My review of ‘Kill all the Gentlemen’ Class struggle and change in the English countryside by Martin Empson

kill all the gentlemen


In this new book Martin Empson reminds us that class conflict did not start with the Industrial Revolution and urban struggles. In this well researched history he begins with  the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and then  take us up to today’s globalised  food market, where in the UK  few people now  work on the land and most of us are alienated from the process of food production.

Empson is a socialist,  and central to his story is the celebration of the ordinary people. As he says; “When we learn about the history of England, we rarely hear the full story of what happened…this book celebrates the rural class struggle for equality, justice and a better life that through this, hopes to inspire people today.”

And indeed is much to be inspired by as Empson recounts the stories of heroes such as John Ball, Jack Straw and Wat Tyler,   and all the anonymous heroes of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. They challenged their feudal slavery, refused to pay the hated poll tax and literally took  up arms to kill the officials who tried to enforce the tax,  burning  down properities and laying  siege to iconic buildings including Rochester Castle.

The book then  takes us through some of the most important struggles as the people challenged the authority of the monarchy and sought for civil rights and equality in a very authoritarian state.

One of the interesting chapters is on rebellions during the Tudor era. Forget Hilary Mantel’s histories of the aristocracy or the latest BBC take on this period. Instead read about the women of Exeter who in 1535 physically opposed the destruction of  a local priory, St. Nicholas  in Exeter,  part of King Henry’s policy of destroying the power of the church. For them, it was not about religion but maintaining a charitable institution. So they rebelled .

 “The women of Exeter   rallied outside ‘some with spikes, some with shovels, some with pikes, and some with  such tools as they could get’, trapping the workmen who were  taking down the roodloft of the church.”  Soldiers  had  to be sent in   to stop them.

By the C19th  agricultural workers were organising themselves into trade unions, the difficulties of which are well known in the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.  Empson challenges the way in which their case has has been turned into an industry marked by an annual festival. It has now become very distanced from its poor rural roots and is  dominated by the celebs of the trade union movement and a particular London based political and media class.

More interesting for me is the story of  union organisation and rural strikes of the 1870s. A strike in Ascot, near Chipping Norton, for instance, saw the farmers bring in scabs from a local village. A group of women, armed only with sticks, blocked the entrance to the fields. The women were taken to court and seven received ten day’s hard labour and nine got seven days.  The locals rioted: “Eighty pounds was raised in their support (Arch noted £5 of it came in pennies) and the women were brought home in style, cheered much of the way as they travelled in a ‘handsome drag drawn by four thorough-bred horses.’  And all the women were given £5 each and a dress in the union colours!”

Empson’s book is not just about the past. He also  comments about today: “While 17.2% of the British population live in rural areas ( about 11 million people) only 1.13% of the total working population is employed in agriculture.” Trade unions, largely the Unite Union, continue to defend the rights of agricultural workers but it’s not easy in an industry  in which   “by the 1980s and 1990s the average farm worker saw more of his employer during his working  time than he did of any fellow worker.”

Today most people are very distanced from the food we consume – although the rise of the vegan diet says something about concerns for animals and food production. Whether it also reflects an interest in the agricultural industry and those who work in it is another matter.  Empson believes that to address the issues of rural poverty and the production of high quality food in a sustainable way must include challenging big business’ domination of agriculture and protecting the rights of workers from the fields to the food factories.

And  he sees it not as a national,  but an international issue:“When you take a walk in the British countryside today or look out of a train window, the struggle of Wat Tyler, John Ball, Jack Straw…..and countless unnamed and forgotten men and women might seem very distant. But their compatriots in rural communities around the globe continue a struggle that has never been more important.”

Buy it for £14.99 from

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The IBRG archive at the WCML; Part Three;Publicising IBRG to the Irish diaspora.

