Friday, 28 July 2017

“The work of a tram guard is not a woman’s work” ......... stories behind the book nu 18

An occasional series on the stories behind the new book on Manchester and the Great War*

Clippie, date unknown
Now this picture postcard of a “clippie got me thinking of the contribution made by women during the Great War, and in particular the opposition they faced from their male counterparts.

In the May of that year Salford Corporation took on 15 women to work as guards on their trams and a few months later Manchester followed suit while the Manchester postal authorities decided to utilise the services of women in the “delivery of letters.”

This had followed an appeal by the Board of Trade in the March for women to register for work at the their local Labour Exchange and in the course of the next three years women were to be found working in heavy industry, as well as on the land, and in offices and on the transport network.

Of course in many respects none of this was new.  For over a century they had worked in textile mills and coal mines, laboured alongside men and children in the fields and done a variety of dirty and unpleasant occupations often for little remuneration.

But the scope of their involvement and the fact that many of these occupations were new to women marked a sea change as did the fact that some of these occupations were far better paid than their previous jobs.

Not that this was without opposition.  Tram workers in Salford had argued that “the work of a guard is not a woman’s work and that it would be too much to expect that women should take charge of the early workmen’s cars or the late cars which would keep them up until midnight.”

And a full three years later Mr Frederick A Price the superintendant of the Manchester Gas Department reporting to the Gas Committee of Manchester Corporation on the work of the 31 women clerks and 85 women meter inspectors concluded that while they were “good and careful workers” and were “industrious and painstaking, they lacked initiative, were not capable of discharging the higher administrative duties [and lacked] the necessary imagination and concentration with the power of organisation” added to which they “liked to indulge in a little gossip.”**

Munition workers, 1918
It is easy to dismiss his assessments as period pieces but a full half century later similar prejudices were being expressed during the debates on the passing of the Equal Pay legislation.

But in comparison with others his were rather gentle prejudices.

In a series of correspondence to the War Emergency Committee which had been set up by the labour movement when war broke out the National Agricultural Labourers’ & Rural Worker’s Union consistently opposed the employment of women on the land.

During the February of 1915 they wrote a series of letters making clear their opposition to “the employment of women in the agricultural industry on moral and economic grounds” pointing to the growing practice of employing women and children on lower wage rates.****

A fear which appeared to be the case from evidence they uncovered during 1915.

Location; Manchester, 1914-18

Picture; “Clippie,” date unknown and Munition workers, 1918 from the collection of David Harrop

*A new book on Manchester and the Great War,

**Woman Tramguards, Manchester Guardian May 29, 1915

***Women at Mens’ Work, Manchester Guardian, January 5, 1918

****Walker, R B secretary, National Agricultural Labourers’ & Rural Worker’s Union R B Walker, to the War Emergency Committee, WNC, Box 1 file 4, Labour History Archives & Study Centre, the People’s History Museum, Manchester

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