Guest blogger Michael Walker, Unison regional Officer tells us the story of how he saved a rare turn of the Century union banner from being sold into private hands.
Soon after visiting the Labour History Museum in the early 1980′s then at the old Limehouse town hall, I secured a copy of the late John Gorman’s “Banner Bright”. The rich history and illustrated pictures of banners through the ages left a major impression upon me and so many others. The most beautiful and striking banners illustrated in Banner bright were those executed by George Tutill of 83 City Road, London.
Tutill banners are of such rarity they are talked about in almost hushed tones and people come from around the world to see them at the Peoples History Museum in Manchester. Tutills banner are exhibited as works of art in their own right.
The odd Tutill banner would turn up from time to time.
However, little did I imagine that I would play a part in uncover another Tutill trade union banner
In August I began to hear rumours of what looked like a freemasons lodge banner recently retrieved from under the stage of a workingmen’s club in Woolston, close to the old shipyards in Southampton
I soon established that this was infact a Boilermakers Lodge (Union) banner, but before I could investigate further, I heard alarming news that the owner was thinking of auctioning the banner. Thus entering the murky world of a friend of a friend a message was communicated to the owner, and despite what seemed to be long periods of email silences, when I feared for the worse that the banner would be snapped up by a private collector or the owner had decided not to sell, I was relieved to get a message that he agreed to sell the banner to us (thank you Bromley Hospitals UNISON branch) for an undisclosed “finders fee” which was significantly less that the true value of the banner, on the condition that it went to an appropriate “good home”.
We were warned that the banner was in a fragile state but on the up side it was in a 15 foot wooden banner box.
Getting a 15ft banner into a vehicle is difficult and we had to hire a van especially to collect the box,
We left destined for Southampton in a truck not really sure if the owner had had second thoughts regarding the banner, but when we arrived the banner was ready for collection and in its box. After opening the four metal catches we discovered inside a tightly bound brightly coloured blue and red banner and visible immediately in-between the fringe of tassels the trade mark hand painted stamp of G.Tutill 83 City Road, London, clearly visible, also in the box was one set of Tutill banner holders and ceremonial toppers for the top of the banner poles.
Interestingly the newspapers surrounding the banner were Daily Herald’s from 1928 suggesting that possibly the banners last outing had been in that year,
Getting the banner into the truck still proved difficult and had to be carefully positioned at an angle to fit in the van. But thanks to the patience of my colleague Allen Reilly the banner was strapped into the van and brought back into the arms of the Labour Movement.
When opportunity allowed we unraveled the banner revealing the beautiful silk golden swirl designs and brass tags so distinctive of Tutill banners, Prominent on one side is the ship the Tynemouth Castle and on the other side the ceremonial emblems of the Boilermakers, Steel, Iron & Shipbuilders Society with the legend Southampton Branch. This organisation became the Boilermakers union and would end up merging into what is now the GMB in 1982.
A major strike took place in the Southampton shipyards in 1890 and I suspect the banner dates from around 1900.
The banner is presently in a very fragile (please note I have digitally enhanced the border which is damaged in places) We are obviously very keen for it to be assessed by the textile conservation at the Peoples History museum.
Hopefully, funding will be forthcoming for its proper preservation , especially as this is the only Tutill banner from Southampton’s proud trade union history, I am aware of that has survived to-date.
The moral of this story should be never give up searching for those trade union banners, not all will be Tutill’s but they remain an important part of our Movements history
Unison regional Officer