Margaret bondfield (1873-1953)
a lady ahead of her time
'the Lace Hands Daughter'
Margaret Bondfield known in private life as "Maggie", was born on 17 March 1873 in the our small country town of Chard. She was the tenth of eleven children, and third of four daughters born to William Bondfield and his wife Ann, née Taylor, the daughter of a Congregational minister.
William Bondfield, Margaret's father, was born in 1814, a year which became known as the winter of the “great snow” because of its bitterly cold winter. He became a lace-worker, and was well known locally for his radical views. He married Anne Taylor quite late in life but still managed to raise a large family. While some of the children became successful as newspaper editors, engineers, teachers or missionaries, it was his eleventh child, Margaret Grace, who was to become famous as the first women in Great Britain to become a cabinet minister.
Margaret was educated at Chard High Street School and at thirteen became a pupil teacher there for a year. As a pupil teacher Margaret was paid just 3 shillings a week. There were few job opportunities for educated girls in Chard and most local girls worked in the mills, the collar works, or they were in service. So, a year later at the tender age of 14, she moved from Chard and became apprenticed to a draper in Brighton.
Margaret, was sincerely religious throughout her life thanks to her families influence and early association with the Chard Congregational Church. She was described aa a bright bustling young women without any of the “primness” ascribed to her by some of her critics.
Forging Lifetime Values
Whilst in Brighton she “lived in” at the drapers and she became friendly with one of the customers, Louisa Martindale, who was a strong advocate of women’s rights. Margaret became a regular visitor to the Martindale home where shewas introduced to other radicals living in Brighton.
When she finished her apprenticeship Margaret found work in various drapery shops and it was here that she began to see how difficult working conditions were for working class people. In 1894 she went to live with her brother Frank in London and found work in a shop. Her personal experiences of shop work made her aware of poor working conditions for shop workers.
She wrote about the conditions that she lived in 'sleeping in bare, dingy, stuffy, dormitories, intolerably hot in summer, miserably cold in winter, never being alone even when washing. No place to keep ones things, except in a box under the bed. Nights spent with a poor consumptive girl who just coughed and coughed'
Margaret's career in Trade Unions
Her personal experiences of shop work in Brighton had roused her spirit and she joined the newly formed Shop Assistants, Warehouse Men and Clerks' Union and was its full time assistant. She was soon elected to the Union District Council. So began Margaret's lifelong interest in political organisations and unions. She attended conferences and wrote lively articles in the union magazine, The Shop Assistant, under the pen name of Grace Dare. In 1896, at the young age of 23, Clementina Black of the Women’s Industrial Council asked her to carry out an investigation into the pay and conditions of shop workers which was published in 1898 when Margaret was 25. This was the same year she was appointed secretary of the Shop Assistants Union. Margaret now dedicated herself full time to doing union work.
In one of her articles in 1898 she created a storm when she described the ideal marriage as one in which both partners went out to work and shared household tasks between them. However, she never married or had a family
The Chard Girl in Politics, a true Reformer
The results of her investigation for Clementia Black were much used by reformers and eventually led to the 1904 Shops Act.
In 1907 Margaret advised the playwright Cicely Hamilton, whose shop-based drama Diana of Dobsons appeared that same year. Margaret described the opening scene, set in a dreary, comfort-less women's dormitory over a shop, as very like the 'real' thing.
In 1908 she resigned from The Shop Workers Union and became secretary of the Women's Labour League. At this time, she was also active in the Women's Cooperative Guild. They were campaigning on pioneering issues such as minimum wage legislation, child welfare and improving infant mortality.
In 1910 the Liberal Government asked her to serve as a member of its Advisory Committee on the health Insurance Bill. Her efforts were rewarded when she persuaded the Government to include maternity benefits.
Margaret was not a Suffragette
Margaret was also Chairperson of the Adult Suffrage Society but wasn't a Suffragette. She felt they were just fighting for women's rights whereas Margaret wanted equal rights for all people whatever class they came from. At that time there were many men who didn't have a vote because they didn't own their own property.
Unlike some campaigners, she was totally opposed to the idea that initially only certain categories of women should be given the vote. She believed that such a limited franchise would act against the interests of the working class and feared it might form a barrier to the granting of universal adult suffrage. This unfortunately made her unpopular with middle class suffragettes who saw limited suffrage as an important step in the struggle to win the vote. \
World War 1 had brought an end to suffrage activities, however, from 1916 a Speakers Conference was convened to consider the issues of women’s franchise and make proposals for post war legislation. While Margaret pressed for universal adult suffrage the conference recommended only a limited extension to the franchise.
