Episode One covers the larger part of Florence White life and explores the influences that surrounded her and to which she would later return.
Florence White was born into extreme poverty in Bradford in 1886. She spent her early life in a one up one down in a small cut known as Furnace Street where she grew up with her mother working full time and taking in washing and baking to make ends meet. Her father, James, was absent most of her young life. He was politically active with strong Liberal leanings and spent much of his time touring the seaside resorts of the north pamphleteering on a range of subjects that affected the poor. His intelligence and drive was passed onto Florence although, with no money to continue her education, she left school at twelve to go and work in at Tankard’s Mill where she began in the wool top shed. It was here that Florence first made friends with the quartet of women who would influence her thoughts in later life as she contemplated taking on the government over the issue of spinsters’ pensions. The work was hard and monotonous, ten and a half hour days. Whether it was due to this monotony or some other factor, in 1904 she suffered an undisclosed breakdown and left the mill.
With her elder brother now married and Florence not contributing to the meagre income of the family they were rescued by her mother’s half brother who offered them a ‘through-house’ in Planetrees Road. This move was to change her life. Florence got herself a sewing machine and took in sewing and, being blessed with a natural talent on the piano, she gave lessons. The two businesses were a successthanks to Florence’s determined drive and soon she persuaded her younger sister Annie to leave Tankard’s and to join her.
Now in their early twenties, the sisters enjoyed a life they could never have expected – trips to Blackpool and Morecombe were frequent. Caroline, their mother, was left behind and took on a servile role within the household as Florence’s domineering personality gripped the family and held it in her sway. This was a time of the suffragette movement and, despite being politically active, Florence never felt the need to join them and was somewhat disapproving of their direct action methods. Florence was, by her own admission, anti-feminist despite what she went onto to do.
Annie’s life had moved on to. She left Tankard’s and worked with Florence but she showed a particular interest in the theatre and was soon writing plays and pantomimes for the local am-dram societies to much local acclaim. She also signed up for confectionary classes, a move that would pay-off later in her life.
Love came late to Florence and Annie. At thirty Florence became engaged to Albert Whitehead whilst Annie was being courted by Charles Depledge, a local plumber. Florence was very much a woman of her generation and marriage was a state to which women of the time aspired and expected to attain. Florence was no different.
EPISODE ONE ends with Florence accepting Albert’s proposal of marriage. She had attained her heart’s desire to be a wife. Little did she know that there were dark days ahead.
Episode Two begins with the promise of marriage but the war intervened taking Albert off to France before they could exchange vows. He was never to return. Albert died of complication of pneumonia in the First World War. The loss of her love caused much bitterness in Florence to the point when she forced her sister to give up her own boyfriend. Quite how she managed to bend Annie to her will is a mystery but is symbolic of the symbiotic relationship these two women had their whole lives and makes, at times, for a touching and poignant story.
The First World War had a huge social impact on the makeup of British society. Over 2 million women remained single due to the sheer numbers of men lost or maimed as a result of this devastating war. The state of matrimony desired and needed by so many, eluded them. Marriage wasn’t always about love. For many women it was about security. The fledgling welfare state of Lloyd George provided security in old age for widows whose husbands had paid contributions but for the spinsters who had also paid, a lapse could mean an old age of penury and misery; waiting to attain the age of 70 and the chance to claim means assessed payments.
It was this unfairness in the system, whereby if a woman was lucky enough to get married she was taken care of at fifty-five with a pension she had not contributed towards against whilst spinsters that had worked all their life but through ill-health, unemployment or care of an elderly dependent relative, were deprived of theirs that galvanised
Florence into action. But it was some years before she decided to act.
Caroline died in 1927. Two years later, in 1929 Annie, who had been diligently laying aside money to pay for the rent on a corporation property, set up a confectionary/bakers shop and the sisters moved to Scholemoor Road. Florence was roped into help and it became clear that she was more of a hindrance than anything, being, as she was, wholly undomesticated.
