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Heritage: Changing roles for men and women in postwar Havering

PUBLISHED: 15:00 26 September 2020

Between 1939 and 1945, Romford women had played vital roles on the Home Front. Would their new status develop post-war? Picture: PA

Between 1939 and 1945, Romford women had played vital roles on the Home Front. Would their new status develop post-war? Picture: PA

PA Archive/PA Images

Professor Ged Martin looks at the way local people interpreted gender stereotypes in the years after 1945

Gender issues are popular with intellectuals, so this week’s column looks at the opinions of Havering people about the roles of women and men in the years after the Second World War.

Between 1939 and 1945, Romford women had played vital roles on the Home Front. They’d managed air-raid shelters and staffed the Mawney Road School rest centre for people bombed out of their homes.

Local women’s organisations ran emergency mobile kitchens, and collected furniture across East Anglia for families who’d lost everything in air raids. Would their new status develop post-war?

In many professions, women were still paid less than men, leading to demands for Equal Pay for Equal Work.

Hornchurch teacher Mr LP Jones believed in speaking his mind. Denouncing the demand for equal pay, he told an education conference in 1951 that women teachers, who were mostly single “were holidaying in Sweden while men teachers with families couldn’t afford even a seaside holiday”.

READ MORE: Rainham’s cross-dressing feminist Mary Benton challenged gender roles

The weakness in his argument was that Jones was a bachelor himself.

One irate female delegate told him to get married and father some children, thereby making work for other teachers.

There wasn’t always solidarity among the sisterhood. In 1953, Romford’s mayor, Mrs Lillian Irons, talked about the juvenile delinquents she encountered as a magistrate.

She would “much rather deal with a naughty boy than with a naughty girl. There is usually a chink in a boy’s armour which you can get through — but not with a really naughty girl”.

Perhaps she was thinking of the eighteen-year-old contestant in Romford’s 1950 August bank holiday beauty competition. Angry at failing to take the crown, she bit the winner’s ear.

Some challenges to gender roles were spoofs.

In 1954, Hornchurch primary pupil Gloria Richards had a great experience: she was cast in the first of the famous St Trinian’s films, knockabout movies about an anarchic girls’ boarding school.

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Among the evening classes on offer in Hornchurch in 1961 was a course on How To Find A Good Wife. It was cancelled because nobody signed up.

Perhaps most local men had already wedded ideal spouses.

Maybe everybody knew that Hornchurch girls were goddesses anyway.

More likely it was a patronising, male-chauvinist idea that even amorous men found embarrassing.

Unfortunately, not all marriages were perfect. In 1954, a Romford man left his wife to live with another woman.

A fair-minded chap, he offered to return to the marital home on compromise terms. He would live with his lawful spouse six days a week, and with the Other Woman on the seventh.

Unfortunately, this imaginative scheme was a decade too early for the Sexual Revolution, which was never going to start in Romford anyway.

READ MORE: Votes for women - and more cupboards in Gidea Park

In 1953, a Rainham man’s emotional chaos (it didn’t sound like a love life) landed him in court on a double bigamy charge.

The accused was a complete pig, but his attitude to the institution of marriage was – to say the least – ingenious.

His first wife, Lillian, had left him in 1945 to protect their two children. Convincing himself that seven years’ separation was enough to end a marriage, he found a second bride in Christina.

She fled after a few months when he threatened her with a razor.

However, since they’d married in a register office, and as Christina was a Catholic, he claimed it didn’t count.

His third victim, Jean, met him in January 1953, broke off her engagement to another man, married him (so she thought) in February and walked out in April. A prison term interrupted his matrimonial marathon.

Gender attitudes were changing, but only slowly. It was big news in 1963 when a 15 year-old schoolboy “amazed” the people of Romford, by winning first prize in the local Women’s Institute cookery competition.

His batch of scones beat all the lady competitors, including his own sisters. But it was his mother’s recipe.


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