Today in London’s indebted history: Amazons of Southwark Mint repulse the bailiffs

From around the mid 1670s until the mid 1720s, there were certain areas in London whose inhabitants claimed certain rights and liberties, most notably to be free from being arrested for debt.

Imprisonment for debt was a constant threat for nearly everyone in eighteenth century London. Due to the scarcity of coin, many transactions had to be done on credit, making everyone a debtor of sorts, even if they were owed more than owing. And because this was a civil process, not a criminal one, everyone was at the mercy of their creditors, who had a powerful legal arsenal at their disposal. Debtors could be confined before any hearing. Release could only be obtained through settling the debt, even though imprisonment precluded earning the money necessary to do so. No determinate sentence was set, and time in jail did not work off any of the sum owed. Consequently, debtors could find themselves locked up for very long periods for trifling sums.

Many creditors resorted to the law, and many people suffered for it. The available figures suggest there were thousands of debtors incarcerated at any one time. Before the American revolution ended transportation, the vast majority of the prison population were debtors. The prison reformer John Howard found 2437 so incarcerated in 1776; a pamphlet of 1781 listing all the debtors released by the Gordon Rioters from London’s prisons alone gave a similar number; government enquiries revealed 9030 locked up in 1817. To hold all these people there was a vast national network of gaols: nearly 200 across England and Wales in the eighteenth century, with 10 in London and Middlesex and 5 more in Southwark

One way of avoiding prison was by taking refuge in the sanctuaries. There were eleven of these active in London and surrounds in the 1670s: on the north bank of the Thames in Farringdon Ward Without were Whitefriars, Ram Alley, Mitre Court, and Salisbury Court; on the north side of Fleet Street Fullers Rents; the Savoy off the Strand, the Minories by the Tower, Baldwin’s Gardens in Middlesex, and in Southwark Montague Close, The Clink and The Mint.

Each of these places claimed some sort of independent jurisdiction. In some case, such as Whitefriars, Montague Close and the Minories, there was a memory of religious sanctuary, notwithstanding the abolition of that right under James I. In others, there were charters allowing a level of autonomous governance, as with Whitefriars again, and the Clink. The Savoy was owned by the Duchy of Lancaster. And with the Mint in Southwark, there seemed to be both an administrative vacuum, and the ambiguity of being within the ‘Rules’ of the King’s Bench, an area outside that prison but where inmates were allowed to live.

What all these refuges had in common was a population of debtors prepared to physically defend these claims and take on the bailiffs that would arrest them.

Poor Robin’s Intelligence was a two page broadsheet, written by the hack journalist Henry Care, published through 1676 and 1677, and sold by “the General Assembly of Hawkers” on the streets of London. Care coined the term ‘Alsatia’ for the area around Whitefriars, after the territory nominally part of France but with many independent cities.

Although not a resident of any of the sanctuaries, Care was clearly well informed of the goings-on in them, and regularly reported, in a fantastically florid and mock-heroic style – but always sympathetically – the frequent battles with the bailiffs.

An early account of such a fight described the ‘Amazons’ of The Mint in Southwark, one of the longest lasting sanctuaries, surviving until 1723. On its dissolution, nearly 6,000 Minters applied for relief and exemption from prison, giving an indication of the size of that shelter. Of these, some 7.5% were women. Although, under the iniquitous doctrine of ‘Feme Covert’, married women and their property were subsumed to their husbands and so not considered capable of having debts in their own name, single and widowed women were at risk of imprisonment as much as men. And judging by Care’s account, they were fearsome opponents of the duns:

“From the Mint in Southwark, May 17” [1676]
“A party of Counterians [bailiffs] strongly ammunition’d with Parchment and green Wax [Warrants of arrest], lately made an entrenchment upon the prerogative of this place, hoping to bring us in subjection to those Laws from which by custom we are exempted; but the White and Blew Regiments of our Amazonian guards resisted them with such an invincible courage, that the assailants were forced to a very base and dishonourable submission, prostrating themselves in the very Highway, and begging Quarter; their chief Commander we took prisoner, who freely offer’d all his wealth for his ransome; so that being solemnly sworn upon a Brick bat, never again to make the like presumptuous attempt, and humbly acknowledging himself to be the son of a Woman by birth, and a Rogue by practice, with the blessing of a good woman, which she gave him cross the pace with a Broom-staff, he was by consent dismiss’d.”

Most of the sanctuaries were dissolved by statute in 1697; the Mint persisted until abolished by legislation in 1723. Refugees from there set up in Wapping for a short period, until suppressed by the army. Civil imprisonment for debt was ostensibly abolished in 1869, but in reality was made ‘contempt of court’, a criminal offence. Coupled with the increasing financial demands of the state upon the population by way of taxes, imprisonment for debt continued unabated.

For moer on the debtors’ sanctuaries, see Alsatia.org.uk

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Today in radical herstory, 1918: NUWSS celebrate (some) women winning the vote.

On the 13th of March 1918, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies held a victory celebration, at Queens Hall, Great Portland Street, in London’s West End, after women over 30 won the right to vote. The 1918 Representation of the People Act, passed in 1917, given royal assent in February 1918, extended the franchise to all men over 21 years old, but only women over 30 who held £5 of property, or had husbands who did. This meant an additional 5.6 million men and 8.4 million women, were now entitled to vote.

Over fifty years of campaigning, through many different organisations, a wide variety of tactics, had brought women to this point. For some of the women activists of the NUWSS, they had literally devoted their lives to the struggle.

At the time the 1918 Representation of the People Act seemed a major victory for the suffragist movements. Millicent Fawcett called the enactment of the act the greatest moment in her life. A victory party was held by suffragist societies at the Queen’s Hall in March 1918. Having witnessed in one act a jump from 0 to 8.4 million in terms of the number of women who could vote, many did see the act as a victory. However, there were women who still saw the act as a betrayal as it still classed them as second class citizens to men. The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave all men over the age of 21 the right to vote (and aged 19 if the men had been on active service in the armed forces). Therefore, politically women were still not the equal to men in Britain even after the 1918 act.

While some continued to agitate for the extension of the vote to women on the same terms as men (which would take another ten years of campaigning), others were worn out and became disillusioned…

The Queens Hall celebration took the form of a concert; interestingly this featured a performance of the song ‘Jerusalem’, a William Blake poem set to music by composer Hubert Parry, who had happily accepted NUWSS guru Millicent Garret Fawcett’s request to use the song at the party – suffragists had been singing it for a year or so to Parry’s tune. Parry had been a supporter of suffrage and even assigned copyright of Jerusalem to the NUWSS. Jerusalem has come so far since Blake’s day, and is now considered almost an alternative national anthem – though this was clearly far from Blake’s intent (or even Parry’s, possibly).
The celebration also featured a large display of suffragist banners, speakers from the movement, most notably the NUWSS’s president and most illustrious activist Millicent Garret Fawcett…

“The Queens Hall celebration on March 13th, differed from all the thousands of Suffrage meetings that have gone before it not in degree, but in kind. We have. Most of us, very chequered recollections of the meetings of the past. We have all enjoyed some of them; it seems doubtful whether even the most cheerful member of the NUWSS can have enjoyed all. Even if some happy soul can look back with pleasure to all the gatherings in all the halls, and all the drawing rooms, and at al the street corners, which they have organized or at which they have spoke or listened in the past, they will admit that the enjoyment on the most delightful of those occasions was different and inferior in kind to what we felt on Wednesday night. Then we were striving for out freedom; now in great measure we have gained it. It was a wonderful meeting of numbers of those who have struggled side by side…”

Groups that took part included the Actresses Franchise League, the British Dominions Women’s Suffrage union, Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society, the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association, Free church League for Women’s Suffrage, Hastings and St Leonards Women’s Suffrage Propaganda League, Irishwomens’ Suffrage Federation, Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage, Marchers Qui Vive Corps, Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, National Council for Adult Suffrage, National Industrial and Professional Women’s Suffrage Society, New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage, Scottish Churches League for Women’s Suffrage, Scottish University Women’s Suffrage Union, the United Suffragists, and the Women’s Freedom League…

Theres images on flickr of reports from the meeting here and here

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And here’s some musings… on the vote, campaigns for the vote, movements for social change, and the passing of time.

… on the hundredth anniversary of some women, and most of the remaining men) in the UK being ‘given’ the vote, in 1918.

Past Tense publishes ‘historically’ oriented texts, not because we want to live in the past, or as some sort of academic archeology, but because we desire a different present and hope to be part of building a future free from class divisions, hierarchy, and social relations based on property, wealth, and wage labour. We’re not historians; our interest in history is partly for inspiration and a link to people like us in the past, partly for a search for the origins of the world we inhabit, and partly to keep the story of struggles for a better existence alive. Exploration of ideas, shared experiences, ways of working and living freely together, are vital parts of this struggle, and discussion of ideas and movements of the past are central to why we study history, as is the geography of the areas we live work and play in, and understanding how they evolve, and are altered by social change. While we have used the term ‘radical history’ in the past to describe projects we have been involved in, some of us at are dissatisfied with it, both because the word ‘radical’ is broad and open to many interpretations, and because focussing on ‘history’ blinkers us a bit when what we’re interested inhabits many other fields as well: urban geography, philosophy, economics and much more.

Remembering events, personalities, and battles of days gone by is hollow and meaningless if not linked to social change in our own lives, and just as our contributions to present theoretical and practical debate should be critical of ideas we disagree with, we extend this to our delves into the past. While some historians believe in objectivity, refusing to comment critically on the ideas of past times (and while its true that you can’t impose the ideas and values of today on people living through times when those ideas and values hadn’t developed), its also fair to say that movements of the past were not monolithic, and a wide variety of ideas emerged, changed, evolved and conflicted. We don’t hold with shying away from being critical of ideas we disagree with; but we also see that its important to remember that a broad array of social movements in past centuries, with widely diverse ideas and tactics, contributed to improvements in people’s lives, to freeing up of ways of living.

As a result we feel it’s worth both celebrating the achievements of Emmeline Pankhurst, for example, AND being critical of her slide into nationalist chauvinism.

The current flood of stories celebrating the extension of the voting franchise to women over 30 in 1918 has speaked much discussion, both around how far women’s liberation has come and how much is yet to achieve, and around the militant tactics of many of the women’s suffrage campaigners of a century ago.

There is little attention paid to the very real split in the movement campaigning for women’s suffrage – the ‘Militant’ versus ‘Constitutional’ suffragette division… Or why it arose; or even whether one was more effective than the other; or whether both contributed to the 1918 victory.

And amidst all the lauding of suffrage movements, it is never explicitly stated – but terror tactics that the militant suffragettes employed would get you jailed today, no question, and also spied on by the police, as the militant suffragettes were, and campaigners have been more recently by the  Special Demonstration Squad, NPIOU, etc… Time, and the fact of having ‘won’, distances the ‘terrorist’ label… No tory today could get away with labelling Nelson Mandela or Emmeline Pankhurst a terrorist, though they did at the time and merrily do so to anyone carrying out similar direct action tactics now.

The other elephant in the room is the huge comeback of chauvinism and male sexism, and the equally huge undercurrent of feminism still necessary to combat it.

Some of the history of divisions, diversity of tactics, and contradictions of the women’s suffrage movement ought to be aired more widely, in the midst of the self-congratulations of politicians.

