Bermondsey strikes of August 1911

Pinks' Jam Factory, strikers, Bermondsey, 1911

Pinks’ Jam Factory, strikers, Bermondsey, 1911

Guest blogger Bob Reeves writes about the Bermondsey strikes of August 1911 and the use he made of the TUC Library Collections when researching through the Gertrude Tuckwell Collection. He is researching local working class history for the last couple of years, published on his Blog.

In August 1911 an estimated 15,000 women went on s.trike in twenty-three Bermondsey factories. It all erupted suddenly, led by women with no previous trade union experience. Employers were rattled and offered concessions: most factories went back to work after ten days with victories on pay, conditions and work practices.

By the second day Mary MacArthur and Dr Marion Phillips from the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) arrived on the scene to help formulate demands and facilitate strike organisation. The Bermondsey LP headquarters in Fort Rd became the organising hub for food relief, mostly bread and sterilised milk.

That summer of 1911 was the hottest for years. September 14th recorded the 35th day in London over 80 F. Food went off, milk was unsafe and, in densely packed working-class districts like Bermondsey, child mortality, following a decade of health-care progress, rose steeply. Families were even shorter of money than usual as dockers, railwaymen and transport workers had been on strike over previous weeks. “Great Railway Strike” was headline news, and troops occupied Liverpool shooting dead two young pickets.

On the south London riverside men worked in the docks, transport and storage in large numbers. Women worked in a profusion of factories which had expanded over the previous decade: jam, pickles, biscuits, sweets, chocolate, tea packing, metal boxes. Hartley’s, jam employed 1,500 and Peak Frean’s biscuits 2,500. Work in a jam factory must have been horrible in that heat. It was always dangerous and back-breaking work, lifting vats of bubbling liquid. Others spent long hours standing on dirty wet floors.

Mary MacArthur, the charismatic young general secretary of the NFWW, had great talent, not only for inspirational public speaking, but for dramatic publicity. The NFWW organised public appeals raising considerable sums to buy food. What was significant, however, was that the NFWW put themselves at the service of the strikers; they were not, as was persistently alleged in the press, outside agitators. This movement was marked by spontaneity and improvisation with something new and very theatrical about it. Women marched through the main streets singing and chanting. From Pinks jam factory they carried banners declaring “We are not white slaves, we’re Pinks slaves”.

It started on August 10th, or the day before, and stories that one confectionary factory marched through the streets calling other factories out are probably apocryphal. Nevertheless, within days it “spread like fever” ( Daily News, 11/08/1911), inspiring women in Deptford and Millwall; and then at Murrays confectionary in Farringdon, from where they marched to Bermondsey to seek advice and solidarity.

Shocking low-pay was used to appeal for Middle-class sympathy. One commentator was saddened that women asked for so little- bottlewashers at Candlish won 12s pw up from 9/6.

Nostalgic histories of the Edwardian era gloss over economic deprivation. Between 1900 and 1910 real wages fell by at least 10% while profits for the richest were never better. Sound familiar?

But I suspect it was about more than low-pay. It was a shout of defiance. Perhaps Bermondsey women had just had enough. High on their lists of grievances was an end to arbitrary fines and deductions; women wanted day-rates not piece-work. They wanted guaranteed minimum earnings – they could be stood down at short notice to suit employers who, when demand rose, forced overtime, often contravening Factory Acts about hours of work. They wanted somewhere clean, away from the factory floor, to eat dinner, and clean toilets.

Overwhelmingly this work was done by women but supervised by male checkers, foremen, pay clerks and of course, male managers. Reading between the lines the strikers were defying bullying and powerlessness. Murrays’ workers were particularly angry about production bonuses paid to foremen which encouraged them to ‘drive’ the women, as you can imagine.

Many women were young, some only 14, but as often they were married with children. Younger women were the most militant, but they weren’t “Girls” as every single press report described them belittlingly, suggesting they were either misled by agitators or frightened by intimidating pickets of… other “Girls”. In my trawl through local and national press I found just one instance of a reporter bothering to talk to a striker.

“We are striking for more pay, Mister, and we won’t go back until we get it”. (Southwark and Bermondsey Recorder, 18/08/1911), outside Shuttleworths Chocolates.

Although the strikes were unlikely to have been in solidarity with the men, it’s probable the example was important. The essential point is that they was led by local women, only assisted by middle-class activists from the NFWW. The women’s suffrage movement, while predominantly middle-class, could have been another example.

I’ve been asked to explain why Bermondsey and why just then, and I’m only left with more questions than answers. The record doesn’t tell us what women thought and felt yet it must have been a dramatic experience. Where are their voices? Perhaps some talked to grandchildren who are still around today?

