The Housewives of Wythenshawe: A History of Political Involvement and the Power of Local Campaigns
The school at which the Wythenshawe Communist Party’s ‘Trial of “Mary Brown” A THRIFTLESS HOUSEWIFE’ took place in 1946, featuring Mrs. Muriel Taylor as the accused.
In 1946 the Wythenshawe branch of the Communist party held a mock trial at Benchill school with a ‘Mary Brown’ on trial for poor use of income. At this trial, you would “hear an average housewife’s case on the rising cost of living”, with the aim of the trial being to show how increasingly urgent it was becoming to raise wages, control the prices of vegetables and fruit, extend utility prices to household goods and, most importantly, to bring the cost of living index up-to-date (1). Mrs. Muriel Taylor played ‘Mary Brown’ in this mock trial and talks about it in her interview about housing in Wythenshawe, which is part of the Manchester Studies Oral History collection. A year later she took on the role once more for the Manchester and Salford Communist party at Chorlton Town Hall.
Mrs. Taylor talks about how she played the role of ‘Mary Brown’ in a Communist party mock trial. (1103/117)
In the audio clip she mentions that the founders of the Working Class Movement Library, Ruth and Eddie Frow, had many of the materials from the mock trial. In order to learn more about this trial and Mrs. Taylor I decided I had to go and see these materials at the WCML. Using the online search of their collection, I found they had many of Mrs. Taylor’s electoral addresses, as she ran for the Benchill ward as the Communist party candidate for many years. At the WCML they also had a ticket, poster and newspaper cuttings about the mock trial, one of which was from the Wythenshawe Recorder and was Mrs. Taylor writing as ‘Mary Brown’ breaking down what the trial proved and what she thought should happen next. She wrote that maybe “housewives could get together and demonstrate to the “powers that be” that we simply cannot manage and that prices must be controlled and lowered and wages increased” (2). Her call to other housewives to use their voices and speak up about their troubles is something that can be seen here, before she had even joined the Communist party, and is also something that is clear throughout her interview.
Mrs. Taylor talks about dealing with issues locally and campaigning. (1103/117)
Campaigning for the draining of air raid shelters and the building of nursery schools are the activities she describes in this clip, but she also made frequent trips to government and council institutions, such as the House of Commons and Town Hall, with other housewives and often armed with petitions, to speak to councillors and representatives. One such incident happened in 1965 and appeared in a newspaper cutting I saw at the WCML, which was headlined ‘HOUSEWIVES TELL M.P. THEIR PRICE WORRIES: Wythenshawe women ‘at wits’ end’’ and featured a quote from Mrs. Taylor (3). The housewives of Wythenshawe were very much active in making a difference for their area and their families. As she says in the clip, they truly “got on with sorting the problems out locally”.
Mrs. Taylor talks about how they had to cut back on luxuries, and how they never had a spare shilling. (1103/117)
In a less theatrical sense, the issue of how the housekeeping purse would not stretch far enough to cover all their costs is a serious one that Mrs. Taylor talks about in her interview. Here she talks about how heartbreaking it was for her to see her husband victimised for his politics, and so often out of work because of his choice to fight for the “betterment of people”. The anecdote she tells about having to truly debate buying a little push horse which was half a crown for her daughter Margaret’s birthday, even though they couldn’t afford it, is truly moving, making you think about just how tight their spending really was.
Mrs. Taylor talks about joining and becoming an active member of the Communist party. (1103/117)
Mrs. Taylor joined the Communist party in 1947. In the clip, she mentions that as a member of the Communist party she didn’t want to be a card holder, she wanted to be active, which is exactly what she was. In the WCML, there was an issue of The Bulletin with an article written by Mrs. Taylor entitled ‘HOW I CAME TO JOIN THE COMMUNIST PARTY’ (4). Here, like in the clip, she emphasises the fact that she was born into a conservative household, but that after she got married and started a family, it “opened my eyes to our struggles and to the struggles of the people for jobs, for wages, aye, and even for existence”. The importance of women to her joining the Communist party is also something that she mentions both in the clip and the article, as in the clip she says she joined the party with another woman who she would go and get potatoes with, and a particular friend who cried and was “pleased and yet so surprised” when Mrs. Taylor joined. In the article, she appeals to women directly to also join the Communist party, as it is there that women will gain “courage and strength”, can learn “to organise themselves in their daily struggle” and can do “something physical and practical to shape your own life and the future of your children”.