IBRG mag 1


In 1987 IBRG was six years old and growing as new branches were being started across the country. Communicating with the Irish communty  was not as easy then as it is today. In the 1980s  some  Irish people were visible in traditional organisations such as Counties Associations and at Irish Centres, in political organisations such as the political parties and left groups such as the Connolly Association.  But for many, and particularly radical women, they were unlikely to join anything with Irish as a prefix. During the 1980s over 40,000 Irish people were coming to Britain to look for work and reaching out to them was not going to be easy.

an pobal eirithe” ( The Risen People) the new magazine of the IBRG was produced to “promote the objectives of the IBRG”. This included to communicate with the Irish community in Britain, to promote the rights of Irish women and men, (note;women first!) to promote the cause of self-determination for Ireland and the Irish people. It was funded solely  by IBRG and individual branches were given copies to sell.


The title in Irish was challenging as most Irish people (born in Britain or on the island of Ireland) were not Irish language speakers,  but it was a bold statement  with the aim to challenging  the neglect of the language and restate its importance to the Irish community.

Five copies of the magazine were produced between 1987 and 1991. It publicised the activities of IBRG branches across the country, aimed to recruit new members and debated some of the most important issues for Irish people living in Britain.

The first issue included an article by the Cathaoirleach (Chair) ( Irish was used for all officer posts and names of meetings) Gearoid MacGearailt  which was taken from his speech at the 1987 Ard Fheis (AGM). In it he reflected on the way in which IBRG had changed over the years as had the community. “We have developed the ability to be a community organisation and a pressure group at one and the same time.”

Gearoid highlighted the creation of the  Women’s Sub Committee and the magazine included several articles by and about women. They ranged from an article about the Women’s Sub Committee, women in Irish history, strip searching,  but also the first part of an interview with Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein. Second generation Irish woman Laura Sullivan in Issue 1 wrote, one of several articles, on being Irish and working in the public services. “Uniting together we have a strong voice and far greater influence. We are no longer invisible and can’t be ignored.”

In apr  crucial issues to the community  such as anti-Irish racism were debated  and put into a historical and contemporary context. It was an issue that the organisation came back to constantly whether challenging the racism of the Irish joke in programmes such as the “Comedians”; campaigning  for the repeal of  the Prevention of Terrorism Act which targeted the Irish community;  or objecting to the  discrimination by local councils in its service provision.

In Issue 2 Micheal O Cnaimhsi wrote about his branch in North East Lancashire – an area that had a proud history of Irish activism including the birthplace of Land League leader Michael Davitt.  Michael described how difficult it was to organise the Irish when redevelopment had destroyed places where Irish people would gather,  including pubs, Irish centres, etc. in addition  local authorities  were ignoring  the needs of the Irish. But this did not stop the branch in March 1987 producing a report “The Irish in Lancashire” detailing the needs and aspirations of the Irish.

Irish in NE Lancashire


Over the five issues a picture was drawn of Irish community activity across Britain. It reflected the discussions and debates going on about what it meant to be Irish in the C20th and took on many of  the issues that the more established Irish establishment did not want to acknowledge,  particularly how the conflict going on in the North of Ireland was impacting directly on  the Irish in Britain.

Issue 1 brought up the cases of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four and by issue 4 in Spring 1990 the editorial board were welcoming the release of the Guildford Four :  “But our joy was accompanied by bitterness and resentment that the Four had spent fifteen years in jail for offences of which they are innocent, that the Birmingham Six, Judith Ward, the Winchester Three and many others are still in prison.”

