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History & CommunityMargaret Bondfield

Margaret Bondfield

Chard has more than its association with the first powered flight as a claim to fame. Margery Hookings has been learning about Margaret Bondfield a native of the town who became Britain’s first female cabinet minister.

Chard Museum is a gem of a place, its bright and airy interior displaying models of aviation pioneer John Stringfellow’s flying machines and packed full of fascinating displays and information on everything from carnival costumes to farm machinery.

It’s a cornucopia of everything Chardian. Having spent my teenage years at school here in this town, I am ashamed to say this is the first time I’ve ever ventured inside.

This old building is vast, comprising four former cottages, a pub, skittle alley, barn and a field, complete with picnic tables.

I am overawed by the size of this museum, and the great things on display and that’s not just because it all began in 1880 with the eclectic collection of curiosities acquired by Arthur Hull, whose surname I had as a teenager. My mother has yet to find a connection to Arthur and our Hulls in the family tree, but I’d like to think we might be related.

Reaching the top of the stairs, I glance up at Arthur’s portrait. But Arthur’s story will have to wait, as I’m here for another slice of the town’s history. It’s one I don’t know much about but it ought to be shouted from the rafters. If anyone knows the actress Emma Thompson, perhaps they can persuade her to make a film about one of Chard’s most famous people.

I’m here to find out more about Margaret Bondfield, Britain’s first female cabinet minister and a champion of social reform. Today, at a time when Britain is only on its second female prime minister, it’s astonishing to think that Bondfield was blazing a trail back in the 1920s, particularly when she came from such humble beginnings.

“If you press the button on the radio, you’ll hear her voice,” says the nice lady who is manning the reception counter.

Upstairs, in front of the Margaret Bondfield display, I see the old radio and push the switch. Suddenly, the upper gallery is filled with the clipped tones of a woman who doesn’t sound at all like she was born and brought up in Chard. In practised Queen’s English, she tells the BBC in a three-minute recording about the day she was appointed Minister of Labour by Ramsey McDonald.

‘I’ve met people who knew her and they say she had a very broad Somerset accent,’ collections curator Roger Carter tells me as museum chairman Vince Lean delves into a display cabinet and brings out some of the memorabilia connected to Bondfield, including the companion of honour medal.

Margaret Bondfield was born in 1873 in a cottage in Chaffcombe Road, near the reservoir, which was created in 1842 to provide water for the Chard Canal. She was the tenth of eleven children. She went to school in Chard High Street, just above the museum where there is now a plaque on the wall. Her family were stalwart members of the Congregational Church in Fore Street, the site of which is where the Co-op is now.

When she was eight, her father lost his job as foreman of a lace factory after 60 years’ faithful service. The unfairness of it all was something that stayed with Bondfield all her life.

‘He was dismissed with a week’s notice,’ Bondfield said in her biography, A Life’s Work. ‘That week’s notice planted in me the seeds of revolt.’

‘The old radicalism and nonconformity of Chard…must somehow have got into the texture of my life and shaped my thoughts…’

At the age of 14, Bondfield left Chard to live in Brighton where she was apprenticed to a draper, working from 7.30am to 8.30pm, six days a week. In 1894, at the age of 21, she moved to London.

‘For the next three months, I was nearer to starvation that at any time before or since. I learnt the bitterness of a hopeless search for work,’ she recalled.

Securing a job, she joined the national union of shop assistants, warehousemen and clerks and by 1898, at the age of 25, she was its full time assistant secretary. A year later, she attended the Trade Union Congress as the only woman delegate. Her political star was on the rise.

According to the museum’s display, ‘her best work was done before 1914 as a fearless trade union organiser, speaker and writer whose enthusiasm and idealism made a strong impression.’

Bondfield went on several lecture tours in the United States and Canada. In 1919 she visited the Soviet Union in a TUC delegation and met Lenin.

In 1923 she was elected Labour MP for Northampton and was appointed as parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Labour. She lost her seat the following year but was re-elected in 1926 as MP for Wallsend. From 1929 to 1931, she was Minister of Labour in the second minority Labour Government. It was a difficult post. It was the time of the Great Depression and unemployment was soaring.

In 1930, British political theorist, economist, author, and lecture Harold Laski said of Bondfield: ‘She has the gift for that passionate oratory which captures the emotion of the audience and sweeps it along with her.’

She retired from full time union work in 1938 and made her last US lecture tour at the age of 75. Her last visit to Chard was in 1948 for the Stringfellow anniversary.

Belinda Burton, who lives in Chard and sits on the South West Executive of the TUC, said she found Bondfield’s story and achievements truly inspirational.

“I didn’t know much about her and then a couple of years ago I had to do a presentation on her. I thought she was an amazing woman. She came from a poor background and I found her quite inspiring, particularly because of the sort of work I do. I work for Unison and represent low paid members, mostly women, in local government in the care industry and in schools.”

When Bondfield was awarded the Freedom of the Borough of Chard in 1930, she said: “I am prouder, I think, than of anything else that has happened to me in my life that my own home town has seen fit to confer upon me this freedom.”

Margaret Bondfield died on 16 June 1953 at the age of 80, the mayor and town clerk of Chard attending her cremation.

There is a road in the town which is named after her and there are in the town two plaques—one marking the site of her old school and the other at the Guildhall, which was unveiled by Barbara Castle in 1985: ‘Shop worker, Christian, Socialist, Trades Unionist, she devoted her life to improving the lot of the downtrodden’.



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