A leather suitcase full of secrets

Man and Wife: Richard and Kay Titmuss
May 9, 1997

That's for you, one day", Kay Titmuss told her daughter, pointing to the brown leather suitcase on the floor opposite her bed. When she came to open the suitcase some weeks after her mother had died, Ann Oakley found that it contained a "carefully garnered storeroom of the past", and one that could tell her something her mother thought she needed to know and would someday want to use. The result is this book. From a determinedly feminist perspective its theme is, in the author's own view, the relationship between the public world of "work" and the private world of the home and personal relationships. Though an ambitious - at times over-stretched - combination of biography, autobiography, family and social history, it aims to tell the story of Richard and Kay Titmuss's earlier years.

Richard Titmuss came from Bedfordshire farming stock, but began working life at the age of 14 as an office boy in his father's haulage business in Hendon. Only 18 when his father died in 1926, Richard became from then on the main support of his widowed mother. She begged a post for him in a large fire insurance office. He stayed there for 16 years, developing the statistical knowledge and other skills that, coupled with his ambition, would later set him on the path to eminence. Kay Titmuss's family came from a similar rural background, but her parents had settled in the Victorian suburb of south-east London where she was born in 1903.

Typical of the times and of the earnest young people they were, Richard and Kay Titmuss met during a fortnight's holiday trip - an International Youth Group "tramping tour" of North Wales. It was the summer of 1934; she was 31 and he was . (Today, as the author comments, they would hardly be thought of as "youth", but a group photograph confirms that they did not stand out as untypical.) Kay, although still living with her parents (as was the norm), was well on the way to a successful career in social welfare work for the unemployed in West London. The Reverend Birch's Fulham Fellowship for the Unemployed was one of a series of charitable ventures promoted by this Congregational minister to offer retraining and recreation as alternatives to street-corner idleness in those interwar years of high unemployment. Kay was the reverend's devoted, and obviously very able, organising secretary (among whose responsibilities was raising the money to pay her own salary). Not the least of Oakley's achievements is in recovering forgotten historical backwaters such as this, along with others like the peace movement, young Liberal politics and the Eugenics Society, in all of which the Titmusses were active.

In 1937 Richard and Kay married and set up home in a flat in Pimlico. Kay at the time was the more successful of the two, but Richard's ambitions and talents were soon to take precedence. His "ascent from obscurity" had already begun with public speaking and letters to the press, but he had not had much success with writing for publication. His early efforts, apparently, were "marked by the purpleness of his prose and the unoriginality of some of his sentiments" - defects that Kay played her part in correcting. In 1938, his first book, Poverty and Population, appeared, and, with judicious and diligent promotion by its author, made its mark.

As for thousands of others, the outbreak of war in 1939 changed many things for the Titmusses. At first Kay moved out of London to the farm of Richard's relatives in Bedfordshire, helping with the evacuees billeted there, and keeping in almost daily touch with her husband by letter. When, soon after Dunkirk, she returned to London she seems to have found it strangely difficult to find employment, apart from some useful voluntary work that drew on her social welfare skills. Perhaps putting Richard first was already the priority. One result of this was her co-authoring of a second book, Parents Revolt, which came out in 1942. This was her only acknowledged collaboration with Richard, while thereafter his career moved into an altogether higher gear. "All (his) efforts to get himself known, to get his work into print, and to meet the right people had paid off`", his daughter comments laconically of a man who later came to be seen as modest to a saintly degree. By 1942 he had left behind the insurance world and moved into the corridors of power in Whitehall. On the basis of his reputation as a "self-taught demographer and social analyst" he had joined the team of historians who were to write the official civil history of the war. His 1947 work, Problems of Social Policy, was to become one of the most renowned of the 30 published volumes under the editorship of Keith Hancock, the Australian academic who appointed Titmuss and soon became close friend as well as colleague.

The war was still on when, two years later and after seven years of marriage, the Titmusses' first and only child was born. It precipitated another separation for them, this time with Kay and baby daughter moving in with some of Kay's relatives in Wakefield. It also precipitated more letters between the couple that were part of the treasure bequeathed to Oakley in the brown leather suitcase. The letters add much to the book, bringing to life how harshly wartime experiences of civilians impinged on personal lives: the heartache of partings and the hardships of travel to brief reunions; the pressures of combining work with night-time firewatching at St Paul's Cathedral for Richard, and "making do" in all kinds of ways for Kay. All the more extraordinary is that under these conditions another book was finished (Birth, Poverty and Wealth, 1943), and that even after Richard had moved to Whitehall other such work continued.

In October 1944, with the end of the war in sight, the Titmusses took the risk of setting up home again in the small flat they had earlier moved to in Acton. Richard, not yet 40, was immersed by then in the social history of the war. Successfully completed and published, it would lead on to his subsequent appointment to the first chair of social administration at the London School of Economics, further ground-breaking publications and international renown. For Kay, in contrast, the return to Acton meant "facing up to the kind of home coming it will mean... weighing little Ann on one side and you (Richard) on the other". For her there would be no return to a career of the kind she had built before her marriage. Aged 41, lacking any formal qualifications, she would have found it hard anyway, but in addition the social climate in the postwar period was unfavourable to working mothers. Oakley is clearly aware of this, yet an undercurrent of blame sometimes surfaces against her mother for not having struggled against the tide. This raises a question: how -bearing in mind his background and character - would Richard Titmuss have managed without the total commitment and support provided by Kay? What is not in doubt is that in focussing on both parents Oakley has provided a uniquely fascinating and moving memoir of people and period.

Phyllis Willmott is a writer and social researcher, who was research assistant to Richard Titmuss in the late 1950s.

Man and Wife: Richard and Kay Titmuss: My Parents' Early Years

Author - Ann Oakley
ISBN - 0 00 255665 0
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £16.99
Pages - 338

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