Aunt Teedee’s gift of a “living wage”

I have been reading and thinking a lot about Virginia Woolf lately, and so reading this letter this afternoon brought to mind the various ways in which Woolf describes women helping other women – help without which any individual female achievement would be impossible. The help Woolf describes ranges from the practical (the £500/year left her by her aunt) to the intellectual; she imagines the great feminist, suffragette and composer, Ethel Smyth, as a “pioneer”, clearing the way for woman after her:

She is among the ice-breakers, the window-smashers, the indomitable and irresistible armoured tanks who climbed the rough ground; went first; drew the enemy’s fire; and left a pathway for those who came after her. I never knew whether to be angry that such heroic pertinacity was called for, or glad that it had the chance of showing itself.

1937.6.14 - from Aunt Teeddee - living wage- League of Nations - 1

1937.6.14 - from Aunt Teeddee - living wage- League of Nations - 2

The help offered to Elizabeth by her “Aunt Teedee” (her father’s sister, I think) in June 1937, falls firmly into the practical category, however it is no less touching for that. Having left Oxford the previous summer, Elizabeth still had no set career – although clearly she wanted one – and had no immediate plans (or desire?) to marry. She had been active in politics at Oxford, and when she moved to London at the end of her degree she seems to have become involved with the N.U.W.M. (National Unemployed Workers’ Movement – I will post something about this soon). By June 1937 (when she received this letter), it seems that she was working for the League of Nations Union – an internationalist organisation, committed to the principles of the League of Nations (ie international co-operation with the aim of avoiding another world war) – in what must have been an unpaid capacity (I seem to remember my grandmother telling me that she had worked for the League of Nations itself, so it may have been this, rather than the Union that she was working for – hopefully future letters will bring clarity!).  Presumably, like many recent graduates, she didn’t know quite what to do with herself – especially, as someone who cared so much about politics, in the context of fast-moving domestic and international events. Or perhaps she knew exactly what she wanted to do, and was going about it the best way she could.

This was almost a year after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, but it seems like going there wasn’t yet on Elizabeth’s horizon at this point – however, it would nevertheless have  been becoming increasingly clear that (nationalist) fascism and (internationalist) socialism were competing for the future of Europe. Meanwhile, Britain was blighted by high levels of unemployment – and by the consequences of this in a pre-welfare state – and so the work Elizabeth did, both to agitate for the cause of the unemployed (with the N.U.W.M.), and to support an internationalist organisation like the League of Nations, reflects some of the decade’s key issues.

However, the family narrative (from Elizabeth’s side of the family) was always that she was headstrong and a bit flighty, and that her politics were driven primarily by a desire to spite her mother. It is wonderful, therefore, to come across this letter – to realise that she had (female!) relatives who took her seriously,  and who, furthermore, supported her in concrete terms – such as with this birthday present of two weeks’ wages to continue her work at the League of Nations (/Union). It isn’t quite in quite the same league as the legacy left to Woolf by her aunt (which allowed her “a room of her own”) – but for Aunt Teedee, a middle-aged, middle-class, single woman, with only a small income of her own, it is a hugely generous gesture, and one that speaks of belief in Elizabeth’s capacity to do great, useful things (“a future strenuous life”), as well as tacit solidarity with her ambitions. Thank you Aunt Teedee!

Continue reading Aunt Teedee’s gift of a “living wage”

“Mere writing is not sufficient”: Florrie, May 1938

“Socialism is definitely not the issue at the present but it is civilisation which is at stake in Europe.”

There is a lot of discussion at the moment about the similarities between the current political situation in Europe (and North America) and that of the 1930s. While there are some clear parallels, I have tended to take the whole fatalistic argument with a pinch of salt (the very real reasons for bleakness seem different, and there is, as yet, no incipient Holocaust), but chancing upon this letter today drew me up short. So much of what Florrie writes could have been written now, this very day or week.

