A ‘queen bee’ who displayed untiring energy and courage in the face of the greatest adversities, Pearl Hyde (1904-1963) was a towering figure in twentieth century Coventry. Elected to the City Council in 1937, Hyde took over as head of the Women’s Voluntary Service (W. V. S.) shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and remained in place throughout the conflict. In the role she helped hundreds of thousands of people affected by the November 1940 bombing, and ‘was a powerful force in stimulating morale’ in the destroyed city. The energy, courage and leadership she displayed earned her an MBE. In 1957 Hyde became Coventry’s first female Lord Mayor, dedicating her time in office to ‘the women of Coventry’. During her tenure, she was the only female Lord Mayor in the country. Her funeral in Coventry Cathedral in 1963 was attended by people representing every aspect of life in Coventry. As she was carried into the cathedral by a guard of honour formed of police, the fire brigade, and the W. V. S, many left their offices and shops to pay their respects and the city magistrates adjourned their courts.
Born Pearl Bigby in North London in 1904, the only daughter of a publican, Hyde moved to Coventry in 1920 to live at the White Lion public house on Smithford Street. Demolished in 1955, today the White Lion is the site of the Upper Precinct shopping centre. In 1923 she married Eric Hyde, with whom she had one son. Beginning what would be a lifelong concern with promoting the welfare of Coventry’s citizens, in the 1930s she helped establish a maternity and child welfare clinic in the Westwood area. At the same time, Hyde gained a political education by sitting night after night in the public gallery of the Coventry City Council chamber. In 1937, after fighting three unsuccessful elections, she was elected a Labour Councillor for the Walgrave ward.
A wartime leader
Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War Hyde accepted the position of head of the local W. V. S. The decision was surprising, local social leaders had expected a woman of a more elevated social status to be given the position, while members of Hyde’s own party regarded the organisation as ‘a snob show’ and a ‘rather insipid… affair’. Regardless, Hyde took on the role with unlimited energy and resolution, leading the organisation from the front. When more female volunteer ambulance drivers were needed, Hyde herself took up instruction as a driver. Despite the chaos that followed the November 1940 bombing, Hyde claimed her organisation was the ‘happiest in the city’. Her volunteers had been ‘bombed out and burned out on more than one occasion, but they have never yet failed to deliver the goods’. Within half an hour of being bombed out of their headquarters members of the W.V.S reported for duty at the Police Station. Alongside driving ambulances, Hyde’s W.V.S organised accommodation for foreign servicemen and people stranded in the city, cared for evacuees, assisted in the outpatient and X-ray departments of the Coventry and Warwickshire hospital, provided clothes for over 85,000 people, and ran several canteens and feeding centres for soldiers and civilians.
The provision of hot food and beverages was to become the hallmark of Hyde’s W.V.S. In Humphry Jennings’ documentary ‘Heart of England’, while the camera showed W.V.S women making tea, Hyde explained ‘you know you feel such fools standing here in a crater with a mug of tea… until a man says “it washed the blood and dust from my mouth” and you know you really have done something useful’. Their main canteen in the basement of the Police Station on St Mary’s street was known as the ‘Devil’s Kitchen’. It was open twenty-four hours a day and provided eight hot meals a day to service men and members of the civil defence. An additional W. V. S canteen at Coventry Station issued free cups of tea to thousands of servicemen, the only place in the country to do so without levying a charge. When this provision of free beverages was ordered to be discontinued, displaying her characteristic courage, Hyde refused. She declared ‘I don’t think any Coventry citizen would want us to change’. Five community feeding centres around Coventry also fed thousands of civilians. In just one week in April 1941 the centres provided over 4500 hot meals. This effort left a lasting impression and Hyde received many letters from grateful citizens. At a tea party at St. James’ Palace for members of the W.V.S in 1948 the Queen Mother recognised Hyde from her visit to Coventry in November 1940, and told her ‘I remember your delightful cup of tea’.
After the war, Hyde worked as a welfare officer in a car factory and then as a public relations executive for Associated Television. She also remained dedicated to the welfare of Coventry and its citizens, carrying out extensive charity work. When elected Lord Mayor in 1957, she pledged to ‘fulfil this office with the dignity it ought and a humility and friendliness to all people’. ‘Irrespective of their colour or creed’, she stated, ‘let them come to the Lord Mayor’s office knowing there is a warmth of welcome in my heart and in that of the City Council’. As an ambassador for the city she travelled New York City, where her magnificent presence in her robes of office literally stopped traffic, and the Czech Republic where, driving past in an open car, she was mistaken by many for royalty. Hyde passed away in a car accident in 1963. At her funeral in Coventry Cathedral, attended by more than a thousand people, the Bishop of Coventry named her ‘one of the most outstanding citizens Coventry has ever had’.
‘Bid to Stop Free Tea for Forces, City W.V.S. Refuse’, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 18 March 1943, p. 5.
Coventry History Centre, PA1753, Second World War: Coventry Women’s Voluntary Service Records.
‘Coventry Pays its Last Tribute to Pearl Hyde’, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 22 April 1963, p. 32.
Hinton, James, ‘Hyde, Pearl Marguerite (1904–1963)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 September 2004. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-73538?rskey=PAWqp5&result=1 (3 September 2018).
Hinton, James, Women, Social Leadership, and the Second World War (Oxford, 2002).
‘Local W.V.S. Has Issued Clothing Free To 85,000 People’, Coventry Standard, June 1948, p. 5.
‘Lord Mayor at London Reception’, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 24 October 1957, p. 15.
‘Magnificent Work of Coventry W.V.S.’, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 31 January 1941, p. 3.
‘Mrs Hyde Has “Interests of Whole City at Heart”’, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 23 May 1957, p. 9.
‘The Queen recalls her Coventry Visit’, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 14 July 1948, p. 5.
‘“Tremendous Loss” in Death of Pearl Hyde’, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 16 April 1963, p. 24.
‘Women’s A.R.P. Organiser’, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 11 July 1939, p. 8.
Pearl Hyde at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum
Second World War: Coventry Women’s Voluntary Service Records. Reference: PA1753
Photographs of Pearl Hyde with E M Forster and others at the Umbrella Club. Reference: PA1884/5/173.