TU History

Picture courtesy of TUC Library.

Celebrating 150 Years of the Match Girls’ Strike

The match women’s terrible working conditions are well documented The pitiful pay for standing at a workbench for 12 hours a day. The frequent fines for tiny offences (being late, laughing, dirty feet). The scandalous lack of concern for health and safety, with workers risking losing their fingers in dangerous machinery and, worse, developing ‘phossy jaw’, a horrific, foul-smelling cancer caused by white phosphorous, a toxic chemical that is banned in use in weapons today.

…But have you heard about the feathers?

According to historian Louise Raw, the match women had their own distinctive sense of style – all thanks to their ‘feather clubs’. They would chip in to a kitty to buy the most extravagant hats they could find and they’d share them around. If you had a date on a Friday night, you’d get a hat. Then you’d pass it on to the next girl. With all that spark and spirit and sense of community, it’s no wonder the match girls made such a success of their strike.

Annie Besant’s “White Slavery in London” article was a game-changer…

Socialist Annie Besant wrote a brilliantly brazen story about the match women: “Born in slums, driven to work while still children, undersized because underfed, oppressed because helpless, flung aside as soon as worked out, who cares if they die or go on the streets, provided only that the Bryant and May shareholders get their 23 per cent…?” This powerful prose ensured money came pouring in for the strike fund.

…But Annie shouldn’t get all the credit.

History makes out that Annie inspired the 1400 workers to strike in July 1888 but Louise Raw’s research shows the leaders were within the factory. Bryant and May had a list of five ‘trouble makers’ – Kate Slater, Alice France, Jane Wakeley, Eliza Martin and Mary Driscoll.  Until then, unskilled factory workers in London’s east end had been viewed as worthless or tragic or both. When the match women came out fighting – loud and proud and showing remarkable solidarity – the middle classes realised they had wildly underestimated them. And so had their employers.

After three weeks on strike, the match women won a stunning victory

On 16 July 1888 Mr Bryant and Mr May agreed to almost all the strike committee’s demands.  Fines would be abolished, wages improved and, crucially, a canteen would be provided to prevent meals being lethally laced with phosphorous. The terms were accepted and the strike ended. Days later, the Union of Women Match Makers held its first meeting. It grew rapidly and became the Matchmakers Union, open to both women and men.

…But that victory went far beyond the gates of the match factory.

Would the famous dockers’ strike of 1889 have happened if it hadn’t been for the match women? When spirits were low, dock leaders frequently used the match girls as a shining example to spur their men on. And after the dockers’ victory, a huge swathe of workers joined unions and started fighting for their employment rights. The dockers may have been their inspiration – but ultimately the match women lit the flame.

 

February 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

In 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed, allowing women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification to vote. Although 8.5 million women met these criteria, it only represented 40 percent of the total population of women in the UK. The same act abolished property and other restrictions for men and extended the vote to all men over the age of 21. Additionally, men in the armed forces could vote from the age of 19. It wasn’t until 1919 that the Equal Franchise Act was brought in, finally allowing men and women aged 21 and over the same rights. Key historical moments in the campaign for women to get the vote were as follows:

1832 Mary Smith presents the first women’s suffrage petition to Parliament. In the same year, The Great Reform Act specifies that only “male persons” can vote—despite some women with property being able to vote before that.

1867 John Stuart Mill MP presents the Second Reform Bill to Parliament. It fails but the National Society for Women’s Suffrage is formed in the same year.

1881 The Isle of Man grants votes to women.

1884 An amendment to the Third Reform Bill to give women the vote is rejected.

1897 The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) forms with more than 20 national societies in support. The party is led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett based in central London.

1903 Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her daughters Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst.

1905  Militant campaigns begins. The slogan “deeds not words” and “votes for women” became mantra for the campaign.

 1906 Prime Minister Sir Handy Campbell-Bannerman and 400 of 670 MPS are in favour of women’s suffrage. A daily newspaper coins the term “suffragette”.

