My review of “A Very British Conspiracy The Shrewsbury 24 and the Campaign for Justice” by Eileen Turnbull

a very british conspiracy

In 2023 many trade unions are taking strike action due to a cost-of-living crisis amongst working people, while  the  Tory government’s response  is to  threaten  further  anti-strike  legislation. A Very British Conspiracy is a reminder of the lengths a Tory government will go to crush the trade union movement.

It took a campaign of 27 years for the story to be told and for the quashing of the convictions of the strikers. One question that struck me is why the trade union  movement  left it to Eileen and her comrades to take on this battle.

Eileen was married to Tommy,  who worked on building sites across the northwest in the 1960s and 1970s. It was dangerous, dirty work with little solidarity between workers and no health and safety protection. He left the industry after an accident but was an activist in the Transport and General Workers Union (now Unite): they were both hopeful when they heard about the National Building Workers Strike in 1972.

For the first-time labourers and skilled workers were united in demanding the end of “The Lump” and a joint pay claim for all workers. As Eileen says,  “Building workers were serious and wanted to change the balance of power in the industry.” They took on the barons of the building industry including McAlpines, Laings and Wimpey. In September 1972 the strike was settled and the unions had won the biggest pay rise in their history.

But it was not over. In  fact,  the fallout from the strike would devastate the trade union movement for years to come and ruin the lives of those who took part. Five months after the strike thirty-two building workers were arrested for offences that were alleged to happen on building sites in Shropshire and North Wales during the strike. Finally, after the trials six pickets were imprisoned, sixteen received suspended prison sentences, one was found “not guilty” by the jury and one was  “not guilty” by order of the court. They became known as “the Shrewsbury 24”.

Eileen Turnbull is one of the heroines of this story. A working-class woman,  she was educated through the trade union movement,  and was there right from the days of the trial through to the quashing of the convictions of the Shrewsbury 24.

eileen turnbull

Eileen Turnbull

She worked for the GMB trade union  and had the confidence to take up the mammoth task of unearthing  the truth, about how and why Des Warren,  one of the leading pickets,  received three years in prison. His life was changed completely,  and even after his release he was blacklisted and suffered life changing health problems.

In 2006,  after Des died, the Shrewsbury 24 campaign was born and Eileen became its unpaid researcher. Again, the question must be asked; why unpaid? The trade unions could have easily paid her wages. Later, the campaign was forced to borrow money to pay their legal bill.  Successive Labour governments could have squashed the convictions – but they did not. Eileen also undertook an M.A. and PHD so that she could gain access to archives and to answer the question: why were the men  prosecuted?

Eileen concluded that “The outcome of the trials was the result of concerted action by building trades employers, Conservative politicians and the state to halt the emerging and successful trade union tactic of flying pickets and the growing strength of trade unionism in the building industry”.

This history is personal to me. My  father was a building worker in the UK in the 1970s. He was one of the many Irish men who were an important part of the workforce of the building industry in this country. Inspired by the National Building Workers strike of 1972 he joined the union and the strike. One of the few criticisms I have of this book is that the role of the Irish in trade unions has not been recognised. There are few histories written about the importance of Irish workers to the Labour movement. But it can be read about in the books of Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, the plays of Jim Allen and in the song “Ordinary Man” sung by Christy Moore.

The story of the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign is an inspiring one. There are many lessons that the trade union movement can learn from their search for the truth and justice. It was, for Eileen,  “a long and winding road of discovery to find the crucial evidence which was to finally overturn this miscarriage of justice… These prosecutions should never have taken place. The fact that they did is a salutary lesson for all trade unionists today.” 


Buy it here.

If you live in Greater Manchester, you can borrow a copy here

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Patti Mayor: Preston artist and suffragette

Mayor, Patti, 1872-1962; The Half-Timer

Half Timer Patti Mayor

In the little gem of an art gallery in Oldham I came across the work of artist and activist Patti Mayor. Born in Preston on 1 May 1872 as Martha Ann Mayor, she was known as Patti, one of five siblings. Her father owned his own company and the family lived a comfortable middle class lifestyle. Patti was able to study at the Slade School of Art and Paris, for instance.

Patti was born into era of rapid change with the  rise of trade unions , the creation of the Independent Labour Party and the campaign for Votes for Women.

The Women’s Social and Political Union  was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903 in Manchester. It hit the headlines when her daughter Christabel Pankhurst and their friend  Annie Kenney disrupted a meeting of Liberal Party speakers at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in October 1905. Fined,  they refused to pay and were imprisoned.

The Preston WSPU was set up after Annie Kenney spoke at a meeting in Preston with local suffragette Edith Rigby. Patti joined  the group met in a room above a tea merchant’s in Glover’s Court in the town centre.

Women such as Patti were attracted to the WSPU  because of its militancy over the campaign for the vote,  and perhaps  because the organisation used art to promote their demands. 

Working class women in Preston worked in the weaving industry – both as single and married women – and  they knew their value to the country’s economic prosperity and  thus were angry about their working conditions and the fact that   they did not have the vote. They took this anger into the WSPU to change the system.

Preston WSPU, like many branches in the early days, brought together these disparate groups of women. They funded their office and activities  by sales of work and social evenings.

“Preston members have been very successful with their three days sale of work (held to clear off the debt of £35 on their offices), and their efforts have been encouraged and fortified by gifts from various Lancashire comrades. It has been another demonstration of the good comradeship of women, and the sale has, in fact, been a three days’ At Home, when husbands and sons came in to help, and townsfolk took the opportunity of showing their sympathy. Much propaganda work has been done informally, as well as by two delightful performances of Miss Beatrice Harradea’s comiedietta, “Lady Geraldine’s Speech” given under Miss Pattie Mayor’s active stage-management.” (Votes For Women 5th November 1909).

Several of Patti’s art works are of working-class  girls and women. One of the famous is “Half Timer” which is a portrait of 12-year-old Annie Miller. She worked as a tenter at Horrockses  textile mill in Preston.  Half timer refers to the fact that she worked half a day at the mill and then got half a day’s education. Although after working 6 hours in a mill she probably slept the rest of the day.