Issues 3 and 4 had front pages which highlighted campaigns around justice for the Irish. The  editorial in issue 3 reflected on the year of 1988 “ a dreadful year for the Irish, and indeed anyone who cares about the relationship between Ireland and Britain.”  Articles highlighted the broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein, Irish political prisoners in British jails,  as well as the rights of Irish gays and lesbians, Bolton IBRG, and the mental health of the Irish.

apr gave a voice to activists who were not members of IBRG including Tom Walsh, stalwart of the Liverpool Irish community, whom over many years had supported Irish people stopped at the port of Liverpool under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. In issue 4, in an interview he explained the work he  did supporting detainees and their families without any support from the establised Irish community organisations.

tom walsh

Tom Walsh


By Issue no. 5 the Birmingham Six had been released. It was the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1916 and the last issue included articles ranging from the history of women in 1916 and a bibliography of the history of the Irish in Britain ,to articles by guest writers including Raymond Crotty on getting the vote for the Irish in Britain in elections in the Republic of Ireland and   Des Wilson on alternative education practice in West Belfast.

Articles on culture including language, music, book reviews, and  poetry ran   through the five issues. As does the crucial issue “The Right to be Irish” by Padraig McRannall (issue 4) which concluded that “For we too are part of the working class struggle in Britain for a better life for all including our own community and every other community.”

The archive can be accessed at the WCML. This is one of a series of blog posts which I am doing as I archive the IBRG documents.

Posted in education, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, North of Ireland, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My review of “Poster Workshop 1968-1971” by Sam Lord with Peter Dukes, Jo Robinson and Sarah Wilson.

pw 2

It is the May elections this week and the title of this book will resonate with many people: they are that disillusioned with the political process and politicians.  But this book is not about politicians; it is about how people at a grassroots level, 50 years ago, really did believe that they could change society and not just here but over the water in the North of Ireland,  in South Africa and in  Vietnam.

This book tells the story of the Poster Workshop in London and how they  used the new technology of screen printing, which allowed people to produce cheap and accessible posters  to convey important messages for all kinds of political movements.

The Poster Workshop was part of a bigger worldwide  movement which began in France in May/June 1968 when students alongside workers went on strike,  challenging the right wing government and demanding seismic change in society. It was a movement that spread across the world, offering hope for people at a grassroots level to turn society upside down and make it a fairer and more just place to live.

pw 8

It was not just about challenging the system –  but combined with the new hippy counterculture – threw it back on individuals and groups to produce an alternative lifestyle, one that was based on a do it yourself politics,  reflected in actions which ranged from squatting to the occupation of factories. And Poster Workshop responded to  this; “ working without bosses, and with an open-door policy, they invited people to come in and print their own posters.”

PW 9

It is hard to imagine in these days of Facebook and Twitter the difficulty in the 1960s for groups to get their message out and respond quickly  to events. The Poster Workshop and other “peoples printshops” were crucial in passing on skills to activists to make their own pamphlets, leaflets and newsletters – and,  most importantly,  having “peoples printshops” to print them cheaply. But it was part of a vibrant political culture; “These groups didn’t just find new forms to raise political issues, but also took their performances to “the people” on protests and pickets, in tenants and community halls and squats.”  

pw 10

The story of how the Poster Workshop started up is fascinating. Radicalised by the Vietnam War,  art school graduate Sam Lord built a screen printing table in his kitchen and started producing political posters. A meeting with Jean Loup, a French Tunisian, who had been active in the Atelier Populair – a student-occupied print workshop in Paris which produced posters to promote the revolutionary activities in 1968 – led to the creation of the Poster Workshop.

The Poster Workshop was a mixture of art graduate and activists,  and it inspired other people, including a Cockney pensioner called Scriv, to design, print and maintain the workshop.

They didn’t just  travel  around the country and beyond to pass on their skills to other groups,  but went over to the North of Ireland where an often forgotten struggle of the 1960s was being played out.  The Poster Workshop were invited  by  People’s Democracy: a political organisation that campaigned for civil rights for the Catholic minority (at that time most of whom  could not vote in elections) and a united socialist republic.


Art school graduate Sarah Wilson  went to Belfast and  showed people how to make the posters. “In a small community centre a board was put up inviting people to write down ideas for slogans. They were checked every day, and the best selected for new posters.”  When the locals could take on the work themselves Sarah then moved onto Derry to start another workshop.

