The Real Jessie Eden and Peaky Blinders
With the appearance of Jessie Eden as a main character in Peaky Blinders, as the biographer of the real Jessie, I find myself being asked about the real Jessie. You can find out more by attending the cultural debate and entertainment event in Birmingham on January 13th, which I will be speaking at:
Although I’ve only watched a few episodes of the show, I accept that historical drama can be difficult to treat as if it is an academic exercise. When it first came out, I found the series’ cinematography attractive and its charismatic performances appealing,. It is to be commended for revealing British working class history, which is rarely explored on television. Actually, it compares well with the BBC’s very biased output on the centenery of the 1917 revolution! But I’m aware of a number of innacuracies that perhaps only bother the expert, though it was one of the reasons I stopped watching as the series progressed. I understand that the historical advisor to the series was an expert in Tudor and local history and may have been a little irked at the stretching of some detail for plot needs.
But, if you want to write about Communist trades unionists in history, I would say – ask a historian of Communist trades unionists!
I’m aware of these flaws, it would be interesting to hear of others from readers; if you have comments, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s my list:
1. It has the Causasian state of Georgia as a Tsarist hold-out, whereas it had been Menshevik, and had been conquered by the Bolsheviks before the time of the story.
2. Winston Churchill wasn’t Home Secretary in 1919 but had been a decade before.
3. Stories around the IRA, which appear to be sourced from a number of pieces I have written about Harry Emery and others who actively supported the War of Irish Independence from Birmingham and Coventry are more true of the 1970s than 50 years before but do not take into account the position that Communists took in each instance. See:
4. Jessie wasn’t a mass leader in 1926, merely a shop steward of a small group of unionised women, hugely out-numbered by 10,000 non-unionised women at the Lucas factory. She was never a professional paid official.
5. Her greatest achievement was virtually founding mass trades unionism for women by leading all those women into the union and out on strike in 1931. It is doubtful that the TV programme will cover this, or her even more extraordinary achievement in bringing 45,000 Birmingham council tenants out on rent strike in 1939 – and winning.
1. It’s highly unlikely these gangsters ever used razor blades in their caps and that the name probably just came from the peaked hat, which could hurt if you were poked with it.
2. Peaky Blinders was probably, like Teds in the 1950s, a name for a style of youth dressing, which may have been popular with gangs, but which was most certainly important as many as three decades before the series is set.
3. The source for the series is a novel from four decades ago not contemporary records.
4. I can’t see a young woman during the 1920s going into a gents toilets for any reason at all other than life or death.
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Jessie Eden (later McCulloch)
Jessie Eden, later McCulloch, was born Jessie Shrimpton on the 24th February 1902 at 61 Talbot Street, then listed as being in the All Saints sub-district of Birmingham. Her mother was also named Jessie (nee Evans). Aged just 17 at the time of the birth, she had herself been born in Birmingham in July 1884 and would become a munitions worker during the First World War.
Jessie Junior’s maternal grandmother was Elizabeth Evans, nee Norton, and her maternal grandfather, Thomas Evans. Her father was William (Richard) Chair Shrimpton, who gave his residence as ‘Back 138 Well Street’ and his occupation as ‘jeweller journeyman’ on Jessie’s birth certificate, her birth being registered on April 17th 1902. Jessie was the oldest of three girls born to William and Jessie, Senior, the others being Nell and May. By 1911, they were living at 32 Court 2 House, Bridge Street. William was now a “wireman” aged 27, a year oldr than his wife, Jessie Senior.
Jessie Shrimpton married Albert W(illiam) Eden (b 1896) in Kings Norton in the summer of 1923. This is the only Shrimpton-Eden marriage ever that fits the dates and genders, though both families had a massive extended presence in early 20th century inner-city Birmingham. Jessie later mentioned to her daughter-in-law, Andrea, the folly of being married to someone who did not share her interest in politics and her political views. It is presumed that this was the case with Eden, whose role in Jessie’s history seems to have faded very quickly; he died in 1961, apparently unknown to Jessie and her family. Not only was there seemingly a lack of political synergy, it was a childless marriage. Indeed, Jessie believed that she had herself been subject to a difficult birth in 1902. Later in life, she told her daughter-in-law, Andrea McCulloch, that she believed that it was damage to her at birth that had left her unable to bear children herself.
