BULLETIN AUTUMN 2011

Stormy Medland-the outspoken dockyard worker who became one of Plymouth’s leading politicians.

Hubert Moses Medland, usually known as Bert Medland, acquired his nickname ‘Stormy’ when he was a young  engineering worker in the Royal Naval Dockyard at Devonport in West Devon. He recalled in an autobiographical article entitled ‘They Called Me Stormy ‘ which he wrote for a local magazine, that this nickname was given to him by other members of his union branch soon after he joined the union, ‘Very soon they were calling me ‘Stormy’ Medland because I was always opposing the old men in the branch.’ His fellow members attempted to keep the argumentative young Medland busy by giving him union responsibilities ’Soon, on the theory of giving the biggest nuisance a job to do, I was elected to the district  committee and eventually became district secretary.’ This was the beginning of Bert Medland’s long and distinguished career in the labour movement and he proved as  assertive and outspoken as a councillor and an M.P. as he had been as a young trade unionist.
Bert Medland was born in Okehampton, a West Devon market town, in 1881. His father, Charles Medland, was a prominent local Liberal who became a Liberal councillor and then an alderman on Okehampton Borough Council.

Bert Medland's trade union activities in Devonport Dockyard.

In 1901, Bert Medland went to work in Devonport Dockyard as an engineering

worker. The Royal Naval Dockyard at Devonport was the largest employer in the
two counties of Devon and Cornwall.  Medland became a member of the
Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE), a craft union whose members were skilled engineering workers.
As we have seen, Medland was elected to the ASE’s district committee and became district secretary. The Dockyard did not recognise trade unions and the Admiralty expected dockyard workers who wanted a pay rise or reduced working hours to submit a petition  worded in highly deferential terms “These your humble petitioners  do pray that these our humble petitions shall be considered.”
In his capacity as ASE district secretary, Medland was called upon to sign a  petition of this type requesting a pay rise but refused to do so. Instead he wrote a letter on behalf of his district committee of the ASE requesting the abolition of the petition system. Medland’s bold approach met a hostile response from the  Dockyard's Engineer Manager. “I delivered this and was ordered to tear it up by the then Engineer Manager. He refused to forward my letter to the Admiralty and tore it into small pieces in front of me.”
Medland, deeply indignant, sent a telegram to the ASE’s General Secretary, George Barnes. Barnes used his political influence, Medland rewrote his letter and  submitted it to the Engineer Manager who this time passed the letter on to the Admiralty.
Medland clashed with fellow trade unionists as well as with dockyard management.  There were frequent demarcation disputes between the fitters, whom the ASE represented, and the shipwrights and these disputes brought Medland into conflict with one of the leading trade unionists in the Dockyard, Jimmy Moses. “There was always a bitter battle between the shipwrights and the fitters. The great men of the shipwrights were Jimmy Moses and Albert Hooper and in these demarcation disputes it was always Jimmy on one side and ‘Stormy ‘ on the other”.

Bert Medland and Plymouth politics in the early 20th century

A major change in local government in West Devon occurred in 1914. The expansion of the three neighbouring towns of Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse  had made them a single conurbation physically but they remained politically separate with their  own councils.  A referendum in 1914 voted for the amalgamation of the three towns and the  towns combined to form the county borough of Plymouth under the control of a single council.
In 1916, Medland  first stood in a local election. Although Medland's  father had been a Liberal councillor, Medland was a member of the Labour Party and in 1916 he stood as the Labour candidate in a local council election in the St Budeaux ward of Plymouth but was defeated by his Liberal opponent

The growth of the Labour Party in Plymouth

In the years after 1918, the Labour Party replaced the Liberal Party as the main political alternative to the Conservatives and the first Labour government took office in 1924. These national political trends were paralleled by political developments in Plymouth. In 1918, Jimmy Moses, the prominent Dockyard trade unionist who had been a Liberal councillor in Devonport, left the Liberals and joined the Labour Party. He became one of the four Labour councillors on Plymouth City Council.

Bert Medland and the Devonport Board of Guardians, and becoming a councillor

In 1920, Bert Medland was elected to Devonport’s Poor Law Board of Guardians. The Poor Law was the system of social welfare which provided those too poor to support themselves with financial help funded by local rates, the poor law rates. This financial help for the poor, which  was called poor relief -was administered  by local bodies, the Poor Law Boards of Guardians, whose members were elected by local ratepayers.
The principles of the Poor Law system were that people dependent on poor relief should receive less money than the lowest-paid worker in employment and that only those  who were genuinely destitute  should be given  help from public funds. These principles led to poor people applying for assistance  suffering callous and humiliating treatment. The Poor Law, with its meanspirited  and punitive ethos, was detested by the poor.
In 1918, the number of people entitled to vote in local council elections and elections for Boards of Guardians was increased. People in receipt of  poor relief had been disqualified from voting for Poor Law Guardians and this disqualification was abolished. The expansion of the  electorate led to many more Labour Party supporters being elected to Boards of Guardians and Bert Medland  was one of six Labour Party supporters elected to the Devonport Board of Guardians. He observed “We were the first  Socialists on the Board.
Bert Medland and the other socialist  Guardians were totally opposed to the  Poor Law “At the first meeting we declared war on the Poor Law.”  The Labour supporters on  the  Board fought hard to obtain more humane treatment for the poor. “I remember the six of us got together on a sub-committee by careful planning, and we awarded a widow with a large family 36s a week. They had to have a special meeting of the Board to cancel that one”
As a result of Bert Medland’s work as a Guardian, he was asked to stand as a Labour candidate for Plymouth Council in St. Peter’s ward and was elected as a Labour councillor. Two other Dockyard trade union activists, William Miller and Harry Mason, were also elected as Labour councillors which increased the number of Labour councillors on Plymouth Council to seven.
Plymouth Labour Party made political advances during the 1920s. In 1926, Jimmy Moses became the city’s first Labour mayor.
In 1925, the election of several more Labour councillors strengthened the Labour Group on Plymouth City Council. The enlarged Labour Group won  representation on the Council committees. Several Labour councillors became committee chairmen and Bert Medland became chairman of the Public Health Committee. As Chairman of the Public Health  Committee, Medland was responsible for the Plymouth Workhouse at Freedom Fields in the Greenbank  district of the city. The conditions in Plymouth Workhouse were oppressive and degrading. The unfortunate inmates had to perform hard labour in return for their food and accommodation. The sexes were strictly segregated, people with mental health problems and learning difficulties were kept separate from the other residents and the  workhouse regime resembled that of a prison.
Government legislation enabled Medland  to transform the grim workhouse. The 1929 Local Government Act abolished the Boards of Guardians and allowed local authorities to convert their workhouses into hospitals. Medland seized the opportunity and, many years later wrote “I personally regard this as the best job I ever did, transforming what we now know as Freedom Fields ,the old workhouse, into the City Hospital” His article contained a vivid description of his first visit to the Workhouse - “I clearly remember my first visit  to the workhouse with the then Medical Officer of Health  Walking from ward to ward, doors were unbolted and bolted behind us. Every section of that damned place had walls in it and we began by knocking them down. It was symbolic of what we wanted to do There were walls between wards, between the sexes, walls enclosing the ‘idiots’, as they were described”.   Medland converted this forbidding institution into the City Hospital.

