While researching my last blog post about the work of the Religious Society of Friends in helping the unemployed in the 1930s, a search in our archives catalogue brought up several entries referring to the Beeches Educational Centre, Bournville and included the above photograph of Elizabeth Cadbury at the Beeches in December 1938. Knowing that today the Beeches is a hotel and conference centre, I was intrigued to learn more.
Originally owned by the Cadbury family, in the 1890s Elizabeth Cadbury set up the Beeches as a country holiday home for children living in the impoverished slum areas of industrial Birmingham, and it was later rebuilt in 1908. By the 1920s, the building was used as a girls day continuation school and from November 1933, with agreement from the trustees who included a number of Cadbury family members, it had become The Beeches Educational Centre for unemployed women, offering two week residential educational programmes.
A colleague suggested that Elizabeth Cadbury may well have written about the centre in one of the weekly letters she wrote to her large family recounting her activities and news. So off I went to look in the numerous boxes of letters for one written in December 1938. Sure enough, on Tuesday 20 December 1938 Elizabeth wrote a letter (MS/466/438(1938)) in which she described the Beeches as follows:
The Beeches, as you will know, was lent by the Trustees to the Government for the purpose of the experiment of giving short intensive terms of teaching Handicraft, Social Civics, and Methods of running clubs, to Women, wives of Unemployed men, from the depressed areas. [….] An excellent local committee helps tremendously.
Other entries in our catalogue referred to a couple of volumes of Beeches committee minutes and press cuttings and a quick look through them told me that the committee was presided over by Prof. H. G. Wood, director of Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and included Elizabeth Cadbury, Richard Clements, Midland Regional Officer of the National Council of Social Service, Sylvia Pearson, Miss Roberts, Miss Butcher and Mr W. H. Leighton among others. The centre was funded from a combination of sources: the Trustees, subscriptions and donations, and a grant from the National Social Service Council. Attendance at the centre cost the women a few shillings per week.
The two week programme was carefully planned ahead, but allowed the women some flexibility in what they did. An example timetable was described in the Birmingham Post, 29 May 1935, and included morning sessions of handicraft classes, a visit to the Cadbury works, dressmaking and a talk on health, while in the afternoons, the women had free time or took part in board games, country dancing, or a visit to Selly Manor. After the evening meal on the first three days there were always talks, covering the topics of food and health, maternity and child welfare and club programmes. On other evenings, there were more talks, a first aid class on bandaging, and games, charades, singing or three minute speeches on subjects which interested the women. Sundays were kept free and on the last Friday of each programme, a social evening was arranged. The aim of the centre was to provide the women with a relaxing but educational holiday away from their stressful home environment in which they struggled on a long term basis to make ends meet.
The photograph at the top of this post which originally sparked my interest in the Beeches, was taken in December 1938 when Elizabeth Cadbury was hosting a visit by Prince George, the Duke of Kent (1902-1942) who was touring some of the occupational centres set up in the Midlands to help the unemployed. The photograph shows her watching a class of women undertaking sewing and knitting work in one of the training rooms at the centre. She describes the visit in her letter of 20 December 1938:
When we arrived at The Beeches, we found the students doing all kinds of work, and a class in progress, at which methods of running Committees and Meetings were being taught. Over 2000 women have been there for varying periods, from the North of England, Scotland, and Wales, during the past five years. All those concerned think it has been tremendously worth while.
For anyone interested in finding more about the Beeches Educational Centre, the minutes of the National Social Service Council and the Beeches Educational committee (MS 396/13-15) can be viewed by appointment in the Wolfson Centre.
Eleanor Project Archivist (Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers Project)