But she and Albert adopted a son, Douglas (Douggie to his fiends) who was, according to family members who spoke after his sudden and early death in 1977 a blood relative, although it was said that he had never known this. Douggie, who was sadly to become something of an alcoholic, openly made comments in his final years about his own parentage being from an unwed mother and sometimes implied mysterious circumstances.
Jessie would, in due course, become, during the 1930s and 1940s, a mass leader of women workers, a Moscow Metro builder, a tenants’ leader and a pretty sucessful Communist election candidate. Her first known foray into the world of militant unionism was in 1926. The Birmingham Post interviewed Jessie as part of its 50th anniversary coverage of the General Strike in Birmingham; she was then described as being 74 years old. Breathlessly, its reporter opened the story with: “When policemen laid hands on trade union tomboy Jessie McCulloch (her later final married name) at a workers’ meeting in the old Bull Ring during the 1926 General Strike they pretty soon realised they had made a mistake.
“One policeman put his hands on my arm. They were telling me to go home, but the crowd howled … `Hey, leave her alone’ … and 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.” It was the only instance that Jessie could recall of anything coming near to what could be called violence. “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,” she said.
By this time, she was living at Sparkbrook with her parents and sisters (the 1911 census recorded May, born in 1903, and Nellie, born in 1904). But there was no mention of Albert, a mere three years after their marriage. Jessie was already working at Joseph Lucas’ motor components factory, where she worked filing shock absorbers and already a shop steward for the Transport & General Workers Union. The probability is that hers was the only section or one of a few sections of women workers unionised in the entire plant; nonetheless, as with most factories in the city, AEU toolmakers came out en – masse at Lucas in 1926, thus effectively closing the plant. Right from the start of the strike Jessie herself marched out of Lucas, taking all the women in her section with her. Her father was also on strike and her mother, in a mood of semi-festive support, hung a red flag from the front window of their home.
It was a time of massive working class protest; the evening of the traditional May Day march on the streets of Birmingham saw 25,000 in procession and 100,000 spectators ; it may have been this event that Jessie recalled in her interview with the Post. She said that: “In Birmingham there was very little fighting and that sort of thing. As the strike went on more and more people were joining in. 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 and my mother would try to make us a milk pudding if she could.”
Of the well-to-do students and others who staffed the about 10% of buses, trams and trains running in Birmingham, Jessie recalled: “They wouldn’t stand it for very long. You could get a crowd together in a matter of minutes — you didn’t have to go looking for them — and they would round on the blacklegs and call them names or just stop the buses operating by sheer numbers … The longer it went on, the more people supported you, Even middle-class people, who were much more reluctant to join with the working classes in those days, recognised our argument.”
Thus, from a class conscious family and herself an established trade union activist, Jessie was in a strong position to lead all of the women of Lucas when the time came that they were ready for action. The T&GWU was very weak at Lucas but there were Communists amongst the AEU members, with whom she would have been in contact in the late 1920s.
In January 1931, Jessie went down in history by leading ten thousand women out on a week’s strike, an extraordinary thing to do in those times. It eventually led to a mass movement towards unionisation amongst women and young workers in the newer light industries of the English Midlands, which lay the basis for mass trade union membership in major plants over the next four decades and the strong industrial roots that the Communist Party once had in the region.
It started when, one day, Jessie saw someone standing behind her when she was filing some components and she asked what was going on. Andrea McCulloch says: “I can imagine her being the quickest worker at Lucas; even in later life she was a swift-moving, neat, precise, very tidily dressed woman.” Jessie later recalled that company officials “said they were timing me … the fact was that I’d always worked quickly … they obviously wanted to set the time by me and the others would have to keep up with it.” Already, complaints about being timed on toilet visits were especially offensive to female workers and this was the final straw.
Jessie went to the AEU, but it did not then admit women into membership, so she went to the TGWU. Union officials, she said, “looked at me amazed when I brought the application forms filled up”. Most of the women joined the T&G but the union was largely irrelevant to what happened next. A rank and file committee of forty, representing ten shops, was set up and lunchtime meetings outside the factory built up from a few dozen to several hundred and the women simply walked off the job in their thousands.