Madeleine Symons: Social and Penal Reformer and Trade Unionist

Madeleine Symons, c. 1924. Courtesy Emma Corbett

Madeleine Symons, c. 1924. Courtesy Emma Corbett

Guest blogger Martin Ferguson Smith writes about Madeleine Symons and the use he made of the TUC Library Collections when researching her for his book Madeleine Symons: Social and Penal Reformer, published on 27 October 2017 by SilverWood Books, Bristol, ISBN 978-1-78132-719-7 (paperback), 978-1-78132-748-7 (ebook). Martin is an emeritus professor at Durham University and has a website at

Madeleine Jane Symons – Robinson after her marriage in 1940 – had a privileged upbringing. Born in 1895 to wealthy parents, she was educated at a private boarding school and Newnham College, Cambridge. But from the time she left university until her death in 1957, she worked tirelessly to improve the lot of those who were less fortunate than herself.

In her last year at Newnham she was president of its Society for Women’s Suffrage. In May 1916, just before she completed her studies, the Society was addressed by Susan Lawrence on the position of women in industry during the war and on the need to extend trade union membership among women. A few weeks later Madeleine became an officer in the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) and its sister organisation, the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW). Lawrence was one of her senior colleagues. Others included Mary Macarthur, general secretary of the WTUL, Gertrude Tuckwell, president of the NFWW, Margaret Bondfield, and Jimmy Mallon. Madeleine soon gained a reputation for being an outstandingly successful negotiator. To Macarthur she became not only an invaluable colleague, but also a close friend, and, after Macarthur’s early death on 1 January 1921, she was much involved with the care of Macarthur’s young daughter, Nancy Anderson.

On 28 July 1925 Madeleine turned thirty and became eligible to vote for the first time. It is quite a thought that by that time she had not only been a trade union officer for nine years, but also served on the executive committee of the Labour Party, as a Justice of the Peace, and as a member of the Royal Commission on Lunacy and Mental Disorder.

The following year, her trade union career was ended by pregnancy and unmarried motherhood. Her lover and the father of her daughter was Jimmy Mallon, a married man and the warden of Toynbee Hall. He had been a professional colleague of hers since 1916. Madeleine adopted the child in 1927 and, two years later, adopted a boy, of whom she was not the biological mother. When she returned to public life in 1932, it was as a juvenile magistrate in London. For the next twenty-five years she gave outstanding service not only to the juvenile courts, but also to the Howard League for Penal Reform and other welfare organisations and to the work of departmental committees.

With my daughter, Lucinda Smith, an archives assistant, I had the privilege of spending a day and a half in the TUC Library Collections in January 2016, investigating Madeleine’s career, mainly the earlier part of it. I am most grateful for the kind permission to do this, and for the expert guidance of Jeff Howarth, Academic Liaison Librarian.

The research was concentrated on three collections:

1. The WTUL Minute Books, 1911-1921, catalogue no. HD 6079. The first mention of Madeleine is in the minutes of an executive committee meeting on 8 November 1917. Her “excellent work … in the matter of negotiations with firms etc” was reported, and it was agreed that she be invited to join the EC. From January 1919 on, there are frequent references to her efforts to improve the pay and conditions of many groups of women workers, including laundresses, waitresses, and makers of tinned foods, aerated water, tin boxes, safety pins, perambulators, and umbrellas. In the summer of 1921 the WTUL ceased to exist. The minutes of the EC meeting of 26 May 1921 record its agreement that the work of the WTUL be carried on by the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC. Several months earlier, in early February, the NFWW had amalgamated with the National Union of General Workers, with Margaret Bondfield becoming chief secretary of the Women Workers’ Section and Madeleine its assistant secretary and head negotiator.

2. The Gertrude Tuckwell Papers, especially catalogue no. 701, a valuable collection of press cuttings that includes many items relating to Madeleine’s trade union work in the years 1918-1920. The cuttings sometimes confirm and often supplement information in the WTUL minute books. They document not only Madeleine’s efforts on behalf of poorly paid or unemployed women workers, but also her participation in delegations and conferences and her concern about the situation in Europe after WW1.

3. The Mary Macarthur Holiday Trust Archive, specifically Minute Books 001 and 003 and Folder 006. Very soon after Macarthur’s death, her close colleagues decided that the most appropriate way to honour her memory was to establish a holiday home for working women. Its patroness was Queen Mary, who had long taken an active interest in the problems of the poor and in women’s employment. Madeleine was a member of the Committee of Management and assistant honorary secretary. She left the Committee in 1928, but returned in 1934 and thereafter was closely involved in its work for most of the rest of her life, from December 1949 as chairman.