In 1888, a majority of members of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the first nationwide coalition of groups advocating women’s right to vote, voted to allow affiliation from organisations linked to political parties. This cause the NSWS to split into a number of factions. Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Franchise League, whose inaugural meeting was held at her Bloomsbury home in July 1889. The League was seen as a radical suffrage group, because it also advocated equality in inheritance and divorce law, and campaigned on wider social issues; more traditional suffrage activists denounced them as the “extreme left” of the women’s movement. The group was short-lived however, divisions arose when, in 1892, Emmeline disrupted a public meeting by pioneer suffragist Lydia Becker (who had come down on the other side in the NSWS split); in 1893 the League fell apart. In the same year the Pankhursts moved back up north. 
Emmeline and other suffragists later founded the militant Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903; they believed the existing pressure groups had failed, taking a too cautious approach, and a new militant organisation was needed… The WSPU went on to break new ground in direct action, with mass campaigns of criminal damage, window smashing and arson; many of its activists were jailed several times, (including Emmeline and her three daughters, Christabel, Adela and Sylvia), and force fed in prison repeatedly when they went on hunger strike. Both their ‘militant’ activity and the more ‘constitutional’ wing of the movement built up considerable pressure for reform up to the outbreak of World War 1; women’s suffrage became the dominant issue in British society, dividing opinion and provoking violent repression, attacks from hostile crowds of men, as well as increasing support. When the first World War broke out, though, both the ‘militant’ and ‘constitutional’ suffrage organisations ended their campaign (now’s not the time, stand by our country, blah blah) and threw their considerable organising ability into mass support for the war effort: or whipping up nationalistic hysteria to help push thousands of men to march off to slaughter and be slaughtered, as it’s known in the trade. Emmeline and other leading suffragists pushed for compulsory conscription, denounced pacifists, strikers and other war resisters as betraying the national interest; on at least one occasion Emmeline grassed up leaders of a strike and got them drafted and sent to the trenches. A small minority in the WSPU (including Emmeline’s daughter Sylvia, who had already been expelled from the WSPU for her left-leaning ideas), and a large minority in the NUWSS, plus some of the Women’s Freedom League, whose members had left the WSPU protesting the autocratic control of the Pankhursts) opposed the War and continued to fight for reform. Some, like Sylvia Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard, for instance, moved further left during the war, coming to communist and in some cases anti-parliamentary positions; an interesting trajectory from campaigning for the vote, though not without its logic at the time.

But the large-scale involvement of women doing the jobs of men off dying in the trenches was quoted as an influential factor in the introduction of suffrage reform in 1918, when women over 30 won the vote.

It wouldn’t be to denigrate their sincerity or militancy, or the viciousness of the repression they faced, to say their class backgrounds to a large extent coloured the ideas of some leading suffrage campaigners. For instance, Emmeline Pankhurst and her husband hired a servant to help with the children, so that “she should not be “a household machine” and could spend time fighting for Women’s Suffrage. Presumably then, the servant became the ‘household machine’. More than reflecting itself in their social relations, did their social position help to push the Pankhursts to assume autocratic control within the WSPU? To capitulation to class snobbery, as with Christabel Pankhurst’s later moral improvement campaigns against working class men’s ‘inherent disgustingness’, and to nationalism and war mongering when World War 1 came? Its hard to say with the latter case, as most contemporary socialists and radicals of both sexes and all classes, it has to be said, joined in the war effort supporting the slaughter of millions.
Emmeline’s early enthusiasm for socialism is often contrasted to her later Tory politics, but it would be interesting to know how much her increasing dislike of socialist groups and trade unions was influenced by the widespread hostility of many male trade unionists, and members of organisations like the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation, to the women’s struggle to assert themselves politically, especially around the 1890s/1900. (For example, when her husband Richard, a long-standing ILP member and worker for womens’ rights, died, a radical newspaper launched an appeal to support the Pankhurst family since their debts partly resulted from their political activity. Emmeline, however, refused to accept the money to pay for her children’s education, asking that the money should be used to build a socialist meeting hall in Richard’s memory. However when the hall was completed in 1903, she discovered that the Independent Labour Party branch that used it would not allow women to join. this and many similar examples of blatant inequality in the supposedly progressive movement gradually helped to push her out of it.) Traditional attitudes towards a woman’s role in society prevailed among men who in other ways were reasonably ‘progressive’, such that women’s suffrage groups had to on occasion fight physical battles to use ‘radical’ meeting places, and women workers were excluded from many trade unions and jobs… There were large numbers of exceptions to this, but the viciousness of the disapproval from what they may have at one time thought of as natural allies contributed to some of Emmeline and other WSPUers’ growing distance from the ‘labour movement’. (The WSPU has generally been characterised as a middle class organisation, but the majority of membership were working class women, especially in northern England, though also in London in areas like the East End, Lewisham and Woolwich; and there were several women of working class origins in the national leadership.While it’s also true that with no formal constitution, the WSPU could sometimes operate top-down, some historians have found evidence of greater democracy in many branches; others assert a democratic approach would not have been practical in its illegal militant activities… The last being an organisational question that rumbles on today…)

I hope it is not taken as ‘whataboutery’ to mention that this year is not only the 100th anniversary of women first being included, but also the 170th anniversary of the last great upsurge in the Chartist movement, possibly the largest political movement of working class people in this country of the last 200 years. A movement that had climaxed ten years before in mass rallies, an abortive general strike and then attempts at insurrection and revolutionary plotting, but had been heavily hampered by government repression, mass arrests and jailings, and drifted into infighting, dilution by alliances with middle class organisations. It’s worth noting that although the movement as a whole was bent on winning the vote for all adult men, Chartism contained a sizable female contingent (including the Female Democratic Associations), with some working to win men the vote and some even, heretically, suggesting that women too should be included… In 1848 the movement revived, focused on the 3rd petition for the Charter, with the famous rally and march from Kennington Common and attempt to reach parliament. The march did not achieve its aim, nor did a summer of riots or the plotting of the ‘Ulterior Committee’ that failed, again, to launch a radical uprising (like the suffragettes, the Chartists were under heavy police observation, penetrated by spies). The Chartist movement went into permanent decline after this… It took another 19 years before some working class men won the vote (again by mass campaigning), in 1867, then this franchise was again extended in 1884, but it was only in 1918 that anything resembling universal MALE suffrage was achieved.

Chartism was always divided (as the radical and reform movements had been for the fifty years before it) over the question of ‘physical force’ – whether violent action would be needed to push through the social change they demanded. Though the government feared Chartism’s revolutionary potential, in reality, revolution was always unlikely – mostly because the movement was kept in bounds by some cautious leaders and a largely cautious membership. The Newport uprising, the unrealised Sacred month of 1839, the Sheffield and Bradford plots of 1840, the 1848 plans to revolt aside, the rhetoric was often more violent than the reality. This is not to denigrate Chartism, which was a huge cultural and social force, as much as political and the legacies of its penetration into every aspect of daily life for millions did help produce the pressure in the 1860s and 1880s that did achieve part of the Chartist program.Why did chartists not go for individual acts of violence, while later movements did? By 1907, when the WSPU began their militant campaign for the women’s vote, time had very much changed. ‘Terror’ tactics had been common currency in many parts of the world for several decades, particularly individual acts of violence, which had proved effective shockers to the authorities when employed by nationalist or socialist/anarchist/etc circles (though their actual effect on social change remains open to debate). However, does class background, and the type/origin of your political movement, have an impact on the kind of direct action and violence you see as legit/effective? Are Middle class activists more likely to plump for individual acts of violence? Are class conscious proles more in favour of collective anonymous riot-style shindigs? Discuss…

The WSPU – NUWSS split shows that division over violence was still as fierce it had been 60 years before, and (despite the historically greater celebration of the actions WSPU) the ‘constitutional’ wing membership was always larger. But the question of the relation of mass movements to their smaller more ‘militant’ wings remains active, and the question of which achieved the results –  radical or moderate- is as hotly debated in present day activism as much as dusty historical exchanges. Did the poll tax see off Thatcher? If so was it mass non-payment wit dun it? Or the riots? Or both? The history of resistance to enclosure of common land and open spaces almost always shows up respectable campaigners and a direct action element – the list is as long as your arm.

The vote – for many chartists it wasn’t just about equality. Many saw even just getting the vote as a chance for working class to reshape society more in their own interests, redress economic power of the aristos and capitalists. A minority went further and articulated the need for working class power – to seize control of society completely. Many female suffrage activists 50-60 years later saw things in not dissimilar terms – that while equality was vital, the vote was a means towards a share in power, in the ability to decide policy and shape the way lives were organised, and in whose interests. Anarchists, and some anti-parliamentary socialists, of course, to some extent, decried the question of the vote, both as a distraction from where power really lies in capitalist society, and on the grounds that direct participation and control at a grassroots level trump representative democracy. Anarchist activists and writers also questioned whether the most immediate fight for many women was over the vote, or against the power the men in their own households had over them. Intelligent ruling class strategists worked out that ‘granting’ the vote could defuse more serious pressures… This was especially an issue at the end of World War 1 when revolution was seizing much of Europe and army mutinies and mass strikes seemed to threaten something similar here, at least to scared posh folk.

Press, politicians and all sorts of trite liberal commentators this month have been busy congratulating themselves that ‘we’ have reached the position of equality we have – decoded, meaning that further extensions in power to control our own lives on a day to day level are unnecessary, but that lip service can be paid to social movements that fought to bring us to where we are today. Actions celebrated when its historical would get you ten years in prison now, and the same voices lauding the suffragettes would jail anyone using similar direct action to

Neither the Chartist and suffrage movements were remotely homogeneous and both reflected wide class and other contradictions. Which were evident and open at the time, and should be discussed now, not brushed under a happy clappy carpet of ‘we’re all fine now ‘. Women fighting make violence, rape, systematic power imbalance, pay discrimination, unwaged reproductive labour, not to mention the intersection of race, class and gender relations, beg to differ. But I’ve also seen it recently expressed that ‘second wave feminism’ (meaning the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s-80s, broadly) achieved little and was only ever a movement of white middle class women interested in their own advancement. This huge historical slur is similar in some ways to some of the criticisms if the suffragettes (and not a million miles from over-simplifications levelled at Chartists). Yes, these movements had limits she seen from both our times and even according to the arguments of the time. But they all helped create the world we have, helped win gains we have enjoyed – limited as they be.

Their struggles also helped create the spaces our own movements operate in… People sometimes want to re-invent the wheel as if previous generations had never ridden, or pretend the wheel was square until they got hold of it and shaved off the corners. Young people eh? Read some fucking history.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in anti-war history, 1917: spycops’ fit-up! Alice Wheeldon & her daughters go on trial for ‘plot to murder’ Prime Minister Lloyd George.

“Alice Wheeldon and her family were commie scum
Denounced World War 1, sheltered deserters on the run
Fitted up by MI5, died from the prison damp –
You won’t see Alice’s head on a stamp!”
(‘Spycop Song’, Dr Feelshite)

If you thought that revelations of the last few years about undercover police officers infiltrating campaigning and political groups, trade unions, families of people killed by racist and the police (just a few examples), and in some cases acting as agent provocateurs, had been going on for just 50 years, since the founding of the Special Demonstration Squad, and was some kind of aberration from our democratic traditions – think again. In one form or another, this practice has been an integral part of policing dissent and controlling or disrupting movements for social change – for hundreds of years. It is literally the norm, not a deviation.

