Edith Corona Hicks, the granddaughter of Walter Hicks, the Brewery's founding father, was born in St Austell in 1891, the eldest daughter of Walter Hicks Junior and Kattie Hicks, at a time when, for most women, the best they could look forward to was a life of domestic service or the hope of making a good marriage. As women stepped forward to fill the roles of men away fighting in The Great War, a whole new world of opportunity opened up for them.
Edith Corona was orphaned early in her life after her mother died of tuberculosis in 1905 and her father, Walter Junior, heir to the Hicks (later St Austell Brewery) business, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1911.
Like her brother Gerald (Walter Gerald) and sisters Stella and Viola (Constance Stella and Margaret Viola), she chose to be called by her second name, Corona and by necessity became a fiercely independent woman determined to live her life by her own set of standards.
In 1914, Corona is registered as living at 16 Nevern Square in Earls Court, London. It was from this address that her beloved younger brother Walter Gerald signed up for active service in August 1914 and where Corona, as his next of kin, administered his estate following his death on the battlefield in 1915.
As a young clerk within the Ministry of Pensions, Corona Hicks was just one of the many young ladies who found a degree of emancipation as a result of the men being ‘away at the war’. Living an independent life in London, she rose quickly through the ranks to the position of Superintendent in the Soldiers’ Awards Branch of the Ministry and also took an active interest in the forwarding of women’s rights during this time, becoming a member of the Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries (AWCS), initially formed in 1903, as the Association of Shorthand Writers and Typists (ASWT).
Membership of the ASWT was not confined to women, but they always took the leading role, and the change of name to 'AWCS' in 1912 reflected the reality on the ground. The needs of government administration during World War I formed the major part of the growth of the Association – from under 900 in 1916, membership rose to between 7,500 and 8,500 four years later.
The AWCS called themselves 'Awks'. They adopted as their emblem and badge a depiction of a Great Auk. Despite this perhaps unfortunate choice of symbol, the union, especially in the London area where its membership was mainly concentrated, proved to be a lively, controversial and sometimes provocative outfit. One of its leading members, Anne Godwin, was in 1961 to become only the third woman President of the TUC.
The end of the First World War brought immediate employment tensions back home in Britain. During the war an estimated 1,200,000 women had had their first taste of paid work. Women who had been restricted to domestic work of one kind or another, had experienced the comradeship and the better wages and conditions of industrial work. Many of them refused to return to domestic service. They were not keen meekly to relinquish those jobs to men on the assumption that men had a divine right to the better jobs.
In November 1919 the AWCS took up the case of women bank clerks threatened with redundancy after the return of ex-servicemen. When 700 women War Office employees were given a week’s notice when they went back to work after that Christmas, AWCS organised a protest meeting and demonstration – dubbed by journalists ‘the flapper stunt’.
Prime Minister Lloyd George was in France at the time, so unable to meet an AWCS deputation. The women, undeterred, found a pilot prepared to fly them to France and when bad weather prevented their flying, they booked nineteen berths on a cross-channel ferry to catch up with the Prime Minister. Lloyd George returned before they set sail and agreed to meet them.
The women argued that while they did not object to jobs being given to ex-servicemen who had been civil servants pre-war, they did object to them going to any man simply because of his gender.
Corona went further than most, as mentioned by Gregory Anderson in his ‘The White Blouse Revolution: Female Office Workers since 1870’, where he claims 'Miss Hicks, divisional superintendent in the Soldiers' Awards Branch, and a member of the AWCS branch executive, caused quite a stir when she resigned her post, worth £350 a year, in protest at the dismissal/relegation of her colleagues'
She was commended for her stand and was subsequently awarded the MBE in recognition of her efforts in securing a better deal for young women at the end of the war. Her award is listed in the London Gazette, 8 Jan 1919 supplement: ‘Miss Corona Hicks, Superintendent, Soldiers' Awards Branch, Ministry of Pensions.’
Sadly for Corona, like so many young women of the time, her fiancé was killed during the fighting on the Western Front and she chose never to marry, dying in 1959 in St Austell, after having travelled extensively around the world as a woman of independent means.
Let’s get fizzical
As a little aside, for those of us old enough to remember a favourite childhood treat, during the 1890s William Evans, founder of the Welsh Hills Mineral Water Company, undertook a journey of research across the country, visiting manufacturers of carbonated drinks and observing bottling machines at work, to ensure his new factory in the Rhondda Valley featured the most state of the art technology.
His journey brought him to St Austell Brewery in the late 1890s where a new ‘pop’shop’ had just been installed down near the Mevagissey roundabout and at a time when Walter Junior’s eldest daughter– with her shock of beautiful ginger hair – would have made quite an obvious impact on visitors.
Subsequently, as Evans’ business flourished, the possibility of opening distribution depots in England was mooted but, before this, he decided that the name of his soft drinks firm needed shortening. He invited all his staff to submit ideas and offered a financial reward for the winner.
However, the canny businessman ultimately decided to keep the cash in his own pocket by choosing his own entry – “Corona” – which was soon to become a household name both locally and across the country.
Some believe that he was inspired by the blaze of light of the setting sun sinking below a Welsh horizon – we know otherwise.