Biscuit Makers to the King and a Brave Bunch of Women Workers

Here is a tale of an incident in the strange life of a historian whose study is always in a dreadful muddle. A simple (or completely weird) coincidence resulted in this short blog.

As I sat at my desk in the afternoon with a cup of tea, reading the news (there you go, I was already distracted from the work I was supposed to be doing) about potential strike action by GMB members at Burton’s Biscuits in Edinburgh, a piece of paper fell off my ‘filing’ pile and fluttered to the floor. Stooping to retrieve it, I saw that it was an appeal for funds to sustain 30 women employed by MacKenzie & MacKenzies’ Biscuit Makers in Edinburgh in 1908. Wondering by now what year I was actually in was enough to get me off my chair and start digging around in folders of research notes that go back years. This is the result.

First, the piece of paper that fell off the desk:

This is from the Gertrude Tuckwell Collection, TUC Library

The women, in the icing department (referred to – as female labour so often was – as girls by the press and by their union) were told on 15 January 1908 that new piece-work rates were to be introduced in their section. In effect, these amounted to a reduction of around 8 pence a day, which would bring some of the women’s pay down by as much as 30 per cent. The women alleged that they were given just a few minutes to digest the news, clearly in the expectation that they would agree it and carry on working. Deeply concerned, however, that if they accepted the new rates, more reductions would follow, the women walked out. This principled stand was a very bold move by a group of low paid workers, over half of whom appear at that point to have been either very new trade union members or not members at all. As such, those women were not yet entitled to union strike pay.

Quick to offer help was the Edinburgh branch of the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW). This all – female union, established for women who worked in some of the worst paid industries in the country – and considered by many in the labour movement to be too difficult to organise – was barely two years old but its fighting tactics had already begun to improve pay and conditions for women workers across Britain and its membership was on the rise. The Federation’s HQ was in London but its founder was the indefatigable Glasgow-born Mary Macarthur (1880-1921). She had cut her union teeth in Scotland when she was still a very young woman, before moving south in 1903 and becoming secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League. It was under the umbrella of this organisation, which aimed to strengthen women’s trade unionism nationally, that the NFWW was formed in 1906. Its very first branch had been, in fact, formed in Edinburgh during a dispute at a paper bag factory, which ended with the women returning to work on their own terms. The branch quickly came to the attention of the Edinburgh Trades Council whose members were ready and willing to give it much welcomed support when the MacKenzie & MacKenzies’ women walked out in early 1908.

The president of the Edinburgh Federation branch, Mrs Lamont, had been on hand to support the paper bag workers in 1906 and her reputation as a dedicated activist was recognised by Mary Macarthur, who entrusted her with the vice-presidency of the national NFWW. At the same time as repeated – and futile – attempts to negotiate with the management at MacKenzie & MacKenzies’ went on, the local labour movement helped not only to recruit new members into the Edinburgh NFWW branch but to help with the urgent need to provide them with strike funds. The Trades Council deplored what it claimed was just the latest reduction to be introduced by MacKenzie & MacKenzies in just three years. It feared that this latest proposed cut would reduce the wages of even the most expert workers, many of whom had been with the firm for between six and 11 years, to about nine shillings a week.  Enough was collected from across the national labour movement and from well -wishers to ensure that all strikers received 5 shillings a week until they were eligible for strike benefit from the NFWW. For some of the women, this represented half of their usual weekly wage and so, although on its own, it was nowhere near enough to live on, it may have stopped some of them from having to seek help from the parish, from charity, family or from money lenders.

New union though the NFWW was, the tactics used by its leadership were effective right from the start. Mary Macarthur ensured that in every dispute her union was involved in, meticulous research was undertaken to make sure that all facts were fully investigated and that organisers understood the characteristics of the local economy. Once this was done, it was on to a campaign of naming and shaming in the hope of humiliating a firm into backing down. In the case of the biscuit makers, the union issued a circular to be sent out to 200 or so shareholders of MacKenzie & MacKenzies, highlighting the management’s continued refusal to settle the dispute and emphasising the implications of paying such low wages to its workforce. It also let it be known that MacKenzies’ was paying considerably less than two other local employers engaged in the same type of work.

The Federation set about attracting the support of some prominent names to appear on platforms at public meetings or to make known their sympathy with the cause, as did Lady Barbara Steel, the Scottish social and suffrage campaigner, who also contributed to the strike fund. Soon after the strike began, Thomas Richards, trade unionist and Labour MP for Wolverhampton, was in Edinburgh giving an impassioned speech on behalf of the strikers. Reported in The Scotsman, Richards expressed his outrage that MacKenzie & MacKenzies, supplying biscuits not just to the Royal Household but to the House of Commons, was in fact nothing more than a firm of sweaters. He told his audience that if girls sold their labour to any employer, they ought to be able to earn enough to keep them in comparative comfort, good clothing and have enough left over to put by for a rainy day. The failure to pay the women a living wage was, in his view, nothing short of un-Christian behaviour. His speech chimed perfectly with the NFWW’s ongoing national campaign to highlight the immorality of paying scandalously low wages to women workers and it proved a highly effective way of raising money to support strikers. By the time the NFWW embarked on perhaps its most famous strike – that of the women chain makers of Cradley Heath in 1910, fighting for the country’s first minimum wage – it had acquired a good few years of experience of these tactics. In Edinburgh in 1908 a total of £103 1 shilling and 4 pence was collected by the local labour movement for the biscuit icers. Of this amount just over a quarter came from the Federation.

