Oral History: Political organisations – Joan Lamb

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Interview transcript: Joan Lamb

Date and place of birth: not given

Interviewer: Kath Connolly

Date of interview: 23 March 2011

Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives


( The Women’s Guild, Newcastle City Councillor, Labour and Co-op Party)

This is March 28 2011 and I’m sitting in the living room of Joan Lamb in Lemington in Newcastle it’s a glorious spring morning and I’m here to talk to Joan about her involvement in the Co-op. I’m going to start by asking you what were your earliest memories of the Co-op?

Going to the local shop for my mum that was while I was still at school of course that was in Crayford in Kent and although we weren’t actively involved or my parents weren’t actively involved in the co-op, we did go regularly to the local shop to do the shopping. When I left school I went to work for Dartford Co-op in one of the retail shops and went through all of the jobs one does when starting in a shop scrubbed the floors anything needed doing, I filled the shelves. At that time we had to weigh everything the sugar, the different ingredients and cut and weigh the butter and cheese. Everything was done by hand at that time and of course counterservice you got to know your customers. A very different world from the one we live in now. Even cut the bacon when the men were off to war.-they were still off to war then.

So men in the co-op did certain jobs and women did other jobs? You said that men cut the bacon, was that seen as a man’s job?

Oh yes it was very much so but of course the men weren’t back from the war so the women did everything. The women carried the sacks of potatoes through and the sides of bacon which we had to cut up, that was all done by the women. At that time we had recognition of course we were needed but when the men came back they took over those jobs.

 You did this before you were married?

Oh yes I actually met my husband in the shop when he came back he actually came to work in the same shop before he went on to Stanford Hall, College to study co-operative subjects.

So your huuband was active in the Co-op?

Oh, he and his parents were very much more active than my parents. His mother was a member of the Co-operative Women’s Guild and his father a member of the Men’s Guild. I joined the Co-operative youth movement because we had a youth movement in those days. We had the Playways the Pathfinders the Co-op Youth clubs the BFYC it was hoped that from that we would progress into the Women’s Guild or the Men’s Guild we were a Co-operative family and we did everything from the cradle to the grave.

How old were you when you joined the Co-op youth movement?

15, I think

What sort of things did you do- was it just a youth club or was there anything particular about the co-op in the youth club?

Well it was one of the Co-op managers who was our leader, he had an assistant leader of course. I can’t remember what Mr Brumby used to do but I know that our leader was one of the managers. We did everything social events, more practical things, we learned to dance, proper dancing not what it deteriorated to. I was Secretary for the club for quite a while. We had sports days

Sorry, you learned particular skills when you were in there (youth club) ? Social skills…and organisational skills as well if you were secretary?

Oh yes we ran the club. We had leaders but we had to do the work. We decided what we were going to do and planned it and so on.

So that’s very different from the way normal Youth Clubs operate isn’t it? Where the leader determines what they are going to do, they set the programme and they don’t necessarily involve the young people?

The leaders worked with the young people, we had a committee and we did everything together. We had a proper committee- chairman, secretary, treasurer – properly organised. We had a number of youth centres in those days. Dalston Hall was the one I remember- because that was the one I went to more often

Is that near Carlisle?

We had Colne Hall in Yorkshire and one near Brighton.

Did you go there for visits, weekends or courses?

For a course of a social weekend/week.

Would you say it was more social than political as such?

No, we weren’t active in the political sense. I joined the Co-op Party when we lived in Manchester, then we came across here we became more active in the Co-op Party and that’s when I started taking positions. I represented the Guild later on the Society Party (Co-op Party)

When did you join the Guild?

1960 my father in law came to live with us after his wife died, as I said he and his wife had both been active in the Co-op Movementt. in Dartford, Kent

And he wanted to know why I wasn’t in the Guild so I had to join the Guild quickly. From there on it was a learning curve for me because we had so many courses through the Guild we had to learn how to run a Guild we had proper structure we didn’t just come together and have social events. The Guild I belonged to the first meeting in the month was a social, we had a business meeting we had meetings where we had speakers come in- they could come from anywhere but there was a strong co-op influence.