In 1935, recalling some of the women that she had met whilst at Tankard’s and seeing the poverty around her caused by the Pensions Acts of 1925 and 1929 –Florence broached the subject at a meeting of the local Liberal Party of which she was now a committee member. The chairman agreed to Florence setting up a sub-committee to look into the claims of unfairness that she had raised but it was not a success. Florence’s mercurial temper got the better of her and her obvious bias for women like her, unmarried and with little chance of attaining this state, led to the swift disbanding of it after one meeting. Undeterred, and determined to go it alone and do it her way, Florence took her case to Herbert Holdsworth, Liberal MP for Bradford South. It was an inspired move and typical of the bravado that Florence possessed. Herbert took up her cause. The first meeting was a sensation with over 600 people, mostly women, turning up. Herbert recruited Lady Fisher-Smith, one of Yorkshire’s leading political and social workers who was a strong advocate on issues to do with children and the probation service. Together with Isobel Forsythe a local solicitor and avowed spinster, they formed the first branch of the
Spinsters Pensions Association.
Episode Two ends with Florence receiving a standing ovation from the audience and a mandate to begin the campaign proper on behalf of what she now termed ‘war spinsters’.
Episode Three begins in the confectionery shop which is a thriving business and Florence’s determination to stand at the Preston by-election on the pension ticket. It ended in a sound defeat but did little to dint Florence’s confidence in the right of her cause.
Within a few months of that first meeting in Bradford branches of the Spinsters Pensions Association were springing up all over the north. Florence was a phenomenon. She travelled over 20 thousand miles in one year, delivering inspiring speeches to the various branches. Letters were coming in from all over the world and, in the south, women were clamouring to join and have their own branches.
The cause was gaining momentum and the aim was clear – equal pension rights with widows for all spinsters including those who had been unable to contribute due to care of dependent relatives.
1937 was a golden year for the movement. A mass rally in London was organised and attended by thousands of women and supporters from all over the country. A petition was handed into Parliament containing over one million signatures. By
November 1938 the National (as it became known) Spinsters Pensions Association had over 140,000 member and 104 branches. Over 100 parcels and 1,400 letters were going out from Florence’s cramped office over the confectionary shop Annie now owned in Scholemoor Road.
But the Conservative government wasn’t bending to the will of the people. Time and time again Sir Kingsley Wood, the Minister for Health refused to grant the NSPA requests. In
December of 1937 Florence organised a mass petition – over 12,000 Christmas cards were sent to Sir Kingsley from spinsters nationwide. The organisation was now so large and prominent that MPs were beginning to take sides.
In the early part of 1938 James Leach MP for Bradford East managed to table a motion in the House of Commons to force the government to set up an enquiry to look into the cause of spinster pension rights. After a fierce debate the house was divided and the motion was carried. Florence was jubilant.
Episode Three ends with Florence preparing for the LeQuesne Enquiry with her usual thoroughness and attention to getting all the facts. Facts were Florence’s weapon and she deployed them with ease and careful aim. The last scene is Florence sitting on a bench in the cemetery close by the graves of those women to whom her thoughts had turned at the outset of her campaigning.
END OF EPISODE THREE
Florence White came from inauspicious beginnings and grew up to become a force to be reckoned with. Despite the outcome of the enquiry going against the spinsters – she fought on and remained a determined advocate for the rights of spinsters until her death in 1961 when she passed away suddenly just as she was leaving to attend another meeting.
In 1940 the government lowered the retirement age for women from 65 to 60 as a direct result of Florence’s actions which is how we came to have the anomaly in pensionable age that survived until recent times.
Florence headed the largest women’s social reform group of the 1930’s and did so through drive, intelligence and determination. She is little known but her story is an inspiration.
FIFTY-FIVE tells the story of this remarkably driven woman from a humble background and her fight for equal rights for spinsters in three 50 minute episodes.