  regarded as almost as bad as physical infidelity and was not immune from severe censure. The fiance of Lord Tennyson’s sister Emily died before they could be married and eight years later she became engaged again, to the considerable shock of her first fiance’s cousin.

Only conceive, Emily Tennyson is actually going to be married…can you conceive of anyone who he (Arthur Hallam, the dead fiance) had loved, putting up with another? I feel so distressed about this, really it quite hurts me. I had such a romantic admiration for her, looked at her with such pity, and now my feeling about her is bouleverséd.


Etiquette for the rest of the family was less strict. For children and parents, a year was all that was required. Crape was required for the first six months then gradually plain black could be worn and finally half mourning. The family was obliged to retire from society for two months. Mourning for grandparents lasted six to nine months; two months in silk with crape, two in black without crape and two in half mourning.

Siblings were mourned for six months (three in crape, two in black & one in half mourning); uncles and aunts for six weeks to two months. For great uncles and aunts six weeks (three in black, three in half mourning) sufficed while the mourning period for first and second cousins were four and three weeks respectively. Crape was not necessary for relatives and relations by marriage were mourned in the same degree as blood relations. John Morley observed that the mourning etiquette and the degrees by which family members are mourned “points a curious feature of the highly formalised mourning of Victorian society – it founded its rules firmly on the institution of the family, that sacred focus of Victorian life.” Mourning codes – what to wear and for how long – were prescribed for each and every family and social relationship, even distant relatives and ‘connections,’ such as mourning by parents for the parents of a child’s spouse or the second wife for the parents of a first wife.

The widespread observation of mourning and its formalised etiquette was aided and abetted by advances in technology such as the production of textiles, dyeing techniques and the discovery and introduction of aniline dyes in the 1850s that made shades such as mauve, lilac and violet prevalent and popular. The fabric most associated with mourning was crape, a mix of matt silk and cotton whose crimped appearance resembled crepe paper. Other fabrics used for mourning attire included bombazine, a mix of silk and cotton is a type of fabric made in Norwich, while paramatta, which was a cotton wool blend, was a cheaper alternative to crape and bombazine.

Because crape was the fabric prescribed especially for the first stage of mourning, there was huge demand for the fabric and Courtaulds a textile firm specialising in silk ended up monopolising production. Apart from pure crape, Courtaulds began to introduce cheaper alternatives such as “Albert” crape, a mix of cotton and crape which was first produced in the 1870s and seen as an inferior and coarser fabric than pure crape.

Because of the etiquette surrounding mourning, apart from the reams of advice in magazines and the fashions adapted to mourning featured’ it became an industry. There was the growth of “mourning warehouses”, the most famous being Jay’s Mourning Warehouse at 247-249 Regent Street. It was the biggest in London and catered to a diverse clientele – high and low, rich and poor and even held a royal warrant as providers to Her Majesty the Queen and the royal household. Other warehouses included Pugh’s Mourning Warehouse, Peter Robinson’s “Court and General Mourning Warehouse”, Nicholson’s “Argyle General Mourning and Mantle Warehouse” – all in Regent Street. Mourning Warehouses provided convenience and shopping for mourning wear, accessories and other assorted paraphernalia under one roof. They could also provide home delivery services when required and the warehouses were staffed by assistants knowledgeable in the rituals surrounding mourning. For those who lived outside huge cities, warehouses also published catalogues allowing a wider reach than simply confining their business in places such as London or Manchester.

Jay's  Peter Robinson

Mourning warehouses also specialised in clothing that while conforming to mourning etiquette also displayed the latest fashions. For instance Jay’s would present clothes in the latest styles with elaborate descriptions and illustrations. As contemporary illustrations and descriptions would show, a death need not interrupt following the latest style and fashion as well as develop the ability to strike a balance between fashion and respect.

For the women who could afford it the permutations were endless. Those lower down the scale had to attempt to obey the rules laid down by the more prosperous – either a mourning dress was bought or made or if that was not possible, dyeing a dress already in wear was a less expensive solution. Most of the working class could only make a token gesture towards mourning.


Mourning jewellery

Observation of mourning etiquette also extended to jewellery. Coloured stones and jewels were frowned upon during the mourning period and just as the colour of the clothes denoted at what stage the person was during the mourning period, the jewellery worn also provided the same function.

During the first two years of mourning, jet – a type of hard coal, lignite and probably formed from driftwood was the only acceptable material for jewellery to be worn especially during the period of deepest mourning. The hardest and best quality natural jet came from Whitby in Yorkshire where they could be carved and moulded into elaborate jewels. Spanish jet was too soft for fine work and hence considered to be inferior to that from Whitby.

Jet was first used for mourning jewellery for court mourning for William IV then reached its peak in the mid-19th century. It was fashioned into earrings, necklaces, brooches, hair clips and hair combs, bracelets and lockets; and demand for the material reached its peak in the 1870s but by the 1880s demand slowed due to shortages of the best quality hard jet and competition from cheaper jet and man-made ones such as French jet which was made from dark glass and jet waste combined with rubber to make a mouldable compound. There was also vulcanite, (an early form of plastic which was much more affordable but prolonged exposure to sun caused any jewellery made of vulcanite to turn brown) as well as bois durci – a combination of hardwood, sawdust, blood and albumen mixed with binding and colourised agents which could be moulded by machine. Other alternatives included stained horn and Irish bog-oak which were mostly used by the lower middle and working classes.


By the second year black and white stones and material were permitted such as black onyx, black enamel, pearls, diamonds, cut steel and ivory. For half mourning, amethysts were a popular gemstone as were pearls and diamonds. Pearls were an interesting choice especially because of its redolent symbolism. As Beatriz Chadour-Sampson noted: “The cycle of life was marked by jewellery, and pearls were significant in the symbolism of childhood, marriage and death……black pearls featured on many of the mourning jewels that Victoria commissioned after Albert’s death in 1861 to give to her extensive family, confidantes and members of her household.” An example of this is a memorial pendant locket with a photograph of Prince Albert surmounted by a gold crown studded with small pearls and a black pearl at the base made by Garrard & Co in 1862 and now in the collection of the British Museum. Queen Victoria herself until the end of her life always wore diamonds and pearls with the latter sending out a clear message – pearls could be seen as “tears” and spoke of her continuing grief and anguish at the loss of her beloved Albert.

NPG 708; Queen Victoria by Lady Julia Abercromby, after  Heinrich von Angeli
by Lady Julia Abercromby, after Heinrich von Angeli, watercolour, 1883 (1875)

From the 18th century onwards, memorial jewellery in the form of brooches, pins, pendants and lockets became popular. They would be emblazoned with a portrait of the deceased or their name and year of birth and death or a lock of their hair. They use of symbolisms was also popular such as the cross; holly and thorns for the passion of Jesus; oak for strength and enduring love; the empty acorn cup which denoted the inevitable end of love and forget-me-nots.

memorial locket

Lockets described as the “most enduring and charming of mementoes” where a photograph or a lock of hair could be placed were one of the most widespread jewels and common amongst all classes. Their commemorative nature made them ideal jewels to mark important occasions such a birth, coming of age, engagement, marriage and death. For mourning they were made out of black enamel or carved from dark onyx or jet and could be studded with diamonds or pearls. Outside they could be plain or decorated with the person’s initials or the words “In Memory” or symbols such as the cross. These could be worn as pendants suspended from a chain around the neck or attached to bracelets.