Jimmy Moses –Plymouth’s first Labour MP – Bert Medland becomes mayor

In the 1929 General Election, Jimmy Moses was elected as M.P. for the Plymouth Drake constituency and became Plymouth’s first Labour M.P. Conservative supporters moved a parliamentary election petition alleging that corrupt and illegal practices had been used in Moses’ election campaign and that he should be unseated. In the court case which followed the judges decided that Moses had been properly elected. However, he only had a short parliamentary career. Moses lost his seat in the General Election of 1931.
Plymouth was granted city status in 1928 .In 1935 the city’s mayor was given the title of lord mayor and in that year Bert Medland became Plymouth’s first Labour Lord Mayor. He said of this honour “That’s a pride that will go through life with me.”
By this time, Medland was one of the leaders of the Labour party in Plymouth and, when the Second World War began, he was a member of the National Committee of his union, the Amalgamated Engineering Union.

 

Labour in wartime

The Labour Party joined the wartime coalition government  led by Winston Churchill in May 1940.  Clement Attlee, the Labour Party leader, became Deputy Prime Minister and other leading Labour politicians became members of the coalition government. Ernest Bevin, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, became Minister of Labour. Bert Medland was one of the many Labour Party activists who took on new roles  and new responsibilities in wartime..
Medland   attended a meeting of the AEU’s National Committee in 1940. Ernest Bevin came to talk to the members  of the National Committee and called on them  to help win the war. He announced that he would recruit members of the Committee to do special work. As a result, Medland left Devonport Dockyard and became Inspector of Labour Supplies for the South-Western District. He then went to the Admiralty to help organise the building of warships.
The Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison appointed Medland Deputy Regional Commissioner for the South-West, responsible for liaison with local authorities in the region. An important part of his work was helping people cope with the destruction caused by bombing.
Plymouth suffered intensive bombing during the Second World War. Its city centre was almost obliterated and much of the city lay in ruins. In 1943, an ambitious plan for Plymouth’s postwar reconstruction was published. It envisaged a new and redesigned city centre and the construction of large new housing estates. Plymouth Council accepted the proposals of the Plan for Plymouth in September 1944 and established a Reconstruction Committee to discuss the implementation of the Plan. Despite his other heavy commitments, Medland became a member of the Reconstruction Committee and acted as its Vice-Chairman.

Bert Medland becomes MP for Plymouth Drake

Medland had long held parliamentary ambitions. In 1929 and 1931 he stood as the Labour parliamentary candidate in the Conservative stronghold of Torbay but was defeated. In 1945, he was selected as the Labour candidate in the constituency of Plymouth Drake. He was characteristically forthright when he addressed the selection committee, telling its members “I had two objects in life, to hit the Tories for six and to rebuild Plymouth and if they liked to make me their candidate, it was O.K. by me" Medland's election agent was Alderman William Miller, Plymouth’s first black councillor, who had been Jimmy Moses’ election agent in the 1929 General Election.
Labour won the1945 General Election with a massive majority and the national swing to Labour was reflected in Plymouth where Labour captured all three of the city’s parliamentary constituencies. Bert Medland was victorious in Plymouth Drake and his fellow Labour candidates, Michael Foot and Lucy Middleton, won in the Devonport and Sutton constituencies.   In November 1945, Labour‘s position in Plymouth was further strengthened when  the Party won control of Plymouth City Council for the first time.
Medland had first -hand knowledge of the injustices of the old Poor Law. In Parliament, he welcomed the demise of Poor Law and its replacement by the post-war Welfare State. He wrote ” It was a proud moment  for me when in 1947 I walked through the division lobbies  of the House of Commons to abolish the Poor Law”

 

Reconstruction of Plymouth

Medland ‘s main objective was to help rebuild Plymouth after the devastation which it had suffered in wartime. Michael Foot, in his book “Another Heart and Other Pulses” described the contribution which  Medland  and two other leading members of Plymouth Labour Party, Harry Mason and Harry Wright, made to the reconstruction of Plymouth . “ We had three imaginative   Labour leaders, Harry Mason, Bert Medland and  Harry Wright; all three were dockyardees who had left school at fourteen but had taken up apprenticeships  in the yard…It was almost as if the hour had been made to suit this inspired triumvirate. They eagerly seized on the plan which had been prepared.. With Mason as leader, Medland one of my fellow M.Ps in Parliament and Harry Wright as the council's finance officer. . .we all went to work to rebuild”
Bert Medland was a determined and tenacious champion of Plymouth. He persuaded Attlee himself to visit Plymouth and, when he met the Prime Minister, argued very forcefully that Plymouth deserved financial support from the government. His remarks were widely reported in the press and this made Medland unpopular with the Prime Minister..
Medland had friendlier relations with other members of the Government .In particular he worked closely with Lewis Silkin, the Minister of Town and Country Planning.  Silkin, and his Civil Service secretary, Evelyn Sharpe, gave considerable help to Medland and his colleagues. Silkin made many visits to Plymouth and Medland worked hard in the Commons and in parliamentary committees to include provision for financial grants in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.  Medland played an important part in piloting the Town and County Planning Act through Parliament and Plymouth 's city centre was the first to benefit  from this Act. The grants provided by the Act helped finance the rebuilding of Plymouth.

