Essex Labour History Day


A record 70 people attended the Essex Labour History Day, organised on Saturday 17th October at Witham Labour Hall by Essex County Labour Party and Labour Heritage.

The event was chaired by John Kotz, chair of the Party.


Tom Paine


The first speaker in the morning was Stan Newens, chair of Labour Heritage. He gave a talk about Tom Paine. 2009 is the 200th anniversary of the death of Tom Paine, in June 1809 and there have been commemorations of this event, supported by members of the Tom Paine Society.


Tom Paine was born in Thetford, Norfolk. He was the son of a shoemaker who later became a stay-maker. His father gave him a Quaker upbringing which was to influence his political thinking. He opposed the power of the landed gentry and the power that they exercised over the established Church in the town of Thetford where Paine was brought up.  In the years in which Paine grew up, this class was dominant. At the time of the 1832 Reform Act only one man in forty had the vote and many constituencies sent members to Parliament on the basis of a handful of voters. These were known as “rotten boroughs”. Their dominance was defended by  Edmund Burke on the grounds that the “swinish multitude” had to be ruled.. One legacy of the 1640s revolution however had been the break with Anglicanism with the Church and the growth of Non-Conformism where election of clergy took place. One such group was the Quakers.


Paine took up employment as an excise-man and moved to Lewes in Sussex. He was a poet, an avid reader, animal lover and he took an interest in science. In Lewes he became active in politics, joining the local Society of Twelve and the Headstrong Club, which was a debating society. He regularly sent letters to the Sussex Weekly Advertiser. He wrote a pamphlet asking for higher pay for excise-men and as a result was sacked from work.


America and Independence


In 1774 Paine went to America and met Benjamin Franklin, one of the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence. Living in Philadelphia he edited a pro-independence newspaper. In this he called for a support for a boycott of British goods in America. He also called for the emancipation of the slaves and this led to the establishment of the first American Anti-Slavery Society. Benjamin Franklin was its first president. He campaigned against the repression of women and cruelty to animals.

In 1776 Paine campaigned for American independence with a pamphlet entitled “Common sense”. In it he attacked the English Monarchy in the form of George III and advocated local self-government.

When America gained its independence in 1783 Paine returned to Thetford. Later he became involved with supporting the French Revolution of 1789, which he saw as “the next step for human emancipation”. He published the first of his books entitled “The Rights of Man”, which attacked the unwritten British constitution, the hereditary nature of politics and the aristocracy. He advocated republicanism, democracy and the introduction of a welfare state. 50,000 copies of the book were sold – making it a world record at the time. The book was dedicated to George Washington. Groups like the London Corresponding Society and the Friends of the People took up his ideas.


However the book did not please everyone and there were wide scale attacks on Paine by reactionaries. The Government organised anti-Paine mobs to burn effigies of him and his supporters who were denounced as “Levellers” – a term first used by supporters of Lilburne during the English Revolution of the 1640s. At Waltham Abbey, Dunmow and Ispwich supporters of Paine were arrested. He was tried in his absence and found guilty of sedition. In the meantime however he had departed for France.


When Paine arrived in France he was elected to the National Assembly where he played a mediating role –arguing against the punishment of the King  Louis XIV, and he opposed the Jacobins in their call for his execution. In 1793 he published the “Age of Reason” which was an attack on religion – denying all existence of a “benevolent creator”. But he served time in a French prison during the rule of Robespierre and came very close to being executed himself by prison guards.


Tom Paine,  when released wrote a third book -  “Agrarian justice” in which he attacked inequality, especially on the land and maintained that the “earth was common property”. However he did not advocate public ownership.


When Napoleon took power in France Paine left France for America where he was to die in 1809 in poor health. His funeral was attended by a handful of people. William Cobbett went across to collect his bones but they were subsequently lost. However the legacy of Tom Paine was to live on – in the Reform Act which was passed in 1832, and the campaign for universal suffrage by the Chartists. The National Charter Association was to republish “The Rights of Man”. One century after his death a plaque was placed on the wall of his house in Lewes. One Conservative councillor resigned over proposals to put up a statue of him in his home town of Thetford in 1964.  In 2009 on his 200th anniversary there have been celebrations in Lewes, London and Thetford. Seen as a forerunner of socialists – the Tom Paine Society publicised a motto which summed up his beliefs – “My country is the world” and  “My religion is to do good”.










1929/1931 Labour Government


The second speaker was Jim Mortimer, a former general secretary of the Labour Party. He had personal memories as a child in Bradford of the 1929/31 Labour Government through listening to his relatives.


He pointed out that the 1929 General Election was the first to be held with full universal suffrage, as women under 30 had just got the vote. This meant that the electorate had doubled between 1910 and 1920. Nevertheless the increase in the Labour vote had been tremendous – from 377,000 to 8 million in 19 years. Never before had there been such a dramatic political change in Britain.


The roots of the support for Labour, according to Jim, was the disillusionment which had crept in after the end of the 1914-1918 World War. The promise of “homes for heroes” by David Lloyd George had not materialised, with resulting dissatisfaction with the Liberals. The 1920s saw an upsurge in industrial disputes across all industries.