1908 Up to 500,000 activists attend a mass rally in Hyde Park. Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith doesn’t attend so suffragettes smash windows in Downing St and chain themselves to railings to get his attention.

1910 The Conciliation Bill which would give women the vote is favoured by MPs but Asquith decides not to carry it through.

1913 The Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act, more commonly known as the Cat and Mouse Act, was an attempt to stop suffragettes from coming martyrs. Rather then being force-fed during their time in prison while on hunger strike they would be released once they became extremely weak to prevent them dying in custody. Campaigner Emily Davison was killed by a horse at The Derby.

1918 The representation of the People Act is passed, allowing men over 21 and women over 30 to vote.

1928 Everyone over the age of 21 is given the right to vote.

1969 The voting age is lowered to 18.

Did you ever wonder where Unison’s colours came from?

Does the colour scheme on the medal look familiar to you? Do you know what it is?  Well, it is actually a hunger strike medal from the women’s suffrage movement and represents the colours of the suffragettes.   In 1908 the women’s Social and Political Union or WSPU adopted the colour scheme of purple, white and green which would distinguish them in the political movement. Emmelin Pethick-Lawrence, editor of the weekly newspaper Votes For Women wrote “Purple as everyone knows is the royal colour, white stands for purity in private and public life and green is the colour of hope and the emblem of spring.”

175 Years of Chartism – Why The Vote Matters More Than Ever.

Now I bet you’re wondering what’s Chartism? Well if you know the answer already the give yourself a pat on the back, if not well let me explain.

It has been just over 175 years since the Chartist movement swept the country as millions of working people attempted to gain greater political influence and called for wide ranging political reform in the form of a six point ‘People’s Charter’.

Chartists Banner

The Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, London in 1848. 300,000 in attendance.

The charter called for the vote for every man of sound mind aged 21 or over, secret ballots, an end to Members of Parliament having to hold property to qualify as an MP, payment for MP’s allowing men from all walks of life to earn a living as an MP, equal sized constituencies and annual parliamentary elections to prevent bribery of MP’s.

Now looking back this may appear to be just another chapter in social history along the path to what we now take for granted. That is true to a certain extent but it’s important to remember that what we have today is borne out of the struggles of the past. The struggles of our ancestors who in the face of not only political opposition but also military opposition at the time came together united in a common cause despite the very real prospect of unjust imprisonment, transportation or even death.

Life for millions in early Victorian Britain was tough, damn tough. The industrial revolution era was in full swing, cities were growing rapidly a small proportion of the population were growing rich, super rich in fact whilst the majority of the nation’s citizens lived in abject poverty, squalor and deprivation (sounds familiar doesn’t it?).

victorian squalor

Squalor & poverty a typical Victorian reality.

No wonder people had had enough and wanted drastic change. As I’ve already said many were willing to put their life in their hands in order to gain what we take for granted today and for one particular Leek man, Josiah Heapy a 19 year old shoemaker that’s exactly what happened.

On the 16th August 1842 some 2,000- 4,000 marchers mainly from Leek and Congleton who had remained at Leek the previous night set off for the Potteries. En-route they were met by a troop of dragoon guards who had already been called out to deal with looting in Burslem and a magistrate receiving news of the approach of the Leek and Congleton men read out the Riot Act. The marchers continued on and began to stone the dragoons who in response opened fire. Several people were wounded and Josiah Heapy was killed. The dragoons then charged the crowd and dispersed it. A truly heavy price to pay trying to gain the vote.

So fast forward now to 2016 a year that sees two important votes. Firstly the Police Crime Commissioner election in May followed by the European referendum in June. We take for granted the fact that we are able to exercise our democratic right to vote or even not to vote, that’s democracy for you! What’s important to remember is that your democratic freedoms and the right to vote have only come about through the struggles of others. Young men just like Josiah Heapy who made the ultimate sacrifice so we can enjoy what we have come to expect as a right today.

ted today and for one particular Leek man, Josiah Heapy a 19 year old shoemaker that’s exactly what happened.

