Contraceptives, Clinics and Working Class Women: Salford & Manchester Mothers’ Clinic

In 1926, the second birth control clinic outside of London opened its doors to women seeking free family planning advice. Located in the impoverished Greengate area of Salford, the clinic provided birth control information to working class women who weren’t able to pay for private advice from a doctor. The controversial clinic faced opposition from the Catholic Church and the medical profession but fought on and continued to offer its services to women until birth control advice was widely and freely available in the 1970s.

Unlike the suffragettes’ attention-grabbing campaigns to secure women’s rights to vote, the local-level and grinding work of women who worked to improve women’s right to birth control in the 1920s and 30s has gone somewhat unnoticed. Whilst they never marched on parliament, they worked day-in, day-out, through blitz, blackouts and at personal risk, to provide women with the knowledge to exercise control over their own bodies. For many of the women, providing birth control was an important factor for the improvements in women’s health and also the emancipation of women who had previously relied on men to limit the size of their family.

At the turn of the 19th/20th century, birth control was a very controversial issue to discuss in public although in private, many middle/upper-class women had access to such family planning information through their doctors. As such, it was working class women who couldn’t afford to pay for a private doctor who were denied birth control information and who were at the centre of the campaigns for free birth control advice. As Dr Clare Debenham, who has written a thesis entitled ‘Grassroots feminism: a study of the campaign of the Society for the Provision of Birth Control Clinics, 1924-1938’ which forms the basis of this article, points out, many middle class women felt guilty about this inequality and went on to argue that all women should enjoy control over their own bodies no matter their place in society.

Contraception as Emancipation

The birth controller saw contraception as a form of emancipation for women and the clinics therefore focused on empowering the women by giving them the information, rather than men which was the normal practice at the time. “The clinics were really into female contraception and wanted to give the control to the women rather than having to rely on the men,” explains Clare Debenham. The shocking rate of maternal death also focused women’s minds on the more sinister aspects of withholding birth control information. Between 1911 and 1930, maternal death was second only to tuberculosis as a major cause of death amongst married women, and based on the death rate it was argued giving birth was more dangerous than working in the mines.

In 1924, the Society for the Provision of Birth Control Clinics (SPBCC) was established to campaign for municipal birth control clinics that were free and easily accessible to working class women. In the mean time, voluntary clinics were set up across the country to bridge the gap until their goals were realised. Although the SPBCC and many birth controllers have been overshadowed in the history books by the flamboyant Marie Stopes of Married Love fame, the society was able to set up clinics across the country and provide women with birth control advice.

The SPBCC was also more autonomous and a lot less autocratic and confrontational when compared with Marie Stopes’ clinics. “A lot of the women involved in the birth control clinics, unlike say Marie Stopes, just worked hard with little drama. There was no dramatics,” says Debenham. “If someone had got thrown into jail than maybe we’d know more about it but it was all very low key.”

Manchester & Salford Mothers’ Clinic Opens in 1926

In 1926, the Manchester & Salford Mother Clinic located in Greengate opened and was run by Mary Stocks, Charis Frankenburg and Flora Blumberg. Mary Stocks was a Fabian who saw birth control as strongly linked to a women’s right to self-determination and she also campaigned for the removal of the marriage bar for female teachers in Manchester. Charis Frankenburg, a former midwife, was a Jewish Conservative whose respectable family ran a factory in the area. Flora Blumberg was also a Conservative, which was unusual as most of the support for birth control came from Labour supporters. Even so, motherhood was an inevitable aspect of many women’s experiences at the time so it was an important issue which united many women across political and class divisions.

As Debenham points out, “It was quite odd that there was such Conservative support as most of the people at the clinics would have been Labour supporters but there was a lot of diverse people involved in the birth control issue. I mean Mary Stocks was a Liberal, Charis Frankenburg was a Conservative and the receptionist at the clinic was a Communist! Of course there were occasions when people disagreed but on the local level there really was a cross-section of people involved.”