The end of Victorian mourning etiquette and rituals

Even as early as the mid-19th century, there was already criticism about the excesses of mourning rituals and etiquette with the likes of Charles Dickens satirising these customs in his novels and William Morris refusing to bow to the conventions of the day by insisting on a simpler funeral and a shorter mourning period to be observed by his family. Critics felt that these mourning customs was too much, over the top and smacked of one upmanship. There was also condemnation about the lack of sincerity demonstrated by some women whose mourning clothes were too fashionable while others noted that since women bore the greatest burden of mourning, the strict codes and etiquette reinforced their subordinate status in society.

In addition there was the prohibitive cost of observing mourning rituals where families could go into debt over the cost of the funeral, having memorial objects made and the wardrobe that women especially needed during this period.

By the 1890s there was the beginning of a gradual retreat from the mourning customs of decades past. Women began to wear the mourning veil over the face only during the funeral while the Princess of Wales refused to wear crape to observe the mourning for her oldest son the Duke of Clarence when he died in 1892: and Princess Louise Duchess of Argyll did not wear crape either on the death of her mother Queen Victoria in 1901. The new king, Edward VII also decreed that court mourning would only be observed for three months and that “decent” rather than “deepest” mourning was to be worn.

Queen Alexandra mourning

When King Edward VII died in 1910, official court mourning was only for a month. It coincided with the London Season hence it became known as the “Black Season” and the famous 1910 Ascot races where instead of the showy dresses and hats of previous years, race goers were dressed in black from head to toe was dubbed “Black Ascot”.

However, what would hasten and cause the major breakdown in funeral and mourning etiquette was the First World War. Despite the huge number of deaths, not many women resorted to the customs of the past which had been in retreat even after 1901. As Lou Taylor again observed:

It was partly a question of morale, both for the troops on leave from the trenches and the public at large remaining at home. The sight of millions of women of all ages shrouded in crape would have been too much to bear. As made clear by Lady Duff Gordon, a great many women of every class were involved in war work and were far too busy to retire into periods of seclusion demanded by the old etiquette of mourning. As well as running charity and nursing organisations, women were taking on every kind of job left unmanned by the departing troops….the fashion magazines continued to give their sartorial advice but they commented frequently on the changes so evident in society. (pp.267-8)

During the early years of the war, there were some who continued to follow the mourning customs of the past but as the conflict dragged on and the losses mounted, the public began to see omnipresent black mourning as lowering morale for both the troops and civilians. Fabric shortages also meant that it became more expensive to order a full wardrobe of mourning attire and even dyeing proved to be costly. Crucially as well from 1910, there was a fashion for black clothing that had nothing to do with mourning, pre-war designers such as Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon) offered dresses and gowns in black then during the war, black dresses were worn for elegance, for office work or for the uniforms worn by women taking on male work such as being bus conductors and police constables. In the 1920s, this would be taken on further by Coco Chanel with her “little black dress” and even to this day, black is seen as both a practical and elegant choice for everyday wear.

White also became an increasingly becoming an alternative to black for mourning. This echoed the custom of medieval and Renaissance royal women wearing white clothing as well as countries in Asia such as China, Japan and Korea where white was traditionally the colour of mourning instead of black.

Increasingly, a number of women attempted to find alternative to traditional mourning attire such as wearing purple armbands or a sort of memorial pins or badges. It was, as Lou Taylor noted, to find “another way of showing that they mourned their menfolk who had not died in the normal way but had died for their country. It was perhaps an attempt to rationalise and cope with the deaths – a way of making the sacrifice and loss more bearable, and demonstrating that the deaths had not been in vain nor the lives of loved ones wasted.” (p. 269)

After the war, despite the determination to return women to their pre-war world of children, church and kitchen many women remained in employment and there was certainly more opportunity for them not only for gainful employment but to pursue sports and hobbies that had been denied to them and enter university and male dominated professions. There was certainly no way back for the mourning customs of the Victorian era and even the wearing of mourning jewellery died out by the end of WW1 where less and less memorial jewellery was being made.

However, some women during and after the First World War clung on to the mourning etiquette of the past with regards to clothes. While there were some who wore black for the rest of their lives others never emerged from half-mourning – seeing it as less aggressive than full on black but nonetheless seen as a tribute to a life lost and a mark of continuing affection for the deceased. For instance in Downton Abbey, from series 4 onwards, Cora is always almost seen in half mourning for her youngest daughter Sybil who died in childbirth. As mentioned earlier, mourning was a universally understood signal by which people showed what stage of the mourning process they had reached and that they needed to be treated with gentleness and consideration. Cora in this way sends a strong signal by way of mourning protocol to her husband Robert (and of course anyone else who knows the rules) as there are more than enough indications that she has neither wholly forgiven him nor forgotten what she thought was the role he played in their daughter’s death.





Further reading and viewing:

Helen Rappaport. Magnificent Obsession (London, 2012)

Nina Edwards. Dressed for War (London, 2015)

Beatriz Chadour-Sampson. Pearls (London, 2013)

Clare Phillips. Jewels and Jewellery (London, 2008)

John Morley. Death, Heaven and the Victorians (London, 1971)

Kay Staniland. In Royal Fashion (London, 1997)

Charlotte Gere & Judy Rudoe. Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria (London, 2010)

Lou Taylor. Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History (London, 1983)

Judith Flanders. The Victorian House (London 2003)

Kate Hubbard. Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household (London, 2013)

Cassie Davis-Strodder, Jenny Lister & Lou Taylor. London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank (London, 2015)

David Cannadine. ‘War and Death, Grief and Mourning in Modern Britain’ in Joachim Whaley (ed.) Mirrors of Mortality: Studies in the Social History of Death (London, 1981) pp. 187-242

Jessica Regan. Women in Black: Fashioning Mourning in the 19th century (Metropolitan Museum of Art New York lecture) –






The Battle of the Somme 1 July 1916-1 July 2016– a very personal memoir

Even after 100 years and when no-one who remembers it is alive, the Battle of the Somme and especially its first day remains a scar on the British psyche. The 1st July 1916 and the deaths in action of nearly 20,000 thousand men on that day alone has come to represent for many people the entirety of the Great War. Books, documentaries, battlefield tours and above all the annual commemoration of Remembrance Sunday  keep the memory of the battle fresh, but behind all the pomp and remembrance it’s easy to forget that the names on the war memorials were men known, loved and grieved for, and that every name carried a story of pain and loss for the ones left behind.

Until the late 1990s I’d always thought that our family was the exception to the truism that every family in the country was touched by the 1914-1918 war and for some reason always felt slightly ashamed of that. My grandfather was born in 1900 and therefore too young to enlist, but he joined the army as a boy soldier in 1914, either out of patriotism, being swept up in the fervour of the early months of the war or the thought that it was time to find a steady paying job and take some of the burden off his widowed mother’s shoulders and the army looked like a good bet. In this family picture he looks both proud and slightly pathetic in his ill-fitting khaki: as if a harried stores clerk, busy kitting out men to go to the front, had held the uniform up in front of him and thought it looked as if it would fit and it would do. In any case, what did it matter one way or another? There were more pressing things to attend to.


I can’t remember that either my grandfather or my great-aunt, who was born in 1898, ever talked about the war in anything but general terms. Of course I regret that I did not ask them for their memories, but in retrospect there were small hints, especially with my grandfather (to whom I was very close and whose favourite I was) that even after fifty years he retained painful memories of that 1st July.