In addition revolutions in other countries such as Russia, Germany and Central Europe had an impact on the consciousness of the working class. Also for the Irish population in cities such as Bradford there was the memory of the 1916 uprising in Dublin in which socialist James Connolly had been tied to a chair and executed by British troops.

Overwhelmingly industrial workers came to support the Labour Party. The election victory of 1929 took place within years of the catastrophic defeat on the industrial front of the miners in the 1926 General Strike. This was a remarkable come back for Labour, compared to the years of political defeats after the 1984/85 miners’ strike, especially as Ramsay MacDonald, as a leader of the Party had a radical past and had been in opposition to World War 1. Labour’s programme set up in “Labour and the New Social Order” was radical, aiming at achieving a socialist society.




Unemployment was the main issue in the 1929 General Election. Labour had issued a pamphlet “How to conquer unemployment”. This advocated increasing public expenditure, higher pensions, a house-building programme and speeding up the supply of electricity to create more jobs. It called for the building of new roads, re-organising the coal industry on the basis of public ownership, aid for declining industries such as cotton and wool, government control of the Bank of England and the establishment of a National Economic Council to plan the economy. It called for proper maintenance for the unemployed and for unemployment relief to be taken out of the hands of local government. All in all a very radical manifesto compared to more recent days!


The Labour Party was elected with 280 seats and became the largest party in the House of Commons. It nevertheless was a minority government. Some of its achievements included  ending the “not genuinely seeking work clause” which had penalised many of the unemployed needing maintenance and a house building act, the beginnings of trade with Russia, public regulation of transport and reduced hours in the mining industry. Some proposals such as the repeal of the 1927 Trades Disputes Act which would have allowed sympathy trades union action did not get the support of the Liberals in a minority government  or the House of Lords and could not be implemented. Nevertheless it had been part of Labour’s policy, unlike the present Labour Government with its massive majority in 1997. In the field of foreign policy, Arthur Henderson, who was foreign secretary wanted some of the reparations on Germany from World War 1 lifted as he could see what effect they were having on the German working class. The government’s policy was for dominion status for India.


However unemployment rose to 2.5 million by December 1930, under a Labour Government. There was pressure from the bankers and opposition leaders  for cuts in wages – a fallacious policy which would only reduce demand and deepen the recession. The cuts were adamantly opposed by the Trades Union Congress.

In the election of 1931 Labour’s number of seats in the House of Commons went down to 52, with the Tories winning 471. However Labour’s vote did not decline significantly.

There are parallels with today in that we are facing a slump which is caused as before by a crisis of capitalism. To win the next election Labour will have to appeal to its core voters – the industrial working class. Otherwise the extreme right-wing in the form of the BNP will make gains. The fascists always gain as a result of failures of social democracy.


After a lunch provided by members of Braintree Labour Party the conference reassembled to hear two more speakers 


First two Labour Governments


The first of these was John Grigg of Labour Heritage. He spoke on the origins of the first two Labour Governments and how they had come about.


The three main leaders of the Party – Ramsay MacDonald, Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson – all Scots – had been born into poverty. Both Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson had a background in the trades union movement. Hardie was in the Ayrshire Miners’ Union and Henderson in the Iron Founders’Union. MacDonald had no trades union roots but had come into politics via the Independent Labour Party. They had all connections with the Liberal Party before embracing Labour.


MacDonald, as leader of the Party, had engineered a secret pact with the Liberals prior to the 1906 election by which it was agreed certain seats would not be contested by both parties. The issue on which they united in 1906 was that of free trade.


World War 1 cut across political developments and in 1915 Labour was invited to join a coalition government, probably to help quell industrial unrest. MacDonald and Henderson who had been anti-war both actually lost their seats in 1918.


In the 1923 general election the main issue was free trade, again with Labour and the Liberals campaigning against the Tories. Labour became the largest party and formed a minority government which did not last very long. However one of the achievements was the John Wheatley housing act which laid the basis for council housing. Labour’s first term in office was ended by a scandal surrounding a forged letter from Zinoviev of the Communist International urging the Communist Party in Britain to seize power! Apparently this showed that Labour was in the hands of revolutionaries and unfit to govern!


1929/31 and today


The final speaker was Andrew Fisher of Left Economic Strategies. He talked about the comparisons between the 1920s and 1930s and the economic crisis of today. For British capitalism production fell by 25% after 1918 and never fully reverted to its pre-war level for the whole of the 1920s and 1930s. In 1925 the government restored the Gold Standard, which had been abandoned during the War. This made industry less competitive as exports were expensive.


The crash in the US economy in 1929 had similar causes to the crisis of today – income imbalance (which is even greater today), speculation, bad management structures, foreign trade imbalance (the reverse of the 1920s) and a poor state of economic intelligence.

The Labour Government of 1929/31 had no policy on how to deal with the economic crisis. Snowden was a traditional economist, who went along with balancing the budget in the face of 20% unemployment and the overvaluing of sterling by maintaining Britain on the Gold Standard. This was indicated as when the Gold Standard was abandoned in 1931, sterling fell by 25% in value.


