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

News

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.

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

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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

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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
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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.

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Mary Macarthur (Commons Wikimedia.org)