This fortnight would have been the Wandsworth Heritage Festival. Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service coordinates the heritage festival each year – but it only happens because so many of our local societies, organisations, and members of the community give up their time, knowledge, and enthusiasm so willingly. The theme of this year’s festival was to have been Wandsworth’s homes and housing. Luckily, the work our contributors took in researching their walks, talks, exhibitions and open days will not go to waste, as this year’s events will be postponed until next year. However, we thought it might be nice in the meantime to explore some of the items in our collections which tie in to this theme.
Dr Sue Demont is a local historian, and was a teacher (and headteacher!) for many years. She is an active member of the Battersea Society and the Friends of Wandsworth Common. She was part of the War Comes Home committee which delivered a community project documenting the experiences of those who lived in Battersea during wartime. Her most recent publications include ‘the Bombing of Battersea’ and ‘Battersea’s First Lady: the life and times of Caroline Ganley MP’. Sue would have been leading a walk through Caroline Ganley’s Battersea today (though given the torrential rain and thunderstorms, she might be relieved it was postponed until next year!). She has very kindly agreed to be interviewed about Caroline Ganley’s home life.
Can you tell us why Caroline Ganley MP is so important?
This is a big question with two big answers!
In terms of activity…65 years of public service in a whole range of roles, spanning a lifetime from Queen Victoria’s reign well into the Swinging ‘60s. Having left school at 14, Caroline Ganley became one of the first female magistrates in Britain, a district and county councillor, the first woman President of the 800,000-strong London Co-operative Movement, and Battersea’s first woman MP. Within and between these roles she was an ardent internationalist and peace campaigner, a strong supporter of women’s suffrage, the proud instigator of Battersea’s first maternity home and VD clinic, and a passionate officer of the Women’s Co-operative Guild at local, national and international level. In 1953 she was awarded the CBE, and she continued to sit on Battersea Borough Council until it was abolished in 1965 – by this time she was 85 years old and using a wheelchair.
And in terms of symbolism… Caroline Ganley’s life and work demonstrated what a working-class woman of limited education could achieve at the same time as raising a family in straitened financial circumstances – even before women had the vote.She proved that the money worries with which she grappled for most of her life need not prevent women from carrying out public and political service.Being elected the oldest Labour woman MP at the age of 66 she further demonstrated that age need not be a barrier to success. Caroline Ganley was a role model for other women both within Battersea and across the Labour and Co-operative Movements.
What was Ganley’s home life like, and how did it influence her work?
Caroline Ganley’s own home life was overshadowed by bereavement; her father died before she was born and for ten years she was raised by her Irish grandmother so that her mother could go out to work. When her grandmother died Ganley was sent to an orphanage until she was 14, when she left to take up employment, ending up as a ‘nurse domestic’ for a stockbroker’s family until her marriage in 1901.
This sounds quite grim to us today but Ganley emphasises in her unpublished memoir that her grandmother, ‘a good wife and mother’ was very affectionate towards her. She also instilled in her grand-daughter the belief that women had rights as free citizens well as responsibilities within the home. 70 years later Ganley wrote that it was ‘upon the foundations of thought laid by her (that) I have built my life’.
Can you tell us anything about her home itself?
Like many Battersea families the Ganleys struggled for years to find a decent home in which to bring up their family of three, and when in 1910 they managed to acquire no.5 Thirsk Road,with its own bathroom, it literally transformed Caroline Ganley’s life. She was to live here for the rest of her 56 years. A visiting reporter in the 1920s described no.5 as‘her pretty home’ and the house played an important role for generations of the family, including in old age Ganley’s mother Selina as well as her host of grandchildren. Even during the war Ganley continued to host regular Sunday family gatherings ‘where the news and happenings of the week were condensed into hours between the interval of meals and odd jobs.’ And it is clear that Ganley took her home-making role seriously; her memoir is full of references to domestic chores such as sewing, knitting, cooking and washing.