The trades unions had more influence over the Labour Party in the 1930s than today although membership was only 4 million. This time banks had been taken over but it seemed that there is no real abandonment of neo-liberalism as pay freezes, asset sales and public expenditure cuts are on the agenda as in the 1930s. The comparisons are also there with the 1974-1979 Labour Government which carried out cuts at the behest of the International Monetary Fund. The Labour Government which had behaved differently was that of Clement Attlee in 1945 which faced a bankrupt country but went on to establish the welfare state and a programme of housebuilding.


At the end of the meeting there was a discussion about the similarities between the 1930s and today.


Labour Heritage in West London


The annual meeting of Labour Heritage in West London was held in the Chiswick Labour Party rooms on Saturday 21st November, and was attended by 30 people.


The first part of the meeting was devoted to a couple of talks on local strikes which took place in factories on the Great West Road in Brentford.





Strike at Firestones 1933


John Grigg gave a talk about the strike in the Firestone Factory in 1933. This had lasted four and a half weeks. John described how the Great West Road had become an industrial area. Originally a country lane, it had been developed into the Brentford by-pass between 1920-1925. Transport arrangements made it an ideal site for locating new industries in the 1920s. In addition to that there was an established industrial workforce in Brentford – from the docks, gasworks and other factories. Decline in agriculture and the movement of the unemployed from the depressed areas was another source of labour. There was a local electricity sub-station to ensure a good supply of electricity to the plant. 


Firestones was a US owned company and there were also economic attractions of opening a factory in the UK to produce tyres. Tyres imported into the UK attracted a tariff of 33%.


Firestones was opened in 1928. In the first year it was making 500 tyres  per year, by 1933 this had risen to 3,000. The factory employed 850, of whom 200 were women. The workers had seen wages cuts as the recession bit – up to 50%. In 1933 average wages were reported as ranging from  £4.15 for men to £2.15 per week “for girls”. There were eight hours shifts, with a break of only 15 minutes – hardly enough time to get to the canteen and back. Overtime was compulsory. Pay was determined by “piecework” – even the toilet cleaners were so timed! This was a cause of dissatisfaction, particularly as pay was lost with “machine down time” and “waiting time” for which workers were not paid.

This is what prompted the strike on a Friday afternoon in July 1933 by 75 workers in one department.. A “speed up” was introduced which would have led to substantial cuts in pay. The strike however, which was led by members of the Communist Party, was broadened out to include the demand for trades union recognition. The Transport and General Workers Union- recruited in all departments of the factory and a strike committee was set up.


The strike became bitter as scabs were recruited, leading to confrontation on the picket line. There were mass pickets and one strike was charged with assault.  He was served with a two month prison sentence. The strikers also had to contend with interventions from members of the British Union of Fascists. The police  tried to close the Castle Hotel pub in Brentford which had become the strike headquarters.


There was no strike pay and as a result the union leaders were accused of collaboration with the management. Women strikers were involved in raising money to provide soup kitchens. Reports in the Daily Worker described the sweat shop conditions which prevailed inside the factory.  There was support however from the rest of the labour movement – collections, mass meetings and demonstrations were held in support of the strikers.


By the 15th July all production in the Firestone factory had ceased. The TGWU had recruited hundreds of workers. In the end a meeting was held with the strike committee and the company. Concessions were made – the double shifts – one eight hour day after another – were ended, and a guaranteed weekly wage was introduced. However trades union recognition was not given and piecework in the department where the strike had begun, was not ended.


By 22nd July the company demanded an end to the strike. Letters were sent to all strikers asking them to reapply for their jobs. However 460 voted to continue striking. The company tried, unsuccessfully to recruit new labour. But only 7 tyres were produced, of a poor quality.  Finally all the strikers were dismissed.


On August 9th the strike committee agreed to end the strike. Most of the strikers were taken back but 100 remained locked out. The TGWU now had 650 members, 75% of the

workforce and union recognition was achieved after 1945.


TRICO’s – the strike for equal pay 1976


The second speaker was Barbara Humphries on the TRICO strike in 1976. TRICOs’ was also an American owned multinational company on the Great West Road, on the site which is now occupied by Smith,  Kline and Glaxo.


The strike in 1976 was for equal pay for women. It lasted for 22 weeks and ended in complete victory. Its significance was that it was the first equal pay strike to take place after the implementation of the Equal Pay Act of 1975.


The struggle for equal pay for women goes back a long way in the labour movement. The TUC passed a motion in favour of equal pay in 1888. Spurred on by the effects of women working during two world wars, women in public sector employment such as transport and the civil service had made significant strides towards equal pay. However in engineering the situation had been poor. In 1940 women in the engineering industry had been earning less than 50% of men’s wages and it was only in 1943 that they had been permitted to join the Amalgamated Engineering Union.


