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.
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.
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