101 years ago today, Derby socialists and war resisters Alice Wheeldon, her daughters Hettie, Winnie and Winnie’s husband, Alfred Mason, went on trial at the Old Bailey, all charged with conspiracy to murder the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George and Labour Party cabinet minister Arthur Henderson.

In fact the supposed ‘plot’ was a fit up, set up by a spy working for the intelligence unit of the Ministry of Munitions.

Alice Wheeldon lived in Derby, with her four children Nell, Winnie, Hettie and Will; the family were all active campaigners for many social issues of the time, notably women’s rights, pacifism and opposition to conscription. Alice and Hettie were activists for women’s suffrage, members of the Women’s Social & Political Union before World War 1, as well being involved in socialist propaganda. To make a living she sold second hand clothes in the market and later from a shop.

If enthusiastic support for the pointless carnage of the First World War was still by far the view of the majority of the population, opposition had grown over the previous two and a half years. The mass deaths, privations, hunger and hardships at home, forced conscription into the armed forces, as well as mass government repression, had sparked hatred and demoralisation, resentment, and resistance. Soldiers were passively and actively avoiding combat and would soon by mutinying; strikes were multiplying, organised by grassroots shop stewards movements, (as the trade union leaders mostly supported the ban on workplace struggles during wartime); food riots and rent strikes had broken out in 1915 and 1916. And refusal to be conscripted, resistance and draft-dodging, had given birth to underground networks of war resisters, mostly young men on the run from the authorities, often sheltered by sympathetic pacifists, socialists and anarchists. A plethora of organisations – the No Conscription Fellowship, the Socialist Labour Party, British Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World, parts of the Union of Democratic Control, the North London Herald League, Sylvia Pankhurst’s Women’s Socialist Federation in East London; parts of the Independent Labour Party, the Women’s Freedom League, the shop stewards networks, anarchist groups and christian pacifists… and so many more…  

The government feared all these movements were linked, and to some extent there were rebel networks, with loose origins in the workers’ movements that had erupted before the war, the militant suffragettes who had rejected jingoism when war broke out, and the leftwing political groups who denounced the war on internationalist grounds. From the outside it could also appear that this opposition could link up to wider discontent among the ‘general population’, and that a serious rebellious threat could arise to the war effort and even to the state and the vast capitalist interests that had needed the war.

The government was determined to disrupt and discredit the growing opponents of the war, and pretty much allowed the secret state to operate freely, with carte blanche to use whatever methods seemed necessary. The press was already happy to trumpet that strikers, pacifists, etc were passively doing ‘the Kaiser’s work’, if not actually being paid by Germany; the more evidence could be drummed up that honest and peaceful opposition to the conflict was in fact a cover for more sinister, treasonous and violent intent, the more potential support for opposition they thought could be warded off.

The Ministry of Munitions Intelligence Unit, a branch of an organisation that was to partly evolve into MI5, faced with an immediate threat of being dismantled, conceived a strategy of discovering a treasonable plot in Derby, which with its munitions factories, was a heartland of Britain’s war effort. 

The Wheeldons were on the one hand a typical anti-war family with William Wheeldon and Alf Mason (Winnie’s husband) both facing conscription, (William was an anarchist ‘absolutist’ conscientious objector), and all of the family including Alice’s sons-in-law were heavily involved in both overt and underground resistance: in the above ground activities of the No Conscription Fellowship, but also in hiding men on the run, helping them escape the country in some cases. They sat also in the middle of the networks the authorities and military intelligence an Special Branch had in their sights: Arthur MacManus, (then ‘courting’ Alice’s daughter Hettie, and a friend of her son William), was heavily involved in the shop stewards meetings and planning class struggle in the factories, particularly in nearby Sheffield, the stronghold of the shop stewards committees since the pioneering Glasgow stewards had been largely broken up by arrest and repression in 1916. Their friends and comrades spread across the midlands and the north of England. 

An MI5 agent, using the name Alex Gordon, and posing as a conscientious objector on the run from the authorities. He had turned up in Sheffield, just as 10-12,000 skilled engineers and other workers came out on strike against the conscription of a fitter, Leonard Hargreaves, at Vickers plant there, in what appeared to be a case of the employers breaking agreements with the unions to not force certain grades into the army. the strike terrified the government, who backed down and released Hargreaves. (It’s worth noting that bitter divisions were opening up in the working class, as unions representing skilled workers were prepared to strike over such actions, but less skilled workers were often not supported.) ‘Gordon’ was not the only spy around – several other ministry of munitions agents were reporting on the strike, the socialists and other workers opposing the war in Sheffield and nearby towns. The reports of the spies tended to focus on prominent individuals like the Sheffield shop stewards activist and later communist theorist, J. T. Murphy, Arthur MacManus, and others, as being largely responsible for anti-war and workers agitation – missing the point that both movements were made up of grassroots networks based on daily grievances and built horizontally, not hierarchically. But the spies fed into their handlers view that taking out some of the prominent faces would crush the movements entirely. 

Alex Gordon was really Francis Vivian, who had been involved in the British Socialist Party before the war, so may have been known (if only by repute) to some of his targets, building trust. He moved across to Derby, in late 1916, supervised by another spy, known as Herbert Booth, who reported to Major Melville Lee at the Ministry of Munitions. Booth and Gordon seem to have played on the Wheeldon family’s angry desire to strike back at the warmongering government they hated, and a plot was hatched, according to the Wheeldons later, to poison dogs guarding prison camps where arrested ‘conchies’ and war resisters were being held, so they could be helped to escape. However, Gordon and Booth presented the poison, which was ordered, as evidence of a plot to poison the new Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. They reported a succession of conversations, a mix of invented and real talk, no doubt, of threats and plans to off the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleague, Labour’s Arthur Henderson, who was widely vilified by anti-war socialists; as well as unnamed others.

Alice Wheeldon, Hettie Wheeldon, her daughter Win Mason and Win’s husband Alf Mason were all arrested at the end of January 1917. William Wheeldon was picked up but managed to escape and disappeared. 

The four were tried at the Old Bailey with the Attorney General, the trial beginning on March 6th 1017; future Lord Chancellor, the rightwing politician F.E. Smith leading the prosecution. The legal profession was apparently leant on heavily not to defend them, and the lawyers who did were not very effective. The accused were brow-beaten and their case was not really presented; the dice were loaded against them. The government were determined to use them as a example. Whether or not the spies’ superiors believed the plot was real, or their political bosses really feared for their lives, the trial was a useful weapon to beat the anti-war movement with, at least to split moderate critics of the war from the more radical elements.

Gordon was not present to testify in the trial so the defence could not cross-examine him on his evidence.  The court proceedings show that the evidence was flimsy and that the intention of the prosecution was to publicly destroy the reputations of the accused and then to convict them on that basis.

Hettie Wheeldon was acquitted but the others were sentenced to varying prison terms and their application to appeal was refused. Alice received ten years imprisonment, Alf Mason seven years, Winnie five years. 

Alice went on hunger strikes in Aylesbury Prison, which severely affected her health. Conditions inside were harsh and she was over fifty. Given her failing health and officialdom’s fear that she might die in prison, which could rebound badly on them, she served less than one year of her 10-year sentence. Doubts had also started to arise about the trial and the authorities may have thought they would settle if she was quietly released. From Holloway Prison she was released on licence at the instigation of the Prime Minister – the same Prime Minister she was accused of conspiracy to murder. Her daughters Nellie and Hettie accompanied her back to Derby but her life was made impossibly hard. She was ostracised by many neighbours, and her clothes business was ruined. She and Hettie (who had lost her job as a teacher despite her acquittal) tried to grow and sell veg to survive. They tried to pick up their political activism, re-establishing links with some of the comrades. But both Hettie and Alice caught the flu in the terrible 1918-19 epidemic that struck at a weakened Europe after the war, and for Alice, worn out by prison, it was fatal. She died in February 1919. 

Win and Alf Mason were released unexpectedly at the end of the war, having also gone on hunger strike. After their release, in 1919, Winnie and Alf moved to London where they lived for a number of years with Winnie’s other siblings. Eventually they moved to Hampshire where Winnie was noted for raising awareness of the rise of Fascism. In 1949, shifted to Welwyn Garden City where Alf had built a modern house in the new town. Win was diagnosed with lung cancer and died there in 1953; Alf died in 1963.

Hettie married Arthur MacManus, in 1920 and they had a stillborn child, but she died from peritonitis following on from appendicitis the same year. Arthur became a leading member of the new Communist Party of Great Britain (Alice’s other daughter Nellie also became a CPGB activist). William Wheeldon’s story is perhaps the most poignant in the story of the anti-war movement, in Britain and internationally, and where it ended; he became a communist, moved to the Soviet Union and made there, believing in and working for the Soviet project for many years, Until Stalin had him arrested and shot in the purges in 1937, where he was forced to confess to being a longtime British spy.

A hundred years after the frame-up of Alice and her family, after the profit-ridden carcass-fest of World War I, there is a campaign growing to remember the Wheeldons and the Masons. Derby people and the family have long been convinced that the impact of these outrageous charges has reverberated down the generations. Now Deirdre and Chloë Mason, great grand-daughters of Alice Wheeldon and the grand-daughters of Alf and Win Mason, are seeking to clear their ancestors names so history will record that this was a miscarriage of justice… 

Check out the website of this campaign

A plaque was placed on Alice’s shop in Derby a couple of years ago to mark the plot.

Sheila Bowbotham’s excellent history/drama crossover, ‘Friends of Alice Wheeldon’ is a great book, and worth reading if you can get hold of it.

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The machinations of the secret state that backed the fit-up of the Wheeldon family is complex and we would like to write about it, especially given the relevance of spies infiltrating movements for social change to our own time. This will have to wait for another time; but sufficient to say, spies sponsored by both Special Branch and the Ministry of Munitions Intelligence Unit were both operating against socialists, strikers, anti-war activists. But they were also competing against each other for influence, and reported to rival power centres in government. The spies themselves were part fantasists, part telling their handler what they wanted to hear, and part freelance self-interested opportunists. Some of them experienced half-regret for their actions: ‘Alex Gordon aka Francis Vivian attempted in some bizarre way to re-ingratiate himself with socialists after the trial, part-justifying and part apologising for his part in it. This dynamic is familiar to those of us targetted by modern spycops, some of who have publicly blown the whistle on their former bosses, some of who have returned to friends and lovers after their deployment ended, torn between their ‘job’ and the attraction of the life of rebellion and love that our movements at their best are capable of… But many more hide behind the walls built by the police and secret state, fearing exposure, claiming they are afraid of our revenge, or more honestly, the embarrassment of people they now finding out the glorious war they fought against environmentalists and families of racist murder victims, while deceiving women into sex.

As a heavily restrictive Inquiry into Undercover Policing attempts to cover up most of the history of political spying of the last half century, under the guise of pretending to uncover it, some of those spied on are attempting to push for as much information on those who spied on us and those who controlled them as we can get. Results so far are not encouraging; most of the names revealed so far have been brought into the open by us.