Faced with a complete stoppage, the Lucas directors backed off. A notice was issued discontinuing the system. “VICTORY! BEDAUX SYSTEM SMASHED!” ran the headline in the Daily Worker on 29 January 1932. One of the Communist engineering workers in the factory who had encouraged Jessie was raised on the shoulders of the masses of workers at a dinner hour celebratory meeting. So jubilant were the women that normal working was almost impossible that day and they poured out of the factory, “released from work shortly before the usual hour”, singing their hearts out as they went.
After things calmed down and during major cut backs at the firm, Jessie was victimised by the management at Lucas and lost her job. She spent some time trying to get and keep other employment. But she received victimization pay from the T&G and the TUC’s organising and recruitment gold medal from Ernest Bevin. More solidly, having joined the Communist Party during the strike, she was sent by it to Moscow. In later years, she was to tell her daughter-in-law: “I went there but I couldn’t tell anyone where I was going; nobody knew where I was for two years.”
What seems to have happened is that she was sent to help rally Soviet women workers in the construction of Moscow’s Metro. Although she was a tiny woman, she was quite strong physically, so it was not a device for show. Such interventions, based on the notion that the work ethic of British and other foreign workers would somehow rub off, did not really pay off, largely due to language difficulties as much as anything else.
It seems that Jessie also gravitated towards the Comintern’s Lenin School for cadre development in Moscow, initially in her spare time but eventually permanently. Although she does not appear, at least in her own name, in an archival list of attendees at the school, being classed as a day attendee.
The first line of the Moscow Metro was built in three stages; the preparatory and organisational stage covered 1931 to 1932; the second period, which included the actual start of construction, began in 1933. The third and decisive construction period started in 1934 and it is likely that this was the period when Jessie was a volunteer worker in Moscow. At the end of 1934, with the Severnoye depot still under construction, the first two metro cars were delivered and the first trains ran the following year. That the Metro was up and running just four years after construction began in 1931 and was such a stunning architectural achievement is even now a lasting monument of socialism. The unique designs of the stations are often palatial and they were also designed to double-up as bomb shelters.
In total, she worked in the Soviet Union for two and a half years and was elected a shock worker at the Stalin automotive plant, later renamed ZiL Automotives.
Back in Birmingham, Jessie returned to an element of normality. Sometime around 1937, her adopted son Doug Eden joined the Navy and Jessie’s life partner now came into her life. Fellow Communist Party member Walter Baxter McCulloch, Jnr, was the oldest of four sons who had moved from Glasgow’s Gorbals district to Birmingham in the Depression. Like his brothers Alex (born in 1908) and Andy (born in 1920), also Communists, they spent the rest of their lives in England. See separate entry for Alex: http://grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php/biographies/m-o/m/385-alec-mccollough
The brothers played a significant role in the 1939 mass rent strike and in the Communist Party in Birmingham over the years, whilst Jessie was the “inspiring” Vice-President of the Central Tenants Association. Some 90% of all of Birmingham’s tenants withheld their rents for ten weeks, even though the struggle was intense, with raids by bailiffs on rent strikers. Some 8,000 women were mobilised for one mass procession.
Writing of the impact of this on her own Party branch at the time, the Kingstanding branch, Jessie revealed that “during the campaign I personally visited a large number and approached them to join the Party, with the result that 35 joined.” Jessie’s prestige was such that achieved this in a mere ten days but it was not all her; as she wrote: “The Kingstanding branch—as a branch—has played a leading part in the Municipal Rent Campaign which has involved 49,000 tenants during the last four months, and produced a petition of 35,000, a march of nearly 10,000 women, and a ballot run on the lines of a municipal election, which polled 41 per cent of the votes as against 18 per cent to 20 per cent for municipal elections. This agitation has been very near to the people. The Kingstanding branch recognised the meaning of this agitation from the very commencement of the campaign…
There are the following interesting features about these recruits:- They did not need long arguments as to why they should join. They all, without exception, immediately filled in a form when it was given to them. One woman went out and came back with five neighbours, who all joined up.
1. They wanted to know what they would do in the Party. They did not want to become passengers.
2. A number of them have distinguished themselves as leaders in the tenants’ fight and have displayed considerable originality.
