The Fires of Perfect Liberty: Labouring Men and Women of England, 1851-1951: Part Three   Leave a comment

Part Three: 1861-1914: Poverty, Progress and Prosperity


022Tommy Atkins being shod by sweated labour was the slogan of the boot and shoe operatives who marched from Raunds in Northamptonshire to the War Office in 1905. Pressurised by a niggardly Treasury, the War Office bought boots for HM forces at the lowest tendered prices, ignoring a statement of prices drawn up by many of the contractors and the National Union of Boot and Shoe operatives. The secretary of the Rushden Branch of the Union reported that;

work for ankle boots is being given out at a penny a pair for closing the backs and the counters. It takes a good closer ten hours to earn one shilling and she has to find awls and bristles. The statement price for the operation should be two shillings and sixpence a dozen.

 The cut-price contractors of Raunds resorted to basketwork, sending the boots out to outlying country districts for finishing. The Union responded by sending two full-time organisers to Raunds, one of whom was the militant socialist, James Gribble. A member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), Gribble had started work as a finisher at the age of twelve. He had served seven years in the army and saw the best way of winning public sympathy and pressuring the government by leading a march to London.

General Gribble,
as he soon became nicknamed, organised his men on army lines, selecting only one hundred and fifty of the fittest men from three hundred volunteers.

025They set off on 8 May 1905, to the sound of bugles and a band playing Rebecca, cyclists leading as an advanced guard. Not a man fell out and they received sympathy and practical help along the route. At Luton, after a triumphant entry, the Mayor provided a meat tea and an enthusiastic barber offered to shave all the men free of charge. Boot blacking manufacturers, Blyth and Pratt, provided breakfast at Watford and so many people gave coppers that they had to be pushed to the bank in a wheelbarrow! At the War Office, Financial Secretary Bromley-Davenport refused to see them and declared he could not see his way fit to interfere between employers and workmen. Undaunted, Gribble made his way to the House of Commons, wearing a red tie, interrupted a debate from the Strangers’ Gallery and was only ejected after a struggle with twelve policemen during which he broke his ankle.

030The SDF helped to organise a mass rally in Trafalgar Square where ten thousand gave the strikers a tremendous send-off. Gribble had made history; creating an historic precedent in the matter of laying grievances before the highest authorities, by leading the first ever trade union march to the capital. The War Office was obliged to set up an inquiry and agreed that for 1906 and all subsequent contracts the original joint statement would apply, with slight revisions. The strike lasted three months and cost the Union some two thousand pounds. If Gribble was the General, the hero of the march was John Pearson, originally refused permission to join because he was a cripple; nevertheless he marched ahead of the procession all the way to London and back again (photo right).

As the Raunds strikers returned from their successful march, a great march of Leicester unemployed prepared to set off to London carrying a petition to the King:

Many of us are old soldiers… took an active part in the late South African war… we are reduced to the extreme of misery and want… unable to fulfill one of the first duties of husbands and fathers, namely to provide food for our wives and children.

024023The march of the four hundred men representing two thousand Leicester unemployed and their families left to a tumultuous farewell from fifty thousand people, but the vote by Leicester Trades Council was against supporting the march. Not for the first time, the trade unions were divided over the question of how to tackle unemployment. The Unemployed Bill, supported by the marchers, was opposed by many trade unions because it provided that the unemployed could be employed by local authorities at less than the union rate for the job. The march was to be welcomed in London by both the SDF and the Independent Labour Party at a mass meeting in Hyde Park. An unemployed watchmaker, George White, led the men of Leicester as they began their march on 5 June 1905, and for much of the journey they endured persistent soaking rain. The King refused to meet them, but Ramsay McDonald did. The great rally planned for Hyde Park was washed out, but on Whit Monday they were able to meet at Parliament Hill Fields, where McDonald addressed them on behalf of the ILP. Keir Hardie also sent a telegram, describing their march as heroic.