My grandfather was the third of four children and was born in rural Hampshire – his parents met when he was a coachman and she was a maid. The world they all grew up in is unimaginable now, with the slowness of its pace and the lack of the hundreds of small daily amenities we take wholly for granted – and of course it was a world where transport, especially in rural areas, was very much dependent on horsepower. As children growing up in Devon in the 1960s we spent many of our holidays in London with our grandparents, and I recall rushing to see my grandfather one day after a day out and proudly proclaiming that we’d seen horses and him laughing – because of course when he was a child horses were so ubiquitous they were not worth a comment. They drew ploughs and buses and vans and carriages – everything wheeled, in fact. What was worth remarking for him was something he told us that happened when he was about eight or nine – that the teacher had sent them all out into the school playground to see a flying machine – a brand new technology still in its infancy but which would take a dreadful momentum from war.

My great-grandfather died in 1910 leaving a young widow, four children, the eldest of whom was twelve, and no money whatsoever. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the village churchyard and the day my grandfather took me there to point out the place is the only time I can recall him showing any emotion over his father’s death or talking about him to any extent – and I can understand that completely. My own father died when I was thirteen and my brothers just eight and seven – and to this day I find it hard to talk about that. Even after decades some things just still are that difficult.

I’ve done a fair bit of reading about the Great War since the commemorations started, and I’ve wondered what it was like for my grandfather and his family and their Hampshire village. The news of war in the papers, the men he knew enlisting and marching off – relatives, neighbours, friends, the older boys at school – all determined to give the Kaiser a good kicking. They’d have heard in church every Sunday that God was on our side, and the more or less constant expansion of the British Empire over the previous hundred years had made defeat almost unimaginable. What young man wanted to be the one who held back when all his mates and relatives cheerfully did what their leaders told them was a civic duty? Then of course as the months went on during leave visits home the young man would see the signs in the windows proudly proclaiming A man from this house is serving in the forces; perhaps he heard the distant mutter of the guns in France, saw the street shrines to the fallen, and he’d have heard of the delivery of telegrams that every family dreaded with their messages of Missing. Wounded. Dead – and seen the drawn blinds that meant the death of someone in the house. Perhaps as well he felt, early on the morning of the 1st July, the shudder of the earth as nineteen mines were exploded one after the other on the Western Front as a prelude to the opening day of the battle of Albert.

All this, of course, is conjecture. What is not is the story of my great-aunt Martha, my grandfather’s elder sister. She was born in 1898 and when her father died she and the brother next to her in age were sent to relatives – my great-grandmother couldn’t support four children on what she made taking in washing. My grandfather and his younger sister stayed with their mother – Kathleen because she was the youngest and grandad because his mother thought he was so ugly no relative would want to take him. (He wasn’t. He was slight, fair haired and blue eyed).

Aunt Martha was the archetypal spinster aunt. She lived near us in South London, my grandfather visited her nearly every Saturday and often took me along. She spoiled me and my brothers and cousins, made us cakes, gave us money and presents at birthdays and Christmas and generally gave the impression that she loved the company of children and their noise and mess. I don’t remember giving any thought to why she wasn’t married – she lived with my great grandmother until the latter’s death at the end of the 1950s, went out to work at a solicitor’s where she was a valued employee, had a wide circle of friends and an active social life. If I did think about it I assumed that she had missed her chance of marriage thanks to the deaths of so many men and was one of what were cruelly called in the 1920s ‘surplus women’ – those who would never fulfil what was regarded as their natural function of marriage and motherhood.

She lived to be 100, independent almost to the end, and died just after her hundredth birthday. On the day of her funeral I travelled home with my uncle’s sister in law Josie and heard a completely unsuspected side of the woman I’d taken for granted.

In 1916 Aunt Martha was eighteen years old and had a boyfriend her age or a little older. He, like millions of men, had enlisted, knew he was going to France and they wanted to marry before he went, but both sets of parents – or rather mothers – said that they were too young. Knowing he was going to France he and my great aunt threw caution to the winds and made love. He went to France, was killed in the battle of the Somme, and my great aunt found that she was pregnant. (Josie turned to me at that point in the story and said,” she said to me, we only did it once because he was going away.”)

Of course her story was never going to have a happy ending. Being unmarried, with no prospect of a husband, pregnant and living in a society where illegitimacy was a social stigma that marked both mother and child for ever was going to make sure of that: and my great grandmother by all accounts embodied all the worst traits of Victorian censoriousness and narrow mindedness. In retrospect it is hard to blame her – perhaps she knew from her experience of widowhood that life would be hard enough for my great aunt without the added burden of a child and was little chance of a husband, let alone one who would take another man’s baby. Perhaps as well my great grandmother was very well aware that they lived in a society markedly unsympathetic to a woman perceived as sexually transgressive and she didn’t want that reputation for her daughter. No doubt there were admonitions about bringing shame into the family and that Martha was “damaged goods”. It’s one of the things people now don’t understand because pregnancy out of wedlock now doesn’t carry anything like the same stigma – unlike in the past where it could be a source of a lifetime of extreme shame for both mother and child. For a working class woman like my great-aunt, her reputation was everything. Whatever the reasons, a termination was arranged (illegally and no doubt expensively), and my great aunt embarked on her long life of spinsterhood.

Did she have regrets and cry in the night for what she had lost, or catch herself watching children as they played? Was it horribly traumatic or did she bury it all deep down and try to forget? I have no idea (although she was a woman who had a twinkle in her eye and once told my brother she would have on her grave stone “Martha Ruffle, missed, but not as much as you think she did!”)

Certainly she remembered her lost love and his child even at the end of her life. She and my grandfather came from a world where you did not inflict your emotional pain on anyone, no matter who you were, high or low. You stiffened your lip and your spine and jolly well got on with the hand life had dealt you. My grandfather certainly recalled the sacrifices of that July – he was usually quiet and withdrawn every 1st July and even less talkative than usual. Perhaps he was recalling friends and neighbours, his sister’s lost love and what she’d sacrificed thanks to war, or perhaps as a professional soldier of 40 years standing his grief and silence might have been not just for the men he knew but his knowledge and anger that the first day of the Somme was, in the words of another soldier (talking this time about the retreat from Dunkirk), an almighty great fuck-up. One that irretrievably changed the lives of people he knew and loved. Anyone would be silent thinking about that.


Thiepval Memorial to the missing credt Chris Hartford London

Thiepval Memorial

I have no idea of the boyfriend’s name, what regiment he was in or when he was killed, whether it was the first day of the Battle of the Somme or the last or some day in between. I do not know if he has a grave somewhere or if he was one of the many missing whose only memorial is a name carved in stone. Perhaps somewhere there is a family who still talk about great uncle so-and-so, killed so young fighting for his country and what a waste of a life – I like to think there is.  I do make sure that every November three crosses are placed in the Garden of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey – one for an unknown soldier and two for a woman and child who were as much victims of an industrial war machine as any man who went over the top to his death.

Further reading:

Jeremy Paxman. Great Britain’s Great War (London, 2014)

Richard van Emden. The Somme: The Epic Battle in the Soldiers’ Own Words and Photographs (London, 2016)

Lyn MacDonald. Somme (London, 2013)

Gary Sheffield. The Somme: A New History (London, 2004)

Martin Middlebrook. The First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916 (London, 2016)

Peter Hart. The Somme (London, 2008)

Joshua Levine. Forgotten Voices of the Somme (London, 2009)


Many thanks to my brother Robert the family historian and archivist for invaluable and detailed family information and carefully checking my anecdotes.