Squalor & poverty a typical Victorian reality.

On the 16th August 1842 some 2 to 4,000 marchers mainly from Leek and Congleton who had remained at Leek the previous night set off for the Potteries. En-route they were met by a troop of dragoon guards had already been called out to deal with looting in Burslem and a magistrate receiving news of the approach of the Leek and Congleton men read out the Riot Act. The marchers continued on and began to stone the dragoons who in response opened fire. Several people were wounded, and Josiah Heapy was killed. The dragoons then charged the crowd and dispersed it. A truly heavy price to pay trying to gain the vote.

So fast forward now to 2016 a year that sees two important votes. Firstly the Police Crime Commissioner election in May followed by the European referendum in June. We take for granted the fact that we are able to exercise our democratic right to vote or even not to vote, that’s democracy for you! What’s important to remember is that your democratic freedoms and the right to vote have only come about through the struggles of others. Young men just like Josiah Heapy who made the ultimate sacrifice so we can enjoy what we have come to expect as a right today.

Martyrs To The Cause

 

Martryrs To Cause

30,000 people marched on Whitehall in 1834 to protest against the imprisonment of the Tolpuddle martyrs (Mary Evans Picture Library)

 Next time you ask for a pay rise, be glad you aren’t living in the 1830s when it was a criminal offence. We tell the story of the pioneers who fought for our working rights.You’re miles away from home, friends and family; the sun is beating down on your blistered back, your shoulders throb and the only other people in sight are brutal criminals or prison officers; the view will be the same for the next seven years.

 

Your crime? Organising a union?  No, this is not an alternative 2005 where the Tory party have just won a general election, but the fate of six brave pioneers from the 1830s called the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Workers in 21st-century Britain enjoy many rights, including the right to come together in trade unions to defend their interests. And since 2000 there has been a legal right to have those unions recognised so they can bargain collectively and represent members when problems arise at work. For this, you can thank the men from the Dorset village of Tolpuddle who were transported to Australia in the early 19th century for daring to form a union to protect their wages.

George Loveless, James Loveless, James Brine, James Hammett, John Standfield and Thomas Standfield were agricultural labourers. In 1830, their work attracted a wage of nine shillings a week. But agriculture was in a state of depression and landowners increasingly offered less money for the same work. By 1833, the weekly wage had dropped to seven shillings. Worried the situation was spiralling out of control towards poverty, the Tolpuddle men founded a Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, which grew rapidly through the winter of 1833-4. So when spring 1834 came around, bringing with it the start of a new working year on Dorset’s farms, they decided to make a stand.

Faced with attempts by landowners to cut the weekly wage still further to just six shillings, the men agreed they would not accept any work for less than 10 shillings a week. But this was the 1830s. Trade unions were a new concept, and a dangerous one as far as the employers were concerned. The six were arrested and charged with administering an illegal oath – under an 18th-century Act designed to quash mutinies in the navy. Tried by a jury of landowners in 1834, the six men were found guilty – even though the youngest, James Hammett hadn’t even been at the meeting where the oath was sworn – and sentenced to seven years hard labour in Australia. This harsh injustice had the opposite effect from what was intended and caused an immediate outcry – the public was up in arms and England’s fledgling union movement galvanised.

On 21 April, one month after the trial, a procession of 30,000 people – including members of 35 unions – marched to Whitehall  to present Home Secretary Lord Melbourne with a huge 200,000 signature petition calling for the men to be pardoned and the sentences to be quashed. He refused. But a year later the campaign had grown in support and power. Lord Melbourne became prime minister following the election of a new government, and, eventually, was obliged to sanction the move he had previously shirked.

In March 1836, two years after the trial, the new home secretary, Lord John Russell granted free pardons to all six men. That was not the end of the matter, though. There was a further delay before the government offered the men free passage back to Britain.

