Mabel Florence Lethbridge (1900-1968):Life and Labour Part 1

”Girls in your station in life do not become factory hands”

Lethbridge- p.114

In 1917 at Hayes Filling Factory Mabel made many friends: ‘I found them a jolly good natured crowd’ (62). Although Mabel doesn’t mention it, munitions workers were commonly know as ‘Canary Girls’ and ‘some of the young munitions girls’ skins were yellow through working with explosive chemicals’ (Hall.10). In her usual matter of fact tone instead Mabel describes in great detail the dangerous work of filling shells with Amatol and the physical discomfort she endured: ‘I had no breath to sing and my throat felt hard and dry’. It is clear from the  Camaraderie she shares with her fellow factory workers that singing was vital and to keep their spirits high.

Each day Mabel returned home exhausted and with a dearth of women working in service, Mabel and Reggie helped cook the evening meal. Mabel describes a spat with Reggie who picked up a carving knife and stabbed her in the shoulder. This resulted in a visit to Acton Cottage Hospital and Mabel suffered greatly when she returned to the factory.

 Mabel doesn’t voice her political opinions but she does mention the bonus payment system. Unfair wage systems were a cause for agitation amongst workers and lead to a desire for fairness within the working class structure (Cannadine)

  On the fateful day of the accident Mabel was working side by side with her friend Louie when ‘a dull flash, a sharp deafening raw’ (p.81) hurled her through the air. In volunteering to work in the Danger Zone, Mabel lost her leg and sustained terrible injuries. The chapter entitled ‘The Greater Agony’ details her arrival at the hospital.  Poor working conditions and exploitation of workers in the early twentieth century lead to the formation of unions and campaigns to improve factory conditions (Thompson).

  Mabel’s positive attitude helped her recovery and as soon as she was able to walk with her artificial leg she was ready to work again. She began work at the Ministry of Pensions in London but lost the job due to illness. Desperate, she forged references and began work as a lady’s maid   in a hotel overlooking Hyde Park where Mabel found herself living in a disused toilet inside the hotel.

Picadilly Circus – London, during World War II.

In stark contrast to her upper-class status, Mabel reversed her role within society.  Sociologist Mike Savage determines  ‘the upper class was a group apart: they knew who they were, they did not admit outsiders and their privileges were largely unchallenged’ (Savage.32). It seems, however, that Mabel hadn’t entirely shrugged off her upper-cassclass values:  ‘I found Madam very tiring a fat nouveau-riche woman who made constant demands on my off duty time’ (140). True to her class status, Mabel’s mother was outraged and took her daughter home. On a visit to her grandmother who was holidaying in Bournemouth Mabel hatched a plan to escape back to London.

Photograph of Mabel courtesy of Suzy Carter, Mabel’s Great Granddaughter.

When she arrived in London Mabel was homeless and living rough on the Embankment. In order to eat she ‘bought a bucket and a large lump of hearthstone and a floor cloth’ (p.151) and became a charwomen cleaning doorsteps. She writes that this job, despite a terrific backache, made her completely happy. Sleeping outdoors without a change of clothes, Mabel developed a burning itching rash and was desperate to see her old doctor but ‘my shabbiness deterred me’ (p.155) Instead she made her way to the Skin Hospital in Leicester Square where Mabel was diagnosed with scabies. Her charring days were over so she moved ‘up West’ with Sarah, her friend from the Embankment and together they sold matches outside the Alhambra Theatre. After the tragic death of Sarah who had been hiding cancer for two years, Mabel found a room in a home for demobilised W.A.A.C’s. Mabel was living in poverty yet when Daddy, her secret lover, sent her money she proudly returned it to him.

Despite Daddy being married, Mabel had continued her relationship with him and had completely lost contact with her mother. Mabel writes ‘the only way to make the break complete was to remain silent and trust that she would think of me as dead’ (p.167). Mabel was so determined to live with her lover that once again she faked references, this time for the role of housekeeper and butler.

Sources:

Cannadine, David. Class in Britain. New Haven and London: Penguin 2000

Edith Hall Canary girls and Stockpots (Luton:WEA,1977),8,10-14,19-22 from Diaries and Memoirs.

Lethbridge, Mabel. Fortune Grass, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol.4

Savage, Michael. Social Class in the 21st Century London: Pelican 2015

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class London:Penguin 1980

http://ourhistory-hayes.blogspot.com/2012/01/hayes-women-munition-workers-ww1.html

www.alamy.com/stock-photo-piccadilly-circus-london-uk-circa-1920-the-london-pavilion-is-showing-51406157.html

www.bigredbook.info/mabel_lethbridge.html

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