This week in rebel history: Bermondsey’s women workers launch massive strike wave, 1911

“One stifling August morning, while the [transport workers’] strike was at its height, the women workers in a large confectionery factory, in the middle of Bermondsey, in the ‘black patch of London’, suddenly left work. As they went through the streets, shouting and singing, other women left their factories and workshops and came pouring out to join them . . . The women were underpaid and overcrowded . . . Yet they were oddly light-hearted, too. Many of them, dressed in all their finery, defied the phenomenal temperature with feather boas and fur tippets, as though their strike were some holiday of the soul, long overdue.” (George Dangerfield)

“The tropical heat and sunshine of that summer seemed to evoke new hopes and new desires in a class of workers usually only too well described as ‘cheap and docile’ . . . Most of them regarded the conditions of their lives as in the main perfectly inevitable, came out on strike to ask only 6d. or 1s. more wages and a quarter of an hour for tea, and could not formulate any more ambitious demands.” (Barbara Hutchins)

In August 1911, a wave of strikes in the southeast London borough of Bermondsey among 1000s of strikers, almost all women or girls, closed many of the numerous local factories and won huge improvements in their pay and conditions. They were initiated by around 15,000 women and girls employed in local jam, biscuit, confectionery and similar food-processing factories, tin-boxmaking, glue and other manufactures. The strikes began as a series of spontaneous demonstrations, among mostly non-union labour, calling for improved wages and conditions, but the intervention of National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) trade-union organiser Mary Macarthur helped to unify and give focus to the demands. The factory women’s action ended successfully with wage increases and improvements in working conditions.

The Bermondsey strikes took place during a year of militant upsurge in workers struggles to improve their lives throughout the country, with massive transport strikes the most visible aspect of an eruption of disputes across many industries. Workers in already heavily unionised workplaces, highly organised, were prominent. Many among them were expressing frustration with the existing union structures, and interest was growing in newer ideas and ways of organising, like syndicalism. Discussion and debate of socialist, communist, anarchist ideas increased. In response to the industrial unrest, troops were sent in to Liverpool and South Wales to intimidate and repress strikes beginning to coalesce into revolt; the government feared the new militancy. And although the peak of 1911 failed to match up to their fears and the dreams of some militants, the next few years would continue to see a rising tide of strikes, as well as political and social unrest.

The August 1911 Bermondsey strikes broke out in the midst of this ferment, but seemed even then to be very different to many of the other events of that year. Most of the local women workers were previously un-unionised, or had even been somewhat hostile to union recruitment; though fair numbers of male trade unionists had almost certainly not helped by regarding many of the workplaces women worked in as unreliable and women in general as not worth organising (a view expressed by gasworkers union leader and Labour MP Will Thorne, who said women ‘do not make good trade unionists’.) The eruption of strikes among the woman workers of Bermondsey took even local male union activists by surprise.

Bermondsey

The Bermondsey area spreads for over three miles along the south bank of the Thames, facing the City of London. The Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey, set up in 1900, included Rotherhithe, so that in the early twentieth century the borough stretched from London Bridge on the western side, bordering Southwark, to the Surrey Docks complex in the east, and as far south as the Old Kent Road. Bermondsey’s river frontage was the basis for its industry. Riverside docks and wharves created the primary source of employment for male workers in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, although railway and construction work also provided heavy labouring jobs. River transport for bulky raw materials fed Bermondsey’s semi-processing industries, such as leather tanneries and sawmills, and particularly the manufacture and distribution of food products, which explain Bermondsey’s title at the time of ‘London’s larder’. Tooley Street was the centre of this trade, with the Hay’s Wharf Company, the leading dockside distributor, responsible for handling a wide variety of foodstuffs including tea, and, after the introduction of refrigeration, which the Company helped to pioneer, an international trade in dairy produce and meat from the 1860s.