For more information about current campaigning vs undercover policing, check out:

Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance

Undercover Research Group

Police Spies Out of Lives

The Network for Police Monitoring

http://spycops.info/

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The massive potential of the rising anti-war movement, the rebel networks of which Alice and all her family and friends were part of, was in the end broken, partly by the repression of the state, both open and secret, But also by the divisions of he movements themselves. The shop stewards movement launched strikes in 1917, but they were crippled by the splits between skilled and unskilled workers. The coagulating brilliant links that the conchies, suffragists, socialists and the class-conscious workers were forging did produce the Leeds Convention in June 1917, influenced and cheered by the Russian Revolution, attempting to unite trade unions and protest against the war. But it allowed itself to be dominated by the Labour Party and union leaders, who helped to derail its revolutionary potential. The powerful links developing through the war did continue to grow, and produced massive strikes in 1919, which in parallel with mutinies in the army could have led to a more fundamental social change – but was sold out by unions leaders, and hamstrung by people’s own doubts and lack of desire to push forward.

This post could have covered much more of this interesting period and the fascinating people and groups evolving at this time, and resisting the capitalist war machine with heroic but grounded love for each other, as well as clear-sighted hatred for the classes that profited from the slaughter.

Across the years we salute Alice, William and Hettie Wheeldon, Win and Alf Mason, their friends and comrades, and the movements they played a part in. If the world they hoped to build has not yet come about – tremble on your thrones, powers of the earth! Just you wait, you bankers!

 

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in labour history: Mary Macarthur, womens TU leader, dies, Golders Green, 1921.

Mary Macarthur, the daughter of John Macarthur and Anne Martin, was born in Glasgow on 13th August 1880. The couple had six children, but only three survived, all of them girls. Mary attended the local school and after editing the school magazine, decided she wanted to become a full-time writer.

In 1895 the family opened a drapery business in Ayr and Mary was taken on as a book-keeper. John Macarthur was a supporter of the Conservative Party and an opponent of trade unions and sent his daughter to observe a meeting of the Shop Assistants’ Union.

Mary was converted to the cause of trade unions by a speech made by John Turner about how badly some workers were being treated by their employers. Mary became secretary of the Ayr branch and at socialist meeting in the town, she met and fell in love with Will Anderson, an active member of the Independent Labour Party.

In 1902 Mary became friends with Margaret Bondfield who encouraged her to attend the union’s national conference. She later recalled: “I had written to welcome her into the Union, but, when she came to meet me at the station, I was overcome with the sense of a great event. Here was genius, allied to boundless enthusiasm and leadership of a high order, coming to build our little Union into a more effective instrument.” Mary was eventually elected to the union’s national executive. Mary’s political activities created conflict with her father who had a strong hatred for socialism. Anderson proposed marriage but Mary decided to pursue a career instead, and in 1903 moved to London where she became Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League.

As well as her trade union activities, Macarthur was an active member of the Independent Labour Party in London where she worked closely with two other Scots, James Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald. Macarthur was involved in the Exhibition of Sweated Industries in 1905 and the formation of the Anti-Sweating League in 1906. The following year she founded the Women Worker, a monthly newspaper for women trade unionists. Later it was transformed into a weekly with a circulation of about 20,000.

Angela V. John has argued: “Mary Macarthur is perhaps best known for founding the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) in 1906. She began as president, but then exchanged offices with Gertrude Tuckwell (1861–1951) to become general secretary. By the end of its first year the NFWW boasted seventeen branches in Scotland and England and about two thousand members. Mary Macarthur was especially concerned about the relationship between low wages and women’s lack of organisation.”

Mary Macarthur was an inspirational figure and recruited many women into the movement. This included Dorothy Jewson and Susan Lawrence, who both went on to become Labour Party MPs. Active in the fight for the vote, she was totally opposed to those women in the NUWSS and the WSPU who were willing to accept the franchise being given to only certain categories of women. Macarthur believed that a limited franchise would disadvantage the working class and feared that it might act as a barrier against the granting of full adult suffrage. This made Macarthur unpopular with middle class suffragettes who saw limited suffrage as an important step in the struggle to win the vote.

Mary Macarthur sat on the executive of the Anti-Sweating League and gave evidence to the select committee on homework in 1908. Macarthur also campaigned for a legal minimum wage. In the summer of 1911 she supported the estimated 20,000 women involved in twenty concurrent strikes in Bermondsey and other areas of London and helped them win their demands.

Will Anderson followed Macarthur down to London and the couple married on 21st September 1911. Their first child died at birth in 1913 but two years later a daughter, Anne Elizabeth, was born. Anderson was elected to the House of Commons to represent Sheffield Attercliffe in 1914 but was defeated in 1918. Macarthur also stood as a Labour candidate in Stourbridge, but like the others who opposed the First World War, she was defeated in the 1918 General Election.

Mary was devastated when Will Anderson died in the 1919 influenza epidemic. She continued her work with the Women’s Trade Union League and played an important role in transforming it into the Women’s section of the Trade Union Congress.

Mary Macarthur developed cancer in 1920 and after two unsuccessful operations died at home, 42 Woodstock Road, Golders Green on 1st January, 1921. She was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium three days later.

(post nicked, due to holiday malaise, from spartacus schoolnet, bar one tiny change, taking emphasis off Mary ‘organising’ the women workers of Bermondsey – they were already on strike when she got involved to support them.)

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London transport history: women tube workers return to work after equal pay strike, 1918

It’s generally well-known that during World War I, thousands of jobs normally done by men were taken over by women, as hundreds of thousands of men left to fight in the trenches and at sea (whether voluntarily, or increasingly as the war dragged on, against their will). The mass enlistment of women into work and supporting the war effort is generally also credited with the British government finally agreeing to ‘grant’ (some) women the vote in 1918, in supposed gratitude to the part women had played during the war.

Less well-known is a large-scale strike in August 1918, that began in West London and spread around a number of other cities and towns – women workers, doing jobs usually restricted to men, striking to obtain equal pay for equal work. On top of the labour shortage, the war brought new jobs as part of the war effort – for example in munitions factories. The high demand for weapons led to munitions factories becoming the largest single employer of women during 1918. There was initial resistance by employers and male workers to hiring women for what was seen as ‘men’s work’, but the introduction of conscription, in 1916, made the need for women workers urgent. The government began coordinating the employment of women through campaigns and recruitment drives.

Thus women were soon working in areas of work that had previously been reserved for men, for example as railway guards, ticket collectors, bus and tram conductors, postal workers, police, firefighters and as bank ‘tellers’ or clerks. Some women also worked heavy or precision machinery in engineering, led cart horses on farms, and worked in the civil service and factories. However, they received lower wages for doing the same work, and thus began some of the earliest demands for equal pay.

Women’s employment rates increased during WWI, from 23.6% of the working age population  in 1914 to between 37.7% and 46.7% in 1918. It is difficult to get exact estimates because domestic workers were excluded from these figures and many women moved from domestic service into the jobs created due to the war effort. The employment of married women increased sharply – accounting for nearly 40% of all women workers by 1918.

But because women were paid less than men, male workers suspected that bosses would continue to employ women in these jobs when the men returned from the war. (in fact this didn’t happen; usually the women were sacked to make way for the returning soldiers, though in some cases women remained working alongside men but at lower wage rates.) A series of unofficial strikes by men did take place, protesting at the ‘dilution’ of the workforce by women, and responding to what they saw as a threat of wages generally being reduced. However, these actions “simply exaggerated the manpower shortage, and had the unexpected effect of forcing up piecework rates for the women.” Other male workers took the slightly less chauvinistic approach of persuading the women workers to join trade unions, in a bid to prevent them being used as pawns in wage-lowering.

However, even before the end of the war, many women refused to accept lower pay for what in most cases was the same work as had been done previously by men. Public transport was an area where women were employed in large numbers.

“By February 1915, 21% of the men employed in London’s bus and tram services had joined the armed forces and only 3.5 percentage points of the shortfall had been made up. By late 1915 it was quite obvious that women would be needed to keep London’s transport infrastructure working. The first female bus conductor was taken on by Tilling’s (one of the smaller of the main bus operators) on their No 37 route in late 1915. The London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), the main bus provider in the capital, lagged a bit behind but eventually took on bus female bus conductors in February 1916.”

By the end of the war, the London General Omnibus Company alone was employing over 3,500 women, and thousands more were employed by the other bus and tram operators in London as well as on the tubes.

“As with most expansions of women’s work during the war, this change was greeted with much publicity around women doing their bit and how they could do ‘man’s work’. By mid-1918, the number of women employed on buses across the country had increased from 300 to 4,500 (on trams it was even greater: from 1,300 to nearly 22,000). It was estimated that 90% of conductors on trams and buses were women. Generally, men were retained as drivers and doing some of the heavier (and dirtier) engineering roles. The conducting role was said to be beneficial to the health of those women who did it.”

Although strikes were nominally illegal, the latter half of the war did see a rise in stoppages. Public transport was no exception. There had been a large bus strike in 1917, sparked when the London General Omnibus Company refused to recognise the Vehicle Workers Union. It lasted a few days, and was mostly solid. Out of a total of 1900 buses, only 20 were running on May 13th! The day after, it was reported that “The situation in the London bus strike today has undergone very little change. There was a repetition this morning of yesterday’s scenes as thousands of workers proceeded to business. Trams and tubes absorbed much possible the extra traffic thrown upon them.”
Services were resumed on May 15 pending negotiations – after discussion the strike was ended on the 18th. The strike was part of a huge wave of strikes in 1917, building as prices raises and wage constraints during the war hit hard, as knuckling under ‘to support the war effort’ began to crumble under disillusion with the war aims, horror at the casualties – and the surge of hope inspired by the February Russian Revolution…

Both management and the unions had consistently opposed conceding the principle of equal pay for what was obviously equal work.

“A large majority of women tram and bus conductresses joined unions by 1918. Many had been practically compelled by men members to join the union. The understanding was that they should be employed on exactly the same terms as men whilst their employment must terminate by the end of the war. In some cases women were employed on short shifts, but this policy was opposed by the Union. It was feared that any relief of this kind would not only give employers an excuse for deductions from wages, but add to men’s hours of work. It might even have the undesirable effect of encouraging women’s employment in the future. Women drivers who were entirely composed of commercial private employees formed a comparatively small section of members, probably less than 1/8th.

The larger number of women drivers involved for auxiliary war service were not encouraged by the government to join Trade Unions. Women tram and bus conductors who were well organised for a start, had little difficulty in obtaining men’s minimum rates of wages, but the question of war advances was a matter of constant dispute. The important National Award for February 1918 which men received an aggregate advance of 20/- a week on pre-war rates, laid down that, “Where agreements or awards already exist providing the same rates to be paid to women as to men, such agreements or awards are to hold good and an increase to be paid accordingly.” In the absence of such agreements, women were to receive only an advance of 4/- on the current rates. The London Women Bus Conductresses were at once accorded the full bonus and a subsequent decision of the committee of production by which they were refused, a further advance of 51- met with such a determined resistance that the decision was reversed. All women were however by no means so successful Outside London the women’s claim had been prejudiced for the most part by the terms of previous awards by which they received not more than about two thirds of men’s war advances. In London, however, their claim was undeniable and here they secured the full sum of 20/-, bringing up their earnings to 63/- a week. In the following July a fresh appeal was made to arbitration, and men were granted a further advance of 5/- a week. But this time the women were left out. The award met with an unexpected storm of indignation. London women bus conductresses were not accustomed to such treatment. They had, moreover, begun to taste power. A protest meeting was held at once and they announced their intention to take drastic action unless their claim received attention. It did not receive attention.”

Their claim for equal pay ignored, women workers on London buses and trams went on strike in August 1918 to demand the same increase in pay (war bonus) as men. The strike spread to other towns in the South East and to the London Underground. This was the first equal pay strike in the UK which was initiated, led and ultimately won by women.

