Today in London retail history, 1918: West End hairdressers go on strike
In December 1918 a hairdressers strike broke out in London’s West End: the largest ever hairdressers strike in Britain…
Below we reprint an account by Philip Hoffman, an official of the Shop Assistants Union, from his autobiography, ‘They Also Serve’.
At this time the London hairdressing trade was divided into 3 zones – the City, the West End, and the Suburbs. Hairdressers in the three zones faced very different pay and conditions. In the City, hours were much shorter, tips were larger, and trade brisker than in the Suburbs, but fixed wages were very low; some City hairdressers were on a basic wage of as little as 15 shillings a week. In the West End, hairdressing was considered more upmarket and ‘gents’ and ‘ladies’ were served in the same establishments. There, hours were longer than in the City, but tips were even higher. Hairdressers in the Suburbs worked the longest hours.
Many hairdressers existed on a scanty basic wage, which they could supplement with tips and by selling extras, such as various lotions, face towels, shampoos, (and presumably contraceptives!), usually on commission from the salon. To encourage sales the commission rate to assistants were often quite high.
‘Ladies’ hairdressers generally commanded a higher wage, due to the greater skill and technique involved; ‘ladies hands’ were more likely to have a pride in their craft…
City hairdressers were mostly overseen by the City Hairdressers Guild, which in the manner of the Guilds contained both masters and workers, and tried to resolve disputes and pay issues internally. Low basic wages meant that there was a lot of pressure for a decent minimum wage… In 1917, after much negotiation, a basic minimum of 28 shillings a week for over 21-year olds was agreed… Which was still notably lower, for instance, than the 35 shillings a week Glasgow hairdressers shortly obtained. [Glasgow hairdressers had won improvements in their minimum wage scale from 28s. to 30s. during July, 1915. followed by Edinburgh a month later, and further wage rises had been won in 1917.]
Towards the end of 1917 widespread negotiations were opened in the West End salons. The result was the following Charter, to which more than 20 firms signed up:
Hours – 48 maximum.
Wages at 21 years:
Manicurist (Ladies’) 25S. and 10 per cent. on all takings. Gents’ Hands 35s. and 12 and a half per cent. (chiropody 2d. in is. extra).
General Hands (that is those who do some work in Ladies’ Saloon as well as Gents’) 45s. and commission.
Ladies’ Hands 60s. and commission.
Charge Hands 50s. and commission.
General Conditions-Mealtimes as in Shops Act (which did not apply to hairdressers) and one week’s holiday with full pay.
However a short successful strike was necessary before this agreement was agreed to by Faulkners Saloons, who ran salons in several London railway stations. In June, Harrods Stores, with more than 71 hairdressing employees, signed up to an extended charter, including:
Chiropody-60s. and 10 per cent. on takings.
Postiche Dresser – 60s. and 5 per cent. on takings.
By this time the City Guild agreed to a minimum of 32 shillings. and increased commission from eight and a half to twelve and a half per cent. There were now, in July 1918, eighty-two firms under agreement with the Union, including two large stores, Harrods and Selfridges.
The Shop Steward question was causing difficulty. One firm sacks the Steward as soon as appointed. All staff is withdrawn and an advertisement is put in the trade journal, and the firm falls into line. Another proves more obstinate, but as the staff puts on sandwich-boards and parades in front of the premises, in three days the firm gives way.
The question of assistants waiting on clients at their homes or places of business arises for settlement. This and other matters compelled the drafting of definite duties for Shop Stewards, one of whom was appointed in every saloon. A Code of Working Rules for Shop Stewards was displayed. Here is the code summarised as briefly as possible
“1. All assistants must be members of the Union.
2. The Steward is the recognised intermediary between staff and employer; his duty is to adjust all disputes; when not able to do this they must be reported to the branch committee whose decision is final. Examples are :
(a) Disputes between employers and employees.
(b) Bad time-keeping.
(c) Arrears in subs.
(d) Unprofessional conduct.
Every member is expected to perform his duty to employer, during business hours, and to his colleagues at all times.”
Naturally, after securing so much for so many, the assistants began to tackle a comprehensive charter. A crowded meeting at the International Hall, Cafe Monico, Piccadilly Circus, in January, 1918, confirmed and amplified what was presented to them. Actually they tried to do a very ambitious thing: to draft a charter for all London. The ambitious part of the scheme was to try and get the employers to agree. Indeed, to get the hairdresser employers of London to agree with one another, let alone with those they employed, was proved well-nigh impossible. It is to their credit they tried it. They saw that if, with the ever-increasing development of women’s hairdressing, they were to win control over working conditions, London could not be treated in zones. London must be treated as a unit and the occupation catered for on the basis of class of trade, graded by prices charged. The difficulty of reaching coherence between employers in the matter of charges, was in great part the cause of their inability to work together. The margins were very narrow. As long as anyone with a £10 note could open a barbers shop and charge anything they liked for shaving and haircutting, it was extremely difficult to get a firm foundation, as difficult as it was to get a decent living ! Work it out, on the basis of four shaves per hour at tuppence per shave, with a continuous stream of clients waiting their turn, for 48 hours of the week, you will have gathered in 32 shillings., out of which sum must be paid rent, rates, taxes, light, heat, towels, and so on.