The financial and moral support kept the women out on strike into the Spring. The Trades Council praised their spirit of comradeship and recorded with pride that despite its length, the strike had remained solid. Several attempts to negotiate with MacKenzie & MacKenzies were made but the firm remained adamant that its proposals would not mean wage reductions for its employees. Even threats to raise the question in Parliament or to kick up a national stink about the behaviour of the Royal biscuit making establishment did nothing to lead to a change of heart. By June, according to Edinburgh Trades Council, the fund was helping just four of the strikers because all others had found work elsewhere. There was at least pride in the fact that none of the women had returned to MacKenzie and MacKenzies. The NFWW’s Annual Report for 1908 recorded that year as a trying one for the Edinburgh branch (there was another – more successful – strike, this time at a paper bag factory) but nonetheless it had managed to increase its membership overall. In the next few years, with the help of some brilliant women activists and with the continued support of the Trades Council, the branch strengthened and grew. Such progress, however, could never be taken for granted. The NFWW did all that it could do protect its members from employers who intimidated, threatened or sacked those regarded as ringleaders and troublemakers. Its 1908 Annual Report shows that during that year three members of the Edinburgh branch received victimisation pay of £1 and 4 shillings each, presumably to compensate for loss of earnings.

The union conceded that not all workplace struggles for fairness ended in victory but it constantly reminded workers that a strong union branch and solidarity were of untold importance. Using her analogy of the union as a bundle of sticks, Mary Macarthur frequently reminded women that an employer could easily pick off a single twig but that he was powerless when faced with an unsnappable bunch.

Solidarity, in other words.

1911 delegates at the Scottish Trades Union Council. Edinburgh’s Mrs Lamont is second from the left, Mary Macarthur fourth from left. This image is from the National Library of Scotland and I thank them for allowing me to use it in my biography of Macarthur

One final note. The union in question in the 2020 dispute in Edinburgh is the GMB. 100 years ago this winter, Mary Macarthur’s National Federation of Women Workers merged with the National Union of General Workers which in turn – in the late 20th century – became part of the GMB. History is never just history. A piece of paper that falls off my desk changes nothing but it reminded me that the struggle for justice has been long and that it goes on.

And I took a good hard look at the biscuit with my tea today.

The notes that I referred to for this piece were largely gathered over the past decade or so from the TUC Library, the National Library of Scotland. A big thanks to the staff at both.

Thanks also to the British Newspaper Archive

Don’t Try to be Sexy, Ms Smith: ‘Equality’ in the 1970s

Sunday PeopleThe Equal Pay Act (EPA) was passed in Britain on May 29th 1970, 50 years ago this week. For those who had long campaigned for equal pay, it was a relief to finally see it on the statute books (although in a fight with its origins in the late 19th century, by no means all of those who had done so were still alive) and, as a measure that improved at least some women’s pay, it seems right to commemorate it. However, – and this is a VERY LARGE however indeed –this legislation was severely limited in its scope and it never ensured that all women were paid the same as men. In addition, it was launched into a world that was awash with unchallenged and normalized sexism. This happened to be the world in which I was becoming a young woman. This is my take on the EPA, what it meant, and how it was publicly received in 1970s Britain.

In my research on women and work in the early 20th century, I was always struck by the lengths that employers went to to try to get round changes in the law that would mean that they had to raise wage rates. In 1909 the Liberal Government’s Trades Board Act introduced minimum wages into four of the country’s worst paid industries. The first Trade Board rates to be agreed were in the chain making industry of the Black Country and for women homeworkers, the increase was set to substantially raise their pay. There was, however, a three-month period before the agreement became enforceable in 1910, followed by a six-month period in which workers were encouraged to sign an agreement to work at the old rates, with bosses warning that this was the only way that future work could be guaranteed. It was a blatant attempt to bypass the law and the women, led by the National Federation of Women Workers struck, much to the employers’ surprise. The public was incensed that the women were being so shabbily treated, the bosses were shamed into doing the right thing and after a ten-week dispute, the rate was achieved.

This evasion, as outrageous as it was, nevertheless seems fairly mild in comparison to what happened nearly 60 years later, when the EPA was passed (don’t get me wrong. There was no shortage of injustices between 1909 and 1970!). For starters, it was not implemented until 29 December 1975, giving employers a splendidly long time (although not the 7 years the CBI had requested) to work out how to get around pay rise issues, for example by altering job descriptions so that men continued to receive higher pay than women. Spare Rib, the feminist magazine, kept its readers in touch with what was going on. In an excellent article in 1973, entitled ‘Equal Pay: Make It Work for You’, Sarah Boston reported that the company Shoefayre, had renamed its male shop assistants ‘Trainee Managers’ and paid them £3 more than the women whose job titles went unaltered. The terms of the Act were deliberately vague and extremely limited; equal pay was only to be conceded when men and women’s work was deemed to be the same or broadly similar. This was so easy for employers to circumvent, especially as the job evaluations that were needed to determine equal pay were not even compulsory so that many firms did not even bother to carry them out. There were endless ways to get around equal pay, such as implementing grading structures which put heavy work (done by men) at the top and light work (done by women) at the bottom, often with scant regard to the skill and training required. Despite no longer being able to advertise a job as a man’s or a woman’s, firms found ways to ensure that certain jobs would remain exclusively female so that they could be paid less. A good ruse used by at least one firm was to ‘grant’ women a pay rise that brought them up to the male minimum rate. The only problem, as Sarah Boston showed, was that none of the men at the firm were actually on the basic rate and were all paid more than the women.

Even before the Act was implemented, a great many women knew that they would still have a fight on their hands for wage rises. As for women who did work that had long been deemed traditionally female and was notoriously low paid, the EPA changed little or nothing. At the end of the EPA’s first year, Spare Rib noted that ‘it’s been hard for women to take the EPA seriously. Even in cases where it applies, industrial tribunals have been ruling against us for the most trivial reasons’.  Of the 130 cases heard by tribunals (most commonly chaired by men) in the first six months of 1976, 94 were dismissed. Spare Rib drew readers attention to the appeals tribunals which could either reverse the verdicts of the industrial tribunals or get the case referred back for a second hearing. The first three appeals hearings ruled in favour of women workers.

First came the Kraft Food factory in Kirby which had denied women equal pay because they were not permitted to do night work. The appeals tribunal told the firm that ‘the mere time at which the work is performed should be disregarded when considering the differences between the things which the woman does and things which a man does.