By the end of the nineteenth century, with the establishment of large-scale jam, biscuit and confectionery manufacturing and of ancillary packaging firms, such as those for tin-box making, food processing dominated Bermondsey’s industry, overtaking older industries such as leather tanning, and providing a major source of employment for women in the area. The Peek Frean biscuit company, for example, had existed in Bermondsey since 1859, but jam factories were not set up by major firms like Hartley’s and Lipton until the turn of the century. For male workers, major projects carried out around the turn of the century (which included the world’s first electric underground rail system, running from the City to Stockwell via London Bridge, and the construction of Tower Bridge in 1894 and of the Rotherhithe Tunnel in 1908) meant continuing opportunities for casual labouring jobs. With industrialization and the expansion of the transport system, the population of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe surged from around 65,000 in 1850 to about 126,000 in 1911.” (Ursula de la Mare, Necessity and Rage: the Factory Women’s Strikes in Bermondsey, 1911)

Bermondsey was well known for its particular poverty – 1,500 people lived in local workhouses. 40% of London’s population lived in dire poverty but in the dock areas it climbed to above 80%.

If this poverty was common to many other working class neighbourhoods, Bermondsey was marked by many individual characteristics which gave it a particular character. Its geography left it somewhat isolated and insular, and helped the growth of a cohesive community. Many people living locally were also born in South London, overwhelmingly so around the time of the strikes, helping to create a largely homogenous culture, predominantly working class. This contributed to the strength of industrial struggles; this was also partly a product of the domination of a few industries: the docks, and transport from them, and food manufacturing; workplaces people lived cheek by jowl with, their shared experiences linking both home and work life.

Local poverty was a consequence in part of the nature of employment there: dockers, for instance, the largest group of workers locally, depended on a system of daily and weekly hiring for subsistence wages; in 1892 the weekly pay for London dockworkers averaged between thirteen and seventeen shillings, and it remained at a low level into the 1900s.

Other trades among local male residents also dominated by low-paid or casual jobs, unskilled or semi-skilled, subject to seasonal variations and the vagaries of trade. Women’s work often topped up low wages of the male ’breadwinner’. “Female labour, as a consequence, became a source of supplementary earnings for family incomes, ‘a kind of reserve market . . . when the husband comes on bad time’. Booth identified the development of occupations for women outside the home with the pressures on male employment in Bermondsey, such as the increasing casualisation of dock work. This resulted, he said, in ‘a great extension of employment for women in the making and packing of jam . . . chiefly low-class work at low pay . . . largely seasonal in character’. He referred specifically to the Bermondsey and Southwark riverside as areas with family economies of male dock-workers and women engaged in jam factories and similar trades, or outwork. Statistical evidence indicates that in 1911 women in the jam, confectionery and biscuit-making trades were ten per cent of the female labour force in Bermondsey, with a larger proportion, twenty-four per cent, engaged in outwork such as sackmaking and furpulling.” (de la Mare)

Women workers were far from passive victims of poverty. Working in the jam and pickle factories might be badly paid, but was an improvement on some of the filthy, exhausting and degrading traditional jobs the area had provided, like fur-pulling, sackmaking and wood-chopping. And factory work did give the women a measure of independence from their menfolk, as well as a sociable and collective spirit (which manifested sometimes in ways disapproved of as immoral: the 1900 Bermondsey parish magazine, predictably censorious, reported attempts to reform ‘wild factory girls . . . half-drunk, and yelling the lowest music hall songs, and dancing like wild creatures’. Young women working in factories were often targets of moral reform campaigns: because they were working outside the traditional ‘place’ for women, because the pay they received could also even partly liberate them and allow them to party… among other reasons…)

However, work in the local factories was still badly paid, and the work was often seasonal, irregular… The women ere also often subjected to fines and deductions for ‘expenses’ by the managers. Hours were long, conditions tough, and facilities for the workers basic.

Prelude: the transport strike of 1911

The Bermondsey strike movement was influenced by the transport workers’ walkout during the previous month, part of a national transport strike. In the capital this included an all-London walk-out of the dockers, plus the Carmen (cart-drivers), including the men at the Surrey docks.

