WORKERS UNITED – new exhibition celebrates the 150th anniversary of the TUC


Workers United

The TUC Library is launching its new exhibition “WORKERS UNITED” at the 150th Anniversary Conference – Retrospect and Prospects – at the Mechanics Institute in Manchester this Friday 1st June


Walter Citrine part 3 – Citrine as the Acting General Secretary, November 1925


Our guest blogger Dr James Moher  (former CWU & T&GWU official) completes his series with the final part of his article on Walter Citrine in Russia.

Having to cut short his visit in such dramatic circumstances, Citrine arrived back in London to find himself heading up the TUC at a time of cataclysmic events. The threat of ‘Triple Alliance’ sympathetic industrial action in support of the miners by road and rail unions’ was enough to extract major concessions from the government on ‘Red Friday’ in July 1925. Unplanned, the conflict escalated into the General Strike called by the TUC General Council in May 1926. This time, the government’s reaction was to treat the strike as a constitutional challenge with an ultimatum to call it off under threat of a military response. This brought the General Council leadership ‘up short’ and all those who had gone along with the emotional appeal of solidarity with the miners, now pulled back and called it off. As Acting General

Secretary, Citrine too had been swept along initially by the emotional mood – he had advised the committee responsible to prepare more effectively for the confrontation. But now as officer to the lead negotiators, he and the chair of the General Council, Arthur Pugh (Steelworkers), had to deliver the humiliating decision to call it off to Prime Minister Baldwin.

That decision met no understanding in the USSR, despite all that the TUC had done to support the Russian unions. They had pressed large sums on the TUC to pursue the ‘class war’ for the miners, but the General Council felt it would be portrayed as ‘Russian gold’ and so had to be declined. The reason for this hostile attitude by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), seems to have been that Tomsky’s entire conciliatory approach had become a major issue in the power struggles within that ruling Party. The Opposition belaboured the CPSU leadership with having ‘banked’ on the TUC Lefts. Now, the very different Red International of Labour Unions’ leadership of Tomsky’s rival, Solomon Losovsky and their far Left supporters in Britain, poured torrents of abuse on the TUC. The virulence of these attacks appalled even those Left General Councillors such as Purcell, Hicks and Swales, who were now reviled. By 1927, everyone on the TUC General Council concluded that they could not go on with Anglo/Russian committee. Citrine, (now substantive General Secretary)’s report to the Edinburgh Congress recommended that it be discontinued, and that was overwhelmingly carried.

This account recalls a most interesting episode of TUC involvement in international affairs after the Russian Revolution in 1917. It adds to the TUC Library Collections’ vivid portrayal of the links which the TUC leadership at that time sought to develop. It recalls the hopes and possibilities which motivated many of Britain’s union leaders and activists for what they saw as ‘a land of promise’ and ‘a great experiment’. Today, when Russia is again widely viewed as a ‘fallen idol’, it may surprise that such sentiments were so widely entertained in Britain. Were the TUC just deluding themselves in thinking that by embracing the Russian unions, the unity of the international labour movement could have been restored to the benefit of workers throughout the world? Was Russian union leader, Mikhail Tomsky’s overture simply a different communist ploy to gain access to the western workers for revolutionary ends? Or was he genuinely seeking to strengthen the position of unions in the USSR with this international union link-up, so that they could more effectively shape the society then emerging from the Revolution in the USSR? Whatever the answers, given what followed – one party ‘communist’ dictatorship in USSR, fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain, the Great Depression in USA and Europe, all leading to a second war of carnage and destruction – did it not have the possibility of ‘a road not taken’?

We shall never know, but the episode highlights the important role trade unions began to play in the history of the twentieth century. They were perhaps, the only institutions which could reach across the ideological and nationalistic gulfs then opening up in the aftermath of the First World War. Walter Citrine, as the new General Secretary of the TUC would be at the centre of those continuing efforts for peace and democracy, over the next couple of decades.