The Battle of Jutland: Public reaction in the aftermath of the battle

Background: In the shadow of Trafalgar

Throughout the nineteenth century the Royal Navy was held in high esteem by the British public – even more so than the army. Being an island nation, the British relied on the seas as a barrier against invaders and her navy, which was considered the most powerful in the world, helped consolidate Britain’s status as a Great Power.

While the public and those involved were justifiably proud of the Royal Navy’s achievements, there was also the awareness that the late 19th and early 20th century navy was in the shadow of the greatest victory achieved by the Royal Navy – Trafalgar – and its commander Nelson, whose exploits continued to be lionised and held up as the gold standard not just for the Royal Navy but the British public. As the Battle of Jutland would demonstrate, Nelson and Trafalgar for good and ill would have serious consequences as while individual stories of courage and heroism would recall Nelson’s famous signal that “England expects that every man will do his duty”, what worked in securing that decisive victory at Trafalgar would prove to be inadequate at Jutland and expose several weaknesses in the strategy, tactics, communication and even basic health and safety procedures in the navy.

However that was still far away in the 1890s when Britain’s position as mistress of the seas was challenged by Germany. Under the new emperor, Wilhelm II – himself half-British – Germany began building up its navy, which stemmed partly from the Kaiser’s intention of protecting German interests and that she must have her “place in the sun”. This ambition for the German navy was also inspired by his summer holidays in Britain especially at the Isle of Wight where his maternal grandmother Queen Victoria had a summer residence, Osborne House. When he was made an honorary admiral in the British navy, the Kaiser was so overjoyed that he told a courtier, “fancy wearing the same uniform as St. Vincent and Nelson, it’s enough to make one feel giddy.”

While Germany built its navy, Britain watched with a mix of wariness and suspicion further fuelled by scare stories about espionage and a possible invasion in the papers and in popular fiction. The launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 sparked an arms race between Britain and Germany as both countries tried to outdo each other in the number of ships they could produce and add to their respective navies. By 1914, Britain had 28 dreadnoughts compared to Germany’s 16. With this superiority in numbers, the British press and public expected that should there be a head to head encounter with Germany, the Royal Navy would triumph and replicate Nelson’s feat at Trafalgar.

The man chosen for this task was Admiral Sir John Jellicoe (1859-1935), a naval officer who had participated in campaigns in Egypt and China. He was popular with his men, competent and well respected however he was viewed as too cautious. Winston Churchill once said that Jellicoe was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.” His second in command, Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty (1871-1936) was a contrast to Jellicoe: while the latter was cautious, analytical and unshowy the former was impulsive and cavalier. Even in their personal lives, the two men could not have been more different – Jellicoe’s private life was quiet and conventional while Beatty was an illegitimate son who had courted scandal further by marrying a wealthy American divorcee. The marriage eventually soured: partly bought about by his wife’s lack of understanding of the demands of his naval career and duties as well as her selfishness and narcissism. Their personalities would reveal themselves during the battle where Beatty’s impulsiveness and carelessness would result into making parts of his squadron vulnerable to the German fleet while Jellicoe’s caution meant that lives were saved in the long run.034



The Battle of Jutland: Public reaction

On 31 May 1916, the British and German fleets met off the coast of Denmark and went head to head in what became known as the Battle of Jutland. In 36 hours it was all over but the public had to wait until 3 June before the first accounts of Jutland were being reported in the papers. What was reported did not exactly provide comfort the public who were expecting a Trafalgar part 2 and Jellicoe to be the new Nelson.


There were reports of appalling losses of life, especially on the Indefatigable and Queen Mary which sank when magazines on the ship exploded because the safety doors were kept open throughout the battle. Both ships sank within minutes with the loss of around 2,266 lives.  The death toll and the number of ships lost were noted down by a local woman from Kent, Ethel M. Bilbrough and interestingly she makes a comparison and contrast of the number of lives lost between Trafalgar and Jutland:

This morning comes news of our first naval battle in the great war, for up to now the Germans have kept their fleet well boxed up in port. We have lost heavily, as our main fleet was not in the North Sea where Admiral Beattie’s [sic] squadron was attacked by the Enemy with her most powerful battleships, cruisers, and torpedoes, aided by three Zeppelins to throw search lights etc., and to guide them which way to go. A most unequal fight to start with, and our splendid “Queen Mary” sank in two minutes, and others followed suit before the main fleet could get up to their assistance. Our losses were appalling, about five thousand four hundred  killed, whereas in the great battle of Trafalgar only about 400 lives were lost – far less than there were in the “Queen Mary” alone, which had over 1,000 souls. And its dreadful to think of the poor little “middys”, lads of sixteen having to go through what must have been a veritable hell upon Earth, Two admirals killed, and 333 officers. All England is bewailing, and no wonder.

This was echoed by Georgina Lee who mentioned the terrible loss on HMS Invincible:

There has been a great naval battle in the North Sea, and it was very serious in our losses. With a naval force which included 28 battleships and 5 battle cruisers we attacked a powerful German fleet of 34 off the coast of Jutland, with the result that we have lost 3 battleships Queen Mary, Indefatigable and Invincible and several other warships. Over 2,000 men on the Invincible died: there were only 6 survivors.

But two days later, the Admiralty began to issue bulletins and reports in the papers which reassured the public that Jutland was a British victory despite the losses. The Daily Mirror trumpeted on 5 July that “German losses are heavier than the British” while The Times reassured their readers that “Britannia still ruled the waves”, something which was reiterated by Georgina Lee:

The Battle of Jutland is now being viewed in the light of a British victory, as news comes into the Admiralty of fresh German losses. It is now stated that the Germans lost 18 ships to our 14. This, taken with the act that the Germans fled back to their harbours and that Jellicoe remained in possession of the high seas, goes to show that our Fleet got the best of the encounter.

Eventually as more facts became known and were reported, the public demanded answers but overall there was satisfaction that the Germans did not dare challenge the British again. As Lillie Scales wrote in her diary:

On Monday the papers spoke quite differently – telling of numbers of German ships sunk, and that our strategy had been most wonderful, and that the German fleet would have been annihilated if a fog had not come on, and the day closed in before we had had time to reap the fruits of our victory, for it was a victory, the German fleet scuttling off for all it was worth and leaving us masters of the sea.

A century on, controversy still rages on about what went wrong at Jutland and who really was the victor but then as now, what was clear that Jellicoe and Beatty failed to deliver the knockout blow of a decisive victory that ensured Jutland would equal Trafalgar in the annals of great British naval victories. When the surviving ships returned to Britain after the battle they were greeted with boos and shouts of “cowards” while Admiral Jacky Fisher the man most responsible for the Dreadnought project after learning of what happened at Jutland, wailed “they had failed me!” which more or less summed up public disappointment of the outcome of the battle and his own desire to crown his career as the St. Vincent to Jellicoe’s Nelson.


“I Need a Hero”: Jack Cornwell VC

The aftermath Battle of Jutland undermined confidence in the Royal Navy and damaged its reputation in the eyes of the public. It also weakened national morale; as stories of heroism during the battle made their way into the press, one more than others captured the popular imagination – Boy First Class John Travers Cornwell or better known to the public as Jack Cornwell or Boy Cornwell.

