”Daddy and I proved an excellent “married couple,” both from our own point of view as well as from that of our employer”
While waiting for Daddy, her lover, to arrive in Cirencester, Mabel settled into the role of housekeeper. She liked her employer and soon got used to her daily duties. In a reversal of class status, Mabel crossed class boundaries and enjoyed work and life ‘in service.’
There was a shortage of women who prior to the outbreak of war had worked in this industry. However, the work was hard and despite the Fisher Education Act of 1918 making education compulsory up until fourteen years old, Mabel engaged a fourteen-year-old girl to assist in the kitchen. Then, Mabel fell pregnant and her wanting to keep the child, Daddy insisted she couldn’t ‘so I swallowed the wretched but efficient dose’ (p.172). It is at this point in her memoir that Mabel introduces the turning point in her relationship she says ‘to go against nature was to court disaster for both of us’ (p.172)
After six months of hard work the master of the house gave Mabel and Daddy notice to leave and a hefty sum of cash. The year was 1920 and together they returned to London in search of work. While Daddy was out searching for work, Mabel hired an organ from Pasquali in Clerkenwell and reminiscent of what we see on our streets today, she made a notice on a cardboard box. (178)
‘I Lost A Leg And Sustained Numerous Other Wounds In A Munitions Explosion In 1917.You Needed My Help Then! I Need Yours Now!’
Unemployment was high during the post war years, the government suffered a shortage of money subsequent to the war which in turn created a down turn in the economy.
With the organ and a cap to collect the money, Mabel and Daddy went ‘on the busk.’ They bought masks to disguise themselves in case Mabel’s mother had posted her as “Missing.” On Armistice Day they took the organ around the hot spots of London and made fifteen pounds eleven shillings and nine pence which in today’s money equates to £452.94[link converter}.
Mabel was still suffering the after effects of her accident in the munitions factory and when her toe became painful the money they had earned on the busk paid for her to have it removed. The National Health Service would not be introduced until July 1948 .
In post war Britain Daddy found it difficult to get work and became very despondent. From the early decades of the twentieth century onwards, there was a marked increase in the number of women in white-collar jobs (such as banking or as assistants in shops), though nearly entirely at the lower levels. (Savage.37)
Mabel suffered the effects of her operation and was unable to work. But, change brought opportunity to become an entrepreneur .Mabel saw a gap in the market and bought cheap chairs that she could rent out to theatregoers waiting in long queues. From the 1870s there was a rise of ‘mass entertainment’, rising wages for the working-class meant more disposable income also street lighting improved making open spaces safer. Business was booming in the music hall and the theatres .
When Daddy got a job as a temporary civil servant they were able to move into a maisonette in Denbigh Street and even hired a daily maid. Daddy had been an officer during the war so it is no surprise that while unemployed he was suffering with ‘respectability’. The boundaries between the middle and working class are central to the British understanding of class (Savage.38-39).
With her brand name “Peggy the world’s first chair girl.” (p.193) Mabel was now famous to thousands of theatregoers. The Sunday Pictorial had published a picture of her selling the chairs at St. Martin’s theatre and ‘poverty seemed far away.’(p.194). Mabel learned to swim and ride a bike but the arrival of Daddy’s nephew, Noel, turned her life upside down.
Against her better judgement and still in love with Daddy, Mabel married Noel. She grew to hate her indolent husband and sixteen days after they were married Mabel left him. In response to this Noel shot himself in the chest and Mabel was suspected of attempted murder. The Evening Standard reported the story on the 22nd September 1922. Noel survived and Mabel got pregnant but her marriage was not harmonious. One morning after Noel attempted to strangle Mabel she obtained a separation order and custody of their eight-month-old daughter, Suzanne.
In the west end of London, Mabel had a lot of support from the community. Despite teasing her for her posh accent, they accepted her as one of them (Tebbutt)
The emergence of cinema saw Mabel’s chair business in decline but undeterred she took the pitch outside the Prince’s theatre selling chairs to operagoers. Here she got into a turf war with notorious London gangsters but Mabel’s resilience saw her through and they became great friends sharing the lucrative pitch. During the 1920s theatres began to make their pits bookable and with it came the end of the chair business. The year was 1926 and single parent Mabel used her quick and practical turn of mind to become ‘England’s First Woman Estate Agent.’
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
Tebbutt, Melanie. Women’s Talk? A Social History of Gossip in Working–Class Neighbourhoods, 1880-1960. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1995.
The featured image is Sue, Mabel’s daughter and Suzy Carter and Karen Dunne’s grandmother, Thanks to the family for their private photographs.