Mention should be made here of Ganley’s husband James, who appears to have been unusually supportive and accommodating of his wife’s numerous public roles. The two of them sometimes shared domestic tasks, for example James might cook the dinner or Caroline would help him fit new light switches, and on one occasion the pair of them combined to redecorate the Labour Party’s headquarters at 177 Lavender Hill. Their long and happy marriage was the first to be celebrated by a Golden Wedding reception in the House of Commons.
How important was the issue of housing to Ganley in her role as MP?
This was a huge issue for Ganley as a constituency MP elected straight after the war. Battersea’s housing stock had been devastated by bombing with over 28,000 homes wholly or partly destroyed. By 1951 a quarter of the Borough’s population had moved away yet there were still nowhere near enough houses for those who remained, and much of what did survive was overcrowded and insanitary. Ganley’s constituency case load was dominated by housing issues and their associated problems, including broken marriages. She never forgot her own experiences of traipsing round Battersea with three small children trying to secure a decent home for her family – even in the 1940s she was still recording in her diary her joy at being able to have a hot bath. This made her a strong supporter of Aneurin Bevan, the Minister of Health and Housing in the 1945 Labour Government who was fighting to build houses of good quality as well as in large numbers.
What impact do you think the Co-operative movement had on the lives of housewives?
It was transformative for many women. The Women’s Co-operative Guild was one of the first ‘safe spaces’ within which women could gather and discuss not only the issues that affected their own lives but big social and political questions like divorce and abortion. The Guild ran extensive training programmes on public speaking, chairing meetings and setting up organisations and events, enabling women to participate in public life on more equal terms with men. One elderly member recalled in the 1970s that these programmes ‘altered the whole course of my life… I always had something to talk to’ whilst another noted that her Guild role made the drudgery of housework much more palatable because she always had something interesting to think about.
On a practical level the Co-op reached even more women, as the daily food shop was the one area of home life over which they had control of both purchase and purse. The Co-op prided itself on the quality of its goods and the fairness of its distribution,and its women members led numerous campaigns to promote the movement’s healthy eating options.
How important was female friendship to Ganley?
This was something else she particularly gained from the Women’s Co-operative Guild, though her friends were by no means confined to this area. The Guilds certainly knew how to enjoy themselves, running a host of social activities such as birthday parties and drama productions, and Ganley clearly relished these. Reading her memoir one is struck by the constant approving references to collective action and shared endeavour at every level. In 1929 she attended an international Co-op conference at the Hague and praised the hospitality of ‘our Dutch friends’, whilst at the other end of the scale she was much loved by the Lavender Hill Branch of the Guild, who referred to her as ‘our Mrs G’, always ready to do any small job.In Parliament she counted Prime Minister Clem Attlee and Liberal MP Lady Megan Lloyd George as her friends as well as the Labour women MPs.
Like any woman in public life before the late 20th century, Ganley had to operate in male-dominated arenas, and she clearly appreciated the support of her fellow women activists.These included Charlotte Despard, who engineered Ganley’s first public speaking engagement in Battersea Park, and her local colleague Mrs Winton Evans with whom she had fun over the issue of children’s feedingat the expense of the Chairman (sic) of the LCC’s Education Committee.
What made you write your book on Caroline Ganley?
Put simply, I felt it was terribly important that she shouldn’t be forgotten. Unlike most of the women MPs of 1945 (Barbara Castle, Jennie Lee, Bessie Braddock, Edith Summerskill etc) Caroline Ganley does not feature in the history books and has left no published memoir. Her constituency of Battersea South was abolished decades ago as were the LCC and Battersea Borough Council; even the Women’s Co-operative Guild has finally been disbanded. Yet these institutions were crucial to the history of our borough and our city, and to the history of women across Britain, and I wanted to salute the woman who made such effective use of them all to improve working people’s lives – especially those of women.
Many thanks, Sue! To purchase a copy of Battersea’s First Lady: the Life and Times of Caroline Ganley MP, please email firstname.lastname@example.org