028Although industrial wages may have been a little better in the Midland towns than in the villages, living and working conditions were generally worse, so that it was not until the beginning of the last century that people were drawn in any significant numbers into cities like Coventry, Oxford and Birmingham from the surrounding countryside. Although Birmingham and the Black Country had become heavily industrialised by the mid-nineteenth century, it was only at the end of that century that Coventry became a city of many trades, with the decline of the traditional craft industries of ribbon weaving and watchmaking, and the birth of the cycle trade in the 1890s, to be followed gradually by motor-cycle and car manufacture, and the establishment of Courtauld’s works in 1905.

In the early 1860s, the dominant old staple industry had been silk weaving, which had first developed during the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, established by the gradual arrival of Flemish economic migrants and then developed by the floods of Huguenot (Protestant) refugees from 1572 massacres in France and their subsequent expulsion by Louis XIV. In 1857, as the result of a strike, Coventry home workers in the silk industry had been successful in preventing the new factory owners paying their workers by wages instead of by the piece, an achievement described as without parallel in nineteenth century England. However, the sudden collapse of this largely domestic cottage industry in the 1860s, had caused many Coventrians to seek employment elsewhere, in Lancashire or Leicester. Many of the textile workers were women, since silk-ribbon weaving had employed twice as many females as males in 1861. The population had decreased from nearly fifty thousand to well under forty thousand between 1861 and 1871, and recovered only slowly to reach fifty-three thousand in 1891.

The census enumerator’s schedules for 1861 show that nearly eighty per cent of household heads had been born in and around Coventry, eighty-five per cent of those living in the cramped, medieval centre of the city. There was a slight increase in demand for watchmakers by 1871, but this employed less than ten per cent of the local working population. There was, as yet, no great demand for unskilled labourers from outlying rural areas like Ufton and Noke, where my ancestors were living. When they eventually moved away from the depressed agricultural areas of Banburyshire around the turn of the century, it was to work on farms nearer the city, which supplied the local urban population more directly. The growth of the new cycle industry attracted new types of workers rather than displacing male weavers (who had a workshop rather than factory discipline), but the newcomers were mainly semi-skilled metal-workers from Birmingham and the Black Country.

003Many former agricultural workers who stayed put in the countryside, like Henry Tidmarsh (who had lost his arm in the threshing machine at Great Rollright), found work, at least temporarily, on the railways. He did a turn at night as a watchman at, or near the tunnel leading to Chipping Norton, and some other members of his extended family undoubtedly worked on the Banbury and Cheltenham line. One of the family was a victim of the Hook Norton Viaduct accident. Vinson and Jessie Gulliver’s grandfather, also Vinson, the local NALU official, worked on the making of the GWR between Banbury and Leamington, the Harbury Cutting in particular. My Great Uncle Vinson left school at the age of twelve and, with little prospect of local agricultural work, became an engine-driver in Manchester during the first decade of the last century. He lived to be the oldest man in Britain at 108, also commented in his letter written to his brother in 1979, when he was ninety-one, about the importance of railway employment in his family:

 While I can find no record of wealth in our family, there are also no records of any being in what… has been referred to as ’the sumerged tenth’. In fact, they seem to have held some important positions in the country’s progress and well-being. Grandfather’s brothers are, shall we say, prominent in that which they undertook… one was an Inspector on the railway (at) Bristol Temple Meads. He later had his nephew… his brother Joe’s son, Horace… working under him, and he explained… that he should make good with the Morse Code and use the Single Needle Telegraph if he wanted to get on… that was essential… which he did, to follow in his uncle’s footsteps. He used to receive the signal during the War for the train where the Royal princesses were taken for safety to take refuge in the Box Tunnel.

