Blog, Women's History

Recovering female small business owners in early twentieth-century Bath by Diana Russell

Many histories of Bath have focused on its rise to become Britain’s premier spa in the late eighteenth century before it slipped into staid respectability after its heyday.[i] The prevalent narrative suggests that ‘nothing much happened’ in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and even the First World War invites little comment. For those who lived there however, life continued with the trials, sorrows, pleasures, and tribulations that waging a war on both home and battlefronts involved. Yet Bath was, and still is, filled by industrious people who oil the cogs in the wheel of its commercial and retail activities. The ordinary women who ran numerous and arguably successful small businesses throughout the twentieth century have disappeared into anonymity. The purpose of my research is to recover the histories of these businesswomen from the first quarter of the century, exploring both their business enterprises and person lives. In doing so I hope to reveal a more complex image of Bath’s past and the varied social fabric which made up this spa town.

The turn of the twenty-first century has seen important additions to the historiography of women as business owners. Excellent studies include Hannah Barker’s examination of the lives of businesswomen in the Northern industrial towns of Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds in the late Georgian period, through to Nicola Phillips study of businesswomen through Sun Life insurance policies in London in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while Jennifer Aston’s has examined the position  of female business owners in late nineteenth-century Birmingham.[ii] Bath, by contrast, has failed to receive the same scholarly attention. Furthermore, the centenary of the First World War has stimulated an interest in local history. The emergence of new and exciting work that explores the existence of the ‘local’ home front has shifted the narrative of women’s involvement in the conflict away from the traditional view of munitions, nursing and volunteering.[iii]  It is the creation of these ‘local’ home fronts that is significant to my study to explore the experiences and opportunities for women living in Bath.

In my research, I began by mining the surviving local trade directories that have survived for the period 1911 through to 1926. From these directories I have extracted the names, addresses and occupations of those clearly identified as female and cross-reference them with other sources such as advertisements, articles and notices in local newspapers, and demographic information including census entries and details of births, marriages and deaths.

For example, the directories reveal that Irene Ellis appears to have begun her sweet shop and confectionary business at 29 Claverton Street in one of Bath’s poorer districts around 1916. Her husband Frank later claimed that he had originally started the business although there is no evidence to substantiate this.[iv] Moreover, the 1911 census returns listed no occupation for Irene, and gave Frank’s livelihood as an Electric Car Driver, and he subsequently went on the serve as  a sergeant in the 1st Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry.[v] By 1939, Irene was still running her business from the Claverton Street address.[vi] Separating at some point between the end of the 1918 and 1931, after the war, Frank ran a removal and haulage business from the same address. By this time, Irene not only continued to trade from Claverton Street but had also opened a second shop in Borough Walls which she subsequently sold to her daughter.[vii]  She died in 1962 leaving £878.[viii]

Alternatively, Ethel Cherry provides a sad example of the problems faced by women running their own business enterprises. Ethel was the proprietor of a nursing home originally situated in Park Street. By 1920, however, she had moved her establishment to the prestigious address of 16 Russell Street.[ix] She remained here until 1926 specialising in ophthalmic medicine until tragedy befell her. In April of that year, she suffered a nervous breakdown while staying in Cornwall for her health. She insisted however on returning to her business in Bath where in the early hours of Friday 9 April she fell to her death from an upstairs window impaling herself on the railing outside of her nursing home. The inquest found that she was affected by overwork and worry and recorded a verdict of “Death by throwing herself from a window while in a state of unsound mind”. Her brother gave evidence that she had found the work too much for her and this was exacerbated by the financial worry of buying the property. The coroner described her as having a “very pleasing and charming personality” thus providing an indication of her position in society.[x] It is interesting to note that despite the financial and other stresses Ethel seems to have experienced when she died at the age of 50, she left an estate valued at £1395 16s 9d, roughly £85,970 in 2019.[xi]

Both these cases – although from different ends of the social scale – suggest that women were able to make a successful living and to provide for themselves and their families. So far, therefore, my research suggests that perhaps the Great War provided women with openings to set up and develop businesses and that the post-war period also offered opportunities to expand. However, as the case of Ethel Cherry indicates, this was not without worry or stress. Irene’s story ends perhaps on a happier note but the reason why she became estranged from her husband has not come to light; their marriage could have been a casualty of the war.

Diana Russell is a part-time research student at the University of Worcester. Her research focusses on the impact of the First World War on female-run businesses in Bath.

Photo credit: Diana Russell 2013, 14 Pulteney Bridge, Bath

[i] Graham Davis, and Bonsall, Penny, A History of Bath: Image and Reality (Lancaster: Carnegie Publishing, 2006), Peter Borsay, The Image of Georgian Bath 1700-2000 Towns, Heritage & History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[ii] Hannah Barker, The Business of Women. Urban Development in Northern England 1760–1830 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), Nicola Phillips, Women in Business, 1700–1850 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006), Jennifer Aston, Female Entrepreneurship in Nineteenth-Century England: Engagement in the Urban Economy (Abingdon: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

[iii] Karen Hunt, ‘A Heroine at Home: The Housewife on the First World War Home Front’, in The Home Front in Britain: Images, Myths and Forgotten Experiences since 1914, ed. by Maggie Andrews and Janis Lomas (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 73-91.

[iv] ‘A Question of Means’, Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 8 August 1931, p.8.

[v] 1911 English Census <http;//www.https://www.ancestry.co.uk/> [accessed 28 December 2020], Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 20 February 1915, p. 8

[vi] 1939 Register <http;//www.https://www.ancestry.co.uk/> [accessed 28 December 2020].

[vii]  Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 8 August 1931, p.8.

[viii] England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995 <http;//www.https://www.ancestry.co.uk/> [accessed 28 December 2020].

[ix] Post Office Bath Directory, 1913, Post Office Bath Directory, 1920.

[x] Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 17 April 1926, p.25.

[xi] England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995 <http;//www.https://www.ancestry.co.uk/> [accessed 28 December 2020].

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