The clinic was ideally located above a pie-shop which provided an ideal cover for women who wanted to be discreet about their visit to the centre. The clinic was part of the Society for the Promotion of Birth Control and was rather successful – Charis Frankenburg calculated that in their first eight years they had seen over three thousand two hundred patients. In fact, gynaecologist Sir John Peel calculated that by the end of 1927 nine SPBCC birth control clinics had collectively seen 23,000 patients.

Local feminist councillors such as Shena Simon (Liberal) and Cllr Annie Lee (Labour) supported the clinic and there was significant support from the Women’s Co-op Guild, which was made up of a lot of working class women. For example, Mrs Hescott who was the secretary of the Manchester branch of the Women’s Co-op Guild was also a founding member of the clinic. In fact, the WCG overwhelmingly passed a resolution during the 1923 Annual Congress supporting the dissemination of birth control information, making it the first women’s organisation and the first working class organisation to formally support birth control.

“Cursed, Distrusted and Despised”

The clinic in Salford did, however, attract some opposition. As Clare Debenham has written, according to Mary Stocks, the birth controllers were “cursed by the Roman Catholic Church, distrusted by the Church of England and ignored by the medical profession.” In Salford, the clinic faced opposition from the local Catholic church which saw the clinic as a direct challenge to its authority. Dr Henshaw who was enthroned as Bishop in 1925 was quick to denounce the clinic and its methods in the Catholic press: “Horrible things, strange filthy things… The powers of evil have refined their methods and unsavoury subjects are clothed with scientific names… one of these centres had been opened up not far from the Cathedral.” (Article reproduced in the Manchester Guardian (22.3.1926) from the Catholic Federalist cited in Debenham, 2010, p125).

The following month Henshaw was quoted using equally colourful language about the clinic’s methods: ‘Birth control, an abomination in Catholic eyes is infinitely worse than the unnatural vices of Sodom and Gomorrah. Filthy knowledge is not less filthy because it is imparted in a “clinic”, or “centre” (Evening Chronicle (10.4.1926) cited in Debenham, 2010, p125).’

Furthermore, despite the initial support of the Women’s Guild after 1923, “the Guild leadership took no significant initiative on family endowment, birth control, or any other issues of concern to working class women that did not have prior approval of the Labour Party.” (cited in Debenham, 2010, p170). Some feminists were also opposed the birth control campaigns which they saw as a distraction to their cause and felt that talk about such matter involving sexual relations was not respectable.

The backing from the Labour party which the movement had expected or thought it would get also didn’t materialise. “Because it was a controversial topic, many regarded it as a vote loser and so didn’t they didn’t really give it any public support,” explains Debenham. “A lot of the Labour MPs relied on Catholic voters and so they were worried that showing support for birth control would lose them the Catholic vote.”

Legislation and the Future of Birth Control

Legislation was passed in 1930 in the form of a memorandum 153/MCW which allowed birth control advice to be transmitted to women via municipal clinics on the grounds of health. However, the birth controllers quickly realised that this memorandum was quite restrictive (and wasn’t mandatory) and so many continued to keep open their practices to serve women who were not accounted for under the new legislation.

Very few local authorities were willing to take on board the new legislation and by 1931, only 36 authorities had taken advantage of the provisions of the Memorandum. As Debenham states: “If the municipal clinics in 1930 were made compulsory than it would haven been job done for the birth controllers but the fact was that there were only voluntary and a lot of councils didn’t do a single thing to improve birth control after the bill was passed.”

By 1939, only 84 local authorities had taken any action to establish municipal birth control clinics – in other words, two thirds of all local authorities had taken no action at all. In contrast by 1939, the number of voluntary clinics had grown to 66 and so to some extent they were making up for the lack of progress by the local authorities. For example, the success of the Salford clinic meant that in 1933 it had to move to larger premises in Manchester. “I initially thought that after the legislation was passed that it would be the end of the birth control clinic but in fact many carried on and it wasn’t really until 1972 that the work of the clinics was taken on by the department. So until that time it was up to the voluntary sector to provide the service to the women…” remarked Debenham.