The improvements in public transport during this period brought the people of Suffolk many new opportunities for business and pleasure. By 1880 the county was crisscrossed by an interlinking network of railway lines, and branches connected with outlying places such as Southwold, Felixstowe and Aldeburgh. Most lines were served by the Great Eastern locomotives in their royal blue livery with red lettering and polished brass fittings, which operated out of the domed Liverpool Street Station in London. Despite all the hissing, clanking haste of the steam age, there was a friendly leisureliness about train travel, as one holidaymaker recalled:

We would sometimes be lucky with connections and manage to get a fast train as far as Saxmundham, but usually it would be the slow passenger and goods, stopping at every station. We would then choose a carriage as near as possible to the guard’s van so that we could while away the long wait at each halt, watching the comings and goings… Then there were the sacks of mail, and the livestock, cackling, clucking, or cooing and poking their indignant heads through the openwork sides of their temporary wicker homes… Eventually disembarking at Saxmundham, it was not unusual to find that the branch train to Leiston and Aldeburgh had cantankerously departed less than five minutes before… but a wait for the ’Winkle Express’ was always well worthwhile.

009With the expansion of the railways, therefore, so the east coast ports and resorts also developed. Colonel George Tomlin of Nacton was the man behind the growth of Felixstowe. He owned about twenty-five thousand acres in and around the little seaside village which enjoyed a modest popularity as a genteel holiday resort. He brought the railway there in 1877 and four years later began building a dock at the mouth of the River Orwell. It was opened in 1886 and the resort was well set on the path to prosperity. The Great Eastern began regular boat services to the continent from Felixstowe and Harwich. Hotels were built, the largest being the Felix, which was eventually taken over by the railway. High-class summer villas and less exalted boarding houses emerged, and every summer the buses, trains and Rolls Royces trundled into the town bearing visitors. The fisheries also flourished and it was not unusual for six truckloads of sprats to be carried off to London on the afternoon goods train.

The period also saw an incredible boom in herring production. Every day the fish special left Lowestoft bound for London. These were the great days of the steam drifters, sturdy, long-range boats that made possible a far more systematic exploitation of herring shoals. At the peak of the industry, in 1913, 1,760 drifters were operating out of Lowestoft and Yarmouth, when ninety million fish were landed at the two ports. In the Spring and Summer they fished off Ireland and western Scotland, landing their catches at ports between Milford Haven and Stornaway. Working their way down the east coast, they engaged in home fishing from September to the end of the year. Scottish girls followed the fishing fleets round the coast, their deft fingers gutting the fish in very quick time. From Lowestoft, and to a lesser extent from Southwold, the herrings were exported direct to the continent or conveyed inland by train.

006In the latter part of the century and up to the First World War, inventions continued to flow in what became known as a second wave. No town or city benefited more from this than Coventry, which had, by the last decade of the century, established a reputation for itself as a city which continually reinvented itself. Singer sewing machines had begun to be manufactured in Coventry in the 1850s, followed by bicycles and then, of course, motorcycles and cars. For a short time during the last quarter of the nineteenth century watchmaking became Coventry’s principal source of employment, though eventually it was eclipsed by the new engineering products of cycles, motor vehicles and machine tools. Watchmaking was never a large source of employment with slightly less than two thousand engaged in it in 1861, less than ten per cent of the local working population. In 1891 the industry employed three thousand men and women but ten years later this had fallen by approximately one-third. During the peak of the cycle boom of 1895-97 the industry employed six thousand workers and when this too fell away it was compensated for by the rise of the motor vehicle industry, which by 1911 was the city’s most important employer with almost seven thousand workers. The growth of the cycle and motor vehicle industries was very rapid. Coventry soon emerged as the centre of cycle manufacture in Britain, with many of the leading inventors and entrepreneurs already located in the city or migrating from elsewhere. In 1881 sixteen cycle manufacturers were resident in the city, rising to more than seventy during the boom years of the mid-1890s.

Despite the general demise of ribbon weaving, there is little evidence to suggest that the cycle industry absorbed local textile workers in large numbers, and, in any case, there were still over three thousand silk-weavers in employment in the city in 1891.

