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


About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
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3 Responses to Finding Miss Nellie Kay…

  1. Graeme says:


  2. Peter Billington says:

    Great stuff

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