His background and how he came to be in the Royal Navy was typical of the period. Born into a working class family in Leyton, Essex (now Leyton, east London), Cornwell left school at the age of 14 to work as a delivery boy and a year into the First World War enlisted in the Royal Navy without his parents’ permission. After training he was assigned to HMS Chester where he was posted as a gunner. During the battle, Cornwell remained at his post awaiting orders despite his comrades lying all around him dead or dying. Badly wounded but still refusing to abandon his post, he was finally rescued and transported back to Britain where he died of his wounds at Grimsby Hospital.

1916 battle of jutland

Cornwell’s exploits and conduct during the battle captured the public imagination and over the next few weeks and months after Jutland, his image was circulated widely in the papers and his gallantry was immortalised by a portrait by the society artist Frank Salisbury. A campaign for Cornwell to be awarded the Victoria Cross was begun as well as to bury him with full military honours. The Daily Sketch noted that “England will be shocked today to learn…that the boy-hero of the naval victory has been buried in a common grave”. On 29 July 1916, Cornwell was buried with full military honours at Manor Park Cemetery and on 15 September, the London Gazette announced the awarding of a posthumous Victoria Cross to “Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell, O.N.J.42563 (died 2 June 1916), for the conspicuous act of bravery specified below. Mortally wounded early in the action, Boy, First Class, Jack Travers Cornwell remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders, until the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded all round him.” His mother finally received the award at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace on 16 November.

Times July 31 1916

The lionising of Cornwell as a hero had its roots in the Crimean War which was the first conflict to be covered from the battlefield first hand by war correspondents. While the papers reported military disasters and appalling conditions on the front, there were also stories of bravery and gallantry displayed by ordinary soldiers and sailors. The institution of the Victoria Cross in 1856 was one way to recognise the bravery and gallantry of the ordinary soldier and sailor and the public began to see them as heroes.

The failure of Jutland in becoming another Trafalgar lead to general disillusionment over the navy and its officers and the bravery of Cornwell and other sailors went into some way into restoring confidence in the Royal Navy. With the conflict both on land and sea not going well, the British public needed heroes and Jack Cornwell’s exploits provided a boost to national morale. During the rest of the war and even to this day, he has been held up as a role model especially for the young.

Conclusion: A Pyrrhic victory?

Each side claimed victory but never again would Germany go head to head with the British at sea. During the rest of the war, they resorted to U boats which forced the Navy to adapt the convoy system to guard Britain’s food supply and the transporting of civilians across the Atlantic. As several historians have pointed out, Britain might have lost the battle but in the long term they did win the battle of the Dreadnoughts. However controversy still rages over what did happen and what could have happened had things been different. New research and advances in technology has meant that the wrecks could be examined more thoroughly and help us learn more about what really happened in those 36 hours

Upon hearing news of the battle, Kaiser Wilhelm II exulted that “the spell of Trafalgar has been broken” and on one hand, he was right as despite having several advantages, the British failed to score a decisive victory. On the other hand however, the British retained control of the North Sea and the Germans were unable to penetrate the blockade imposed by the Royal Navy.

A month later, the Battle of the Somme would mean that Jutland was pushed out of the headlines and it became increasingly clear that another sea battle that could finish off what Jutland started would never materialise. In the end, the shadow of Trafalgar still looms large even a hundred years on. If one goes to Trafalgar Square, there are a pair of memorial fountains and busts of Jellicoe and Beatty that commemorate Jutland but the busts are tucked away in a corner of the square behind the column that bears Nelson’s statue which literally and figuratively is a sign that both men will always be condemned to be in the shadow of Britain’s pre-eminent naval hero.



Further reading and viewing:

Innes McCartney. Jutland 1916: The Archaeology of a Naval Battlefield (London, 2016)

Nick Jellicoe. Jutland: The Unfinished Battle (Barnsley, 2016)

Gavin Roynon (ed.). Home Fires Burning: The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee (Stroud, 2006)

Ethel M. Bilbrough. My War Diary 1914-1918 (London, 2014)

Lillie Scales. A Home Front Diary 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Jonathan Sutherland and Diane Canwell. The Battle of Jutland (Barnsley, 2007)

Andrew Gordon. The Rules of the Game: Jutland and the British Naval Command (London, 1996)

Correlli Barnett. The Swordbearers: Supreme Commanders in the First World War (London, 1963)

John Winton. Jellicoe (London, 1981)

Charles Robert Beatty. Our Admiral (London, 1980)

George Bonney. The Battle of Jutland (Sutton, 2002)

Robert K. Massie. Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany and the Winning of the Great War (London, 2004)

Robert K. Massie. Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War (London, 1991)

S.W. Roskill. Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty (London, 1980)

Jutland: WW1’s Greatest Sea Battle (Channel 4 UK documentary) – first telecast on 21 May 2016

The Battle Of Jutland: The Navy’s Bloodiest Day (BBC documentary) – first telecast on 31 May 2016



Jutland: WW1’s Greatest Sea Battle – at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

36 hours: Jutland 1916, The Battle that Won the War – at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth



Photos of portraits of Jellicoe and Beatty in the National Portrait Gallery London and busts in Trafalgar Square taken by blogger

All other photos from the internet, Times article of Cornwell’s funeral screenshot taken by blogger


Exhibition Review: Vogue 100 – A Century of Style

I have to admit that I have an ambivalent attitude towards Vogue and other fashion magazines (Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Tatler, Town and Country). Sure it’s sometimes nice to look at pictures of wonderful clothes and jewels, stunning locations and even read an interesting article or two. I can also find some inspiration among its pages for how to style my clothes, visit a particular place or even read or see something as recommended by a magazine.

However, what gets my goat is the is not the amount of adverts but rather the subliminal messages that the likes of Vogue peddle – that one has to be rich, be of a certain size or age to be fashionable; the obscene price tags attached to clothes, accessories and beauty products and the pointless vacuity of the parties and events featured where everyone seems to look the same. Crucially what is galling is the celebration of mediocrity and nepotism; the glorification of certain individuals who owe their newsworthiness for who their antecedents are rather than for any real talent, ability or hard work.

So I approach Vogue more from a historical perspective and hardly buy the magazine unless there are articles or features that really interest me. One of the times where I made an exception was to buy this month’s issue which celebrates the magazine’s centenary. The interest in how the magazine has evolved and chronicled the transformation in society is what drew me to visit Vogue 100: A Century of Style at the National Portrait Gallery in London.


One can see the effort put into staging the exhibition with thoughtfully curated photographs, footage and old magazine issues that captured the zeitgeist of the moment. Despite the sheer number of people when I was in the exhibition, it was well organised with a good layout and what impressed me was that I was still able to navigate the space without any problems at all and I was able to view and appreciate the displays without having to stand on tiptoe or strain my neck.

Displays are arranged by decade with iconic images placed side by side with more obscure ones giving the public a taste of what it was like during the 20s, 40s, 60s, 80s and down to the present through the eyes of the magazine. While the magazine does make forays into current events, society, politics, art and literature it’s always fashion that takes centre stage charting the looks that have entered the public consciousness from the flapper fashion of the Twenties to make do and mend in the Forties to the power suits of the Eighties and grunge in the Nineties.

More than anything, Vogue has always been known for its photography and from its inception in 1916 has worked with the best photographers of the age as well as being credited with launching the careers of the likes of Cecil Beaton and Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Earl of Snowdon). It was also through photography that Vogue attempted to show that it wasn’t just about fashion and frivolity as demonstrated by the images taken by Beaton and Lee Miller during the Second World War.