“In London the dockers’ union had been attempting, since 1909, to increase the hourly rate of pay of men employed by the Port of London Authority and reduce their hours. In 1910, the matter was again raised with the PLA by the Bermondsey and Rotherhithe Trades Council, without result. J.A. Fox, branch secretary of the dockers’ union, complained in January 1911 that “a number [of men] work 84 hours per week for less than the dockers’ tanner and nearly all get considerably below the rate paid by private employers.” By summer the men’s patience was exhausted and on 4th July 300 grain trimmers as the Surrey Commercial Docks struck for a minimum wages of 8 pence per hour. These men were members of the Labour Protection League, and, on the advice of their leaders, resumed work pending a Port of London Authority decision on their demands. When the PLA finally agreed to negotiation in the face of a strike threat, the Shipping Federation, representing private firms, was unwilling to join the discussion and the newly formed National Transport Workers Federation, led by Ben Tillett and representing the dock labourers, refused to negotiate unless they were present.

The National Federation of Transport Workers (NFTW) called a mass meeting of all riverside workers at Southwark Park on Sunday, 22 July, which was addressed by leaders of the watermen and lightermen and the carmen’s union, by Harry Gosling, representing the NFTW, and Arthur Harris of the South London Labour League. The purpose of the meeting was to unite all the different grades of dock worker under a common banner and to refuse any settlement which failed to include any worker the association represented. According to press reports this statement was greeted warmly by the meeting.

On Monday, 24 July, the Shipping Federation finally joined the conference but the coal porters and Carmen announced a demand that the private employers should recognize their union and decided to strike until their grievances were settled. The conference took place behind closed doors and little or no information leaked out of any progress towards meeting the men’s demands. The men. Impatient and frustrated by the length of the discussions and the absence of any news, agreed to stand together instead of awaiting arbitration, and 20,000 dockers and Carmen struck at the beginning of August.

Meanwhile, although the NFTW reached agreement with the PLA, the agreement fell short of the initial demands. However, it did represent a distinct improvement of between 4 and 5 shillings per week in wages. Agreement had not been reached with those employed by the Shipping Federation who were demanding an increase from 7 pence to 8 pence per hour, nor the question of lunch breaks which were left to arbitration. Harry Gosling said that every section of the workforce must be settled or members of the NFTW must be ready to come out on strike.

In the face of a strike threat at Surrey Docks, one of the private wharves, Stanton’s Wharf, conceded to the pay increase demanded and also agreed to pay the lunch break. Another firm, Mark Brown’s Wharf, agreed to the increased hourly rate but refused to pay the lunch break. The men at Stanton’s Wharf refused to return to work until the other striking dockers’ claims were met. Strike action spread rapidly. The coal porters were joined by other porters, dockers, lightermen and watermen. While some were striking for the extra penny per hour, others were striking for union recognition by private firms or a 10-hour day. On Thursday, 3 August 1000 men employed in the grain and Canadian produce departments at Surrey Docks came out in support of the payment for the dinner…” (Brockway, Bermondsey Story)

The Women Take a Stand

Local Independent Labour Party activist Dr Alfred Salter had Salter had been busy organising relief for the transport workers’ families; when the employers gave way, he returned home assuming that the struggle was over.

“The next morning he had a shock. Without any organisation, without any lead, thousands of workers employed in Bermondsey, men women and girls, came out on strike. They had tabled no demands, they could not even voice their grievances, few of them belonged to a trade union, they knew nothing of how to run a strike; they just knew that the conditions of their existence were intolerable, and they would no longer put up with them without protest.” (Fenner Brockway, Bermondsey Story)

Though there was no formal organisational link between the striking transport workers and the women factory workers who now took inspiration from their victory, family and community connections were strong. The connection between the dockers and women employed in the preserves and jam manufacturing industries was identified by Charles Booth. The work was seasonal and employers took advantage of a large pool of unskilled women workers, often the wives of casual labourers, who were willing to accept low wages for part-time work to help family finances during times of a husband’s unemployment.

As a consequence of these low wages and poor conditions, Pink’s jam factory, which was nick-named, because of its working conditions, “The Bastille”, became a target of the Labour Protection League which had attempted to unionise it in 1897 with the aim of increasing the minimum wage from four and a half pence to sixpence per hour for a 56-hour week. The employers were hostile to such moves and sacked employees who were union activists. As a consequence, the trade union were unable to get a foothold in such firms.