This was followed by a case involving Fortes, who had promoted one male waiter to ‘Banqueting Supervisor’ just days after the EPA was passed. A tribunal had ruled that the women waitresses were entitled to equal pay only until the man’s promotion came into effect but this was rejected by an appeals tribunal which ruled for a permanent rise for the women.

The third case concerned a firm on Humberside which had appealed against a tribunal that had decided that a woman cook should receive the same wage as two male assistant chefs. To prove the difference between the jobs, the firm had pointed out that the work was carried out at different times, in different locations and that catering was for different numbers. The appeals judge considered these to be ‘trivial differences’.

Whilst the appeals’ tribunals helped many women workers, it is clear that the process of challenging your employer, was made as difficult as possible – and would not even have been needed if the spirit of the Act had genuinely intended equality. After a long strike for equal pay at the Trico Factory in Brentford (where women were paid £6.50 less than the men on broadly similar work) , supported by the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, one woman’s assessment of the ‘victory’ neatly summed up the real state of affairs; ‘We didn’t get [the settlement] through the Equal Pay Act – you could say we got it despite the Equal Pay Act’.

In the same month that saw the introduction of the EPA, the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) became law. This set up the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) to promote equality and to tackle and remove discrimination in the areas of housing, education and training, as well as in employment. Whilst both these Acts (today covered by the Equality Act) disappointed a lot of women who hoped for much more, the existence of the legislation did at least provide the chance to challenge prejudice and to raise awareness of inequality.

I was 14 in 1976 and completely unaware of the enormity of the scale of the work that lay ahead fo rthe EOC. What I did hear were endless jibes about women ‘wanting it both ways’ – demanding equality in the workplace but still expecting men to open doors for them or pick up the bill on dates. About women being reluctant to do ‘masculine’ (ie heavy or dirty) work. About there being no point to married women having equal pay when it was clear that they were only working for pin money. I heard women deemed to be too loud or expressing opinions being accused of ‘going all women’s lib on us’ and I read about mothers who went out to work wanting it all but neglecting their duties. Sometimes it seemed as if the media delighted in deliberately missing the point; a 1976 Daily Mirror piece entitled ‘Adrienne doesn’t want to be a man’, quoted Adrienne, aged 28, declaring that she wanted to be neither independent nor equal and that women’s lib was in fact pointless (October 5 1976) . Here was the age-old argument about separate spheres – that difference did not equate to inequality. Adrienne ‘gave up a hectic social life and a successful career’ (in that order!) to have a family and had never looked back. And look what happened when mothers went out to work; the Mirror (April 24 1976) reported that,

Fleas and cockroaches are on the increase in Belgium … and it’s all thanks to Women’s Lib, says a health ministry official. He claims that children are turning up to school “like fleabags” because working mothers are too tired to clean their homes.

Regarding equal pay, the legislation existed but there seemed to be a question over whether it was nice or feminine to use it. One of the first women to challenge her employer was ‘blonde Ann Hunt’ (Daily Mirror January 1 1976) who ‘slapped in her claim’… on the day the [EPA] came into force. Another woman who asked for equal pay was awarded compensation for unfair dismissal ‘even though she [had] stormed out and resigned’ (Coventry Evening Telegraph, March 3 1976)

When Joan Bakewell wrote in the Mirror (October 15 1976) that the spirit of the EPA was being ignored and evaded, declaring her support for the women strikers at the Trico factory, readers had things to say,

Blaming the lawmakers for the position in which some women find themselves is, at best, misguided. Women shouted hard and long, telling us how they were undoubtedly equal to men. Now that they have a bigger slice of the cake some are choking on it. if the blame is to be placed anywhere, why not at their own door?

Of course the {SDA and the EPA] will never work. Joan Bakewell must realise there are many jobs which women are quite incapable of doing, even though they may be very competent at their own particular line. They will always be asking a male to help them do something or other (October 21 1976).

I have just finished reading Motherwell, Deborah Orr’s brilliant account of growing up in the 1960s and 70s. Like the Orrs, my family watched Miss World and The Benny Hill Show – everybody did. I heard endless jokes about women, at which you were obliged to laugh if you didn’t want to appear humourless or (God forbid) too serious because, let’s face it and as Orr wrote, ‘women were a joke, after all’. All I knew about women’s liberation and women’s rights were that they were the subject of some hilarious jokes and that women who ‘demanded’ equality’ shaved their heads but not their legs, burned their bras, were not as they should be and were above all figures of fun.

So, if I had read an article in the Sunday People (a British tabloid newspaper) in the autumn of 1976 – 9 months after the introduction of the EPA and the SDA) , about how women should behave at job interviews, I probably wouldn’t have noticed much, if anything, wrong with it. It merely showed me the world that I knew and with no idea yet of what the world of work would look like for me, I suppose I assumed that I would work at something and that whatever it was, it would be what was expected of a young woman in the late 1970s.

Stead & Simpson
My first experience of the world of work: Saturday job, Stead & Simpsons, Exeter 1978

The People article, called ‘Don’t Try to Be Sexy, Ms Smith’ (October 3 1976), appeared on what looks like a woman’s page that included fashion, an advice column, a pattern and a ‘what’s new in the shops’ column. The employment piece was written by Maggie Morro, who stated that despite the SDA and women’s lib, ‘the fact remains … some men just don’t like employing women’. What then, can [a woman] do about this to ensure that she proves to a boss that ‘she’s just as good as the fellows?’.


What followed was a list of tips for women wanting to be taken seriously at interview and in the workplace. Was it a joke or a response to an editor’s straight request for something light-hearted on the modern challenges facing women office workers? Who knew? Let’s laugh anyway because it’s funny, right? (In December 1976 Spare Rib reproduced the People article on a page devoted to examples of sexism sent in by readers. Trouble was, I’d never heard of Spare Rib and I don’t remember seeing it in my local newsagent’s).

Spare Rib
My collection of Spare Rib. But in 1976 my advice on being a teenager came from Jackie

The journalist consulted the Alfred Marks Employment Bureau. Mr Bernard Marks urged girls not to play on their sex appeal at interview but instead to ‘realise it’s their brains not their bosoms a firm is interested in’. He went on, ‘girls who compete with men for jobs have to be careful to keep their femininity on a low key’.

