Kathleen Betterton (B.1913): Politics and Protest


                    ‘The good society still eludes us and the politicians can offer only a dusty answer. Legislation cannot enforce the social virtues on which it depends’ (298).


Politics is a big theme in Kathleen Betterton’s memoir. She first developed an interest into politics during her later years at Christ’s Hospital. It was whilst with her friends that she began to discover she had an opinion on the world around her. One who sparked this interest was her ‘friend’ Laura; a controversial relationship clashing over their classes. Laura the daughter to a secretary and an officer killed at war, lived with her affluent grandparents. While Kathleen was at Christ’s Hospital in 1926, the General strike was on the tip of the young girls’ tongues. Kathleen reminisces how she and her friends would endlessly debate the strike which had turned them into ‘little politicians’ (89).


Kathleen a working-class scholar girl, often felt uncomfortable with Laura the ‘Blue Tory’.  From this age Betterton was class conscious, it was through politics that she found an understanding of the different classes. She used political debates as a way of defence, justifying the rights for those below the bourgeoisie. She found that there was a voice to be heard from both sides; it was this standing up for her class that prompted further interests into the world of government later on in life. She reflects on how the arguments got heated especially with Laura. In particular when topics turned to the Trade Unionism and unemployment benefits, ‘which of course she termed ‘the dole’ (89). Although still at a young age, Kathleen showed great passion for her beliefs.


A big influence in Kathleen’s life was that of her teachers. Her teachers were those who followed after the early feminists. They continued the duties as feminists, encouraging the girls to progress into careers and the fight for equality. Kathleen reflects on how their ideology had come about; they had been students ‘in days when the emancipation of woman was of passionate importance’ (117). These head strong, high achievers who gained their degrees to educate the young came at a cost, she says, for they rarely married.


Hyde Park demonstration

At Oxford Kathleen was introduced to broader politics. She made friends with Audrey, raised by Fabian parents. She thinks back to of how Audrey ‘approved’ of her working-class background, but must have found me lamentably ignorant politically, a devotee of William Morris and George Lansbury who had barely heard of Marx’ (155). She took a greater interest into politics as a way of self- progressing. A stronger political understanding would show she was more adequate and of the same educated level as those above her class. She became a member of the Oxford Labour party group in 1931, but it was not until two years later that her passion really awakened. She asserts that her main reason for her interest in left-wing politics was to ‘keep faith’ (180) with her working-class roots. Prior to her awakening of political interest she listened to speeches given by Hugh Gaitskell, Stafford Cripps, Patrick Gordon-Walker and Dick Crossman (180).


She spent her holidays at home. Her education had given her a new perception to that of the people from her home. She remarks on how the man below her family’s flat would ‘expound his political views which were muddled and usually translucent.’ (164).During her time at home she joined the local Labour party. She participated in activities, attended meetings which were different to that of her Oxford Labour party group. It was at her time at the group that she felt ashamed of the working-class culture. She felt their class shaped their attitudes, they were not educated therefore they had no desire to want to learn so that they could benefit themselves. Instead she argues they showed an aggressive earnestness for a purple eiderdown, and a bottle of whisky; the more she was exposed to this behaviour ‘the less I felt I belonged to it’ (186).

The depression, 1931, she recalls had affected everyone. Those who were educated like herself were filled with ‘resentment at the socialist misery’ (183).  During the summer of 1933, she remembers the ‘spectacle of the Hunger Marchers, gaunt, ragged, in worn shapeless boots’ (183) of the activists. She and her friends welcomed protesters into their home, providing them with a meal and their support.


Feminism and equality is a strong passion of Kathleen’s. This influence came from her mother and her teachers. This strong mindedness is seen in her love of the novel Euripides Medea. A lot of her chosen reading portrays positive, ambitious woman who reflect her feminist perspective. The suffrage movement was close to Kathleen’s heart. She writes how she would have liked to have been an activist: ‘in an earlier generation I should, I suppose, have marched in suffragette processions and even bitten policeman’ (181). She did take part in marches. She was an activist during May Day demonstration, joining the crowds, singing through Hyde Park, ‘raising our fists in salute’ (181). Whenever there was a demonstration she was ready to engage.


Betterton. K. (1975)’ White Pinnies, Black Aprons….. ‘Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library: Special Collection. 2:71



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