Making use of Oral Labour History – Saturday 2 June 2018


Britain at Work (B@W) 1945-95 in association with British Universities’ Industrial Relations (BUIRA) IR History Group and Oral History Society (OHS)

Saturday 2 June 2018, 11am – 4.45pm
University of Westminster, 35 Marylebone Road, London NW1 5LS
(opposite Madame Tussauds and nearly opposite Baker Street tube)
Room C279 (lunch C287)

For further details or to reserve a place, please email Michael Gold ( or Linda Clarke (

This year’s Britain at Work Oral Labour History Day will focus on what we do with the recordings we make, both audio and video. How do we share what we learn from interviews and how do we make sure that oral histories we collect are preserved for future use in safe environments and archives? The day will begin with an opening address by Robert Perks, Lead Curator, Oral History and the Director of National Life Stories at the British Library. Rob is also secretary of the Oral History Society and an editor of the journal Oral History. He will talk about developments and opportunities for the dissemination and sustainability of oral history collections.

Rob will be followed by a roundtable reports from participants currently involved in oral history in work settings. After lunch, there will be presentations from presenters whose oral history projects have resulted in books, films, pop-up museum and a comic. The day will end with a presentation from Martin Astell (tbc), Sound and Video Archivist at Essex Record Office, who will talk about being an archivist working in a local authority museum/archive and the challenges besetting local archives and archivists at the moment.

B@W is an initiative to capture the memories of people at work between 1945 and 1995, some of which are to found at the TUC Library Collections held at London Metropolitan University (

Draft Programme

10.30-11.00 Registration

11.00-11.15 Welcome and introduction: Michael Gold and Linda Clarke

11.15-12.00 Keynote: How can I future-proof my oral history project? Guidance on best archival and legal practice for preservation and public access and reuse’. Rob Perks, Lead Curator, Oral History & Director of National Life Stories at the British Library. Chair: Joanna Bornat

12.00-13.00 Roundtable: brief contributions from participants on their current interest in oral labour history. Chair: Michael Gold

13.00-14.00 Lunch:


Presentations. Chair: John Gabriel tbc

  • · Alex Gordon/ Chris Reeves (RMT History Project)
  • · Sally Groves (author of Trico: a victory to remember)
  • · Sundari Anitha / Ruth Pearson (Striking Women educational website + book)
  • · Padmini Broomfield (Ford Transition Pop-up Museum, Southampton)

15.25-15.45 Break 

15.45-16.15 Local collections: Martin Astell, Essex Record Office tbc. Chair:

16.15-16.45 Discussion + closing observations. Chair: tbc


Walter Citrine part 2 – Trade unions in the USSR 1917-28


Purcell & Tomsky

Our guest blogger Dr James Moher  (former CWU & T&GWU official) continues with part two of his three part article on Walter Citrine in Russia.

Walter Citrine and George Hicks were particularly interested to probe their Russian hosts about the role of the unions in the Soviet state. This was a key issue in the IFTU ‘merger’ talks, especially for their European union colleagues, who suspected that Tomsky and his colleagues, were primarily communist politicos aiming to undermine the western social democratic union leaderships for communist revolutionary purposes. In the course of the visit, they had a number of serious discussions about how independent the Russian unions really were. There was no doubt but all the leading Russian union officials were all communists, it was a matter of pride for them how much they had played a part in bringing about the October Revolution and in the Civil War. But they did convince Citrine that they were also genuine union leaders. Tomsky was an engraver/compositor by trade and a union activist in the Petrograd and Estonia areas. He had also become a revolutionary as unions were illegal under the Tsarist regime and by the February 1917 revolution, he was an active Bolshevik and had spent spells in prison and exile. In their discussions, he gave them the Party line – that the unions need not be independent as they were all communists and supported the wider economic and social aims of the socialist state over all sectional claims. Citrine, more sceptical than Hicks, argued from their experience with the 1924 Labour government, that unions should always retain their independence.

There had been considerable controversy in the Russian Communist Party from 1920 on the role of the unions in the new socialist society. One faction, known as The Workers Opposition, had wanted to give the unions power over managers in the production process and generally run the economy on syndicalist lines. At the other extreme, Trotsky and Bukharin wanted to ‘statify’ them i.e., to incorporate them in the state as organs of its productionist aims. After much bitter wrangling in the Communist Party, a compromise devised by Lenin was agreed. The unions accepted the primacy of managerial control and piece-working, but they were to remain ‘independent of government machinery and control’. In this capacity they would be able to press their members’ claims on pay and conditions, especially in what was still a substantial private sector during that period of state capitalism. In fact, Tomsky had defended the unions vigorously at the expense of his own position and he was removed as chair and sent far away for a while. However, by 1925 he was back in position (said to be with the rising Stalin’s support). Unions then had both considerable autonomy and influence in state economic bodies as wages and productivity improved. However, in 1928, he was again removed by the Communist Party’s powerful fraction in the unions’ Central Council. It is thought that he opposed the dilution of the unions’ independent role in the further development of the economy with the State Five Year Plan for rapid industrialisation. It is ironic that he took this stance, a few years after he had argued the opposite with Citrine and Hicks.