You say you had got involved in 1960 what had stopped you getting involved before then- were you busy did you have children?

Oh yes, my family and my husband’s family all lived in Kent. My family in Crayford his family in Dartford. We moved to Manchester when he became research officer with the CWS and I worked for Fire Insurance in Manchester until I had my first baby and then I finished work. It’s one thing if you’ve got somebody who can look after the children for you but it’s quite different if you are on your own’ so I stayed home with the children. We moved to Newcastle in 1954 David was 6 months old I then had two more children but as I say in 1960 I became involved in the Guild but I didn’t do any other work outside the home.


Too difficult for you to look after them and not having people around for you to be active – did you find that?

Other than active through the Guild I was able to go to the meetings regularly. We had weekend courses we learned how to run the Guild, the organisation. Not just be a social group but carrying out the principles of the Guild .


Do you think that it was possible for you to be active because you were supported at home?

Father in law lived with us for a while and that made a difference I was able to get out my husband was supportive but with his work he wasn’t always at home he was active in the Men’s Guild, the Co-op Party and the Labour Party


Were you also involved in the Labour Party or just in the Co-op at that stage?

At that stage for me it was the Co-op Party but for elections we all helped out the people who were standing for election and then of course I started, as a Co-op Party member I stood for election myself not choosing seats which might be won. I went through the process of non-labour seats first then learning again as you went along about the Party and about people.


Did you stand as a Labour Party Candidate or as a Co-op Party Candidate?

Labour/Co-op. It wasn’t always easy to get Labour/Co-op on the election papers but I was always promoting myself as a Lab/Co-op.


So were you eventually elected?

For Elswick 1972. I did a study tour with UNESCO in 1968 promoting The Co-operative Women’s Guild and the Co-op with a colleague from London we went to Guyana, Trinidad, Barbados and then into America and we were amazed to find that America was far more Co-operative than we were

although of course we have always counted ourselves in Britain as leaders in the Co-operative field but almost everything you touched in America you could have a co-operative so that was really a learning curve.


So how were you chosen to go on that study tour?

Because of the activities I had in the Guild up to that point I’d attended Congress regularly.


so you were working at a National level?

No, not at that stage I didn’t get at a National level with the Guild until after I finished with my council work. So that was leaping forward, it was 2000 before I got on the National Executive of the Women’s Guild but I had been on the National Exec. Committee of the Co-operative Party before that.


So tell me a little about that study tour you went on and who made up the party

Women’s Guild colleague from London and myself were the two persons we went to Paris to the UNESCO headquarters for a briefing before we actually went then we flew to Guyana. The people in Guyana looked after us while we were there we had a senior officer- Government officer and his team who were looking after us. We actually stayed at the YWCA down the bottom of the street and the President of Guyana lived up the road from us- quite a salubrious area.


So how did you feel about that trip?

Absolutely wonderful we weren’t just tourists we were there with the people. We saw the tin huts that people lived in, we saw the difficulties they had they might not have enough desks to go round, they might not have enough books to go round but they were immaculately dressed when they went to school. They had their uniforms on it was amazing how much effort they put in to teaching their children but of course education didn’t last long for them, they were lucky if they could go on to secondary school. Although we did meet the senior person who was in charge of our tour, his wife was the principal of the High School so we obviously met her and her colleagues and went into her school and met children there but they were privileged children who got to that stage.


So as a consequence of that tour do you think it changed your outlook on life at all or on your involvement?

You certainly saw how the other half lived and you recognised the difficulties. We went to Mackenzie to the bauxite mine area and the factories where they processed the bauxite. Mackenzie was a town of two areas literally- where we were living on the one side and the other area where the workers lived where the smoke from the factories was there 24 hours a day. You saw how desperate some people were were.


Where was Mackenzie?

In Guyana.