The interview advice that followed included the avoidance of dresses plunging below the navel, to go easy with the false lashes and nails and to make sure there was no ‘careful’ revealing of knees when sitting down. Oh, and don’t wear trousers as ‘some men, believe it or not, still reckon that women just aren’t women unless they’re wearing skirts or a dress’ (so no knees, but do show your legs. Excellent).

Then come some great tips on interview behaviour, reproduced here in full:

If you’re single, don’t make a big play about what time you knock-off. And don’t mention that your boyfriend’s a 6 ft. amateur boxing champion with a terrible jealous streak.

Married women should avoid muttering about getting off early to collect the kids from school. That’s your problem, not his.

So make arrangements for the kids before you get to the interview and tell your prospective boss what plans you’ve made.

Never ask where the nearest supermarket is or which day is early closing. Men are just not concerned that you’ve got to get something for dinner.

Don’t chatter about your personal problems. Don’t giggle. Don’t bite your fingernails or pick your teeth. Or fiddle with your bra-strap.

Don’t smoke without asking permission and never pull your last boss to shreds, or suggest he was always lusting after you.

It doesn’t help if you demand your holidays the next month. It does help if you show an interest in the firm’s products and know a bit about them.

Be honest, of course. But not silly. Don’t dwell on the fact that you missed getting your O levels by half a mile and haven’t worked since the kids were born.

Show our future boss you are happy to have a go at anything – including making the tea – and that you are ambitious.

Above all don’t come on strong as a women’s libber, just in case he happens to be a male chauvinist.

Naturally, everyone assumed that the boss was a man. I am pretty sure that me and many of my classmates would have seen this as offering straightforward rather than ironic advice. In amongst the jokes about boxing boyfriends or the spilling the beans of pervert ex bosses, the sub message was loud and clear – despite the EPA and the SDA, equality of opportunity was nowhere close. It was still a man’s world and in order to be part of it, you played by men’s rules. Blend in and please. If you got it right and didn’t exploit your femininity (but didn’t obscure it either), you might just be taken seriously. Too much woman and you were probably a bit dumb. Too little woman and you confused people. Too single and you were a threat or a tease. Too much of a mother and you couldn’t possibly care enough about your job. Too much ambition and you would need to be put in your place. In other words, women, just do what you were told. Be quietly but unthreateningly indispensable, a safe pair of hands, as unobtrusive as possible.

As long as you weren’t silly of course.

My sources:

Motherwell by Deborah Orr, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2020

British Newspaper Archive

Spare Rib Archive, British Library

This was my take on the issue of 1970s equal pay. Here are some links relating to the persistence of unequal pay in Britain:











‘The Weather Was Hot, The Way was Long’: the 1918 strike for equal pay

On Saturday 17th August 1918 a strike began without warning in London among women bus and tram workers. These wartime workers walked out in defence of the principle of equal pay for equal work. Despite promises that where men and women did the same jobs, pay would be the same, the Committee of Production had, earlier in the year, awarded an increase of five shillings per week to men only. The five shillings was added to the war bonus that workers were given on top of their wages to help them cope with the spiralling costs of living during the First World War. It was argued that the brunt of these costs was felt more acutely by men than by women, because men had wives and children to support. The women were having none of this and the injustice and inaccuracy of the reasoning was what led to the strike.

TUC women conductresses
Women bus conductresses, 1918. With thanks to the TUC Library, Special Collections, London Metropolitan University. Rita Ferris-Taylor’s grandmother, Blanche Taylor, is in the back row, on the right hand side of the photo. 

Despite the disruption caused to workers and day trippers alike, there was a great deal of support for the women who were backed in their action by transport unions, male colleagues and public transport workers in towns beyond the capital. Initially the strike had no official support but as it spread rapidly to garages and depots, the London and Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers was quick to back the women. Its Executive Council passed a resolution endorsing the actions of their members and calling upon all its bus and tram members to come out on strike in support and to extend the dispute into the provinces. Reports suggest that services in London and the suburbs were seriously reduced. The traffic manager of one of the affected firms, the London General Omnibus Company, stated that around 3000 buses and trams were withdrawn on the first day of the strike alone with over 10,000 employees involved.

There were ‘indescribable’ scenes in long queues for trains and emotive reports of soldiers home on leave having to lug heavy kit bags across the capital, two of whom apparently collapsed under the strain and had to be taken to hospital by ambulance. Visitors to the city were said to be confused but stoical Londoners apparently enjoyed the chance to get some extra fresh air, taking to walking in far greater numbers than usual. Some workers even confessed that it was something of a relief not to be enduring the heat and overcrowding that had become standard on the capital’s buses and trams during rush hours. Although London County Council kept its services running, some of its conductresses came out in sympathy and they were joined by female workers on the Bakerloo tube line, one of whom said that she thought it was about time the Underground girls were listened to. For doing the same work as the men, she remarked how unfair it was that the women railway workers were paid 12 shillings and 6 pence less. According to one trade union journal, ‘the weather was hot, and the way was long: such tubes as were running were blocked to suffocation: but amidst all the irritation and inconvenience caused to the ordinary citizen, hardly a voice was raised in deprecation of the principle for which the fight was being waged’.[1]

The dispute, which lasted for a week, ended in success and women were granted the five shillings which was then extended to women in war industries. It was a hugely important but by no means straightforward landmark case for equality and one well worth recalling, particularly at a time when we are still – one hundred years on and nearly 50 years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act – uncovering new instances of gender pay inequalities on an alarmingly regular basis.

According to the secretary of the National Federation of Transport Workers, the women were ‘smarting under a sense of injustice’ and the men were loyally cooperating with them.[2] Men, however, had a vested interest in protecting wage rates and feared that where women were paid less than them, the wages of all workers could be dragged down to the lower level. So, as the strike spread south west to Bristol, Bath and Weston super Mare, and to the south coast at Brighton and Hove, Hastings and Folkestone, many male workers lent support to protect their own pay and status.