As they got to know Tomsky in the course of 1924/5, western union officials, both at IFTU and the TUC, speculated as to his real purpose in seeking to link up the Russian unions with IFTU. He came across as a genuine union official and easy to get along with, rather than a Party ideologue. Accordingly, some thought that he was really trying to strengthen the Russian unions’ independence from State control in the USSR. As Citrine sought to persuade Tomsky of this when he was in Russia, he probably had hopes for this outcome through their Anglo-Russian Joint Advisory Committee (ARJAC) which was set up by the Scarborough Conference of September 1925. As we will see in the third part, the Soviet authorities had very different objectives for ARJAC. When Citrine visited again in 1935, he insisted on meeting Tomsky (who was then in charge of the Soviet Publishing House). To learn that the Russian leader had committed suicide a year later to avoid arrest must have been very distressing for him and can only have strengthened his concerns about how the Soviet Union was going.


The 1911 Idris lemonade factory strike and Annie Lowin


Guest blogger Bob Reeves returns to write about strikers at the Idris lemonade factory and the use he made of the TUC Library Collections when doing his research (specifically the Gertrude Tuckwell Collection). See his Blog for more information.

In April 1911 the strikers at the Idris lemonade factory were selling this song-sheet on the streets of Camden Town. They sung at every opportunity-picketing the factory gates, marching and collecting money to sustain themselves.
Appearing very soon after they first walked out, no one woman claimed authorship. Then who claims authorship of football chants and anthems?
They sung this to the tune of the then popular “Every Nice Girl Loves a Sailor” so it would have been immediately recognised in the streets.
Here is just a very brief account- a background sketch – of the song and the strike. I’m currently working on more detail and, in this, the Gertrude Tuckwell collection at the TUC Library (source of this song-sheet) has been invaluable.

What does the song tell us?

Master Willie is William Idris, owner of the Idris lemonade factory. Little sister Anne is Annie Lowin, union activist in the factory, just sacked for lateness and, allegedly for abusing the time keeper – but she never cheeked the man at the gate.

William Idris is quoted a few days into the strike as saying he would never re-employ that woman.

Discontent at the factory had been simmering since the previous autumn. Annie Lowin, who was president of the local branch of the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), had achieved some basic improvements – women had complained that they were often up to their ankles in dirty water, so management had provided clogs. Under pressure Idris had provided an urn, instead of a bucket, so that they could make tea.

But in recent months union activists had been harassed, so sacking Annie, a 24 years old widow with two children who had worked at the factory for 13 years – just do the sum, since she was 11 or 12 – was probably not a surprise.

The walk-out in support of Annie seems to have been spontaneous. First it was her department, followed by the ginger beer workers. They picketed out some of the boys recruited to break the strike.
Everything about the events of the next week or so was creative and even theatrical. The public was appealed to for sympathy and for funds. With the support of the NFWW and Mary MacArthur they rallied in Trafalgar Square. They worked hard on publicity, portraying a bullying male owner victimising a single mother with two children. They didn’t win. Not all the strikers were taken back after men and boys had been taken on as strike breakers; also, not all the women in the factory joined the strike.

For Annie Lowin it was life changing. She wasn’t going to get her job back but the NFWW recruited her as a paid union organiser, and four months later she could be found helping the women on strike in Bermondsey.

I think the significance of the Idris strike is that, unlike the much better-known Bermondsey strikes in August, it was about trade union rights. Without a union they didn’t see how they could right the wrong… so they sung
Now then girls all join the union.


Research into the TUC’s history of helping trade unionists escape Nazi Germany


Guest blogger Jay Stoll describes his recent research in the TUC Library into the role of the TUC in his great-grandfather’s escape from Nazi Germany.