Not surprising to those of us involved in Irish politics, it was only in Belfast that people who fly posted were arrested by the British Army, and one  was sent to prison for three months. In Britain fly posting was seen as a minor offence,  usually resulting in a fine,  but it reflected how much more serious were the politics going on in North of Ireland.

Leafing through this book it tells us so much visually about the politics of the era. The posters are beautiful, anarchic and direct. They shout out against unfairness, injustice and discrimination,  but they also encourage and inspire in a way that art work today does not. Maybe because they were part of a grassroots movement that belonged,  not just to the poster makers, but to the society at that time.

Unfortunately, at the moment, there is lots of nostalgia around about past events and sadly, many of them such as Grunwicks and the Miners Strike, where we lost. And although today, through social media,  we can communicate fast and direct,  the technology is not communal, it is not about sharing a creative process,  and very often does not empower people.

The power of the story of the Poster Workshop and all the groups and individuals involved screams out; yes we can do it, we can change society and we will do it together.

“In our youth we danced for liberty and personal freedom, not the liberty to exploit and oppress, but to turn our dreams of equality into reality. Let’s continue dancing!”

Buy it for £10 here


Posted in anti-cuts, book review, Catholicism, Communism, drama, education, feminism, human rights, Ireland, labour history, North of Ireland, political women, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

The IBRG archive at the WCML; the rebirth of a Branch. Part Two





Today most of us involved in our trade union or community organisation use the internet,  including FB and twitter to communicate with our members. In the period of this archive there was no internet and contact with members was made by sending letters,  while minutes of a meeting were written in books.  There was a great deal of paper as leaflets and  posters were produced to publicise events.

IBRG Manchester existed from 1984 to 2002 but there are gaps in the minutes. There are no minutes for the organisation before 1986, although  the branch did exist because it produced the defining document “A New Deal for the Irish Community in Manchester” in  October 1984. As is often the case people take or misplace files.

1986 is an important year for Manchester IBRG as the branch was  revived with new people, particularly women, who joined  and changed the profile of the organisation.  One of the documents, handwritten by me as secretary of the branch,  sums up a year’s organising, so it  must be March 1987. I may have written it for the branch AGM or a national meeting as it also refers to the other northern branches.

IBRG document 1987

The notes sum up some of the problems of restarting the branch including  “wresting authority from older members.” When I came back to Manchester in 1986 the  Manchester IBRG meetings were held in Our Lady’s Catholic Centre in Moss Side.  To me, and other second generation Irish ( particularly women), it was anathema to have anything to do with the Catholic church. Also, the branch was more of a drinking club for some quite reactionary men.

Taking the meetings away from this inaccessible venue was crucial to bringing in new members,  which was not easy as the Irish community was scattered across the city. In the minutes the branch meetings take place in various venues from Manchester Polytechnic to Manchester Town Hall to St.Brendan’s Irish Centre in Old Trafford.  Traditional Irish centres , except for St. Brendan’s,  were wary of what they saw as a “political group” using their premises. This was not surprising given the police activity at the time which intensely surveilled the Irish community. It also reflected  the views of some of the older generation,  who were quite happy living in what I termed a “Celtic twilight” ignoring the bigger political issues facing the Irish in Britain and on the island of Ireland.


New members

This change in the profile of the branch is shown in some of the earlier minutes when it votes to donate £15 to a Bolton IBRG member, Margaret Mullarkey, so that she can go on the annual Women’s Delegation to Ireland (ie the  North of Ireland). Another issue taken on by the branch is highlighting the use of strip searching of Republican women in prisons in Ireland by holding a meeting to publicise a national campaign.

In the 1980s Manchester had a left wing Council run by Graham Stringer which had a progressive policy on Ireland, due to the influence of an  internal  Labour grouping: the Labour Committee  on Ireland. There was also a local Troops Out Movement as well as remnants of older republican groups such as Sinn Fein.

