Breaking down from the ‘double load’: women workers’ mental health in 1940s England


Grace Whorrall-Campbell, University of Cambridge


We are delighted to share this blog, which is winner of the 2021 SHS Postgraduate Prize. You can read the announcement here.

Mary Redman broke down at her desk. The strain visibly overcame her, and she crumpled, like the piece of paper clenched in her fist. Leaning over her typewriter, her body shaking with sobs, Mrs Redman could no longer keep up with the pressure of the modern workplace.

The typist’s breakdown was dramatized for a short film produced in 1947 by Patrick Brunner and Jack Cardiff, cinematographer for the Oscar-winning film Black Narcissus released in the same year. This film, Rehabilitation at Roffey Park, documented workers being treated for ‘industrial neurosis’ at Roffey Park Rehabilitation Centre in Horsham, West Sussex. Roffey Park had been established in 1943 by the National Council for the Rehabilitation of Industrial Workers. The Council raised over £73,000 from corporate subscribers. Firms such as Marks & Spencer, General Electric, ICI, Imperial Tobacco and Unilever all put significant funds towards the Centre, in exchange for priority access to the Institute’s facilities.

This considerable endowment enabled the Council to purchase the Horsham estate. Brunner’s film shows the Centre in spectacular technicolour: a rambling stately home wrapped in climbing plants and set in bucolic countryside. This idyll was far away from the hustle of business and the noise of the factory. Patients underwent physical therapy on the neat lawns that surrounded the property and occupied themselves with gardening, handicrafts and woodwork.

As Mary becomes increasingly distressed over the course of her morning, Brunner (who also acted as narrator on the film) explains her predicament in his clipped diction. Viewers are told that alongside her busy job as a senior typist at a large invoicing department, she has a family of three that are also always on her mind. It is this ‘double load’, the voiceover intones, that contributed to her illness, a burden Redman shared ‘with many other women in modern industrial life’.

I was surprised to find the voiceover candidly admitting Mary Redman’s ‘double load’ contributed to her breakdown. I have always associated discussions of the emotional strain associated with juggling childcare and work with the writings of feminist academics much later in the twentieth century. Sociologists such as Arlie Russell Hochschild argued that American women in the 1980s were essentially working two jobs. Although the post-war influx of married women into the workforce appeared revolutionary, women continued to undertake most of the housework and childcare. The ‘double shift’ women endured had significant emotional repercussions for them and their marriage. Rehabilitation at Roffey Park shows, however, that the strain of balancing childcare and employment existed well before the ‘career women’ of the 1980s.

In the crisis of war, just as in the current Covid-19 crisis, the responsibility for caregiving fell disproportionately on women. The myth that women got a taste of liberation in their wartime occupations fails to take account of the fact that for those in heterosexual unions with dependents, being called up for war work meant balancing the double burden of care work with serving the nation. Initially, only unmarried women or childless widows aged between 20 and 30 were conscripted, but by mid-1943, eighty per cent of married women were working in factories, on the land, or serving in the armed forces.

We tend to think of our current mental health crisis as unprecedented, but the years following the Second World War were an equally emotionally turbulent time. The patients at Roffey Park were not the only people suffering with the aftershocks. British and imperial subjects who had poured their energy into essential war work had also been profoundly affected. Exhausted and plagued by fears of their loved ones at home and abroad, this emotional experience took its toll even after peace was declared. Many demobilised soldiers struggled to adjust to ‘normal’ life; some had acquired additional caring needs due to physical or psychological disabilities. Furthermore, femininity’s juxtaposition against masculine aggression meant wives and mothers were invested with additional responsibility to neutralise the brutalisation of society and nurture the emerging peace.

Ultimately, however, Rehabilitation at Roffey Park shows us that recognition of mothers’ double burden did not lead to calls for the re-gendering of care work. Part of the treatment for trusted women patients involved supervising the children of the Centre’s nurses, at the on-site creche. The film shows Redman cheerfully helping the pink-smocked nursery children down the slide, pulling one timid girl into an affectionate hug. Brunner, as narrator, speaks for Mary in his claim that her work at the creche ‘was a potent factor in her recovery’. Viewers are assured that ‘looking after this gang would not allow much time for introspective brooding over one’s sorrows’. In this instance, the constant mental occupation that childcare demanded (and which had caused Mary Redman such strain in her home life) was reframed as therapeutic: an inconsistency that testifies to the difficulty in addressing the implications of the gender division of labour on mental health. This shouldn’t surprise us: headlines declaring the Covid pandemic responsible for putting gender equality back to the seventies reminds us that without radically questioning the feminisation of care and emotion work, advances in women’s participation in the labour market will continue to be precarious gains.

After the film cameras left Roffey Park, it continued to serve as a treatment facility for those who found themselves suffering psychologically because of their work. By the 1950s, however, the Rehabilitation Centre found itself swallowed up into the National Health Service. The Centre’s narrow focus on ‘industrial neurosis’ could no longer be justified in the face of a significant shortage of psychiatric care facilities. Roffey Park’s management training school, however, grew from strength to strength. Roffey Park now survives as a business education institute. There is little trace of the Rehabilitation Centre. Even a recent blog on how to promote employee mental health made no mention of the history of the Centre as a psychiatric treatment facility.

At the end of the film, Mary Redman returns to work, cheery and competent. The phone no longer distresses her with its constant ringing; instead, she is shown laughing on it to one of her fellow patients, also successfully rehabilitated. The narrative satisfaction demanded by the promotional film cannot address the continued structural problems that caused her breakdown in the first place: her work is no less fast-paced, her family no less demanding of her emotional labour. As we grasp for our own satisfying ending to the Covid pandemic, we ought not to forget the structural inequalities that the current crisis has laid bare.


About the author: Grace Whorrall-Campbell is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, supported by the Oxford-Open-Cambridge AHRC DTP. Her research concerns emotions, psychology and management in the British workplace, c.1930-1970. Grace is a member of the Cambridge University History Faculty Labour History research cluster.

One response to “Breaking down from the ‘double load’: women workers’ mental health in 1940s England

  1. Really interesting and so topical -given the recent Olympic Games scenarios.
    I do so hope you continue with your work. It’s so important to have this social commentary.

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