017The new industries demanded a new type of employee, the semi-skilled metal worker, and Coventrians employed in the city’s traditional trades were reluctant to seek such employment. Watchmakers were equally scathing about factory work and it was not until the late 1890s when the watch trade was in serious decline that younger watchmakers sought such work as skilled mechanics. The expansion of the cycle industry in the 1890s attracted many workers to Coventry. Many of these were forced to move on later in the decade, however, as the general recession seriously affected the trade. By 1905, however, prosperity had returned and the Ministry of Health, concerned that the Registrar General’s estimate of Coventry’s population was inaccurate, persuaded the council to carry out an unofficial local census. This claimed that the population of the city was eighty-three thousand, seven thousand more than the official census. This was confirmed by the census of 1911, which showed the population to be fifty per cent greater than in 1901. It also showed a natural increase of 13,328, which left the increase due to migration at 23,043.

Where did these migrants come from, and what did they do when they arrived? Most came from a diversity of urban areas; very few from rural areas. The majority were from other manufacturing towns in the West Midlands, especially from Birmingham and the Black Country, which partly explains the ease with which Coventry made the transition from small-scale production to large-scale factory production. The answer to the second part of the question is found in relation to the city’s remarkable economic growth during the decade.

016The cycle and motor industries showed an insatiable appetite for labour. There were six thousand cycle and motor workers in 1901, compared with almost thirteen thousand in 1911. This growth is even more remarkable when the age structure of the workforce is examined. In 1911, over ten thousand of these workers were aged thirty-five or under, and half of these were under twenty-five. The rate of natural increase in Coventry could not meet such a demand for labour, so it must have been that the increase in young workers came from among the immigrants during the decade. The growth in population continued unchecked up until 1914.

The restructuring of Coventry’s economy during this period was not wholly confined to the cycle and motor industries. The establishment in 1905 of the Courtauld Works, together with the arrival seven years later of the engine firm, British Thompson Houston, helped to channel the city’s industrial activity into new directions. Courtaulds quickly emerged as one of the city’s most important employers, with its workforce rising from two hundred in 1907 to over two thousand in 1913. During the same period the firm’s output of artificial silk increased more than fifteen times, making it one of the outstanding industrial successes of the period.

In the years up to 1914 there was a considerable change in the gender composition of the labour force employed by the old and new industries in Coventry. In 1901 the cycle and motor industries were dominated by men, with only ten per cent of the workforce being female. The predominant pattern of migration during the following decade was for the young adult male to arrive first, find employment and accommodation and then send for his wife and family, if he had one. The needs of the dynamic local economy was for young male labour, and in 1907 the number of males in the County Borough of Coventry outnumbered those of females, whereas in both Warwickshire and Birmingham females were in the majority. The percentage increase in female labour in the cycle and motor trades between 1901 and 1911 was the same as the rise in male employment. However, numerically there were only eleven hundred women workers in these trades in 1911. Moreover, Coventry did not have a tradition of extensive female employment, other than in the declining ribbon weaving industry. Nevertheless, on the eve of the war, nearly three-quarters of the workers in textiles were women. The arrival of Courtaulds made a significant difference to female employment in the city, for by 1913 over sixty per cent of the company’s labour force were women. Courtaulds attracted so many female workers that other employers found it difficult to satisfy their own requirements.

The broadening of Coventry’s industrial base injected fresh life into the construction industry as new factories were erected and old ones extended. The need to house a growing population added significantly to the demands placed on the building trades. By 1907 house building was running at a rate of eight hundred to a thousand new homes each year, but the industry was still unable to keep pace with the demand for cheap property with the result that many workmen had to take lodgings during the week, returning home on Sundays. J.G. Gray established a building firm in the city when the cycle boom was in full swing. His firm soon acquired a reputation for good quality work and he became the city’s most successful building contractor, his achievements including Courtaulds Main Works. After the First World War, he was sufficiently wealthy to purchase the house and immediate grounds of the Coombe Abbey estate.

