Thursday, 3 June 2010

The Adventures of Bertha Sturdy

‘Well, who was this woman? Thereby hangs a tale.’

Not my words, but those of Bertha Sturdy, my great-grandmother. She is pictured above with her husband and children Hilda, Thomas (my grandfather) and Edith.

One of my most treasured possessions is a little book entitled ‘A Yorkshire Woman Came to Blackpool and stayed thirty years’. It’s no more than a pamphlet really, and she had it printed herself, but it very inspiring insight into the rather eventful life of a woman I never met. Born in 1880, she lived to be 92, and she certainly packed a lot into those years, as her short memoir explains.

The book starts with a small section about her childhood, and includes the fact that she left school at the age of 13 ‘because I had a job to go to’. She mentions that she had 4 children before the age of 25 (one out of wedlock, I happen to know – but oddly enough, she doesn’t mention that!).

She then stresses that she doesn’t want to talk about having children or struggling to make ends meet, and claims ‘Oh no, you see I went a lot further – I went to town!’ (the last four words in bold for extra emphasis!).

Bertha arrived in Blackpool about the beginning of WW2, and she became involved with the WVS ‘on a big scale.’ This involved a fair amount of public speaking, which she clearly enjoyed:

‘I was becoming known as a public speaker, not an orthodox type by any standards. Oh no, not on your life – I couldn’t help but add some broad Yorkshire, and you can bet your life I played up to my listeners who were usually women who were attending the Salvation Army, Women’s Free Church Council, Liberal Party, Co-operative Women and several other women’s organisations. Oh, I just loved it; I brought a breath of the countryside and the women just loved to hear me break out in the Yorkshire dialect.’

She then comments that she then ‘came in touch with the seamy side of Blackpool’, but which she means the strip shows. ‘I realised I couldn’t give a true record when I hadn’t even seen one of the shows,’ she writes, ‘so not to be beaten, I disguised myself and went along.’ Indeed, she was photographed doing just that and there’s a clipping somewhere (that I’ve yet to unearth) showing her walking along the seafront in strange garb…

What did she uncover? She declares the strip show ‘a sorry spectacle of degrading the human form in front of an audience which expected nothing better.’ She reckons that her campaigning meant that the Golden Mile was cleaned up and that ‘Princess Anne herself’ visited it on an official visit.

Another campaign she was involved with for over 20 years was the Flyde House of Help for unmarried mothers and girls in distress. She writes ‘I was very concerned with this particular kind of service which really gives a helping hand in times of need.’

During the war, it came to Bertha’s attention that widows did not receive any extra war gratuity when their only sons were ‘called up’. She therefore set up the Mothers’ Pension Association, branches of which were set up all over England. She also began travelling to the House of Commons once a month to interview MPs in the lobby. She writes:

‘What a life of excitement I had entered into, and it was “right up my street.” I journied [sic] to London by the 10 O’Clock night train from Blackpool, arrived in London in the very early hours of the following morning, waited on the station on one of the seats until it became daylight, then made my way to a Lyons’ Café for breakfast and to tidy myself up a bit. I then took the bus to the centre of London and Westminster.’

She also recalls organising a march from Trafalgar Square to the Houses of Parliament, as well as visiting Fleet Street (‘the hub of the news world’, it says here!) to be interviewed about the campaign. Although the demands of the Association were not met, Bertha concludes that they at least managed to ‘rouse public opinion in hundreds of towns and villages in England, Scotland and who knows where.’

Next, she got involved with the Old Age Pensioners’ Association, helping to set up many local branches and even holding auditions for Wilfred Pickles’ pensioners’ television programmes in her front room, bizarrely. She also campaigned for better living conditions for older people, and writes:

‘The places for me to visit nearly broke my heart; there were old people living in basements and back rooms of the worst conditions I had ever seen. I was shocked.’

She was one for blowing her own trumpet – I quote ‘so many good things came into being because I pushed things forward.’ Never let it be said that Yorkshire folk don’t know their own worth!

However, she will admit that some things were beyond her capabilities. She went to help out at a home for children with disabilities but writes that ‘I had to let it pass me by because it made me depressed.’ Rather than abandon the issue entirely, she decided to fundraise for the group instead.

She was involved with a great many more campaigns, but I think the above gives a flavour of her endeavours. Towards the end she concludes:

‘I am still a member of the Liberal Party and if I were younger I would try and join the Women’s Liberation Party. […]. There I was, too busy with my babies when Votes for Women were being fought for, and oh, how I would enjoy having a ‘go’ with Women’s Liberation.’

Needless to say, Bertha Sturdy is my favourite ancestor, and I’m hugely proud of her achievements. I’m also so very glad that she put it all down on paper, otherwise I doubt I’d have known any of this. My mother said, of Bertha’s activism and campaigning zeal, “it must have skipped a few generations...”. It did – two to be exact!