This struggle for equal pay seemed, according to the Labour economist Sidney Webb, to have come about ‘all in a rush’ and he thought that now there might well be wide acceptance of the equal pay for equal work principle – already adopted by the Labour Party – with ‘momentous social changes to come’. It was astonishing, Webb remarked, how quickly ‘we reach conviction when there are eight million women electors (for the Representation of the People’s Act had passed in February 1918)’.[3] But let’s not forget; this was wartime and not all support for the women was due to a desire to raise their status or to value their position in the workplace.

Women’s work on and beyond the Home Front was vital to the war effort, particularly as men signed up or were conscripted into armed service. Hundreds of thousands of women moved from traditional (and low paid) female employment, such as domestic service and food production, into work previously regarded as belonging to men. Women worked in service industries, they drove delivery vans and they began working on public transport in considerably greater numbers than before the war (from 300 to 4,500 on the buses and from 1,300 to 22,000 on the trams by 1918).[4] Whilst the railways would not take on women as drivers and there were very few tram or bus drivers, the public grew used to the sight of women ticket collectors and conductresses. They also recognised and appreciated that with fewer tram cars and buses on the roads than before the war, the new workers were working in difficult conditions, dealing with larger numbers of passengers and a great deal of overcrowding.

Conductress in the First World War, Imperial War Museum (public domain), Wikimedia Commons

Despite promises that where women replaced men, equal pay would be granted, women soon discovered that employers (and government) looked for ways to claim that the work that they did was seldom equal to men’s. In engineering, for example, where women’s labour in the munitions’ factories ensured the regular supply of shells and equipment to Front Line troops, skilled jobs were commonly broken down into several separate processes, making it easier for employers to maintain wage differentiation by insisting, whenever possible, that the new jobs were not eligible for the skilled rates of pay that had belonged exclusively to men before the war. Such so-called ‘dilution’ was not so easy to accomplish on public transport where women were visibly doing the same jobs as men; for example, up to 90 per cent of conductors were reckoned to be women. In recognition of this – but most definitely for the duration of the war only – women were told that their basic pay rates would be equivalent to men’s. This made their exclusion from the 1918 award particularly hard to accept.

Traditionally women’s work was regarded as being less skilled than men’s and yet here, in the case of the transport workers, the public could plainly see that women had not only replaced men but had done so with the greatest of efficiency and enthusiasm. So how could the decision to award them a smaller war bonus than men be justified? It was time to bring out a favourite old rationale; male workers were assumed to be family men with dependents, whereas women workers were assumed to be single with no one to support but themselves. Naturally, then, men worked for – and the labour movement defended – the so-called family wage (never incidentally paid to a woman with children, even if she was the family’s sole breadwinner). The assumptions were of course based on enormous and inaccurate generalisations; as Sidney Webb observed, the average employer got his labour as cheaply as possible, but he didn’t pay a single man less than a married one, or a childless husband less than the father of a family.[5] In the case of the war bonus, the all-male Committee of Production took the view that the burden of increased prices in wartime, which affected food and most commodities, fell more heavily on men than on women. For those working women whose husbands had gone off to fight, there was the army separation allowance, payable to wives and children and it was thought that this should be entirely adequate compensation for receiving a lower war bonus than men. The trade union journal Woman Worker highlighted the ‘ridiculous argument’ that separation allowances were a reason against equality. ‘You might as well say’, it reported, ‘that a man’s wages should be reduced because he had been left a legacy by his deceased aunt’.[6] In other words, the allowance had absolutely nothing to do with the pay that women were entitled to for doing the same work as men.

Women ticket collectors on the railway, Manchester, Imperial War Museum, (public domain), Wikimedia Commons

The transport companies believed they had another reason for keeping women’s bonuses lower than men’s; women, they maintained, were more expensive to employ than men. Because their attendance was allegedly less regular than men’s, a large reserve staff of women had to be kept on the books. The women strikers were having none of this nonsense, pointing out that no member of the spare staff was paid unless she actually worked, so there could be no loss to the firm.

Beyond the general support given to the women, there were plenty of warnings flying around about the consequences of awarding equal pay in all industries and these show just how far the argument for equality had yet to go. The Times declared that whilst the women bus and tram workers had a good case, the principle was no matter for sentimentality and that there were many cases of ‘conventional’ rather than ‘real’ equality where general standards of work would be pulled down unless wage differentiation was maintained. It gave, however, no examples of what this was supposed to mean. Instead it went on to say that equal pay would inevitably reduce the employment of women when the men returned from the war but ‘that is another remoter question’ (how many times had women heard that one – be patient, wait until the class struggle is won). Sidney Webb, whilst agreeing the principle, also feared that equal pay would lead to the workplace segregation of the sexes after the war. Even trade union leader Mary Macarthur, champion of women war workers, believed that the principle of equal pay for equal worth was essentially meaningless, because of the risk that employers would interpret equal as identical, whereas ‘it hardly ever is’.  She also feared that equality of opportunity for women industrial workers would work against women, resulting in their coercion, through the combination of ‘economic necessity and unscrupulous employers’ into work that they did not want to do or that was dangerous and unsuitable and would lead to the removal of a great deal of protective factory legislation.[7]

After a conference attended by several of the transport unions, the women agreed a return to work ahead of talks and days later they were awarded the five shillings bonus, backdated to when the men had first received it. There was much praise for the women strikers’ bravery. Workers in essential war industries were effectively (officially at least) banned from strike action during the war and Mary Macarthur’s union, the National Federation of Women Workers, offered up its hearty congratulations to the ‘bus girls’, thanking them for a very valuable demonstration which was much appreciated by those in munitions, to whom the five shillings advance was extended from September.[8] Not all, however, were so effusive in their praise; The Times accepted that the women’s demands had been met with sympathy but condemned such ‘sudden and revolutionary attacks on our social life’ that only have to repeated often enough ‘to ruin the best of causes’.[9] Worse was the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph which, after acknowledging the women’s fight and victory, chose to run a story about some of the more ‘extraordinary’ causes women workers had struck over, including (allegedly) the removal of a chewing gum machine in a factory in New York, the dismissal of a handsome foreman and an incident with an engagement ring ( which even a read of the article makes clear was nothing to do with the viewing of a worker’s ring and everything to do with the rough push that a worker received from a supervisor to get her back to work). [10]