The immediate cause of the trouble was that whereas the award of the Committee on Production gave a war bonus of five shillings to the men it declined a similar concession to the women employees.

On August 16th, 1918, a meeting of women at Willesden bus garage decided, without consulting or even informing either the management or the trade union leaders, to strike the following day. The next morning Willesden stopped work; they were immediately joined by women at Hackney, Holloway, Archway and Acton bus depots or garages, and thereafter the strike spread like wildfire. By the evening thousands of women had stopped work. The demand was initially for a 5 shillings War bonus, a demand which became upgraded, as the dispute escalated, to a call for equal pay for women workers, or as the strikers put it ‘Same work – same money’. « One conductress thus explained the situation, “When we were taken on by the Company they promised to give us whatever rise the men had. We are doing just as much work as the men who realise the justice of our case and are supporting our strike.”

It was reported that : “Male employees who are opposed to the women’s claim base their opposition to the fact that many conductresses are the wives of soldiers and are receiving separation allowances, whereas the men have families to support. No intimation of their intentions was given and many early morning workers found themselves unable to get to business. The inconvenience increased during the day. People in the Hayes and Hillingdon districts who desired to get to Uxbridge or Southall to do their Saturday shopping were faced with the alternative of walking or going without provisions. There was no question of buying locally for many of the villages are rationed for meat, butter etc at town shops and were therefore in an awkward position.”

Many of the men conductors and drivers who had heard nothing about the plan, as it had been more or less secretly organised by the women. The strike continued to spread. By August 23rd, women bus and tram workers at Hastings, Bath, Bristol, South Wales, Brighton, Folkestone, Southend, Weston-super-Mare and Birmingham had joined in, about 18,000 women out of the 27,000 employed in the industry had stopped work.

Back in London, many women working on the tubes – supported by some men – had also stopped work, on the same issue. The transport strikers had a series of mass meetings at the Ring, Blackfriars, where 4,000 women, many of them with children, well supplied with sandwiches and lemonade, made a day out of it.

“Sir George Asquith, the chief industrial commissioner, had held a number of conferences with the parties engaged in the dispute with the hope of arranging a settlement, but it was not until Wednesday night that an arrangement was reached.   A conference under the auspices of the National Transport Workers Federation was held in the morning and a resolution was passed committing the unions affiliated to the organisation of “Immediate appropriate and determined action” to enforce national adoption of equal pay for equal labour to women and men. The unions represented at the conference were the Amalgamated Association of Tramway and Vehicle Workers London and the Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers, National Union of Vehicle Workers, National Union of General Workers and Dock, Wharf and Riverside General Labourers Union.

The terms of the resolution adopted by the conference were sent to Sir George Asquith, chief industrial commissioner, and in the afternoon delegates from the conference were received by him. After discussion lasting four hours the following official announcement was made, “The three Unions concerned with representatives of the National Transport Workers Federation met with Sir George Asquith today and after lengthy conference decided to recommend to the Executive Committee the following terms.

Resumption of work pending reference to the Committee on Production of interpretation of their awards, namely whether under Clause 14 of the Award of July 9 the Committee be understood to nullify any agreement or undertaking and in particular any such undertaking as is alluded to in Clause 4 of the Award of March 8 and on the claim that equal total payments be made to women as to men for equal work in the tramway and omnibus, undertakings who were parties to the Award of March 8 and July 9 and that any present changes of payments are to date from the beginning of the first full pay day following July 9 and that any future changes of payments should take place jointly with those of the men. The Hearing will take place on Monday next at 2.30 and the Awards will be issued as speedily as possible.”

The public were surprised and not a little inconvenienced, but its sympathies were in the main on the side of the women. Even The Times admitted the strength of the women’s case which lay precisely in this – That their work was as well done as any man could do it and that everyone could see that it was. The Committee of Production by which body the award had been given was obliged to yield to the storm and to re-consider its decision and the women won their case. Such was the victory of the women tram drivers that Mary McArthur, the Leader of the Women’s Union declared the award to be the absolute vindication of the principle for which we are contending.”

The bus and tram strike was eventually settled on August 25th, after a tumultuous meeting at the Ring, and despite a vocal element opposing calling a halt to the struggle. However, the women working on the underground stayed out until August 28th. The women received the extra 5s War bonus, but the principle of equal pay was not in fact conceded. The details of organisation of this important struggle are obscure; indeed it is rather surprising that this strike, which must be one of the largest ever engaged in by women for their own demands, has not attracted more attention from historians of the labour movement.

London had even seen its first strike for equal pay by women working on the trams and buses – legislation wouldn’t arrive until the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

Parts of this post were taken and slightly edited from Don’t be a Soldier! by Ken Weller.

And Hayes People’s History

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2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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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
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Today in London’s anti-war history: women’s rally against the Boer War, 1900

Although she was a British citizen, Emily Hobhouse was later awarded an honorary South African citizenship because of her courageous and sacrificial actions, which exposed the cruelty of the concentration camps during the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902).

Emily was born 9 April 1860, and raised in St. Ive, in East Cornwall. Her father was a Church of England pastor for 51 years. Her mother was the daughter of Sir. William Trelawney, a Member of Parliament for East Cornwall. After her mother’s death, Emily cared for her father until his death in 1895.

Then she travelled to the United States to undertake welfare work amongst miners in Minnesota. Her engagement to John Carr Jackson was broken off in 1898, and she returned to England. Emily was involved in social actions and was a member of the Women’s Industrial Committee. As the Anglo Boer War broke out October 1899, she joined the South African Conciliation Committee. As Secretary, she organised protest meetings against the war.

During the Second Boer War (October 1899- May 1902) Great Britain attempted to impose its control over South Africa by invading the South African Republic (Republic of Transvaal) and the Orange Free State, inhabited mainly by the descendants of Dutch settlers, known as ‘Boers (meaning farmers). Britain already controlled the Cape Colony, and the Colony of Natal.

Although the British forces with their superior military might overran the ‘Boers’ (after some initial reverses), the latter reverted to guerrilla warfare, merging into the civilian Boer population. The British government responded by setting up complex nets of block houses, strong points, and barbed wire fences, partitioning off the entire conquered territory. The civilian farmers were relocated into concentration camps, where very large proportions died of disease, especially the children, who mostly lacked immunities. This allowed the British mounted infantry units to systematically track down the Boer guerrilla units.

Public opinion in many countries was largely hostile to Britain, and in Britain and its Empire the Boer War aroused significant opposition, especially outrage at the concentration camp policy.

In April 1900 Emily and her friend Kate Courtney organized a women’s branch of the South African Conciliation Committee, under whose auspices they then called a women’s protest meeting at Queen’s Hall, Langham Place, London, for 13 June 1900. On the platform appeared a pantheon of Liberal and radical figures – Lady Mary Hobhouse, the Countess of Carlisle (president of the Women’s Liberal Federation and the North of England Temperance League), Mrs SA Barnett, Mrs Bryce (chair of the Women’s National Liberal Association), and Mrs Frederic Harrison. Emily herself had previously been excluded from a Liberal conference in Manchester which discussed the wrongs of the Boer War which enraged her. “We [female Liberals] longed to protest… it occurred to me that women, at least, might make a public protest without rousing undue criticism.”

Opponents of the Boer war were being fiercely denounced by ‘patriots’ as traitors, anti-British, and public events such as rallies being held against the war were often attacked by jingoistic crowds.

In organising the Queens Hall protest Emily Hobhouse was attempting to both counter and take advantage of women’s formal exclusion from political life. It is generally held that the rally, and Hobhouse’s subsequent campaign against the British concentration camps in South Africa, had a significant impact on the development of the women’s suffrage movement. For instance, in 1902, the Women’s Liberal Federation, who had played a part in the Boer war protest movement, moved towards support for women’s suffrage.

Emily Hobhouse went on to spend much of the next two years campaigning against the British concentration camp policy, and organising aid for the Boers, especially interned women and children. Learning in the Summer of 1900, that hundreds of Boer women that had become impoverished and driven from their homes, she launched the South African Women’s and Children’s Distress Fund and travelled to South Africa to deliver aid to the Boer women and children, who were suffering because of the war.

Arriving in Cape Town, in late December 1900, she began to learn of concentration camps in Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Potchefstroom, Norvalspont, Kroonstad, Irene and elsewhere. As Martial law had been declared over large parts of the Cape Colony, she needed the permission not only of Lord Milner, but of General Kitchener, to visit these camps. Because of her persistence and perseverance, she finally received permission to proceed only as far as Bloemfontein.

Emily described arriving at the concentration camp outside Bloemfontein on 24 January 1901: Two thousand people had been dumped on the slope of a kopje with inadequate accommodation, massive overcrowding of ten to twelve people in a tent, no soap, inadequate water, no beds, or mattresses, scarce fuel, extremely meagre rations, and (the actual quantity dispensed, fell short of the amount prescribed, it simply meant famine.) all kinds of sicknesses festered in the camp, including: measles, bronchitis, pneumonia, dysentery and typhoid. Almost every tent housed one or more sick persons. When she requested soap for the inmates, she was told by the authorities that soap was “a luxury!”

Emily went beyond Bloemfontein to investigate other concentration camps. When informed by the Administrator of the Orange River Colony that she showed “too much personal sympathy”, Emily replied: “That was the precise reason why I came out to show personal sympathy and to render assistance in cases of personal afflictions.”

Emily published a “Report of a Visit to the Camps of Women and Children in the Cape and Orange River Colonies”, relating the result of the policy: Children were dying at a rate of 50 a day in these overcrowded and unhygienic camps. As Emily wrote: “I call this camp system a wholesale cruelty to keep these camps going is murder to the children the women are wonderful. They cry very little and never complain. The very magnitude of their sufferings, their indignities, loss and anxiety, seems to lift them beyond tears the nurse, underfed and overworked coping with some 30 typhoid and other patients a six month baby gasping its life out on its mother’s knee A girl of 21 lay dying on a stretcher The mother watching a child of 6, also dying. already this couple had lost 3 children in the hospital. like faded flowers thrown away a splendid child dwindled to skin and bone a baby so weak it was past recovery it was only three months, but such a sweet little thing it was still alive this morning; when I called in the afternoon, they beckoned me in to see the tiny thing laid out.
“To me it seemed a murdered innocent. In an hour or two after, another child died. At Springfontein a young lady had to be buried in a sack it is a curious position, hollow and rotten to the heart’s core, to have made all over the state, large uncomfortable communities of people, whom you call refugees, and say you are protecting, but who call themselves Prisoners Of War, compulsorily detained and detesting your protection. Those who are suffering most keenly and who have lost most, either of their children by death, or their possessions by fire and sword, such as those re-concentrated women in the camps, have the most conspicuous patience and never express a wish that their men should be the one’s to give way. It must be fought out now, to the bitter end.

“It is a very costly business upon which England has embarked, and even at such a cost, hardly the barest necessities can be provided, and no comforts. The Mafeking camp folk were very surprised to hear that English women cared about them and their suffering. It has done them a lot of good to hear that real sympathy is felt for them at home, and so I am glad I have fought my way here, if only for that reason.”

Emily Hobhouse campaigned tirelessly against the concentration camp system, the war carried out against Boer women and children, the scorched earth campaigns, burning of farm houses, poisoning of wells, slaughtering of herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, and destruction of food supplies. Her reports helped to spread news of British military policy and contributed to an outpouring of revulsion in England, which did lead to pressure on the government to improve conditions in the camps. One of the first successes of Emily Hobhouse’s campaign was that soap began to be issued amongst the meagre rations and conditions began to improve in the camps.

