Mabel Florence Lethbridge (1900-1968) : Politics,Protest and Class. – Writing Lives

Mabel Florence Lethbridge (1900-1968) : Politics,Protest and Class.

”A letter had been written to the Lieut.Colonel H.K.Gordon, who had endeavoured to interest the King in the blunder of the condemned machines”


The main focus of Mabel’s autobiography is to tell the reader what happened in the munition’s factory when the condemned ‘monkey machine’ exploded and she suffered catastrophic injuries. The memoir is dedicated to her mother (see Purpose and Audience) with much of the content expressing her apologies for transgressing class boundaries. In becoming a member of the working classes, through her memoir, Mabel raises awareness of political issues within the workplace.


The first mention of political disharmony at Hayes Munitions Factory centres on the productivity bonus scheme. Dependant on how many shells were produced, the workers received a bonus. Through re imagined dialogue Mabel evokes a situation and potential cause for the explosion which left her maimed. In a chapter entitled ‘The Danger Zone’ (p.61) Mabel explains the size and capacity of the factory ‘ten thousand women and over 2,000 men were employed’ (p.62).She also explains how the shells were made and that the monkey machines, the workers were employed to operate, had been condemned by the Ministry of Munitions. Subsequent to the accident letters came pouring in including one from Buckingham palace and some from the boys at the front ‘A few lines of appreciation for your gallant work from the boys in the front line trenches’ (p.101)

From her hospital bed Mabel tried to find out what had happened and what had become of her co workers but ‘Hayes kept a stony silence’ (p.103). Mabel had only worked at Hayes for nine days when the explosion happened. In honour of her service she received a munition worker’s badge usually reserved for worker’s after a three months stint.

For courage and high example shown, Mabel was honoured with the medal of the Order of the British Empire and was featured in the The Times newspaper dated January 1st 1918. There is no mention of how she felt but throughout her life she used her title of Mabel Lethbridge O.B.E on correspondence, articles and her two subsequent memoirs.

A source of contention for Mabel and  perhaps a political statement ‘I was not entitled to a pension, and the maximum amount payable under the Workmen’s Compensation Act was £1 a week’ (p.105). Mabel’s mother intervened and was told that she was lucky to receive anything because she was under age and shouldn’t have been working at the factory until she was eighteen years old. During World War 1, doors were opened to large numbers of women who were recruited into jobs vacated by men gone to fight in the war. Mabel had lied about her age when she took the job and was to suffer financially as well as physically.

 Mabel started work at the Ministry of Pensions but because of her poor living conditions in a hostel she caught a chill and was unable to work. The Ministry paid sick leave for a short period before deciding Mabel was unfit to work and ‘were unable to keep my position vacant’(p.132). Mabel writes of her fear and how she pleaded with the doctor to sign her fit, he refused which lead to her living on the streets. Such is the situation of many war and service veterans today who struggle financially and emotionally to cope. On December 28th 1920 the Daily Mirror ran an article to raise political awareness on the treatment of Mabel:

” she is in receipt of twenty-eight shillings a week compensation and is trying to save herself from starvation by letting out camp stools”

Extract from Fortune Grass p.189

Mabel and Daddy who was also employed and had served his country are representations of what happened to some people in post war Britain. They were forced to go busking on the streets of London and beg for handouts and money to survive. Mabel does not make this an issue, in fact she writes with humour and positivity but the hidden message tells the reader that life in 1920s Britain was hard for ex-service men and women.

Mabel could have returned to her middle-class home but instead she chose poverty and living on London’s Embankment. Her need to be amongst the working classes and her determination to be with Daddy, overshadowed her class status. Nan Hackett writes that Auto biographers continued to identify as working class, even if they left manual labour to become writers, trade union leaders, Members of Parliament etc (Hackett. p.209). Mabel did go on to become a prolific writer with many articles written in newspapers to her credit.

From Hayes Peoples History site

I include the following observation as possible reasons for Mabel to write Fortune Grass. As well as  explaining her self to her mother Mabel may have been writing a political message in protest of the treatment of service personnel.

Regenia Gagnier tells us that the auto biographer insisted upon their own histories, however difficult it was to write them, and they unanimously state that their reasons for writing are functional rather than aesthetic: to record lost experiences for future generations; to raise money; to warn others; to teach others; to relieve or amuse themselves; to understand themselves’ (Gagnier p.342)



All images from

Hackett, Nan. ‘A Different Form of “Self”: Narrative Style in British Nineteenth-Century Working-class Autobiography’. 12.3 (1989): 208-226, 210)

Lethbridge, Mabel. Fortune Grass, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol.4

Regenia Gagnier Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender Author(s): Source: Victorian Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Spring, 1987), pp. 335-363 Published by: Indiana University Press Stable URL: Accessed: 28-02-2019 10:33 UTC

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