Guest blogger Bob Reeves writes about the Bermondsey strikes of August 1911 and the use he made of the TUC Library Collections when researching through the Gertrude Tuckwell Collection. He is researching local working class history for the last couple of years, published on his Blog.
In August 1911 an estimated 15,000 women went on s.trike in twenty-three Bermondsey factories. It all erupted suddenly, led by women with no previous trade union experience. Employers were rattled and offered concessions: most factories went back to work after ten days with victories on pay, conditions and work practices.
By the second day Mary MacArthur and Dr Marion Phillips from the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) arrived on the scene to help formulate demands and facilitate strike organisation. The Bermondsey LP headquarters in Fort Rd became the organising hub for food relief, mostly bread and sterilised milk.
That summer of 1911 was the hottest for years. September 14th recorded the 35th day in London over 80 F. Food went off, milk was unsafe and, in densely packed working-class districts like Bermondsey, child mortality, following a decade of health-care progress, rose steeply. Families were even shorter of money than usual as dockers, railwaymen and transport workers had been on strike over previous weeks. “Great Railway Strike” was headline news, and troops occupied Liverpool shooting dead two young pickets.
On the south London riverside men worked in the docks, transport and storage in large numbers. Women worked in a profusion of factories which had expanded over the previous decade: jam, pickles, biscuits, sweets, chocolate, tea packing, metal boxes. Hartley’s, jam employed 1,500 and Peak Frean’s biscuits 2,500. Work in a jam factory must have been horrible in that heat. It was always dangerous and back-breaking work, lifting vats of bubbling liquid. Others spent long hours standing on dirty wet floors.
Mary MacArthur, the charismatic young general secretary of the NFWW, had great talent, not only for inspirational public speaking, but for dramatic publicity. The NFWW organised public appeals raising considerable sums to buy food. What was significant, however, was that the NFWW put themselves at the service of the strikers; they were not, as was persistently alleged in the press, outside agitators. This movement was marked by spontaneity and improvisation with something new and very theatrical about it. Women marched through the main streets singing and chanting. From Pinks jam factory they carried banners declaring “We are not white slaves, we’re Pinks slaves”.
It started on August 10th, or the day before, and stories that one confectionary factory marched through the streets calling other factories out are probably apocryphal. Nevertheless, within days it “spread like fever” ( Daily News, 11/08/1911), inspiring women in Deptford and Millwall; and then at Murrays confectionary in Farringdon, from where they marched to Bermondsey to seek advice and solidarity.
Shocking low-pay was used to appeal for Middle-class sympathy. One commentator was saddened that women asked for so little- bottlewashers at Candlish won 12s pw up from 9/6.
Nostalgic histories of the Edwardian era gloss over economic deprivation. Between 1900 and 1910 real wages fell by at least 10% while profits for the richest were never better. Sound familiar?
But I suspect it was about more than low-pay. It was a shout of defiance. Perhaps Bermondsey women had just had enough. High on their lists of grievances was an end to arbitrary fines and deductions; women wanted day-rates not piece-work. They wanted guaranteed minimum earnings – they could be stood down at short notice to suit employers who, when demand rose, forced overtime, often contravening Factory Acts about hours of work. They wanted somewhere clean, away from the factory floor, to eat dinner, and clean toilets.
Overwhelmingly this work was done by women but supervised by male checkers, foremen, pay clerks and of course, male managers. Reading between the lines the strikers were defying bullying and powerlessness. Murrays’ workers were particularly angry about production bonuses paid to foremen which encouraged them to ‘drive’ the women, as you can imagine.
Many women were young, some only 14, but as often they were married with children. Younger women were the most militant, but they weren’t “Girls” as every single press report described them belittlingly, suggesting they were either misled by agitators or frightened by intimidating pickets of… other “Girls”. In my trawl through local and national press I found just one instance of a reporter bothering to talk to a striker.
“We are striking for more pay, Mister, and we won’t go back until we get it”. (Southwark and Bermondsey Recorder, 18/08/1911), outside Shuttleworths Chocolates.
Although the strikes were unlikely to have been in solidarity with the men, it’s probable the example was important. The essential point is that they was led by local women, only assisted by middle-class activists from the NFWW. The women’s suffrage movement, while predominantly middle-class, could have been another example.
I’ve been asked to explain why Bermondsey and why just then, and I’m only left with more questions than answers. The record doesn’t tell us what women thought and felt yet it must have been a dramatic experience. Where are their voices? Perhaps some talked to grandchildren who are still around today?