005The expansion of Coventry’s industrial structure between 1880 and 1914 also modified the geographical focus of the city’s economy. While the ribbon weaving industry concentrated itself to the north of the city, watchmaking was to be found in the south and west. To begin with, cycle production was mainly restricted within the city boundaries, but by the late 1890s it was spreading beyond the central areas as the accommodation problem became more acute, while much of the industrial development in the decade before the Great War centred upon Radford and Foleshill with the construction of the Courtauld and Daimler works.Many of the Coventry cycle firms operated on a very small-scale, with perhaps just three or four employees. Movement in and out of the industry, as with ribbon weaving and watch-making before, was facilitated by the limited amount of capital required by producers with modest output targets.

However, several of the largest firms in the industry were also based in the city. By 1906 Rudge Whitworth was one of the largest industrial concerns in the city with a labour force of 2,700 and an annual output of seventy-five thousand cycles. It was therefore this industry which brought the phenomenon of large-scale mass production to Coventry’s industrial landscape. Yet factory employment soon reached beyond cycle manufacture. The launch of the Coventry-based Daimler Motor Company in 1896 is often regarded as the genesis of the motor industry in Britain, though considerable experimentation had occurred beforehand. The Company’s Chairman, Harry Lawson, informed shareholders in May 1896 that;

We did not wish to build works because it would take too long, so we visited various works in the country which were for sale. We went to Cheltenham and Birmingham, in both of which places there were motor works for sale – all old-fashioned… At last we went to Coventry, and saw what we believed to be an almost perfect place for manufacturing those machines.

In addition, Coventry was favoured because of the transferable skills of cycle workers, and because of its rapidly developing medium machine tool industry, which could be of value in supplying equipment to the works. Once Coventry’s industrial restructuring began, it developed a momentum of its own, propelled by important linkages across and within various parts of the engineering sector. Many firms, like Riley, modified their focus of interest according to changes in the structure of demand. These changes not only provided the opportunity for diversification, but frequently made it a condition of survival. Thus, in the late 1890s when many of the components used by cycle manufacturers came to be made by a pressed steel process, orders to drop-forgers fell sharply so that they were obliged to seek business from engineering firms, coach builders and makers of agricultural equipment. The presence in the city of firms that were prepared to react positively to the demands of the new industries helps to explain why so many cycle and motor vehicle firms found it such an attractive venue. For example, while some car manufacturers, such as Armstrong-Siddeley and Daimler, did most of their own body work, others relied heavily on the skills of the numerous specialist coach builders in the city.

Coventry was unique in the number of motor-car manufacturers whose origins were located in the cycle industry. Riley and Humber began making cars in 1898, Swift and the Allied Cycle Company in 1899, Lea Francis in 1903, Rover in 1904 and Singer in 1906. The pre-war record for the number of motor manufacturers in Coventry was twenty-nine, reached in 1905. A depression in the industry removed some of the more fragile competitors, but by 1913 Coventry still boasted several of the largest and most prestigious manufacturers, such as the Rover, Singer and Daimler companies. The Standard and Daimler companies were two companies which did not have strong connections to the cycle trade. Before 1914, the latter had an annual output of a thousand cars and a labour force of five thousand, qualifying it as one of the largest engineering works in the country. Moreover, Coventry monopolised thirty per cent of the West Midlands labour force engaged in vehicle production and fourteen per cent of the national total.

The transition from cycles to cars was assisted by the intermediate stage of motor cycles which provided the opportunity for technical experimentation. In addition, the Triumph and Rudge-Whitworth were both active in the production of motor-cycles at this time. Capital generated by the cycle industry often provided the necessary resources to support research and initial production. Many cycle manufacturers were forced to diversify because of the rapid influx of cheap, mass-produced parts from the USA, a problem compounded by the fact that many of the leading Coventry firms, including Singer and the Premier Cycle Company, persisted with high quality/ high price machines, which represented the stagnant end of the market. By 1913 Britain dominated the world exports in cycles. Although at that time Coventry remained a powerful force in the cycle industry, many of the city’s pioneering firms were already fully committed to the production of motor vehicles before the war.