But a failure of trade unionism to take hold had never meant a lack of solidarity. In 1889, during the huge London dock strike, the South London dockers had received support from workers employed in industries totally unconnected with their own, and particularly from women employed in firms like Peak Freans and Spratts, both biscuit manufacturers. A large number of the women workers joined the striking dockers march through local streets. The similarities in the support given by this element of the South London workforce to the striking dockers in 1889 and 1911 is such that it must be considered to be rooted in links of kinship or neighbourhood.

In August 1911, the food processing industry of South London was virtually devoid of any trades union membership, despite having the nation’s largest concentration of manufacturers. Eight thousand workers, mainly women, were employed in jam manufacture and the turnover of its factories represented 40 per cent of the national production. It enjoyed a similar market share of biscuit production and was also the main centre of he manufacture of sugar confectionary, chocolate, soups and pickles.

In the summer of 1911, there was a handful of union activists in a few factories and some intimidation of workers through demonstration outside factory gates, but their influence was very limited, and the scale of the spontaneous protest which began on 12 August 1911 far eclipsed any trade union activity. There was no union call for action, indeed few of the workers were unionised at all, but on Monday, 14 August, 14,000 women suddenly came out on strike and nearly all the large factories were obliged to close. According to Mary MacArthur of the National Federation of Women Workers, the cause of the revolt was low pay. The average weekly wage for grown girls and women in South London was 7 to 9 shillings, while thousands of girls under 16 earned only 3 shillings per week.

The Daily Chronicle reported ‘strike fever’ spreading through the Bermondsey factories. Mary Agnes Hamilton, in the more literary style of her biography of Mary Macarthur, notes the oppressive heat, then describes how the ‘brittle nerves’ of the factory women, who had been supporting their striking menfolk, ‘suddenly gave way’ and they burst into action, suggesting the unrestrained nature of the women’s protest.

In a press report on the beginning of the strikes, the women were described as being ‘in the highest spirits’: They went laughing and singing through Bermondsey, shouting ‘Are we downhearted?’ and answering the question by a shrill chorus of ‘No!’. It was noticeable that many of them had put on their ‘Sunday best’. In spite of the great heat, hundreds of them wore fur boas and tippets – the sign of self-respect.

Women working at Benjamin Edgington, tentmakers, joined by some female employees from Pearce Duff, custard makers, marched down Tooley Street ‘singing the strike marseillaise, ‘‘Fall in and follow me!’’ ’ Women from Pink’s jam factory were in the forefront of the strikes, parading the streets of Bermondsey with a banner inscribed, ‘We are not white slaves, but Pink’s slaves’.

Besides the women from the three firms mentioned above, employees of over fifteen other firms came out on strike, including from Peek Frean biscuits and Hartley’s jam factories. A striker at Shuttleworth’s chocolate factory told a Southwark and Bermondsey Recorder journalist, ‘We are striking for more pay, mister, and we won’t go in till we get it’.

On such low wages as they had been earning, there was no chance of workers having savings to help them through the strike. Having no union, there was no strike pay. For those on strike, outdoor relief (the dole) was routinely refused, and pawn shops shut their doors. Some local charities supplied aid, such as Christ Church, Bermondsey, which provided breakfasts for strikers. But local support networks helped sustain the strikers when the first flush of enthusiasm had passed…

The I.L.P

The striking women turned for help to the newly formed Bermondsey Independent Labour Party, headed by three doctors who ran a local medical practice, and their wives. “The Bermondsey ILP had been formed in May 1908 by disenchanted Progressives like Alfred Salter, a local GP, and his wife, Ada, both of whom had been active in local politics. There were fifteen other founding members including both the other doctors at Salter’s practice, and their wives, one of whom was Eveline Lowe, who would later become the first woman chair of the London County Council. Other members were Joe Craigie of the railwaymen’s trade union, Arthur Gillian, who later founded the chemical workers union, and Charlie Ammon (later Lord Ammon) of the postal workers’ union. Most of the early members were drawn from the chapels and missions of Bermondsey, and they penetrated into every local organisation which allowed opportunities for discussion – brotherhoods, young men’s classes, adult education classes, and debating societies. The branch’s membership came to include a Church of England clergyman, a Congregationalist minister, a Baptist pastor and five Methodist local preachers. By early 1911, the Bermondsey ILP had purchased the former working men’s institute in Fort Road as its headquarters and the foundation stone was barely unveiled when the transport strike broke out.