The contributions Madeleine made to the women’s trade union movement during and after WW1 and to the promotion of social justice and penal reform throughtout her adult life were significant and admirable, but until now have been largely overlooked. The material about her in the TUC Library Collections much helped in the writing of the first biography of her, published sixty years after her death.

Remembering Chris Braithwaite

Chris Braithwaite

Permission for cover provided by the author.

Historian and guest blogger Christian Høgsbjerg writes about Chris Braithwaite, who is the subject of a new exhibition ‘A Necessary Fiction’ at the Ideas Store.

The remarkable and inspiring life of the black Barbadian socialist, seafarer, trade unionist and anti-colonialist Chris Braithwaite (1885-1944) has long been overlooked, and so it is wonderful that on the centenary of the Russian Revolution, two new exhibitions in Britain have opened to pay tribute to this great working class fighter and radical. “A Necessary Fiction” is a superb art exhibition focused on Braithwaite’s anti-colonial and anti-capitalist activism in 1930s London by the artist Basil Olton, and is at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, a part of London that Braithwaite came to make his home. In another great port city, Liverpool, “Black Salt: Britain’s Black Sailors” at Merseyside Maritime Museum also rightly recognises Braithwaite’s pioneering contribution.

As a teenager, Braithwaite enrolled as a colonial seafarer in the British merchant navy to try and escape the desperate poverty of the colonial Caribbean, before settling in Chicago and raising a family. During the First World War he rejoined the merchant navy alongside many other colonial seafarers.

After the war, Braithwaite moved to the “black metropolis” of New York, and almost certainly would have witnessed a mass strike across the waterfront of that city in 1919. Many black Caribbean mariners settled in America, and some became leading politically radical Communist militants in the American working class movement like Ferdinand Smith, the Jamaican born co-founder of the National Maritime Union and the equally remarkable figure of Hugh Mulzac, who after travelling to New York from Barbados worked for a period as a ship captain on Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line.
Braithwaite instead moved to Britain and managed to secure a relatively privileged job working for the employer’s Shipping Federation in London’s Docklands, finding and supplying colonial seafarers, engineers, stokers and others, often at a few hours notice. However, he quite remarkably also immersed himself in the working class movement through the National Union of Seamen (NUS), adopting the pseudonym “Chris Jones” to avoid victimisation.

Braithwaite challenged the incredibly exploitative and oppressive experience faced by black and Asian colonial seafarers, which saw institutional state racism and the threat of deportation as well as a more informal racist scapegoating encouraged by the ship-owners under the slogan “British men for British ships” and open colluded in by the NUS.

Braithwaite joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and came to the fore fighting for working class unity as a leader of colonial seafarers and dockers in inter-war Britain and developing a reputation as a powerful orator while campaigning for the Scottsboro Boys. However like many other outstanding black radicals such as the Trinidadian Marxist George Padmore, he broke with orthodox Communism after its political sidelining of anti-colonialism after the rise of Hitler’s Nazis in 1933 and the subsequent turn to the Popular Front. Yet like Padmore, Braithwaite remained a radical socialist activist, working closely with the Independent Labour Party and throwing himself into militant Pan-Africanist agitation against fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, addressing mass International African Friends of Ethiopia rallies in Trafalgar Square.
In 1935, Braithwaite founded the Colonial Seamen’s Association, for the first time effectively bringing together black and Asian colonial seafarers in one organisation. Working alongside leading black activists like C.L.R. James, Amy Ashwood Garvey, George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, Isaac Wallace-Johnson and Ras T Makonnen, Braithwaite also helped form the International African Service Bureau in 1937, becoming its organising secretary. He wrote a monthly column for the IASB journal, International African Opinion, ‘Seamen’s Notes’, and ensured this illegal ‘seditious’ publication was distributed through his network of radical seafarers into colonial Africa.
Like James and Padmore, Braithwaite tirelessly and eloquently articulated the case against British imperialism at mass meetings of trade unionists and socialists across Britain. All the time Braithwaite lived the life of a colonial seafarer with his family, and during the Depression he organised in his own street, Turners’ Road, in impoverished Stepney, east London, to make sure no children went hungry. After he died suddenly in 1944, black seafarers insisted on carrying his coffin from his home to his grave in tribute.

The last words might go to his good friend and comrade George Padmore, who noted that Braithwaite’s ‘death is a great loss to the cause of the colonial peoples as well as International Socialism, the finest ideals and traditions of which he upheld to the very end… He never spared himself in rendering aid to the cause of the oppressed. Many were the working-class battles and campaigns in which he gave his best … his memory will long remain as a symbol of the hopes and aspirations of his race’.

Christian Høgsbjerg is a historian and the author of Chris Braithwaite: Mariner, Renegade and Castaway (Redwords, 2014), available for £4 from