Oral History: Women’s Movement – Celia Sumner

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Popular Politics Project

Interview transcript: Celia Sumner

Date and place of birth: 4 September 1929, Newcastle upon Tyne

Interviewer: Elizabeth Burn

Date of interview: 20 January 2012

Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives


Italics used for editorial voice of Elizabeth Burn.


E: When were you were born?

C: I was born 4th September 1929. In Newcastle, the youngest girl of six daughters…and my father worked on the railway

E: What was your name when you were born?

C: Celia Jardine….I was married…Celia Sumner now… I was born near Scotswood Road (working-class area of Newcastle) my mother came from Berkshire, she met my father in the First World War, just outside Oxford, where she was filling shells-although she’d been a cook from a tiny little village in Berkshire she was now filling shells for the First World War and she met my father who was in the Coldstream Guards and they met, married and came up to Newcastle with my grandfather from Berkshire doing his nut because he thought she was going to the Hole of Calcutta almost! He thought this was a terrible place to come to cause he came from a tiny little village in Berkshire, where I’ve spent some lovely times….

I was born just near the Scotwood road, Armstrong Road, we lived there till I was two then we moved to Yewvale Road (North Fenham)…I lived there till I was about seven and a half, I started school from there and we used to walk to school in those days. I started school at Cowgate school, these were council houses by the way…and my father was a Catholic (not practicing)… and they had a priest there who, I must admit, was a wonderful gentleman, who would visit anyone in the whole estate, no matter what their religion and he talked my father into us being transferred from Cowgate school to the Covent of the Sacred Heart… in Fenham, just a girls school…I can remember the day I went you know…..           3mins

E: So when did you leave school, can you remember?

C: I left school when I was 14…

E: And what did you do?

C: I went to work the following Monday! (we laugh)

E: And where did you start working?

C: At the Northern Goldsmiths. (a high status jewellers shop, still in open in 2012)

E: In Newcastle?

C: Yes, in Newcastle and I was stringing pearls and beads, people used to bring their broken beads into the Northern Goldsmiths, right above the clock where all the jewellery was done and everything…and I’ve always liked every single job I had…but I didn’t stay there terribly long, not a long time, I suppose at most 2 years and I left there and went to the Benefit Shoe Company in Clayton Street, again in Newcastle, I was still a teenager you know and I worked there and I was manageress of the children’s department in the shoe shop. Shoes were still very difficult to get at the end of the war (1945) I mean sometimes we had about 4 pairs of shoes in the whole shop!….I finally left there and went to be a furrier, my eldest sister was a proper furrier…had trained as a furrier

E: And what did you do?

C: Re-model fur coats, which once again I found really interesting…cause fur whenever you do any sort of re-modelling it has to be dampened and nailed out and believe it or not with a hammer and nails and I still bear the scars to this day on both thumbs!

E: It was hard work?

C; No it wasn’t, it was really interesting but I didn’t stay there very long and I left and went to Finlay’s Tobacconist Shop …in Newcastle on Northumberland Street. I started at the one in the Haymarket, Finlay’s they were all over the place in the North East, and the head office was in London and I worked at the Haymarket for a while and then I was transferred down to the one next to Fenwick’s …which was a really busy shop which I loved! I absolutely loved! I mean it was really hard work, we had really long hours, but I really loved it, it never seemed any hardship to give up your lunchtime or teatime because you were busy you know, and then people from head office came up and asked me would I move with them to London

E: And what date was this about?

C: This was 1949….they asked me to go to London. I had to go and stay in the Young Woman’s Christian Association (Celia was 20 yrs old)…I worked in Purley, it was West Croydon…I was managing the shop in Purley, which is a very expensive area…it was really nice and I made lots of friends there. Nobody could ever understand from my accent where I came from, I was Scottish and Welsh and everything under the sun! Nobody seemed to have ever heard of Newcastle…it wasn’t like now…

Celia then got a bedsitter and she managed the shop in Purley till 1951 and they asked her if she would go to the Festival of Britain to work.                         8.18 mins.