It took a long time for attitudes towards contraception and birth control to move on from connotations of being associated with dirty magazines to something which all couples had to deal with and it wasn’t until 1972 that birth control provision became part of the NHS. The early birth control clinics of 1920s and 1930 no doubt played an important role in making birth control more respectable and also bringing the debate into the public sphere. As Debenham declares, “It was local action empowering local people – what the women working in those early birth control clinics did really does deserve a lot more recognition.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

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Ellen Tooley and women’s rights in Eccles

On the November 1st 1933 Ellen Tooley made history by becoming the first woman councillor in Eccles. Although she wasn’t particularly fond of her new title as the first woman councillor in Eccles, she lived with it all her life and it no doubt it helped inspire many other women to play an active role in local politics.

Women in Eccles had been trying to get elected to the Eccles Town Hall without any success since 1919, yet in 1933 the town voted in two women councillors. Ellen Tooley was first to be announced as the winning candidate for the seat of Winton; literally minutes later, Mary Higgins was elected as the councillor for Barton. Veronica Trick, the granddaughter of Ellen Tooley, describes the night in an article titled The Power to get Things Changed! Ellen Tooley, Eccles’ First Woman Councillor:

“The teams counting their [Ellen Tooley and Mary Higgins] votes began to count as fast as they could, competing to be the first to count a woman councillor in. In spite of having 500 more votes to count than the other team, Ellen’s team finished first so that she became the first councillor for Winton just two or three minutes before Mary Higgins became the councillor for Barton. So it was purely because her team were faster one that my gran acquired her title.”

Veronica Trick, who published the journal on Ellen Tooley which forms the basis of this article, decided to find out more about her grandmother when she stumbled across newspaper cuttings and poll cards whilst sorting through her mother’s belongings. “When we were growing up my cousins and I were all very proud of our famous grandmother, Ellen Tooley, who was the first woman councillor for Eccles, although we had only the vaguest ideas about what that meant,” writes Trick. She decided to do some digging and what she discovered was that her grandmother had worked hard and overcome many obstacles to become Eccles’ first woman councillor.

Born into Poverty

Ellen Tooley was born in Plymouth in 1875/6 to a mother who was a laundress and an Irish father who was a private in the army. Her father was an Irish Republican sympathiser and his influence is credited with Ellen’s subsequent commitment to the Republican cause as well as her interest in politics. Despite a steady income, the family which consisted of five children must have been quite poor and this gave Ellen her first experience of poverty. At the age of 15 she was working as general domestic servant in Exeter, although an incident in which a small pile of money was left out by her employers – a common practice at the time to test the honesty of servants – angered her and she left in protest. At some point between 1891 and 1899, she ran away from home and came to the north.

Her father made several attempts to bring Ellen home but she resisted and finally settled down and married a widower named William Tooley who was a Protestant. As her father was a Catholic, this marriage was seen as the ultimate betrayal and he never spoke to Ellen again. Over the next ten years, Ellen had six children and they lived in various addresses in Ancoats and Greengate. Although her husband William was a skilled worker, the family struggled to make ends meet as William was fond of ‘The Demon Drink’ and would drink away his wages. Many of the houses they stayed in were appalling and the final house they lived in before moving to Eccles was a back-to-back house in Salford with a one upstairs room, one ground floor room and cellar. Twenty-six families had to share a row of six outdoor privy lavatories.

Influential Women in Eccles, Suffragettes and Co-op Guilds

The move to Eccles seemed to have marked a new period of stability and success in Ellen’s life. Their home was much bigger with its own garden and private lavatory and Ellen was inspired by other local women to get involved in local politics. Even so, Ellen never forgot her earlier experiences of poverty and she worked tirelessly to improve housing conditions and welfare provisions during her political career.

Although Eccles was, and remains, a small town there were many influential women who managed to make their mark on local politics and served as role models. Influential women from Eccles include Sofia Roe, who founded an orphanage on Green Lane in the 19th century and Kathleen Lyttleton, the wife of the Vicar of Eccles, who founded the Eccles Branch of the Co-operative Women’s Guild in 1895. Two women’s suffrage organisations- the non-militant North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage and the more militant Women’s Freedom League- also had local branches and their meetings were well attended by women in Eccles.