In 1968 women machinists at Fords struck for equal pay and won. Barbara Castle,  then Minister for Labour played a key role in negotiating an end to this dispute and in 1969 she introduced an Equal Pay Bill. This Bill was not to come into force until 1975, giving employers over five years to prepare ( and in the eyes of many) to avoid its implementation.


The strike at TRICO’s began when men on the night shift were offered redundancy or the opportunity to work alongside women on the day shift. Five opted to stay and they were earning   £6.25 more than the women who were earning £52 a week. The Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers spent twelve months negotiating with the company to implement equal pay for the women who were now doing exactly the same work as the men. The Company refused, saying that there was a material and historical difference, and besides it would cost them £100,000 a week to implement equal pay. So in May of 1976 450 women workers and 100 men supporting them took strike action.

The strikers attracted enormous support from the labour movement – financial – as they were being paid £9 a week in strike pay, hardly enough to pay the rent, and in solidarity on the picket line. Delegations joined the picket line from local trades union branches and Labour Parties. As 24 hour picketing began,  this often took place in the evening and small hours of the morning, as pickets came down with their flasks of coffee (and sometimes brandy). It was a long hot summer on the Costa del Trico – it became  the social scene for the left and many people made long lasting friendships.


However when the autumn kicked in hardship confronted the strikers. Their morale was lifted by the effective blacking of the plant by the unions. No supplies would be delivered to the factory.  The union boycotted the Industrial Tribunal which was held in August 1976. They believed with good reason that it would not find in favour of the strikers. According to the Equal Opportunities Commission, during the year since the Equal Pay Act had become law, there had been 1835 applications on the issue of equal pay to an industrial tribunal. Of these there had been 110 hearings, of which only 31 had been successful. Indeed the Tribunal found that at TRICO’s  differences in pay were “genuinely due to a material difference other than sex”.


The AUEW had passed a resolution calling for “men’s pay for women” at its annual conference in 1976. It believed that this would be achieved through industrial organisation and the increased participation of women in the union. There were monthly reports from divisional organiser Bill Mcloughlin. An article written by Roger  Butler of the Southall AUEW in the AUEW journal in August condemned the press coverage of the dispute, which had “trivialised” the issue of equal pay. He added that some had said that there were complexities in the dispute but “as far as we are concerned the only complexities are the contortions and acrobatics performed by the company in its bid to exploit loopholes in the Equal Pay Act.”


The union claimed that lorries with their number plates covered up had been trying to get supplies into the factory at night. These drivers had police protection, and driving through red lights had been law breaking and a hazard to all.

Finally with production grinding to a halt the company approached ACAS. A week after its “final” offer of an increase of £3.58 per week had been rejected, it met the strikers demands and equal pay was implemented. The Strike Committee claimed

“We have won. We have got everything that we went on strike for”. This was due to the determination of the strikers and the crucial solidarity of the labour movement. Much of which would be illegal under the present industrial relations legislation.


The two disputes which took place in factories on the Great West Road in Brentford illustrated the changed balance of forces between the 1930s and 1970s.


The final speaker of the day was Jim Mortimer on his reminiscences of the 1929/31 Labour Government. This was followed by a discussion on the comparisons between the 1930s and today and what has been learnt or not. This included the role of trades union leaders who still have influence within the Labour Party and the pressure on MPs when elected to office to abandon their former socialist beliefs.


Anatomy of a strike – United Glass Bottles, Charlton, SE London


At 11 am on Friday the 12th, February 1960 the Manager, Mr Morris, of the United Glass Bottles factory in Charlton, S.E London thought he could improve industrial relations in the factory by talking directly to the workers in one of the factory’s shops. The shop he chose was the shop whose steward, Mr Morton, was Chairman of the Shop Stewards’ Committee We do not know what he wanted to say to his employees but it must have been connected with the national engineering unions’ claim for a cut in the working week and a £1 a week pay rise. The unions accepted the employer’s offer the previous day and the UGB workers consequently ended their work to rule in support of the national claim that very morning.


Walk out


We do not know what he intended to say because the men did not attend the meeting but carried on working. Again he sent instructions to the workers to come along and listen to his wise words. Again no one turned up. He then sacked with one hour’s notice Wally Morton the shop steward who he blamed for the workers not attending his meeting. By noon on the same day all work had stopped at the factory as practically all the firm’s 1,400 workers had walked out in support of the Chair of their shop Stewards Committee.

The shop Stewards established a strike committee with Les Doust, an AEU steward and well known Local Communist in the AEU, as its Chairman. They organised a picket rota, called a mass meeting of strikers for Monday morning, contacted their union Officials, members of at least 6 unions were on the Shop Stewards Committee, and stewards at other UGB factories. They had factories in Glasgow, Liverpool and Yorkshire.


Time now for the strikers and management to take stock of the situation. At 11am management tried to address their employees, they tried again, and then sacked the stewards’ leader and by midday practically all of the factories’ 1,400 workers had walked out on strike. This was clearly a spontaneous strike, there was little or no time for the shop stewards to call a strike. News of the sacking must have spread like wild fire through the workforce scattered throughout the large site and their reaction was to immediately walk out on strike. Labourers as well as the engineers, warehouse men as well as electricians, all walked out. The strikers’ position was simple. No return to work until the Chair of the Shop Stewards got his job back.