Patti chose to take this portrait to London on 12 June 1908 for one of the biggest demonstrations organised by the WSPU, the London for Women’s Sunday, a suffragette march and rally, when over 300.000 women from across the country gathered to show their support for the vote and to prove to the Liberal Government that they were serious about their campaign.

ticket-one London Sunday march

Ticket for London march 21 June

It was reported in  the WSPU newspaper “Votes for Women”  that: “Talking of banners reminds me of the gem possessed by the Preston branch, which contains an oil-painting of a Lancashire lassie by Miss Pattie Mayor and bears the legend “Preston lasses mun hae th’voat”. At a social gathering held this week in the Geisha Rooms, Preston, Miss Mayor was presented with a bouquet on behalf of  the local Union.”

“Half Timer” is a powerful image. Patti portrays Annie with great dignity and respect and there is no sense of voyeurism. Patti reflects her politics in her choice of subjects.

We know little about her politics beyond the WSPU. What did she think about the undemocratic politics of Mrs. Pankhurst? Did she support the First World War alongside Edith Rigby? Or did she oppose it like  her friend Joseph Garstang who went to prison rather than be conscripted?

Read more about him here

Patti  died in 1962: her work was distributed to galleries in Lancashire. And although she was well known in her time, she was not included in Elizabeth Crawford’s book on “Art and Suffrage A Biographical Dictionary of Suffrage Artists.”

Visit the exhibition it finishes on 28 January.

I could not find a history of Preston WSPU but once again turned to “One Hand Tied Behind Us” by Jill Liddington and Jill Norris and their wonderful account of the Lancashire suffrage movement. Buy it here

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Manchester Irish in Britain Representation Group and Grass Roots Books Radical Bookshop (and later Frontline Books)

GrassRoots scans_0004

In 1981 a new wave of Irish activists became involved in not just the campaign for a united Ireland but also in campaigning for the  civil rights and equality for the Irish in Britain: the Irish in Britain Representation Group (IBRG).

The early 1980s were critical times during the conflict in the North of Ireland, it was a time of the hunger strikes when 10 young men died for their right to political status. It was also a time when 40,000 Irish people each year were making the journey across the Irish Sea to Britain.

It was a time when Irish people of different generations were becoming active in a new wave of activism including organisations such as the Troops Out Movement, the Irish Abortion Support Group, and the Irish in Britain Representation Group. It was a time when there was an active group of people in the Labour Party , the Labour Committee on Ireland, who fought for a progressive policy on the North of Ireland, supported the rights of the Irish in this country and at council level prepared to fund groups, such as IBRG.

Manchester IBRG was one its first branches and its members were involved in the formation of the national organisation.  In 1986 I moved back to Manchester and revived the branch as it was not that active. It  was based in a Catholic centre that was also not easy to access and it was dominated by some reactionary men.

The new branch had more women members than men and  included many younger people who were second generation or over from Ireland and had a different,  more assertive attitude to their Irishness. It included older women who were part of the traditional Irish community but were looking for a new organisation to reflect their lives and experiences. Although not party political most of the members were from a left/feminist background.

In the 1980s asserting oneself as Irish was deemed as making a political statement. Anti-Irish racism was part of everyday life and at all levels of society. Discrimination against Irish people was rampant and it was an issue that galvanised the Irish community in Manchester with IBRG taking the lead.

The war going on in Ireland and the state’s use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act made Irish people very nervous about getting involved in Irish organisations. Attracting members was not easy. We asked GRB for a post box so that we could receive mail and use the shop’s address to send out mailings. We were “Box 9”!

GrassRoots lBRG membership ed

IBRG Membership Leaflet

IBRG was effectively banned from most Irish Centres in  Manchester either  because they were run by right wing business people who opposed our politics or they were worried that if they did host our meetings, they would attract police attention and lose their licence. We held our branch meetings in Manchester Town Hall and the Students’ Union of Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University). In 1988 Liam Bradshaw of St. Brendan’s Irish Centre in Old Trafford offered IBRG space to have meetings and organise events.

We were very grateful to GRB (and later  Frontline Books) for the support they gave us. Located in the city centre it made access easier  for an Irish community spread across the city. Also, for a community that had a radical past (and future) the bookshop was an ideal place for us to have our mail box and meetings.   In March 1990 we sent the shop  a donation of £15 as a thank you for their support.

GrassRoots scans_0003

GRB had an excellent selection of Irish books, fiction, and non-fiction. They produced a questionnaire which they asked us to circulate to our members to inform them when they were buying new books. They also offered to put on a display of IBRG work at the shop.

When we produced an IBRG magazine (An Pobal Eirithe) they agreed in April 1988 to sell  10 copies.

ape 1990

In 1990 Grass Roots Books became Frontline Books.

An example of the hysteria that was prevalent at that time was that one day at work I got a phone call from Neil Swannick at Frontline asking me to immediately go to the shop and retrieve a parcel that had just arrived. I worked outside the city and so  got to the shop later that day. The parcel was waiting for me at the desk at the front of the shop. I opened it in front of Neil. It was a video sent from Ireland about the Hunger Strike Campaign, that I was going to use at a meeting.

Over the years 1986-1995 we held several meetings at the bookshop. This included;

History and the Irish Community 11 September 1991 with Ruth and Eddie Frow.

GrassRoots scans_0002

Irish Women Writers 17 September 1991 with writers Moy McCrory and Berlie Doherty.

Manchester  Festival Women Writers and Men Writers events 23 & 30 Sept. 1992

Historian Liz Curtis (author of “The Cause of Ireland”) meeting Frontline 17 March 1994

Hugh Callaghan (Birmingham 6) book launch in May 1994.

Hugh Callaghan meeting 1994

Bernadette Hyland (IBRG) and Hugh Callaghan

In IBRG Minutes of 19 September 1995 an Irish political prisoner contacted IBRG asking for people to send him books. I circulated this to members and said that if they were not happy to use their own address to send the books they could do so via our box at the shop.

The bookshop was of course much more than a place to hold meetings and receive mailings. It was a welcoming space for people who had never been involved in politics. It was a place to meet other people  looking for alternative views about the world and to get involved in activities. It was a place to find radical information in pamphlets and books that were not available anywhere else.