As this blog focuses on British history from 1870 to 1939, most of my time in the exhibition was devoted to examining the displays from 1916 to 1929 and from 1930 to 1939. While there were portraits of famous personalities of the age such as the writer and society beauty Lady Diana Cooper, actresses Sybil Thorndike and Marlene Dietrich, theatre designer Oliver Messel and Wallis Simpson (later Duchess of Windsor); fashion photography was the main focus. During this time, the photos centred on the clothes rather than the settings and who was modelling them. The likes of Baron Adolph de Meyer, George Hoyningen-Huene and Cecil Beaton produced ground breaking photographs that served to enhance the subject rather than overwhelm it.

The exhibition over all doesn’t really reconcile the fact that while Vogue features, celebrates and encourages creativity on one hand, on the other it celebrates this unrealistic image and lifestyle that hardly anyone can realistically attain. However, therein lies a certain irony where in the 1916 to 1929 and 1930 to 1939 galleries, Vogue manages to subvert our popular notion of flappers and extremely thin women as exemplified in the illustrations by featuring women – such as Maxine Elliott and Edith Sitwell –  who do not fit our notion of the typical 1920s woman, or by showing the photograph of a “Modern torso” by Arnold Genthe where the body with its gentle womanly curves was out of step with the models wearing the latest fashions by Schiaparelli or Vionnet.

Perhaps therein lies the rub that no matter what Vogue may claim, in the end it has become nothing more than an aspirational lifestyle magazine that has held a mirror to the last 100 years albeit through a very narrow prism, and I feel that it has retreated a long way from the early years when high fashion and society  gossip was combined with serious reportage and ground breaking photography.



The bloggers visited the exhibition on 21 May 2016

Photos of the exhibition catalogue, blogger’s own

Vogue 100: A Century of Style was at the National Portrait Gallery (London) from 11 February to 22 May 2016 and will be at the Manchester Art Gallery from 24 June to 30 October 2016

For a review of the exhibition from a different perspective:

Book Review: The Housekeeper’s Tale by Tessa Boase



There have been several books written about domestic service as whole and memoirs from cooks such as Margaret Powell (Below Stairs) and Mollie Moran (Aprons and Silver Spoons), lady’s maids such as Rosina Harrison (The Lady’s Maid) and a butler/valet such as Charles Smith (Fifty Years with Mountbatten) but the housekeeper remains an enigma. During the 19th century, the position of housekeeper was the highest that a working class woman could expect to achieve if she entered service and didn’t marry. Despite the housekeeper looming large in literature, film and television from the malevolent Mrs Danvers from Rebecca to the kindly Mrs Fairfax in Jane Eyre and the perceptive Mrs Hughes from Downton Abbey, the real life stories of housekeepers have remained more or less unexplored.

Tessa Boase attempts to redress this omission with her first book The Housekeeper’s Tale which charts the history of the housekeeper from the early 19th century until the present. Eschewing a conventional chronological narrative, she tells their stories by using case studies to chart the changes in the role of the housekeeper and the diversity of the role from managing a grand household, to having to cope with a major war and to becoming virtually a maid of all works as service as an industry declined – down to the present where the two way radio has replaced the chatelaine as the housekeeper’s main helper.

Boase’s narrative spans nearly 150 years of history from the Great Reform Act in 1832 until 1971 when service was already a relic of an earlier era. She charts the rise and fall of the housekeeper through Dorothy Doar of Trentham Hall, Sarah Wells of Uppark down to Ellen Penketh of Erddig then Hannah Mackenzie of Wrest Park and finally Grace Higgens of Charleston. All these five women were silent witnesses to history and how it impacted their own lives and the houses and families they worked for.

As the five case stories point out, the role of a housekeeper was one of great power and responsibility. She was responsible for hiring and sacking of housemaids as well as seeing to their welfare. In addition she was in charge of the linen cupboard and the supplies, being the public face of the house for tourists when the family were away and in charge of the household budget: and was the mistress’s right hand woman when it came to planning of dinners, balls, house parties and the overall running of the house. In today’s terms, a housekeeper was equal to a line manager, event planner, visitor services supervisor, finance officer and human resources director all rolled into one.

However to be a housekeeper was also to be in a vulnerable position. The power and responsibility that she had been entrusted with could be used against her especially when it came to money, and overseeing the household could leave her open to charges of theft and abuse. Additionally, the position could also be a lonely one – too lowly for upstairs but too senior for downstairs, impossible to fraternise with anyone and personality clashes with her employers and/or colleagues could make her work difficult. In the end, the housekeeper was solely reliant on her employer’s goodwill and if she was sacked the housekeeper would be left with no home and crucially no reference that would enable her to land another position.

And contrary to what fiction and period drama especially would have led us to believe, the housekeeper’s work was hard. She might not be doing the cleaning and scrubbing herself but having to delegate, to set the budget, to balance the books and ensure that the household was running smoothly rested on her shoulders. A mistress’ reputation rested on the quality of her entertaining and the overall appearance of the house – in short, she had to be seen to be “presenting magnificence” in order to entertain and impress so the housekeeper’s role was very crucial here and as Boase demonstrates in her prologue which chronicles the recruitment process undertaken to select a new housekeeper for Hatfield House in 1890, it could be a laborious one. Given who the employer was – the third Marquess of Salisbury,three times Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary –  it was a daunting task as the Salisburys (as befitting their rank and status) entertained frequently and were also away from Hatfield for long periods of time. Hence they needed a housekeeper who was effective, efficient and trustworthy.

Out of Boase’s five case studies, only one had more or less a happy ending and that was Grace Higgens who for nearly four decades was housekeeper for Duncan and Vanessa Bell. Despite the sometimes difficult relationship with the Bells (especially Vanessa), Grace was seen as a highly valued member of the Bell household and while Vanessa was unhappy that Grace married and started a family, the Higgenses became part of the household. When she finally retired after decades of service, Grace and her husband Walter were able to live comfortably in a house purchased with proceeds from the sale of an earlier house and a modest dabbling on the stock market, savings and cash presents from her employer. Centrally heated and containing the latest home appliances as well as with a kitchen fitted with the latest gadgets and adorned with paintings that were presented to her as gifts from Vanessa and other artists from the Bloomsbury Group, it was a far cry from the conditions Grace was born into and later had to work in. No way would she retire into an old cottage with an unreliable Aga and no central heating.

Others were not so fortunate. Dorothy Doar and Ellen Penketh left their positions under a cloud with both women accused of theft. In Doar’s case her second pregnancy was the catalyst for the accusations of theft that led her to being sacked while Penketh had to undergo a public humiliation when she was taken to court by her employer, Mrs Simon Yorke. Hannah Mackenzie on the other hand lost her position a year into the First World War when it was decided that Wrest Park, which had been converted into a military hospital, then had to be run on a more businesslike way. There could have been another reason for her dismissal but Mackenzie was able to find better employment in America as housekeeper to a scion of the wealthy Vanderbilt family.

Then there was Sarah Wells, mother of the novelist H.G Wells who was housekeeper to Fanny Fetherstonhaugh, a woman who by her sister’s marriage to a local landowner was able to rise from her humble origins to being a chatelaine of a country estate. The fact that both women knew each other when Fanny Fetherstonhaugh was still Fanny Bullock was not lost on Wells and as Boase writes, eventually this friendship counted for nothing when after years of loyal service both as lady’s maid and housekeeper, Sarah Wells was sacked without much of a kind word much less a pension.

