Tag Archives: Women

Women’s Lives in the Archives: Women’s journeys from Mirpur to Birmingham

MS 4760/35 project booklet

The Home Away from Home project archive (MS 4760) documents the personal experiences of women who moved from Mirpur in Pakistan to the Saltley and Washwood Heath areas of Birmingham in the 1960s and 1970s.

The archive is a visual and audio record of these women’s experiences which include happy memories and recollections as well as some of the challenges they faced. It contains oral history interviews recorded with the women, copies of photographs from their own personal collections and a summary booklet giving a useful overview of the project and the interviews.

A number of common themes emerge through the stories and experiences shared in the recordings. One of these is the sense of community the women experienced when they first arrived in the UK which they felt was better in those days than it is now. Life was much more difficult, however, in practical ways such as heating and lighting of houses.

The ladies had some shared experiences, for example several mentioned that they would have liked to learn English when they moved to the UK, but that there were no suitable opportunities or classes for them to go to. A number of the women were also scared of going to hospitals but found that when they did go the staff were kind and helpful and they were able to communicate with each other through gestures.

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Women’s Lives in the Archives

To celebrate International Women’s Day on the 8th March, I am delving in to the archives to discover some of the ways women’s lives are documented.

MS 1509/5/8, Personal Papers of Rachel Albright

Rachel Albright was a Quaker woman living in Edgbaston in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her personal papers are held within a collection of records relating to the wider Albright Family.

Originally from Tottenham in north London, she married Arthur Albright in 1848 and they had eight children one of whom died young in 1872. Of interest to an archivist is the way that Rachel documented her life and the records that have survived. The archive includes travel journals, sketches, commonplace books, photographs and poetry which allow us an insight into her life and how it differs from those of women in Birmingham today.

Travel journals

Before Rachel was married, she kept a journal of a four month trip to Falmouth in 1836. Luckily this survived and is one of the items in the archive (MS 1509/5/8/1). In her journal she documents the occupations and pastimes she engaged in on a daily basis.

MS 1509/5/8/1

Here are a few extracts:

5th mo 8th (May 8th) Had my French lesson. In the afternoon went for a nice long walk with Aunt and cousins to Penzance. The rocks I think are very fine and beautiful, the sea dashing beneath them.

5th mo 10th (May 10th)

A very lovely day. Sat out in the garden this morning and prepared some of my French. Went into the town with Aunt and in the afternoon went for a nice walk with Aunt and cousins to Bar Beach where we found a great many shells.

MS 1509/5/8/1

5th mo 20th (May 20th)

Went in to the town after breakfast with Aunt and cousins and afterwards finished our paintings and worked out in the garden and read some of Campbell’s poems- admire them very much. In the evening had a game of chess with Uncle.

Sketching, letter writing and knitting are other pastimes mentioned in the journal and Rachel also records her attendance at Quaker meetings. Continue reading

The Kings Norton Fifty Club

Leaflet advertising a meeting for new women voters, 1st May 1929 (MS 2371/2/2/1)

The Representation of the People Act finally received Royal Assent on 6 February 1918. This meant that women over thirty who were householders, wives of householders, occupiers of property of £5 or more annual value, or University graduates, could now vote. However, this meant a considerable number of women – and men- were still excluded, and had to wait until 1928 when all persons over 21 became entitled to vote.

In 1929, the Kings Norton Fifty Club (MS 2731) decided to hold a public meeting to make sure that women in particular were informed about their new right to vote, and the responsibilities that entailed.

What was the Kings Norton Fifty Club?

The following comes from the Minutes of the Club [MS 2731/2/2/1] (Acc.2009/068):

On December 14th and 21st 1922, a small committee, called together by Miss Viccars, met to discuss the possibility of forming a local club for the purpose of spreading information and getting discussion on affairs of public interest. Miss Jordan, Mrs H. Norman, Mrs Impey and Miss Viccars comprised the committee….

A tentative list of speakers included Miss Dewar (The Birmingham Settlement), Dame Ethel Shakespeare (Citizenship), Mr Woulston Lee (The W.E.A.), Miss Ethel Trent (Labour & Employment), Mr Horace Alexander (League of Nations), Mr Ted Bigland (Social Work amongst boys), Miss Backhouse (Camp Fire Girls), Mrs H. L. Wilson (Maternity), Miss Bennett (Cripples), Miss F. Barrow (Poland), Dr Shakespeare (Physics), Mr Totham (Jamaica – Population – Trade).