Right Joan I would like to take you back to your Council days if you wouldn’t mind. You were elected for Elswick in 1972, that was Newcastle City Council, why did you want to be a councillor?


Well as I say I had been in the Guild for a number of years and I was interested in people and to promote the work of the Co-op Movt. You have to be involved with people. My interest grew and I had been to Geneva with the United Nations Organisation. The one thing we were concentrating on over there was equal pay for work of equal value. Of course I learned quite a lot while I was there on that course and horrified to find that Britain was not signed up for it. So again with the Co-op involvement and Labour Party involvement finding that sort of situation we were in, you have to do something about it. You can’t sit on the outside and be… you can raise your voice but it very often doesn’t get heard. You have to be in somewhere to do something about it. Where better to start than at local council level. I had my family so I couldn’t look at anything other than that work locally so I finally got the seat in Elswick and got involved with absolutely wonderful people again living in hardship a lot of them but my goodness couldn’t they work …Again the women put effort into what they wanted the council to do and how they wanted it to be done. It’s a real education to go out there and mix with people like that when you haven’t had to do it yourself so that’s how it all started.


So which committees were you involved in on the council… did you specialise in certain areas?

Housing first and then one of the things I was rather surprised about was how few people were willing to go onto the education committee for some reason, it’s a bit like asking parents to go into school and take an interest in what their children are doing. Getting over that doorstep is difficult, getting people to sit on the Education Committee whether it’s the Co-op Education Committee and of course I had been with ours as well before going onto council. It’s not always easy to get people involved but as iI say I was asked to go onto the Education committee so I did, it’s not really my forte but I’ll have a go and one of the first aspects I became involved in was the needs of special children and that could be children with any problems whether its behaviour, mental, handicap whatever- that was the sub-committee.. They were called sub-committees that looked after them. I was a governor of all the special schools in the city at one stage simply because they were different and I need to know how the children were helped, how the parents were helped because within that part of education parents have to be involved if the children are going to progress. Not always easy, for carers.


That must have been quite time consuming Joan that was a big job. Were your children much older by that time?

Yes I didn’t start anything really until ’72 Pauline was 12 by then


Were you working as well?

No, no I always regarded the housewife’s job as they were allowed to be called then as a full time job and I suppose in one respect I was fortunate I had no one pressurising me either at family level or at government level to go out and get a paid job. It was recognised that it was terribly important to look after your family because unless the children get good support who can guarantee what will happen to them. And I think today it is even more dangerous there are so many distractions, so many things that are there for them to take them off the line. To me it’s a serious concern that women are pressurised you have got to work. It’s wrong in my opinion.


So how long were you on the council?

24 years and I held the position of Chairman of the Education Committee for 6 years which were all we were allowed to do. Vice Chairman, Chairman of various sub committees were there for me and of course other committees as well. The Youth Club that we had in Elswick, I was Chairman of that for a number of years again worked with the leader of that club and the club committee who did some wonderful work. Can’t afford it any more, can’t afford it! I’m sorry but it ‘s one of my hobby horses that sort of thing is so important where children are encouraged to do things for themselves without being paid because that was one of the elements that came into the club that I was involved with. Our young people used to have a stall at the Leases Park event that the Council put on and the young people did all of their work themselves they made things to sell, all kinds of things and they were willing to do it. But then other organisations set up in Elswick who offered to pay them if they would do this job or that job so of course the things they were interested in doing things voluntarily went by the board. That didn’t happen immediately of course I mean that was a progression of what happened in Elswick


A lot of your work was on a voluntary level- I don’t suppose you were very paid much as a councillor?

Not when we started, that was another mistake that has been made, the voluntary aspect of council work although I say that I recognise that for some people especially men with family to be remunerated for what they were doing was important because they do put in a lot of time. It can be a 24hr job if you’re willing- I mean I put in as many hours as I possibly could because I wasn’t working but if you had a full time job as well I recognise it was much more difficult. There were areas where people did need to be remunerated for what they were doing


I am interested in the fact that you as a woman rose to a very high level in council if you were Chair of Education Committee.

