Fragments: Twenty letters from Dorothy Howard to her sweetheart, Joseph William (‘Joe’) Lowcock, written between 1921 and 1929; four photographs: one of Dorothy Howard, one of her family outside their home in Derby Street in the Seedley district of Salford, one of the family home in the evening; two 1950s advertisements for jazz band, the Mezzo Syncopators.
Dorothy and Joe were members of more aspiring families in a district of mixed social backgrounds and levels of wealth, although no one in Seedley could properly be describes as rich. They had sufficient awareness of their status as a part of an upper-crust to have invitation cards printed for such family occasions as wedding anniversaries and the ‘coming of age’ parties of their children.
Dorothy’s family was perhaps a notch above Joe’s. She was born in 1903, the daughter of Walter
Howard, a grocer with a shop on Pendleton High Street, and his wife, Emma, born in Macclesfield. At the time of her first letter (1921) Dorothy had recently qualifies as a piano teacher, and she then worked as an independent tutor of the piano at her family home at33 Lower Seedley Road, Seedley, and from 1922 at ‘Belmont’, a larger house into which the family had moved at 160 Derby Road, Seedley. She also spent some time in her maternal grandmother’s house at 13 Jackson Street, Macclesfield, and, with other relatives at holiday cottage the family owned in Bowness-on-Windermere, in the Lake District.
In 1921 Joe was at the very beginning of his career as an insurance agent. He was born in 1905, the son of Charles Lowcock, and his wife, Hettie, who also had a shop on Pendleton High Street (number 229) selling milk and dairy products. In 1921 Joe, then describes as an insurance clerk, was living alone in rented rooms at 21 White Street, Seedley.
It seems likely that they first met as fellow pupils at Pendleton Grammar School: at all events this is where, on 30th June 1923 Joe’s parents celebrated the twenty fifth anniversary of their marriage. Joe’s parents then lives close to the school in a two-bedroom house built in 1899 at 229 High Street, Pendleton.
Apart from a similar family background in retail shop-keeping, Dorothy and Joe had an interest in music in common. Joe was a singer and drummer, and it is possible that even in 1921 they practised with friends as part of a nascent jazz band which was later to take public shape.
They danced together at the weekly public dances at Salford Town Hall, on the famous ‘boards’ at Belle Vue and in private Salford Palatine Club. Their courtship had certainly begun the April of 1921, Dorothy then 18 and Joe 16. The tone of Dorothy’s letters make it clear that they were devoted to one another from the start.
In the 1920s, long before the sexual liberation of the 1960s, courtship is working- class Britain was more like a competitive game than a time of mutual sexual experiment. The prevailing conservative social consensus of the 1920s ruled out sex before marriage and made faithfulness to a partner obligatory. Central to the courting game was ‘clicking’.
‘Clicking’ was the spark of mutual attraction which first brought two young people together. It was sometimes formalised. Selected streets in working-class districts were known as ‘monkey parades’, boys walking in pairs on one side, girls on the other, all in the hope of a ‘click’. More often clicking was an informal affair, at dances, in cinemas, in cafes: wherever, in fact, boys and girls were likely to meet. It might or might not lead to a more permanent relationship, even to marriage, as it did in the case of Dorothy and Joe.
Dorothy’s letters show some of the ways in which the ‘game’ of clicking was played. It was sometimes used by Dorothy as a reminder to Joe of when they had first clicked and the fact that they had, in fact, clicked. She sometimes used it as a kind of test of his faithfulness: had he clicked with anyone else while out with his friends. It was sometime deployed as a threat of what would happen ifhe had. It was part, finally, of the news she shared with Joe: who had clicked with whom and what did he think about that ?
Little is known of Dorothy and Joe beyond their relationship. They were essentially a very ‘ordinary’ couple. Apart from their musical interests and skills, their activities did not distinguish them from their Salford peers. One of Dorothy’s letters inform us that, with friends and relatives, in 1924 she took a Cook’s Tour to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, but this was the sole occasion on which she ventured far out of Salford, other than on holiday to the seaside resorts of the Lancashire coast. Their cultural horizons were narrow. There is no hint of an interest in politics, the arts, current affairs, or the world beyond Britain, or of any religious attachment (or any alternative set of beliefs). In one letter, when Dorothy notes that on one particular Sunday she went to church with her friend Louie, but she immediately follows that with, ‘don’t faint’.