The management’s position was exactly the opposite. “It can not be acceptable for any employee to countermand management’s clear instructions. Management must be able to hold a meeting with their employees, on their premises and in the firm’s time”. They sent out a letter to all 1,400 strikers making these points. The strikers’ view was that, if management had anything to say to the workers, they should do it through, the Shop Stewards Committee, the workers’ elected representatives.  The stewards maintained that there was a local agreement covering this very point. The employers said they would not discuss the situation with the unions until all the strikers had returned to work.


The strike


The strikers’ mass meeting on Monday morning unanimously agreed that Wally Morton’s sacking was a flagrant act of victimisation. They resolved to continue the strike until he got his job back, and organised strikers to go round other factories, depots and the docks to ask them to black UGB bottles. The factory, like many other factories in the area, was on the south side of the river Thames and barges delivered raw materials for the glass manufacture directly to the factory site and  collected glass bottles. In addition UGB had a contract with the Co-Op to supply them with the glass milk bottles for children attending L.C.C schools. At this meeting a fulltime organiser of the South London District of the AEU spoke supporting the strike saying he expected it to be made official. He also said that union officials had met management that very morning but had had got nowhere with them.


If all this was not serious enough for the management the factory’s boiler workers struck on the Monday. The significance of this was that, if the furnaces are not working no glass can be produced and it would take weeks to restart the furnaces once they had stopped working.  The strikers knew this and stopped the oil coming into the site to fuel the furnaces. Management managed to keep them working until the end of the week.

By the middle of the week the bottles had been blacked by Co-Op workers and Thames lightermen and workers at the firm’s factory in St Helens had held a token strike in support of the Charlton strikers. In addition the Glasgow UGB workers had threatened an all out strike on Friday if the dispute had not been settled by then and the workers of Harveys,a neighbouring factory had offered to organise collections for the strike fund.

On Thursday a mass meeting of the 1,600 strikers was told that management had contacted the trade unions’ full time officials begging for an end to the strike. A meeting was taking place that very day between the District officials of the AEU and UGB management at the Ministry of Labour offices in Central London. Management still refused to talk to the shop stewards


News story


Meanwhile the strike had become a local and political news story. It was the front page lead in the  two local newspapers, the Kentish Independent and the Kentish Mercury with headlines :“Shop Steward sacked so 1,400 strike”  and “Shop Steward sacked: 1,600 strike” respectively.  As Communist Party members played a leading role in the strike it was not surprising that the Daily Worker covered the strike but they gave it limited, but daily coverage. They did not report the deal that ended the strike. More surprisingly the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League of Gerry Healy sent Brian Behan down to the picket line. He wrote a detailed account of the first week of the strike which made the front page of the SLL’s weekly paper “The Newsletter” with the headline “London: Bottle workers out”






The deal


The AEU lead by their full time South London District official, Mr Parker, agreed the following with the UGB’s management:


  1. Wally Morton’ sacking would be withdrawn and substituted with 3 days suspension commencing with the return to work by the strikers.
  2. Management asked the AEU to examine the fitness of Wally Morton to be a shop steward
  3. Representatives of the 6 trade unions at UGB would meet with management to discuss the functions of the shop stewards.


Mr Parker and another union full timer Mr Biggin then met the strike committee to inform them of the deal but they were divided on the compromise agreed with the AEU and decided not to recommend ending the strike to the mass meeting of strikers on Friday morning.

The union officials sold the deal to the strikers as a defeat for management even through the terms of the deal were not completely satisfactory from the workers point of view. A striker moved that we should not go back until our leader Wally Morton is in the front of our march back to work. This was rejected by 2 to 1 and when a resumption of work on the terms agreed by the trade unions was put to the meeting the Chair of the Meeting Les Doust declared the vote 50-50. He then put the vote to the strikers again, this time asking everyone to remember the gravity of the situation and  the vote to end the strike was narrowly carried.


After the vote Les Doust said “The meeting, whilst accepting the recommendations for a resumption of work, does not regard the terms of the settlement as entirely satisfactory. Morton’s credentials are satisfactory to us”

The SLL talked to the strikers about the deal and described it as a shoddy little deal. They sold 125 copies of the Newsletter and some workers asked about joining the SLL. The Daily Worker reported that strikers bought 130 copies of their paper.


Return to work


Next week the Newsletter had a story on the return to work where they said everything seemed to indicate a resounding victory for the strikers. But instead a shabby compromise was negotiated between management and union officials.

The return to work and the deal that made it possible were factually reported in the following week’s Independent and Mercury but the Mercury had an editorial attacking the strike headed “Power without Responsibility”. The editorial accused the shop stewards of flouting the agreed local agreement between unions and management and acted on impulse.