C: They had 3 stalls at the Festival of Britain… and really… you worked from morning till 10’o clock at night you know but it was really enjoyable…

E: …when did you meet him? (her husband)

C: Well, when the Festival ended they asked me to go to a shop on Horseferry Road in Westminister, which was a really busy, busy shop- in fact it was the first shop that ever took a thousand pounds in a day as a tobacconist’s, though we had done that at the Festival of Britain on a stall, cause cigarettes were so difficult to come by…and this shortage went on for so long it was unbelievable and I was managing that shop when I meet my husband, who worked in the Ministry of Supply, they were all Ministry buildings in Horseferry Road ….really interesting place to work in, it was very close to the Houses of Parliament, where I very often used to go on my half day and at that time they used to have the ‘radio doctor’ (a Conservative MP and Bevan (Labour MP) used to have a slanging match…they used to go hammer and tongs at each other (in the Commons debates over the health service) . I spent a lot of time up in the…galleries…the politicians were nearly all men …He (the radio doctor) used to shop… I used to know what brand of tobacco he used to smoke…

Celia was then moved to head office and the firm asked if she would move around the country opening shops and training staff, which she did for 3 years, before getting married in London in 1956 and giving up work to move with her husband to Cornwall. Celia stayed there for four and a half years, while her husband, who was an engineer, worked at what local people called ‘the secret establishment’. Celia had a part-time job as she was unable to have children as she had suffered from mumps. They then moved to Hampshire, where her husband worked at the National Gas turbine establishment, for another four years before he moved again, this time back up North up to work in Birtley, County Durham. They bought a house in Gateshead before her husband was killed at the age of 50, in a car crash in 1972. So Celia became a widow at the age of 43 and she went back to work:                                                             14.30.

C: I took the Civil Service exam, just as a CA (clerical assistant) …and when they found out at Birtley (where Ron her husband used to work), that I had passed the exam, literally the easiest exam I could ever have imagined!… I was amazed to find only about 10% of the people who sat it had passed …the arithmetic thing was just mental arithmetic, arithmetic’s always been my strongest point, more than anything else you know, I didn’t have any difficulty…so I was talked into going to the Royal Ordinance factory where my husband had worked… in Birtley…I was going to go to Benton, but they specifically asked me would I go there because they badly needed clerical staff that weren’t young teenagers, well I was 43 so I went there and I had the most interesting job I think I’ve ever had and I really loved it! …I stayed there until 1981…I had the busiest job it was possible to have in there…now it’s all done by computers…when I left about 3 people seemed to take over the job I’d been doing (we laugh) as a CO, cause by then I’d moved up to a CO (clerical officer) and I really was strung out…I bought a flat in West Denton Park (west of Newcastle, near Lemington )… and I’ve been there ever since…I’m still there…I’ve lived there 23 years roughly!    17mins.

E: When did you start getting involved in things like the Co-op Women’s Guild?

C: …strangely enough the flat I bought is next door to Jim Lamb- who is Co-op right through! He’s always been involved with the Co-op, he’s written books… he was the husband of Joan Lamb (Leader of Newcastle City Council- also interviewed for the project)…I went down to vote for the Co-op board with Jim Lamb and he stopped to pick up one other lady up on the way, who is no longer with us, and she in the car, on the way down, asked me ‘would I be interested in joining the Co-op Woman’s Guild?’

E: Had you heard of it before?

C: Not really, no I knew nothing about it!…I had been travelling all over the country…I had a job that I really enjoyed…

E: So this was the first time really you had any time to get involved?

C: Yes…I said I would join…they used to meet on a evening, I think it was Monday evening…in the Co-op store in Newgate Street (the main branch in Newcastle) in what was called ‘the Guild Room’.

E: And how many women were there?

C: Not a lot by then, when I first joined there was about 16 I suppose (1980s)

E: Yes, and how old were they? Were they the same age as you?