The archive of IBRG can be accessed at the WCML see

Contact the archive of GRB at

For further information see  leftontheshelf/research which has a listing and bibliography of radical bookshops and hosts a newsletter on the history of radical bookselling.

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My review of “Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: the “abortion trail” and the making of a London-Irish underground,1980-2000 by Ann Rossiter

Irelands Hidden Diaspora

Growing up in Manchester in the 1970s I had been subject to my Catholic (largely Irish) secondary school promoting an anti-abortion agenda and encouraging students to get on buses to attend Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child demos. I avoided this.  I was quite anti the school anyway, and when I went to Hull University, I joined the  National Abortion Campaign and took part in their meetings, demonstrations, and lobbies.

Returning home in my holidays and proudly wearing my NAC badge I was stunned by my Irish Catholic parents announcing that they supported abortion rights. They had seen too many women being treated harshly for becoming pregnant.

In the 1980s I was proud to be a member of the Irish in Britain Representation Group– an organisation which supported abortion rights for women on the island of Ireland.

Ann Rossiter’s book is an important historical account of how for twenty years members of the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG) and the Irish Abortion Solidarity Campaign (lasc) supported Irish women in their journey across the sea to London to have an abortion and also campaigned to change the law in Ireland on abortion.

During this time every year around 5,000 women from the Republic of Ireland and 1,500 from the North of Ireland travelled to Britain to get an abortion. They were met by Irish women who had settled in London in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Some of the women were second and third generation.

Ann comments “We were our bit of the Irish community.”  They were part of the alternative Irish community in London. In the 80s the Irish community in Britain numbered five millions while 40,000 Irish were coming into the country every year. Women made up a sizeable part of that influx.

The political environment was not easy for the Irish. The early 1980s were critical times during the conflict in the North of Ireland, it was a time of the hunger strikes when 10 young men died for their right to political status. And the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act against the Irish community in Britain turned the Irish into “suspects” but it also led to the creation of grassroots groups which were prepared to challenge this racism and discrimination. Irish people took this anger into creating groups such as  IBRG,  solidarity groups including the Troops Out Movement and Labour Party groups such as the Labour Committee on Ireland.

Irish women were a significant part of the growing Irish community and their presence and alternative view on what it meant to be Irish could be seen in the creation of organisations such as the London Irish Women’s Centre in 1983. A Centre that had “a feminist ethos concerned with both welfare issues and women’s self-empowerment.”

Abortion law in Ireland on both sides of the border was one of the most restrictive in Europe. One thing that all male (and some women) politicians on both sides of the border have agreed on is their opposition to any changes to this draconian policy. Ann says that Anti-Choice lobbyists “brought disproportionate influence to bear on fearful politicians.”

According to Ann the creation of the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group in the 1980s “was based on a longstanding tradition of Irish women, and sometimes men, whether living in Ireland or Britain, helping out in difficult circumstances”.

Facing hostility from the majority of London-Irish organisations, and to protect the privacy of the abortion seekers and its members the IWASG became an underground movement. Activists spoke of their work in the Feminist Review “It is a subversive activity – enabling women to have terminations undermines the dominant values of both the Church and the State in Ireland.”

The IWASG worked alongside the Spanish Women’s Abortion Group in London. They were two separate groups but worked jointly to ensure that all  women got the best deals from the clinics. They also did surveys to check women’s experiences of the termination once they had left the clinic.

Working with other organisations was an important aspect of IWASG, a factor that is only recently being recognised. These organisations which included health and reproductive rights organisations, abortion providers, women’s centres, and women’s voluntary groups.

The IWASG was an Irishwomen- only collective from its early days. Anti-Irish racism and a hostile environment in Britain during this period drove women into the IWASG and other Irish community organisations.

It was an informal support group, which provided information on obtaining a legal abortion, helped with the travel arrangements, met women from stations and airports, provided overnight accommodation and financial support. But it also provided a non-judgemental and supportive environment.

Travelling over from Ireland was stressful for the women and made more so by the impact of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the constant sense of surveillance and the fear  of being stopped under the legislation. During the 1980s over 80,000 people were stopped every year on their way into this country, the overwhelming majority of whom were never charged with any offence.

The Irish Abortion Solidarity Campaign , took up the campaign to support a woman’s “Right to Choose” onto the streets. IASC was set up in 1990 following a picket of the London Irish Embassy over restrictions imposed by the Republic’s Supreme Court on the provision of the names, addresses and telephone numbers of abortion clinics abroad to women in the South.

Fast forward to 2021 and a report from the Abortion Support Network shows how little things have changed

Statistics released today1 (21 June) show that hundreds of Irish women are still forced to travel to England for abortion services, despite provision of services in 2019. The Department of Health reported that 206 women from the Republic of Ireland and 161 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England for an abortion, representing 60% of all people who gave an address from outside of England and Wales.  

The data indicates that at least 30% of Irish people who have an abortion overseas cannot afford to travel without financial support. In 2021 ASN funded 59 clients from the Republic of Ireland to travel for their abortion, and helped many more with information on accessing an abortion in-country. The average grant ASN makes to Irish clients is €800.  

This book is an important oral history of how London Irish women supported abortion seekers over twenty years and campaigned to change the law on both sides of the Irish border. They were politically and financially independent.

It also breaks the silence around abortion seekers in Ireland and amongst Irish organisations in Brittain and is an important contribution to the history of the Irish in tishis country. Ann’s work gives a voice to the women who supported some of the most vulnerable and exploited women as they made that lonely journey from Ireland to Britain. It is a testament to the courage and determination of the women activists. It is a template to other generations of women on how organise and support women at a time in their lives when they were most in need of sisterhood.

A copy of Ann’s book is now part of the Irish Archive at the Working Class Movement Library . The IBRG archive is also at the WCML.

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Finding Miss Nellie Kay…

jewish women 4

Sheila Rowbotham coined the phrase about women’s absence from mainstream history books as “hidden from history”. The Mary Quaile Club was set up in 2014 in order to put Mary Quaile and other working class women back into the history books.Through Mary’s history and her involvement in the Manchester and Salford Women’s TUC other women, including Miss Nellie Kay,  have been written into  the story of working class women who played a significant role in radical and local history.


Who was Miss Nellie Kay?