Parliamentary boundaries

Bert Medland’s parliamentary career was not ended by electoral defeat but by the  redistribution of parliamentary boundaries implemented by the Labour Government.  In 1947, the Parliamentary Boundary Commission recommended a redistribution of parliamentary seats and its recommendations included a reduction in the number of English parliamentary constituencies. It was proposed to reduce the number of parliamentary constituencies in Plymouth from three to two by abolishing Plymouth Drake, Medland's constituency.
Medland described the proposed abolition of his constituency as scandalous and the abolition of Drake constituency was opposed by all three of Plymouth's M.Ps and  the entire City Council. In the city, there was cross-party opposition to the Boundary Commission’s proposals which were  regarded as deeply unfair to Plymouth. The Commission’s decision was based on the electoral statistics of 1946. Medland and other Plymouth politicians pointed out that the city’s population had fallen dramatically during the war and that many of Plymouth’s inhabitants had not returned to the city by 1946. Since 1946 Plymouth’s population had increased substantially.
Medland and his parliamentary colleagues, Michael Foot and Lucy Middleton, met the Home Secretary, Chuter Ede, and attempted to persuade him that Plymouth Drake should be saved but Ede would not change the decision to terminate the Drake constituency.
The Parliamentary Boundary Commission’s recommendations were enacted in the Representation of the People Bill. In the House of Commons, Medland, Foot and Middleton moved amendments to the Representation of the People Bill in an attempt to save Plymouth Drake but their amendments were defeated. On the Third Reading of the Representation of the People Bill, Bert Medland and Lucy Middleton refused to support the Bill because it abolished Drake. Medland accused the Home Secretary of disenfranchising his constituents and argued that a great injustice had been done to places such as Plymouth which had been heavily bombed in the war.
When the vote on the Representation of the People Bill was taken, Medland and  Lucy Middleton defied a three-line whip and abstained from voting, remaining in their seats while the vote was taken. Michael Foot had become a member of the National Executive Committee and consequently had to vote with the government.  Despite the protests of Medland and his colleagues, the Bill was passed and Plymouth Drake had ceased to exist by the time of the 1950 General Election.
Medland's  parliamentary career had ended but he continued to be one of the leading figures in Plymouth Labour Party. In 1952, he was made an honorary freeman of Plymouth. In the 1960s, Bert Medland became the ‘father ‘ of  Plymouth City Council, the Council’s oldest member. In the early 1960s, the Labour Party regained control of Plymouth Council and Medland, by then over 80, became chairman of the Estates Committee and vice-chairman of the General Purposes Committee.

Final years

In 1964,  Bert Medland became seriously ill and had a major operation . He suffered poor health following the operation. In the closing stages of his life, he was highly respected by his political opponents as well as his Labour colleagues. The local paper, the Western Evening Herald, observed that when Medland returned to the Council after his serious illness “his reappearance was cheered with as much sincerity by Opposition members as by his own party” His return to the council  occurred shortly before his death. On the 11th December 1964, Bert Medland died at his home in the Peverell area of Plymouth.
The lives and expectations of working people in Plymouth were transformed during  Medland‘s long  career in the labour movement and no-one did more than Bert Medland  to make this change in the city’s social conditions possible. His life reminds us of the struggle by the labour movement activists of his generation  to create a less unequal and more humane society and it is important  to remember the battles of earlier generations at the present time  when their achievements are under serious threat.

Jonathan  Wood

Labour Heritage AGM

The 2011 Labour Heritage AGM was a joint meeting with the Socialist History Society. It was held in the Library of the Bishopsgate Institute on April 9th. It was attended by around 30 people.

Radical trades unionism and the challenges of today

The first speaker was Dr. Gregor Gall, Research Professor of Industrial Relations and Director of the Work and Employment Research Unit at the University of Hertfordshire.
He spoke on radical trades unionism, using the past to understand the challenges of today.
Starting with the example of the TUC anti-cuts demonstration on March 26th, which attracted up to 500,000 people, he raised the question – what now? – is there going to be a general strike? The only union which had called for a general strike against government cuts was the Prison Officers Association. Gregor drew a line between moderate trades unionism which aimed at obtaining concessions from the system by collective bargaining, and the more radical militant unionism, which historically have aimed at the overthrow of capitalism. Syndicalism, which had been strongly supported in the trade unions before World War 1, during the years of the great unrest of 1911 had been an example of militant trades unionism. Its aim was for the workers to run industry themselves. Were workers attracted to the trades unions with this aim in mind? Syndicalism was in decline in the 1920s, partly he argued as its place had been taken by the Communist Party of Great Britain, which had influence with organisations such as the Minority Movement.
1926 had been the largest strike movement in the UK and had not been surpassed since that time, even in the 1970s. Trades unionism had adjusted to the system, and although membership had increased, its aims had been moderate, to get a foot in the door. Affiliation to the Labour Party had dampened trades union activity during times of Labour Government. Even the so-called “awkward squad” had not in the main wanted to rock the boat. Even at the height of its membership in the 1980s, militant trades unionism had been a minority. Since that time trades union membership had halved – from 13 to 7 million, now mainly in the public sector. The rank and file shop stewards movements of the 1970s had not been replaced at the present time. One of the problems was the destruction of trades unions industrial base. Now the majority of the population worked in the service sector. In the private sector many worked in call-centres which are not organised.