I was Lord Mayor dear. There again if you are there long enough you are given the opportunity to become Lord Mayor of the City fortunately they have a Deputy Lord Mayor for a year and that gives you the time in that deputy’s year to understand the importance of what is to come.


What were the skills and the personal attributes you had that made that possible for you to do so well in terms of the Council, the Co-op Party ?

I have always said that to be able to work effectively as a councillor I owe a tremendous amount to the Co-operative Women’s Guild training because to hold positions within the Guild you were expected to take a training course and you didn’t just muddle your way through you were expected to know what you were doing and to be able to lead other people to take positions themselves. That was half of the work that a committee member in the Guild did was encouraging other people to come forward not just to activity within the Co-op but to go out into the world to be able to do other things either in a voluntary capacity or to be an elected member or hopefully and it was hopefully at the time, to take positions on Co-operative Boards because as you know getting through to any of the major committees within the Co-op has never been easy whether at local board level or national level. Women are not really expected to be able to do the very difficult work that has to be…I’m being a bit facetious here I’m sorry I am still concerned that the principle that was involved when I went to the United Nations Organisation in Geneva of equal pay for work for equal value. The work that women have put in for so many years to be more than equal value to what men do whether its paid work or unpaid work, recognition is still very difficult to come by. Recognition has improved and there is equality in some areas, it’s not there in all places and it’s certainly not in the Co-operative field- in that management or board positions are not so readily available.


Nowadays we would call what you are talking about social capital in terms of the skills that you would get and it’s interesting to hear about the training you got in the Women’s Guild and how that enabled you to do all of those other things as well. Now ……is it a difficulty from within themselves I’m wondering if there is something about the Co-op Movement which stops women from taking up their rightful place?

I think a part of the training we did within the Guild was to build up confidence… alright we don’t do the training we used to so that isn’t there now but confidence is always necessary if you are going forward but support of other women….. is very important as well because that again I found in a number of areas the women don’t always support the woman coming forward and I accept that nobody should get a position anywhere male or female if they are not up to doing the job. But if they have equal values put forward to do something, they have the intelligence, they have the knowledge, they have the background, they have experience… why can’t they be given the opportunity? All right they have a family to look after so that’s where equality in the home comes into it and for a long time that wasn’t there either. It is supposed to be getting better now but not in every case it is still not accepted that a woman will be allowed to go forward for any position which takes them out of the home for any length of time again pressure on them to have to work is coming from Government level If they have a full time job to do and a family to look after and they don’t have equality in the home, then obviously the opportunity to go outside and do something else, whatever that position it is not so readily available to them . They do need support of other women to be able to go forward and it’s not always there.


Can you tell me about the next stage from the Co-op Women’s Guild in your Co-op involvement?

What was the structure in those days, nowadays we have Area Committees and that would be the first stage if you wanted to be involved in the membership.

Well I think the first instance of that for me was the Education Committee, that was my first involvement in the structure of the movement which we had then within Newcastle Society before it became North Eastern Society and the Co-op Group.( It was really only after we became the North Eastern Co-op)


It was North Eastern and then North East and Cumbria and the Co-op Group afterwards (me)

It was the first stage after Newcastle merged with the other Societies in the area that I became involved in the Committee- local Divisional Committee. From that I went on to the Central Council, became Chairman and then onto the Board


We are back to our interview Joan after that little pause you were talking about how you grew in confidence

With the training that I got as a member of the Guild again because so few women were willing to go forward to hold a position within the Guild you had to have training courses available and I was one of those who was happy to take them in order to learn more about how to communicate how to deliver a message the first thing we were taught was stand up, speak up and shut up. They were the basic principles in delivering a speech that we were given.It was hammered into us at all levels, you don’t waffle on when you have got a point. You clearly state the message you have to deliver


Why do you think it was that women were reluctant to get involved or to take up positions in the Guild?