The profession had a weekly paper, The Hairdressers’ Journal, which had quite impartially given reports of the assistants’ activities, so that the meeting which confirmed the draft charter was fully reported, and it became a matter for general, if heated, discussion in the trade. There were three employers’ associations catering for hairdressers: The London Suburban Master Hairdressers’ Association, the City Guild, and the Incorporated Guild of Wigmakers, Hairdressers and Perfumers. The last body was precluded by its charter from dealing with wage negotiations. Nevertheless, its secretary took the initiative and convened a meeting of all London employers at the Cafe Monico early in 1918. But the meeting was apparently not a happy one, for the journal thus commented : “As the meeting developed, the conversation lapsed into the haggling, quibbling and hair-splitting that one expects to meet with over a committee table.”
Eventually a joint committee of the employers’ associations met the assistants and hammered away at the subject, quite unavailingly… The talks went on for nearly twelve months. The employers wanted a 56-hour week, rates only for efficient workers, commission only after wages had been earned, zonal rates and no overtime pay, fines for being late. They could not agree to an all-London rate as the City stuck out against it. However, though at that time nothing was agreed, the talks and ventilation of the subject prepared the way for the agreement which was reached after the great strike, the largest which has ever occurred in the hairdressing trade in this country, the story of which is now due for the telling.
By this time so strong were the hairdressers that they raised between them £1500 to open a club called “The Hairdressers’ Rendezvous” in Archer Street, Piccadilly Circus. All their activities became centred there whilst it lasted. There was a very good restaurant business done, as well as a flourishing bar and wine cellar, a reading-room, billiard saloon, and several meeting rooms.
On December 5th, 1918, a large meeting held at the Rendezvous decided unanimously to make an application to every saloon where the staff were members of the Union, for a 10s. increase to date from December 16th. The date was fixed because of the known procrastinating habits of the employers. The application was sent in to forty-four firms. By the time the strike was over, after seven weeks of exciting struggle, forty-six employers, including Bond Street firms like Hills, Trufitts, and Douglas, as well as Penhaligon of St. James’s Street, had agreed to the 10s. increase, four employers had come to special arrangements, leaving twenty firms covered by the close of the strike terms… Why did the strike have to occur ? Because the firms round Piccadilly Circus hated the Shop-Steward movement and were determined once more, as they put it, “to be masters in their own saloons” – and also, of course, because few could see further than their respective noses.
Only the West End of London and the City were concerned in the strike, the huge suburban areas were untouched, being as yet unorganised. The replies which came to hand by December 16th asked for a month to consider the matter, to which, at first, there was an inclination to agree. But it became abundantly clear that the interval was to be used to take steps to smash the Union. A general meeting agreed, if on the following Saturday the 10s. was not conceded, staffs would cease work; Shop Stewards would constitute the strike Committee and where 10s. was conceded it be paid into a dispute fund to aid strikers. This sum was not only cheerfully paid by those at work, but was subsequently increased to 20s.
Those on strike numbered 270 and remained about that figure to the end, for the situation was continually changing. As some firms gave way and their staffs went back, other firms did not give way and their staffs came out. Then there were the blacklegs. As fast as they brought them in we brought them out. They were waited for at the railway stations and at their homes and some violence was done. There were police court cases, quite a number of them, and one striker got a month in the second division. But as Victor Hugo puts it in Les Miserables, “there are depths below the depths, infamies which are too infamous for the infamous to touch.” That bottom was reached when the half-dozen blacklegs working at Shipwright’s Saloon threatened to strike when one of the strikers, the only renegade there was, attended to work at that saloon where he was not employed before the stoppage.
It was a very popular strike. It was fair game for the reporters who were let loose on it, for hairdressers do not advertise and we furnished them with a continuous crop of stories. The Daily Mail called it “The Polite Strike. “This strike is not a method of barberism,” said the Star, “The Obliging Strikers” said the Daily Express. Most Papers carried cartoons usually about long beards and “Get yer ‘air cut.” The interest to the public was helped along by the turn and turn about, for the masters became assistants, the assistants became masters.