In the late 1930s my great-grandfather, Erich Littman, arrived in Britain from Nazi Austria. As a Trade Unionist, he had been imprisoned in Dachau Concentration Camp before managing to secure a visa for a new life in Britain. The remainder of his family were not so lucky – with many dying in Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, or in the ghettos in which they had been persecuted.

Aware of the TUC’s anti-fascist campaigns in those years, I went to the Special Collections Library at London Met to see if I could find anything that would help my search for information on my great grandfather’s escape.

The Library proved helpful for understanding the breadth of support provided by the TUC for underground movements in Nazi Austria. Often, this was done through the publication and sale of pamphlets (such as the one from Otto Bauer, pictured), and proceeds would be given to those directly engaged in the struggle for freedom.

Similarly, my visit enabled me to process the scale of the TUC’s efforts to prevent fascism advancing in Britain and their work to support the established Jewish community in their boycott of Nazi Germany. Cooperation was extensive and was clearly valued by those writing in the Jewish press at the time.

I’m still not entirely sure how the TUC managed to help my Grandpa Erich escape, but I want to thank the staff at the Library for giving me their time and access to some really helpful documents. It hopefully marks the beginning of a successful journey to understanding how my family survived and set up their life in Britain!



Exhibition ‘Labour’s special relationship: connections between the British and American labour movements from the nineteenth century until today’


Title panel of A Special Relationship exhibition

Our new exhibition will be shown at the Working Class Movement Library from 21st February 2018 to 20th April 2018, Wed-Fri 1-5pm, and the first Sat of most months 10am-4pm.

We are often told that American and British governments have a “special relationship.” Less often do we hear that the trade unions of Britain and the United States built their own special relationship over the last 200 years. Usually their relationship was weak – sometimes it rivalled the one between Presidents and Prime Ministers.

The story of labour’s special relationship is one of solidarity and fraternity. It is also one of conflict,disunity and even oppression. Whether good or bad, close or distant, British and American trade unionists have learned from and worked with each other. They have not always learned the right things.

But in the world of Donald Trump and UKIP, economic slumps and falling wages, casual labour and the disposable employee, the labour movements of Britain and United States must rebuild their special relationship if they want to survive, and prosper.

This exhibition tells the story of that special relationship, from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century.

This exhibition is available for loan. Contact Jeff Howarth for details.


Holocaust Memorial Day 27th January 2018


To commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow we’ve selected some pamphlets that were published to raise awareness of the persecution and murder of Jews in Europe by the Nazis

Jews against Hitler

Including some covers (below) that reflect on antisemitism and the British Union of Fascists.

Jews threaten Britain

And others (below) that reflect on anti-fascism in Britain.

it shall not happen here


Walter Citrine and the TUC’s Russia-friendly phase

TUC staff

Walter Citrine with TUC staff, sat 4th from right

Our guest blogger this week is Dr James Moher  (former CWU & T&GWU official).  This is part one of three.

I had been enthused by Lenin’s picture of an electric republic, organised on such lines as would ensure to every citizen, however humble, the advantages of a planned economy and the blessings of modern civilisation.
Walter Citrine

Walter Citrine, aged 36, became Assistant General Secretary of the TUC in January 1924. A Merseyside electrician and Electrical Trades Union national official, he was appointed because of his reputation as an innovative union administrator. As Merseyside District Secretary (1914-20) and and Assistant General Secretary of the ETU at their Manchester headquarters, he was also an experienced union leader and negotiator. In 1920, Citrine had produced the first version of his famous ABC of Chairmanship as guide to the conduct of [often lively Merseyside ETU branch] meetings. It would become the standard work for generations of union and Labour activists, as Alan Johnson recalled in his memoir of his UCW days. He was also quite left-wing (Independent Labour Party and a Labour candidate in the 1918 general election for Wallasey) at the time, which suited the Left- led General Council with Fred Bramley (1876-1925) as General Secretary and Alf (A.A.) Purcell (1872-1935), as chair. He was appointed from a large field of candidates and came to live initially in the Clapham area with his wife, Doris and their two young sons, one of whom (Norman) would one day be the TUC’s Legal officer and author of an important book on union law.