3. The point is that there are many more that are ready to join if approached and followed up. The same can be done in other branches. Saltley branch, for example, has recruited 33 members—12 at the recent Crusade meeting and 21 at a Rent Crusade Party meeting.”
She had become such a self-taught expert in the housing problems of tenants that, when she toured the country during the war, speaking at massive CP public rallies, she was frequently billed as “Jessie Eden, the Tenants’ KC”, the equivalent today being, of course, “QC”. At one rally in Nottingham, reported by the local press there, her approval of cabinet changes as being for the better was breathlessly reported as being central to “Unity for Victory”.
Having moved to 143 Heathfield Road, Handsworth, Birmingham, Jessie was a key promotor of the visit of the wartime Ambassador for the USSR to Britain, along with his wife, to the Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Company in Handsworth (the BRC&WC, now defunct – the site of which is a supermarket next to the West Brom football ground). This was Ivan Mikhailovich Maisky (1884-1975), who was also the Soviet’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. Maisky’s boss was Vyacheslav Molotov, perhaps only second to Stalin in the then line up. Maisky came to Birmingham to symbolically collect the first Valentine tank off the production line before it began its hazardous route to the Scond Front via the Murmansk Convoys. Given Jessie’s attendance at the Lenin School, it is inconceivable that she was not key to the hosting of this event. A contemporary picture shows a large group of workers withlenchefists raised in a manner reminiscent of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and it is known that a very large Communist Party branch existed there during the war.
Jessie was certainly very much to the fore in pro-Soviet war time activity. In this 1942 picture, below, Jessie is third left, holding the bouquet. It marks the occasion of a tribute to the women of Kiev by a delegation of Birmingham women to the Soviet Embassy in London. They presented to Madam Maisky an address and gave a bouquet. Jessie is clearly the leader of the delegation, holding the bouquet of roses to present to Madam Maisky. The picture is marked on the rear, thus: “Mrs Jessie Eden, Mrs E L Hobson, Miss Gladys Pontin (wearing what seems to be a busworkers’ uniform), Mrs J Strong, Mrs L Fearn, Mrs C Bechtin, and Mrs A E Leanard, JP.”
Jessie contested the August 1945 general election in the Handsworth constituency, winning 1,390 votes, or (for a Communist) a respectable 3.4%. Living in Handsworth, her slogan was `Elect a Handsworth woman for Handsworth’. Only a few month’s later, in the November 1945 municipal elections, Jessie did stupendously well – not enough to become elected a councillor – but she more than doubled her vote, polling 2,887 votes in a single ward. Two other Communist candidates in Birmingham also polled well but Jessie was way out ahead. Sam Blackwell polled 1,968 votes, and Dr Mollie Barrow (see separate entries) 1,796 also as Communist candidates. [Daily Worker November 3rd 1945]
Left: Jessie portrayed in the Daily Worker in 1945
As we have seen, Jessie and Walter McCulloch had become life partners. In the summer of 1948, they married. By this time, they lived at 361 Walsall Road, Perry Barr, a short distance only from their previous residence but a more pleasant aspect. Their marriage certificate of September 2nd 1948, when she was 46 and Walter 43, gives her profession as ‘Housekeeper’. By this time her father William must have been newly retired, his occupation being given as ‘Railway Checker’.
It is probable that the move was partially connected to the fact that, in 1950, Walter and Jessie adopted a 5-year old from an orphanage in Bromsgrove, which was run by a fellow Communist Party member. One of the many ‘G.I. babies’ of WW II, Jessie viewed his adoption as being something of a social duty. Her adopted son, Douggie was still in the Navy at this time, but maintained contact with his adopted mother.
Jessie’s role in the 1950s and 60s became that of wife and mother, although like Walter, she maintained a deep political awareness. Walter retired in 1970 from his occupation as a building inspector; one of his last jobs had been to inspect the retirement flat in Hob Moor Road, Yardley that he and Jessie would occupy. Originally a time-served carpenter, Walter’s skills now became most especially useful in the building of the Midlands Communist Party’s Star Social Club and its accompanying Key Books from 1969-1971. This was a valuable asset lost to the movement when the CPGB liquidated its assets.
Jessie’s sister, May, who had long ago moved to Scotland and had family there, predeceased her, dying around 1975. Also a Communist Party member to the end, and a car worker, Douggie Eden died in 1977.