The TUC Library

 

 

The second speaker was Christine Coates, librarian at the TUC Library. She gave a brief history of the TUC Library and its collections.
The TUC library was founded in the 1920s and for a number of years was a joint library with that of the Labour Party. This has meant that the scope of the collection is broader than the trades union movement. It includes for instance the archives of the Labour Research Department (formerly the Fabian Research Department), pamphlets and photographs  on the Spanish Civil War, and fascist and anti-fascist material from the 1930s. There are two important personal archives –  Gertrude Tuckwell who was involved with the Women’s Trade Union League  and  Marjorie Nicholson, who was secretary of the Fabian Colonial Bureau. It also has the London Trades Council Archives.
The collection contains trades union journals, pamphlets, leaflets and photographs. The collection contains videos, as well as substantial print collections – pamphlets and journals, including many from overseas. The TUC is still adding to this collection.
When the two libraries were physically separated and the TUC moved to Congress House, the TUC took the bulk of the collections. The actual TUC records however – minutes and correspondence, are kept at the University of Warwick Records Centre.
There are some wonderful photographs, which Christine was able to show us via power-point slides, from the match girls’ strike of 1889, a strike at a jam factory in Bermondsey in 1911, and a women’s demonstration against unemployment in the 1930s.
There are photos which illustrate the involvement of black workers in the trades union movement, one of them going back to the 1830s. These include pictures of the 1976/77 Grunwick’s strike, and a leaflet published by Nottingham Trades Council in 1958 after race riots there and in London. It’s headline was “Don’t blame the blacks”.

In 1996 the TUC Library moved to London Metropolitan University. (although the Library is still owned by the TUC).  The TUC had to save funds and space and was looking for a new home for its Library. LMU (then the University of North London) was considered to be a good choice as it was planning to expand its trades union studies courses. It was also prepared to take the Library in one piece, plus its long standing librarian Christine Coates, who has run the Library for the past forty years. At LMU her most important challenge has been to make the collections accessible to the public which they had not  been previously.

Web site

The Library’s web site was launched in 2000 with funding from the New Opportunities Fund. The web site has several themes – the first one of which is “The union makes us strong”. The site can be navigated via a timeline with links to images. Introductions to each part of the collection have been written by academic staff at the university. There are links to thousands of images from the collections, including material from the 1926 general strike which includes a selection of newspaper reports, 1888 match workers strike including a register of the strikers, which can be browsed, TUC annual reports, which can be searched or browsed. Other themes are “The workers’ war” – this includes recorded interviews, “winning equal pay” and a new site “Britain at work 1945-1995”. These sites can be searched collectively by keyword, and using advanced search limited by date and format. They are fully open access to the public and used by schools as an educational resource.
http://www.londonmet.ac.uk/services/sas/library-services/tuc/

What of the future for TUC publications? Christine explained that most TU publications are only published online now. There were once several hundred TU journals in print – now only web sites. However there is no digital preservation strategy as yet. The Library has preserved this material by printing out the digital formats, which is acknowledged not be a satisfactory solution.
The TUC itself has recently launched a new “unions into schools” web site http://www.ebctuc.co.uk/ which it is inviting comment on.

The Library itself is open to the public, although it is a small study space and visits need to be booked. Most of the pre-1996 publications are not on the LMU online catalogue.
It is used by LMU students – from business studies as well as TU studies and history, and visiting students.

In May members of Labour Heritage visited the TUC library and were shown by Christine how the web site works, and also some “treasures” from the collection which she had selected for us.
The meeting was preceded by a short AGM for Labour Heritage members. There was a review of the year’s work including successful events at Essex and West London, the circulation of two bulletins expanded in size, and the re-launch of the web site. There was a discussion on the importance of preserving archives including those of Labour Heritage, the possibility of including older bulletins on the website, and how to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Labour Heritage in 2012. A new committee was elected for year.

 

Aiming for Power – 3,317,702 Chartists – August 17th 1842

1912 will be the anniversary of the 1842 general strike. The first of its kind in Britain, it was staged in order to put pressure on Parliament to grant the demands of the Peoples’ Charter.

The Charter and first petition 1839

This Charter had six principles: every male of 21 years a vote; annual elections; vote by secret ballot; no property qualifications required by candidates; payment for members and representation according to electors in equal electoral districts.
The working class had been excluded totally from any direct participation in Parliament. This, along with unemployment and general conditions of life worsening, produced a call for a delegate conference to be held in London and for it to organise a movement to win franchise for the working class.
The conference  was held in 1839 with delegates and members from all parts of the UK who formed for this purpose, the National Charter Association. It established an executive; provided for a membership to be locally organised; funding from 2p per week per member, then formulated its strategic aim which became popularised as “The Charter”.  To achieve the latter, a petition would be prepared
The National Association agreed also that rejection of the petition by parliament would activate the project for a Holy Day and commencement by all employees of a National Holiday of one month’s duration. (a general strike).   Thus, with the country brought to a standstill, the ruling classes would have illustrated the power of labour and its necessity for their welfare, and, also, for the economic and social life of the nation.
1,283,000 people signed the demand for this People’s Charter. Presented to Parliament in May 1839 it was defeated, obtaining 46 for with 235 against.
The government, including its representation of manufacturers and other members of the middle class from the 1832 Reform Bill, alarmed at the size of the  Chartist petition and the organization which made  its collection possible and, with possible growth, a threat to their rule, set-out to destroy the Charter’s organisational structure by the wholesale arrest of leaders and members. Therefore, the decision to launch the Holy Day was abandoned when it became clear to its still free leaders that the movement was not organisationally strong enough to successfully engage the forces of the state.
However, Newport in Wales, anticipating a beginning to the Holy Day decided to free some Chartist members held by the authorities. Guarded by soldiers, in the following confrontation 10 Chartists were killed and 50 wounded and the three leaders of this uprising, including Newport’s former Mayor, John Frost, were arrested and though mass protests prevented the death penalty, they were sentenced to transportation for life in Australia.
Two years later, however, the worst crisis in capitalism’s history followed on the back of the previous one and families, already weakened from its last episode of unemployment, and with the remnants of domestic goods sold to pay for scraps and evicted for not paying rents, roamed the streets of industrial towns and cities. Thus, when employers demanded of those still in employment a 25% cut in wages, a call for the reconvening of the National Charter Association was issued by an outraged working-class.
However, during the period between 1839 and 1841 a campaign to pardon John Frost and the other Newport Rising members transported to Australia had been mounting. And a petition for this had collected 1,339,298 signatures. Presented to Parliament by Thomas Duncombe in May 1841, it obtained 58 votes of support and 58 in opposition, therefore, only the casting vote of the Speaker of the House, prevented it from becoming an immediate pardon. When the National Charter Association re-assembled in September, to report that it had  over 400 branches with 50,000 members and, with the  success of the May petition to guide it, it agreed to launch a second  campaign for The People’s Charter and petition to Parliament.