Although taken on primarily for an administrative role, the poor health of Fred Bramley and his frequent absences on foreign affairs also, brought his deputy quickly into the wider affairs of the TUC. This included assisting in relations with the Russian TUC leaders who were visiting Britain in 1924 for trade talks and their application to link up with the International Federation of Trade Unions in Amsterdam. The Russian delegation was led by the chair of the All Russian Central Council of Trade Unions, Mikhail Tomsky (1880-1936), and they were impressed by Citrine’s office with the revamped administrative system which he had just introduced. Citrine would became famous for his new filing system especially, though some ‘super socialists’ who knew little of trade union organisational needs, sometimes sneered at such mundane innovations. However, Tomsky who was well aware of the shortcomings of the young Russian unions in this respect, invited him to visit and advise on theirs. Eager to help, the TUC leadership agreed to his going to Russia, though Citrine had only just started in his new post.

There had been a significant shift to the left on the General Council since Fred Bramley became General Secretary in 1923. A cabinet-maker by trade, he was a staunch ILP socialist from west Yorkshire, as well as being National Organiser for a small craft union, the National Amalgamated Furnishing Trades Association (NAFTA). On the TUC Parliamentary Committee since 1915, he was also chair of the London Labour Party (1915-19) and had strongly opposed the war and welcomed the Russian Revolution. He became a full-timer as Assistant General Secretary in 1917 and was instrumental in replacing the Parliamentary Committee with the far more industrially-focussed General Council in 1921.

When the first Labour government was formed in January 1924, Ramsay MacDonald, the new Prime Minister, had invited a number of leading trade union figures to join the government – J.H. ‘Jimmy’ Thomas of the NUR, Margaret Bondfield of the GMWU, amongst others, all from the General Council. This left some significant vacancies on the General Council as Bondfield had been chair that year and Thomas vacated the Presidency of IFTU and chair of the International Committee. Alf Purcell, a very left-wing Council member, assumed the chair as well as the IFTU Presidency. He had communist and syndicalist sympathies, though he had just been elected as the Labour MP for Coventry. A French Polisher by trade from the same small craft union, NAFTA, as Bramley, he was for years chair of the very left and influential Manchester and Salford Trades Council. Purcell had been chair of the Hands off Russia campaign which led the TUC to threaten a general strike against British government armed intervention against the Bolsheviks in 1920. He had visited Russia on a Labour delegation that year and again led a TUC delegation there in November 1924, when he was awarded honorary membership by the Moscow Soviet. Citrine said that he relied on Purcell’s advice as Chair of the General Council in Bramley’s absences on all key matters.

The other key left-wing General Council member was George Hicks (1870-1954), who would accompany Citrine to Russia in 1925. He was a bricklayer and General Secretary of the recently amalgamated building trades union, the AUBTW, whose offices were in Clapham, where Citrine also lived until he moved to Harrow in 1925. It was their large membership which put Bramley and Purcell on the General Council from his electoral trade group. Hicks replaced Thomas as chair of the important International Committee and at the IFTU in Amsterdam, where he was a strong supporter of the Russian unions’ bid. He was deeply involved in the General Strike and chaired the General Council 1927-8 and became a Labour MP for Woolwich East in 1931. He was a close associate of Purcell’s, having both been active in Tom Mann’s Industrial Syndicalist League (ISEL) before and during the war. Many other TUC leaders were also very supportive of these pro-Soviet policies at that time. Alonzo Swales, General Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (AEU) and chair of the General Council after Purcell, chaired the meetings of the Anglo-Russian Committee. Ben Tillett (1870-1952), of the Transport & General Workers Union and a legendary leader of dockers’ strikes, was a leading member of the 1924 delegation to the USSR and an enthusiastic supporter of the new ‘Workers Republic’. Ernest Bevin, who had become the new T&GWU’s General Secretary in 1922 and joined the General Council in 1925, though generally supportive, was not involved much. Arthur Cook who took over as Secretary of the Miners Federation in 1924, was one of the strongest supporters of the Soviet link. Will Thorne of the GMWU was always supportive of Bramley and Purcell on IFTU delegations, though not greatly involved.

It was this TUC leadership that Citrine now found himself serving congenially as their policies of building up a strong union centre accorded very much with his own left-wing views.