The Housekeeper’s Tale manages to deftly weave social, political, economic and demographic history through these five women aided by meticulous research and delving into long forgotten primary source material. It succeeds in putting the housekeeper back into the main narrative and adds their voice alongside that of the cooks, lady’s maids and butlers on what it was really like to be in service.

Note: This is a review of the paperback edition which was published in 2015.


Spotlight on Margaret Bondfield

As March was Women’s History month, we have decided to observe it by shining the spotlight on Margaret Bondfield, who is virtually unheard of today but made history in 1929 by becoming the first woman cabinet minister and privy counsellor. In an era where social mobility is seen to be grinding to a halt and sectors such as media, publishing, acting, modelling and politics are becoming nepotistic and resemble Third World banana republic cliques, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time the barriers were even higher and the odds were greater against someone with disadvantages succeeding in life.

NPG x19248; Margaret Grace Bondfield by Bassano
by Bassano, whole-plate glass negative, 10 February 1922

Blue Plaque

And yet, Margaret Bondfield in her indomitable and determined way battled through both gender and class barriers, rising beyond her working class roots and the limitations imposed on women by society. She was born on 17 March 1873 in Chard, Somerset to a lace maker father and the daughter of a Congregational minister. Her father had progressive views and a strong social conscience, something that he passed on to his children especially to young Margaret and after leaving school and spending a year as a pupil-teacher, she moved to Brighton for better employment opportunities.

Bondfield found work in a succession of drapery stores in Brighton and her impressions of these shops were mixed. Overall she noted the poor working conditions, the long hours (sometimes 80 hours in a week), indifferent employers and the lack of privacy due to the system of “living in” where shop assistants, like those in service were given board and lodging by their employers. Later she moved to London to join her brother who had found employment in the capital, and while there was more work for an experienced shop assistant like her, she found that the conditions were no better than in Brighton.

Her own political views were shaped by various factors: among them her experience in working in the retail sector, her strong Christian faith and her association with people who held progressive views. The first of these was Louisa Martindale, the daughter of a local businessman who met Bondfield while being served at the shop where the latter worked. Martindale lent Bondfield several books on the labour question and years later a grateful Bondfield credited Martindale as a great influence in her life.

As a shop assistant in London, she joined and became an active member of the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen, and Clerks (NUSAWC) which led her to meeting the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb Through their influence, Bondfield both joined the Trades Unions Congress (TUC)  and the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

When Bondfield joined the NUSAWC, shop assistants comprised a small portion of the union and it was part of her work to inform fellow shop workers of the benefits of union membership.  However, her attempts over all were not really successful as it was an uphill battle trying to convince workers to join a union. Many shop owners decreed union membership to be a sackable offence and the long hours left little time for anything but work, much less social activism – and somewhat to her disgust, young women workers were more interested in their social and love lives. Furthermore, unions were male dominated and the majority of them didn’t want women as members so more women preferred to join co-operatives instead.

She also began writing a series of expose articles for the union journal under the pseudonym of “Grace Dare”. This investigative work continued when she joined the Women’s Industrial Council (WIC) and her reports became the basis of their study exposing unscrupulous employers, which was published in 1898, as well as the basis for her part in campaigning for better pay and conditions in the retail sector. Reformers had long been documenting abuses against those in the retail sector and campaigning for reforms but Bondfield’s exposés demonstrated how conditions and pay were still appalling despite some progress made in the field of employment legislation. It became clear that the war was far from over, but her time at the WIC and the report she helped produce led to pressure on Parliament to regulate shop work: leading to the 1899 Seats for Shop Workers Act and the 1904 Shop Hours Act to regulate trading hours.

Several of her exposes dwelt on what we would call today “health and safety” issues faced by shop workers as well as the practice of “living in”. In a report to the Royal Sanitary Institute Congress held in Glasgow in 1904 entitled The Effects on Health of Women’s Employment in Shops, Bondfield raised concerns about breaks only giving employees enough time for their meals and not much else such as getting fresh air. In addition, she also pointed out that dust was a constant problem and in shops that closed late, fumes from gas jets caused respiratory issues in the long term.

Finally there was clothing. Female shop assistants were hampered by their uniforms, which conformed to the fashions of their day with ankle length skirts and corsets, and presented problems due the nature of working in shops – not only serving customers and standing on their feet for long periods of time but also lifting and carrying of boxes and stock. As Bondfield wrote:

“In the matters of clothing there is great need for reform. The regulation dress of the shop assistant must be black (a most unserviceable colour) it must also be stylish. The skirt usually sweeps the floor, the undergarments afford no proper covering for the chest, the ‘fitting’ corset does its deadly work in preventing the proper expansion of the lungs, and the thin, cheap shoes afford no protection to the feet but rather aggravate the soreness and inflammation caused by dust, standing and lack of opportunity to properly bathe them.”

The other main target was the “living in” system where employees were provided with board and lodging by their employers. While this ostensibly meant that shop assistants could save money, the reality was different as the quality of homes depended on who was managing it. If the food served was of at least decent quality then a shop assistant was able to save money by only spending 6d to 1s 6d (between £1.08-3.28 in today’s money) for their breakfast and supper top ups. In houses that didn’t provide well-cooked or good food, a woman had to spend 3s to 5s (£6.46-10.77) per week on top ups which could eat into her salary which based on Bondfield’s estimates was only between 2 1/2d to 3 1/2d (between £86-129) per month.

Another alleged advantage to living in was the belief that it protected young people from moral danger but as they frequently lived far away from home and immediate dismissal meant they lost their accommodation as well and had very little cash on hand to find new lodgings. The lodgings themselves as Bondfield observed were deficient from a hygienic standpoint – air space varied from 500 to 700 cubic feet per person, fireplaces were blocked and windows at night were closed or only open half an inch so there was little to no ventilation. Washing accommodation was also limited and only in the best houses were bath rooms provided. So health and safety was not only an issue in the work place but even in the living quarters.

Bondfield’s main objection to the living in system crucially was that it infantilised the employee and prevented them from taking responsibility for their own lives and destinies. As she wrote in her autobiography A Life’s Work:

“The system robs the assistant, whether man or woman, of the sense of personal responsibility which is developed by ordering and controlling one’s own life. When out of employment the worker is at the same time homeless, with little or no cash, and without knowledge of the cost of living.

The herding together of large numbers of either sex, restricted as to the most ordinary intercourse with the opposite sex, creates an unnatural and vicious atmosphere which is morally dangerous to both men and women.

The surveillance of adults is humiliating and degrading to manhood and womanhood alike; they are hedged in with petty house rules after business hours, being compelled to go to bed to order, to extinguish the light to order and so forth.” (pp. 69-70)


Bondfield’s attack on the “living in” system was tied to her views on female suffrage.  The suffrage movement of both suffragists and suffragettes attempted to appeal to the retail sector but as majority of retail employees were young and would not meet the property threshold, they would certainly be excluded if the vote was extended to women under the terms of the 1886 Reform Act. Bonfield’s view differed from that of the suffragists and suffragettes – it was her belief that the right to vote should be universal and be extended to all men and women regardless of wealth and property.

While Bondfield penned her exposes and also campaigned for universal suffrage, the movement against “living in” reached its turning point in 1907 when 24 workers staged a walk out at Daniels and Co, a drapers in Kentish Town, north London. The walk out became headline news and after 16 weeks, the management gave in, anxious not to lose staff to stores with better working conditions and practices. “Living-in” was gradually abolished for male workers but employers insisted on retaining it for female workers on the grounds that it protected their moral welfare. Bondfield retorted that if women were to become “useful, healthy women” and in time “healthy wives and mothers”, they needed, as a matter of urgency to “begin to live rational lives”. “Shopgirls didn’t need cosseting; they needed independence, shorter hours and better pay.”

The sometimes appalling conditions faced by female shop employees also made its way to the West End stage. Bondfield was asked to be a consultant to a play by Cicely Hamilton – Diana of Dobson’s. As Pamela Cox and Annabel Hobley noted, “In the first scene of Diana of Dobson’s, five shopgirls undress for bed above a Clapham drapery store. The curtain rises on a dormitory ‘in darkness except for the glimmer of a single gas jet turned very low’. As the jet is turned up, it reveals ‘a bare room [with] very little furniture except five small beds ranged against the walls – everything plain and comfortless to the last degree.’ According to Bondfield, ‘it was the real thing, with boxes under the bed, clothes hanging up on hooks, the general dinginess.’ Less real was stage heroine Diana’s temporary escape from her life as low paid shopgirl, courtesy of a surprise inheritance and a Swiss holiday adventure.” Nevertheless the play was a hit and did present to audiences of the trials and tribulations faced by the women who served them behind the counter of a shop.

Gradually “living in” for women was also abolished and there was some improvement to the pay and conditions for shop employees following the examples of enlightened employers and shops such as Harry Selfridge and John Lewis. Women finally won the right to vote in 1920 but it was only extended to women above the age of thirty and it would be another nine years before women were to be able to vote on the same terms as men.

In 1923, Bondfield was elected to Parliament but lost her seat when the Labour government collapsed the following year. Two years later, she returned to Parliament as MP for Wallsend via a by-election and in 1929 retained her seat. When Labour won a majority in the House of Commons in 1931, she made history by becoming the first female cabinet minister. Her appointment was headline news around the world and was also subject of lengthy profiles and newsreels. Coming off the heels of the Great Depression, Bondfield had no illusions about her position as she acknowledged that “[it] was no sinecure. The urgency, the difficulty, the complexity of the work puts this ministry high among those that require not only intelligence but courage; and this was particularly true at the juncture at which I took up office in 1929.” (p. 279)

Margaret Bondfield

She also saw that her appointment to the cabinet demonstrated how far women had come in her own lifetime. No longer were their only options to be wives and mothers but increasingly they could seek employment, go to university, enter professions that were once only the preserve of men and even become an MP and cabinet minister:

“When I accepted the Ministry of Labour, I did so knowing well it touched much more than merely my own self – it was part of the great revolution in the position of women which had taken place in my lifetime and which I had done something to help forward. Some woman was bound to be the first. That I should be was the accident of dates and events.” (p. 276-7)

Her appointment to the cabinet also meant that she was the first woman to be elevated to the Privy Council which allowed her to be styled “The Right Honourable”. Travelling to Windsor to be sworn in, Bondfield recalled that it was a highly significant day for her:

“The special train left Paddington at 10:30am. For the first time I began to enjoy the event. All the porters and travellers were so jolly and friendly – cheering, blowing whistles from the engines at the station as our train came through. At Windsor station I was at once taken charge of by a footman and put in a carriage to wait in solitary state while he hunter for my less easily identified companions. This gave the photographers and the crowd a chance to be nicely personal. The drive in the State carriages through cheering crowds to the Castle was delightful: such a lovely setting.

On arrival we immediately rehearsed under the direction of Hankey, who looked the most worried person; but with very little delay the Lord President and the PM were given audience, and the rest of us formed a horseshoe line, with myself at the end of the line. The Lord President then called the names of the five new members, who advanced together to about two yards of the King, knelt on right knee and took the oath of allegiance by holding the brand-new red Testament (presented for permanent retention to each one) while Hankey read the declaration. Then, in turn, each went forward to kneel on King George V’s footstool holding out the right arm. The King placed his hand upon it to be kissed. Why my turn came, he broke the customary silence to say:

“I am pleased to be the one to whom has come the opportunity to receive the first woman Privy Councillor.”

He smile as he spoke was cordial and sincere. My colleagues as I were very pleased that HM noted the precedent so amiably. We then had the ceremonial handshake, which begins at the top and goes around the line, and retired to the room where the Lord President received the oath of office from the new Cabinet Ministers. Light refreshments were served to a buffet, and then we went back to 10 Downing Street for an informal Cabinet Meeting. Sir Maurice Hankey said that everything had gone perfectly.” (pp. 277-8)


As mentioned earlier, Bondfield did not have any illusions about her position. She soon found herself confronted with the problem of unemployment and was forced to make unpopular decisions which she based on fact rather than sectional interests in order to confront the issue: especially with regards to moves to distinguish between those who were genuinely unemployed and a seeking work while those who were unwilling to do so. In 1931, the Labour government collapsed and was replaced by a National government. Bondfield lost her seat and from 1932 until her death in 1953 was not re-elected to Parliament but remained active in the trade union movement with emphasis on the plight of women workers.

Bondfield was part of the generation of trade unionists and Liberal-Labour MPs whose beliefs were rooted in a strong Christian faith, politically liberal and pragmatic when it came to policy. She was also strongly conservative (with a small c) in her beliefs which is a hallmark of working class identity. She was of the view that women should be able to take on a more active role in society in order to become fully-fledged citizens. Although she did not marry and have children herself she believed that motherhood wasn’t simply staying at home to raise children and keep the household in order but that it played an important role in the development of the nation and society. As a trade unionist and MP, Bondfield herself met and spoke to mothers of all classes high and low about which she later wrote:

“This experience deepened my reverence for motherhood, and strengthened the conviction which I have always had, that, whatever else a woman may do (and I would not bar her from any form of service), her highest contribution to civilisation will be in the quality of motherhood and of the influence with which she surrounds the young life.

All of us who are called to do public work must strive to give the home-maker the help she needs from the community and in the equipment of her workshop – the home, so that she, too, will have her quota of leisure, and exercise her share of civic responsibility as a well-informed citizen.” (p. 24)


When Bondfield wrote her autobiography in 1948, her aim was not to celebrate her own achievements but she hoped that her experiences “may be of some service to the younger generation who would grow up in a new order of society which they can help to build.” Despite her years of service to the Labour party, Bondfield has not been highly regarded within it – her willingness to contemplate cuts to unemployment benefit while serving in the National Government of 1931 alienated her from many in the party, although her funeral was attended by Clement Attlee, the then leader of the Labour party.



Photo of Margaret Bondfield:

Further Reading:

Margaret Bondfield. A Life’s Work (London, 1948)

Margaret Bondfield. What Life Has Taught Me (London, 1948)

Margaret Bondfield. The Effects on Health of Women’s Employment in Shops (Royal Sanitary Institute Congress, Glasgow 1904)

Margaret G. Bondfeld and Kathlyn Oliver. Shop Workers and the Vote and Domestic Servants and Citizenship (London, 1911)

Pamela Cox and Annabel Hobley. Shopgirls: The True Story of Life Behind the Counter (London, 2014)

Eugenio F. Biagini and Alastair J. Reid. “Currents of Radicalism, 1850-1914” in Eugenio F. Biagini and Alastair J. Reid (eds) Currents of Radicalism: Popular radicalism, organised labour and party politics in Britain, 1850-1914 (Cambridge, 1991) pp. 1-19

Matthew Worley (ed). The Foundations of the British Labour Party: Identities, Cultures and Perspectives (Surrey, 2009)