Today in London’s striking herstory, 1890: Sweet Victory! East End chocolate factory workers win strike

In 1890, women working in a Mile End chocolate factory went on strike. The chocolate workers’ strike boosted the growth of women’s trade unionism in late Victorian England.

In the aftermath of the 1888 Matchwomen’s Strike in and London Dock Strike in 1889, trade unionism flourished, especially among previously un-unionised workers, often labelled unskilled or semi-skilled. Between 1888 and 1892 union membership doubled from 750,000 to 1.5 million. London’s East End, where both these seminal struggles had taken place, saw a particular spike in union growth – inspiration spreading also because people probably had direct contact and knowledge of the 1888-9 events, taking place in front of their eyes…

Among the many strikes and disputes that broke out was a short sharp stoppage by East End chocolate makers in 1890. Though not high profile, this struggle was victorious, and encouraged others organising among London’s tens of thousands of young women workers.

Although Factory Acts had been passed in the UK through the 19th century to prohibit children working in factories, older children and ‘teenagers’ (a term or concept not yet developed then…) were often exempted.

In the late 19th century, girls of 13 and upward were often employed in confectionary, jam, and other small food factories (while young boys were more likely to be found in rope-works, foundries, paper mills…). The work was often hard, with long hours; as the work was often classes as low-skilled, wages were generally low – compounded by the general attitude among employers (and some trade unionists as well!) that women’s work, and especially young women’s work, was less important or deserved lower rates of pay. Employers also felt they could treat women worse, with poorer conditions, more strict rules and bullying.

A meeting aimed at young women working at Messrs Allen’s chocolate factory was held on 10 July 1890, at the offices of the Women’s Trade Union League, at 128 Mile End Road. Earlier attempts to help workers in the mainly small confectionary factories of East and South London had come to nothing. On this occasion, however, “twelve girls came, and their dread of being followed, watched and subsequently discharged was pitiful,” wrote Black. They were mainly earning around 17 shillings a week, employed packing chocolate into boxes

The next day, Women’s Trade Union League full-time organiser Miss James (a former confectionary worker) visited Allen’s factory in Emmot Street, to distribute handbills and at explaining the objects of the union.

However, arriving at Allen’s, she found that a lockout had already started.

“To her amazement she found the girls standing about in a crowd, though it was not yet seven o’clock. They surrounded her, telling her that they were ‘out’ and asking anxiously, ‘What shall we do?’ ‘Is there anybody who will help us?’

Miss James led them to the office of the Women’s Trade Union Association, where the Union secretary, Clementina Black, was working. Black described how:

“In a twinkling the room was full and over-full of girls, and the street outside was full of those girls who could not come in, and of the fringe of onlookers which gathers so speedily in that great boulevard of the East End, the Mile End Road.”

Six of the young women workers gradually told their story. Their working conditions were hard and management vicious. The workers were banned from leaving the factory in the dinner hour, forbidden to eat between eight and one on weekdays and between eight and two on Saturdays. This meant the women spent all day from 8am to 7pm inside the factory. They also suffered numerous petty fines and fines and deductions from their pay.

The current dispute had been sparked by a fine imposed on one woman had slipped and fallen on the job. The forewoman had issued her with a fine of half a crown for falling over: refusing to pay, she had been summoned to the office the next morning, and threatened with the sack unless she paid up. In response, the other women working on the shop floor had stopped work and demanded her reinstatement. No work got done that day…!

At 5pm, factory owner Mr Allen himself came down to investigate, and locked the women out; told the women to “put on their hats and go home”.

Clementina Black called on well-known union organiser John Burns for help. A meeting for all the factory girls employed at Allen’s was held at Mile End Liberal and Radical Club; a committee was elected and a register drawn up. All those present also joined the union.

The following Monday, John Burns and Miss James accompanied the strikers to the factory gates before 8am, and a “business-like system of picketing” set up. Only eight factory workers went in to work, though occasionally “a clerk would peep out” to see what was going on.

A strike committee room was set up in nearby Skidmore Street, and a “polite note” was sent to Mr Allen requesting for a meeting for negotiations. Some 200 women were on strike by then, many aged around 16 or 17.

Since the Women’s Trade Union League was not able to use its union funds to support strikes, raising money to support the 80 or 90 young women who were out on strike became vital. Funds were mainly raised by personal appeals to other trade unions and workers directly. Very quickly workers began to contribute. Burns himself collected more than £50 in an hour at the London County Council offices; at the Woolwich Arsenal and in the docks, men lined up to donate coppers to the cause. An envelope postmarked House of Commons also arrive – containing £5. Soon the union organisers were able to issue tickets allowing the girls to get lunch and tea.

Many young women working at Messrs Allen’s other East End factories, at Canal Road and Copperfield Road, also wanted to join the strike. Not wanting to escalate the dispute, John Burns persuaded them to carry on working as normal, but promised that they should be called on to join the strike if necessary.

By the Wednesday, Allen had replied to the letter sent by Burns, declining mediation and saying that he would rather deal with his workers directly. “On this, a deputation of girls was elected, and a letter sent in, asking Mr Allen to see them.” They demanded:
– reinstatement for the young woman whose dismissal had sparked the strike,
– a right to leave the factory at lunchtime,
– an end to fines,
– an end to the practice of suspending those who were absent for a further two or three days,
– a promise of no punishment for those who had joined the union.

Allen now changed tack and agreed to meet John Burns before beginning talks with the workers. Burns and Allen engaged in a three-hour discussion which left no-one in doubt that the dispute would soon be over. A further series of meetings between Burns, Allen, Black and the striking factory workers themselves followed, which eventually worked out a solution largely favourable to the women.

Allen agreed to all the demands except the abolition of fines for lateness, though he agreed to reduce them, and to withdraw these at the end of the year as long as workers’ attendance did not suffer as a result.

An agreement was finally signed on 22 July, and work at the chocolate factory resumed.

Emmot Street, the location of this factory, seems to have disappeared, unless it has become Emmot Close, which lies just south of Mile End Road, to the west of the Regents Canal. This seems possible, since Copperfield Road (site of another of Allen’s factories) is just round the corner over the canal, and while another local road named as containing an Allen factory – Canal Road, also doesn’t exist, there’s a Canal Close one street away. Looks like there might have been a cluster of Allen factories within a few streets.  

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Related: Another, slightly later strike among women workers in South London at the Corruganza Box factory

The 1911 Bermondsey Strikes, taking place during another upsurge of working class workplace organising that in many ways echoed the ‘new unionism’ spike, also began among women working in confectionary and jam factories.