1842 Petition

3,313,752 signatures were collected by Chartists and their supporters, visiting every house in the industrial and other sympathetic areas of the country. Rochdale collected 19,000 from its own population ,26,000 from an adjacent village population of 40,000, Preston and district  70,000. Manchester collected 99,680 whilst London obtained 200,000, Glasgow and Lanark, 80,100 and  Methyr Tydvil obtained 14,710.
A petition twice the size of the 1839 petition, was presented to Parliament in May, 1842.  Rejected, it set the stage for a Holy Day to initiate the process of compelling the various ruling classes of industry, finance and land, to share parliamentary power with the industrial and agricultural classes of modern Britain.

Crisis of 1842

By 1842, Britain was unique in the world. The bulk of its population was engaged in manufacturing and its related network of workplaces. The most technically advanced of these, cotton, engineering, mining, were concentrated in large workplaces. Its labour force in cotton was 350,000, with chief rival, France, having 90,000. Coal mining employed 120,000, with France 12,000 and Germany having 16,000. Its 400,000 metalworkers in many trades outnumbered the French by some 5 to 1. Combined, this assured industrial pre-eminence over all its then major rivals.
Its further advantage lay in the concentration of its industrial work force. 40,000 of Manchester’s cotton workers worked in factories employing 100 or more. Mill towns such as Preston had 97% in such and Rochdale had 77%. This pattern of worker concentration applied also to mining, iron production and machine building.
Equally of significance, this industry  became concentrated in specific geographical pockets where planning restrictions were non-existent and workplaces and habitation built to serve places of employment at the least cost to employer or maximum profit to house-building speculator.
Living two families to a room and packed into tiny courtyards leading on to narrow streets which acted as conduits for human waste in its many varieties, diseases were fatal and widely spread. However, this very closeness of population facilitated passing of news and other information of relevance to the community and further- it provided the ability to move a population into quick and jointly decided action.  This was a crucial element which proved decisive in mobilising for the Holy Day hovering below the horizon.

The Holy Day

Thus, when Parliament rejected the Petition and the National Charter Association leadership issued the call for the Holy Day to begin, mills, collieries and engineering works around the country responded from Scotland to Wales, and then to Devon and Cornwall. 500,000 workers were involved in strike action, most responding for the 17thAugust as the Holy Day to commence the  fight for the “Peoples Charter”-though others jumped the date, whilst others came on stream later.
Since the rejection by parliament of the 1st petition in 1839 the National Charter Association had improved   its organization, which spread into all  neighbourhoods and every place of habitation and work.  They were helped by the many forms of friendly societies which had been established to help working people in need. Nor did they neglect to win over parish councils, or even boards of guardians where influence had been obtained.
Thus, united from the bottom-up and with a central leadership drawn from all the parts of Britain, these industrial workers, living within a society which had  taken them on the verge of  financial extinction, and with no alternative way of making a living, took on a monarchy, aristocracy , landed gentry, financiers, and  enlarged middle-class.  Its mounted yeomanry mobilised to defeat them and prepared for the same savagery as at Peterloo where in 1819 a peaceful demonstration for political reform  had been attacked leaving 11 dead and hundreds wounded. 
By September, with all prominent leaders along with 1,500 other leading activists in prison, the Holy Day struggle had collapsed and industrial capitalism and its associated forces of aristocracy, banking were able, and did, breath a huge sigh of relief at the defeat of  “the greatest conspiracy to their rule witnessed in modern times”.
The Holy Day attempt to win the right to elect working class members to parliament had, it is true, been defeated-it had lost a battle but the crucial question was that  it won, in the main, the secondary part of this struggle-plan B, for most wages which had been cut were restored to the1840 level, with some being increased. It had lost a battle for success with its aim to win both of its steps forward- the vote and stopping the 25% cut in wages, but was successful in the latter case. It had taken two steps forward, but able to win only one of them.
For the Conservative government intended to deal industrial workers the same savage punishment as the agricultural workers of 1830-treasonable conspiracy.
Feargus O‘Connor and 65 leaders were to have a show trial at the Old Bailey in March of 1843. But by February of that year, Peel, the Prime Minister and, Graham, the Home Secretary were facing the fact that already 1,000 petitions had reached parliament protesting at the harsh sentencing of the first batch of Chartists. Even more alarming was that the radical wing of the manufacturing bourgeoisie-the Anti-Corn Law League, were canvassing for support for industrial and agricultural workers.  Ireland was on the verge of direct confrontation as O’Connell threatened to convene 300 leading citizens to Dublin’s former Parliament to demand repeal of the Union between Britain and Ireland.
Chartists already were engaged in all these other movements-particularly Ireland. Joining together of these forces would put the  ruling class in peril-for all these forces were united in their hatred of the aristocracy and landed gentry.
Then, crucially, they took account of the organisation of the general strike,  the speed with which the call for the Holy Day had been answered from all parts of the country; the discipline exercised to prevent looting; the depth and organisation  local level, with  committees granting or withholding work-permits-and, most significant of all- a petition signed by 3,317,702 citizens.
All-in-all, Peel and his advisors decided against the risk and called off the  trial of the Chartists leaders-except for minor  events, and convoluted a benign trial which eventually gave them their freedom. 
One year thereafter in 1844 emerged the Society of Equitable Pioneers in Rochdale. Through the co-operative movement it would build within industrial capitalism a society from its own indigenous resources, a state within a state whose development would succeed as a ‘business’ and as a caring  ‘equitable’ social system.  Through practice, it would change a form of barbarism to a new form of civilization.
Co-operative trading would remove the inherent threat to employment when competition closed down markets or  local factories.
Its policy for land reform through the establishment of villages of industry and agriculture, would end the power of a landed aristocracy with its life of hunting, shooting and carousal.   
Thus, from co-operative trading would come the money to build villages, towns and cities of industry and agriculture- and from living collectively, in all its forms of work, play and living- the Co-operative Commonwealth.

