Originally published 12 January 2004
New research by a historian at the University of Warwick reveals that contrary to popular belief the war effort did little to improve the lot and enhance equality for working class women, and those from humble backgrounds. However, Pearl Hyde, daughter of a north London publican, wartime organiser of Coventry WVS (women's voluntary services), and future Lord Mayor, is identified as one of the few exceptions to that rule.
Dr James Hinton's book ‘Women, Social Leadership, and the Second World War’ asserts that while WVS consolidated middle class social leadership, it provided very few working class women with an avenue for democratic advance. At a national level few working class Labour women played leading roles in the WVS in the Second World War, and most key players were upper-middle-class women.
But Pearl Hyde, who came from a humble background, revolutionised Coventry's WVS: 'According to her second in command, when Hyde took over as centre leader in Coventry shortly before the outbreak of war the WVS was 'a rather insipid friendly little "tea party" affair. Though well supported by the middle-class women's organisations, it had cut no ice with the Labour council who were inclined to dismiss it as "a snob show"'.
Winning a council seat in 1937, Hyde was involved in the WVS from the outset and altered its fundamentally middle class make-up. Hyde's decision to take on the leadership- made in consultation with the Labour leader on the council- marked a change of relations and an alliance between WVS and the local authority.
The Coventry blitz and Humphrey Jenning's documentary film 'Heart of Britain' in which she features, made Hyde into a celebrity. Hyde voiced the part played by women in the war. As the camera lingers on a shot of WVS tea-making volunteers Jenning's voice over intones: 'Here in Coventry, those everyday tasks of the women came right through the fire and became heroic.' Speaking directly to the camera Hyde explains: 'You know you feel such a fool standing there in a crater holding a mug of tea…until a man says "it washed the blood and dust out of my mouth" and you know you have really have done something useful.'
Audiences cheered her in New York, and her courage and energy trivialised complaints that she had exceeded her authority during the blitz.
Hyde's willingness to publicise the role played by women in the war effort in Jenning's 'Heart of Britain' contrasted with other WVS members. WVS leaders recognised that gender and the rising prominence of women were often at the root of local political tensions, and male egos were handled with care. Centre organisers were encouraged not to seek press publicity for their actions. Mrs Rawnsey, Lindsay Organiser, stated women 'must be prepared to be the tool of other people, to do the work, but to let others get the praise'.
Her WVS role enabled Hyde to surpass her humble background, enter the local middle class, and to become a prominent figure in public relations and charity work. After the war she became pubic relations executive, first for Massey Ferguson and then, from 1960, for Associated Television. She played a leading role in local Labour politics, serving as Lord Mayor in 1957. By the early 1950s she was a prominent figure in charity work in Coventry, and she chaired the town's annual Music Festival.
For more information contact:
Dr James Hinton,
University of Warwick,
Tel: 02476 523979,
Home: 0116 210 9634