Working Lives

Beryl Riley 1920s to 30s (part 1)

Beryl Riley from Bethnal Green in East London started work as a cleaner at John Lewis in 1923


Two female workers sat on the roof of the Peter Jones Store (1920s)
Miss Rose White and friend on the roof of Peter Jones store (1920s)

During the First World War (1914-1918), as millions of military age joined the army, work opportunities for women grew. They staffed military hospitals in Britain and close to the front line in France. They drove army cars and did most of the clerical work in offices. Some were even sent from their homes in cities to work on farms in the country.

Little of this survived the war. By 1923, the year 14-year-old Beryl started work at John Lewis, the number of women in paid employment was lower than in 1913. As three million men were ‘demobbed’ (came home from the war), women were expected to go back to traditional forms of employment. That often meant domestic service or cleaning jobs like Beryl’s. It also meant accepting lower paid jobs than men. On average, women’s wages were 50 per cent lower.

Two young girls visiting the hairdresser at the John Lewis store in 1939. A hobby horse is used as the chair
Children's hairdresser at Welwyn Store in 1939

In the 1920s and 1930s, local authorities even put limits on the employment of married women. Doctors, nurses and other female health workers were often dismissed as soon as they got married.

After 1918, elementary schools for boys and girls were free to the age of 14, when Beryl, like most working class girls, left school. Her schooldays were filled with the three ‘R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic), humanities and domestic science. Thousands of girls attended cookery centres, as well as maternity and infant welfare clinics. The general view was that girls should be well prepared for the challenges of motherhood.