Whilst the strike was successful (and as Woman Worker stated, how unfortunate that a strike is necessary before some people can assimilate the simplest facts), it can’t be claimed that this wartime dispute was the start of an unstoppable move towards equal pay. When the results of a government committee on women’s wages were published in 1919, its recommendations were mixed, to say the least. It did accept equal pay for equal work as a general principle but as it also accepted the concept of ‘women’s work’, where wages should be based on the needs of an 18-year-old single woman, the application of the equal pay principle was constrained from the start. As Gail Braybon writes, ‘thus, the ideas that equal pay was for men’s protection and that women’s wages were inherently less important, were maintained’.[11]

In a post-war world, in which all pre-war work practices had been restored to protect the labour rights of the working man, and in which government and trade unions agreed that married women should ideally not seek employment outside the home, the battle for equality of both pay and opportunity had a very long way to go. Despite the gains of the war, in terms of pay, opportunities and a nation’s gratitude, despite the gaining of the parliamentary vote by some women in 1918, and even despite the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, ensuring women access to the professions, women workers found themselves at the back of the queue in a world which continued to assume that becoming a wife and a mother were their ultimate goals. If women didn’t take the low paid work that they had done before the war, they found themselves denied unemployment benefit. Thousands of women in industry had their wages rates slashed in the early 1920s.

The 1918 equal pay strike was an important step along the way to full gender equality. Despite women’s hopes that the war would transform their status as workers, this was not to be. As Mary Macarthur wrote at the end of the war, ‘the new world looks uncommonly like the old one, rolling along as stupidly and blindly as ever’.[12] The strike is an important reminder – if we needed one – of the barrage of obstacles that continue to be placed in women’s way as they pursue equality in the workplace but it also a reminder that women will rise up to challenge injustices and, however long it takes, they will eradicate inequalities wherever they find them.

For more, do visit the following excellent accounts of and resources for the strike:

The London Transport Women Workers’ Strike, 1918

London Buses at War,

London Women Tram Workers – Equal Pay Strike 1918

The TUC Library Collection

International Woman’s Suffrage Alliance, with special reference to women’s war work, John Rylands Library, Manchester

[1] Woman Worker, September 1918

[2] Morning Post, August 19th 1918

[3] Daily News and Leader, 24th August 1918


[5] Daily News and Leader, 24thaugust 1918

[6] Woman Worker, September 1918

[7] Cathy Hunt (2014), The National Federation of Women Workers, 1906-21, Palgrave Macmillan, p 103

[8] Woman Worker, September 1918

[9] The Times, August 21st 1918

[10] Sheffield Weekly Telegraph, August 21st 1918, British Newspaper Archive

[11] Gail Braybon (1981), Women Workers in the First World War, Croom Helm, p107

[12] Cathy Hunt, National Federation, p 96

The garment industry 2018; can we learn anything from the Edwardian campaigners?

IMG_5924What, if anything, can be learned from the campaigns undertaken just over a hundred years ago to strengthen the position of the most vulnerable and most hidden workers in Britain.  Here I take a look at today’s love of cheap fashion amid our uncomfortable awareness of the often extremely poor pay and conditions suffered by those who make our clothes, before comparing it to concerns expressed at the start of the 20th century.

Despite the best efforts of those who sneer at the very thought of the high street, fashion is – and should be – a great leveller. When I was growing up, cheap clothing looked cheap and it set you apart. Many of my friends had more money than me and I discovered that the best way to mask a lack of funds was to be ‘alternative’ – to adopt a grungy style that drew attention not to my limited wardrobe but to a statement of difference. I bought bits and pieces from markets and temporary shops and I adapted things but what I really wanted was choice.  This is the main reason why I delight in Primark and wish that it had existed when I was a teenager. On Saturday afternoons, the store is full of young women trying on outfits for a night out. How brilliant is that. And there’s more. I also love the pride with which parents on low incomes can dress their babies and no one can tell if the little one is rocking Primark or JoJo Maman Bebe.

Yesterday I did a pictorial quiz online to see if I could tell the difference between Primark and high end fashion. I guessed a third right but I really had no idea which was which. In other words, you can go out in a Primark dress with your head held high, safe in the knowledge that you look and feel great. When my teenage boys were growing up, I couldn’t afford the labels they wanted in order to fit in. I knew why it was important to them and I never tried to persuade them towards ‘other’ (you have to decide these things for yourself) and so, when a Sports Soccer (now Sports Direct) store opened, it was a big relief for me and for them. No more BeWise joggers for my lads.

And yet the same affordable fashions and trends that go a little way towards removing them and us labels have a horrible sting in their tails. Our pleasure in affordable clothing is accompanied by cut throat competition amongst retailers and suppliers with prices being driven down in a race to get the must-have look out before anyone else and to do so at a lower cost than anyone else. We are aware that a great deal of production is sourced abroad (a quick look at the washing on my line today indicates Bangladesh, China, Cambodia and Turkey) and we are under no illusions that, despite the existence of ethical trading initiatives, conditions and wages for all workers are safe and fair. From time to time outsourced production makes the headlines in dramatic fashion; April 2013 saw the collapse of Rana Plaza, near Dhaka in Bangladesh, a building which housed several ready-made clothing factories. More than 1100 people died. Recently, an excellent article by Sarah O’Connor for the Financial Times[1] drew attention to so-named ‘dark factories’ in Leicester, in which workers are paid well below the minimum wage. Such garment factories or workshops (often with fewer than 20 employees) occupy space within former, much larger industrial units, where machinery can be outdated and where working conditions are very far from ideal. Leicester is not alone in this; online retailers such as Boohoo and Missguided rely on suppliers in other UK cities such as London and Manchester in order to sell clothes that are ‘trendy, fast and cheap’, to meet the demands of the so-called Instagram generation.