The masters donned aprons, grasped razors, perched combs in their hair and went to work at Shipwright’s Saloon, the largest gents’ saloon in the West End. The assistants got wind of it and arranged accordingly. Pickets massed outside, even as did customers. And such customers! The unshorn and unshaven of London were gathered there; from highways and hedges they were garnered and given money for shaves and haircuts and a solatium for any loss they would incur. Shipwright’s catered for the elite-generals, judges, Cabinet Ministers. That morning instead of the Upper Ten they got the lower eleven: men whose beards, where not patriarchal, were like wire, and the hair of the head, where it had not become matted, fell in waves even as a woman’s.
The assistants opened the Rendezvous as a saloon. The four billiard tables were taken down, the marble-topped tables from the restaurant upstairs were arranged down the centre of the basement, and the mirrors used in the academies were propped up on them in two rows. High-power electric lights were installed and an electric fan. Thirty chairs were arranged in front of the mirrors and lounges were set against the walls. Several of the upstairs rooms were converted into Ladies’ Saloons and one part of the basement was curtained off for the twelve manicurists. Magically, it seemed out of nowhere, appeared piles of towels, lotions, perfumes, oils, and all the mysterious and indispensable appurtenances of hairdressing which proclaim to all and sundry that you have been to the barbers. From morn to night in relays boys jerked huge cans of boiling hot water up and down the service lifts.
One of the Pressmen had lyrically written in his paper “Visit the Bevy of Beauties in the Barbers’ Hall” – and visit they did, all the hoi polloi. Fashionable London had got a new sensation. A Striking Shave by Striking Shavers! Visitors included Peers of the Realm, Generals, Service Officers, jockeys, Doctors of Science, Ambassadors and at least one Prime Minister – W. Hughes of Australia. All thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Stars of stage, screen and music-hall patronised the Ladies’ Saloons. No charges were made, because that would have brought them under the London County Council regulations, but a large trunk was placed open on a table by the entrance and patrons were asked to give what they liked. And they did like!
The first week’s takings in the Treasure Trunk were £273, 7s. 6d., and remained a steady £30 a day until the close.
A film of the Saloon in full working order was made and exhibited all over the country. Shipwright’s Saloon closed on Saturdays for the half-day. Franks, the next largest, closed on Thursdays, so the employers decided to transfer themselves to Franks on the Saturday afternoon, but so close was it picketed that the employers could not get through – there was only one entrance and that up some stairs. As a precautionary measure a series of itinerant musicians were sent in relays up the stairs to do a turn at the door of the saloon. It was a great joy when one burnt-cork minstrel, entering into the spirit of the thing, sang for half-an-hour on end ” Where is my wandering boy to night,” with banjo accompaniment.
All this time correspondence as well as conversations were going on to try and find a way out. But one could never pin the employers down. If an offer was secured from their representatives, as likely as not it would be repudiated by their rank and file.
Under the Wages (Temporary Regulation) Act, 1918, the Minister of Labour had the power to fix a prescribed rate, or a substituted rate for the prescribed rate, where there was a dispute. We invoked (the first body ever so to do) the help of the Minister under that Act. This made the other side sit up. We met together on January 31st, when they offered us 45s. as a minimum for gents’ hands, as a basis of agreement to operate from return to work. On that resumption-of-work question we split. They asserted that some of the men were bad workmen, did not take enough money or were guilty of unprofessional conduct.
On February 7th terms were arranged as follows: Work to be resumed immediately; as a temporary arrangement commission to be raised to 15 per cent., and a committee to be appointed to go into the whole of working conditions which when agreed to shall be operated from March 1st ; the application under the Wages Act to be withdrawn. The terms as finally agreed in May, after meeting three times a week with what had by this time become the London Federation of Master Hairdressers, was as follows:
Gents’ Hands 45s.
Chiropody 2d. in is. extra.
Managers 45s. and overriding commission.
General Hands 52s. 6d.
Ladies’ Hands 70s.
Lady Assistants :
Plain Saloon Hands 30s.
General Saloon Hands 40s.
Commission 12 and a half per cent. on attendance charges after wages have been earned, 171 per cent. on employers’ own preparations, 10 per cent. on general sales, 21 per cent. on proprietary articles.
Manicurists 25s. and 15 per cent. on all takings.
Experienced knotters 40s.
Counter Hands 37s. 6d.
Notes.-For an assistant who mixes, prepares and executes own hair orders, commission be paid over rates. Women taking men’s places and doing exactly the same work as men, to receive not less than the minimum rates laid down for men.
Shop Stewards – An. official spokesman shall act in any shop with four assistants when any difference arises, which if not settled either side can bring to the notice of his Association.’ No collection of contributions shall interfere with business.