It goes back to what I said earlier having the confidence to do it, having the family support to go forward and do it and frankly just wanting to do ithat anyway if you really werent terribly interested in anything other than the social elements or hearing what other people are doing, that was a feature at that time.


So who would you think from your experience got involved with the Guild and why?

Going back to what I said earlier; to have the confidence to do it, having the family support to go on and do it and just wanting to do that anyway if you really weren’t terribly interested in anything other than the social elements and hearing what other people are doing that was a feature at that time.

A friend would bring along a friend if you noticed that that friend was little bit more interested in being active you latch on to them quickly but you were glad to have the numbers there to bring out the few. We had some wonderful guild members I mean Florrie Cowings was one in point. Her involvement in the movement and her knowledge of it was absolutely outstanding. On many occasions we would say “Florence you should get this down in writing, it’s so important that other people can learn from what you have learnt ” Jennie Lawther was another one in this area. She was District Secretary when I became involved and goodness knows she pushed me to go on to different conferences and training courses and so on its the encouragement of people like that who have been there and done it is so helpful if you are interested and want to do it. From those people I got a lot of my enthusiasm, a lot of my interest and a lot of my knowledge.


I am going to ask you to think about the big picture. In terms of the Co-op what are your best experiences, what is really good about being involved in the Co-op Movement and all of its various ways?

Today or historically?



Of course historically it was the cradle to the grave part of it, it didn’t matter what your interest was there was something there for you. It wasn’t just shopping. There was a group for all age groups to be involved. Opportunities to go places and of course Congress for the Co-op Union was one that you had heard about and you welcomed people who had been there to come back and tell you about it.

International Cooperation through the Guild the I C A we always had members on that who were active internationally. It’s not just the home base. That’s where we went through UNESCO I went to Guyana two other colleagues went to India a couple of years after I had my trip and again that experience for the Guild was absolutely amazing.

We had the bucket of water campaign where we went through England North and South were doing separate trips collecting money for Botswana that was an enormous campaign that we had. It was things like that that kept the Co-op alive – it was the Guild and of course joining the Co-op Party you get the political side of it, working to keep our interests in Parliamentary Seats was important because we knew that the Co-op was known as a retailer and obviously a retailer in parliament you didn’t hear so much about the other retailers influence and that’s why we had to be there and why it is so important that our voice is heard locally, nationally and internationally. Of course the Co-operative Movement internationally, has had such tremendous influence throughout the world- its something we are tremendously proud of. Today of course the retailing side is becoming so competitive we don’t have the factories that we used to have so it’s not so easy to buy co-operative products in the shop. We don’t have the big retailing organisation that we used to have locally so that you could buy literally anything. You would need to go onto the internet to do that (now) and that’s not everyone’s field. You know there are so many elements that have changed so the Co-op has had to change with it.


In terms of the International work we are still very active internationally: Co-op College and of course Fairtrade and the CO-op has had an enormous influence on Fairtrade. There is lots of continuity there in terms of being involved. So you personally felt that you were interested and you were encouraged to become interested. The machinery and the processes were there to enable you to get those skills and become involved.


Were women well represented in the management side of things on the various co-op committees?

Certainly not on the National Executive of the Co-op Party that was again mainly men. I was on that and represented the Guild on that from this region


How many women were on the Co-op Party Executive in those days?

about three or four


How did they compare with the men in terms of their skills?

Usually we found that the women were more widely involved and men tended to be on what they were doing personally, not all of them I am of course I am generalising. I am talking about not just Co-op Committees but any committees I have been on. Some are there just to make the weight up because they happen to be nice fellas that get the support- they can speak well- this is another groan that I have had frequently; You have a knowledgeable, experienced and able woman who can not get on to whatever committee and you have a man who to say the least is questionable in that respect. I’m being a bit unkind aren’t I but that is my view and that’s how I’ve looked at it over the years constantly frustrated in that respect, thinking how on earth did he get there when the woman could have done so much better. That is a continuing frustration, I am not so actively involved as I used to be so that’s in the past.