IBRG was not a party political group,  but lobbied the Council to ensure that the Irish were given a proportionate say in their policies for ethnic groups in the City and to try and reflect the reality that the Irish were the largest ethnic minority whose needs had often been marginalised.

The Council had a Race Unit and a Race Committee which sought to represent communities in the city. In the mid 1980s the representatives from the Irish community included Ann Hilferty, a respected member of the community and who joined IBRG. The other representative was an Irish Catholic priest, John Ahearne. This reflected the nature of the established  Irish community at that time ie largely Catholic and conservative.

IBRG took up issues around anti-Irish racism that lit a spark within the larger Irish community. In London in 1984 the left wing Greater London Council sponsored a new book on anti-Irish racism written by Liz Curtis called  “Nothing But the Same Old Story: The Roots of Anti-Irish Racism showing that it was as old as Britain’s colonial involvement in Ireland.

Nothing but


At a national level IBRG  produced policies on anti-Irish racism which led to our branch being involved in activity  on this issue eg  one of our members stood  in a bookshop and read out the Irish jokes to challenge the management. But anti-Irish racism could be found in all parts of the establishment.  One of our big campaigns was against the racist stereotyping of Irish men in an educational booklet produced by the Equal Opportunities Commission. We encouraged local Irish people to pass on their examples of racism to the Council’s Race Unit,  who would also write letters to the offending organisation.

Challenging anti-Irish racism and discrimination was part of establishing a positive Irish identity,  particularly for new generations of Irish children. It drew the links between the Irish who lived in Britain and those on the island of Ireland.  IBRG nationally called for a political settlement in the North of Ireland: one that would take into account the view of those on the island of Ireland as well  as those  in the diasporas  of Britain and abroad.

When the Labour Council invited representatives from Sinn Fein to visit the city in 1986 we took part. IBRG’s policy on the conflict in the North of Ireland was about encouraging all parties to get involved in the political process. Over the years IBRG was one of the few Irish community organisations that encouraged the inclusion of Sinn Fein into the process and the right of the Irish in Britain to have a say in any long term settlement.

But,  whilst this activity found support within certain sections of the Irish community,  those Irish people who were happy to use their Irish identity to gain jobs or positions of power in the establishment,   were not so happy.  This would surface in conflict  over various issues including the Radio Manchester  Irish radio programme  Irish Line which was taken away from Manchester IBRG and handed over to Irish acceptable to the BBC  and became the twee Come Into the Parlour. There was further division  over the first  Irish Week in 1988 when traditional Irish organisations tried to exclude IBRG events on women, the North of Ireland  etc.


Posted in education, feminism, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, North of Ireland, political women, Socialism, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

My review of “Striking Women Struggles and Strategies of South Asian Women Workers from Grunwick to Gate Gourmet” by Sundari Anitha & Ruth Pearson

striking women

There is something strange going on when plays about trade union defeats (including   We are the Lions, Mr Manager about  Grunwick and   We’re Not Going Back  and  Shafted  about the Miners’ Strike) have never been so popular,  whilst actual trade union membership is on the decline. Trade union membership has halved from a high of 13.2 million in 1979 to 6.2 million in 2016.

In this new book  on South Asian women’s involvement in struggles for equality at work, the authors show that there is a history of over four decades of South Asian women taking part  in labour struggles in the UK.  They  place that activity within a broader context; one that takes into account how and why the women  came to the UK;  and how the connections of race, ethnicity, gender and class thrust them into their roles as women who resisted oppression at work and took their activity onto the streets.

