Papers of Ross Davies [Biography of Margaret Bondfield]

Archive Collection
  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 106 7ROD
  • Former Reference
      GB 106 7/YYY9; 7/MBO
  • Dates of Creation
      1970s-1980s
  • Language of Material
      English
  • Physical Description
      1 A box (8 folders)
  • Direct Link

Scope and Content

The archive consists of correspondence, background biographical material relating to Margaret Bondfield, press cuttings and working papers of Ross Davies relating to the biography of Margaret Bondfield.

Administrative / Biographical History

In Jan 1975 Ross Davies, then working on The Times, began to collect material for a biography of Margaret Bondfield, and, in 1978, having written to various individuals and asked for further information in the New Statesman, he spoke on his 'search for the real Margaret Bondfield' on radio's Women's Hour.

Margaret Grace Bondfield (1873-1953) was born to William Bondfield and Anne Taylor in 1873. Her education ended with elementary school and her first job was as a pupil teacher at Chard Elementary School in 1886. She subsequently became a shop assistant in Briton in 1887 where she became acquainted with Louisa Martindale who encouraged her to continue her education. In 1894 she moved to London to live with her brother Frank and there found similar employment and soon became active in the Shoe Assistants’ Union as well as the Fabian Society. There she also joined the Idealists’ Club and met prominent radicals such as George Bernard Shaw and began writing articles for the publication ‘The Shop Assistant’ under the name of Grace Dare. In 1896, she was asked by Clementina Black of the Women's Industrial Council to carry out an investigation into the pay and conditions of shop workers and the report was published two years later. After this work she became recognised as Britain's leading expert on shop workers, giving evidence to the Select Committee on Shops in 1902 and to the Select Committee on the Truck System in 1907. In 1908, Bondfield resigned from the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants and Warehousemen and Clerks where she had been assistant secretary since 1898, to become the secretary of the Women's Labour League. In 1910 she assisted the WIC’s inquiry into the pay of married women before being asked by the Liberal Government to serve on the Advisory Committee on the Health Insurance Bill. Her influence led to the inclusion of maternity benefits to be paid to the mother in the final bill of the WCG on creating legislation for a minimum wage. Between 1912 and 1915, she also worked for the Women’s Trades Union League and the National Federation of Women Workers as well as with Women's Co-operative Guild in its campaign for minimum wage legislation as well as improvement in child welfare. A member of the Independent Labour Party, she was also interested in the issue of women’s suffrage, but unlike many in the area refused to accept a franchise that was to be extended only to certain categories of women drawn from certain classes of society, excluding the working classes from the right to vote. Consequently, she became Chair of the Adult Suffrage Society. Due to her religious beliefs, when the First World War broke out, she was equally opposed to the pro-war stance taken by both the Women’s Social and Political Union and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Instead, she spoke at a pacifist rally in Trafalgar Square in 1914, then joined the UDC and the Women’s Peace Crusade. In 1916, she was one of the founders of the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations and was a delegate at the International Labour and Socialist Conference in Berne in 1918. After the war, her activities increased once more: she became the Chair of the Women’s International Council of Socialist and Labour Organisations as well as being the first female member of the TUC’s Parliamentary Committee in 1918. Her involvement with the TUC was close, becoming a member of the General Council from 1918-1924 and then again from 1926 to 1929. In 1920 she was the joint representative of the Labour party and the TUC sent her to the USSR and there she met Lenin. She contested the seat of Northampton in 1920 and then again in 1922, finally being elected to the House of Commons in 1923 as Labour MP for the city. In her first year in the house, she was appointed to the Labour Government’s Emergency Committee on Unemployment and the following year was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Labour. It was this seat in the cabinet that Bondfield herself took in 1929 as the MP for Wallsend, becoming the first female British minister. However, during the heart of the Depression in 1931, many in the feminist and labour movements attacked Bondfield when she supported a government policy that would deprive some married women of unemployment benefit. That same year, she lost her seat at the general election after losing support from her constituency for taking this step and though she contested it once more in 1935, she was never returned to parliament again. Her continued involvement in politics was done through work as an activist. In the late 1930’s she travelled to the United States of America and Mexico to study labour conditions before returning to become the Vice President of the National Council of Social Services. During the Second World War, she was chair of the Women's Group on Public Welfare as well as undertaking a lecture tour of Canada and the USA for the British Information Services between 1941 and 1943. She was appointed a Companion of Honour in 1948, before retiring to a nursing home in Surrey where she died in 1953.

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is available for research. Readers are advised to contact The Women's Library in advance of their first visit.

Acquisition Information

Donated by Ross Davies in 1988.

Other Finding Aids

Fawcett Library Catalogue

Related Material

The Women’s Library holds material relating to Margaret Bondfield in the records of Dr. Patricia Shaw (reference 7PTS). Full text of the work on the National Federation of Women Workers (7ROD/5) may be found in the Papers of Dorothy Mary Elliott (7DEL).

London Metropolitan University Trades Union Congress Library Collections holds diary and papers, 1920, ref. Bondfield; Manchester University: Labour History Archives and Study Centre holds correspondence of Bondfield, 1909-1931 (Ref: MP) (list deposited in National Register of Archives as NRA 14863 Labour Party); London University: British Library of Political and Economic Science, London School of Economics holds correspondence with the Independent Labour Party, 1915-1947 (Ref: BLPES/ILP/Section 4 passim, see also NRA 42988 Independent); Vassar College Library, Poughkeepsie, New York, United States of America, holds Correspondence, diaries and papers (Ref: Bondfield MSS).