We Are The Lions Exhibition, Willesden Library


The ‘We are the Lions’ Exhibition was at the Willesden Library in Brent from the 19th October 2016 until the 26th March 2017 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The 20th of August 2016 marked the 40th anniversary of the start of the Grunwick strike, a 2-year dispute that was an important turning point in the history of trade unions and solidarity. Workers at the Grunwick photograph processing factory in Willesden, northwest London, walked out after an employee was fired for working too slowly. To celebrate the anniversary, a group called Grunwick 40 organised an exhibition about the strike at Willesden Library in Brent, which ran from the 19th October 2016, to the 26th March 2017. The exhibition was called ‘We are the Lions,’ taken from a quote by Jayaben Desai, one of the leaders of the strike. I finally managed to visit the exhibition in its last week, and I’m really glad I made the effort.

The exhibition was well balanced; it mentioned that Jayaben Desai was a leader of the strike, but didn’t devote too much attention to her. In fact, it didn’t spend much time on the leaders of the strike at all, which I thought was good; it is very easy to get distracted by charismatic leaders. Instead, the exhibition focuses on trade union politics and solidarity, detailing how the strikers won solidarity from a wide spectrum of workers. The factory owners refused to back down, however, and as the dispute dragged on the strikers were abandoned by union leaders, a sadly familiar story. The strike eventually failed, but it remained significant because it was the first time that migrant workers received widespread solidarity from British workers.

Grunwick Strike banner.PNG

A banner designed by Jayandi and painted with Vipin Magdani for the Grunwick strikers in 1976 (Photo: People’s History Museum).

The exhibition draws aesthetic inspiration from a distinctive banner produced for the strikers in 1976. It is owned by the People’s History Museum in Manchester, but it took centre stage at this exhibition. It was also part of the Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A museum in late 2014 and early 2015, so it might be familiar to some. There weren’t many objects in the exhibition; images of people, events, and texts were relied on heavily to illustrate the narrative. You do tend to expect objects when you visit a museum, but I realised that protests don’t often leave a lot of things behind, and what there is (banners, placards,clothing, flyers etc.) is ephemeral, and not intended to be kept or preserved. This must present a challenge for museums wanting to represent dissent.

The exhibition was firmly grounded in the local community, past, present, and future. There was a case of items putting the strike into the context of other radical events in Willesden’s history. There was a series of events associated with the exhibition, and its location in the local library made it quite accessible, although there are no guarantees that visitors to the library also went to the exhibition. There are also plans to produce a mural commemorating the strike, which will serve as a lasting legacy, long after the exhibition has been deconstructed.

Unfortunately, this post comes too late for me to encourage you to visit the exhibition. What I can do is congratulate the organisers for putting together such a brilliant exhibition. The Grunwick Strike was a key moment in the history of trade unions and solidarity. It often feels to me that solidarity is not something that we do so well anymore in modern society. We are the Lions was an timely reminder of how powerful it can be.

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/

Turbulent Londoners: Clementina Black, 1854-1922

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. 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 Clementina Black, a writer, feminist and trade unionist.

Clementina Black (Source: Women of Brighton).

Clementina Black (Source: Women of Brighton).

Clementina Black was a writer, feminist and early trade unionist, and another inspiring radical who has slipped through the cracks of history. She was an adopted Londoner, like many millions before and since, who was born in Brighton (my home town, so I felt an immediate affinity!) in 1854. She helped to found and run numerous campaign organisations, with a focus on trying to improve the lives of working women. Her writing included multiple reports on the social conditions of the poor and 7 novels, including The Agitator, which was based on her experience in the trade union movement. She died in December 1922, when she was 68 years old.

Clementina’s mother died when she was 21, leaving her to look after her invalid father and 7 younger siblings. During this time she wrote her first novel, A Sussex Idyll. When Clementina’s father died she moved on London to continue her writing career, and this is also where her radical career really began. In 1886 she became Honorary Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League, a role in which she thrived, travelling the country attempting to persuade women to join Unions. In 1888 she proposed an equal pay motion at the Trades Union Congress, fighting an injustice which has still not been resolved to this day.

In 1889 Clementina helped form the Women’s Trade Union Association, later the Women’s Industrial Council (WIC), which she would eventually become president of. In 1895 she became the Editor of WIC’s journal, Women’s Industrial News. The middle class women of the WIC went to see the working conditions of working class women, and wrote reports on them in an attempt to raise awareness. By 1914 they had investigated 117 different trades.

Clementina was also involved in the Consumers League, which put pressure on employers who paid their female workers low wages through their customers- they were involved in the boycott of the Bryant and May matchmakers, who would go on to be defeated in the Matchwomen’s Strike of 1888. In 1896 Clementina began to campaign for a legal minimum wage, viewing low wages as the root of the problem for female workers. She was also a member of the executive committee of the Anti-Sweating League, and helped organise several conferences on the topic in the years before the First World War.

As the campaign for women’s suffrage took off after 1900, Clementina also threw herself into that, believing that women lacked real power to affect change as long as they lacked the ability to vote. In 1906 she was made Honorary Secretary of the Women’s Franchise Declaration Committee, where she organised a petition in favour of female suffrage with 257,000 signatures. She was an active member of both the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. The NUWSS was the non-violent equivalent of the WSPU and the suffragettes, and were arguably just as important in winning the vote for women. In 1912-3, Clementina was the acting editor of The Common Cause, the NUWSS’s paper which called itself ‘the organ of the women’s movement for reform.’

Like many female activists of her era, Clementina was a tireless force in the campaign to improve the lives of women. Unlike other prominent campaigners for women’s rights such as Emmeline Pankhurst, she focussed on working women, those who needed the most help. She was not only a member, but in several cases a key leader, of multiple campaign groups. She didn’t really participate in direct action, instead using her skills as a writer to persuade others. She is not a woman who deserves to be forgotten.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘Clementina Black,’ Wikipedia. Last modified 19 January 2015, accessed 20 March 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clementina_Black

Anon. ‘Clementina Black,’ Women of Brighton. No date, accessed 20 March 2015. http://www.womenofbrighton.co.uk/clementina-black.html

Simkin, John. ‘Clementina Black,’ Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2015, accessed 20 March 2015. http://spartacus-educational.com/Wblack.htm

Simkin, John. ‘The Common Cause,’ Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 20 March 2015. http://spartacus-educational.com/Wcommoncause.htm