A number of names for the club were discussed, ‘The Forward Relief Workers’, ‘Hopeful’, ‘Excelsior’, ‘Drawing Room’,. ‘The Fifty Club was provisionally adopted in 1923, January 22nd.

Membership was limited to fifty persons, which would allow gatherings of the dimensions of a drawing room [in large houses, obviously!].

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A partial victory: Catherine Osler and Votes for Women

The Representation of the People Act finally received Royal Assent on 6 February 1918. This meant that women over thirty who were householders, wives of householders, occupiers of property of £5 or more annual value, or University graduates, could now vote. In March 1918 the Women Workers, Quarterly Magazine of the Birmingham Branch of the National Union of Women Workers included an article by Catherine Osler, President of the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society (BWSS).[1] Titled ‘At Last!’, Catherine reflected on the campaign to secure votes for women, something she had been closely involved with since her parents formed the BWSS in 1868. Catherine became President of the organisation in 1901. While it was certainly an achievement to be celebrated, the conditions of qualifying were ‘not all that could be desired – far from it! They do not fulfil the original and unaltered demand of suffragists for “the vote on the same terms as it is or may be granted to men”. It leaves still unrepresented classes of women who are among the worthiest, most indispensable workers for their country and for their fellows’.

Catherine Courtauld Osler (1854–1924) by Edward Steel Harper II, 1917-18 © Birmingham Museums Trust

Catherine also considered the wider campaign and the sacrifices that many women had made; ‘some, indeed, have dared infinitely more than this – have courted and endured gross insult, maltreatment, torture, death itself, in the determination to draw the world’s attention to women’s wrongs… the startling campaign of the militant section… has now become as a nightmare memory, but one which will survive in history’.

Birmingham had seen some very serious militant incidents carried out by suffragettes from 1909 onwards, including arson (most notably the destruction of Northfield Library), church disturbances, window smashing and the slashing of a painting. It was also where the first cases of forcible feeding of suffragettes took place, at Winson Green Gaol in September 1909 after a number of women were arrested for their protest during a visit to the city by Prime Minister Asquith. In the article, Catherine also acknowledged the campaign’s well-established roots, going back to the 1860s, stating that ‘it was not because on grounds of reason and common sense suffrage was “bound to come” but because the nation had for 50 years been patiently and unceasingly educated to the conviction of its justice and righteousness, that the conditions of war enabled its advocates to make the final effort which brought victory… a great dividing barrier has disappeared from the ranks of women themselves, and that henceforth we may go forward shoulder to shoulder’.[2]

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‘Developing our own gifts and those of others’: the educational role of the Warwickshire North Women’s Conferences, 1895-1960


Among the large collection of records of Central England Quakers are the minutes of the Warwickshire North Women’s Monthly Meeting beginning in 1729. They provide a fascinating insight into the mental and emotional worlds of Quaker women in Birmingham over several generations, and illustrate the concerns that were foremost in their minds.

The nature of the Women’s meetings and the records that relate to them changed in the late nineteenth century. In May 1889, a proposal from the men’s monthly meeting was put to the women, suggesting that they should hold joint monthly meetings in advance of their separate meetings. Women Friends agreed to trial this for twelve months. In October 1890, as most business was now done in the joint meeting they decided to hold women’s meetings four times a year, rather than monthly, and the role of the meeting changed. From 1897 three women’s Monthly Meeting ‘Conferences’ were held each year – in the spring to prepare for Yearly Meeting, in the summer to review and read papers from Yearly Meeting, and in November ‘to consider some General subject of interest to women’. In this piece I will be concentrating on this last conference in the period from the 1890s to the 1950s.

Notice of a Conference on 'The Child's Point of View', 1908 (ref SF/2/1/1/2/1/9)

Notice of a conference on ‘The Child’s Point of View’, 1908 (ref SF/2/1/1/2/1/9)

The subjects deemed to be of interest by the women ranged widely, from theological questions, women’s ministry and Quaker history, to the social and political issues of the day. Women Friends presented papers followed by a discussion, and external speakers were occasionally invited to present on particular subjects. The Conferences were well attended, and could attract anything from 50 to 150 women depending on the popularity of the theme. Many of the subjects, particularly in the early years, are those that we might consider to be traditional women’s subjects and we see the Conference functioning as a space of formal and informal education in very practical knowledge that was relevant to middle class wives and mothers.

