By Anne Locker
As Director of the Electrical Association for Women (EAW), Caroline Haslett was an intermediary between industry, government, and the consumer. Her discussions on the effect of government policy on companies and individuals are documented in her personal correspondence. Some debates were more fraught than others: passing on the official views of the electrical industry was much easier than responding to criticism from friends.
Hire purchase deposits for essential goods
Hire purchase schemes, where people could pay for purchases in weekly instalments, were popular when it came to new electrical appliances. These were expensive purchases and the electrical industry wanted to make it as easy as possible for consumers to buy them. But until the passing of the Hire Purchase Act there was little protection for the buyer. Companies could charge high prices at high interest rates and repossess items with no notice.
The Hire Purchase Act 1938, proposed by the Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, was the first piece of UK legislation which aimed to protect buyers from unfair hire purchase practices. It set out conditions for hire purchase schemes and repossessions, and ensured buyers had clear information about the costs involved. It was amended in 1954.
In 1954, Mr F Duerden, Taylor and Wilson, wrote to Caroline to set out his concerns about the Act. He supported the restrictions on interest but noted that the Act asked buyers to put down a deposit of a third of the total cost for washing appliances. Furniture was exempt, making luxuries like cocktail cabinets easier to buy than essentials like washing machines.
“The important factor to the purchaser, as you probably know, is not the price of the article or the purchase tax, but the amount per week of the payment from their earnings.”F Duerden to Caroline Haslett, 12 February 1954
Mr Duerden noted the extra up-front cost for hand wringers was a particular problem – in 1954, the wringer was more essential than the washing machine!
The EAW, in its role as an early consumer organisation, surveyed its members on the design of domestic appliances. This was to help the industry build appliances that were practical and saleable. In 1941 Leonora Ervine, a writer and actress and an early EAW member, sent Caroline a copy of her detailed notes on the ‘Jackson’ electric cooker.
Leonora described the ideal size, shape and temperature setting, with an emphasis on the need for a small, ‘slow’ oven for baking milk puddings:
“It is impossible to cook milk pudding properly in large oven when using it for other dishes. The milk boils over to joint below & pudding dries up.”NAEST 33/13/23/03 p2
She sketched out her design for an electric hob or ‘boiling plate’: two semicircles with an unheated section in between, so one large saucepan or two small ones could be heated. Caroline kept a note from a Mrs P Mackay responding to these comments: Mrs Mackay agreed with the note on thermostats but little else. She thought the hob design impractical, and as far as the ‘slow’ oven was concerned:
“how on earth would one clean an oven 11 inches wide, 20 inches deep and 6 inches high!”NAEST 33/13/23/03
Leonora had married the Irish playwright and critic St John Greer Ervine in 1911. Like many wives of famous men, her own achievements are hard to track down. Ervine’s entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography simply mentions that they had a happy marriage “though they both had difficult personalities”. His Wikipedia entry fails to mention her at all.
In 1947, Leonora decided to put her difficult personality to use and campaign for the rights of UK women to buy modern consumer goods. After the Second World War, the Labour government focused on the export market for goods manufactured in the UK, to support the weak economy. This meant that some electrical appliances were difficult to find and buy. Leonora was outraged, and in 1947 she wrote to the EAW to ask what they were doing about it.
Caroline responded directly. After explaining exactly what she and the EAW had been doing, she allowed a little sarcasm to creep in and suggested that Leonora should focus on supporting the EAW rather than criticising:
“These are no mean achievements and I am sorry that you have not kept sufficiently au courant with E.A.W. affairs to be aware of them.”NAEST 33/13/23/7
Leonora promptly bounced back. “Steady on!” she wrote the next day. She pointed out that she had always been a supporter of the EAW, and wasn’t going to stand for any directorly reproofs from Caroline. For good measure, she adds an unflattering comment about Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade and (from 1947) Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Matters soon calmed down: Caroline sent a friendly note acknowledging that they had both scored some points, and invited Leonora to lunch.
Caroline Haslett had many faces in the electrical industry: consumer advocate, ear to the government, industry representative and personal friend. Her letters signal how she negotiated these different aspects – mostly skilfully, sometimes less so.
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