The workers would say it was management who broke the local agreement by sacking their leader and they had immediately walked out without any instructions from their shop stewards. It was management who acted on impulse. With the deal that ended the strike, management revoked the dismissal of Wally Morton and suspended him for 3 days. This must have been a victory for the strikers. Wally Morton was still a Shop Steward and the workers still recognised him as their chairman. Management could ask a trades union to withdraw a steward’s credentials - but only ask.  The management had no veto over the appointment of shop stewards.

It is clear that the unions and management had to sit down and discuss how industrial relations could be improved and reach an agreement on they would work together in the future.


Scott Reeve


 Review of Labour in the East: essays in labour history in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex


This collection of essays about labour in the East of England,  written by five different authors, is published by Labour Heritage with financial support also from trades unions. Some of the essays have been previously published in journals.

It is not one history of the labour movement in the area, but is in the words of John Gyford, who wrote the introduction

“..a series of historical portraits of local labour movement development rather than an integrated account at a regional level.”


There are some common themes – the rise of the Labour Party, the role of the trades unions, the experience of unemployment and the Poor Laws in the 1920s and 1930s which affected all parts of the region.  In each essay there is a focus on the individuals who were key to building the movement – where they came from and what motivated them. Each essay demonstrates the links between local history and what was happening at a national level, so local political developments are seen in context. The five authors of these essays are all historians and labour movement activists themselves  and this gives them the benefit of understanding  local labour history from the viewpoint of those who were involved in  the movement.


 The eastern region of England was never a Labour stronghold. It was primarily an agricultural district, but nevertheless Labour was able to gain a significant presence and gain victories in 1945. As the essays show, these victories would not have occurred without the decades of work put in by local activists. The changing nature of some of the area is noted, particularly in relation to Essex, parts of which are now associated with east London.


The first article is on the “Rise of the Labour Party in Ipswich by Ian Grimwood. Ian wrote an article on Dick Stopes and the Ipswich by-election in an earlier edition of the Labour Heritage bulletin. Sadly he died before the publication of this book.

Labour had a presence in Ipswich going back to the times of the Chartists. In 1869 a labour representation committee was established. In 1885 seven trades unions came together to form the Ipswich and District Trades Council. These unions included the Typographical Association, and the Boot and Shoe Makers Union. In 1891 a Labour candidate was fielded by the Labour Electoral Association. A branch of the Independent Labour Party was founded in 1906.  As in many parts of the country, in Ispwich the Labour Party and Trades Council combined to form a joint committee.  Peter Jackson ran as a Labour candidate in local elections and between 1918-1935 he was the Party’s parliamentary candidate for Ipswich. It was when he stepped down that Dick Stopes became the parliamentary candidate and went on to win the 1938 by-election in Ipswich. His life story  illustrates the diverse backgrounds from which  many early Labour candidates came.


“County government and labour politics in Essex 1930-1965” was written by John Gyford. He explains that county government did not have the same social role as municipal government and therefore had not been such a focus for early Labour activity. Comparisons are made with other county councils. There is an outline of the links between the local Party and the Labour Group on the Council and the way that Labour tried to make its mark during its  three periods of time in office.


“From two boys and a dog to political power” is the history of the Labour Party in Lowestoft 1918-1945 by Don Mathew. In 1904 the Lowestoft Tin-Plate Workers Society approached the Labour Representation Committee and asked to set up a local association. In 1913 the Lowestoft and District Trades and Labour Council was set up. A pioneer was Johnnie Joplin who had moved down from Yorkshire to set himself up as a master baker. He was a non-conformist with a background of public speaking ability.


In 1918 the Lowestoft CLP was founded with “the fervour of a religious crusade”. There was a trades union presence in the town with strikes taking place among railway workers, shipyard and engineering workers after 1921.


Although a seaside town and holiday resort, Lowestoft had its fair share of poverty and in the 1920s the depression affected the herring fishing industry badly. Falling agricultural prices also hit the town’s rural hinterland. One of the activities of the local Labour Party, including the Women’s Section, was running soup kitchens and raising funds to buy shoes for children.


There are accounts of a local teachers’  strike due to pay cuts. This strike had the support of the parents who kept their children away from school.

During the 1926 General Strike a Council of Action was set up and there was a daily strike bulletin.


During the 1930s support for Labour grew and in the 1934 Lowestoft by-election, the Labour candidate – Rev.Regionald Sorenson won 13,992 votes. The winner was the Tory candidate with 15,912 votes – he was Pierre Loftus, a popular local man who ran Adnams brewery in Southwold. Rev. Sorenson was a Christian socialist and a lecturer in the Workers’ Educational Association. This election result, in which the Liberal vote collapsed, was a foretaste of what was to happen in 1945 when Labour won the constituency. Edward Evanson, the Labour candidate, entered Parliament for the first time at the age of 62. He chaired the National Institute for the Deaf and succeeded in getting hearing aids provided free on the NHS. He held the seat until 1959. But Labour was not to win Lowestoft again until 1997.


“The Red Flag and the fine city” is about Norwich LP 1900-1945 is written by Matthew Worley, author of “Labour inside the gate”, which was reviewed in the LH bulletin in 2007.


