The women of the Gorbals’ Campaign for Social Justice, 1923

Updated Thursday, 10th February 2022
How did the women of the Gorbals, Glasgow persuade their local Labour MP to take up their social cause regarding the case of a young woman sentenced to imprisonment for life for murder?

Background

In Leeds in 1918, a young munitions worker, Lily, “in a fit of despair” took the life of the son she loved, by drowning him in the bath. She was sentenced “to be hanged” for murder (The Weekly News, 10 February 1923). However, as she was pregnant, the sentence was reduced to imprisonment for life and later she gave birth to a girl in prison. For the criminal justice authorities, that she was pregnant when she killed the toddler made the crime more terrible. But for the women of the Gorbals, Glasgow, who knew the family, there were “extenuating circumstances” (The Weekly News, 3 March 1923). Lily’s mother and aunt were both born in the Gorbals, in the 1870s; her parents had moved to Leeds for work.  The circumstances that led the “impressionable girl” (The Weekly News, 10 February 1923) to be deceived by two men became well known, because after five years of imprisonment her mother and sister began a newspaper campaign for justice. Full-page articles were first published in The Weekly News, the biggest selling Scottish newspaper, to gain local public interest in the case. These were later reprinted in scores of papers throughout the UK to generate public support. Petitions were also taken to the House of Commons and women wrote letters to the Home Secretary demanding her release.

The women of the Gorbals called on the local Labour MP to act. They believed social factors, connected to poverty, created mitigating circumstances. Secondly, that the case demonstrated the social inequalities between men and women; unmarried mothers suffered social stigma while the men responsible for their pregnancy went unpunished. George Buchanan MP, a committed socialist who would later describe the effects of Conservative policies on the poor as murderous, was persuaded that “the women of the Gorbals have taken up the case and will not readily allow it to pass”(The Weekly News, 3 March 1923). 

The Mitigating Circumstances

In the early twentieth century, the Gorbals, a densely populated area in the city of Glasgow, and the Armley district of Leeds, where Lily lived and worked, were characterised by deep seated levels of poverty. In Armley, a contemporary recorded how her friend missed a day of school each week “so her mother could wash her underwear” (Lovett, 1980).

For Glasgow-born MP George Buchanan, elected to the House of Commons in 1922, Lily’s crime was caused by her “social conditions”, a view shared by the Armley MP who also called for her release in The Weekly News. At 13 years, for instance, she started work. As Buchanan urged readers, “those who know anything about factory life may have it in their hearts to pity this child … Who had to toil from dawn today’s decline, with scarcely a break” (The Weekly News, 3 March 1923).

Urban factory work was characterised by poor conditions. The noise from the machinery was deafening (workers did not wear ear defenders); there were no canteens; workers sat on the floor and ate the food they brought in, and reduced unpaid hours and unemployment were common, meaning that income security was out of the reach of most workers. A contemporary recalled of Armley, “being out of work seemed like a horrifying thing, even to a child … It hung over you like a black cloud” (Lovett, 1980).

Buchanan represented the women of the Gorbals, when he drew the attention of the readers of The Weekly News to the impact of poverty on families. They knew, he said, the “dangers that beset youngsters who have to go out into the world through force of circumstance to keep the home going”. Lily grew up knowing “nothing of the ways of men” as her hard-working mother “like many another working woman, was too busy and too ‘trachled’ [tired from over work] to pay attention to Lily’s comings and goings”. For Lily’s supporters, she was vulnerable to the assurances of the older men that they were single, when both were married. As Buchanan explained, realising the second man’s deception led to a “madness” that contributed to Lily’s crime (The Weekly News, 3 March 1923).

The Unequal Treatment of Men and Women

The women of the Gorbals appealed to the public to recognise that social ostracism could overwhelm unmarried mothers like Lily. In Glasgow, according to Clark and Carnegie (2008), women’s lives “were governed by social convention and church authority”. Convention gave men the dominant role in relationships, while respectability was a “badge of honour” in working-class communities. As Marion McIntosh recalled of Glasgow, “if there were boys or men coming into the house you couldn’t have your underwear hanging on the pulley [to dry]. You were told to get it down even if it was your brother” (in Clark and Carnegie, 2008). In Leeds, soldiers returning from the First World War complained about what they believed was the deterioration in women and girls’ behaviour (Lovett, 1980).

To be an unmarried mother in the 1920s was to be unrespectable. Lily’s mother referred to the “agony of shame” (The Weekly News, 10 February 1923) that made her daughter not want to leave the house unaccompanied. Lily had wanted the new man to make “her an honest woman” (The Weekly News, 3 March 1923). A Glasgow contemporary similarly recalled that a child born outside of marriage was “simply appalling” (in Clark and Carnegie, 2008). Abortion was illegal. 

The Significance of the Campaign

It is worth noting that like working-class women elsewhere in the UK, the Gorbals women did not gain the vote until 1928. Nevertheless, they persuaded the local Labour MP to take up their cause and the 1923 campaign was successful. Lily was released after the Home Secretary’s intervention, on 14 December 1923. Changes to the criminal law, brought in by the pioneering Infanticide Act 1922, meant that judges in England and Wales, no longer put other mothers in similar circumstances on trial for murder, sentencing them instead to around 4 months’ imprisonment. As for Lily, the father of her daughter was required by a court to contribute to the cost of her upbringing. In a strange twist, Lily named her Marjorie, the name of the father’s ‘legitimate’ daughter with his wife. 

References, Sources and Links

Clark, H. and Carnegie, E. (2008) She Was Aye Workin’: Memories of Tenement Women in Edinburgh and Glasgow, Oxford: White Cockade Publishing.

Lovett, S. (1980) The Armley Album, Leeds: Hall Lane Community Group.

Further reading

In 1923 the women of the Gorbals, like many other working-class women in Britain, did not have the vote. In 1918 virtually all men over 21 years gained the vote, but only women over 30 years who owned property gained this right. The inequality between men and women was not addressed until 1928, when parliament allowed women over 21 years the same voting rights as men. To find out more about the history of women and the vote see:

https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/

There is more information about regional women’s history in Jane Long (1999) Conversations in Cold Rooms: Women, Work and Poverty in Nineteenth-Century Northumberland, Royal Historical Society Studies in History

 

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