There are no photographs of her, I could not find her presence on the census of 1901 and 1911, but I did find her in the Minute Books of the MSWTUC and in the Journal of the Amalgamated Tailors and Tailoresses.

She was a tailoress and felt strongly about the way in which women were exploited in the home and workplace. Women were not allowed in the male trade unions, were excluded from craft training but were a significant part of the workforce. Miss Kay, with other tailoresses,  challenged the male trade unionists and forced them to accept the women as workers and trade union members.

Miss Kay was given a fulltime job by the Tailors’ Union in December 1901 to recruit women into the union. She worked hard, recruiting women  into the union and negotiating  with the employers in an industry that was based on cheap labour and seasonal work.

She was also living at a time when society was changing; women were publicly out on the streets campaigning for the vote, the trade union movement was growing among unskilled  and women workers such as the Match women in London were showing the way in striking against exploitative conditions.

Miss Kay probably saw similar actions going on in the Manchester area. In the city centre – all kinds of radical activity was going on – much of it organised by immigrants in to the city – the Irish dominated followed by the Italian and Jewish communities. Many of them fired up by the political repression they experienced in their home countries and over here.

I have assumed that she was Jewish because Kay is a name often assumed by Jewish people.

Jewish people were a significant community in the Manchester  area – they had fled persecution and brought with them, like other communities including  the Irish – a determination to organise and radicalise their lives – that is why so many progressive organisations Jewish or mainstream ones had Jewish members.

Tailoring was a trade that had many Jewish people – alongside other communities including the Irish and Italian – were represented.

The Census of 1901 showed that 237,185 people were employed in the trade across the country but  that only  some 40,000 were in trade unions.

She would have approached the MSWTUC because they were uniquely placed in working to help women like her. They had been in existence for 5 years and were targeting women like Miss Kay hoping to encourage women like her to become active in organising their own sisters.

Arriving at the premises of the MSWTUC Miss Kay would have found a busy but welcoming atmosphere.

In 1902 the Annual Report explained how they had set up a Tea Fund to buy tea, sugar, milk, and cake for women attending meetings after work.

I was lucky to find the Journal of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors and Tailoresses at the WCML.

Journal A.S.T.T.

It was in this journal that I came across an interview with Miss Kay. And whilst  recognising it was written up by the editor, it does give a very good insight into her life and her activism.

She says; First, the trade is somewhat complicated in its working. For instance, it has a slack and a busy period. It is never a constant, steady employment. In the busy times the girls won’t join us, and in the slack times they very often cannot, on account of their meagre earnings, which won’t allow of deductions of union subscriptions. Then, again, dismissal is often the penalty a girl has to pay who joins us. Mrs. Dickenson, I believe, gave you an idea of how we go to work. We visit the girls at their workshops during the dinner-hour, and also arrange for public meetings to be held in the evenings.

In the Minute Books I also found evidence of a Jewish Tailoresses Union.  In September 1898 the Council was asked by the Jewish Machiner’s, Tailors’ and Pressers’ Union to help support the Jewish Tailoresses’ Union which had dwindled down to just 25 members.

The Organising Secretaries, Mrs Dickenson and Miss Ashwell,  visited the girls at work, but as the girls only spoke Yiddish and German they had great difficulty communicating with them. The girls had asked that literature be provided explaining trade unionism but this had not been done by the union . Mrs Dickenson and Miss Ashwell had  started attending the weekly meetings of the Tailoresses’  Union.

Miss Kay’s appointment as special organiser for the tailoresses was unique and she was a catalyst in persuading the male Tailors Union to accept the women into their organisation.

Miss Kay had the confidence, maybe because she had active in many struggles, to challenge the board of the Cooperative Movement, about their payment of tailoresses.

By 1907 the secretary of the Tailoresses Union was a Miss Preston and we do not know what happened to Miss Kay. Had she got married, did she emigrate?

Read more about Miss Kay in the MQC’s latest publication “We are No Dirty Shirkers” see here

The Minute Books of the MSWTUC are online see

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My review of Liverpool Dockers A History of Rebellion and Betrayal by Mike Carden



This book  is about Liverpool, about dockers, about their families and communities. It is also about democracy, trade unions and the Labour Party. It is about the past and  the present.

Mike Carden was one of the key players in the Liverpool dock strike of 1995 and in this new, inspiring,  and at times very depressing book he has a lot to say about the state of democracy in this country today and how we got to such a situation.

In 1995 I was one of the people inspired by the Liverpool dock strike. From a working class Irish background with dockers in my family I was part of that working class tradition that  believed and saw trade unions (not the Labour Party) as  the way in which  would deliver (and did deliver) a better standard of living, a better society  for me, my family and my class.

Unfortunately by 1995 all this was unravelling as  the public services where I worked were being rapidly privatised by a Tory Government , with little opposition from my union Unison and helped along by my Labour Council.

The Liverpool   dockers strike was like a clarion cry  from another era. In the introduction Mike takes us back to the beginnings of the trade union movement in this country and the role that the Great Dock Strike of 1889  played in  the beginnings of trade union history.

Without undermining totally his thesis: women did play a central if often marginalised role in that history.  Women did work on the docks and crucially the Match women, who were part of the East End dock Irish  family,   are an important part of the history of the birth of the trade union movement.

The Match Women

In over 700 densely packed pages Mike explains how dock work  “impacted on how dockers related to trade unionism, they were not going to be shackled or controlled by membership”. Indeed they “had major trust issues; their response was to fall back on their independent organisation where it always existed, on the ships, quays, sheds, pens and hiring halls of the major ports.”

 1989 was a crucial year for the dockers, the failure of a national strike led to   every UK port bringing  back casual labour in the ports and replacing  dismissed ex-registered dockers.  Liverpool was the exception.  “Opposition brought the dock shops stewards into another period of prolonged and open conflict with the Merseyside Docks and Harbour Company  and the leadership of the Transport and General Workers Union at both national and local levels.”

This would come to its head in on Monday 25 September 1995 as Mike recalls. “a small vessel berthed at Canada Dock, M.V.  Sygna, was about to set in motion a chain of events that would trigger a conflict lasting two years and four months; it resulted in 500 Liverpool dockers being sacked for refusing to cross a picket line.”

