This is the first of our blogs exploring Legacy. 

We are writing it in the wake of the pandemic as so many people have been forced not only to live and work differently, but to consider the legacies they leave behind. 

Whose whose legacies do we remember, and why are some people’s achievements ‘lost’ in the mists of time? Was it because they were overshadowed by the heights others achieved? There are plenty of examples in history of people who lived extraordinary lives and who meant a great deal to people at the time through the work they did, but who are mostly unknown today, to the general and the co-operative audience.

The first of our subjects is Mary McArthur (her married name was Anderson); born in 1880 in Glasgow. We have chosen her based on some of the material in our collections which shows connectivity through the co-operative movement and the legacy of helping people.

She became a campaigner for the right of women to vote as well as General Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League after hearing speeches about the poor conditions experienced by British workers in ‘sweated trades’. This was usually insecure, low paid and often dangerous work in factories where working class women as a workforce were particularly vulnerable to these abuses. Mary is perhaps known for her work to support striking female chain workers at Cradley Heath in the West Midlands in 1910 which she helped to organise in order to campaign for fairer pay after ‘starvation wages’. After 10 weeks of strike, employers finally agreed to pay a specified minimum wage and as a result, her name can be found at the Black Country Living Museum and remembered at local celebrations; but she did leave another legacy  - in support of beneficial leisure time for working class women.

Mary’s own husband William (also a political campaigner) had died young during the 1919 Flu pandemic, leaving her to bring up their young child alone. This may have been an influence in the idea behind establishing holiday homes in her name for working class women to help them recover from the stress of working to provide for a family or to recover from physical and mental illness. Mary herself died of cancer in January 1921 at the age of 40 and never saw the development of what would eventually become the Mary Macarthur Holiday Trust.

The first holiday home was opened at ‘The Gables’ in Ongar, Essex. It was advertised as a ‘pay what you can’ scheme which would allow a woman of little means to contribute as little as five shillings towards the cost of a week’s stay. The holiday home was supported by a number of organisations -  particularly the London Co-operative and Royal Arsenal Co-operative Societies. Other contributions came from Association of Locomotive Engine and Firemen, the National Union Railway Women’s Guild and Labour Party Women’s groups as well as friendly societies. These membership based organisations gave financial assistance and provided equipment as well as food for the holiday home which was followed by homes in Stanstead, Littlehampton and Poulton Le-Fylde in Lancashire which was the last of the homes to close.

Women on holiday at the homes were interviewed by the committee and they reported that in the Spring and Summer months, the residents were usually younger factory workers and the rest of the year, older married and elderly women came to the houses for a period of rest and relaxation or to recover from illnesses through access to fresh air and outdoor space which would have been more difficult in crowded accommodation in working class urban communities.

The charity running the scheme was patronised by Queen Mary, who in the image is seen visiting the Essex home as part of an event day to raise much needed funds through cake stalls, games and races. Over the years, the nature of work and the routes into it for women changed dramatically, with less demand for residential holiday homes, the  Mary Macarthur Holiday Trust (registered 209989) based in Cardiff, changed its operations and now grants bursaries to help women of all ages pay for much needed holidays or respite due to illness as well as poverty.

You can find out more about them at www.mmht.org.uk

During the Covid-19 Pandemic 72% more of us enquired about making a will - but over half the population still don’t have one. People make wills to leave a legacy behind them so that family members can be supported or good causes which were close to their hearts continue to thrive. 

By remembering the Co-operative Heritage Trust in your will, you help ensure that the heritage we look after is protected and that we can continue to tell the stories of a movement that is all about fairness and benefit for society. 

Our next legacy story focuses on JTW Mitchell (1828-1895). We are interested in people of colour in the UK and overseas who made an impact on the co-operative movement and we encourage readers to send us information to help keep their stories alive. Contact us at [email protected]