She received scathing criticism and hostility from the British government and many in the media upon her return to Britain. However, the opposition leader, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, denounced the methods of barbarism and forced the government to set up the Fawcett Commission to investigate her claims.

However, Emily Hobhouse was not allowed to be part of the commission, and upon her return to Cape Town in October 1901, was not permitted to land and was deported. But her reports continued to circulate. She moved to France to write the book: The Brunt of the War and Where it Fell, which mobilised even more outrage and action. The Fawcett Commission confirmed Emily Hobhouse’s reports.

In spite of fierce opposition from the British newspapers supporting the government’s war, Emily continued to address public meetings about the plight of women and children in South Africa. There is no doubt that the initiatives and energetic actions of Emily Hobhouse shortened the war and saved countless lives. She also gave hope to mothers who had lost all hope.

Emily Hobhouse’s courageous campaign to speak up for the forgotten Boer women and children, who had been brutally treated, played a major role in undermining popular British support for the war. It also forced the government to offer massive concessions to the Boer forces.

She returned to South Africa in 1903 to set up Boer home industries, teaching young women spinning and weaving. Through her efforts, 27 schools were established in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. She travelled to South Africa again in 1913 for the Inauguration of the National Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein, but had to stop at Beaufort West, due to ill health.

Emily was also an avid opponent of the First World War and vigorously protested against it. Through her efforts thousands of women and children starving in Germany and Austria, because of the British naval blockades, were fed by the support she was able to channel to them.

Emily Hobhouse’s remains are buried in a niche in the National Women’s Monument at Bloemfontein.

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

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Yesterday… and 2004… in Holloway Prison history: from Pauline Campbell, to Sisters Uncut

Some actions are just a stroke of genius. In a brilliant action, at 2:30 yesterday, Saturday 27th May, activists from the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut occupied the former Holloway Prison building in protest at cuts to women’s services and proposals for the site to be used for luxury flats.

Around 100 women entered the visitors’ centre of the North London prison. They have called for a women’s centre and affordable housing to be built on the 10-acre site, which is currently earmarked for a potential £2 billion housing development. The activists, who entered the red-brick building through an open window, set off flares of coloured smoke on the roof and unfurled a white banner saying: “This is public land, our land.” 

Police surrounded the prison Saturday night and blocked people from getting food into the occupiers… Sister Uncut are organising a week long program of events in the occupied part of the old jail. Get down and support them!

The occupiers have erected a large blue and green sign reading: “This is a huge piece of public land and there are lots of powerful local campaigns and discussions in place to demand the land is used to benefit the community.” 

The group is critical of prison overcrowding and the nine multi-million pound “super-prisons” the conservative government plans to build. Its members intend to occupy the visitor’s centre for a week, in advance of the general election.

Aisha Streetson, a Sisters Uncut activist said: “We are reclaiming the former prison, a site of violence, to demand that public land is used for public good. Prisons are an inhumane response to social problems faced by vulnerable women – the government should provide a better answer.” “46 per cent of women in prison are domestic violence survivors.” A local domestic violence support worker, Lauren Massing said: “If the government have money for mega prisons, they have money for domestic violence support services. 46 per cent of women in prison are domestic violence survivors – if they had the support they needed, it’s likely they wouldn’t end up in prison.” 

Holloway prison, which once housed 600 inmates, was one of the largest women’s prisons in Western Europe until it closed suddenly last year. The inmates were moved to Bronzefield and Downsview prisons in Surrey and the site has remained empty. There has been a strong local campaign opposing the planned luxury housing development, and calling for social housing instead.

More on the occupation here

Email them: nlsistersuncut@gmail.com

Or Phone: 07947 115541

Today, the second day of the occupation, also marks a campaigning anniversary connected to Holloway Prison.

On 28th May 2004, Pauline Campbell, a former civil servant and college lecturer, was arrested outside the jail while protesting the inhuman treatment of women inmates.

She had been a vociferous critic of the prison system since the death of her 18-year-old daughter, Sarah, at Styal prison in 2003. Sarah, an only child, was the third of six women to die at the Cheshire jail in a 12-month period.

Pauline had pledged to picket every women’s prison in the UK immediately after the death of a prisoner there. She was repeatedly arrested trying to block prison gates to call attention to the terrible record of suicide and sudden deaths among female inmates. She was arrested for this on 15 occasions though the authorities nearly always backed down from charging her.

The arrest outside Holloway was her third in this sequence; she was lifted after attempting to prevent a prison van from bringing inmates to the north London jail.

The protest was her sixth in as many weeks, and followed the death of 28-year-old Heather Wait, who was the second woman to die in Holloway in the course of a few weeks.

Pauline’s aim in trying to stop vans entering jails where a woman had died was to “demonstrate that they were unsafe places which constantly failed to uphold the duty of care that the Prison Service has to all prisoners.”

She was painfully aware of the effect of a premature death on the children and parents left behind.

“One of the worst imaginable things that can happen to a child is for its mother to die. Two-thirds of women prisoners are mothers. When a woman prisoner dies, not only does it remind me of the loss of my daughter, but, if she was a mother, there is the added pain of knowing that the motherless children will suffer. I speak from experience: my mother died when I was three.”

Pauline’s daughter Sarah was a troubled teenager who had problems with addiction and a history of self-harm.

Despite her mental health problems, a catalogue of errors meant Sarah was put in a segregation unit at the prison. She took an overdose of prescription drugs in a bid to get transferred to the hospital wing.

Her cry for help was ignored – 40 minutes elapsed before an ambulance was called. Paramedics were further delayed at the prison gates.

By the time they reached her it was too late. She died, aged 18, after less than 24 hours in Styal prison. The police notified Pauline of this tragedy by phone. Sarah was the youngest of six women to die in Styal that year.

This statistic, along with the many other hidden facts about the scandalous treatment of vulnerable incarcerated women, triggered a breathtaking campaign that Pauline would lead to the end.

Along with her regular pickets, Pauline was “a prolific letter writer, hardly a week would go by without her eloquent words launching a stinging attack on the prison service in the local and national papers.

As a public speaker she was both articulate and informative, having educated herself about every aspect of the criminal justice system and its failings.

In 2005 she won the Emma Humphries memorial prize for “highlighting the distressing realities of women’s lives and deaths in prison”.

She was also a trustee of the Howard League for Penal Reform and an active member of the campaigning organisation Inquest.”

Tragically, Pauline Campbell was found dead on 15 May 2008, not far from the grave of her daughter Sarah.

She would have been glad to see Holloway closed down last year, but even happier to see the Sisters Uncut occupation this weekend: a wonderful continuation, if in a different form, of Pauline’s inspiring spirit…

Check out a blog dedicated to campaigning in her memory.

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

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Today in London suffrage history: Dora Montefiore barricades her home against bailiffs, 1906.

On 23rd May 1906, Mrs Dora Montefiore barricaded her home, at no 32 Upper Mall, Hammersmith, against the threat of bailiffs entering her house to seize goods. A leading campaigner for women’s suffrage, Dora had refused to pay income tax, so long as women did not have the vote, and a court had ruled that her possessions should be taken to pay the amount owed.

As Dora later wrote, in a chapter in her 1927 autobiography, From a Victorian to a Modern, devoted to her tax resistance and the “Siege of Montefiore”, this wasn’t the first time her goods had been ‘distrained’ for non-payment of income tax:

“I had already, during the Boer War, refused willingly to pay income tax, because payment of such tax went towards financing a war in the making of which I had had no voice. In 1904 and 1905 a bailiff had been put in my house, a levy of my goods had been made, and they had been sold at public auction in Hammersmith. The result as far as publicity was concerned was half a dozen lines in the corner of some daily newspapers, stating the fact that Mrs. Montefiore’s goods had been distrained and sold for payment of income tax; and there the matter ended.

When talking this over in 1906 with Theresa Billington and Annie Kenney, I told them that now we had the organisation of the W.S.P.U. to back me up I would, if it were thought advisable, not only refuse to pay income tax, but would shut and bar my doors and keep out the bailiff, so as to give the demonstration more publicity and thus help to educate public opinion about the fight for the political emancipation of women which was going on. They agreed that if I would do my share of passive resistance they would hold daily demonstrations outside the house as long as the bailiff was excluded and do all in their power outside to make the sacrifice I was making of value to the cause. In May of 1906, therefore, when the authorities sent for the third time to distrain on my goods in order to take what was required for income tax, I, aided by my maid, who was a keen suffragist, closed and barred my doors and gates on the bailiff who had appeared outside the gate of my house in Upper Mall, Hammersmith, and what was known as the “siege” of my house began.

As is well known, bailiffs are only allowed to enter through the ordinary doors. They may not climb in at a window and at certain hours they may not even attempt an entrance. These hours are from sunset to sunrise, and from sunset on Saturday evening till sunrise on Monday morning. During these hours the besieged resister to income tax can rest in peace. From the day of this simple act of closing my door against the bailiff, an extraordinary change came over the publicity department of daily and weekly journalism towards this demonstration of passive resistance on my part. The tradespeople of the neighbourhood were absolutely loyal to us besieged women, delivering their milk and bread, etc., over the rather high garden wall which divided the small front gardens of Upper Mall from the terraced roadway fronting the river. The weekly wash arrived in the same way and the postman day by day delivered very encouraging budgets of correspondence, so that practically we suffered very little inconvenience, and as we had a small garden at the back we were able to obtain fresh air.

On the morning following the inauguration of the siege, Annie Kenney and Theresa Billington, with other members of the W.S.P.U., came round to see how we were getting on and to encourage our resistance. They were still chatting from the pavement outside, while I stood on the steps of No. 32 Upper Mall, when there crept round from all sides men with notebooks and men with cameras, and the publicity stunt began. These men had been watching furtively the coming and going of postmen and tradesmen. Now they posted themselves in front, questioning the suffragists outside and asking for news of us inside. They had come to make a “story” and they did not intend to leave until they had got their “story.” One of them returned soon with a loaf of bread and asked Annie Kenney to hand it up over the wall to my housekeeper, whilst the army of men with cameras “snapped” the incident. Some of them wanted to climb over the wall so as to be able to boast in their descriptions that they had been inside what they pleased to call “The Fort”; but the policeman outside (there was a policeman on duty outside during all the six weeks of a siege) warned them that they must not do this so we were relieved, in this respect, from the too close attention of eager pressmen. But all through the morning notebooks and cameras came and went, and at one time my housekeeper and I counted no less than twenty-two pressmen outside the house. A woman sympathiser in the neighbourhood brought during the course of the morning, a pot of home-made marmalade, as the story had got abroad that we had no provisions and had difficulty in obtaining food. This was never the case as I am a good housekeeper and have always kept a store cupboard, but we accepted with thanks the pot of marmalade because the intentions of the giver were so excellent; but this incident was also watched and reported by the Press.