Soviet trade unionists attending the TUC conference in Hull

Soviet trade unionists attending the TUC conference in Hull, September 1924. Centre front: Mikhail Tomsky, the chair of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions (VTsSPS). At the back, Citrine, Swales and Hicks.

TUC relations with the Russian trade unionists
A warm and friendly liaison developed with the Russian union delegates when they came to Britain in 1924 as part of a trade delegation, led by the chair of the Russian TUC, Mikhail Tomsky. Their trade talks with the Labour government were successfully concluded in August 1924, with significant TUC input. The TUC invited the Russian union delegation to Congress at Hull in September 1924 and Tomsky’s address was greeted enthusiastically by the delegates who endorsed the General Council’s new policy. In return, a full delegation, led by Bramley and Purcell, were invited for an extended tour of Russia later that year. On their enthusiastic return in 1925, they formed a high-profile Anglo-Russian Joint Advisory Council (ARJAC) to promote their admission to the IFTU and other aims. This committee – including Tomsky, Aleksander Dogodov and Grigoriy Mel’nichansky who would later chaperon Citrine and Hicks around Russia – met at the TUC offices a couple of times that year and Citrine assisted Bramley in officering the Council. His trip to Russia later that year seems to have been an outcome of those contacts.

They travelled overland with the Russian trade delegation. The Russian TUC (the All Russian Central Council of Trade Unions), had recently rationalised over a thousand small bodies into twenty-three industrial unions with about 6 million members and their head offices were all housed together in a huge Palace of Labour in Moscow. The British visitors were not impressed by the efficiency of the system of administration or the old-fashioned equipment there. However, they recognised why their history and recent civil war, (in which the unions had played a significant role in support of the Bolshevik government), had prevented a more normal evolution. They spent most time in and around Moscow, visiting the Kremlin and other sights. They weren’t sheltered from the many problems facing the authorities – dilapidated Tsarist-era tenement housing and other buildings; many orphaned children (from the Civil War and famine years), sleeping rough in the cold with very scant clothing. Citrine commented a lot on the role of women in the countryside, who seemed to be doing most of the heavy labour. The benefits system was explained (unemployment and strike pay only was paid by the union, the State paying sickness and superannuation benefits). Also the union contribution system with employers contributing also. They visited Leningrad for a few days but then set off to the Crimea.

Their trip was made particularly interesting from the frank and forthcoming exchanges they had with their senior union hosts. They had many late night sessions with Tomsky, Mel’nichansky, the Organising Secretary, (whose English was quite good as he had spent some time in Canada before the revolution) Dogodov and Yarotsky (translator, also a Bolshevik activist). They talked freely about who would succeed the late Lenin as leader from which it was clear that an intense power struggle was well under way. Citrine was surprised to learn that Trotsky was not favoured by the unions on account of his proposals for turning them into functionaries of the socialist state. They preferred Stalin’s more ‘down to earth’ approach, ’although no one could replace Lenin’. Citrine and Hicks were shocked to find that Lenin had become a god-like figure since his death, whose every utterance had to be treated as ‘gospel’. Even Hicks, an old-school Marxist, remarked on it. They also had an interview with Gregoriy Zinoviev, Head of the Communist International since 1919. It was his purported Red Letter in 1924 (a forgery but widely believed at the time), urging British communists to infiltrate the troops in preparation for an English revolution, which helped bring down the Labour government. Citrine and most at the TUC, believed that the huge pre-election publicity given to this Red Letter and MacDonald’s handling of it contributed to the defeat of that Labour government. Zinoviev brushed aside any such discussion and was more concerned to tackle the visitors about the recent decision of the Labour Party to disaffiliate the CPGB.

Visit cut short
In the Crimea, they learned of TUC General Secretary, Fred Bramley’s sudden death early in October 1925 at Amsterdam. Citrine was summoned back to London to act as General Secretary. It evidently came as a great shock to the Soviet leaders also as Bramley had been their great friend at the IFTU. They arranged a special event to mourn his passing, mounting a full-blown picture prominently with full honours. Citrine and Hicks were given a warm send-off despite their (especially Citrine’s), sometimes more critical engagement with the Russian trade union leaders.


Bermondsey strikes of August 1911

Pinks' Jam Factory, strikers, Bermondsey, 1911

Pinks’ Jam Factory, strikers, Bermondsey, 1911

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?