C: Well, they were all over 60, some were a lot older.

E: So you were quite young…?

C: Well, I was …around 60 or 61and it was just through going to vote for the Co-op board, …I’ve never been involved in the Co-op in any way, other than my mother was a Co-op member, I can still remember her cheque number you know! (when Celia and her husband moved up to Birtely, she had joined the Chester-le-Street Co-op, where they rented a flat before moving to Gateshead)…

E: What did the Co-op mean to you? What did you know about the Co-op?

C: Well me mother bought everything in the Co-op (1930-40s), literally everything!

E: Did you know anything about their politics?

C: No, no…I just knew at those times they got very good dividends, we had a local Co-op…cause of course this was all during the war (1939-45) …

E: So what did you find out when you joined the Guild?

C: I joined the Guild literally just to go out on a Monday evening, I was on me own you know..

E: So what did you find out about their politics?

C: Me father was Labour…always been Labour all his life, all me sisters…me mother was Labour more or less I think because me father was…although I’d visited my grandfather’s place lots, a tiny little village which used to be horse-racing stables and orchards, that’s all I can ever remember…from my grandmother’s house you could look over into Dorothy Pageant’s horse-riding stables on the other side of the road you know and I used to spend me school holidays during the war, down there…

E: So you’d seen rich and poor?

C: I had…

E: So, let’s talk about the Guild now. What did they ask you to do when you first joined?

C: Literally just to become a member of the Guild which I did and you paid your subs.

E: How much was the subscription?

C: 4 pound odd a year.

E: It was very cheap. And did you do any campaigning for them?

C: We campaigned a bit to open new stores, which we managed to do at Wrekenton…we used to go up into the area and approach people on the street… ‘would you like to join the Co-op Woman’s Guild?’ We got a branch opened there which now has about 42 members!

E: That’s excellent….you got women interested…and do you think it’s a good idea that it’s a women’s guild?

C: At that time I didn’t know anything about the other guild (the National Guild of Co-operators is for both sexes)…ever since I’ve really joined I’ve gone to Conference every year…all over the country…it’s VERY democratic, all women…we have speakers who are men, we’ve had them from the Co-op group and from everything under the sun…

E: Do you think it’s a good idea to have only women.

C: I think women desperately need a place where only women can go…particularly with the blend of things we’ve got in the area now…Asians, whose husbands won’t let them go anywhere men are

E: So the women are quite isolated?

C: Very isolated, but none of them have joined the Co-op Woman’s Guild, which is something that really should be (addressed)…it’s something that you cannot really barge into

E: So you’ve got to be sensitive, it’s like when you were walking around the streets recruiting women..

C: You couldn’t do that in that area, but you know we went to a (co-op) meeting in Leeds …and that was spoken of… of how we could get the women there, cause their husbands’ might allow them to come to somewhere, where there are no men,

E:…So have you taken that back to the Guild?

C: Well, I’ve taken it back to the Guild…my Guild now is in Throckley…this year we have 22…

E: Ands what’s the average age?

C: The average age is going close to 80….women at 60 are young these days

E: Why do you think there are not younger women?

C: Well, we meet in the afternoon, most of the young women are working…if you meet in the evening, as we did when I was in the Newcastle branch, which closed when there were just 6 members… we all transferred to Throckley

…if we go in the evening the women are looking after the children and things like that…I know some Guilds that still meet in the evening and some of them even let the children come you know, with their mothers, as they do in Dinnington… but the Co-op Guild has only 4 branches left in this area…Throckley, Wrekenton, Birtley and Dinnington…

E: So..if you could wave a wand what would you like to see happen?

C: I would love to see lots and lots of these Asian women… who don’t necessarily work, so their husbands would allow them, to come to a Co-operative Woman’s Guild…it needs somebody other than me to find out how to contact them

E: Is there anybody in the Co-operative movement who has got more opportunity or power to talk to the Asian community? How do the rest of the Co-op movement treat you as the Woman’s Guild? Are you listened to?