The growth of the cycle and motor vehicle industries inevitably promoted the development of component production in the city, though from the beginning many products were imported from elsewhere. Similarly, the early motor manufacturers found it necessary to reach beyond the city for such essential products as tyres and magnetos. By 1914 they had largely ceased to produce their own components. However, although Birmingham had become the focus of this section of the industry, perhaps because of its long tradition in the small-scale metal working trades, Coventry retained a special importance for particular products. For example, the Motor Manufacturing Company, one of the largest firms in Coventry in 1914, supplied four to five thousand radiators to the trade every year, representing a fifth of the total market share.

Cycles and cars also gave an important boost to Britain’s machine tool sector. By 1914 the seventeen machine tool producers in the West Midlands represented only a small proportion of the national total, but among them was Alfred Herbert of Coventry, whose reputation for quality products and high levels of output made the firm the outstanding manufacturer in the industry. Following its establishment in 1888, the firm’s immediate growth was based upon the production of weld-less steel tubes for cycles, but production soon spread to a wide range of medium machine tools suitable for wide industrial usage. Herbert lathes, for example, came to enjoy a distinct international market within the industry. By the late 1890s Herbert had a workforce of five hundred men. Yet the machine tool market was highly competitive and at the turn of the century the bulk of the equipment used by Coventry cycle firms was said to have been of American manufacture.

Overall, then, between 1880 and 1914 Coventry rapidly emerged from an industrial craft based economy to dependence upon the light engineering industries which came to dominate the twentieth century. The speed and magnitude of this change brought great social upheaval. The city’s population increased from 46,563 in 1881 to 106,349 in 1911, reflecting in part boundary changes, but also the attraction to migrants of employment in the cycle and motor industries. Such population growth placed considerable pressure upon housing, education and other social amenities. The Board of Education memoranda show Coventry’s elementary and secondary school provision to be buckling under the strain of a rapidly expanding child population.

The environment and rewards of work were also affected by the growth of the engineering industries. The spread of the factory system meant that many more workers than in the past were employed in relatively large units of production with less direct contact with their employer and using equipment which they themselves did not rent or own. Mechanisation increased the speed of production, particularly in the manufacture of cycles. By 1914 there was some movement towards the production of cars in volume, but the industry still retained its craft specialisms until well into the interwar period. In some respects the most unpleasant working environment was to be found at Courtaulds, where employees could find themselves operating in conditions of very high temperatures and carrying the risks of blindness through contact with dangerous chemicals. Yet Coventry, with the exception of the 1912 strikes in the bicycle trade, was not subject to the serious industrial unrest which affected many parts of Britain from 1908 to 1913. This was partly due to relatively weak trade union organisation, but in addition the wage rates were a substantial improvement on the traditional levels in the textile industry. By 1914, the restructuring of Coventry’s economy had radically altered the social experience of both working class and middle class Coventrians. When George Singer became Mayor in 1891 he symbolised Coventry’s transition from a craft based civic society into one which was becoming fully integrated with modern industrial capitalism.

However, little had improved in the quality of life for agricultural labourers. In 1913, Seebohm Rowntree, in his report How the Labourer Lives, wrote about the case of the Finch family from Berkshire; man, an agricultural labourer, wife, five daughters aged twelve, ten, nine, six and two. The father, Harry Finch, earned fourteen shillings per week. They kept a cottage free of rent, and a garden, worth about another two shillings, and rented an allotment for five shillings per year. They earned an additional two pounds five shillings in the course of the year. They were hard-working and honest, living in a village in which charities were almost unknown, even at Christmas. Their income had to cover clothing for the family, except that old Mrs Finch, who had two sons working, passed on her well-worn black dresses to her daughter-in-law. Rowntree first saw Mrs Harry Finch at her house, when the mid-day meal was set for the family, on a Wednesday, when the week’s supplies were not supposed to be exhausted. The meal consisted of potatoes, turnips and bread, and a fearsome-looking dish known as ’pig’s teeth’, which seemed to be the bony palate of a pig, with no flesh on it… Old Mrs Finch explained that it looked better than nothing… Harry Finch was responsible for the engine, which meant that he earned more than the ordinary labourers in the village. However, they were a long while trying to find out exactly how much he did earn. Every week he kept a shilling for pocket-money, out of which he paid for his insurance, and treated himself to a certain amount of beer. Never, even in the summer, did he bring home more than thirteen shillings… The house was beautifully neat and clean, and so was the little girl who had stayed at home from school for a cold. But she looked delicate and anaemic. The meat was eaten almost entirely by the man. Rowntree estimated that there was a deficiency of twenty-five per cent of protein in the family’s diet, and fourteen per cent in energy value. One sixth of all the food consumed was home-grown, all vegetables. The weekly balance of income over expenditure was fourpence, which was put aside for shoes and clothing.