[Hoffman’s later memories of the strikers wax lyrical here]…
Conjuring from out the faded years that struggle of the London hairdressers, there appears upon my mind as vividly as upon the silent screen a picture of those glorious but turbulent days. It is not right that what was then done to achieve freedom and justice among us should live only in the shadowing memories of those who played a modest if fruitful part. Their story has a right to live and to be a leading light to all who come after. There were splendid men inspiring that struggle, men of Britain as well as from various countries of Europe. They must have been more than ordinary to perform all they did, to organise as they did, and to achieve what they did. It would be invidious indeed to single out any one of them for special mention. Indeed, it would be nearly impossible to do so, for once started there would hardly be an end. There were so many who gave all their experience, their ability, their enthusiasm, and sacrifice for the common cause. Yet I cannot refrain from recalling that splendid character, their chairman, C. S. Fildew. He was tall and slim with a slight moustache, and in conversation spoke like the line English gentleman he was. A gents’ hand at Carter’s in Fleet Street, under his skilled and nimble fingers sat the leading lights of bar and bench as well as innumerable Pressmen. They all respected him. It was largely due to him that we had such a good press, and the movement went forward on that inspiratory note. I wish I could be sure that time and their sacrifices had swept away that obscurantism of hairdressing employers which obstructed their onward march.
No Hairdressing Trade Board was set up. The movement, full of such splendid promise, gradually receded all over the country. The full aspirations of those formative years will some day be realised. The masters alone will not bring it about. The urge of artistry amongst hairdressing employees must, if it is to succeed, come from the workers themselves. There is no other way. If, therefore, this record of what was striven for and what was done helps in a small way to encourage those who are working to so useful an end, it will not have been written in vain. The industry, it is true, is small in numbers, the craft is a small one. It is because it is so small that it can become so great.
Following the London strike, in June 1918 the hairdressers of Greenock obtained a settlement which gave to male and female assistants of four years’ experience 63s., or alternatively at their option 50s. with 15 per cent. on gross takings.
In October another strike occurred, this time in Glasgow. Here negotiations for a 10s. increase had gone on for months and produced an offer to increase their rate from 45s. to 50s. Out came 174 men and women and stayed out with razors and scissors shut for two weeks, when a settlement was reached on the following basis: Rate 55s., with no commission until 70s. has been taken, when it is to be one penny in the shilling until gos., and thereafter fourpence in the shilling.
An agreement with employers in Aberdeen was closely followed by one in Manchester with the Hairdressers’ Federation. They obtained 45s. and commission, etc., with Trade Union membership a condition of employment. Then in August, 1920, an application to the Waldorf Saloons, who had nine branches in Manchester, for a 70S. minimum caused a strike. The employer referred the matter to the Manchester Hairdressers’ Federation. The Federation rejected the claim giving as reason that a Trade Board is to be set up for the industry… The Manchester Press supported the strikers and issued lively posters on their behalf. Newsboys entered into the spirit of the affair ; they went into such saloons as remained open, with the help of friends and relations to have manicures. A settlement was reached after three weeks, the commission payable on earnings being increased to 40 per cent; and that is a substantial percentage.
The lack of agreement on charges continued thirty years later. In March 1948, within 100 yards of Piccadilly Circus, the following prices were charged at different shops for shaving: 4d., 6d., 9d., 1s., 1s. 6d. This is the basic difficulty in the hairdressing profession: the margins are insufficient. The organised assistants, when threshing out their difficulties, knew this quite well. They were prepared to face realities much more soberly and with more foresight than the owners of saloons. There were those amongst the employers who knew what ought to be done, and said so and tried to get it done, but the bulk were unresponsive.
NB: Hoffman’s ‘They Also Serve’ contains many more interesting tales of unionising of shop assistants and other retail workers in the early 20th century. Hoffman himself became a typical quietist union bigwig, and later a Labour MP, keener to negotiate and send members back to work rather than see their struggles develop autonomously, sometimes ordering workers back to work against their own inclinations pending negotiations with employers… this may be why he incurred the wrath of a striker during the hairdressers strike:
“But a high spot of adventure came when a member, at the close of a meeting off Regent Street, suddenly drew a knife and made at me, and if it had not been for Alex Lyon, hairdresser at the National Reform Club, who threw himself at him and so diverted the blow, I might have been severely injured. As the gentleman of the knife insisted on following me, three of the members determined to escort me home, and in the crowded tube train I tried vainly to look indifferent while I was shouted at and bespattered with such epithets as ” Traitor ! ” “Labour Fakir! ” “Robber of the Workers!…”
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