It seems that they also shared the prejudices of their peers. In one letter Dorothy describes with horror how her friend May was going out with a Jewish boy. ‘I do not know how she can go with him’, she writes, later declining an invitation for she and Joe to go out with them. Her anti-Semitism was no doubt a variant of the general Christian prejudice towards Jews based on the traditional interpretation of the New Testament, but it was also the case that Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe had, since the 1890s, been settling in numbers in the Lower Broughton district of Salford, where they faced accusations (as ‘destitute aliens’) of polluting the area, of undermining its native traditions and of unfair competition for jobs and housing. Although Seedley was not an area of Jewish settlement, Lower Broughton was within easy walking distance of Dorothy’s home.
What the letters most reveal are the strategies of courtship in the years well before sexual liberation. With sexual promiscuity ruled out by common consent, courtship consisted, beyond the letters, very largely of such innocent activities as walks with friends, visits to local cinemas (in Salford the Cromwell or the Langworthy), and dance halls. Dorothy and Joe’s courtship, made up of these components, proceeded smoothly and was an ultimate success. A down-at-heel district like Seedley, however, was unlikely to satisfy the social ambitions of either of them. In 1928 Joe spent some time in rented accommodation at 21 Oswald Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, probably seeking out marital accommodation more appropriate to their aspirations. They married in September 1929 and two months later were living at 107 Buckingham Road , Chorlton-cum-Hardy, a newly built semit-detached house in an increasingly popular residential suburb in South Manchester, a good deal leafier than Seedley. They joined the thousands of people making their way in the late 1920s and 1930s from the meaner street of Manchester and Salford to the new estates of detached and semi-detached housing being put up by those speculative builders (with low deposits and cheap mortgages) who anticipated the movement of aspiring working-class families into Manchester’s more attractive suburbs. Joe’s parents, equally ambitious for a more salubrious living space, had moved into 109 Buckingham Road, next door to their son, by 1936.
In Chorlton, Dorothy and Joe lived a comfortable, careful and largely conventional life. In 1930 Dorothy became member W 722 of the Whole Sale Supply Association, which offered discounted prices on a wide range of ordinary consumer goods. Joe Joined Chorlton Library. The surviving letters of Dorothy stop end at the point of these movements.
In 1943 Joe joined the RAF, in which he was rapidly promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant and posted as a Quarter- master in charge of ‘equipment’, to the RAF base at Seletar in Singapore – in anticipation of a final confrontation with the Japanese which never in fact took place. Meantime, although Chorlton was not a prime target for German bombers, Joe’s parents’ house received peripheral damage to its windows, tiles and plaster-work in the Manchester Blitz for which they claimed compensation of £10. Following Joe’s discharge in 1945the couple returned to their life in Buckingham Road, where they were still living in September 1978, when Joe purchased a ‘rebuilt hoover’ from Ideal Electrix (Manchester) Ltd. of Failsworth for £7.10.
All the surviving sources tell us about their later years is that, following Joe’s wartime service in the RAF (details of which are not known), they got together with friends from Seedley with whom they had kept in contact, to create a dance band called the Mezzo Syncopators, which, apart from a regular venue on Thursday evenings at Salfod Gas Social Club in Weaste, hired out its services to local societies and groups. Its base was 107 Buckingham Road, its joint directors Joe and his friend, Reg McEwen. It was one of the hundreds of dance bands which emerged (or re-emerged) after 1945 to feed the widespread hunger for escapism which followed the deprivations of the Second World War. The ranged from celebrated Big Bands,like those of Henry Hall or Ted Ray, which could be heard on the BBC or in major city clubs to small, localised semi-professional outfits like the Mezzo Syncopators.