Women on the Buses

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | March 7, 2018 0

Tomorrow 8th March is International Women’s Day and a good day to reflect on how far we have come in gender equality and how far we have to go.

International Women’s Day is a worldwide event that celebrates women’s achievements – from the political to the social – while calling for gender equality. It has been observed since the early 1900s and is now recognised each year on March 8. It is not affiliated with any one group, but brings together governments, women’s organisations, corporations and charities. The day is marked around the world with arts performances, talks, rallies, networking events, conferences and marches. So of the many struggles we could mention, the election of Constance Markevich as the first female MP in 1918, the Ford women in Dagenham, Jayaben Desai leading the downtrodden Grunwick workers on strike let us focus on the oft forgotten heroic clippies of London when “On the Buses” was far from a comedy.


Those were the Good Ol’ days? An advert by London Transport for single women (!) in the Irish Independent, 8th January 1958. I can only imagine what the “every modern comfort & means of recreation meant.” Bunk beds, monopoly board and wireless at night and hot water in the morning! However this ad is also a reminder of hard times in Ireland in what became known as the hungry 50’s as Ireland stagnated behind tariff barriers and the control systems of The Catholic Taliban. To keep the illusion of “respectability” at home it exported its young people on the hoof. clippieposterclippiesElephant&Castle1948g

Commentators have variously referred to 1950s in Ireland as the decade of ‘doom and gloom’, the ‘worst decade since the famine’ and the ‘lost decade’.  Agriculture, the traditional mainstay of the Irish economy, continued to decline throughout the 1950s. The state dedicated insufficient effort to developing new industries to fill the gap created by the demise of, in particular, of the small farm rural economy. As a consequence, little work was available for thousands of young people coming of age. Unemployment remained high throughout and it was estimated that from 1949 to 1956, real national income rose by only 8 per cent, at a time when the average increase in Europe equated to approximately 40 per cent.  Most young people knew that the only way to secure steady employment was to cross the Irish Sea.  In the 1950’s there were only two European Countries where the population actually declined. One was East Germany and, very shamefully, the other was Ireland.

Indeed to understand the Irish sensitivity about a “Hard Border” after Brexit you have to understand the disastrous economic history of Independent Ireland.  Whether you were Nationalist or Unionist Partition was a huge shock to the Irish psyche – neither tradition saw it coming and it was economically disastrous as Ireland became two reactionary states neither of which represented or looked after their people very well. In the Irish Free State in the 10 years after 1922 over 500,000 emigrated due to a combination of not identifying with the new order and the economy contracting as many businesses folded or left. When de Valera was elected in 1932 Ireland was experiencing the Great Depression and with the ideological knuckle headedness which was his hallmark he embarked on an “Economic War” with Britain which Britain simply did not notice – it substituted Irish produce with supplies from Argentina and New Zealand and raised tariffs on Irish exports to collect the money anyway  forcing many businesses such as Guinness to change their domicile to the UK. In the 40’s in “Neutral Ireland” many such as my Grandfather and Uncles went to Britain for work, in their case living for four years in dormitories at the Lucas works in Birmingham. It was only in the 60’s that Ireland began to grow economically and in the 2000’s that emigration was reversed, but only for a few years. clippies

clippies4In the 1950s, approximately half a million left the Irish Republic. Considering the country’s population than stood at less than 3 million, to lose approximately 16% of your population – most of whom were very young and left to gain employment abroad – in one decade was astonishing. Indeed, Ireland shared the ignominy of being the only country in Europe to see its population decline in the 1950s along with East Germany. Roughly three out of every five children who grew up in 1950s Ireland left the country at some stage.

At home behind tariff barriers for those left behind the control systems, censorship and hypocrisy were stifling. It’s amazing how attitudes were so different not so long ago. I was an Irish Civil Servant and up to 1974 women had to resign on marriage and if you were a Bank employee you had to get their approval to marry, so your other half wouldn’t lower the “standing of the Corporation.” Hard to know how you could lower the standing of a bank today! These rules were not unique to Ireland, English female Civil Servants had to resign on marriage until 1946 and Barclay’s employees had to get the bank’s approval to get married until 1961. But in de Valera’s Ireland we had lost none of our lack of competence to hang onto crap rules and then engage in an orgy of backslapping as to how “progressive” we were when we got rid of them way after everybody else. routemasters

Women HAD to resign on marriage for their place was in the home not taking jobs away from able bodied men folk (sic)! They got a “marriage gratuity” dependent on length of service but for that they also lost their pension rights. I was an Irish Civil Servant in the 80’s and there is no easy way to say this, the middle management often consisted of middle-age spinsters with a chip on their shoulder and nowhere to go. It was hugely regressive and patronising policy which gave a very clear and backward message.

By any standards for most of the years behind all the guff about “throwing off the yoke” and gaining our freedom Independent Ireland was a failed society which failed to care for its people, failed to give them hope and by and large failed to give them employment. Over 500,000 people emigrated in the decade after Independence. In the 30’s with the Great Depression and the so called “Annuity Wars” with England there was nowhere to emigrate to and poverty and hunger stalked the festering land. In the 1940’s Ireland was “neutral” and a “State of emergency” was declared while the rest of the world was largely at war. De Valera’s Ireland refused to allow entry to Jewish refugees. After the war (in which 50,000+ Irish fought with British forces) Ireland was by passed in the Marshall Plan reconstruction of Europe while De Valera called on the German Ambassador to offer his condolences on Herr Hitler’s death, the only non Axis leader to do so. In 1946 he also went on a “World Tour” to see his friends who consisted solely of General Franco in Spain and General Salazar in Portugal.  And then you had the “Hungry fifties” in which London Transport recruited “Single Women.” clippie2

No doubt the women who went over to London felt hugely grateful and excited at the opportunity, not to mention the promise of “modern comforts”. But ten years later in 1968 the Clippies (female bus conductors) of London went on strike to protest at the lack of equality. They realised they were not getting the pensions that male employees were getting and they had no prospect of promotion as the Drivers were all male. This was a hangover from the days when you required the strength of a horse to steer a bus but the innovative Routemaster designs introduced by London Transport from 1958 had power steering, automatic gearboxes and hydraulic brakes so you did not need to be Popeye the Sailor man with extra spinach rations to operate them. The Clippies won their battles for equal pay and opportunity and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Skibbereen Eagle

In 1898, to widespread bemusement, a small Provincial Newspaper in an equally small town in the South West corner of Ireland sonorously warned the Czar of Russia that it knew what he was up to and he should be careful how he proceeded for “The Skibbereen Eagle” was wise to his game and in future would be keeping its eye on him! It is doubtful that Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, even noticed the Eagle’s admonitions but as history soon proved he should have paid closer attention to the Eagle’s insightful opinions!

Today, powered by its readers and contributors, from its cyber eyries in Ireland and the centres of the Irish Diaspora The Eagle casts its Cold Eye on Life and Death and much in between.
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