Mrs. Taylor talks about how she and her husband both ran as the Communist party candidate for the Benchill ward. (1103/117)
However, she became more than just an active member, as she went on to stand as the Communist party candidate for Benchill ward in 1958 and for many years after. At the WCML there were many of her electoral addresses ranging from the years 1959 to 1965. In some of these she writes special messages “to the women of Benchill”, appealing to them as a relatable figure who knows the problems that they face, and for them to use their vote for what they want; “Vote for the candidate whose party’s policy is in YOUR interest” (5). She also appeals to mothers about joining her campaign against the government expenditure on arms, and in particular against the building of ‘A’ and ‘H’ Bombs; “I appeal to you all, mothers of Wythenshawe to get in touch with me and together we must and we will defeat these war-mongers” (6). She reminds people that the Tory government increased rents and spent unnecessary money on bombs and weapons, and also talks about how she would make the quality of life in Wythenshawe better if she is elected; housing renewals, education, health centres and funding. Despite her very convincing appeals, she never came close to winning the elections, as in 1961 she received 118 votes in comparison to the 2,813 votes that went to the candidate for the Conservatives, and in 1968 she received 142 in comparison to 3,112 for the Conservatives (7) (8).
Mrs. Taylor talks about how she and her husband ended up moving into the house in Wythenshawe. (1103/117)
Mrs. Taylor and her husband were some of the first people to move into Wythenshawe housing as she explains in the clip, and she was still living there during the time of the interview. These houses were brand new and further out from town meaning there was much cleaner air. However, the lack of updated facilities for the houses was a battle that she faced 30 years after moving in. In her electoral address from 1963 she writes that she considered it “very necessary” for the safety of the tenant “that all internal electric wiring, gas, and water pipes, damp courses, boilers, etc. be immediately overhauled”, and that “repairs and maintenance” be done “without extra cost at all to the tenants” (9).
Mrs. Taylor talks about what Wythenshawe was like when she moved there. (1103/117)
There was also a lack of facilities in the area to begin with, with housing being the priority, meaning that those who lived there had to travel quite far for basic things such as shops and schools. These were things that she and many others had to campaign for in order to get, which they were successful in doing, showing how much of an impact they had in improving their area.
Mrs. Taylor discusses how they always made sure they paid the rent, apart from when they went on rent strike. (1103/117)
Being part of the Wythenshawe Tenants’ Association, Mrs. Taylor was regularly campaigning against rent increases in many different ways, such as the rent strike which she mentions. She was also quoted in an article that featured in the ‘Workers Press’ in 1972, demanding a meeting with the Labour group or a statement from them about what their intentions were regarding the Tory ‘fair rents’ Bill (10).
Mrs. Taylor’s story proved to me that Wythenshawe would not have been the same without her and other housewives, as well as the fact that she would not have been the same without having moved there, which is evident from how she chose to stay there in the very same house. Not only was it incredibly interesting to learn about her political career, but it was also great to hear her as a person talk about things such as how she met her husband at a dance, and how she would’ve loved to have learned to play the piano. At one point she says “we got ourselves involved in things”. Perhaps we should take inspiration from her and the other Wythenshawe housewives and try to adopt a similar attitude in our own lives.
- Wythenshawe Communist Party poster for ‘Trial of “Mary Brown” A THRIFTLESS HOUSEWIFE’, 1946, accessed at the Working Class Movement Library
- Newspaper cutting from the Wythenshawe Recorder written by Muriel Taylor, 1946, accessed at the Working Class Movement Library
- ‘HOUSEWIVES TELL M.P. THEIR PRICE WORRIES: Wythenshawe women ‘at wits’ end’, unknown newspaper cutting, 1965, accessed at the Working Class Movement Library
- The Bulletin (1951), ‘HOW I CAME TO JOIN THE COMMUNIST PARTY’ by Muriel Taylor, Vol 17. No. 25, accessed at the Working Class Movement Library
- Election Address written by Muriel Taylor (1959) – ‘Benchill Ward: A message from… MURIEL TAYLOR, The Communist Candidate’, accessed at the Working Class Movement Library
- Newspaper cuttings about Mother’s View/Appeal to Mothers written by Muriel Taylor, accessed at the Working Class Movement Library
- The Guardian (1961), ‘THREE LABOUR LOSSES IN MANCHESTER: Finance chairman defeated’, May 12, pp. 8.
- The Guardian (1968), ‘Tory majority in Manchester increased to 30’, May 10, pp. 4.
- Election Address written by Muriel Taylor (1963) – ‘BENCHILL WARD: MURIEL TAYLOR, THE COMMUNIST CANDIDATE’, accessed at the Working Class Movement Library
- Workers Press (1972), ‘Tenants demand fight from Manchester Labourites’, No. 785, pp.11.
Uma Ghelani, UOSH Project Volunteer.