It’s difficult to believe that this picture of rural poverty belongs to the same gallery as that painted for the US Consul in Birmingham in 1911 by one of the leading house painters and decorators in Birmingham, who complained that…

People are spending their money on automobiles and their upkeep instead of on the redecoration and painting of their houses… living more in hotels and on the roads… spending less time at home, caring less for the attractiveness of the home and devoting their surplus money, and even more than their surplus, to the purchase of automobiles and their upkeep; many, it being stated, purchasing motor cars without any idea as to their cost of maintenance and the loss through depreciation.

007In the transfer of social energy from religion to politics, the Labour Church movement provided a significant transitional stage. It grew up alongside the movement for an independent labour party and was supported by the same people. In its early days it satisfied a need which could not be met by a purely political organisation. John Trevor’s spiritual travail was typical of many of his age. Born in 1855 and orphaned while still a child, he grew up under the care of Puritan grandparents at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, who taught him to believe in the reality of eternal damnation and how to escape it. At the age of twenty-two his faith collapsed and he rejected the truth of the New Testament. However, he was unable to live without religion, and in due course he found a new faith in Unitarianism, becoming a minister in the church in London. In June 1890 he was appointed to a church in Manchester, and already inclining towards Socialist ideas when he heard Ben Tillett, the dockers’ leader, addressing an Unitarian Conference in London. Tillett asserted that the working classes were not irreligious, and made a plea for churches where people could get what they needed. Trevor determined to found a new church where no one would feel out-of-place because of the lowliness of his social standing. Following the founding of Labour Churches in London, Bolton and Bradford, many others were founded in the early 1890s. This growth led to the establishment of a Labour Church Union in 1893, and at its greatest extent some twenty-five churches belonged to it, mostly in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The movement had no central organisation, other than Trevor’s enthusiastic activity, a set of five broad principles which were approved by the Union’s annual conference, the monthly Labour Prophet and publishing and, echoing the Chartist movement, a hymn-book.

By 1898, seventeen Socialist Sunday Schools were running in conjunction with the Labour Churches. However, Ramsay McDonald did not share Trevor’s enthusiasm for them, regarding them as a cover for ordinary political propaganda. This was fair criticism in the case of the Birmingham Labour Church which affiliated itself to the local Labour Representation Committee along with the Socialist branches and trade union lodges, helping to fight elections in the early years of the new century.

029The Birmingham Church absorbed a local Fabian Society, agreeing to provide a regular course of lectures on social problems, held in the city centre. However, in the North, the Labour Churches were more closely allied to the ILP, which grew up alongside them and gradually subsumed the religious movement into its political organisation. Very few of the churches survived the Great War, though a number of Socialist Sunday Schools continued to be run in conjunction with ILP and SDF branches. William Temple was quoted by his biographer as saying of a Labour Church service at Leicester in 1907, that he never felt so near the real presence of true religion. Hardie himself regarded religion as the essential basis of a Socialist faith, claiming that Socialism… is the embodiment of Christianity in our industrial system. We can find a parallel for this association of political and religious aspirations in the Chartist Churches which accompanied the earlier movement, although they were too transient to have left behind much surviving evidence of their character, other than the Todmorden hymn-book.