I am not entirely sure who Florrie is, but the references in the letter make me think that she and Elizabeth must have worked together in Hackney Wick, with Hugh Lister (on whom, MUCH more to follow – I can’t underestimate how many more letters there are still to come, and Hugh Lister and his work in Hackney Wick, where Elizabeth worked with him for a while, is one of many strands I want to pick up).

The main drama of the letter is the fall-out from the 1938 May Day happenings; while there was apparently a good turnout for the traditional marches and demonstrations (including from the strikers with whom Hugh Lister, Florrie and Elizabeth were involved), a problem seems to have arisen due to some Labour Party members associating themselves with “Unity”. From what I have quickly gleaned, this was an anti-fascist, cross-party (in practice, Labour and the Communist Party) movement that had begun in 1937, and which was initially opposed to rearmament; by 1938, however, its position had become more contentious, in part because of its apparent links to the Soviet Union, and Labour was working hard to distance itself and its members. Florrie is driven to fury (“it makes me sick”) that time at a Labour Party branch meeting could be devoted to discussing such matters of internal politics, “while comrades in parts of the world are suffering”.

It is salutary to see just how seriously politics, and its attendant factionalism, is taken in this letter  – not just how much it all mattered, but a very real sense of the responsibility of the individual, of the impact and importance of one’s own personal actions and decisions. It is also very poignant to read of Florrie’s efforts to obtain “obtain working class education”, in addition to working in her day job. At a time when class consciousness is either a dirty or an alien concept to most people, we would perhaps do well to take some lessons from the 1930s about how best to arm ourselves for whatever is to come.

Here is the transcript of Florrie’s letter, written on 10th May 1938, and sent to Elizabeth in Scotland (with letter images below). Four pages, but worth it.

50 Annis Rd
South Hackney,
London E.9.

10/5/38

Dear Elizabeth

Many thanks for your letter which John brought home from Lister’s about the 6th of May, so if the date on your letter is April it has been there quite a time.

There is so much to say that it seems mere writing is not sufficient.

In the first place we do not come into contact with Hugh at all since his removal chiefly because our local labour party takes up much time and also that his union activities do not leave him time for us.

With regard to our letter to you in Spain naturally we hoped that it would prove some contact with home and would have been only too glad to know that you had received that with the cigs but in future we will avoid Hugh’s forgetfulness by having each others addresses.

The only prospect of seeing you would be by me travelling the same way as yourself as John as recently joined the LPJB as a bus driver which says goodbye to holidays this year otherwise your kind invitation would be promptly accepted but even so there may be the chance of a cheap trip to where you are in the near future. Perhaps you can suggest something as you are more familiar with Scotland than me.

I was interested in your remarks about the doctor or docker talking to the strikers about Spain, it seems a healthy sign also you will like to know that they turned out on May-day and what a day. I do not know if you are conversant at all with the happenings here in London but the demo reached all expectations in numbers and organisation although there is a row in our local party regarding the actions of individuals associating themselves with unity and refusing to give up party banners to our official marshalls. We are expecting the outcome of it tonight at our ward meeting and it makes me sick to think that while comrades in parts of the world are suffering we should be forced to waste time on discussing an action which has no bearing on the work of the ward which meets only once a month. I daresay that you are aware of the pushing forward of the “Peace Alliance” although the Labour Head Office refuse to associate itself with same and I sincerely hope that something in that way will be established as Socialism is definitely not the issue at the present but it is civilisation which is at stake in Europe and that is what the Right wing Labour does not seem to face up to.

Along with other comrades of Park Ward I have been attempting to obtain working class education with the National Council of Labour Colleges which has been to our great advantage and has given us clearer understanding of all class issues. We attend conferences in different districts and also have our own lecturer once a week at the central office so that together with a women’s section in the Wick and ward activities in which John also takes his part takes up time as you can imagine.

I should like to know more about the castle and what if anything goes on around and I only hope that I won’t be denied the pleasure of seeing it for myself so I’ll close in saying that I have inflicted enough writing on you and anticipate a quick letter in return.

With love from John & myself

Florrie

Continue reading “Mere writing is not sufficient”: Florrie, May 1938