Annie Kenney and Theresa Billington had really come round to make arrangements for a demonstration on the part of militant women that afternoon and evening in front of the house, so at an opportune moment, when the Press were lunching, the front gate was unbarred and they slipped in. The feeling in the neighbourhood towards my act of passive resistance was so excellent and the publicity being given by the Press in the evening papers was so valuable that we decided to make the Hammersmith “Fort” for the time being the centre of the W.S.P.U. activities, and daily demonstrations were arranged for and eventually carried out. The road in front of the house was not a thoroughfare, as a few doors further down past the late Mr. William Morris’s home of “Kelmscott,” at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Cobden-Sanderson, there occurred one of those quaint alley-ways guarded by iron posts, which one finds constantly on the borders of the Thames and in old seaside villages. The roadway was, therefore, ideal for the holding of a meeting, as no blocking of traffic could take place, and day in, day out the principles for which suffragists were standing we expounded to many who before had never even heard of the words Woman Suffrage. At the evening demonstrations rows of lamps were hung along the top of the wall and against the house, the members of the W.S.P.U.speaking from the steps of the house, while I spoke from one of the upstairs windows. On the little terrace of the front garden hung during the whole time of the siege a red banner with the letters painted in white:

“Women should vote for the laws they obey and the taxes they pay.”

This banner appeared later on during our fight, so it has a little history quite of its own.

The members of the I.L.P., of which there was a good branch in Hammersmith, were very helpful, both as speakers and organisers during these meetings, but the Members of the Social Democratic Federation, of which I was a member, were very scornful because they said we should have been asking at that moment for Adult Suffrage and not Votes for Women; but although I have always been a staunch adult suffragist, I felt that at that moment the question of the enfranchisement of women was paramount, as we had to educate the public in our demands and in the reasons for our demands, and as we found that with many people the words “Adult Suffrage” connoted only manhood suffrage, our urgent duty was at that moment to gain Press publicity up and down the country and to popularise the idea of the political enfranchisement of women.

So the siege wore on; Press notices describing it being sent to me not only from the United Kingdom, but from Continental and American newspapers, and though the garbled accounts of what I was doing and what our organisation stood for often made us laugh when we read them, still there was plenty of earnest and useful understanding in many articles, while shoals of letters came to me, a few sadly vulgar and revolting, but the majority helpful and encouraging. Some Lancashire lads who had heard me speaking in the Midlands wrote and said that if I wanted help they would come with their clogs but that was never the sort of support I needed, and though I thanked them, I declined the help as nicely as I could. Many Members of Parliament wrote and told me in effect that mine was the most logical demonstration that had so far been made; and it was logical I know as far as income tax paying women were concerned; and I explained in all my speeches and writings that though it looked as if I were only asking for Suffrage for Women on a property qualification, I was doing this because the mass of non-qualified women could not demonstrate in the same way, and I was to that extent their spokeswoman. It was the crude fact of women’s political disability that had to be forced on an ignorant and indifferent public, and it was not for any particular Bill or Measure or restriction that I was putting myself to this loss and inconvenience by refusing year after year to pay income tax, until forced to do so by the powers behind the Law. The working women from the East End came, time and again, to demonstrate in front of my barricaded house and understood this point and never swerved in their allegiance to our organisation; in fact, it was during these periods and succeeding years of work among the people that I realised more and more the splendid character and “stuff” that is to be found among the British working class. They are close to the realities of life, they are in daily danger of the serious hurts of life, unemployment, homelessness, poverty in its grimmest form, and constant misunderstanding by the privileged classes, yet they are mostly light-hearted and happy in small and cheap pleasures, always ready to help one another with lending money or apparel, great lovers of children, great lovers when they have an opportunity, of real beauty. Yet they are absolutely “unprivileged,” being herded in the “Ghetto” of the East End, and working and living under conditions of which most women in the West End have no idea; and I feel bound to put it on record that though I have never regretted, in fact, I have looked back on the years spent in the work of Woman Suffrage as privileged years, yet I feel very deeply that as far as those East End women are concerned, their housing and living conditions are no better now than when we began our work. The Parliamentary representation we struggled for has not been able to solve the Social Question, and until that is solved the still “unprivileged” voters can have no redress for the shameful conditions under which they are compelled to work and live.

I also have to record with sorrow that though some amelioration in the position of the married mother towards her child or children has been granted by law, the husband is still the only parent in law, and he can use that position if he chooses, to tyrannise over the wife. He must, however, appoint her as one of the guardians of his children after his death.

Towards the end of June, the time was approaching when, according to information brought in from outside the Crown had the power to break open my front door and seize my goods for distraint. I consulted with friends and we agreed that as this was a case of passive resistance, nothing could be done when that crisis came but allow the goods to be distrained without using violence on our part. When, therefore, at the end of those weeks the bailiff carried out his duties, he again moved what he considered sufficient goods to cover the debt and the sale was once again carried out at auction rooms in Hammersmith. A large number of sympathisers were present, but the force of twenty-two police which the Government considered necessary to protect the auctioneer during the proceedings was never required, because again we agreed that it was useless to resist force majeure when it came to technical violence on the part of, the authorities.

Some extracts from interviews and Press cuttings of the period will illustrate what was the general feeling of the public towards the protest I was making under the auspices of the W.S.P.U.

The representative of the Kensington News, who interviewed me during the course of the siege, wrote thus:—

Independent alike in principles and politics, it is the policy of the Kensington News to extend to both sides of current questions a fair consideration. Accordingly our representative on Tuesday last attended at the residence of Mrs. Montefiore, who is resisting the siege of the tax collector, as a protest against taxation without representation.

On Hammersmith Mall, within a stone’s throw of the house wherein Thomson wrote “The Seasons”; of Kelmscott House, the home of William Morris, and within the shadow of those glorious elms planted by Henrietta Maria, the consort of Charles Ⅰ, a bright red banner floats in front of a dull red house, inscribed: “Women should vote for the laws they obey and the taxes they pay”….

Certainly as mild a mannered a demonstrator as ever displayed a red banner, refined of voice and manner, Mrs. Montefiore, who is a widow, would be recognised at once as a gentlewoman. We were received with charming courtesy, and seated in the dining-room proceeded with our work of catechising.

Primarily we elicited that Mrs. Montefiore resented the term suffragette. “It emanated, I believe from the Daily Mail, but is entirely meaningless. The term ‘suffragist’ is English and understandable. What I object to most strenuously is the attempt of certain sections of the Press to turn to ridicule what is an honest protest against what we regard as a serious wrong.”

“So far, what has happened?”

“The tax collector has been, with the sheriff, and I have refused them admittance, barred my doors, and hung up the banner you saw outside.” Then questioned as to the reason for her action, Mrs. Montefiore explained:

“I am resisting payment of, not rates, but the Imperial taxes. I pay my rates willingly and cheerfully, because I possess my municipal vote. I can vote for the Borough and County Councils, and on the election of Guardians. I want you to understand this; my income is derived mainly from property in Australia, where for many years I resided. It is taxed over there, and again in this country. I never objected to paying taxes in Australia, because there women have votes both for the State Parliament and for the Commonwealth. There women are not disqualified from sitting in the Commonwealth Parliament. One lady at the last election, although unsuccessful, polled over 20,000 votes.”

“You were not one of the ladies who created a disturbance behind the House of Commons grille?”

“No. I was, however, one of the deputation to Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and I listened to his very unsatisfactory answers. This action of mine is the rejoinder to Sir Henry’s reply. He said we must educate Parliament — so we thought we would, in my active resistance, give Parliament an object lesson. Remember, it was the first Reform Bill that definitely excluded women from the franchise. Prior to that Bill they possessed votes as burgesses and owners of property. We only seek restitution. After the Reform Bill certain women in Manchester actually tested their right to be registered as voters, and the judges decided against them. Mr. Keir Hardie, who is our champion, deals with this in his pamphlet.”

“You are selecting certain candidates to further your cause in Parliament,” we suggested.

“Certainly,” was the reply. “The women employed in the textile factories at Wigan ran a candidate of their own at the last election, and I addressed vast meetings at every street corner at Wigan. I have received many messages of sympathy and encouragement from the women and the men in Wigan.”

“Have you taken Counsel’s opinion on your resisting action?”

“No, I am relying on the justice of my cause.”

“What is the next step you anticipate?”

“I believe their next weapon is a break warrant. I have had my furniture distrained on and sold twice already in this cause. Of course, I am only a woman. I know the law, as it stands, is stronger than I, and I suppose in the long run I shall have to yield to force majeure, but I shall fight as long as I am able. Only,” the lady added with a plaintiveness that might have appealed to the most implacable anti-Woman Suffragist, “one would have thought that men would have been more chivalrous, and would not force us to fight in this way to the bitter end for the removal of the sex disability.”

“Do you look for assistance from any, and which, political party?” we asked. Mrs. Montefiore shook her head.

“Our only policy is to play off one, against the other. I am a humble disciple of Mrs. Wolstenholme Elmy, who, now 73 years of age, has for 41 years been a worker in the woman’s cause. She has witnessed fourteen Parliaments, but has never seen a Cabinet so inimical to Woman’s Suffrage as the present. Every time the franchise is extended the women’s cause goes back; her hopes are far less now with seven millions on the register than they were with half a million. Gladstone was the worst enemy woman’s suffrage ever had.”

In conclusion Mrs. Montefiore said: “We claim that the word ‘person’ in Acts of Parliament connected with voting should include women. We believe that action goes further than words. I am taking this action to bring our cause before the public.”

Without committing ourselves on the question of the cause itself, we could not resist expressing the hope that the lady’s devotion to it had not entailed hardship or suffering. She smiled bravely, and said: “I have received much sympathy and encouragement, and many kindnesses.” We ventured one more question: “Are you downhearted?” The answer was a smiling “No!” and we left Mrs. Montefiore’s residence impressed at any rate with the sincerity of her belief in, and her devotion to, the cause she has espoused.

The Labour Leader of June, 1906, had the following:—

“No taxation without representation” is one of the cardinal doctrines of the British Constitution. But like many other ideas of British liberty it exists more on paper than in reality.

It has been left for the modern generation of suffragettes to point out that one whole sex subject to all the taxes which are imposed, has yet absolutely no representation on the body which determines and passes those taxes.

The siege of “Fort Montefiore” is the tangible expression of this protest.

On two previous occasions Mrs. Montefiore has had her goods seized for refusing to pay income tax.

This year she determined upon more militant tactics. Some eight or nine weeks ago she was called upon for the income tax. As she persisted in her refusal to pay, a bailiff was summoned. Mrs. Montefiore’s reply was to bolt and bar her house against the intruder, and to display a red flag over her summerhouse, with the inscription: “Women should vote for the laws they obey and the taxes they pay.”

Fort Suffragette, as Mrs. Montefiore’s house may be called, is an ideal place, in which to defy an income-tax collector; and a few determined women could hold it against an army from the Inland Revenue Department. It is a substantial three-storeyed villa in a narrow road (Upper Mall, Hammersmith).

A few feet from the front the Thames flows by; and the house is guarded by a high wall, the only access being through a stoutly built arched doorway. The “siege” began on 24th May, and up to the present the bailiff has not succeeded in forcing an entry. Meanwhile, important demonstrations have taken place outside, and the crowd has been addressed by various speakers, including Mrs. Montefiore, who has spoken from an upper window of her house.

On one of these occasions Mrs. Montefiore alluded to the Prime Minister’s reply to the recent deputation on Women’s Suffrage, in which he advised them “to educate Parliament.” She was giving Parliament an object lesson. “They had had enough abstract teaching,” she said, “now a little concrete teaching may do them good, and they will see that there are women in England who feel their disability so keenly that they will stop at nothing, and put themselves to every inconvenience and trouble in order to show the world and the Men of England what their position is, and how keenly they feel it”… A resolution was carried declaring that taxation without representation was tyranny, thanking Mrs. Montefiore for her stand, and calling upon the Government to enfranchise women this session.