Alan Spence 24th June 2011
(This is part of a longer article)                                                                                                                                  

 

Obituary of Ray Challinor

Ray Challinor, who died aged 81 on 30th January, 2011, was born in Stoke-on-Trent on 9th July, 1929, the son of two socialist schoolteachers.  At the age of 12 he participated in the 1941 Lancaster by-election in support of the Independent Labour Party candidate, Fenner Brockway, and he was the youngest delegate at the 1945 ILP Conference.
After leaving the ILP he joined the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party, which dissolved in 1949.  Having developed his own theory that the Soviet Union was not socialist but a state capitalist country, in 1950 he became a foundation member of the Socialist Review group, the forerunner of the Socialist Workers’ Party.
At this time he was also a member of the Labour Party and became a Labour Councillor in Newcastle-under-Lyme and Prospective Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Nantwich.  In later years, as a left-winger, he left the Party and, in 1973, he also dropped out of the newly formed Socialist Workers’ Party.  However, he remained politically active and continued to defend many of its policies.  Amongst other things, he played a leading role in exposing the death in police custody of Liddle Towers, a Tyneside boxer in the 1980s, and supported CND, the Committee of 100, the miners’ strikes and other progressive movements.
Ray’s first job, after leaving the Friends School at Lancaster, was as a journalist on the Nantwich Guardian. He then worked in agriculture for two years – a condition of being granted exemption from compulsory military service as a conscientious objector.  He subsequently obtained a degree from the University of North Staffordshire at Keele and went into teaching.  Later on, he was employed as a lecturer at Wigan College and then as Head of History at Newcastle-upon-Tyne Polytechnic.
He wrote a succession of highly regarded historical studies: The Miners’ Association – A Trade Union in the Age of the Chartists [1968]; The Lancashire & Cheshire Miners [1972];
The Origin of British Bolshevism [1977]; John S. Clark: Parliamentarian, Poet and Lion Tamer [1977]; A Radical Lawyer in Victorian Britain: W.P. Roberts [1990]; The Struggle for Hearts and Minds: Essays on the Second World War [1995].
Ray was also the editor of the Socialist Review in the 1950s, and wrote many articles for a range of different journals.  He was a founder member of the Society for the Study of Labour History and remained a Vice-President until his death.  He established  Bewick Books, which produced a succession of political and cultural works on Tyneside.  An inveterate book collector, he built up a unique collection of books and archives, many of which have gone to appropriate libraries.

Ray is survived by his wife Mabel, son and daughter-in-law Russell and Rebecca, and granddaughter Clare.

Stan Newens

“Striking a Light – the Bryant & May Match-women and their place in history”by Louise Raw.  [Continuum 2011]

In the summer of 1888, fourteen hundred workers, mostly young women and girls, walked out of Bryant & May’s match factory in Bow, East London – and effectively into the history books’.
So begins Louise Raw’s fascinating account of the match-womens’ strike – a story which has traditionally placed Annie Besant centre stage as instigator of the strike, with the workers as unnamed ‘match-girls’, pitiable waifs in the image of Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘Little Match Girl’. This study  presents the strike in a new light. Louise Raw uncovers the lives and roles played by several of the key women involved; she examines the strike in the context of the East End working class community, in particular the role of women, the strong social and family links between the match-workers and local dock-workers, and the predominantly Irish background of most of the match-workers.
Louise Raw’s own background as a trade union activist in the East End, rather than an academic,  led her to be curious  as to ‘how had one woman [Besant], apparently acting alone and never having actually set foot inside a match factory let alone worked in one, brought 1,400 virtual strangers out on strike?’ She began her research as part of a project for the TGWU and then continued this as an MA and then doctoral research at London Metropolitan University.
An interesting aspect of this book for fellow labour historians, is that Louise Raw describes the paths she followed to try to untangle a more accurate history of the strike.  Ironically she found that Bryant May proved very helpful to her in that their company archives became publicly available in the 1980s and ‘box after box of ephemera and … documentation bears witness to the firm’s decades of continued almost obsessive interest in all matters pertaining to the strike.’ It was within this mass of material that Louise Raw found that the company had privately identified five factory women whom they believed were the real leaders of the strike while finding it expedient, in public, merely to blame Besant.
There was a wealth of media coverage of the strike and she describes her searches  through local papers, journals and periodicals at the British Library in Colindale, the East End local history library and the Bancroft library in Mile End.  It is indeed largely through these materials that she re-constructs a ‘new time-line’ for the onset and progress of the strike.
Annie Besant had established a political ‘halfpenny weekly’ The Link early in 1888. She was inspired by a Fabian meeting, which considered calling for a boycott of goods produced by ‘sweated labour’, when H.H.Champion drew attention to the low wages paid by Bryant & May and the contrast with huge dividends paid to shareholders.  Annie Besant went to ask workers at the factory gate about their working conditions and wrote an article for The Link  based on this, entitled ‘White Slavery in London’ published on 23rd June 1888 – which received wide coverage in the national dailies.
Piecing together articles and letters in the Star  and  East London Advertiser, Louise Raw finds that on 27th June Bryant & May foremen were instructed by the company to take round a paper refuting Besant’s article, which all the women were required to sign – they refused to do so.  One girl was dismissed on the pretext of ‘refusal to follow the instructions of the foreman’ and the Star reporter, who directly interviewed the women, describes how ‘the other girls followed suit and stopped work’ and that they selected six of their number to go as a deputation to meet with the company directors. The East London Advertiser describes  ‘1,500 females…once outside, made a noisy display for a little while and then repaired to Bow Common.’  By 6th July the Star  reported ‘the whole factory lying idle’  and calls the strike ‘this female revolt against the iron rule of wages’.  It was a strike started and led by the women themselves, demanding changes in their appalling working conditions – their meagre wages repeatedly docked on all manner of pretexts, and their health ruined by white phosphorus. Besant initially dissociated herself from the action and encouraged the women to return to work, though she was later involved with the Fabians in establishing a strike fund.
Louise Raw made a determined effort over several years to track down some of the real match-women –  her book is the first to bring the women’s names and some of their life-stories into view.  Her starting point was the Bryant & May records, which indicate at least three strikes before 1888 and a ‘list of the five women they felt to be the most likely trouble makers’ - these are Eliza Martin,  Mary Driscoll, Alice Francis, Kate Slater and Jane Wakeling.
Through articles, radio interviews and talks, Louise Raw appealed for descendants of the match-workers to come forward.  Eventually  she  interviewed three grandchildren of the match-women – two of whom were the descendants of Eliza Martin and Mary Driscoll.  Through these interviews it was possible to confirm the names of the 12 women elected by their colleagues to the initial strike committee, later the union committee.   Jim Best recalls: ‘I remember my Dad showing me the article in the East London Advertiser and saying ‘That’s your Nan, son’. Eliza told Dad that she and her friends started the strike and we were proud of that. There was never any doubt in our minds it was their strike, the girls’ strike, not anyone else’s.’
Louise Raw shows how the example of the match-women, followed within a year by the dockworkers, extended trade unionism ‘beyond the skilled elite to the most vulnerable in the labour market.’  Her reassessment of the story and significance of the strike shows that history is not neutral – she concludes that ‘for more than a century the match-women’s strike has been a victim of…the myths about women workers and organisation which…do not stand up to historical scrutiny.’
I found this a wonderfully engrossing read (and good value at £9 paperback edition from Amazon). It was interesting to see the original Strike Fund Register on display at the recent visit of LH members to the TUC Archive at  London Metropolitan University – and it can be viewed at TUC History Online.

