Submitted by: Daniel Shannon-Hughes
THE LIFE OF A LOCAL COUNCILLOR AND CAMPAIGNER
In this time of government cuts to our public services, it is important to remember the struggles that led to their creation in the first half of the twentieth century. Often lost in the narrative of the introduction of the welfare state is the work of local men and women in pushing through progressive policies at a local level. One such local woman was Leyton Labour councilor, Jenny Hammond.
In her later life Jenny recorded several interviews about her life with the Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop (WFOHW). After her death WFOHW also printed her memoirs. This account of Jenny’s life and her role in the establishment of public services in Leyton is based on tapes of those interviews, her memoirs and other interviews recorded by WFOHW with her family and friends.
Born 1894 in Downsell Rd E15, Jenny grew up in a time when public services barely existed in comparison to those we have today. Bare footed children and the unemployed roamed the streets, families lived cramped together in one or two rooms in shared houses, and to see a doctor was a significant expense. The spectre of the workhouse still loomed large and workers enjoyed few rights. Jenny’s father, who worked on the railways, was granted only four days holiday a year.
Although her family was poor, Jenny says that they ‘were never really hungry’. That did not stop her from being keenly aware of the plight of others in the community and a strong sense of ‘the injustice of things’. It was these qualities that brought Jenny into politics and were the driving force behind her work in local government.
Her first involvement in politics came in 1927. Married with her second child, less than two years old, Jenny was spurred in to action when Leyton Council decided to stop her allowance of nursing milk. Like many other men in the community, her husband was out on strike. Stopping the milk was a political move to put pressure on the strikers’ families. Jenny was furious. She put her baby in the pram and led a march to the Town Hall. Shamed by this demonstration of mothers with babies in buggies, the council immediately restored the nursing milk provision.
Next Jenny joined council appeal committees for Pensions and Maternity and Child Welfare. It was, she said, her ‘first experience of how brutally the law was administered’. Many of the elderly had not had their births registered, leaving them unable to claim their pension. Jenny forced the committee to expand the evidence they accepted to include school reports, and in doing so enabled many more pensioners to receive their state pension. Gradually she ‘introduced some humanity in the proceedings’.
In 1929, Jenny was elected a Labour councillor for Leyton, a position she held for 33 years. During that time she worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the local community. Together with other strong willed and like-minded radical councillors, she was instrumental in introducing progressive legislation and public services that transformed the lives of ordinary people.
Jenny set up health clinics, services for the elderly, and provided washing machines in the Cathall Rd Baths. Women washed almost all clothes by hand, a labour and time intensive task. Providing washing machines in the area would have hugely reduced their domestic workload.
Jenny was also part of campaigns to build a public baths in Bakers Arms, which when opened gave the local community the luxury of a bath for three pence, and to replace slums with council houses.
A lifelong pacifist, Jenny greeted the outbreak of the Second World War with dismay. She was determined to have nothing to do with the war effort. Instead she threw her energy into welfare work, organising the Leyton branch of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS). Under her leadership the WVS supported the bereaved and bomb victims, providing them with food, clothes and furniture.
It was during the war that Jenny was elected as Mayor. In her role she organised concerts to give the community relief from the horrors of war. Female mayors were very uncommon at that point and Jenny’s daughter Iris acted as her Mayoress.
After the end of WWII, Jenny and the WVS continued for another four years, introducing welfare services run by volunteers that were later taken up by the council, including a meals-on-wheels service and a volunteer home help service for the elderly.
Both inside Leyton council as a councilor and outside as a member of the community, Jenny was a force for progressive change. As former MP for Leyton and Wansted, Harry Cohen, comments in his introduction to her memoirs, Jenny ‘helped build our local public services from scratch, virtually brick by brick, and against ignorant old fashioned and plain mean minded opposition’.
We owe a debt of gratitude to people like Jenny. But her story must also remind us that the welfare state was not just something introduced from on high. The provision of public services, accessible to all the community (at least in principle), was also the direct result of the actions and determination of ordinary people at a local level. Their achievements should be a source of inspiration as we seek to protect their legacy.