Tag Archives: Women

‘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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Julia Varley, Local Suffragette

With the release of the film ‘Suffragette’, I was prompted to have a look at the recent issue by the National Archives of the record series: ‘England, Suffragettes Arrested, 1906-1914’.

This series has been made available on Ancestry.com and includes some covering notes:-

Originally written on index cards, which were often out of order, in 1922 the records were copied into a book. Each record consists of the name of the person arrested, and the date and place of arrest. If a person was arrested more than once, the details of each arrest are documented. In the last half of the book were inserted letters, minutes, reports, and several news articles related to the activities of the suffragists and suffragettes. The value of the index was primarily for day to day office work in the Home Office. However, the clerk notes “should the history of the Suffragette Movement ever …. be written in detail, [it] would be a source of information not otherwise obtainable.”

I decided to look for details relating to Julia Varley, as she was a prominent trade union activist and suffragette who had lived locally in Hay Green Lane, Bournville, Birmingham, and found two entries dating from 1907:-

'England, Suffragettes Arrested, 1906-1914'. National Archives, Kew.

‘England, Suffragettes Arrested, 1906-1914’. National Archives, Kew.

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An educational holiday destination

MS 466/41/box8a/26

Elizabeth Cadbury (standing, right) at the Beeches, December 1938 (MS 466/41/box8a/26)

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.

Members of the Beeches Education Committee, with the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress at the opening of the new wing of the Beeches, June 1936 (MS 396/2 National Service Council Press cuttings, Birmingham Gazette, 11/6/1936)

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Explore Your Archives campaign – the road to democracy and human rights

ArchI've Democracy

Waverley School at Westminster Hall for Fight for the Right Project

Waverley School at Westminster Hall for Fight for the Right Project

In February I was lucky enough to go to an event at the Houses of Parliament celebrating the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta. In the Queen’s Robing Room, we saw the four original copies of Magna Carta that survive today. Two are held by the British Library, one by Lincoln Cathedral and one by Salisbury Cathedral. All are written on parchment, but vary in size and shape.  It was amazing to see all of the four Magna Cartas together, to compare versions and marvel at their preservation over such a long period of time.

Over the last ten years of working with young people on archive collections, some of the most engaging items have been about protest and the local population of Birmingham’s involvement in demanding change for themselves and their communities. A brief look at some of these items will hopefully inspire you to come and look at them, take up your own research or capture your own activism on democracy to inspire future generations!

EFP History Pamphlets [D942.008]

EFP History Pamphlets

In our archive we can go back to the 17th century pamphlets around the Civil War where a “print explosion” was said to take place as both sides of the argument turned to print to put forward their view and take apart their opposition. There was an exchange in pamphlets between Royalist commander Prince Rupert after his sack of Birmingham on 3rd April 1643 and his Parliamentary opponents.  This earlier pamphlet is explicit in its assertion that a King is made ‘by the people’s consent’.

A favourite and well published image from our archive is the rally of an estimated 200,000 people at Newhall Hill led by Thomas Attwood of the Birmingham Political Union in 1832 to call for a Parliamentary act to increase political representation. Not only do we have the print entitled The Gathering of the Unions but also a flag embroidered with the words Reform which very likely was waved at the meeting.

Political Gathering on Newhall Hill. [WK_B11_8 ]

Political Gathering on Newhall Hill, 1832.

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‘My whole time is given to the service of my fellow citizens’ – the first women elected to Birmingham City Council

As we look towards International Women’s Day and the forthcoming national and local elections, it seemed a timely moment to revisit the Library’s wonderful, but surprisingly little-used, collection of election literature for evidence of the first women elected to the City Council. Although limited parliamentary suffrage was not granted to women until 1918, they had been able to vote and stand for election in local political contests for some time as members of School Boards, Poor Law Guardians and local councillors.

Birmingham Municipal Elections Literature, 1909 - 1911.  Municipal Election 1911, Edgbaston Ward, Mrs Ellen F Pinsent and two other Unionist Candidates.  [LFF35.2]

Birmingham Municipal Elections Literature, 1909 – 1911. Municipal Election 1911, Edgbaston Ward, Mrs Ellen F Pinsent and two other Unionist Candidates.

In 1911 two women were elected to serve on Birmingham City Council for the first time. Before this, a few women had served on City Council committees as co-opted, unelected members, particularly committees concerned with education, and the health and welfare of women and children. This had been the case with the first elected female councillor Ellen Pinsent, also known as Mrs Hume Pinsent and later Dame Ellen. Elected as a Liberal Unionist for the Edgbaston Ward on 1 November 1911 she had previously served for some years as a co-opted member of the Education Committee and Chairman of the Special School Sub-Committee. Well known nationally for her work with children who had special educational needs (or in the parlance of the time ‘feeble-minded’), she had served on the national Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded from 1904 to 1908. Her stint as an elected councillor was cut short in October 1913 when she was appointed as an unpaid Commissioner for the Board of Control.

Ellen was rapidly followed by Margaret Frances Pugh, elected in North Erdington on 22 November 1911 and nominated by the Birmingham Women’s Local Government Association who campaigned for the election of women to local councils. Educated at King Edward’s High School for Girls, Margaret was a keen supporter of women’s suffrage and a teacher in an adult education school for women. Defeated at her first attempt by 59 votes she stood again when the successful candidate was made an alderman and this time, in the words of the Women Workers magazine, ‘was returned by the triumphant majority of 790.’ As a result two of Birmingham City Council’s 120 elected councillors were women, with a further eight serving as co-opted members of committees.

Like Ellen, Margaret served only a short time as a councillor, resigning her seat in November 1913.  The third woman elected however spent over 19 years on the Council. Clara Martineau represented Edgbaston from 14 October 1913 until her death in 1932 at the age of 57. Like Ellen she benefitted from family connections among the City’s elite families.  For the daughter of former Mayor Sir Thomas Martineau, sister of wartime Lord Mayor Ernest Martineau, and niece of Alderman Sir George Kenrick, civic service was a family tradition. Like all the early women councillors, Clara had a long track record of working in philanthropic and social causes in the city, including the Women’s Settlement and the Charity Organisation Society, and had served as a co-opted committee member before being finally elected in her own right.

Birmingham Municipal Elections Literature, 1920 - 1924.  Municipal Election 1920, Selly Oak Ward, Mrs Cottrell, Co-operative and Labour Candidate.  [LFF35.2]

Birmingham Municipal Elections Literature, 1920 – 1924. Municipal Election 1920, Selly Oak Ward, Mrs Cottrell, Co-operative and Labour Candidate.

As local government dealt with social issues that affected people’s daily lives, standing for election was a natural extension for women who had been involved in local political and social activism. The first woman Labour Councillor, Mary E. Cottrell, who was elected unopposed in Selly Oak in February 1917 had been a long standing activist in the Women’s Co-operative Guild and had formerly stood for election as a Poor Law Guardian.

Mary’s election leaflet from 1920 illustrates the breadth of her interests. She advocated a number of policies – change to the rating system, capital expenditure to ease the housing shortage, indoor water supply in more homes, making local hospitals part of ‘an efficient State Health Service’, free secondary education with more schools, playing fields and smaller classes, a ‘good and cheap’ tramway system for the suburbs, more allotments, a municipal milk supply, and City Council labour schemes  for the unemployed. She concluded by stressing the need for women councillors.

Mary also went on to play a national role.  In 1921 she became the first woman to be elected to the board of the Co-operative Wholesale Society and consequently resigned her City Council seat in 1922 due to pressure of work. During the Second World War she was a government advisor on rationing.

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