 Linda Shampan

New Labour – a review of the literature

Already this is history with many lessons for the labour movement. New Labour was very prolific in the literature that it generated, particularly after what many would see as its demise in 2010. This is a review of some of the literature.

The “Third Man” (Peter Mandelson)

According to Peter Mandelson, there were three men at the heart of  New Labour  - he was the third.  Mandelson’s account is very egocentric – he and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and  how he fixed it all with intrigue. Not very much about real politics here. He “modestly” proclaims that all the achievements of the outgoing Labour government were due to the project that the three of them pursued in order to change the Labour Party. When he was asked by Gordon Brown for help in winning the 2010 election he tried to flatter him by saying “You’re a better Prime Minister than people think”.  He says that he meant this, just as he genuinely felt that a Cameron government would be no better, and very likely worse for Britain . Many in the labour movement would really like to thank him for that! Generally the book is almost unreadable – very self-centred. There is even a chapter entitled “Being Peter”. But if you can persevere with it, it is an insight into how the New Labour machine was obsessed with the Tory media,  which was unfortunately not persuaded to advertise Labour’s achievements in the run up to the 2010 election. Mandelson traces the history of New Labour, drawing upon his own life history. He claims that he rescued  Blair’s career after he had called Thatcher “unhinged”, by persuading journalists that this was not what Blair had meant. His grip on the facts from the 1980s is a fantasy. In chapter entitled “A brilliant defeat”, he blames Labour’s 1983 election defeat on Tony Benn and the Militant Tendency whom he called “the party’s real masters!

Tony Blair’s journey?

In contrast to this Tony Blair’s “The journey” is readable, in parts even entertaining. He relates long forgotten events such as the Millennium Dome fiasco, the fuel protests of 2001 and how his family life interacted with his role as prime minister in a way that he seemed to have enjoyed. But there comes over quite a bit of personal insecurity behind  the perceived self-confidence. This is emphatically the case in relation to the Iraq War, part of the book which is far too long drawn out. His attempt at self-justification  is not successful. He says that he would have been alarmed if he had known how long the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would last. But was he wrong? At the Chilcott enquiry he seems more concerned with how it would look to opponents and supporters of the war if he were to say “yes” to this question, than with any attempt to analyse what had happened. He had to admit that weapons of mass destruction had not been found, but  he believed that removing Saddam was in any case a good thing. More people had died under his rule than under the occupation and transition in Iraq. Most of those deaths however had been at a time when the US and UK governments were backing Saddam in the Iraq-Iran war! But after the fall of Saddam there was  more concern with finding WMD than reconstructing Iraq. He writes “As the weeks wore on I became more and more agitated…Rumsfeld suggested that they would never be found. But it was after all the casus belli.” He fails to make any connection between the chaos in Iraq after the occupation and the effects of an ill-judged war, blaming it all on extremists, from Iran. He and George Bush were making victory speeches and slapping each other on the back, before he received the devastating news of Dr Kelly’s suicide. He saw this more of  a publicity failing, not a moral failing on his part.

In debt to the Labour Party

So what did Blair stand for? He seems to have little empathy with the ideals of the Labour Party. He writes “I owe the Labour Party, its members, supporters and activists a huge debt of gratitude. I put them through a lot. They took it most of the time with quite extraordinary dignity and loyalty.” He says that he did not think a Labour victory in 1983 would have been the best thing for the country although he was a Labour candidate. He says that he is a “moderniser” – but it seems only in relation to institutions such as the trades unions and public services. He did not even agree with the abolition of fox-hunting, (a modern but not necessarily socialist measure?). He tested the loyalty of the Labour Party with the abolition of Clause 4 but when faced with the prospect of a landslide victory in 1997, he does not share the enthusiasm in the country at large. Nor did he relish in the election wipe out for the Tories, who saw their worst election result since 1832.  For instance he seems to be out of touch with the working class as it was in the 1990s. He seems surprised that voters in his Sedgefield constituency drink wine and go abroad for their holidays.
Blair acknowledges that he had ongoing problems with the Party and the trades unions, whose link with the Party he could not break. In 2001 9/11 got him out of a difficult TUC conference, he had to admit.  Increasingly he was faced with back-bench rebellions which brought him close to defeat, and ministerial resignations. As the time came for him to step down he had to come to terms with the fact that he could not control the Party for ever. He demanded of Gordon Brown that he continue with the “New Labour Project” before he stepped down. He did not trust Brown – accepted that he ran the economy and was an acclaimed successful Chancellor of the Exchequer, but realised that Brown had his own agenda – “real Labour” as opposed to New Labour”. Of course Blair congratulates himself for winning three general elections, two of them landslides. The real achievements of the Labour years – increased spending on the NHS, measures to alleviate child poverty, are ironically glossed over in one page or less in this 700 page book. The fact that Labour was fortunate to govern during a time of economic strength does not get a mention. His claim that Labour lost in 2010 because it was no longer “New Labour” is the view of man anxious to claim his own place in history, rather than having any foresight into what was going on in the real world. It is difficult to believe that the man had any political views at all – there is no mention of the “Third Way” – who remembers that?
At the a time when Labour Party membership was being decimated as at no other time in its history, he asserts that the Party could be opened up to supporters – discard conventional notions of membership and you “could open it up and let it breathe the fresh air provided by real believers and you have a different sort of party, one capable of governing for long periods of time”. The Party is only now recovering from the damage that it suffered in the Blair years.