There is a considerable interest, for example, in motherhood and the upbringing of children and in particular how children and young people should be nurtured in Quaker ways and beliefs. On 12 February 1895 when 70 women were present, the session focused on ‘Woman’s influence over Children and Young People in the Home’. Catharine Wilson spoke of the influence of Christian nurses and governesses working with the mother for the good of the children, a reflection of the class and socio-economic circumstances of many of the more prominent women in the meeting. Caroline Gibbins read ‘a valuable paper’ on the ‘Discipline of Younger Children’ which emphasised ‘moral suasion’ rather than ‘physical force’ and the wise mother’s role in avoiding conflict.

The People's Free Kindergarten, Greet, 1904 (ref MS 4095)

The People’s Free Kindergarten, Greet, 1904 (ref MS 4095)

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International Women’s Day, 2016

The records of the National Council of Women, Birmingham Branch, held at Birmingham Archives and Collections, [MS 841B] illustrate some of the steps along the way to women achieving ‘Equality’, which is the theme of this year’s, and indeed today’s, International Women’s Day.

Bham Trades Council Circulars 'Equal Pay for Equal Work Conference' c.1950 [LF 61.52]

Bham Trades Council Circulars ‘Equal Pay for Equal Work Conference’ c.1950
[LF 61.52]

In 1937, the question of the status of women was brought before the 18th Assembly of the League of Nations, at the request of 15 states who were members of the League. This was as a result of united activity by a number of international organisations and national bodies.

As a result, the Council of the League set up a commission of eminent jurists, women and men, to make a world survey of the status of women. The British representative was a Professor Gutteridge of Cambridge ‘and although the women’s organisations had hoped that a woman would be appointed, they welcomed the fairness, impartiality and great interest Professor Gutteridge brought to the task.’

To show their interest in this unprecedented advance, it was proposed to celebrate a ‘Status of Women Day’ in which all women’s organisations could take part on 14 May 1938, and two planning committees were set up by the N.C.W., one to organise a conference at the University College London, where Professor Gutteridge was to speak on the subject: ‘Equality can be won. Make your demand heard’; and a second committee to give assistance to set up similar events outside London.
[MS 841B/300-301]

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The early history of the West Midlands’ Association of Women Solicitors


Documents from the West Midlands Association of Women Solicitor’s [MS 4825]

It all began on a warm summer afternoon in 1983.  Sara, Lisa, Louise and I agreed that we would explore the idea of starting an association for women solicitors in the Midlands. 

We publicised our intention to hold a meeting at the Birmingham Law Society’s premises in Birmingham on 24 October 1983.  To our astonishment, at least 50 women came.  Certainly they wanted an association.  We were so overwhelmed by volunteers wanting to participate that our first committee comprised 18 members, including Sara as first secretary.  I was appointed the first chairman.

The National Association of Women Solicitors was already in existence.  This had been established in 1923 following the admission of Carrie Morrison, the first woman solicitor to be admitted to the Roll. We affiliated to the national association, which kindly gave our Association a grant of £25 towards the cost of setting up the group.  And so we began.

In our first year we had 71 members.  We offered honorary membership to men.  Our initial annual subscription was £2 and our members were expected to contribute a further £2 to the national association.

We held eight events in our first year, including two one-day events, which were well attended.  Speakers in that first year included a representative from the Equal Opportunities Commission and talks on care proceedings, women in custody and the work of the Tribunal Unit.  We arranged a visit to HM Prison Drake Hall.  A one-day training course on income maintenance on marital breakdown was attended by 30 women.

We also held a one-day conference on part-time and locum working.  This stimulating day was attended by 64 women.  It led us to decide to create a register of women who wished to undertake part-time or locum work and to try to help them find jobs.  To our surprise, we were contacted by a number of firms of solicitors who were seeking such help.  Demand was greater than the supply of solicitors wishing to register.  But our letter to the Law Society’s Gazette describing the scheme, and which we hoped would attract more women to register, was not published.  We decided that the cost of advertising would be excessive.


Files of records that have been donated to the Library of Birmingham [MS 4825]

At our first AGM, in January 1985 we agreed to maintain a mix of social events and talks and conferences on legal topics.  The Association enjoyed some very successful years, offering women professional development, support and networking possibilities at a time when there were relatively few women practising and women suffered from thick glass ceilings.  Over the years, with new chairmen and other officers, and enthusiastic members, the Association maintained its early success.

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