On February 6th 1918 – one hundred years ago tomorrow – women in the UK were given the vote if they were over 30 and moderately wealthy. They had to be householders, or the wives of householders, or occupiers of property with an annual rent of at least £5 (just under £200 in today’s money but at a time when rents were much, much lower) or graduates of British universities. It wasn’t for another 10 years that the franchise was extended in 1928 to women over 21 – giving them the same rights as men.
More important for my own future was the fact that my parents got married in 1918 on October 6th just over a month before the Great War of 1914-18 ended.
As you can see from this sepia photograph, like me, my mother was five foot nothing next to my father’s six foot. If you look carefully, you can see the bump in the carpet where the photographer placed a small stool to make the disparity in their height a little less obvious.
Extract from my memoir Woman in a White Coat
My father was the sixth, and last but one, son of a wealthy Hebrew book printer. Samuel Waterman, my paternal grandfather, was a Freemason and an important member of his synagogue. He frequently travelled abroad, ostensibly on business, though in fact, it was said it was to visit his mistress in Paris.
The housemaids, if they were young and pretty, never lasted long. Soon the sons would be lined up and asked who was responsible for the girl’s pregnancy. None of them ever owned up, and the maid would be dismissed without a reference.
My paternal grandparents died long before I was born; their daughter and one son having died of tuberculosis some time before. The two eldest sons kept the printing business as their inheritance. The rest of the money was divided between the other sons.
The Shadchen (match-maker) had told my mother that my father was from a wealthy family, but not that he was a gambler. When they married, there was very little left of his inheritance. Fortunately, his gambling was just a passing fancy and, by the time my sisters and I came along, if he gambled at all it was just to do the Football Pools with an occasional bet on the Grand National.
My mother saw no reason to go on working as a dressmaker after they got married, even though they could have done with the money. In any case, at that time married women didn’t work. It reflected badly on their husbands.
My parents bought a newsagent and tobacconist shop in the Old Kent Road, but neither was cut out to be a successful shopkeeper. They bickered over whose turn it was to dress the window or sort out the stock.
My father and his brothers had been trained in the various branches of the printing trade, so when my parents finally sold the shop my father went to work as a compositor – one who sets the letters for books and newspapers by hand. The letters are cast in lead, and put into a carrier one by one, or phrase by phrase. Working in a newspaper was better paid but my father needed a job in which he didn’t have to work on Saturdays and could go home early on Fridays before the Sabbath began. He earned just about enough to pay for the rent and our food.