Susan B. Anthony was one of my dear and valued friends in the suffrage movement, and I received from New York the following interesting communication with cordial wishes for the success of my protest:—

Appeal made yearly by Susan. B. Anthony to the City Treasurer, Rochester, New York, When paying her property tax.

To THE CITY TREASURER, ROCHESTER, N.Y.

Enclosed please find cheque for tax on my property for year ending May, 1902, with a protest in the name of ten thousand other tax-paying women in the City of Rochester, who are deemed fully capable, intellectually, morally and physically of earning money, and contributing their full share towards the expenses of the Government, but totally incapable of deciding as to the proper expenditure of such money. Please let the record show as “paid under protest.”

Yours for justice to each and every person of this Republic.
MARY S. ANTHONY.

TO THE COUNTY TREASURER.

Enclosed find County tax for 1904. A minor may live to become of age, the illiterate to be educated, the lunatic to regain his reason, the idiot to become intelligent — when each and all can decide what shall be the laws, and who shall enforce them; but the woman, never. I protest against paying taxes to a Government which allows its women to be thus treated. Please so record it.

MARY S. ANTHONY.

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Dora’s house on the Thames the tow path remained ‘under siege’ for some six weeks during the summer of 1906, and became the centre of widely-reported daily demonstrations and speeches of solidarity from suffrage groups converging from all over London. Newspapers at the time labelled this as ‘The Siege of Hammersmith’, (though Dora’s house was also known among suffragists as ‘Fort Montefiore’!) The house, surrounded by a wall, could be reached only through an arched doorway, which Montefiore and her maid barred against the bailiffs. For six weeks, Montefiore resisted payment of her taxes, addressing the frequent crowds through the upper windows of the house.

The ‘siege’, in reality mostly a stand-off without much in the way of actual attempts to distrain her goods, ended on 3 July 1906 when bailiffs broke in using a crowbar, while Dora was out, (in fact supporting suffragettes on trial at Marylebone police court). The bailiffs confiscated silver cutlery and other household items to the value of the income tax owed, some £18. Dora had already deciced not to resist: “Towards the end of June, the time was approaching when, according to information brought in from outside the Crown had the power to break open my front door and seize my goods for distraint. I consulted with friends and we agreed that as this was a case of passive resistance, nothing could be done when that crisis came but allow the goods to be distrained without using violence on our part.”

Dora’s maid, also a suffrage campaigner, was in the house, though decided not to resist the incursion… A few days later Mrs Montefiore bought back everything that had been taken, at the auction in Goldhawk Road, paying around £20… while a suffragette demonstration outside protested.

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Born Dora Fuller, the eighth child of Francis and Mary Fuller, in 1851, Dora’s father was a wealthy land surveyor and railway entrepreneur. She was educated at home at Kenley Manor, near Coulsdon, and then at a private school in Brighton.

In 1874 she went to Australia, where she met and married George Barrow Montefiore, a wealthy businessman in 1881. Her husband’s death in 1889, projected her into the feminist movement: she discovered that she had no rights of guardianship over her own children unless her husband had willed them to her. Angered by this, she became an advocate of women’s rights and in March 1891 she founded the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales. This would be the first step in a lifetime of political activism.

Returning to England in 1892 she worked under Millicent Fawcett at the National Union of Suffrage Societies, and joined the Social Democratic Federation and eventually served on its executive. She also contributed to its journal, Justice. Dora had originated the idea of the Women’s Tax Resistance League in 1897, which encouraged women to refuse to pay tax until they got the corresponding civil rights they felt taxation should confer…

While living at Upper Mall, she also became attracted to the ideas of William Morris, who lived just a few minutes walk down the river at Kelmscott House.

Shortly after the ‘Siege’, in October 1906, Dora was jailed in Holloway Prison, for demonstrating illegally in the lobby of the House of Commons. She was accompanied to the Prison by a group of supporters: ‘My brothers and sisters were mostly apathetic about or hostile to my militant work, so I determined to send for no-one of my own relatives, but I was surrounded by many good friends and fellow-workers who had come to give us a word of cheer’.

Shortly after this, she broke with the Pankhursts. Montefiore disagreed with the authoritarian and centralised way Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst ran the WSPU, making decisions without consulting members, and objecting to the small group of wealthy women like Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence who she felt were having too much influence over the organisation. However, she remained close to Sylvia Pankhurst, who shared her belief in socialism, which Emmeline and Christable Pankhurst had moved away from. Montefiore was not alone in her opinions of the leadership of the WSPU. In the autumn of 1907, Teresa Billington-Greig, Elizabeth How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton, Margaret Nevinson and Charlotte Despard and seventy other members of the WSPU left to form the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). Dora Montefiore also joined the WFL.

Montefiore was first and foremost a journalist and pamphleteer, penning a women’s column in The New Age (1902–6) and in the Social Democratic Federation journal Justice (1909–10). She later wrote for the Daily Herald and the New York Call. Most of her pamphlets were on women and socialism, for example, Some words to Socialist women (1907). Montefiore was also interested in an international approach to women’s suffrage and socialism and travelled a great number of congresses and conferences in Europe, the United States, Australia, and South Africa.

In 1907 Montefiore joined the Adult Suffrage Society and was elected its honorary secretary in 1909. She also remained in the Social Democratic Federation. Montefiore’s biographer, Karen Hunt, has pointed out: “Within the SDF she developed a woman-focused socialism and helped set up the party’s women’s organization in 1904. An energetic although often dissident worker for the SDF until the end of 1912, Montefiore resigned from what had become the British Socialist Party as an anti-militarist.”

In 1913 she was briefly imprisoned in Dublin for leading a campaign to transfer the children of poor Irish workers to foster homes in England during the Dublin lockout of striking workers. In 1915 and 1916 she worked with Voluntary Aid Detachments and French cooks in the Pas de Calais running ‘Cantines des Dames Anglaises’ for French soldiers resting from the trenches. After the war she was one of the co-founders of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

After the death of her son in 1921 (from the affects of the mustard gassing he had suffered while serving on the Western Front during the First World War), she joined his widow and children in Australia. In the summer of 1924 she attended the Moscow International Congress as a delegate of the Australian Communist Party. In 1927 she published her autobiography, From a Victorian to a Modern.

Towards the end of her life Dora moved to Crowborough and then Bexhill and Hastings for her health. She died in 1933 at the age of 83, and was cremated at Golders Green, Middlesex.

Thanks to marxists.org, Spartacus.net, and David Broad’s account of his grandmother’s ‘Siege’…

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

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This week in London radical history: Women blockade Parliament, 1642, protesting against war, recession and poverty.

The English civil war of the 1640s exposed and encouraged an explosion of radial and pioneering political and social thought. A substantial driver of the conflict had been ideology – a striving for freedom of religious worship. But economics was also heavily involved – restrictions on the ability of the middle classes to better themselves through trade, maintained by monopolies licensed by the king and bolstered by custom and autocratic rule, were hampering the rise of the bourgeoisie.

But Parliament acting on behalf of the moderate bourgeois interests, called on the lower orders to fight, enlisting them with appeals that seemed to offer them the fruits of the struggle – greater freedoms, religious tolerance… However this opened up many cans of worms, as the war agitated maelstroms of ideas and produced a surge of aspiration from below, much to the horror of the moderate leadership.

But the war had also been partly emerged from a lingering trade recession, and the war economy was to worsen this. And this was to open up the worst of nightmares for the Parliamentary worthies – rebellious women.

Women had been a major part of the crowds who had mobilised against the king in 1640; they had formed a substantial contingent of the volunteers who had build a ring of forts around the whole city when the king’s army threatened it in 1642. But rage and poverty would set them against Parliament; not just against the king and his party, but against all “the haves… set up for themselves, call parity and independence liberty… destroy all rights and properties, all distinctions of families and merit.” As Stevie Davies put it, “they were driven not by ideology but by pragmatic hatred of war.”

In the very earliest days of the war, a reaction in London was already beginning – among women of the City. On 31st January 1642, as Parliament and king Charles were only just marshalling their armies, crowds of women protested at Parliament. “They were hungry; the economy had nose-dived into depression, and mobs of the ‘rabble’ were daily clamouring for relief at the House of Lords (’popish Lords’ whose lack of co-operation they blamed for their present catastrophe). What the women wanted was bread for their children, who they threatened to plant on the Lords to mother.”

When as several hundred women surrounded Parliament, the king’s cousin, the Duke of Richmond, (who they waylaid as he rode up in his coach), laid into them with his ducal staff, crying ‘Away with these Women, we were best to have a parliament of women!’ Angry women grabbed his staff and it got broken in the tussle. The Duke was regarded as a ‘dangerous malignant’, a prominent supporter of the king and enemy of parliament and people.

Another aristo, Lord Savage, despite his name, tried a more conciliatory approach, delivering the women’s petition to the Lords, who agreed to see representatives of the crowd to hear their grievances.

But immediate respite was not forthcoming, and on February 1st a crowd of women surged around the House of Commons: “great multitudes of women at the Houses, pressing to present a Petition to the Parliament; and their language is, that where there is One Woman now here, there would be five hundred tomorrow; and that it was as good for them to die here as at home.”

The crowd were persuaded by Sergeant-Major Skippon, commander of the City Militia, to leave the Commons to consider their pleas…

The next day also a blockade of Old Palace Yard, protesting that the recession was driving them to poverty.

On the 4th, however, another group of women assembled, bringing a petition against the Bishops (also seen as supporters of the king and oppressors of the people). Anne Stagg, ‘a gentlewoman and a brewer’s wife’, led a deputation of women of like status, addressing parliament in a more genteel manner, and received a much friendlier welcome…

By August the following year, crowds of distressed women had become ‘Peace Women’, who flocked to Parliament, wearing white ribbons, and demanding and end to the war and the privations and death it was bringing. This time, the women were beaten by soldiers and driven from Westminster violently, and denounced as “oyster wives, and other dirty tattered sluts…” or “whores, bawds… kitchenstuff women… the very scum of the suburbs”, who were the willing or unconscious dupes of the royalists. The Peace women may have called for peace, but peaceful they were not, targeting figures of authority, roughing them up; they also beat up the Trained Bands, the citizen volunteers, and derided the lying promises of the officials. They besieged Parliament and barred the doors; pelted the soldiers with brickbats, and threatened to duck the Parliamentary leaders in the Thames (traditionally a male punishment for ‘scolds’).

Again they were driven violently off by soldiers, some were cut by sword-wielding cavalry, others arrested and jailed in the Bridewell.

Women would continue to erupt into the male-dominated world of the civil war, while the men essentially attempted to block them from having a voice. They would begin to preach in the streets (outraging conservative opinion beyond belief), campaign in support of the Levellers, even as the Levellers drew up plans for a wider franchise that continued to exclude all women; would form vital elements of the ranters, quakers, and other sects and groupings; Fifth monarchist women would issue prophesies and call Oliver Cromwell to account. And just as many of the gains of the English Revolution would, at least for a while, be lost and driven backward, women’s part in these events would be ignored and marginalised by historians.

Much of this is lifted from the wondrous ‘Unbridled Spirits: Women of the English Revolution’, by Stevie Davies, which uncovers some of these women’s stories… Essential reading.

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