The subsequent Representation of the People Act, 1918, gave the vote to women over 30 who were property owners or the wives of property owners, or were university graduates. Margaret called this ‘mean and inadequate… creating fresh anomalies’
In 1928 all women and men over 21 got the vote increasing the voting population by 4 million. Margaret saw this as ‘a tremendous social advance’ and went on to say ‘at last (women) are established on that equitable footing because we are human beings and part of society as a whole’. Further she stated that ‘once and for all, we shall destroy the artificial barrier in the way of any women who want to get education in politics and who want to come forward and take their full share in the political life of their day’
Margaret's career in Politics
In 1923, the same year as she was chairman of the Trade Union Congress, she became one of the first women to be elected to the House of Commons. She was elected Labour MP for Northampton. When Ramsey McDonald became Prime Minister in 1924 he appointed her as parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Labour, but she lost her seat at the next election.
She was returned to Parliament as MP for Wallsend in 1926. When Ramsey McDonald became Prime Minister for the second time in 1929, she was appointed as his Minister of Labour. Margaret Bondfield became the first women to gain a place in a British Cabinet.
By this time her left-wing views had tempered to a more conservative stance and she conducted her ministry with a good deal of caution in a time of rising unemployment. During a time of great unease, she upset many Labour Party members when she supported the government policy of depriving some married women of their unemployment benefit.
Listen to Margaret reflecting on being appointed a Cabinet Minister in 1929
Watch Ramsey MacDonald introducing Margaret Bondfield as a Cabinet Minister in 1929
Watch Margaret Bondfield introducing other women MPs in 1929
Margaret moved to Brighton in 1887
A young Margaret Circa 1891
Cartoon of Margaret addressing colleagues Circa 1901
Margaret representing Womens International League. Circa 1909
Margaret standing for election in Northampton. Circa 1923.
Margaret and Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald. CIrca 1929
Margaret entering 10 Downing Street. Circa 1929
Margaret broadcasting from the BBC. CIrca 1930
Margaret's career after Parliament
The Labour Party never forgave her for her decision to support McDonalds National Government and in the ensuing election she lost her Wallsend seat and never again sat in Parliament. She returned to her trades union work but finally gave this up in 1938, although she continued to be interested in social issues and causes.
During the Second World War Margaret was involved in leading an investigation by the Hygiene Committee of the Women's Group on Public Welfare as she was their Chairperson. The group looked into the problems that arose from the large-scale evacuation into the countryside of city children and she spent time in the United States and Canada lecturing on behalf of the British Government.
The group's findings were published in 1943, as 'Our Towns: a Close-up'. The report gave many people their first understanding of the extent of inner-city poverty. Suggested solutions included nursery education, a minimum wage, child allowances and a national health service. Margaret again shows that she was a woman ahead of her time. These are still political hot potatoes today. In 1944 Margaret helped to launch a national drive for the appointment of more women police officers.
After the war she retired to Tunbridge Wells and later lived at Sanderstead in Surrey where she died on June 16th in 1953.
Margaret participating in a debate onthe BBC. Circa 1930.
It is hard to believe that a woman who achieved so many firsts throughout her life became almost unheard of in later decades.
Because Margaret based her actions in government on economic facts rather than on party interests; she became ‘caught between the opposition claims that she was soft on the unemployed, and her own backbenchers' jibe that she had abandoned the workers’.
Some of her later attitudes and criticisms of the Government reduced her standing in her own party for decades.
Margaret in retirement. Circa 1948
When Barbara Castle was appointed Minister of Labour by Harold Wilson in 1968, she insisted that the ministry's name be changed to 'Department of Employment', for fear of association with Margaret's term in office. Castle refused to contribute a preface to a Fabian Society booklet celebrating Margaret's life, because she considered her predecessor's actions close to political betrayal.
In 2001, a speech by Tony Blair celebrating the Labour Party's 100 years in parliament paid tributes to many heroes of the movement's early years; Margaret's name was not mentioned.
Today we should be proud of Margaret and acknowledge her amazing achievements at a time when women were not usually in positions of power and where women in politics were rare.
A Lady from Chard, ahead of her time.
Many thanks to Chantel Hallet for pulling together the many resources available in the Museum's archives and creating this presentation; and to Gwyneth Jackson, our Display's CoOrdinator whose knowledge and passion for Margaret Bondfield supported the process of preparing the story of her achievements.