"Empowered working-class housewives" - Big Flame, Women and the Kirkby Rent Strike 1972-73

Posted on: 6 March 2018 by Kerrie McGiveron in 2018 posts

'Women's struggle on Tower Hill' leaflet
Big Flame pamphlet about the strike action.

Inspired by the #PressForProgress theme for International Women's Day 2018, we hear from PhD student Kerrie McGiveron, who has been researching the fascinating story of the women of Big Flame, who were involved in the Kirkby rent strike in Liverpool, during the 1970s.

"Whilst researching in the archives last year I came across a box full of socialist feminist newspapers and pamphlets with a red star logo and ‘Big Flame’ emblazoned across.

I was eager to learn more. Who were this group? What became of them? I spent hours in archives and libraries, researching, eager to know more.

I found out that they had been involved in a rent strike in my home town of Kirkby in the 1970s.

I delved deeper and found that at the heart of the rent strike and community activism were women. I was surprised that my research had literally led me to the streets of my home town, where residents, with women at the forefront, had marched and demonstrated there in the past.

Tower Hill, Kirkby

Kirkby was built in response to Liverpool’s slum clearance programme and suffered terribly from poor town planning. The high-rise flats built on the Tower Hill estate were of particular cause for concern as they were damp, overcrowded, and structurally unsound. Kirkby caught the attention of the national press, one report labelling the town ‘a social experiment gone wrong.’

The chief water inspector’s report I found in the archives reported that the river that ran through Kirkby was one of the worst polluted rivers in Europe containing arsenic and cyanide. In 1971, The Housing Finance Act of 1971 raised rents for all councils and doubled the rent for properties in Kirkby, even for the substandard housing on Tower Hill.

Watch the first minute of this video to see the housing conditions at the time

The rent strike

In response to the rent rise, Tower Hill Unfair Action Group was formed and a total rent and rate strike was called. Liverpool Big Flame were asked to get involved and from here, they set up the Tower Hill Base Group, which was a women’s group to help on the estate. Meetings were held weekly, childcare was arranged, and pamphlets and leaflets were distributed.

Empowered working-class housewives

Big Flame women helped to organise the estate into zones and rent collectors were followed to ensure nobody paid their rent. Barriers were erected to keep bailiffs out and there were clashes at council meetings.

Some of the women in Big Flame eventually moved to live in Tower Hill and taught women there not to reject their roles as mothers, wives and workers, but to embrace it to enable them to act for change as an empowered working-class housewife.

Watch the first two minutes of this video to hear the experience of May Stone, who was involved in the strike action

Rent strike defeated?

After 14 months of rent strike, multiple court orders, and two men being jailed, the rent strike was called off. However, Big Flame and the women on the estate did not view the rent strike as a defeat. They drew strength from the strike as a blueprint for further community activism and success in politicising the working-class housewife.

Nick Broomfield’s documentary 'Behind the Rent Strike' captured some of the experiences of the women involved, such as May Stone, above.

As I continue my research for my PhD I hope to find further case studies to assess how feminism and the role of women influenced Big Flame in other community struggles elsewhere." 

Discover more

Find out about taking a PhD in History at the University of Liverpool

Visit the Big Flame blog for more details on the strike