Ellen Tooley, who was five feet tall with red hair and a temperament to match, joined the Women’s Co-operative Guild and Independent Labour Party in 1916. The Independent Labour Party was strongly pacifist at the time and this suited Tooley’s anti-war stance. By 1918, her brother had been killed in the war and her husband and two sons were conscripted into the war effort. In fact Tooley’s first publically recorded speech was as one of the main speaker at an anti-war demonstration.

In 1919, the first women ever to stand for election in Eccles were Mary O’Kane and Louisa Mathews, who were both members of the Co-operative Guild. As Veronica Trick explains, the Co-operative Guild gave many working women an opportunity at education and also the confidence and skills they would need to succeed in local politics. Although both women candidates had failed to get elected, this didn’t stop other women from trying to influence local politics through other routes – namely local committees. The number of women on these local committees in Eccles went up from 9 in 1920 to 17 in 1925.

Local Committees, Working Class Women and Birth Control

Although women were increasingly present in local politics, working class women were still struggling to make their mark in the same way that upper/middle-class women had. Ellen Tooley noted in the Eccles Journal in 1925: “There are women in Eccles amongst the workers who are capable of serving the community equally as well as those co-opted, with a knowledge of conditions gained by practical experience which is after all ‘the best teacher’” (cited in Trick, The Power to get Things Changed, p23). There was one committee, however, where the presence of a working class woman was mandatory and this was to be the first committee Ellen served on.

The 1918 Maternity and Child Welfare Act had set up the Maternity and Child Welfare Committees, influenced by campaigns by the Women’s Guilds, and Ellen was appointed in 1920 to serve on the Eccles committee. As such, Ellen Tooley played an important role in the mother and child clinics which improved contraceptive advice to women- particularly working class women who could not afford to pay a private doctor for contraceptive advice.

The orphanage originally built by Sofia Roe in 1880 was refurbished under the committee and set up as a Mother & Baby Clinic with significant success. “Six years later the Medical Office of Health was able to proudly report to the committee that infant deaths in Eccles were only 47.2 infant deaths per 1,000 births. The only urban district which had performed better was Nelson with 44.9, Manchester, in contrast, had 83.0 and Salford 103.2.” (cited in Trick, page 22)

TB, Death and Disease

The relative success of Ellen’s political career was, however, tainted by a string of personal tragedies during the same period. After Ellen’s husband returned from the war he had become more abusive and violent towards her, particularly whilst drunk, and during one incident in 1921 Ellen’s two older sons attacked their father and forced him out of the family home. One son joined the army to escape prosecution whilst the other, Edward, moved away for a year.

In 1922, Ellen’s daughter Eveline was diagnosed with TB and her other daughter Dora, who was Veronica Trick’s mother, developed a bone disease in one of her knees and was confined to a special bed-chair. Eveline did recover for a while in 1923 but died a year later in 1924. In May 1926, Ellen’s son James died of TB and in the same month her husband died of bronchitis and a cerebral oedema in Hope Hospital.

Election Success

In 1924, Ellen Tooley was nominated for the first time to run for election. However, it was widely acknowledged that she had been allocated a seat (Irwell) that would be very difficult for a Labour candidate to win and indeed she failed to secure the seat. In 1927, she was a delegate to the Labour Party’s annual conference in Blackpool and stood, again without success, for the Barton ward. In 1930 she stood as the Labour candidate for the Winton ward along with Mary O’Kane who was nominated at the Co-op candidate for Patricroft – they both failed to secure their seats. For the next two years there were no women candidates in Eccles. Finally in 1933, Ellen stood once more and managed to win her seat in Winton along with Mary Higgins who became councillor for Barton.

The two women formed a formidable alliance and became members on committees related to health, libraries and schools, as well as working to improve child welfare and provide work for the local unemployed. Although Ellen tried to get re-elected in 1938, local elections were suspended due to the outbreak of World War Two and by the time the war had ended, she was 71 and her health was beginning to deteriorate. Ellen died in April 1955 at the age of 79 and was buried on the 2nd of May. The title as the first woman councillor of Eccles, which Ellen shrugged off as pure chance, was chiselled on her gravestone.

By Arwa Aburawa