Trevor did not become aware of their existence until after he had founded his first Labour Church. In making contact with similar causes in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, he commented:

 The Anglo-Saxon in England and America has shown himself able, more than any other race, to throw off the husks of religion without losing the kernel.

011010 (2)However, the failure of the Union of Labour Churches to adopt more than a set of broadly shared principles in terms of a Confession of Faith placed it outside the Nonconformist tradition. It was difficult to see what was left of Christianity after every doctrine had been thrown overboard. What could be said, for example, of the William Morris Labour Church set up in Leek in Staffordshire to perpetuate the memory of one who was certainly a distinguished socialist, and wrote songs which were included in the hymn-book, but who did not believe in God at all? Nevertheless, the Labour Churches gained support as a temporary means to break the strong bonds which the Nonconformist churches had established with the middle and artisan classes, in particular in alliance with the Liberal Party. They helped to establish Labour as an independent political movement of and for the working classes.

The growing urbanisation of the country which many thought aggravated the problems of the poor, also made it easier to deal collectively with some of the worst injustices in the early years of the twentieth century. Towns provided an increasing range of free services, and local government expenditure almost doubled between 1900 and 1913.

008Free school meals and school medical inspections helped to improve health among children and better attention in hospitals which catered mainly for working-class patients in conditions that were generally much better than richer classes who still preferred to be treated in their own homes or in private nursing homes. Workmen’s trains, electric tramcars and cheap, second-hand bicycles enabled many wage earners to escape from the congested areas of towns to the suburbs, leaving more room for those remaining.

Better grocer shops, such as Sainsburys and Liptons, football matches and other sporting events on Saturday afternoons,  excursions by trains, music halls and then silent films, public houses with bright lighting, were all additional signs of an improvement in the quality of urban working-class life, and a departure from the past.  Working-class women benefited the most from these changes. There was a preference for smaller families, making their domestic lives easier, and the arrival of the typewriter and telephone were among the developments which provided more employment opportunities for girls.  There were also more scholarships, often to new secondary schools and technical colleges which gave bright young people of both sexes opportunities for further education and better jobs, encouraging greater social mobility than their parents had experienced. However, these changes were not as rapid as sometimes supposed. There may have been more women teachers, nurses, shop assistants, telephonists, typists and machine operators, but there was still a vast army of female domestic servants. There was little understanding of the home conditions of many of the domestic servants among those whom they served.  One child from a prosperous family, who had employed two maids before the Great War, later  admitted to the BBC that she had very little idea what poverty was. Her maids never complained of poverty. Neither did they complain of the hard physical work and sense of alienation that many of them endured in  service. Alice Cairns, from Staffordshire, was placed as a maid in a big old rectory in the same county. It was still lit with oil lamps, not even by gas, and she had to clean the big range and get the fire going every morning before she could boil a kettle. After that she had to scrub the big kitchen, which had a floor like gravestones, scrub the tables and then take the cook a cup of tea before seven:

Then I had to clean the servants’ hall, and there were always a lot of people staying in the house, because they were very rich people… They used to have huge dinners at nine o’ clock at night, which used to go on till ten or ten thirty, before dinner was over, and me being the in-between maid, had all the washing-up to do, and all the vegetables to clean… all the rough work. We had one day a month off, and (as) I lived in Staffordshire… I went home. 

It is doubtful whether British Society has ever been so beset with contradictions as it was on the eve of the First World War.  Old age pensions began to be paid by the state only at the beginning of 1909, and health and unemployment insurance at the beginning of 1913. However poverty was still alarmingly extensive in 1914, especially in the countryside.

Printed Sources:

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Bungay: The Chaucer Press (Penguin)                 .

Neil Tonge & Michael Quincy (1980), Documents & Debates: British Social & Economic HIstory, 1800-1900. Basingstoke: MacMillan Education.

Derek Wilson (1977) A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.

Christopher Harvie, et. al. (eds.) (1970), Industrialisation and Culture, 1830-1914. Basinstoke: MacMillan Press (for the Open University).

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (eds.), (n.d.), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Rememrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.




Posted October 11, 2014 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

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