… The ILP became the organisational centre for many of the wide range of industrial disputes which took place between July and September 1911. It also organised food relief on a large scale, distributing 8000 loaves of bread in two days and ensuring that single male strikers received a loaf of bread and families received groceries to the value of 5 shillings per week.” (Brockway)

The strikers at one factory after another sent deputations to the ILP headquarters to ask for leadership and help. Alfred Salter spent every moment he could among them. Meeting a deputation of railwaymen from the Bricklayers Arms and Willow Walk depots, he found that the maximum wage of the goodsmen was 20 shillings a week and of the yardsmen 18 shillings. “They were not members of the Associated Society of Railway Servants, which tended to cold-shoulder the lowest-paid workers, and they asked Salter to lead them. He agreed to do so, but insisted that their first step should be to enroll in the union, and within a few hours practically every worker at the two depots was in the ASRS with headquarters at the Fort Road Institute to accommodate them.

The railway dispute was a mere fragment of the strikes which swept over Bermondsey. The Institute was besieged by men and women who had left their jobs. Salter, Charlie Ammon and other members of the ILP worked late into the night, advising, organising, negotiating, but the task proved too much for them. Fortunately, as news of the Bermondsey revolt reached the headquarters of the unions, national leaders descended on the Institute and established offices there. The majority of the strikers were women and girls, and Mary MacArthur and Marion Phillips, of the National Federation of Women Workers, (NFWW) were quickly on the scene.”

The NFWW had come to international attention by leading the 1910 women chain makers’ strike, raising £4,000 from supporters. Their policy when approaching the Bermondsey strikes was that all strikers, union members or not, would receive support. Lack of funds never deterred the Federation. An appeal for the Bermondsey strikers raised £500 in one week and a donation of six barrels of herrings!

Victory

“From early morning till late at night meetings were continually in progress,” one report records. “In the grounds at the back of the Institute huge gatherings of railwaymen and other workers were held daily. Inside, one room would be occupied by a committee preparing a new wages list to submit to an employer; in another room workers were busy tabulating grievances so that they could the better present their case to the masters; whilst elsewhere girls were being shown how they could organise into local branches of the Womens’ Trade Union League.” Salter got the minister of a neighbouring chapel, the Rev. Kaye Dunne, to place his premises at the disposal of the strikers as a bread-distributing centre.” (Brockway)

At nearly every workplace important concessions were won. Wages were increased by amounts varying between 3 shillings to 9 shillings a week, in many factories piecework was abolished, and everywhere the strikers were enrolled in the trade unions. Reading today a summary of the concessions gained, one gets some idea of the wretched conditions which existed. The list of victories included a cocoa firm where a wage of 4 shillings 7 pence a week was won for girls of 14, increasing to 12 shillings 4 pence a week at 18. At a tin box works a minimum wage of 10 shillings a week was secured for women workers. At a metallic capsule manufacturers, piece workers obtained halfpence per 1000 more on ‘coloured work’.

Apart from three firms, the remainder of the factories which largely employed women conceded pay increases within a week. Deadlock continued at Peak Frean, biscuit manufacturers of Drummond Road, Bermondsey, who employed 3000 women. The firm, hit by a strike of over two thirds of its workforce, was also picketed by the carmen and unable to receive or make deliveries of its products. In the event, the firm closed down, locking out its workforce, and acrimonious threats were made both by employees and the Labour Federation League, the latter threatening to stage a national boycott of Peak Frean biscuits. The manager at Peak Frean declared: “I don’t know of a single business that is working in the district… It is what one might call a reign of terror”.

Meetings, reinforced with picket lines, were then called by the union organisers, and the workforce urged not to return to work unless wage increases were agreed. Peek Frean employees assembled daily at Rotherhithe Town Hall.

