This post can also be found on the TUC Library‘s Collection Blog pages. Thanks to Jeff Howarth for allowing me to reproduce it here. Given the many hours of my life spent at the TUC Library, it feels good to be able to share this here and to contribute something in this, the Library’s centenary year.

Winding down for the weekend and scrolling through Twitter last Friday afternoon, my attention was suddenly grabbed by a tweet from the TUC Library. It announced a brand-new acquisition to its Collections and was accompanied by two images which stopped me in my tracks. These were the opening pages of a hand-written minute book belonging to the pre-First World War Newcastle on Tyne branch of the National Federation of Women Workers. My heart skipped a beat, flipped over entirely and neither it nor my mind settled down until I had seen the document for myself a few days later.

I learned that the book was found by a daughter who was clearing her mother’s house after her death. I understand all too well what that this entails, having just finished sorting and emptying my own mum’s house. It seems likely that the book belonged to her grandmother. My thoughts and emotions are, then, not just ones of excitement but also of empathy and gratitude that this has now been passed to the TUC Library. Such finds are the very stuff of the history of working people’s lives and they are priceless.

I know there are hundreds of historians who long for such discoveries. It is rare occasions such as these that make searching for them so worthwhile, especially as there are inevitably so many garden paths to go up as well. I have been researching and writing about the extraordinary trade union that was the National Federation of Women Workers (Federation) for well over a decade. In 2014 Palgrave Macmillan published my history of the Federation, founded in 1906 by the charismatic Mary Macarthur (1880-1921). The research for the book was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and provided me with the funds to work with national collections and to travel (there were a lot of train journeys, a lot of meal deals in hotel rooms and a lot of soreness in my arms, back and neck from lugging laptop and books all over the place) to local archives and local studies’ libraries.

This small all-female trade union, which nonetheless punched well above its weight, existed for just 15 years, between 1906 and 1921, before merging with the larger and mixed gender National Union of General Workers. Thanks in large part to the endeavours of Gertrude Tuckwell of the Women’s Trade Union League, under whose guidance and protection the Federation operated, an extensive and valuable collection of annual reports, newspaper cuttings, pamphlets and notices relating to the union (and more broadly on women and work) is available for consultation at the TUC Library in London. What was harder to find – and of course what I then wanted so much to find – was detailed information about just how the union operated at the grassroots level. This I tried to knit together, albeit with many frustrating gaps, by looking at newspapers and at the records of other organisations, such as local Trades Councils, which supported the Federation in its attempts to protect women industrial workers and improve their often appalling pay and conditions.

How I longed to find more than a brief branch report submitted to and published by the Federation’s newspaper, Woman Worker, or included within its Annual Reports. At the end of my book, I included a substantial appendix giving brief outlines of all the branches I had managed to identify. My frustration at its almost certain incompleteness is there for all to see in the note I added at the start indicating that ‘this is not a comprehensive list but is included here to encourage and facilitate further research’ (my fervent hope). Here I included, where they emerged, the names of branch secretaries, treasurers and presidents and of the industries in which women in the different regions of Britain were employed. The book chapters also pay attention to the establishment of branches, the disputes that drew in members, the triumphs when disputes ended in improved conditions and the despair when at times organisation had little lasting success. There is detail but it is not always enough to tell stories in their entirety. When piecing together – often very small – snippets of information from a myriad sources, I was acutely aware of how much more there was out there, undiscovered and also of how difficult it can be to capture the grassroots history of a national union that existed over a hundred years ago.