George Loveless arrived back in the country in the summer of 1837. James Loveless, James Brine and Thomas and John Stanfield came home the following spring and James Hammett arrived in August 1839. The Loveless family then became involved in the Chartist campaign for democracy, but the men found it difficult to settle back in society and, in 1844, all of them emigrated to Canada, except Hammett who stayed in Dorset till his death in 1891, and is buried in Tolpuddle churchyard.

The tale of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is a cautionary one: their treatment at the hands of the landowners and courts showed the risks of standing alone against powerful forces. But it is also an inspiring one. The public outcry and solidarity that saw their sentences overturned shows us what can be achieved when we are united.

The History Of International Women’s Day

On March 8th 1857, in the Lower East Side of New York city, thousands of women garment workers demonstrated in the streets against their intolerable working conditions, starvation wages and 12 hour working day.

As the demonstrators headed towards the wealthy areas of New York, the police charged it, trampling several women under their horses’ hooves and arresting others.

Three years later the women won the right to organise trade unions for the garment workers. Fifty-one years later, on March 8th 1908 history repeated itself.  The women garment workers in New York once again rose up to protest against their working conditions. A fire in a garment factory had killed 146 workers and it was this that brought the women onto the streets again. Thousands of women textile workers also joined the strikes and demonstrations. Two new demands were added to those of 1857 – an end to child labour and the right to vote.

On March 8th 1910 at the congress of the Second International in Copenhagen, Clara Zetkin, one of the leaders of the German Socialist Party proposed that March 8th every year by proclaimed International Women’s Day to commemorate the struggle of the women garment workers.

In 1917,  in Russia, women textile workers at Petrograd chose March 8th to declare a strike to protest against working conditions, hunger and the long queues to buy bread. Other workers demonstrated in solidarity with the women, and the women’s protest grew into the general strike which precipitated the October Revolution.

The rise of the women’s movement internationally gave the celebration of International Women’s Day a new dimension and now the day is an annual opportunity for women to declare their solidarity in women’s struggle against oppression, in all it’s forms.

Source: ACTS Newsletter Spring 2005

Whatdidbanner What did The Trade Unions Ever Do For Us?

The Eight Hour Working Day

The origins of May Day as an international celebration of working life lie not in communism but in Chicago, where four anarchists were executed for “incitement” following nationwide strikes for an eight hour day on 1 May 1886.  At the time, 12 hour and even longer shifts were commonplace in the US, as they remain today in many parts of the world. In France and Germany some trade unions now want to restrict the working week still further so that employment can be more evenly shared – and a less dominant feature of daily life.

A Living Wage 

In 1888 the activist Annie Besant wrote a newspaper article called “White Slavery in London” about the dreadful pay and dangerous conditions suffered by young women working at the Bryant and May match factory. Three girls suspected of giving her information were sacked – and 1,500 women walked out in sympathy.  The firm capitulated. Many countries now have a legal minimum wage – a formal, if minimal, recognition of union demands for human dignity.

Unite & Resist 

Such benefits have only been won by workers acting together through unions, and in alliance with other social movements or political parties, for the common good. In recent years, many rights have been lost or restricted – and inequality has spiralled to historically unprecedented levels as a result.

The Vote

Such benefits have only been won by workers acting together through unions, and in alliance with other social movements or political parties, for the common good. In recent years, many rights have been lost or restricted – and inequality has spiralled to historically unprecedented levels as a result.

To Each According To Their Needs

The idea that essential services, like healthcare and education, should be “public” and “free” to all at the point of delivery was first advanced by trade unions. Their members still provide many of these services, which have been starved of public funding. The sense of public service – every bit as much as self-interest – is reflected in union resistant to “structural adjustment” and privatization.

Democracy At Work 

Experience in Scandinavia, Germany and Japan suggests that democratic engagement at the work place promotes, rather than restricts, rewarding work. Union members have always insisted on having some influence over the decisions of management, and they have helped to generate alternative forms of ownership and control, including co-operatives and mutual societies.

Thanks to Andy Bentley for the information on this article published in the second issue of Stoke Unison International Review and also to the New Internationalist, December 01 edition.

 

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