Gordon Brown  -  Beyond the crash

Blair had gone by the autumn of 2008 and Gordon Brown had been in place for a year, selected without a contest as leader of the Labour Party, and Prime Minister. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he had benefited from a strong economy from 1997. Living standards had been rising for most people – the promise of the 1997 election that ”things could only get better” seemed to ring true. We benefited from cheap food, clothes, flights and the internet. Labour was able to put more money into the NHS and education, introduce  Sure Start schemes, and a minimum wage without too much fuss from the rich. After all Mandelson had said that he was relaxed about “people getting filthy rich”. There was political stability – general elections came and went, and Labour, although with a reduced majority, stayed on, it seemed with the blessing of some of the usually Tory press.
However that came to an end with the most serious world financial crisis since the 1930s.
Gordon Brown’s book “Beyond the crash” is notable, not as an analysis of the crash and its causes, but because “I was there”. He says that it was necessary to understand the crash, in order to avoid an repetition, and as a result of that, he does accept some of the responsibility for what happened. As he was on a  plane on the way back from the USA on September 26th 2008, he notes that we were days away from a complete banking collapse, companies not being able to pay their creditors, workers not able to draw their wages, and families finding that the ATM had no cash to give them. He wrote on a piece of paper – “Recapitalise now”. This involved government intervention in the running of the banks, including nationalisation. By the time he touched down “we had made government decisions that turned the orthodoxy of the past thirty years on its head.” So he claimed responsibility for the salvation, but unlike Blair, he was able to make that dramatic u-turn, and not wrestle with self-justification. A world wide depression as in the 1930 had been avoided. But he admits that the crisis was not just that of government debt, but the result of unregulated markets. There was need for a better “form of globalisation”. Rescuing the banks by turning economic policy on its head was sold to the world including George Bush, and the largest bail out of banks ever went ahead. But he argues that thing should be done differently in future. Markets and government must work together.

Andrew Rawnsley – “Servant of the people”

Andrew Rawnsley in “Servants of the people” deals with the first few years of New Labour in a fairly candid manner. It was death of John Smith that brought about the birth of New Labour. He claims that Blair only got away with the discipline and pain that he inflicted on the Party, because he could guarantee the Party success. Lose and he would face the music!
Philip Gould apparently warned Blair of the grisly fate that would await him if he were to lose an election. The Party’s campaign headquarters would be invaded by an angry mob and he would have to be winched away in a helicopter like the Americans fleeing Saigon in the last days of the Vietnamese war. He portrays Blair, contrary to popular belief, as insecure and indecisive – dithering about whether to go ahead with the Dome project and abandoning welfare reform? He had meaningless talks with Paddy Ashdown following an unwanted landslide election result.
What did he stand for? The Third Way was a “label of last resort” – to appeal to everyone (and no-one). John Prescott was scathing – said that he had found books on the “Third Way” in the mystery section of a bookshop. The discipline that was imposed by New Labour was to completely backfire with the Livingstone affair. With a stitched up vote in which Livingstone narrowly lost the Labour Party nomination to stand as mayor, he was invited to Chequers with his niece and nephew, to whom he had promised to entertain for the weekend, and asked what he intended to do next. Livingstone gave assurances that he would not leave the Labour Party and stand as an independent. Later Livingstone could honestly say that he had lied. But he got popular support and became mayor – a backlash against New Labour. But when all was said and done, Blair in 2000, could point to the achievements of the government – the minimum wage, falling hospital waiting lists, smaller class sizes, tax rises to give more to the poor – would the Tories have done any of this? In addition unemployment fell to 4% - the lowest for decades, and the living standards of most Britons was rising. Blair survived to fight another day.

Chris Mullins “Decline and fall

Diaries give an insight into the contemporary mood and the second volume of Chris Mullin’s diary “Decline and fall” makes depressing reading. However it is a reminder that throughout 2006 Labour was in meltdown, well behind in the opinion polls. After Blair’s departure and the succession of Brown, the prospects improved for a short while. After the financial crisis however Labour was 20 points behind in the polls, and hounded by the Tory Press. During the crisis itself the Tories had not launched any major criticism of the government, fearing that this would rebound on themselves, when national unity was required. Now there was growing disunity within the Party and doubts were raised about Brown’s leadership. It was beginning to look like the 1980s again, but this time under New Labour.
There are a few interesting observations about the financial crisis.  The Tories had no alternative to the government’s bail out of the banks, which racked up the government deficit for which Labour is now blamed. If they had, then they did not speak out. In fact at a dinner of the Institute of Directors, one member was heard to mutter during George Osborne’s (the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer)  speech that if he had been in charge, then definitely the country would have been in meltdown. In February 2008 the Financial Times  describes the government’s decision to nationalise Northern Rock as a “hard-headed, non-ideological choice”, not a return to the 1970s as the Tories had suggested.
Mullins passionately claims that the Labour Government did not receive the credit for the changes that were brought about – reductions in hospital waiting times, improvements to exam results in schools, and the regeneration of inner cities in the North. That was partly because it was not given enough publicity. And it would not take many years of a Tory government to throw all this away.

Polly Toynbee “The Verdict”

Not a New Labour insider, but a Guardian journalist, Polly Toynbee’s book “The Verdict” analyses the impact that Labour made on problems of inequality and poverty. It is impossible to do justice to her detailed findings in this review, but she concludes that although progress was made, by schemes such as Sure Start, it was not possible to resolve the problems of long term unemployment created by the Thatcher years. In parts of the UK, unemployment spread from one generation to another. To resolve this would have taken more than welfare reforms. But the book is a very fair and sober analysis, complete with statistical evidence.
The flow of “New Labour” literature continues.

Barbara Humphries

Articles for the next bulletin to – Barbara Humphries mickandbarbara@btopenworld.com