In this post I am going to talk about a unique organisation, which from the start encouraged working class women to join trade unions and support unions that already exist; collected information about the conditions of women’s work; and also lobbied for legislation to improve women’s lives at work.
The Manchester and Salford Women’s Trade Union Council began in Manchester on February 5 1895 and survived until 1919. Its minutes were written up by hand in two volumes which Manchester trade union activist Mary Quaile, who worked for the Council from 1911 to 1919, took away with her when she retired. At that time no-one saw the relevance of trade union history, but luckily for us, the volumes are in very good condition, and they were passed onto the Mary Quaile Club last year.
This year the Mary Quaile Club have created the MSWTUC Minutes Transcription Project. Our aim is to transcribe the two volumes, create a website to publicise the Minutes so that everyone can gain access, and hand over the volumes to the WCML.
We want people to gain hope and inspiration from the story of the MSWTUC Minutes. Through this monthly post I am going to tell the story of this unique organisation. I have spent my life working in trade unions and other progressive groups, and reading the history of the MSWTUC is inspiring about how we can work together to change our lives, our community and the history of this country.
First of all, the Minutes are beautifully written up in copperplate handwriting. See this page.
The first meeting was held on Tuesday February 5 1895 at the Town Hall in Manchester. For those of us active in trade union politics it is an unusual group of people who have got together to campaign on behalf of poor women.
They include the editor of the Guardian;C.P. Scott , who goes on to take the minutes for the first two meetings. His wife Mrs. C.P.Scott also attends . And the use by women of their husband’s first and surname really dates the document. One of Elizabeth Gaskell’s daughters, Miss J B Gaskell also joins the inaugural meeting. At this time there are other groups representing women workers and a representative of one of them, Mrs Walton is from the Federation of Women Workers. Other worthies include councillors, M.Ps and two vicars.
Names that pop up in the minutes are women who are also involved with local politics and the campaign for the vote, including Mrs.Rose Hyland (no relation) and Margaret Ashton, later the first woman councillor in Manchester.
It is a well organised and funded group. They spend time creating a constitution, discussing committees and sub-committees, raise funds, and rent premises at 9 Albert Square in Manchester.
Working class women start to appear when the Council agree, at the beginning, to employ an Organising Secretary on £90 per annum. They advertise the post through local trade unions and set up a committee to deal with the recruitment process. In the event two women were appointed; Miss Frances Ashwell and Miss Sara Welsh.
By June 1895 they are already investigating the lives of women workers in the umbrella-covering, shirt-making and corset-making trades. It is interesting to note that they don’t want to run these unions, but instead are offering practical support in organising meetings and to help the women to “manage their affairs in a business-like way.”
There is an interesting account in September when one of the organisers, Miss Welsh, explains how they helped form the Umbrella Coverers Trade Union. It started out well with a public meeting and 80 members joining, but the numbers declined after “pressure had been brought to bear by the foreman.”
Stories of poor pay and women being used as cheap labour are revealed in the investigations that the MSWTUC do into shop work and the tailoring trade. Decisions are made to concentrate on the tailoresses who are doing the same work as the tailors, but only receiving 50% of their pay – and shop workers, who are barely being paid enough to live on. By December 1895 the MSWTUC were joining forces with the Womens Cooperative Guild to investigate the pay and conditions of shop girls, launderesses, tailoresses and milliners.
In 1895 the MSWTUC only had 8 meetings but laid the foundations of an organisation that could do groundbreaking work in investigating the lives of women at work, and helping them to organise to gain better pay and conditions.
Next month I will be looking at 1896 and the way in which the MSWTUC started making alliances with other groups in order to do more investigations into the lives of girls and women at work and help organise them into trade unions.
This project is ongoing and if you would like to donate to it please send a cheque to “Mary Quaile Club” c/o 6 Andrew St.Mossley Lancs OL5 0DN.