Obviously there are still concerns about women being represented at various levels of the Co-op. Has it changed in the years in the years you have been involved? Is it easier for women to get involved or more difficult?

I think we went through a phase when women did become more involved in different areas but as women have got older and retired there’s not always women coming forward. Partly because of problems that a lot of them face now, they not only have a family they have a full time job- there are two very heavy commitments and to take on a voluntary or even partially paid position on a board or committee is very time consuming so it is limiting in that respect. I think that is where, not in all areas… but in some areas… there is a lack of women coming forward. I even had a letter recently inviting me to consider coming back as a councillor but at my age I neither have the energy nor the ability to do that sort of work. Working on a committee you have got to be able to concentrate for a period of time and as you get older it is not possible. It’s not that we have less able women we probably have more able women but it’s the opportunity to be able to give the time to something outside their family and work.


You’ve talked and explained very well about the Guild and the training you received. Is it as good as it was for you?

To be able to pay speakers to come- you don’t have the voluntary organisations that are willing to send a speaker just to interest you in their organisation. They want to be paid and while I accept paying expenses has always been important If somebody has had to pay bus fares or petrol money to get from A to B it’s important that they are not working at a loss but to actually to have then on top of that to pay a fee for someone to talk to you is -… the Guild can’t afford it anymore they don’t have the financial support they used to have.


Where did the financial support come from?

It came from a number of members you have in the Guild, from the local Society from the fundraising events you were able to hold… not so easy when you have such a few members. The important feature is the Committee structure in order to organise the group to start with. if you haven’t got a working committee and you’ve just got somebody who’s doing their best without much support it is much more difficult.


Joan you’ve obviously given your life time to what Mr Cameron calls the Big Society, yes you are the Big Society

I hope I have made a small contribution at least to helping the society but he doesn’t honestly know what he’s talking about. He’s expecting volunteers to take over duties of a local authority without any financial backing. I mean they are expecting voluntary organisations to take over and yet the funding for that voluntary organisation has been withdrawn- how can they do that? I mean it’s absolutely impossible- the principle might be good, the thinking behind it might be there but the recognition of what is needed to enable people to do that- he hasn’t got a clue he really hasn’t got a clue.


Joan I am going to leave it at that and thank you very much indeed. It has been a very interesting time for me and just to thank you again for doing the interview- this is my first one.

It’s been a pleasure it is so nice to look back sometimes and see what has been there I know that I feel enormously lucky for the opportunities and support that I have had even as a new Councillor- had I not been welcomed in by the people who were there at that time and given guidance on how to do things, who to go to. You can’t walk into something like that and hope to be successful; you’ve got to have support of other people. The Co-op, the Labour Party and especially the Guild have been wonderful organisations to be involved with and I think I have had the best years.


Thank you very much Joan.


Kath Connolly interviewed Joan Lamb for the Popular Politics Project 2011

Dear Joan

So sorry this has taken so long- it took me a while to “master” the software to slow down the speech to a speed where I could type. Can I tell you, you sound intelligent at 50% speed I sound like a simple Geordie lass.

I had a month of exam marking too and it really is a terrible chore if you are not used to typing. Maybe we have to get/pay someone to do it for us. I don’t think that we will get many interviews done if we have to transcribe every one. Anyway- job done now!

Would you mind checking through this- if there is anything in there you don’t want published then that can be removed. I will come and see you and bring a copy of the recording for you to keep.

Thank you once again for helping us – it really did get me interested in the Women’s Guild and as you know particularly in their early campaigns especially Sunderland Poor Store. I attended the Women’s Challenge in Leeds in early July- this is an attempt to challenge the under-representation of women in senior positions in the Co-op.I did go into the Women’s Guild workshop so met their current leadership.

David and I are going on holiday 10-24 August. I can call and get you to sign the papers either before we go or when we return. Whatever is convenient for yourself ( my telephone 0191 388 1440)

Best Wishes