Turbulent Londoners: Mary Macarthur, 1880-1921

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The next Turbulent Londoner is Mary MacArthur, a suffragist and trade unionist.


Mary Macarthur

Mary Reid Macarthur was a suffragist, trade unionist, and campaigner for the rights of working women (Photo: Working Class Movement Library)

Mary Reid Macarthur was a Scottish suffragist and trade unionist, who was instrumental in the expansion of female trade union membership in the early twentieth century. Born on 13th August 1880, Mary was the oldest of six children in a relatively well-off family. She attended Glasgow Girls High School, where she developed an interest in writing and journalism.

In 1901 Mary attended a meeting of the Shop Assistants Union, expecting to write a scathing report. She instead became a strong beleiever in trade unions, becoming secretary of the Ayr branch of the Shop Assistants Union. In  1902 she attended the Union’s national conference, where she became the first female to be elected to the national executive.

In 1903 Mary moved to London, where she became Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), a congress for women’s unions. The League brought together women-only unions from a variety of different trades, which meant it had a mixed-classed membership. Through her activism, Mary realised that small, scattered unions would always struggle because of their inability to raise enough money to provide strike pay. To counter this, Mary founded the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) in 1906, a general labour union for women. It was open to all women who weren’t allowed to join the appropriate union, or who worked in trades that weren’t unionised. The NFWW became part of the National Union of General Workers in 1921, but in its 15 years it significantly advanced the cause of women in trade unions.

Mary Macarthur Speaking

Mary Macarthur speaking to a mostly male crowd in Trafalgar Square about a boxmakers strike in August 1908 (Photo: TUC Library Collections).

Mary also tried to help female workers in other ways, helping to organise the Exhibition of Sweated Industries in 1905 and getting involved in the foundation of the Anti-Sweating League the following year. Sweated trades we’re characterised by long hours, low  wages, and unsafe and insanitary working conditions. In 1907 Mary founded The Woman Worker, a monthly magazine for female trade unionists. She was a brilliant editor, but gave it up to concentrate on her activism. Mary spent time in the poorer parts of London collecting evidence about what it was like to work in sweated industries. She caught diptheria and spent 6 weeks in hospital, but she was able to present her findings to the Select Committee on Home Working in 1908.

Mary was also active in the campaign for the vote, although she opposed the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and the Women’s Social and Political Union, the two main campaign groups. This was because they were willing to accept only certain groups of women bring given the vote. Mary believed this would disadvantage the working classes, and possibly delay universal adulthood suffrage.

Mary Macarthur TUC 1908

Mary Macarthur at the Trade Union Congress in Nottingham in 1908 (Source: TUC Library Collections).

The Trades Board Act was passed in 1909, largely due to the efforts of Mary and the organisations she worked with. The Act regulated sweated industries and introduced a minimum wage. The female chainmakers at Chadley Heath in the West Midlands became the first test case of the new Act in 1910. Mary convinced the women to fight for the wage they were entitled to; they won the dispute after a 10 week strike. Mary used her skills as a journalist to publicise the women’s cause, giving interviews, writing copy and arranging photo opportunities of the striking women with chains around their necks. She also made use of the new technology of cinema; a Pathe newsreel film of the strikers was seen by an estimated 10 million people. The publicity campaign raised a lot for the strike fund, the leftovers were used to build the Bradley Heath Worker’s Institute, which is now part of the West Country Living Museum.

Mary opposed the first world war, but she worked throughout it to promote the rights of female workers, campaigning for equal pay for equal work. She was a member of the Reconstruction Committee from 1916, set up to give advice on the employment of women after the war. Female trade union membership tripled during the war. After the war, Mary stood in the 1919 general election as the Labour candidate for Stourbridge in Worcestershire but was defeated, along with most other anti-war candidates.

Mary married William Crawford Anderson, the chairman of the executive committee of the Labour Party, in 1911. Anderson had first proposed marriage almost 10 years earlier, but Mary had decided to concentrate on her activism. Sadly their first child died at birth in 1913, but Anne Elizabeth was born in 1915. William died in the 1919 influenza epidemic. Mary herself died of cancer 2 years later, at the age of just 40.

Mary Macarthur's blue plaque.PNG

A blue English heritage plaque commemorating Mary’s efforts on her house at 42 Woodstock Road in Golders Green (Photo: English Heritage).

Mary’s legacy lives on in the Mary Macarthur Holiday Trust and the Mary Macarthur Educational Trust, which provide grants to working women. A blue plaque commemorating Mary’s campaigning efforts on behalf trade unions and working women was installed on her house in Golders Green in north London in March 2017. As such, it might be said that she is better remembered than some of the other Turbulent Londoners featured on this blog. She deserves this recognition however, because of her huge contribution to the cause of women’s working conditions.

Sources and Further Reading 

Black Country Living Museum. “Mary Reid Macarthur, 1880-1921.” No date, accessed 22 March 2017. Available at  https://www.bclm.co.uk/media/learning/library/witr_marymacarthur.pdf

Simkin, John. “Mary Macarthur.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 22 March 2017. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/TUmacarthur.htm

Wikipedia, “Mary Macarthur.” Last modified 12 March 2017, accessed 13 March 2017. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Macarthur

Working Class Movement Library. “Mary Macarthur.” No date, accessed 22 March 2017. Available at http://www.wcml.org.uk/our-collections/activists/mary-macarthur/

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