The authors challenge some of the myths around  the Grunwick strike; “the celebration of the strike increasingly resembles a kind of political nostalgia, a longing backward glance to the muscular activism of mass picketing, confrontation with the police and a centrifugal drawing together of all the progressive elements in the labour movement and the wider left.” Instead they show  the forces lined up against black and ethnic minority workers: how they were not just fighting discrimination by employers, but  also from fellow white workers – and even trade unions.

grunwick 1

Grunwick picket line

This book documents this history, and  shows how black and ethnic workers, together with their communities, challenged discrimination. In 1963 a local community group, the West Indian Development Community in Bristol, challenged a local bus company that refused to employ black and Asian people as bus crew,  a policy that was supported by the white workforce,  and  shockingly by the trade unions. Following the example of  black people in the USA at that time the local community boycotted the bus company,  and through a national campaign,  forced the company to lift the ban on non-white workers.


Bristol Bus Boycott

Lobbying by trade union members to challenge discriminatory practices within the trade union movement led  finally in the  late 1970s and early 1980s to a recognition  that racial discrimination needed to be challenged , and that black and ethnic minority workers needed to be incorporated into the trade union movement.

But what was, and is, the reality for black and ethnic minorities in work and as trade unionists? In Striking Women through the stories of the women at the heart of two important strikes – Grunwick in 1976-78 and Gate Gourmet in 2005 –  we get a more complex view of the women activists that is grounded not just in their lives at work,  but at home, and as part of the complexities of the UK labour market.

Central to this story are  the women themselves. The authors interviewed five of the elderly Grunwick strikers, and twenty seven Punjabi women workers who were sacked by Gate Gourmet in 2005. They interviewed them in their  own language of Hindi, “In the hope of bringing forth submerged accounts and hitherto unvoiced memories.”

The authors also interviewed senior officials in the TGWU (now Unite), observed Employment tribunals, and analysed the full judgements of the seventeen Employment Tribunal cases. The research gone into this book, and the analysis of these two disputes, must count for one of the most complex and complete examinations of the dynamics between trade unions and their members. It also shows how the massive changes in the political and economic realities of the period from the 1970s to the 2000s have undermined both workers and trade unions,  and challenges present day trade union practices in representing workers.

Much has been written about the Grunwick strike, but in this book we actually get to hear from the women themselves, and most importantly as they look back at what was a defeat, the women are sanguine; “I felt great that I can do something. I was no longer scared of our community. Of what people will say.”

The Gate Gourmet dispute was at a different time,  and  led to different consequences for the women involved. By 2005 the women had been working in a unionised workplace for many years,  but the anti-trade union legislation (which the Labour Government would not abandon) meant that it was not going to be a Grunwick mark 2,  but this time with a happy ending.

But many of the issues were similar for the two groups of women workers. It was about feelings of injustice and a need for collective action to address these grievances.  But the realities of 2005 meant that; “South Asian workers were once again subject to arbitrary management, treated as a  “disposable” labour force and left unprotected by the wider labour movement.”

g.g 2

Gate Gourmet workers

The challenges for trade unions in 2018 are formidable,  but unless they are prepared to challenge their own policies and practices as organisations,  their relevance to groups such as black and ethnic minority groups is questionable. The Grunwick and Gate Gourmet strikers proved that South Asian women (like other ethnic groups) are prepared to organise collectively to oppose oppression at work,  but the challenge  to the trade unions is to prove that they can change their approach to these workers and adopt a more proactive approach to organising workers in an era of globalisation and restructuring.

Buy Striking Women, cost £18 (!!) here

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Rising Up; How the MSWTUC worked with the Bakers’ Union to organise women confectioners.

women in chocolate factory

In 2018 the numbers of trade union members is on the decline: many young people do not see the point of joining. Some unions, such as the Baking Food and Allied Workers Union, are bucking that trend and young  people are at the heart of their union and activity,  many of whom  are women and  often  from ethnic backgrounds.

In my research of  the Minute Books of the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trade Union Council I came across some interesting references to  the  Bakers’ & Confectioners’ Union (as it was known then).  We can see how the two organisations worked together to first recruit women into their own separate unions and later amalgamated the two unions.

By 1905 the MSWTUC was ten years old and was very skilled at helping women set up their own unions. At this time most unions were male organisations,  some of whom were hostile to women joining them because they feared it  might bring down pay rates or  were just not interested in recruiting them.