C: We used to be…we used to have a proper liaison meeting …with the Guild of Co-operators until David (Connolly) left and it was stopped…2 or 3 years ago

E: So you are quite isolated now?

C: Well… I still go to their Conference (the Guild of Co-operators) …I go to their do’s.

E: And do they have younger people in?

C: No…and now they have lots of ‘individual’ members and we have…when we had a deal of trouble with the General Secretary, who stole a lot of money and went to jail for it, we have a new General Secretary (from the South) and a National President… from Yorkshire…I’ve been National President as well in 2007 (later corrects date)…and I was on the National Executive for 5 years.

E: So what do you think the future of the Co-op Guild is?

C: Well, at one time I thought with the Co-op’s help we could have really strengthened the  Guild (correction by Celia) …but they don’t show any interest in it at all, certainly not in the Co-op Women’s Guild! They don’t even speak of it-some managers won’t even let you put a poster up! Lots of women don’t even know about it. We have got 3 new members last year…and I just went as an ordinary member, but…people wouldn’t go on the table (take up management positions) I’ve never had any difficulty with maths and treasury and worrying about money, I thought I would be… treasurer…

E: So do you think the Woman’s Co-operative Guild now should be campaigning on behalf of women; some of the issues for women that haven’t been resolved, such as childcare?

Later Celia tells me that the 2012 conference theme is ‘The Community’-so she can raise these issues.

C: …I just think…a lot of women, particularly Asian women and people like that…I think most English women are able to stand up for themselves, most of them work now till they retire. But I do think…certainly the new members we’ve got at 60 are quite young you know.

E: So what could you see them doing to develop the community?

C: Well, unfortunately the ones we’ve got have got grandchildren

E: They’ve got childcare commitments and that’s the same issue…

C: That’s right…childcare…once again, I mean I’m the youngest of all my sisters and I didn’t have any children but all me sisters had children, so I used to… be ‘aunty this, aunty that’ especially when we lived in Cornwall, my house was always full.

E: Do you think we should have more childcare for families?

C: Well, I don’t think they can afford it as things stand now…I think it has been better but I think it’s getting worse…I think financially it’s getting worse, jobs of course are difficult, I can only go by my own nieces and nephews and some of them have done very well…

E: And could the Women’s Guild do something about that? Do you see the Women’s Guild becoming more political? Do you think it should be political?

C: Well…I don’t know anyone who’s in the Co-op Guild who’s not Labour…I don’t think that’s important. I don’t think that politics should come into local issues…this is just me…(Celia is a member of The Co-operative Party). We have lots of Labour councillors who are also members of the Co-operative Party…

E: Do you think the 2 guilds would be better moving together, or should there be a separate one for women?

C: Well I think there should be a separate one for women, but I would like to see us liaison, more than we do.

E: Yes, and why do women still need a separate one?

C: Well, I just think, as usual men would just sort of… (Celia later tells me, she means ‘they would just take over’)

.…I think the (independent) Co-ops take more interest now of the Co-operative Woman’s Guild certainly. I’m going to be hated for this, but …we (means The North East and Cumbrian Co-op) were in a real position of strength (financially) …but now we’re in a ‘Group’ and it’s not classed as the North-East now (discusses how the whole area is now classed as part of the ‘North’ Group ).

Celia tells me she is looking forward to this year’s conference at Doncaster (Celia corrects tape) and she is at present the Secretary of the Throckley Guild branch. Celia believes that the Guild could really help younger women become more active in politics. I conclude by asking her views about the continuing shortage of women politicians:

C: Well, I thought we were doing very well with Labour and …I know the Conservatives too are trying to get more (women) members, but I mean they seem to be so right-wing it’s heart-breaking.                                                                                                                   37mins.

Interview with Celia Sumner carried out in friend’s home by Dr E Burn, 20/1/2012.