It is amazing where little pieces of history can be found. Who would have thought that an important discovery would be made in a convenience store in Hove, East Sussex?
After Peter Kyle was selected as the parliamentary candidate for Hove and Portslade he moved into a new office on Church Road in Hove. There is a stretch of shops, bars and restaurants – very modern and always buzzing with the happy vibe of a seaside resort. When he was told that somewhere on this street Margaret Bondfield, a name famous to those interested in the history of women in organised workforce and women’s suffrage, worked at a draper’s shop Peter made it his mission to try and discover where in Hove this was.
What was uncovered 10 months later exceeded everyone’s expectations and revealed a part of Labour party history until now unknown.
It is well documented that Bondfield left home aged 14 to serve an apprenticeship in Hove and that it is here she became friendly with one of her customers, Louisa Martindale, a strong advocate of women’s rights and an ardent local activist. Martindale introduced Bondfield to other radicals and books which were an important influence on her political development. Bondfield went on to become the first female general secretary of the TUC, one of the first woman members of parliament, and eventually the first female cabinet minister.
Let’s face it – Hove was not exactly known as a hotbed of radicalism in the 1880s. Regency Hove was in full swing and royals were moulding the town in their image. That a 14-year-old girl emerged from this environment to smash so many ‘firsts’ makes the Bondfield story all the more remarkable.
Trying to discover the place where the seeds of Bondfield’s politics and feminism were sown proved difficult. Local records, historians and experts were consulted but the only information available was that the owner of the shop was called Mrs White and that the store was on Church Road.
Nine months later it was a local party member, John Warmington, who found a Mrs White, ladies’ outfitter, recorded at 14 Church Road in a street directory for 1888. It was the breakthrough we all needed.
In 2014 the shop is still there at number 14 – except it is a Londis. It somehow seems so fitting to the Bondfield story that such a remarkable journey began in a shop that is as ordinary as a convenience store today. After all, it reminds us that extraordinary careers spring from ordinary people and places.
125 years after the 14-year-old Bondfield began her apprenticeship we are still learning the lessons of her life. As minister for labour she enacted legislation to empower part-time workers; today we campaign for reform of zero-hours contracts. Bondfield was the first woman in cabinet; today there are only two more than in her day, 1929. And Bondfield’s spark was lit thanks to her apprenticeship; today apprenticeships are undervalued and inaccessible to many who need them most. Sadly, most people will not have mentors like Martindale to count on, which is why we campaign for better pathways into decent careers for young people from every background.
Peter Kyle is now campaigning for a commemorative ‘blue plaque’ to be placed outside the building of 14 Church Road. The campaign was launched on 1 June 2014 outside 14 Church Road with Jacqui Smith, the first British female home secretary, women members of Brighton and Hove Labour party, and local feminists.
Chris Henry is campaign manager for Peter Kyle, prospective parliamentary candidate for Hove
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