In their newspaper the Dockers Charter they called on the whole of the labour movement to support them. “We cannot allow the scars of casual labour, inhumane working environments and the absence of democratic rights of representation to destroy the dignity of our waterfront.”

From the outset the wives and partners of the dockworkers supported their men. The chapter on “Women of the Waterfront!” records the important role they played in the dispute both locally, nationally and internationally.  The children of the dockers took part in many meetings, speaking on behalf of their families and community.

Sue Mitchell, one of the WOW, reflected on her activism “Working class women have been more politicised in Liverpool, mainly because they have always had to work hard and fight for any gains.”

Apart from the usual left wing response to the strike it also attracted a new generation of activists in the Reclaim the Streets group who saw the dockers strike as their fight.

Support came from across the world and the dockers were the first group of workers to use  new digital communications to organise the first online rank and file international  trade union e-conference on Saturday 17 February 1996.

But support from their own union and in particular Bill Morris (General Secretary) was lacking. Financial support was provided to the Hardship Fund  but with dockers only receiving a fraction of official strike pay.

Bill Morris’s attitude was summed up by left wing band Chumbawamba   where they dubbed him Pontius Pilate in their song “One by One”.

Pontius Pilate came to our town

Up to the dockyards to see the

picket line

We asked him to help but he just

turned around

He’s the leader of the union now

Leader of the union

All of our questions he ignored

He washed his hands and he

dreamed of his reward

A seat in the House of Lords


On 26 January 1998, the dockers accepted a settlement and continuity of pensions but without job reinstatement, although only about two-thirds of the dockers were included.

Addressing a mass meeting Mike Carden said,  “This not a defeat. You have nothing to be ashamed of. We have exhausted every avenue to defeat the Dock Company, and you have earned the respect of everyone. You have defended  the principles of the trade union movement.”

 But it was not Morris alone  who betrayed the Liverpool dockers as Mike points out; “but an organisational culture underpinned by a well-oiled bureaucracy of local and national paid officials who, in turn were supported by the decisions of the senior-lay member committee of the union, its General Executive Council”   

Mike Carden has produced a unique in-depth personal and political analysis of the Liverpool dock strike. An inspiring book on many levels it reflects on the massive changes have taken place in the labour market and the failure of many unions to respond. The Liverpool dockers did, and we should take inspiration from their history and principled fight.

Mike Carden

Many of us are heartened by the role of new unions such as the United Voices of the World which are, not linked to the Labour Party,  more democratic, represent some of the poorest workers in the economy, and most importantly winning their disputes.

Sharon Graham, the new General Secretary of Unite, is not from any Labour Party left faction, and is pioneering a strategy of putting members first and re-energising the union. Whether she can reinstate democracy into the workings of the union is yet to be seen.

Mike Carden died on 9.12.21.  “Liverpool Dockers” is a fitting tribute to the man, his family and class.

In 1938 Bertolt Brecht was in exile but he still wrote one of the most relevant poems for our time/ any time

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About  the dark times

 Svendborg Poems



You can buy the book,  cost £20,   from Liverpool’s radical cooperative News from Nowhere.

I ordered a copy from Manchester Libraries. Hopefully this will mean it will reach out to many readers looking for hope and inspiration in these dark times.


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My review of CAUSES IN COMMON Welsh Women and the Struggle for Social Democracy By Daryl Leeworthy

In this new history book about the role of Welsh working class women Daryl says his aim is to highlight women who “were active in the trade unions and their adjunct organisations; who were involved in the cooperative movement or in Chartist activity; who read feminist literature in the miners institute libraries and other working class libraries; or who were visible in the women’s sections of the Communist and Labour parties.”

In 227 pages he rips through  150 years of  Welsh women’s history  and digs deep to tell the story of working class women who have often been marginalised or written out of  mainstream histories.

Daryl  argues that the Welsh women’s movement was built on ideas of social democracy and that  the women were driven by a determination to improve their lives and those of their community.  He records that contribution; documenting who these women were and  what they did,  and puts it within a context of modern Wales.

He shies away from the dominant thread of suffragism in women’s history,  showing that Welsh women were active long before Votes for Women  in campaigns as diverse as the Anti-Corn Law League, Chartism and anti-slavery.

Working class women had to struggle two fold,  not just  to fight for a  role   in the growing  but male dominated socialist  movement,  but also  to fend off more confident  middle class women taking their place.

The Rhondda Socialist of December  1912 argued that “what is needed is one or more women of the working class, whose interest is not the result of pity from a distance, but the effect of life’s contact with working class conditions.”  Sadly, the same could be said for today’s politics.

In the following chapters Daryl tells the stories of some inspirational working class women who were important in changing themselves and society. He shows that there were many working class women who were important players in the history of the socialist and labour movement in Wales.

There are so many fascinating women – most of whom never wrote their own biography – and have not been included in main stream histories.

Grace Scholefeld, nee Metcalf,  was born in Halifax, West  Yorkshire in 1863. Aged  eleven , like many working class children,  she went to work in a cigar factory. Following marriage and children the family moved to Keighley where Grace and Nathan joined the fledgling Independent Labour Party.  By 1904 they had moved to Cardiff .

Grace went on  to become of the first women to be elected to the national executive of the ILP and was at the forefront of women’s labour movement activism in Wales. She  was involved with organising the national annual ILP conference, and also chaired meetings of  the Women’s Social and Political Union and the ILP.

Alongside her was Mary Keating –Hill, born into an Irish working class family,  who was also a member of the WSPU and  one of the founders of the Cardiff branch of the Women’s Freedom League in 1909. She was one of the first to be imprisoned in Wales  for her suffrage campaigning in 1906.

One of the most fascinating chapters in the book is about the role of women in the Communist Party.  Whilst Labour women were increasingly becoming part of the establishment Communist women continued to challenge the state.

Many women from the Communist and Labour Party were inspired by the radical changes taking place in the Soviet Union which improved the lives of working class women. Labour Party activist Martha Herman was one of those women. She said “real peace and progress for the workers in this country can only be achieved by international working class solidarity.”

But it was Communist women who took direct action   to combat poverty, unemployment and take on the  fascists. But they were then judged and found guilty by their Labour sisters in the magistrates  courts.