O’Connor’s examination of this section of the garment industry that has ‘become detached from UK employment law’ illustrates just how many things have gone wrong. Amid relentless pressure on suppliers to produce garments at the cheapest possible price, hours are under recorded to make it seem that the minimum wage is being paid (whereas £5 is regarded as a ‘top’ wage) and workers in the sector have little faith in government enforcement of fair pay. Safety standards are also being compromised – fabric is piled high, wires protrude from ceilings, fire escapes are blocked yet the number of inspections carried out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) under the Tory government has been reduced. And whilst local authorities have responsibility for building and fire safety, this depends on concerns or incidents being reported to them in the first place. With many factories or workshops unrepresented by trade unions, another layer of potential protection and inspection is lost to workers and community groups, offering employment advice, have seen their funding cut drastically. In this way, too many workers are becoming invisible.

But do we as consumers have responsibilities too? Do we keep buying, telling ourselves that boycotting certain stores or companies will only result in worsening hardship for those employed by manufacturers pressured into producing clothes at ever cheaper prices? The same concerns were growing over a hundred years ago when readymade clothing was becoming more widespread and the equivalent of those who turn their noses up at Primark today were pouring scorn on flighty young working class women stepping out in cheap versions of the latest fashions or blinging up their hats with faux fur, feathers and artificial flowers. It does not seem at all fair to me that those who can least afford it should be those chiefly blamed for perpetuating sweated working conditions in the UK and abroad. I am not trying to shift the blame away from those – like me – who buy cheap clothing (as opposed to designer fashion, although this is not immune from labour exploitation) but I do wonder if there is anything that we can learn from the campaigns that were run in Britain at the start of the twentieth century that were designed to protect the most vulnerable workers. What were the aims of those involved? Did they have any successes or did no one listen, given that the problems of exploitation have continued into yet another century?

Over a hundred years ago, trade union activists and social reformers sought to expose the poor wages and working conditions experienced by many so-called sweated workers in Britain and to seek improvements through a combination of labour organisation and state legislation. The Women’s Industrial Council (WIC) investigated women industrial workers’ pay and conditions in factories, workshops and amongst those producing goods in their own homes. The Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) sought to support and to strengthen women’s trade unionism and in 1906, its secretary, Mary Macarthur, pulled together the many small unions it had helped and turned them into the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), which developed branches across the country with varying degrees of success.

Neither the pressure groups nor this all- female trade union focused exclusively on garment workers but on the myriad industries in which women (and some men) were among the worst paid in the country. In seeking to influence public opinion, however, the various branches of the clothing industry perhaps drew some of the most emotive responses from the public for more or less the same reasons as they do today. These are goods that we either need or desire and it outrages us to find out that workers are being exploited because of our demand. The prettier and more delicate a garment was, the greater the impact that could be made by campaigners revealing the conditions under which it had been made. In Birmingham in 1910 it was discovered that women were being paid 3 and a ¼ pence for three hours work on a ‘very pretty child’s dress of white cashmere with smocked yoke, waist and wrists’.[2] So, it would take the worker seven 9 hour days to make six shillings (for context, an average male labourer’s wage in 1906 was reckoned to be just under 26 shillings), wages described at the time as pathologically low.

Many of the very worst paid workers received work from factory middlemen to do at home and when Mary Macarthur was asked, on behalf of a House of Commons Select Committee on home working, to provide evidence from the baby clothing trade, she visited a young woman in London making ‘little lace-trimmed garments by the dozen, at the rate of one penny each’. The woman had incipient diphtheria and because she had no bed clothes, was using the baby linen she was stitching to keep herself warm in bed at night. As a result of the visit, Macarthur spent six weeks in hospital after contracting diphtheria but, says her biographer, it was worth it for she was able to ‘bring home, to the committee and to the public, in the most vivid way, some of the consequences of sweating. When they saw it as setting death in the folds of a baby’s robe, they shuddered’.[3]

Sometimes wages looked reasonable enough on paper but workers seldom took home what they had actually earned. In the 1890s, for example, a garment manufacturer moved his workforce into a brand new factory in central Oxford, which was reckoned to ‘contain every modern requirement for the comfort of the employees’ and was praised for its basement dining room, inside toilets and lifts to all floors. Many manufacturers believed that they truly had their workforce’s interests at heart and after all, wasn’t it the most natural thing in the world for women to make clothes? Did they really need much in the way of wages for labour that was so inherently womanly? A worker in Coventry reckoned that the owner of the blouse making factory where she worked justified its low rates of piece work by believing that this was the sort of work that his own daughters liked doing, sitting in front of the fireside at home. And if that was so, how could it possibly be considered to be exploitative?

And so, when some of the workforce at the Oxford factory joined the NFWW, the branch secretary, Laura Leng, provided Mary Macarthur with details of life in the factory where the amounts earned by gown hands, bodice hands, knickers hands and general hands were never consistent from one week to the next, instead depending on the amount each managed to complete and on many deductions regularly applied. Lateness was met with a half day lock-out, workers had to buy their own reels of cotton – and the more work you hoped to finish, the more reels you would need to buy – and had  to pay for any broken needles. The WTUL uncovered lots more examples from across the country of how wages were reduced by fining workers, (most commonly) for producing faulty or damaged work, for talking, laughing, dancing in the lunch break or using the wrong staircase. Deductions were also made for being, for example, allowed to use the firm’s hot water to make tea, for paying the wages of a kitchen girl in the canteen, for having the staff toilets cleaned or by forcing employees to buy spoilt work. There were occasions when a worker discovered at the end of the week that not only was she to receive no wages but that she was in debt to the firm and what she owed would be taken out of her next wage packets.[4] This factory was no worse than other garment factories; its pay and working practices were fairly standard in the industry and it was no doubt a great deal safer and more comfortable to work here, in a modern, light  factory than in an old, cramped workshop or always surrounded by materials in your own home.