Jessie (carrying bag) and Walter (in glasses), both in the front centre of the picture, lead a march in Birmingham against America’s war in Vietnam c 1969; Walter’s brothers, Alex and Andy are to his right (thanks to Andrea for the pic).
Alex died on July 14th 1991 and Noreen outlived him by nearly 20 years, playing a role as Treasurer of the Birmingham branch of the Communist Party of Britain. Both has been key figures in the Northfield branch of the Party, which was strongly resistant to the revisionist undermining of the Communist Party in the 1980s. Alex always had a piano in his home and enjoyed playing it. An across the road neighbour was Crossroads actor Paul Henry (the legendary ‘Benny’). One day, Paul sprinted across in a panic – he’d been sent some sheet music for a novelty Christmas single he was supposed to be doing and couldn’t read music. Alex sat down with him and they spent the morning at the piano trying to work it out. For some reason, the record wasn’t made, so Alex’s chance to have a role in pop history was lost!
In late 1976, both Jessie and Walter were very ill, Walter with the lung cancer that was to kill him in April 1977 and Jessie with a badly infected hand from a minor cut. This hospitalised her for several weeks. Despite their illness, they warmly welcomed Andrea, who married into the family in September 1976. Having met Jessie in these years, Andrea, considers that she was “certainly was a fiery personality”. Jessie’s sister-in-law, Noreen McCulloch once told Andrea that Jessie “reduced her to tears as a young woman when she accused Noreen of flirting with Walter at a Party meeting”. This was a most unlikely accusation, since both Walter and Noreen were highly principled persons but shows how fierce Jessie could be in fighting for what she believed was right. She was wrong on this occasion though: “Walter was some 15 years older than Noreen, born in May 1905. She thought of him as an ‘uncle type’, not the type of man you fancied. Noreen joked to me that when she married widower Alex, Jessie must have thought `Hmph- she got a McCulloch at last.’ ”
Jessie pictured in December 1976.
She began to show early signs of dementia at this time and the loss of Walter hit her hard. By the time her grand-daughter Trudi was born in 1978, she was struggling to remain in her own home. Less than a year later, despite heroic support from her brother in law Alex and sister in law Noreen, she was in a nursing home and unable to respond to friends or family – probably due more to drug treatment than dementia.
The last years of Jessie’s life were spent in hospital, with her once pin-sharp faculties now completely lost. She died in Birmingham on September 27th 1986, aged 84, with the cause of death being given as heart failure and dementia. Jessie’s other sister, Nell, was still alive at the time of Jessie’s death in 1986 and also still living in the Birmingham area, as did her family.
Jessie Eden, as she was still commonly called amongst older Communists, was still revered by them, when she died, as a towering figure of the pre-war Party. She now became remembered by her Party as a heroine of early Communist mass leadership at a local level. Mainstream historians are only now just beginning to grasp the essential importance of her role in the 1930s.
Jessie was a real history-maker and her life and personality deserves to be better known. The so-called `new industries’ of the 1930s (producing luxury goods for the middle class) used a lot of female labour and the unions weren’t really interested in organising them. The CP thought otherwise and so too did Jessie. The dispute she led was the first real success in women’s unionism since 1918 and without it unions and then employers wouldn’t have been capable of mobilising women in the Second World War. For the surge in women’s unionism that followed grew stronger and stronger.
A lot is said about British espionage or American money winning the war. Not enough about 28 million dead of course but less well known is the significance of the difference between the productivity of British women factory workers and land girls contrasted to the slave labour used by Germany (Nazi ideology forced women to stay in the home). Without the success of the Lucas girls, arguably little of this incredible muscle power could have been harnessed.
Sources: Andrea McCulloch (who contributed text on personal and family details); Party Organiser May 1939; Birmingham Post April 28th 1976; Frank Watters’ oration at Walter McCulloch’s funeral; Morning Star 3rd october 1986; GS personal knowledge; Communist Review article “From the Lucas girls’ joy” to “we won’t pay” – the fight against Bedaux to the rent strike: Birmingham Communists in action in the 1930s’ by Graham Stevenson (see elsewhere on this site in the Miscellany Section)
Jessie, below, when she was interviewed on the 50th anniversary of the General Strike.