Caroline Haslett: freed women from domestic drudgery

Today’s blog post tells of a pioneering woman of the 20th century whose feminism took a very practical form. Caroline Haslett was born in 1895 in Sussex, where her father was a railway engineer. She grew up preferring to play with machinery rather than dolls. A bad back kept her from attending school regularly, and as a result she was considered not strong enough to ever lead a normal life and was advised to leave school as it would be a waste of time. But she worked on strengthening her spine and not only finished school, but also attended secretarial college. In her teens, she became a suffragette. Her first job was as a secretary with the Cochran Boiler Company in London in 1914, just as war was breaking out in Europe. The shortage of men gave Caroline her chance to learn about the engineering side of the company and by 1918 she moved to Cochran’s Scotland site. In 1919 she took the job of secretary with the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), which had been founded to ensure that the opportunities provided by the war for women to enter traditionally male professions were not lost. Caroline worked tirelessly to break down the prejudices of employers towards women in the workplace, and to ensure that women gained access to courses at universities and engineering institutions that had previously been open only to men. The society also provided career advice.

But Caroline wanted to help all women, not just those seeking careers. In the early 1920s, few houses had electric light or heating, and domestic appliances were rare. As a child Caroline had been horrified by her mother’s daily routine, later saying: ‘… and so the work of the house went on: sweeping, scrubbing, polishing and dusting, all done by hand. No wonder Mother got tired.’ She realised that the grueling burden of housework was causing women to become ill. In 1922 Caroline surveyed women to find which appliances would be most useful to them. The most popular answer was a dishwasher followed by a vacuum cleaner. Her survey led to her proposing an organisation to educate women about the uses of electricity and how to use electrical appliances in the home. The WES weren’t supportive so instead Caroline co-founded the Electrical Association for Women (EAW). The organisation’s slogan was ‘emancipation from drudgery’. Caroline is quoted as saying: ‘We are coming to an age when the spiritual and higher state of life will have freer development, and this is only possible when women are liberated from soul-destroying drudgery … I want every woman to have leisure to acquaint herself more profoundly with the topics of the day.’ As well as giving women careers advice, the EAW campaigned for safety awareness courses, as well as producing magazines and books such as ‘The Electrical Handbook for Women’. Women learned how to wire a plug and visited power stations to see how electricity was produced.

Caroline traveled widely to promote her mission, meeting Albert Einstein and Henry Ford. In the process, she became well known and was featured in a 1920s newspaper article entitled “Miss All-Alone”. Her independent lifestyle, flat-sharing in London and doing her own electrical wiring, was practically unheard of at the time.

During the Second World War, Caroline was the only woman member on a committee that investigated the standards for electrical installations in post-war Britain and instigated changes to the designs of electrical plugs to make them safer. From then onwards, Caroline presided over many committees, including becoming the first woman to chair a government working party and the first female chair of the British Electricity Development Association. Caroline’s achievements were recognised when she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1947. She died 10 years later, and her dying wish was that she be cremated by electricity.

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Phyllis Pearsall – inventor of the A-Z

The subject of today’s blog post is an unusual one – a woman who set out to be an artist but her enduring legacy can be seen all over the UK in A-Z street atlases.

Phyllis Gross was born in London in 1906 to wealthy though mismatched parents – a flamboyant Hungarian Jewish immigrant and an Irish-Italian Roman Catholic suffragette. The marriage didn’t last and Phyllis was sent to Roedean, a private boarding school, until her father went bankrupt and she was forced to leave. Her mother had by now remarried and no-one seemed concerned about her welfare so at 14, she went to Paris, working as a tutor and shop assistant, even sleeping rough until she could afford to fund herself to study at the Sorbonne. She travelled around Europe, trying to establish herself as an artist, but only earned a modest living. During this time she married an artist friend of her brothers, Richard Pearsall. But marriage didn’t suit her; after 8 years she left Richard in a Venice hotel room, while he was asleep, and never remarried.

In the 1930s Phyllis’s father, wrote to her, asking her to publish in England a map of the world produced by his company in the United States. By this time he had emigrated after losing the map company he had originally established in London. She reluctantly agreed and learned the technical aspects of printing. One evening, after getting lost on her way to a party, realised that there was a need for a cheap but accurately indexed atlas of the rapidly expanding London. And so the A-Z was born. She researched it herself, walking 3,000 miles to check the names of the 23,000 streets of London, waking up at 5am every day, and working an 18-hour working day. The first issue apparently was missing Trafalgar Square from the index since Phyllis had knocked a shoebox of cards marked ‘T’ out of her office window.

No-one was interested in publishing the resulting street atlas, so she printed 10,000 copies herself. More snubs were to come – Hatchards, Selfridges and Foyles would not see her – but WH Smith agreed to take 1,250 copies, which she delivered herself with a borrowed hand-barrow. Although not the first street map of London – Bartholomew’s Reference Atlas of London and Suburbs had been published two decades earlier – its visual style was appealing and easy to read. The book became a huge success and soon she was taking orders from every railway station in London. Her striking use of colour, orange for A roads and yellow for B roads, was adopted into the language of London taxi drivers, who called them ‘oranges’ and ‘lemons.’ Phyllis set up her own company, The Geographer’s Trust, which still publishes the London A-Z and that of every major British city.

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During the Second World War, selling maps to the public was forbidden, but Phyllis worked for the Ministry of Information, producing maps of Europe. She wanted to be a war artist like her brother but instead produced a booklet to boost the morale of women in wartime. Although not published (eventually surfacing as a book entitles Women at War in 1990), it contained drawings of women in a variety of activities, from nursing to munitions factories. However her presence wasn’t always welcome and she was almost arrested for drawing a naval aerodrome when she was meant to be sketching Wrens at work.

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It has been claimed since that Phyllis’s story was largely self-invented and that the truth of her map-making was much more mundane – the street plans would have been available at the local authorities. But for me this adds to her charm – a story-teller as well as an artist. She became a millionaire, wrote her autobiography, From Bedsitter to Household Name, and in 2014, her story became a musical on the London stage. But she thought of herself first and foremost as an artist and continued to paint until her death in 1996, a month before her 90th birthday.