The story begins in February 1905 when the  Branch Committee of the B.C.U. is approached by the MSWTUC to do some joint work in organising amongst women in the flour and confectionery trade. The B.C.U. agrees,  “This union pledged themselves to assist the council in all possible ways”.   The Organising Secretary, Mrs. Aldridge is requested to take on this work on behalf of the MSWTUC.

By May 11  1905 a meeting has been organised with women and girls employed in the confectionery (cake & biscuit) trade.

It was not easy to organise women because of the long hours they worked  and the MSWTUC were often not allowed on their work premises to talk to the women. But by June  6 1905 it was reported that  “the new  Confectioners’ Union had commenced on a smaller scale mainly owing to the difficulty of getting in touch with the women”.  A union was set up at a meeting that had been organised jointly by the Women’s Council and the Bakers’ and Confectioners’ Union.  Miss Johnson was appointed  Secretary and  regular meetings were now being held.

On  August 1 1905 Mr. Crick, District Organising Secretary of the B.C.U., attended the MSWTUC Council meeting to represent the women’s Confectionery Union.

There are no  furher references in the Minute Books to the women’s Confectionery Union until 1909.

From February 1909  work is  being undertaken  to organise  women confectionery workers  and meetings are held at the B.C.U. offices at  56 Swan St. in Manchester. Joint meetings between the women confectioners and the Men’s organisation were now to take place.

“ A very successful meeting of confectioners was held at 56 Swan Street on Wednesday December 1st 1909. Several new members of the Society were enrolled. Mr. H. Howard the president of the Men’s Society took the chair. The speakers were Miss Emily Cox and Mrs. Aldridge from the Council and Mr. H. A. Crick Secretary of the Men’s Society.”

A year later in December 1910 it was  decided that the B.C.U. would donate £25 to the MSWTUC “to be used between February and July 1911  in making a thorough canvass of women confectioners in the Manchester District further sums to be granted if meetings were arranged in the other towns.”

This donation led to the appointment of Mary Quaile as an Assistant to Mrs. Aldridge so that they could take on the work of organising the women confectionery workers. “It was felt that if the Secretary could be relieved of the routine work in connection with the office, far more time and energy could be devoted by her to the more valuable outside work of organisation.”

The difficulty of organising these women was expressed in the MSWTUC Annual Report of 1910. Women confectionery workers “were so scattered in their work that were it not for their organisation they would know but little of  the relative merits of the many situations. The union provides a common meeting ground for women working in a wide area, and members are thus able to obtain a far better knowledge of the conditions of bakehouses and wages than non-union women.”


Over the next few months Olive Aldridge and Mary Quaile worked hard, canvassing women working in shops and organising local meetings ie. April 3 they organised a meeting in Levenshulme.

In June 1911 Mrs. Aldridge and Miss Ashcroft  attended the Annual Demonstration of Bakers and Confectioners for the Preston district and Miss Eva Craven of the Women’s Confectioners Society spoke at the Caxton Hall meeting in support of the Eight Hours Bill for her trade.

There are no other references to work with the Women’s Confectioners Society until  October 9 1912 .  “ It was reported that Mr. Campion and Miss Quaile were attending a meeting for women confectioners for the Council at Eccles”.

The outbreak of the First World War leads to growing female employment and a crucial role for the MSWTUC in ensuring that women are not exploited by employers who are now keen to employ them.

Mary Quaile, who is now the sole Organising Secretary, becomes involved with organisations such as the Manchester Relief Committee and the Women’s War Interest Committee which campaigned for decent rates of pay for women war workers.

Throughout 1914 Mary was working  with women sweet workers at local factories explaining the role of new government organisations ie Trade Boards which would be involved in the pay and conditions of women war workers.

The MSWTUC Annual Report explained why it was crucial for women to be in trade unions. “Never before has the organisation of women been so necessary as at present, as owing to the shortage of men through enlistment, women are being employed in their place and it is of the utmost importance that women doing the same work as men should receive the same wages.”