The boss at Pinks blamed the strikes on intimidation because his “workers were well contented” but had been “called out by the mob”.

“Further concessions were announced on Thursday, 17 August at Steel’s hammer and nail manufacturers, the wages of girls under 16 were increased from 7 shillings 8 pence to 9 shillings per week and a minimum wage for older girls of 12 shillings. At Cavendish, bottle washers, the rates increased from 9 shillings and sixpence to a minimum of 12 shillings. By the end of that week, Mary MacArthur had secured concessions from eighteen of the twenty firms whose workers she represented. The rise if the women’s wages amounted to between a shilling and 4 shillings per week. What made these strikes different, according to Mary MacArthur’s biographer, Mary Agnes Hamilton, was that

“the story of the Bermondsey women seems almost to have been isolated – with its mingling elements of unreason and necessity and gaiety and rage – the various spirits of the whole unrest… very soon the streets were filled with women… It was then, when they were all out that they discovered what they had come out for… they wanted an increase.” (Brockway)

Higher wages were also won for the staff at the local Lipton’s jam factory.

“As well as the women workers employed in the food manufacturing trades, men and women strikers employed in packing case manufacture who had been on strike for three weeks received increases ranging from 2 shillings to 4 shillings per week for unskilled and 4 shillings eightpence to six shillings for skilled workmen such as sawyers and boxmakers. Similar across-the-board increases were awarded by other trades like bottle washers and tin box makers. In the latter, where the industry was also consolidated in Southwark and Bermondsey, the strikers achieved a valuable concession that the tin box industry would be considered for inclusion under the terms of the Trades Board Act. The smaller firms welcomed the prospect of regularising wage levels which prevented competition by the undercutting of prices through lowered wages. The strikers were represented in their demands by C.J. Hammond, the president of the Bermondsey ILP, from the Fort Road strike HQ. From the same key area of operation… Eveline Lowe championed the cause of workers at the Idris soft drinks factory.

The widening militancy of the inhabitants of South London spread to Wolseley Street, Bermondsey and Leroy Street, Southwark, where the residents announced a rent strike until the transport strike was over. On 12 August, dissatisfaction among tramway men at New Cross with their conditions of labour culminated in a well-attended meeting that proposed increases in pay and improved conditions such as increased holidays and overtime rates.” (Brockway)

The government was worried enough about public order in the area to order the army station soldiers in a camp in Southwark Park. Its worth remembering in these same weeks, a much more scary situation was developing in Liverpool, with striking transport workers paralysing the city, and something like the beginnings of a revolutionary commune almost coming together, with navy gunboats sent to restore control. The working class was getting way too uppity generally, and the ruling elite were becoming very nervous.

“Publicity for the women’s strikes was also gained through the NFWW’s organisation of public meetings and marches, building on the impetus of the strikers’ own early demonstrations. Marion Phillipps, working out of the Fort Road Institute, planned daily processions, the strikers armed with collecting boxes. A strike rally held on 14 August, at which the speakers included Ben Tillett and Mary Macarthur, was reported to have attracted an audience of 10,000, the women marching (‘most of them hatless’) with banners flying, although another newspaper report spoke of weary-looking women, many carrying babies. The women were quoted as being determined ‘to have a bit of their own back’. A further meeting on 19 August marked the strikers’ victory. The cumulative effect of the press campaigns, relief work at the Institute, and open-air demonstrations had aroused support for the strikers from areas outside the borough, ‘infected by the Bermondsey spirit’.

The NFWW’s mobilisation of support for unionism as part of their campaign was more problematic, although this was a primary aim. Affiliation to a union was seen by Mary Macarthur as a powerful negotiating tool with employers; she considered that union membership strengthened strikers’ bargaining power. At the 19 August victory rally, she announced the establishment of twenty unions in Bermondsey, converting the borough, she said, from Charles Booth’s ‘black patch of London’ to a centre for women’s trade unionism. But it was only a partial conversion. Peek Frean granted wage rises, but refused to recognise the union.

