Many women within, or on the margins, of Unitarianism often go unnoticed. Although they may not have made any real significance to the movement or society they can illustrate an important contribution to society made by women, and the social, religious and cultural changes they lived through. This is particularly the case with Catherine Herford who wrote a short book about her life and changing times.
Her short book illustrates the wider changes rooted in a movement, which itself was undergoing changes and decline as it reflected the society around it. She was born in Manchester 1896, fourth child of five, to a Unitarian Minister and Hebrew scholar, and a mother born into a literary and legal life with Unitarian family and friends throughout the country. Catherine grew up through Sunday school, and all the other social and leisure activities that the chapel at Stand provided. We learn about changes in education as County Councils moved into provision, change of syllabus, introduction of uniforms and her own difficulties of learning to read letter by letter, syllable by syllable. She required accompanying pictures and to see the whole of the sentence. Once this was discovered she appreciated reading in the whole. But what this probably demonstrated was her later love of Art. However, there was a long and bumpy ride to achieve places to study this at a higher level as the 1914-18 war intervened. At Cheltenham under Miss Beale we hear of the introduction of the telephone and the differences that made in staff communication. It is these small background illustrations that give us a real sense of the impact of technological changes which we now we take for granted.
At the outbreak of war the family uprooted and moved to London where her father became curator of Dr Williams Trust and Library that had been founded in 1693 for the English Presbyterians and then their successors the Unitarians. Catherine had hoped to study at The Slade School of Art having just completed a year of a diploma course in Fine Art at the university there, but the war put an end to that as admissions were stopped. It is sometimes difficult for us to understand just how different the world became after the war, when a generation of young men were killed, leaving many of the women of that generation to remain single and having to earn a living. However, it remained her wish to complete the course at some stage. For the time being she took part time courses at Academy Schools, later following one by correspondence. After spending some time as a Land Girl she returned to London and became absorbed in the clerical running of the Library and the Trust.
Although she describes the eleven years following the war as ‘a wasteland’, working in the library and living at home, we also learn that she spent four months in Sicily with an aunt, travelling to Rome and Naples learning to play the guitar along the way. She was also involved in the Domestic Mission through Sunday school, Girl Guides and various women’s meetings as well as appreciating nearby book shops, theatres and galleries. It was during these years that FOY (Fellowship of Youth) came into being and the Youth Peace Congress, for which she attended 1926 Youth Peace Conference in Holland as Honororary Treasurer. Along the way she mentions the General Strike of 1926 and the birth of radio, which took over from the newspapers for dissemination of news and reports on the strike. The old world was over. So although it may have seemed like a wasteland for Catherine, she certainly didn’t waste those years.
Her father having retired and moved out of their London home Catherine found a bed-sit for short while, winning an Art Scholarship. Being able to study by correspondence she moved to Birmingham to live with her mother’s elderly Cousins. After five years she managed to secure a teaching post even though being five points short of the diploma. This first appointment as Art teach was at Rotherham thereafter she never had to apply for further teaching posts, being approached always by the schools themselves. The resources were poor and we learn how she used sugar bags begged from local grocers. Having specialised in architecture she was never short of material to draw on.
Throughout her teaching life her colleagues would be surprised to find that Catherine had connections to many celebrities through family friendships. She was often invited to prestigious events and often was surprised to learn just how many influential connections she had.
Moving to a post in Birmingham after five years she arrived to discover that King Edward V1 High School for Girls had been burnt down and was now being accommodated in huts. But after only a year the whole school was evacuated ‘en bloc’ to Cheltenham. We get an insight into the evacuation and the shortage of resources experienced by teachers. This, plus being only able to teach in daylight meant that there was much improvising to be done. Struggling with time became a real problem as Catherine taught for three days at Cheltenham and one at Gloucester each week. By this time she had am old banger but had to reserve her petrol ration to visit parents and sisters, so used a bicycle at every opportunity. Some of her journeys over the Pennines illustrate the adventurous nature of driving old bangers at that time.
After the war Catherine was asked to move to a boarding school in North Wales. There was still much innovations as supplies continued to be short. Here she missed the comfortable chapels of her youth. Chester was the only possible link but as the slums were cleared from the city centre, and people moved to estates out of the city, the chapel eventually closed.
As retirement approached, along with her sister, she bought ‘Banquet House’, an old house in Rhuddlan built in 1572. After modernization they moved in with the help of another sister who was a busy GP in North Wales.
We get some idea of the sort of things the Unitarians were supporting at that time. To celebrate Catherine’s seventieth birthday the sisters held an exhibition of her work for a week in the house, collecting money for the Memorial Fund 1966 to celebrate the tercentenary of the ‘Great Ejection’ of 1662, when 2,000 rectors and vicars resigned and walked out of the Anglican Church. Even then Catherine continued to teach now and then when approached.
Reflecting, Catherine writes about the changes in Unitarian thought that took place after the First World War. Tradition as a basis for reconstruction was to be abandoned just as it was in the wider society. A common ground to meet with rootless Jews and Catholics was looked for. Educational methods had changed over Catherine’s lifetime, methods of which she lived and worked through. Things could never be the same again. This seems to be a discussion that continues almost a century later.
However, Catherine caught the wanderlust in these years, travelling alone to the Holy Land, Crete, Venice, Florence, Knosses and Oberammergau, sketching and listening to lectures. She remained a Liberal throughout her life and only in these late years did she respond to being nominated to the County Council. She realised that she should have done this earlier to be effective but nevertheless one can’t imagine her giving less than her all to tasks allotted to her.
The book ends with the two sisters moving to a little semi in Cheltenham close to a station. Catherine and her sister never lost their desire to keep in touch with family, friends and Unitarian events.
The book clearly ends before the end of Catherine’s life but nevertheless one gets the impression from this short work of an engagement with circumstances throughout a period of great social upheaval. She often talks of one door being closed as another opened. There is no mention of regret at a single life. In fact it seems that changing circumstances had given women like Catherine an opportunity to be self-sufficient and fulfilled; something not often possible before the First World War, for single women of slender means. One sister became a GP and another became a teacher, demonstrating the importance of education for both male and female in Unitarian families. This is a very enjoyable book to read, where we learn as much about the world of the twentieth century as we do about just one of the Herford Unitarians.