May 1918: the Business Girls’ Club

Somerville had many thriving societies before and during the First World War – sporting, debating, artistic and philanthropic, including the WUS (Women’s University Settlement) and a college branch of the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association).

From 1887, students had volunteered for welfare work with the WUS, alongside students from Cambridge and London, helping women and children in Southwark. The WEA (Worker’s Educational Association) was a national organisation founded in 1903 to provide continuing education for working men and women. The WEA worked in partnership with universities and Oxford helped devise a system of tutorial classes, introduced in 1907, and hosted a summer school in 1911. Somerville had long had an ‘unofficial’ WEA society and in March 1918, it was proposed that membership of the University branch be considered, as this would give more scope for real work.

College Meeting minutes 24 May 1918_1At the college meeting on 24th May 1918, the JCR discussed a scheme for a Business Girls’ Club. Although national, the WEA based its provision on local requirements, rather than follow a fixed curriculum, and it had been perceived that shop girls in Oxford ‘badly needed organised education’. Throughout the country, shop staff were subject to poor working conditions. The hours were long (often over 80 hours a week) and holidays were limited. Many unmarried staff ‘lived in’ and even if the living conditions were reasonable (and in many cases they were not), they were subject to strict discipline and very little privacy.

In the decades before the war, the poor pay and conditions of shop workers had led to increased union membership and legislative reform (one union activist Margaret Bondfield went on to become the first female cabinet minister in 1929). With the school leaving age at 12, education for most of the workforce was severely curtailed and with it, their options. The WEA planned to provide winter lecturers and teaching, and asked the Somerville branch to prepare the way so that they could get to know some of the girls. Miss Bell of the YWCA had been consulted and had suggested river and tennis parties in the evenings, especially on Thursdays (early closing day in shops).College Meeting minutes 24 May 1918_2

The affiliation of Somerville’s WEA with the University Branch could simply have been pragmatic or perhaps, in part, reflected an increasing acceptance within the University of the women’s colleges. Another minute from the meeting suggests the college was growing in confidence, as it was proposed that ‘the College adopt a uniform and distinctive blazer’ and a dark blue blazer with the Somerville coat of arms on the pocket was agreed upon.