Similarly, Southwell’s, a large-scale jam maker at Dockhead, agreed after face-to-face meetings with the strikers to increase pay for their female employees, but declined to give union recognition. This refusal was, however, not contested by the NFWW officials involved. Perhaps there was an unspoken awareness on their part of the paramount importance of material benefits, rather than union solidarity, for the strikers.” (de la Mare)

Virtually all the strikes in Bermondsey and across neighbouring parts of South London were over by 8 September 1911. The eventual outcome of the Bermondsey women’s strikes was success in obtaining wage rises from most of the employers involved. Dr Salter said that women in nineteen factories had returned to work with increased wages and better conditions, with no improvement in only three cases.

The NFWW, in its annual report for 1911, gave a detailed account of the wage rises ‘obtained by the Federation’ in Bermondsey. They presented standardised rates for all the trades involved, apart from those for jam factory workers, where they reported the figure for Pink’s, presumably because it denoted a benchmark amount for jam factory employees in general.

The following pay scale for workers in jam, biscuit and confectionery factories are listed in the NFWW report:

Pink’s jam factory: wage increase from 9/- to 11/- a week. [Other jam factories included Hartley’s, Lipton and Southwell.]

‘Biscuit-makers: 1/- rise all round for time workers’ [including Peek Frean].

‘Cocoa-makers’ [e.g. Shuttleworth’s]: improved wages for all workers.

A graded scale to be introduced, with a minimum wage for girls aged 14 of 4s 7d, rising annually to 12s 4d. at age eighteen; pieceworkers on day work to receive a rise of 3d. an hour; piece rates to be increased.

The most extraordinary feature of the industrial unrest in South London was its widespread character and the extent it permeated factories and workshops quite untouched by any previous industrial action. The unrest also spread to groups of workers as diverse as post office employees, dock policemen and even to public house barmen. All were clamouring for an improvement in their wages and conditions of labour. A report of the end of the strike in a local newspaper noted, “the barmen, realising the advantages of co-operation and combination as a means of compelling a recognition of their labour decided to form a union.”

While union leaders, churchmen and journalists were conscious of a peculiar feature of the strikes, describing the participants as being “infected with what may be called the ‘strike spirit’, and out for reasons they cannot define,” the Revd. J. Ewing, the pastor of Rye Lane Baptist Chapel, was clear in his mind that the strikers’ determination to improve their pay and conditions sprang from a realisation of a socialist solidarity among them. Dr Salter took the view that the strikers would have been crushed but for the spirit of solidarity, mutual help and sacrifice. “What was remarkable,” he said, “was that the strikes were without organisation or funds and that it was the employers who sought a settlement.”

The winning of victory after victory brought jubilation at the Fort Road Institute, the Independent Labour Party’s base locally, and HQ of so many of the strikes. Mary MacArthur, addressing a triumphant crowd, suggested that the biggest lesson of the strikes was not the small concessions gained on pay and other issues, but the larger picture of the nature of the society the workers of Bermondsey lived under : that they “were beginning to ask themselves why they should accept their conditions of living when before it seemed quite natural to them to lead unhealthy, stunted lives.”

The NFWW distributed 4,000 cards in one week, when the strike ended 8,000 women had joined the union. A general union, open to unskilled women workers, it had a low subscription rate and no strike fund. As the employers would not take the women’s union or its women members seriously, its only weapon was to strike.

However, though the TUC made much of the women’s action, and subsequent historians have placed the Bermondsey events squarely either within the context of the militancy of 1910-14 or the rise of women’s trade unionism, it could equally be pointed out that it was immediate need that led the women to strike, and they accepted the help of the National Federation of Women workers through expediency. Although local membership of unions among women workers increased dramatically in the wake of the strike, much of the organising was short-lived. It was the winning of immediate aims that was crucial, and large-scale membership of unions gradually dropped off again.

Ursula de la Mare comments on the specific female element on the struggle, which marked it out from usual methods of organising during strikes: “The boisterousness and disorganisation of the initial Bermondsey demonstrations correspond to Eleanor Gordon’s identification of specific female characteristics in workplace resistance at the time – spontaneity, lack of restraint, an element of street theatre – which, she argues, differentiated women’s militancy from more formal male trade unionism.”

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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