He puts Norwich politics into a national context but spells out its local differences. Norwich had its first Labour MP in 1906 – George Roberts, who was one of the first 29 Labour MPs, who benefited from a progressive alliance with the Liberals. He was a trades union official with the Typographical Society. But he ended up joining the Tories.

Another remarkable  Norwich Labour MP was Dorothy Jewson, one of the first women to be elected to Parliament.


One of the distinctive features of Labour politics in Norwich was the strength of the ILP – founded in 1892, it continued to grow even after disaffiliation from the Labour Party in 1932. In fact its members campaigned for re-affiliation to the Labour Party.

Due to the relative weakness of the trades unions in Norwich the Labour Party was the main attraction for workers in the building, shoe trade and transport.  As a result it had a very strong organisation and in 1938 had over 2,000 members,  one of 32 constituencies nationwide to have this level of membership. It had a lively social life with football and bowls teams and whist drives. In 1933 Labour gained control of Norwich Council and this was used to start an extensive house-building programme and to introduce free school meals.


Finally a detailed history of the co-operative movement in Essex was written by Labour Heritage chair, Stan Newens. Essex was mainly a rural county until the second half of the 19th century. The earliest co-operatives were consumer co-ops based on support  from industrial workers.. For instance the Stratford Economical Bread and Flour Association in 1854 and the Stratford Co-operative and Industrial Society in 1861 were based on the support of railway workers in Stratford who wanted a better deal.


The pattern of support for co-ops in the  industrial parts of the county  showed the extent to which parts of  19th century Essex – Barking, Ilford, Canning Town and  Plaistow- have moved into London – their co-ops becoming part of  the London Co-operative Society. But that would not be the whole story – co-operatives spread into towns throughout rural Essex – Burnham on Crouch, Coggeshall, Walton on the Naze, of which there is much detail in this article. In larger towns such as Chelmsford there were co-operatives based on workers – for example a coal co-operative in 1847.


In later years Essex farmers have established producer co-operatives – the Eastern Counties Dairy Farmers Co-op Society and the East Anglian farmers which supplied Covent Garden. In 1978 the London Co-operative Society owned and farmed 4,500 acres in Essex to control its  supply of produce.


To read all of these essays in full buy a copy of the book  from John Gyford.

£7 . Cheques to “ Labour in the East.”. John Gyford, Blanfred, Chalks Rd, Witham, Essex, CM8 2BT


Review of “Foundations of the British Labour Party: identities, cultures and perspectives 1900-1939 edited by Matthew Worley. Ashgate 2009


Like “Labour’s grassroots” reviewed in the Labour Heritage bulletin in 2005 this is a collection of essays edited by Matthew Worley. This collection though has a thematic, rather than regional/local approach. It  covers  diverse aspects of the origins of the Labour Party, including the role of major trades unions, women, constituency parties, European socialists and the role (or otherwise?) of religion. It builds up a picture of a very rich and complex set of influences upon the Party.




Two of the essays describe the role of some of the key unions and their relationship with the Party. Gerald Crompton writes about the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants which had very early links with Labour. This union moved the resolution at the TUC annual conference in 1889 calling for the establishment of the Labour Representation Committee. The court ruling in favour of  the Taff Vale company which threatened the funds of the union further cemented its relationship with the Labour Party, along with the other main unions in the railway industry – ASLEF and the Railway Clerks Association. As a result of amalgamations the ASRS became the National Union of Railwaymen, by the 1930s the third largest union in the country. The essay gives an interesting account of the structure and working conditions in the railway industry in the 1920s and 1930s, and charts the progress of support for nationalisation and workers’ participation. The railways were taken into government control during World War 1 but handed back to private owners in 1921. Dominated by four companies the employers had a paternalistic approach to management, providing sports clubs and social facilities. These were rivalled by the unions themselves. The ASRS first called for nationalisation of the railways in 1894, and the Labour Party adopted the policy in 1914. There were disagreements between all parties regarding workers’ representation but the cause of government ownership, as well as protection of union rights – adversely affected by the Osborne Judgement – banning unions from using their funds to support political parties and the 1927 legislation making secondary action illegal, was to bind the railway unions in their support for the Labour Party.


The largest union in the UK – the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, did not join the Labour Party until later – 1908 in-fact. In the early 1920s syndicalist ideas still had considerable influence in the union, but after the defeat of the 1926 General Strike, the miners were more inclined to look to a future Labour Government for protection. The mass unemployment of the 1930s cemented this relationship and ensured that the nationalisation of the coal industry became a priority for the 1945 government.

