Wednesday 22 November 2017

From the Communist Party to Peaky Blinders: The Real Jessie Eden by Catherine Hokin

For those of us who like their televised historical fiction with a slag-heap of grit and a soundtrack that favours Nick Cave over luscious strings, this month's return of Peaky Blinders has been like Christmas come early. This recreation of 1920s Birmingham and the truly terrifying gangsters stalking its grimy streets blends fact with fiction: the Peaky Blinders gang existed but wasn't run by the Shelby brothers; Small Heath and the Garrison pub had strong associations with gangs and betting rings between the wars although the satanic-mill factories that form the backdrop were not in such consolidated ownership. Real characters are mixed in with the series' fictionalised family, including appearances by Winston Churchill and Billy Kimber, leader of the Birmingham Gang and vicious enough in real life to make Tommy Shelby seem almost a softy by comparison.

 The Peaky Blinders Women off to listen to Jessie Eden
Part of the series' appeal for me has always been its core of feisty female characters, centred on Helen McRory's Aunt Polly who ran the illicit gambling rings when the men were away being damaged by war. In series four, a new women has been added to the mix: Jessie Eden, a shop steward in one of Shelby's factories who we first encounter putting on her lipstick in the gents' toilet and responding to demands she go somewhere more suitable with the rather cracking: 'You don't have a woman's lavatory on the second floor because no women get this far up."

Publicity round the series suggests Eden has been brought in as a possible love interest for Cillian Murphy's character Tommy. Given the show's track record with its female characters, I think we can hope for something closer to the actual Jessie Eden, who is something of a Brummie, and certainly a trade union, hero. She was born in 1902 and, when we meet her challenging Tommie about female pay in 1925, was actually working at the Joseph Lucas Motor Components Factory where she was a shop-steward for the Transport and General Workers' Union. At the time of the General Strike in 1926, the percentage of unionised women at the factory was tiny and completely over-shadowed by the 10,000 non-unionised women, nevertheless Eden marched the women in her section out to join the strike.

Tanks in the General Strike - Daily Mirror
When she was interviewed by the Birmingham Post on the 50th anniversary of the Strike in 1976, Eden recalled the privations of the period: "We used to take our turns picketing or join the big meetings in the old Bull Ring, which was much larger then. Sacrifices had to be made. We had practically no meat during the strike. We lived on bread, jam and marge.” She also recalled her own brush with the law on the evening of the May Day march which saw a procession of 25,000 people, witnessed by another 100,000. "One policeman put his hands on my arm. They were telling me to go home, but the crowd howled, ‘Hey, leave her alone’ and then some men came and pushed the policemen away. They didn’t do anything after that. I think they could see that there would have been a riot. I was never frightened of the police or the troops because I had the people with me, you see. I don’t know what I’d have felt like on my own."

 The young Jessie Eden
Five years later, Eden really came into her own when she led 10,000 women out of the Lucas factory on a week long strike over new working practices which were driving female workers to the point of collapse. The irony of the story was that the new working speeds intended as a result of the American-designed systems were to be based on Jessie's work-rate as she was judged as an exemplar of efficiency. A further irony was that Eden, now a member of the Communist Party, was one of those who lost her job when a furious management imposed cutbacks. The 1931 strike is credited with starting mass unionisation among women workers but its aftermath was tough on Eden who apparently struggled to find work. She seems to then disappear for a period of two years but was actually in Moscow, rallying Soviet women construction workers employed building the city's metro. No mean feat for a working-class, apparently tiny, woman from Birmingham.

Jessie Eden was a champion of social justice her whole life. She was a key figure in the 1939 Birmingham Rent Strike which brought 49,000 tenants out on strike, successfully winning them rent control in the council and private sector. She stood for the Communist Party in the 1945 General Election and led a march against the Vietnam War in Birmingham in 1969. Graham Stephenson, whose website is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in Eden and union/Communist politics, knew Eden in later life and described her in a recent Guardian interview: "People say that in her prime she was an electrifying speaker, who poured out words from the heart without notes and whose confidence in victory was contagious." That's a tribute I'm sure most of us would love to have and hopefully Peaky Blinders is set to give us a deeper flavour of this woman whose actions made such a difference to the women around her, women who she fought to see treated with dignity, equality and respect. Somehow the time for remembering her seems right.


Susan Price said...

A heroine indeed.

Carol Drinkwater said...

I don't know this television series as I don't have access to UK channels but I will try to track down the DVDs now that I have read this. What a woman was Jessie Eden. Thank you for this post, Catherine.

wardy-la said...

So disappointing that she was just turned into one of Thomas Shelbys conquests ☹

FunLists said...

The tv series is also worth watching!
Best Peaky Blinders Quotes