And then, a decade after I started to write the book (and 8 years after its publication) came this amazing discovery of the first branch minute book of the Federation that I have ever seen. It is only a few pages long, from the inaugural meeting of the Newcastle upon Tyne branch on August 14th 1912, when 18 people were present, until July 1913 when just seven turned up. From the election of the branch officials (fabulous lists of names with which a local and/or family history researcher can do so much), including the secretary, E Howson, the formation of a social or dance committee, through to concerns over falling membership and pleas for members to stick together and to turn up to meetings, these few pages are of the utmost importance. They reveal the campaigning efforts of local activists, including Mrs Harrison Bell of the Women’s Labour League, in helping to form and sustain the branch which held its meetings in the Northern Independent Labour Party Club Room, at 18 Clayton Street. Laid out before me is evidence of so many challenges faced by local branches. Here is concern about paying the rent for the meeting room when attendance was so low (in early 1913 there were two consecutive months when numbers were too low for the meeting to go ahead). There is cheerful optimism at a two-shilling profit after the enjoyable and successful Christmas dance and appeals for an organiser to be sent from the Federation’s London HQ. There were always too few organisers and demand for their help was high because their presence was so helpful with campaigning and giving encouragement to new and fragile branches.

In the earliest meetings there is encouragement given to join and stay united within the union and discussion about the importance of combination. Resolutions passed included the need for women to be present on the newly established National Insurance Courts of Referees and for ‘intelligent working women’ to be involved in the planning and arrangement of workmen’s dwellings in Newcastle. There are summaries read out of the minutes of the Federation’s National Council.

There are just a few specific references to conditions at local firms; a mention, for example of improvements which would ‘add to the comfort of the girls’ at Messrs Armstrong & Whitworth. There is frustration at the branch members at Messrs Gleaves who ‘seemed to have forsaken the Union altogether’ (this is possibly the business of Henry Gleave, whose drapery sold underclothing, baby linen and fancy drapery made in his factory).  

Having been to many such meetings at the end of my own working day, tired and wanting to put my feet up, I can’t help wondering if there was enough here (despite the enormous efforts of the branch officials) to keep members engaged and ready to come back each month. There were -and are – so many calls on women workers’ time and in addition, there was the hugely important issue of feeling secure and safe enough to attend a union meeting. In Newcastle, as in many other towns and cities where women worked across a broad range of industries, it was often too risky to openly form a works branch and instead – as in this case – one branch would seek to pull in workers from across the city to meet in a club room or hall. Men – employed in larger numbers – might hold their union meetings in the pub or union club, thus combining leisure time with union business. It was all so much trickier for women. There were a hundred and one domestic things to be done at home in the evening. On top of that, there was the ever-present risk of intimidation or victimization – would the boss find out about the meeting? Would he sack you? And then there was the cost of membership, out of an already low wage.

Being a branch official was hard and often dispiriting work. I am not in the least surprised to read that on a stormy night in January 1913, only the Secretary and one other woman attended and that the meeting did not go ahead. It was not a question of members’ commitment to the union but simply one of getting by – and of keeping warm (hopefully) and dry at home. Social events were often the glue that held a branch together, although even here it does not seem that the December dance in 1912 (despite being hailed as a decided success with its two-shilling profit) was able to do this.

The book ends with a meeting in July 1913. It is not clear if there were more meetings, although clearly membership was falling and the Federation’s Annual Report for 1914 reveals organisers’ frustration, asking why the women of Tyneside don’t ‘wake up to the fact that they will never get decent wages till they organise’. There were so many reasons why organisation was so difficult for women workers. I am (by complete and happy chance) currently writing an article for the North-East Labour History Society about the work of the Federation in the North-East of England, in which I explain just how hard it was for small branches to keep going, in the early years of the union. It was not until the First World War that membership soared, particularly in munitions centres like Newcastle. By early 1917, the Federation claimed it had nearly 9000 members in that city alone.  This short minute book adds detail, intimacy and vibrancy to research like mine into women’s work and trade union membership. I am delighted to know that it has survived and that it is there to refer to in the forthcoming article and much more besides. It is a tremendous addition to the Library’s collections.

I hope my excitement at the emergence of this new acquisition to the TUC Library is evident. If you want to know more about the National Federation of Women Workers, here is a link to an exhibition I worked on with the TUC Library to commemorate the 100th year of the death of Mary Macarthur:

The Life of Mary Macarthur – TUC Library exhibition | TUC

Mary Macarthur, secretary of the National Federation of Women Workers, Trafalgar Square, 1908

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