The final reference to women in the confectionery trade was March 8 1916 when the Bakers’ Union called the Women Confectioners to a meeting and an amalgamation of the two unions was agreed.

This small snapshot of the history of the MSWTUC, women in the confectionery trade and the B.C.U. shows how difficult it was to organise some of the poorest and most exploited workers: women. Today, this history is important in reminding us that union recruitment and organisation is not easy,  but it is crucial in ensuring that workers are treated fairly at work.

The Minute Books and Annual Reports can be viewed in a new exhibition at the WCML





Posted in education, feminism, human rights, labour history, Manchester, political women, Salford, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Irish Collection at the WCML: a new chapter- the role of the Irish in Britain Representation Group. Part One.

Opening of Irish Room.jpg

Opening of Irish Collection 1990. Tony Coughlan Executor of Greaves Collection and me, secretary of Manchester IBRG


Over the centuries the Irish  have played a key role in the labour and trade union movement in this country. The Working Class Movement Library has some of the most important archives which  document this activity and show the continuous thread between generations of Irish and British activists.

In the Irish Collection are the archives of  Tommy Jackson and Desmond Greaves. Tommy Jackson (Thomas Alfred “Tommy” Jackson 1879-1955) was a founding member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain,  and later the Communist Party of Great Britain. He was a leading communist activist,  newspaper editor and a freelance lecturer.

Desmond Greaves (C.Desmond Greaves, 1913-1988), was a political activist and labour historian. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1934 and in 1941 joined the Connolly Association. The Connolly Association worked to organise Irish workers into trade unions and campaigned for a united Ireland within the Labour movement. In 1948 he became the editor of the Connolly Association’s newspaper the “Irish Democrat” and remained so until his death.

My friendship with Ruth and Eddie Frow and their comrades in the Communist Party and the trade unions showed me the important link that there was and still is between the Irish and radical history in Britain.  In the WCML they ensured that this history was collected, they wrote articles and pamphlets to promote this history and always encouraged other people to research and write up that history.  They showed  the continuous link there is and was between  generations, from the United Irishmen to their contemporaries such as  Tommy Jackson and Desmond Greaves, while local activists such as Mary Quaile had made a tremendous contribution to labour and trade union politics.

In 1981 a new wave of Irish activists became involved in not just the campaign for a united Ireland but also civil rights and equality for the Irish in Britain. The early 80s 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. The 80s was a time when 40,000 Irish people  each year were making the journey across the Irish Sea to Britain.  It was a time when a new generation of second and third generation Irish people became active in a variety of organisations from the Troops Out Movement to 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 who fought for a progressive policy on the North of Ireland, supported the rights of the Irish in this country and  most importantly, prepared to fund groups such as IBRG.

IBRG Haringey

IBRG Haringay 1980s

Set up in 1981 the IBRG was a community based organisation with branches across the country. There  were several in London plus Birmingham, Cardiff, Coventry, Manchester, Bolton, N.E.Lancs, Leeds and Merseyside. Over the years branches flourished  and declined by turn, reflecting the problems of organising events and activities and finding activists and funds to keep going.

This new archive will link up with the Jackson and Greaves archives in  telling the story of IBRG from 1981-2002. It has much material on the Manchester branch but there are Minute Books from other northwest branches as well  national documents, minutes of meetings, leaflets, reports, photographs, videos and ephemerae.

I hope the archive will show what inspired people like me to get involved in IBRG,  but also why, as a working class women, it made sense for me not just to be a member of my trade union but also to follow in the footsteps of many other Irish people to campaign for equality for the Irish in this country  and  a united Ireland.

I am  now cataloguing the  IBRG archive and will be posting about it  as I work through the material.

Posted in Catholicism, Communism, education, feminism, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, North of Ireland, political women, Salford, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment