Women’s Empowerment

This exhibition explores the ordinary and extraordinary lives of women with connections to Barking and Dagenham from the nuns at Barking Abbey to the Ford Machinists. It was created to celebrate Women’s Empowerment.

Stick your finger up your nose if you feel guilty!

Barking Abbey was ruled by a number of eminent women, from its foundation by St. Erkenwald in 666AD to its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1539, including the first and possibly the most holy Abbess Ethelburga.

But what about the bevy of nuns that surrounded these great women? What sort of a life would they have led? We know they would have been of noble birth, especially after it was reformed and enjoyed royal patronage from the likes of William the Conqueror. These women would have been educated and well fed on bread, meat, fish, vegetables and beer. Their diet would also have included spices and salt. There would have been a chef, brewer and laundress, with some nuns also having their own personal servants.

However the nuns would have had to adhere to a strict daily routine, which included prayer, study and labour. The nuns had to attend seven services a day, starting at two in the morning, and ending at eight o’clock in the evening. In between these services the nuns would have devoted their time to reading, writing, embroidery and gardening.

Strict silence would also have been observed apart from at times of rest and relaxation. When communication was absolutely necessary the nuns used a sort of sign language. For instance the signal to pass the milk involved drawing the little finger between the thump and the forefinger as if milking a cow. A request for fish was to waggle the hand like a fish’s tail, while the sign for feeling guilty involved sticking two fingers into your nostrils!

Barking Abbey fell victim to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. It escaped the first wave of suppression in 1536, but the inevitable happened in November 1539. The demolition of the Abbey buildings began in June 1540 and went on for 18 months. The finest stones were shipped across the river to build a new manor house for the King at Dartford. All that remains in Barking is the medieval entrance gate to the parish churchyard, known as the Curfew Tower.

Hyena in Petticoats

Mary Wollstonecraft, who is considered one of the first feminists, is best known for writing the revolutionary, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear so only because of their lack an education.

This woman who described herself as one of ‘those who are bold enough to advance before the age they live in’ and to throw off ‘prejudices’, by ‘the force of their own mind’, spent her childhood living on a farm near the Whalebone junction at Chadwell Heath and then at a property in Barking, before leaving for East Riding of Yorkshire in 1768.

These earlier years undoubtedly shaped her views on the roles of men and women. It was around this time that her father began to struggle in his efforts to become a successful gentleman farmer. As a result he became increasingly violent at home. Mary was not only disgusted with his brutality, but was also contemptuous of her mother’s acceptance of it. On top of this she was resentful of their shared preference of her older brother.

A revolutionary figure in a revolutionary time, in her later life she took up and lived out not only the liberal call for women’s educational and moral equality, but virtually all the other related, violently contested questions of her era on political reform, class, sex, marriage, property, prejudice, reason and sentimentality – to mention only a few.

After the publication of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, there were marked efforts to vilify Mary Wollstonecraft. Horace Walpole, a Whig politician, famously called the champion of women’s rights a ‘hyena in petticoats’. No one could possibly arouse this sort of venomous comments unless she was perceived to have posed an urgent threat to established ideas surrounding the position of women in society.

In 1797 Mary married William Godwin, and later that same year she died giving birth to their daughter Mary (who later known as Mary Shelley, was to write the great gothic novel Frankenstein). Godwin Primary School in Dagenham is named in honour of Mary Wollstonecraft.

A Woman on a Mission

Elizabeth Fry is best remembered as a prison reformer, and has several connections with Barking and Dagenham. She was an approved minister of the Barking circuit of the Society of Friends (also known as the Quakers), she took summer holidays with her family at Dagenham Breach, and was buried at Barking in 1845.

Elizabeth Gurney was born to a wealthy Norfolk Quaker family in 1780. On 19 August 1800 she married Joseph Fry. From 1809 to 1829 they lived at Plashet House in East Ham, and afterwards moved to the Cedars in Upton Park.

In early 1823, Elizabeth Fry first visited the women’s side of Newgate Prison. Shocked at the sight of the prisoners and overcrowding, she worked untiringly to improve the conditions there by introducing prison uniform, religious and elementary education, and giving the prisoners paid employment, such as making knitted stockings or patchwork quilts.

Elizabeth Fry also worked for the abolition of slavery, and was an opponent of capital punishment. She founded a Nightly Shelter for the Homeless in 1819 and a Refuge for Prostitutes in 1844. In 1840 she drew up plans for a nurses’ training home in London. The so-called Fry Nurses were the first trained nurses in England.

In 1824 the family took a lease on two fishing cottages at Dagenham Breach, where they spent many a summer holiday. Her daughter wrote:

‘It is difficult to convey the sort of enjoyment Dagenham afforded us…There was fishing, boating, driving and riding inland by day, and when night closed in over the wild marsh scenery the cries of water birds, the rustling of the great beds of reeds, the strange sounds from the shipping on the river, gave the place an indescribable charm’.

Elizabeth Fry died after a stroke on 12 October 1845 at Ramsgate, aged 65. She was laid to rest at the Quaker burial ground in North Street, Barking, which was opposite the Friends Meeting House. Her funeral was attended by over a thousand people. The gravestone has now been moved to Wanstead Burial Ground, but the remains of Elizabeth Fry are still at Barking.

Deeds Not Words

Annie Clara Huggett was born in Halstead, Essex in 1892. She and her family moved to some of the first council houses on King Edward Road built by the Borough of Barking in 1903. It is said that whilst at this address she often had members of the Pankhurst family around for tea, including Emmeline Pankhurst, who was the founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Emmeline Pankhurst, and other members of the WSPU, who called themselves the Suffragettes, believed it would take an active organisation, rather than a moderate and gradualist approach, to draw attention to ‘The Cause’. Their motto was ‘deeds not words’. From 1912 onwards they became increasingly militant and violent in their methods, which included noisy protests, disrupting public meetings, breaking windows and setting post boxes on fire.

At the time, and ever since, there have been divisions of opinion over the effectiveness of the tactics of the Suffragette Movement. Annie Clara Huggett would probably have argued that their militant activities were critical in keeping the campaign for women’s rights high on the political agenda, whilst others believe that violent tactics actually alienated women, and were used as proof by politicians and the press to accuse women of being irresponsible, unreasonable and subsequently undeserving of enfranchisement.

Annie Clara Huggett lived to the age of 103, and was the oldest surviving Suffragette. She is buried in Rippleside Cemetery.

Stirring the Devil’s Porridge

Large numbers of women were recruited into jobs vacated by men who had gone to fight during the First World War. New jobs were also created as part of the war effort, for example in munitions factories, like Sterling Telephone and Electric Company.

There was initial resistance to hiring women for what was seen as ‘men’s work’. The introduction of conscription made the need for women workers urgent in 1916. Around this time, the government began coordinating the employment of women through campaigns and recruitment drives. They encouraged women with recruitment posters with messages such as ‘Come into the Factories’, ‘On Her Their Lives Depend’ and ‘These Women are Doing Their Bit’. Conan Doyle was particularly impressed by the “smiling khaki-clad girls who … stir the devil’s porridge”.

Women undertook a wide range of jobs within munitions factories. Indeed they were involved in almost every aspect of the operations undertaken at Sterling Works in Dagenham. The work was repetitive work but due to the variety of materials and machines a considerable amount of training was required.

Clothes changed to accommodate manual work. Trousers and shorter skirts appeared. No metal could be worn in the munitions factories so this meant no corsets. Long hair could get caught in machines so women started wearing it short.

Women working in larger munitions factories became renowned for their yellow faces, and were known as Canaries. Their faces turned yellow on account of their working closely with chemicals like TNT. The hazardous conditions in munitions factories also led to fatalities. There were several spectacular accidents in munitions factories. The worst incident happened at the National Shell Filling Factory in Nottinghamshire in 1918.

The fact that these women were paid less than men, led to widespread concern that employers would continue to employ women in these jobs even when the men returned from the war. This did not happen – either the women were sacked to make way for the returning soldiers or women remained working alongside men but at lower wage rates.

Make Do and Mend

Local woman undoubtedly benefited from the wider range of occupations open to women after the First World War. Miss Madge Carter, for example, was educated at Glenham College, Ilford, and on leaving she began work at the offices of the Hudson Bay Company in 1926. She never married and went on to work as a secretary for a number of other companies, including Kodak Ltd, Enoch Powell and the Greyhound Association.

Barking and Dagenham Archives and Local Studies Centre hold sixty five diaries written by Miss Carter, which record her day to day activities from 1924 to 1996. She writes about her work, family life and how she spent her leisure time meeting friends, going to the cinema, shopping and having her hair done.

Miss Carter’s diaries get particularly interesting during the Second World War. There are comments on the outbreak of the war that capture the trepidation that must have been felt across the county. There are also descriptions of children being evacuated, the blackout, the air-raids, rations and having to ‘make do and mend’.

The end of the war was celebrated jubilantly on 8 May 1945. Many partied and danced in the streets, but for others, it was marked by a sense of anti-climax and a loss of purpose. Madge Carter was unfortunately in bed with a cold! You get the impression from her diaries that she was a busy woman, who was full of life, and enjoyed an unprecedented amount of freedom.

In her later life, Miss Carter’s passion was archaeology. She was a member of the Royal Archaeological Institute, and went on to become the chair of the Barking and District Historical Society (formally known as Barking and District Archaeological Society) in 1971. She served in this post, with many meetings being held at her home in Wellesley Road, until 1977. She later became the Vice-President, and continued to attend meetings well in to her eighties. Madge Carter spent the last years of her life living at Birchwood Residential Home, Ilford. She died in June 1999.

Call the Midwife!

Nurse Minnie Goodbun, who lived on Manning Street served as a nurse at a clinic run by the ARP on Ford Road, Dagenham during the Second World War. After the war she left the area to train as a midwife. When she had finished her training she returned and practised as a domiciliary midwife for Dagenham Village, as well as the area around Rainham Road and the Rylands Estate.

Barking and Dagenham Archives and Local Studies Centre looks after a fascinating and until recently previous undiscovered collection of case registers and photographs that once belonged to Nurse Goodbun, dating from 1942 to 1958.

At this time midwives would have travelled by foot, bike or public transport. This meant that they would have had to have carried in a briefcase everything they required, including enamel bowls, douche can, a dilator to enlarge the cervical canal, absorbent cotton wool and gauze, a mucus catheter, umbilical tape and a device of measuring the pelvis of pregnant women. Nurse Goodbun, was however one of the lucky ones. She was the first midwife in the area to be given a car by the local authority, which she would have used to attend the births of over 400 babies between 1942 and 1958.

As the twentieth century progressed, the rate of maternal mortality, still birth and neonatal death fell dramatically in Barking and Dagenham. This was not only due to medical advances, improved economic circumstances of families and the changing roles of women, but also the valiant efforts of maternity nurses and midwives, such as Nurse Goodbun.

Mother of the Youth Exchange

Phoebe Kirk, formally Mrs Norris, was another well known woman within the local community in the years that followed the Second World War. She was born in moved to Bushgrove Road, Dagenham in 1931, and was a youth worker at Kingsley Hall after the Second World War. She was later key in establishing the links with Witten in Germany, which is now twinned with Barking and Dagenham.

It all began when she and her second husband, Arthur Durrant, arranged for a group from Harold Wood Prisoner of War Camp to come to Dagenham in December 1946. The young men first attended a morning service at Kingsley Hall, before going to local homes for their Christmas dinner.

Regular contact quickly developed. Several of the younger POWs became members of Kingsley Hall’s Youth Club, and a coach would pick them up to bring them to the Hall on Saturday evening socials. Parcels of food and clothing were regularly sent from Dagenham to parts of Germany devastated by war.

The first batch of visitors from Witten arrived in Dagenham in November 1948. During an interview with Local Studies Librarian, Linda Rhodes in 1995, Pheobe Norris-Kirk recalled:

‘Our aim from the beginning was to get young people together from England and Germany, so that they could see how people from the other county lived. The first group from Witten consisted of three boys and three girls, all teenagers. They were all undernourished, and had no idea what to expect…’

In July 1949 the first group of 20 Dagenham children visited Witten, accompanied by Arthur Durrant and Phoebe Norris. After this there were regular youth exchanges between the two towns, and the link was used by the British Council as a trial run for the more wide-scale national development of friendship visits and town twinning projects.

Despite all this activity, Barking and Dagenham was not formally twinned with Witten until 1979. Phoebe Norris-Kirk was awarded the Freedom of the Borough in 1996 and was appointed MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in June 2000. She celebrated her 100th birthday in September 2004 and died the following year. She is remembered as ‘the Mother of the Youth Exchange’.

All work and low pay

By the end of the 1960s, a lot had changed for women in Britain. Since 1928, they had been able to vote; the two world wars had allowed them to do ‘men’s work’. They were now theoretically free to get an education, get a job, wear trousers – or even mini-skirts. And yet women were routinely discriminated against, especially in the workplace. There was no such thing as equal pay. Moreover if you got married, you could lose your job.

In 1968, the women machinists at the Ford’s Plant in Dagenham took a stand. For years these women, who made the trimmings for inside the cars, had been graded as unskilled workers, and paid around 80-85% of what unskilled men were paid; they were also largely unrecognised by their own union.

On top of this the women put up with harsh working conditions. The company had expanded its premises at the River Plant in Dagenham into an asbestos air craft hanger with holes in the roof. Machinists also worked without guards on the needles and injuries were common. It was said that you weren’t accepted as a proper machinist until you’d been caught by the machine.

The strike brought the whole plant to a halt—if no trimmings were being made, then the men couldn’t complete the cars. The machinists had to fight not only their employers, but other members of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, as well as opposition from the government, press and members of the general public. It was only when Barbara Castle, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, intervened that a deal was reached three weeks after the strike began. The women were only partially successful. They had originally demanded to have their jobs re-grade from unskilled B grade to semi-skilled grade C. Instead it was the ‘women’s rate’ was abolished.

Nevertheless the strike illustrated the widespread injustice in the employment market between male and female rates of pay. To tackle these abuses, the Equal Pay Act was introduced in 1970. This legislation armed employees with the right to go to an industrial tribunal for equal pay with men in the same employment — but only if they were doing “like work” or if their job had been rated as equivalent but was paid at a different rate. The 1970 legislation did not give the Ford women the tools to fight for the re-grading that they originally demanded, as the only people they were doing “like work” to was themselves. This demand was not won until another strike in 1984.