IMG_5882Ad from The Woman Worker, newspaper of the NFWW, 1907

The National Anti-Sweating League kept up the pressure on government to do something about pay levels. Exhibitions were held at which stalls were set up so that the public could see what homeworking entailed. It may have been little short of gawping, but the conditions, pressures and skills involved made strong impressions on visitors, including those who were in a position to – or inclined to – highlight the need for change. In 1909 the Trade Boards Act set minimum wages in (initially) four of the very worst paid of the so-called sweated industries – ready made and bespoke tailoring, cardboard box making, chain making and lace finishing. Whilst this undoubtedly raised wages within these industries (and more were later added), many employers nevertheless found ways to bypass the legislation, continuing to pay outworkers less than they were owed. In the Nottingham lace industry, where home work was given out by middle men or women, it took a very brave worker to refuse work offered at less than the legally set price, knowing not only that her neighbour would probably take it at the lower rate but that she would herself be denied future work as a result. As one of the organisers of the 1906 Sweated Industries Exhibition put it, ‘sweating follows unrestricted competition as naturally and inevitably as pain follows disease’. Trade Boards were replaced by wage councils in 1945 and still constant vigilance was required to ensure that workers were not falling below the safety net and this, in industries where workers were so often isolated, was difficult.

IMG_5883Ad from The Woman Worker, 1907

Trade union organisation was extremely difficult not least because of the high levels of victimisation experienced by members. In the Oxford factory, workers were careful not to talk about the union in work hours because they knew they were being watched and overheard. The firm’s manageress made it clear to all  that she could do without the ‘Union girls’ as she set about the ‘shameful treatment’ of some members who doubted that they would be able to remain in the branch if they wanted to stay on in the factory.

Low paid workers often questioned whether they could afford the weekly union fee (of a minimum of a penny a week) and it was hard to keep branches going even after successful strikes. The key seems to have been close contact with HQ, although that meant an enormous amount of work for a small team of organisers who were stretched to their limits. By the eve of the First World War, however, there were upwards of 70 NFWW branches and a growing team of local activists. Not all of these were industrial workers themselves, however, and this drew criticism from the more established (predominately male) labour movement. Whilst mistakes were sometimes made by negotiators who could be naïve and mess up, I have always thought that rather than criticising those non-workers (many of whom were married working class women), they should be applauded for their efforts on behalf of those who could not risk exposure. Their presence could shield union members, keeping them away from vindictive factory bosses who might wait for negotiations to be concluded and then sack the ‘trouble makers’.

The most vulnerable workers are still (again?) at risk of victimisation for being members of a union. A climate of aggression towards unionisation, lack of government vigilance (or care) towards the lowest paid and insufficient involvement from the larger unions have all resulted in too many people working in potentially unsafe conditions and unable to maintain the standards of living that everyone deserves. There are many problems; the number of trade union members in Britain has fallen from a peak of 13 million at the end of the 1970s to just over 6 million last year.[5] The TUC reckons that perhaps one in ten workers is in precarious employment. Anti-union laws and tabloid-peddled myths of the damage the labour movement has done to the British economy have not helped new workers to recognise the importance of union membership. And when new unions are being formed to represent those on the most precarious contracts, it would seem that the older trade unions have themselves retreated too far from the front line.

Recently, support plus the knowledge that they were not alone, helped two workers stand their ground in London. They worked as cleaners at a luxury car showroom in Kensington and were suspended after they joined the United Voices of the World (UVW) trade union, voting to strike in pursuit of the London Living Wage (LLW). In fact, it was discovered that as a result of deductions, they were not currently even receiving the minimum wage. Suspension turned into dismissal but with support and publicity from UVW, they were then reinstated and granted the LLW. This case – and so many others – is not just about wages but about respect and dignity. It is as Mary Macarthur said in 1907 – ‘the worker standing alone today is as powerless as a drop of water on a window-pane but when combined can become as powerful as that some drop of water can be when drawn into a rushing river or a surging sea’.[6]

IMG_5885Ad from The Woman Worker, 1907

I’m no employment expert but I can see that things are not as campaigners like Macarthur hoped they would be 100 years on. Macarthur’s long term aim was to bring women workers into the labour movement; trade unionism was not, she said, something outside of ourselves, it was not like an automatic machine at the railway station, into the slot of which we could put a penny and draw out higher wages.[7]

Now, as then, support, confidence and strength are vital to success. If we can offer our support to workers whenever and however we can so that they realise they are not hidden, perhaps this is how we can make a long term difference. In April, outsourced workers at the University of London went on strike, demanding to receive the employment rights of those directly employed by the University. The strikers are members of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), another new, small union seeking to give support to the most vulnerable of workers and crucially, their action was backed by other workers in HE and they were joined in demonstration and on the picket lines by supporters. We must keep up the pressure to ensure that all workers are safe, remembered, unionised and paid fairly.

There are of course lots of things that need to be done better but organisation still seems to me to be the best protection for vulnerable workers. Unions can insist on factory inspections when government does not, they can alert the public to wage levels and conditions. Binding together is surely still the best hope we have against unbridled competition in which everyone – employers as well as employees – struggle and suffer.

[1] Sarah O’Connor, ‘Dark Factories: Labour exploitation in Britain’s garment industry’, May 17 2018, Financial Times

[2] Bournville Works Magazine 1910

[3] Mary Agnes Hamilton, Mary Macarthur: A Biographical Sketch, 1925, Leonard Parsons, p 80

[4] Gertrude Tuckwell Collection, TUC Library, London Metropolitan University, file 216m/7.


[6] Jackson’s Oxford Journal, June 22 1907

[7] As above


Some further reading:


Sheila Blackburn (2007) A Fair Day’s Wage for a Fair Day’s Work? Sweated Labour and the Origins of Minimum Wage Legislation in Britain (Aldershot, Ashgate)


Cathy Hunt (2014) The National Federation of Women Workers, 1906-21, Palgrave Macmillan


Richard Mudie-Smith (compiled) (1906) Handbook of The “Daily News” Sweated Industries Exhibition (London, Burt & Sons)