Interview: breaking the chains of oppression
In 1910, women chainmakers in Cradley Heath, West Midlands went on strike. These heroic forerunners of today’s gig economy workers forced the bosses to raise their pay.
Cast and creatives from socialist theatre company Townsend Productions spoke to the Socialist about their new dramatisation of the dispute, ‘Rouse, Ye Women!’
So what happened?
Neil Gore (writer and actor): A strike, that started at the end of August 1910. It lasted ten weeks. The strike was the culmination of many years of efforts by ‘anti-sweating’ organisations to institute the principle of a minimum wage in low-paid, ‘sweated’ work.
The principle was enshrined in law by the Trade Board Act of 1909, setting minimum rates of pay in some of the worst-affected trades.
But the first minimum rate agreed was in the home manufacture of small chain by women in the Black Country in 1910, due to the strike.
Sweated labour mostly affected women working at home. They were unorganised. They were working over 50 hours a week – especially the chain industry – and they were earning between two shillings and five shillings a week [roughly £10 to £30 today]!
Obviously the more they worked the more they got paid, because it was piecework. But it was very, very hard to earn as much as that.
The odds were against them. The middlemen – usually men – were called “foggers” in the Black Country. They would fine the women if chains were substandard.
They used that, and many other tricks, to get out of paying the full wage. So it was very difficult to earn anything above five shillings – that was considered a ‘good’ wage.
Social reformists discovered this. One of these was Mary Macarthur, a middle-class woman who discovered trade unionism a bit by accident – but when she got involved, she became one of Britain’s most determined, successful and inspiring union leaders.
What was Macarthur’s role?
Bryony Purdue (Mary Macarthur): Mary was a Glaswegian woman who had worked in her father’s shop – he was a draper, her dad.
She noticed that the working conditions of lots of women who worked in shops were not up to scratch.
Once she’d gone to a speech by [shop workers’ union leader] John Turner. She was only 21, and went as a journalist. It inspired her. She really found herself converted to the cause.
The shop workers’ union was the first thing she was involved in. And then her passion snowballed. She became the general secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League in 1903, and then from 1906 helped form the National Federation of Women Workers, and was their president.
She set up her own magazine, called the Woman Worker. Then she could make it clear in print that the situation wasn’t fair, and the word could travel more widely. It was a pretty amazing campaign.
What were the strikers’ conditions?
Rowan Godel (Bird): I’m playing a character called Bird. She’s a chainmaker. She’s called Bird because all the women in Cradley Heath used it as a term of endearment; it’s a kind of ‘everywoman’ name.
These women would work in horrendous conditions. Long, long hours. I know the story of one woman who’d had a baby, and went back to work ten minutes later – and the baby was in the forge, with sparks flying around.
So Mary Macarthur noticed these dreadful working conditions and pay. She helped these women to form a union.
Most of them worked in single shops in the back of a home, so they were very easy for the bosses and the foggers to manipulate. They weren’t working together in factories like the men were.
Why weren’t the women in the factories?
Neil: The women were making small chain, agricultural chain, small-link stuff. I don’t think it brought a lot of profit, so the big chainmaking companies which made chains for things like the Titanic, ships and things like that, for them it was small beer.
So they contracted it out to these middlemen, who were at liberty to do what they liked.
So you’ve got the big factories with the men working there, unionised workers earning pretty well. And the women’s wages were seen as ‘pin money’ – in addition, usually, to the husband’s wage.
But it was the same skilled work. And some of the women that were single, they relied on this wage completely.
The children had to be in the forge as well, because they had to look after the children at the same time.
The women had all their homely duties to do as well as this work. It was a full-on thing for them – but they got very little money for it.
A lot of this will sound familiar to workers today.
Neil: Well, yeah. If you look at zero-hour contracts, the gig economy. Sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring to get any sort of work or income.
Dependent on a sub-contractor, a modern-day fogger, to offer work or deliver tools and materials. If none comes, there’s no work, no pay. The clock is being turned back to those times.
People are not able to earn enough. It’s not a living wage anymore. And that’s exactly the situation these women found themselves in.
Bryony: Babies were brought up in the forge, and children were helping their mothers in the forges. You had children who were picking up – there’s a quote in this production – kids in Cradley Heath who were picking up iron instead of flowers. Made to work, not play. There was never any play for women, or children.
Louise Townsend (director): The women and the childcare thing, it still happens now. Women are still working. There is no provision for women and childcare while they’re working.
You get provision, but then you end up with no money at the end of it. I’m trying to bring that out, because we’re still in the same position.
I’m self-employed because I can’t afford the childcare that I need. And that goes for a lot of women.
So we work round – a lot of women work from home so we can continue to work – it’s exactly the same. No government has changed it.
What can audiences expect from the staging?
Neil: There’s always plenty of drama and music in our productions, but this time it’s song-heavy. Songs are the main part of this. A sort of folk ballad opera.
John Kirkpatrick (composer and musical director): So we’ve found two or three songs from the time, that we know were sung as part of this campaign, sung on the march and so on.
The phrase “rouse, ye women” is one of the main songs that we feature in the play, to the tune of Men of Harlech, a well-known march. They wrote their own words to go with the campaign on the march.
Then for the songs I’ve written – I’m a ‘folky’, broadly speaking in the traditional folk music style. So in the idiom of music and speech that would have been current at the time.
In glorious unaccompanied harmony; up to three voices sometimes. And we’ve got guitar, banjo, accordion, oboe – quite a range of sounds and combinations of voices. An aural feast!
Neil: And some new anthems as well, for people to join in and share. Lots of good choruses to sing along to.
Rouse, Ye Women!
- Touring nationally to over 50 venues from February through April. Visit townsendproductions.org.uk for dates and bookings.