Chris Wrigley considers the European context – British labour and continental socialism and questions whether the “otherness” of the British labour movement has been overstated in the past. Socialists from the UK played a part in the Second International and had many links with the German Social Democrats from whom they drew inspiration.  Support was given to the German socialists when they faced Bismark’s anti-socialist laws. Solidarity meetings were organised for the Russian workers in 1905. A line of radicalism was drawn from the English and French revolutions through the Chartists to the socialist movement of the late 19th century. In 1889 Keir Hardie attended on behalf of the Scottish Socialist Party, a Marxist conference in Paris to celebrate the French revolution of 1789. In 1895 the ILP convened a meeting to remember the Paris Commune. Bands in support of the dockers’  strike played the Marseillaise on their marches. Celebration of May Day was another feature in the internationalism of the British labour movement. In the 1890s thousands marched in towns and cities up and down the country. This included women, and children organised by the Socialist Sunday School movement. Disagreements within the movement developed over the 1917 October revolution in Russia, but on the whole there were less ideological splits within the British labour movement compared to its continental counterparts. Chris concludes that “British exceptionalism such as it was, lay in its relative unity and the moderation of the vast majority.






Peter Catterall’s essay on “the distinctiveness of British socialism: religion and the rise of labour 1900-1939,” looks at the impact of Non-Conformity on the labour movement, following the claim by one general secretary that it owed “more to Methodism than Marxism”. It was not clear that non-conformist institutions played any role in mobilising support for Labour, although a large number of individuals who were to play a key role in the movement came from a Non-Conformist background. For instance 50% of the leadership of the ILP in 1926 were Non-Conformist Christians. They contributed a view of socialism which was ethical rather than materialist, and lent terms such as “crusade” and “moral imperative” and “individual and social salvation” to its vocabulary.  There were strong pacifist leanings amongst some sections of the movement, and maybe less militant atheism than amongst continental socialists. Nevertheless to say that the roots of Labour lay with Non-Conformism would be to ignore the substantial amount of support that the Party drew from Irish communities who were catholic  and Jewish communities throughout the country.

The impact of the imagery of religion rather than its content is captured in Jacqueline Turner’s essay on “Labour’s lost soul: recovering the Labour Church”. The Labour Church was founded in Bradford in 1893. At its peak it had 100 churches nationwide with congregations of 200-500. Speakers such as Keir Hardie could draw audiences of 5,000 or more. It also spread through the émigré populations in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Its growth was sporadic and spontaneous but it did support a Labour Church Union.  It published the “Labour prophet”. It was “candidly political” but used religious terminology. Its support was that it used a familiar medium – the church service to get across a political message to working class people and it had very close links with the ILP. At the same time attendances at Non-Conformist churches were falling as most preachers “must preach what suits the wealthy manufacturer and those golden pillars of the Church”. So although it was described by  founder John Trevor as a religious movement, the Labour Church was in essence secular. Did it have any counterpart on the continent? It must be remembered that in Britain Church and State had not been separated, and since the revolution in the 17th century protest for decades had taken on a religious dimension, in opposition to the established church. This is where the Quakers and Methodists came in.


Constituency Labour Parties


The editor, Matthew Worsley writes a chapter entitled “Fruits on the tree : Labour’s constituency parties between the wars. He quotes from Hugh Dalton  “…without the trades unions our tree would have no roots and no stability, without the constituency parties it could bear no crop of political fruit.” The re-organisation of the Labour Party in 1918 established  individual membership – previously the Party had been made up of affiliated organisations. By the 1930s there were half a million individual members – 17.7% of the membership. Many active vibrant parties were not in the Labour heartlands but in the south-east of England. As the author says “Indeed Labour’s historic general election victory in 1945 would not have been possible without such constituency parties forging, cultivating and propagating Labour’s socialist vision in the suburbs, and emergent towns throughout Britain’s ever-changing economic base.”


Strong constituency organisations however did not guarantee election successes. The parties were organised more for election campaigning than for political education, but having an active social calendar was a large component of their organisation. Much evidence is given from Dan Weinbren’s book “Generating socialism” which was based on interviews from activists with memories of the 1930s in the Labour Oral History Project which was carried out in the 1990s.


Other essays in this volume are on the relationship between the Co-operative parties and the Labour Party, the life of John Robert Clynes and the role played by women in the Party. By the 1930s half of the membership of the Labour Party were women,  an achievement in a party which had started off with its roots so firmly in what was then a male dominated trades union movement. Perhaps a consequence of the suffragette movement? Also there is an essay on the response of Labour to anti-socialist propaganda. It has been suggested that the Party tended to drop the “S” word in the 1920s, only to pick it up again vigorously in the 1930s with its “socialist crusade week” – a campaign which sold over 600,000 socialist pamphlets.


Reviews by Barbara Humphries


Philip Snowden


Philip Snowden was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1929/31 Labour Government which followed the financial orthodoxy of the bankers.


In 1921 he wrote the following paragraph  in a book entitled

“Labour and the New World


“No scheme of national financial reform can be effectively carried through without the nationalisation of the banking institutions. If private interests control finance other schemes of nationalisation will be largely at their mercy. The war-time experience of borrowing conveys a severe lesson of the power of private financial interests to exploit public necessities. The rate of interest on public  borrowings has been raised from about 3 % to 7% and a considerable part of the National Debt is represented by the inflation of credit. The banking business of Great Britain is rapidly evolving into a great monopoly. Private banks have disappeared and, and five great banks now control the great bulk of the banking business of the country.”