The Newcastle upon Tyne Branch of the National Federation of Women Workers

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

The Life of Mary Macarthur

I am delighted to share here the exhibition that I have curated for the TUC. Using images and materials from the TUC Library, it marks the centenary of the death of Macarthur, on 1 January 1921 and celebrates her work as an inspiring trade union leader. Please join me if you can on Friday 8th January at midday for the official launch of the exhibition and for my talk on the life and work of Macarthur. You can register for this free event here

Mary Macarthur: A New Biography, published October 16th 2019

My biography of the brilliant trade union leader, Mary Macarthur, has just been published by History West Midlands and can be bought here .

Book cover

It has been a privilege to research and write this first full length account of Macarthur’s life since that published by Mary Hamilton in 1925. By way of an introduction to the book,  here a blog that I wrote recently for Women’s History Network 

Here also is a short film made by History West Midlands. It shows what a wonderful day we had launching the book in Cradley Heath, where I was the guest of the Friends of the Women Chain Makers, 109 years to the day after the brilliant success of the Chain Makers’ Strike of 1910. Here, women won the minimum wage that was already theirs by right but was being withheld by bosses who thought that they could continue to control and manipulate women workers.

And to hear me talking to the book’s publisher, Mike Gibbs of History West Midlands, you can listen to a 30 minute podcast here

Mary Macarthur was an extraordinary woman, described by one contemporary as ‘a wholehearted fighter for economic and political justice’ and another as as ‘one of the pioneer women of the movement who has done more than any other woman I know of for the emancipation of her sex’.

Born 13th August 1880.

Died 1 January 1921.

Corruganza TUC

Here is one of my favourite photographs of Mary Macarthur standing on the plinth of Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square on a wet August day in 1908 during the strike of women box makers at the Corruganza Factory, Earlsfield. Image courtesy of TUC Library

There are lots of events coming up allowing me to tell Mary’s story and to highlight the relevance of her work today when so many workers still face uncertainty, on zero hours contracts with no sick or holiday pay, where impossible targets are set, making people exhausted and ill and trapped in appallingly low pay.

If you are in London on Thursday 21st November, do join me at 6.30 the Wash Houses, London Metropolitan University, entrance from University reception at Calcutta House on Old Castle Street E1 7NT. This is home to the wonderful TUC Library and I will highlight the richness of the material housed here that allowed me to write this book as well as my history of the National Federation of Women Workers

For more details of this event, see here


I am delighted to introduce a podcast recorded by History West Midlands, in which I share some stories of women’s every day life in Coventry between 1850 and 1950. These are drawn from my recent book, A History of Women’s Lives in Coventry 1850-1950 published by Pen&Sword For those who live in the Coventry area, the book is also available at The Big Comfy Bookshop in Fargo Village, Waterstones (city centre and Leamington) and Earlsdon Post Office, and is priced at £14.99.

Coventry women on holiday between the wars. Photo courtesy of Albert Smith (included in A History Of Women’s Lives in Coventry)

A Chat Over the Fence. Courtesy of Albert Smith (included in A History of Women’s Lives in Coventry)

book launch
Launch of A History of Women’s Lives in Coventry at The Big Comfy Bookshop

I also have a short piece on the wonderful ‘Sheroes of History’ women’s history site about Alice Arnold, Coventry’s first woman mayor. You can read it here along with lots of excellent blogs contributed by authors about many truly remarkable women.

If you enjoy the Alice Arnold blog,  I will be talking on September 17th at Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery and Museum about Coventry’s earliest women councillors. Autumn 1919 marks the centenary anniversary of the election of two brilliant pioneers – Alice Arnold and Ellen Hughes. It is easy to overlook local politicians and yet they are the ones who often make the biggest difference to our communities and to the quality of our lives. I will be paying tribute to the first elected women and also to the other women who served on Coventry City Council in the years before the Second World War. Their contributions had an enormous impact on the lives of Coventry’s citizens and their experiences of work, politics and womanhood brought new and valued perspectives to the Council Chamber.

Alice Arnold and Ellen Hughes, Coventry’s first women councillors, successful candidates in the first local elections in Coventry since before the First World War.

I am thrilled to announce that this September my biography of Mary Macarthur will be published by History West Midlands. In 1921 this brilliant and charismatic trade union leader died, aged just 40. In her short life, her activism and leadership had been responsible for raising awareness of women’s poor working conditions and encouraging them to speak out against injustice and inequality.

PRE-ORDER SPECIAL ONLY £15* - Mary Macarthur 1880-1921 The Working Woman’s Champion

Mary Macarthur is perhaps best known for the prominent part she played in the women chain makers’ strike in Cradley Heath, Staffordshire in 1910. This heroic dispute ended with the women receiving the minimum wage that was theirs by right. It was a triumph, but by no means an isolated one. Mary Macarthur, as leader of the country’s all-female general trade union, the National Federation of Women Workers, travelled the length and breadth of the country making sure that women’s lives were improved by better pay and working conditions and union membership.

This biography seeks to understand what motivated this extraordinary individual and why she chose the path that she did, particularly at a time when it was still far from common for a middle-class woman to appear on public platforms. In other words, this is not just an account of Mary the union leader but of Mary the woman – of her travels and friendships, love and marriage, family and motherhood – all explored within the context of her times.

I look forward to sharing my research journey on my website once the book is published. In February, I was interviewed by Jenni Murray on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour about Mary Macarthur. I was invited to be on the show with Bryony Purdue, who is currently playing Mary Macarthur in a touring folk opera called Rouse Ye Women, by Townsend Theatre Productions. This is about Mary Macarthur’s involvement in the 1910 women chain makers’ strike in Cradley Heath and it is a truly inspirational, powerful and deeply moving play which has got some brilliant reviews. I was delighted to be with the cast at Greenwich Theatre in February for a post-show chat about Mary Macarthur.

For the chance to hear Bryony beautifully performing a song and an excerpt from Rouse Ye Women, plus some background from me about Mary Macarthur, catch us on this episode of Woman’s Hour,  here

Image result for bryony purdue
Bryony Purdue and Cathy at the BBC for Woman’s Hour

On Thursday May 30th I am talking at Tara Theatre, Earlsfield, London about Mary Macarthur and the part that she played in the 1908 Corruganza strike. A group of brave women at the Corruganza box making factory in Summerstown refused to be intimidated by their boss who had decided to reduce their already low wages. Together they fought back, formed a branch of the all female National Federation of Women Workers and headed for Trafalgar Square to ensure their cause was widely publicised. In January this year,  I went on a memorable and guided walk around Summerstown with excellent local historian Geoff Simmons. We set out to find the site of the box factory and also to walk in the footsteps of the women strikers on their way to the station. I felt very close to the box makers, despite the fact that when I was in Summerstown, the sun shone in a bright blue sky whereas when they were on the march, they negotiated heavy summer downpours!

My talk  is part of Tara Theatre’s exciting May festival of women’s artists – I’ll Say It Again – read all about it here

Corruganza TUC
Mary Macarthur addressing the crowd, Trafalgar Square, 1908

Summerstown, January 2019

I am also very much looking forward to talking about Mary Macarthur at the Chain Makers’ Festival on Saturday July 6th in the Mary Macarthur Gardens, Cradley Heath. This is an event that I love attending and which raises the profile of all women workers fighting for a better day.

Mary Macarthur (Commons