As Daryl says “In their view the fight was not only against a state which harangued them but also against a Labour Party which had turned coat and sided with the capitalists.”

One of these heroic women was Ceridwen Brown. On 4 February 1935 she walked to Merythr Tydfil and led a crowd of 3,000 other angry, starving women and men who smashed up the offices of the Unemployment Assistance Board.

Ceridwen was an active communist who had visited Moscow and was under police surveillance.  She could easily be picked out on the hunger and women’s marches of the 1930s in her trademark trench coat and red beret.

Excluded from the  mainstream  labour movement she worked hard to create other networks and a far left women’s movement through the working women’s guilds.

Causes in  Common  is an important history book for all women today.  Not only does it show how working class women played an important role in  creating  the  modern Welsh state it gives a name and history to those individuals. They are no longer hidden from history.  Daryl should be commended for his use of new resources and for completing the book during covid.

He rightly points out the need for more research.  In her groundbreaking book “Hidden from History” Sheila Rowbotham wrote that she was “turning up the topsoil in the hope that others will dig deeper.”As a member of the Mary Quaile Club I think that it is  vital that groups of women and men outside the academic world  should  undertake this research.  We need to bring in working class women to excavate and bring this history into daylight.   It is their history.  They are their sisters.



Buy it, great price of £11.99,  from  the radical and community bookshop News from Nowhere

Watch “Mam” (1988) a film made about  the role of the mother in Welsh society from the beginning of the industrial age to the 1980s here




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My review of “The House that Jill Built” by Ethel Carnie Holdsworth




As a socialist feminist I am always looking around for books and authors to inspire me. I was introduced to Ethel Carnie  by  Ruth and Eddie Frow of the Working Class Movement Library.

She was a northern woman who grew up in the highly politicised community of East Lancashire; a community that valued political activism and culture. Ethel wrote poetry from an early age. Like many working  class children she started work in the mills at aged 11,  but it did not blunt her interest in a writing career.

She escaped the mills to London after  she was spotted by Robert Blatchford and went to work for the Clarion socialist  newspaper, and also  used her writing skills to encourage other working class women to write about their lives through the Bebel House Women’s College and Socialist Centre.

Returning north, a married woman with two children, Ethel , along  with her husband,  edited the first anti-fascist newspaper the Clear Light  in the 1920s from her front room.  Over the years she continued her political activity whilst writing ten novels, as well as  many short stories and poetry.

The House That Jill Built was published in 1920. The main character, Jill Bennett, is 18 years old and a typist in London when she finds out that she has inherited £10,000. With all the confidence of her class – her father was a doctor – she decides to set up a rest home for working class women in the countryside where she would offer tired mothers a month away from their husbands and children, a place  where they could eat good food,   socialise with the other women and generally do nothing.

Today this idea would be controversial. We would be asking questions about why Jill would get to make all the decisions and perhaps  challenge the idea that only mothers,  not other single women with caring responsibilities,  would not be invited to the rest home.

But the novel was published in 1920 and this type of nostalgic novel would be seen as acceptable. Also I have to comment on the dated references to Jill’s Irish background eg. “But Jill’s Irish blood was up”.  Running through the novel is also a very tedious storyline about Jill and her love life.

But,  even given the era,  it’s a rather strange story for a socialist woman to write.  Ethel grew up in one of the most exciting times for women:  prior to the First World War women were very much in the public eye through the campaign for the vote and taking a major role in trade union and socialist movements.

During the  war  women were encouraged to work in the munitions industry.  Some women, like Ethel and other working class women such as trade unionist Mary Quaile,  took part in the No- Conscription Fellowship – not just taking a very unpopular stance to oppose the war but supporting their men who refused to fight.


By 1920 women were again thrown out of the workforce. Some physically, such as the Bristol female tram workers who were attacked by veterans at their workplace.  Many women faced widowhood after the war or had to care for their disabled husbands (or brothers,  as in Mary Quaile’s case) with little support from the state. It is surprising,   therefore, that none of this is referred to in the book.

Ethel said  in 1920 said that the most difficult task “is to teach people to want something better, to sting them into rebellion against poverty, to fire their hearts with a cause”. Unfortunately this novel  does  not do that; it may have had  the opposite effect.

Not unlike today, Ethel was subject to the politics of her publisher. In 1915 she had signed a six  book deal with publisher Herbert Jenkins,  who preferred light fiction,  and  in 1925 refused to  publish her next book This Slavery which was one of her most important novels.

Original cover of This Slavery published 1925

In This Slavery Ethel, through the Martin sisters,  Hester and Rachel,  explores the lives of working class young women in the years before the  First World War. I love their anger. Rachel becomes active in the fight against the factory owners and  says “So long as this system remains as it is I’ll attack it.” Hester decides to marry but    says,  “I am tired of being a slave. I don’t want to spend my life like my mother has spent hers”. Both of them, in their own ways, decide to fight slavery, in the   factory or in  marriage.

The novel  was made more accessible to working class audiences by its serialisation in the Daily Herald in October 1923. It was then published in a cheap book edition,  making it more affordable to the audience it was written for.

Life for working class women today is harsh.  Books  can be inspirational and  This Slavery is a book for today. Unfortunately the trade union movement in this country continues to flag up depressing male stories in the much tweeted “Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”. Instead, as in 1925, they should be producing cheap copies of  This Slavery to inspire a new generation of women and men.



Find out more about Ethel at the Working Class Movement Library

Thanks to Dr. Nicola Wilson and Kennedy & Boyd for republishing  Ethel’s  novels.

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The Manchester and Salford Women’s TUC and the Manchester Sweated Industries Exhibition



By 1906 the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trade Union Council  was  a well established trade union body   known for its organising  work,  both locally and across the country. They were kept busy supporting working class women to set up trade unions and campaign for better working conditions.

The MSWTUC had a broader role in lobbying the government to enact legislation to improve the lives of women workers.  Their work amongst some of the poorest women in the north west gave them a unique insight into some of the worst and most exploitative conditions that women and girls  worked in which was often in their own home. These were known as “ the sweated trades.”

The issue of “sweated labour” had been raised in 1904 by a Reverend J.E.Watts-Ditchfield,   the Vicar of St .James-the-Less Bethnal Green, who staged an exhibition at which items that had been produced by sweated labour were shown to the public.  It lasted just two days and did not get much publicity.

In May  1906 a “Sweated Trades” Exhibition at the Queen’s Hall in London was organised by the Daily News and some of the most prominent activists of that era. On the organising committee were  Labour MP Keir Hardie, suffragette Mrs. Charlotte Despard,  socialist George Lansbury , Gertrude Tuckwell of the Women’s Trade Union League , writer  G.B. Shaw and   Mrs. Olive Aldridge of the MSWTUC.

Handbook of Sweated Industries Exhibition London

Surprisingly it was opened by one of the daughters of Queen Victoria, Princess Beatrice: its aim was to shock the people who could afford to buy the sweated goods and encourage them to support a campaign to regulate the trade.

The Exhibition’s aim was to confront the audience with the “evils of sweating”;  and so they were. The women workers could be seen making their sweated goods.  The organisers’ aims were to regulate this work by law and to “mitigate if not entirely remove these evils.” It ran for six weeks,  and alongside the women workers were a series of lectures which called for change.

Nearly  30,000 people visited the exhibition during its six week run at Queen’s Hall, London, and the first edition of the accompanying handbook (5,000 copies) sold out within 10 days.

Following this success it was proposed –  very likely  by Mrs Aldridge – that Manchester should host its own exhibition later that year. 

The first meeting of the  Manchester committee took place on 4 July 1906. Unlike the London committee  there were no rising stars of the Labour movement,  its delegates were  all local,  including the  MSWTUC, Christian Social Union, Manchester Co-operative Society, Lancashire College Settlement, Manchester Sanitary Association, Social Questions Committee –  University Settlement (Ancoats), Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades and Labour Council, Union of Women Workers and Women’s Cooperative Guild (Manchester).

They  agreed by a unanimous vote to hold the Exhibition and the Manchester Co-operative Society offered, for free, the halls at Downing Street, Ardwick  to hold the exhibition.

The Exhibition would last for three weeks and the running costs would be £500. In case of further costs it was agreed to raise a Guarantee fund of £300 by the delegates of each society. It was agreed that over thirty different trades, mainly local,  would  be  exhibited .  Councillor James Johnston was appointed Chair with  Mrs. Aldridge as the Secretary.

The Exhibition was opened by the Lord Mayor of Manchester. Lectures were given by Miss Bulley from the MSWTUC, M.Ps D. Shackleton and W.H. Lever, Gertrude Tuckwell, Miss Pankhurst, Edward Carpenter, Katherine Glasier and Clemintina Black.  Some of the most powerful speeches were given by local activists who had been campaigning for years against “sweated trades”.

Eugene Barnako,  Secretary of the  Manchester and Salford Clothing Trade Joint Committee,  said:  “I would appeal in the name of the Tailors and Tailoresses Society to all sympathetic people to at once refuse to patronize firms that cannot show that the workers are employed under good and healthy conditions.”

John Harker, who had been an  activist in the MSWTUC from its beginning in 1895 and  was Secretary of the Shirtmakers’ Union,  said that shirts were too cheap and that unless prices were increased conditions of work would not change. He proposed that workers needed to be organised and that goods should be produced under a label owned and controlled by the workers.

The Daily News reported on the Exhibition   on 10 October 1906. “Instructive Exhibition in Manchester,” noting  that there were 33 sweating shops in Manchester .

 “The workers’ stalls are of a comprehensive character, and include object-lessons in such varied industries as cigarette making, Bible and Prayer Book folding, artificial flower making, shawl fringing, umbrella-frame making, military embroidery, patchwork quilt making, slipper beading, vamp beading, button carding, hook and eye carding, and cabinet making.”

Mrs Aldridge was commended for her work in organising the Exhibition  “whose untiring labours the successful opening is chiefly due.”

The pamphlet that was produced for the Exhibition included photographs which  exposed the very poor working conditions that these goods were produced in and that children were part of this workforce.

Hook and eye carding.

During the exhibition an Anti-Sweating  Conference was held by   the Co operators and Trade Unionists which was attended by delegates from Lancashire and Cheshire.

A resolution was passed encouraging the MSWTUC “to continue the good work that they have begun in taking the initiative in regard to the organisation of the Exhibition, and to extend their efforts in every possible way calculated to lessen the conditions of sweating in Lancashire, &  pledges  itself to support their action.”

Miss Margaret Ashton seconded the proposition, and spoke about how  the sweating system affected women. “The one thing needed help women remove the evil,”  she  said, ”was to give them  votes. It was necessary that women’s voices should be heard in trade and industrial questions for their own protection just as men’s were. “  Miss Aldridge seconded the motion and emphasised the importance of votes for women in changing their working conditions. The motion was agreed.  (Daily News, 29th October 1906)

The Manchester Sweated Industries  Exhibition was a success with nearly 15,000 people attending over three weeks. The MSWTUC went on to support the Anti-Sweating League in two meetings in Manchester the following month. They continued their work supporting low paid women workers,   whilst calling for changes in legislation to outlaw  exploitation in the workplace  – and in  the home.

Both Sweated Industries Exhibitions reflected a growing campaign by individuals and organisations to regulate this home working industry. It highlighted the excessive hours that were worked, the unsuitability of the conditions of work, the use of child labour and the low pay.  

Change was happening as legislation was going through the House of Commons,  a Wages Board Bill that  had been proposed by Sir. Charles Dilke.  It proposed  a minimum rate of wages would be paid to workers in different trades and that the Factory and Workshop Act should include home workers.  All home workers should be registered and certified and Factory Inspectors could inspect these certificates.

1906 saw the election of a Liberal Government and the new Home Secretary was Herbert Gladstone who had attended the London Sweated Trades Exhibition.

The issue of “sweated industries” was now a national issue because of the Sweated Trades Exhibitions,as well as  the work of national organisations such as the National Anti-Sweating League and local organisations such as the MSWTUC.  

A Select Committee on Home Work was set up by the government in 1907 which recommended the regulation of low wages. In 1909 the Trade Board Act was passed which introduced the first minimum wage for workers in four of the most sweated trades:  chainmaking, lace finishing, paper box making and ready-made and wholesale bespoke tailoring.


Read more about the MSWTUC  here

Both pamphlets for the two Sweated  Industries  Exhibitions are available at the WCML.

The Manchester Sweated Industries Exhibition pamphlet is also available at Chetham’s Library





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My review of “Women’s Activism in Twentieth-Century Britain,” Paula Bartley

In the introduction to this wide ranging history of women’s activism Paula stresses that it is an “Introduction to the variety of women’s engagement, not a comprehensive study”. Nevertheless  in 300 pages covering  100 years she has packed in some of the most important history of women’s activity.

She shows how women are not one uniform group and are often divided by class, sex, age, ethnicity etc. In this book  Paula  reflects on the how and why women get involved in activity,  and notes that  very often that history has been marginalised or excluded from mainstream histories.

In the chapter 1900 to 1914 Paula gives an important account of the campaigns that were taken up by a group of women activists to improve the lives of working class women.

She introduces  Anglo Indian journalist Olive Malvery and Scottish trade unionist Mary Macarthur who  took up the case of some of the most exploited women workers – those who worked at home – and decided to organise an exhibition to  show their conditions of  work and call for change.

But missing from this account is the involvement of the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Union Council ,  which  was a key organisation in organising working class women across the northwest and  which had an influence nationally in effecting legislation.

The MSWTUC was created in 1895 by local philanthropists, including CP Scott of the Manchester Guardian,  but it was its organising secretaries that were at the heart of its success.

Mrs. Olive  Aldridge, the organising secretary of the MSWTUC,   was on the organising committee for both the London and   Manchester Sweated Industries exhibitions.  Her experience,  and that of the other women activists in the MSWTUC over the years,  would have been crucial to the organisers of the exhibitions.

Sweated Industries Exhibition Manchester


Equal pay for women was (and still is!) a key demand for working women. The 1960s saw a renewed demand for equality and working class women pushing their trade unions and a Labour Government to bring in legislation.

Barbara Castle was unique in being a female Cabinet member and Minister for Labour – and she herself had equal pay!  I disagree with Paula’s version of Barbara’s commitment to equal pay for other women. She was not keen on other women getting equality at work.

When in 1968 the women workers brought production at their car factory in Dagenham  to a halt by their strike action for equality Barbara stepped in, not to support their  equal pay claim,  instead  she persuaded them to return to work on the basis of 92% of the men’s rate. It took the women another  16 years for them to win their regrading claim.

An Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970 but did not come into force until 1975. The Act had many loopholes which led to employers finding plenty of opportunities to evade the legislation.

One of the most successful  equal pay strikes, not mentioned in this book,  was the Trico strike  in Brentford,  West  London in 1976. It was a community based strike one which united a workforce that was multi racial, including the Irish, Afro- Caribbean, Indian, Spanish, Maltese and French.


Trico women on strike

The women not only won equal pay, they  also exposed the unfairness of  the new Equal Pay Act  which was about decreasing pay levels rather than raising up women’s pay, and showed that a community-based strike with  strong trade union support could defeat an American multinational company.

Striker and Publicity  Officer Sally Groves summed up their success:  “The Trico women’s strike has an important place in history: the strikers were remarkable role models in the struggle for equality, and understood the importance of building alliances of solidarity and inclusiveness.”

In 2022 TUC General Secretary  Frances O’Grady summed up how backward women have gone in terms of equal pay :  “It’s shocking that working women still don’t have pay parity. At current rates of progress, it will take nearly 30 more years to close the gender pay gap.” More  shocking is that the trade union movement has failed its women members in not taking the issue seriously.

In the introduction to this book Paula thanks Clare Short, a former Labour MP and Minister, for her support in producing the book.   She represented  one of the biggest Irish communities in Britain for thirty years so it is surprising  therefore that  Paula fails to include any analysis of  the way in which the history  of the relationship between Britain and Ireland has  shaped politics in this country.

Clare Short would not have been elected in 1983  without a growing anger in Irish communities such as Birmingham against the anti-Irish racism they experienced and state sponsored discrimination such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act passed by a Labour Government in 1974 and which  in 1988 Clare voted against its renewal.

The civil rights movement in the North of Ireland led to the election for Mid Ulster of 21 year old university student Bernadette Devlin in 1969. She was Britain’s youngest MP,  but  most importantly she brought the demands for a united and socialist Ireland right into the heart of British politics. For Irish families such as mine she was an inspiring figure, a reflection of the continuing history of struggle by the Irish to achieve a united Ireland.

Today she is still inspiring and a woman who has dedicated her life (and nearly lost it) to her political activity. Sadly, she is not included in this book.

For those of us who were activists from the 1980s onwards in Irish politics – both here and in Ireland – it is our community, not Labour MPs such as Mo Mowlem who were the main players in campaigning for a peaceful resolution in Ireland.

IBRG March for Justice. credit T.Shelly

Whilst many history books, including this one, fail  to include the Irish there have been in recent years more histories of the black and ethnic communities been published. In this book we find out about how women from the Caribbean came to England to work in everything from clerical jobs to retreading tyres.

The descendants of these women went onto set up their own organisations to combat the racism and discrimination they faced as Black   and  Asian women.

Paula tells the stories of how these women organised  at national conferences, in demonstrations against police brutality and on picket lines.  Just like the Irish, it was important for these women to organise autonomously,  but this history does not show how Black and Asian women found common cause with Irish women (and men) in campaigning on issues from equality at work to police brutality and deaths in police custody.

I read   Women’s Activism in Twentieth Century Britain  as an activist  who believes strongly in telling my history  – and that of my community –  and as a socialist,  feminist and trade unionist.  It is an ambitious book which  sometimes made me feel overwhelmed with the inclusion of so much history.

Today we seem to be living in a social media dominated world where we all  live in a “yesterday and today” moment.  So looking backwards and trying to make the connection with our past –particularly successful campaigns – is crucial if we are to create a more equal and just society.  This is so important – as is this book – as Paula concludes “ Without new research and these fresh interpretations, there is a real danger that history itself –not just the people in the past –will perish.”

Buy this book  from a  women’s cooperative here


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