Skip to main content

Introducing Chipping Norton's real heroes

The legendary Bliss Tweed mill strike took place a hundred years ago but its impact on British labour movement is everlasting, writes John Shirle

Chipping Norton, a small picturesque Cotswold market town in deepest Oxfordshire, will be associated in the minds of those who don't know it with a few notorious names.

Those would be its local MP, one David Cameron, Rebekah Brooks, the disgraced former CEO of News International and the pompous television petrolhead Jeremy Clarkson.

Needless to say, none of them were present just before Christmas at an event much more representative of the townspeople - the centenary celebration of the start of the legendary Bliss Tweed mill strike of 1913-14.

The original mill owner, William Bliss, was a paternalistic employer known for "good works" in the town.

In 1873 he had defended his workers against accusations of besieging the Chipping Norton police station, where 16 women were being held for picketing a field in nearby Ascott-Under-Wychwood after the farmer imported scabs to replace the workers he had fired for joining the Agricultural Workers' Union.

The "Ascott martyrs" were subsequently imprisoned with hard labour under the 1871 Criminal Law Amendment Act, a forerunner of Thatcher's anti-union laws.

However a fire at the mill and a recession in the woollen trade had led to bankruptcy for the Bliss family and a takeover by the Birmingham Metropolitan Bank.

The bank installed Arthur Dunstan, a particularly hostile accountant, as the mill's new managing director.

This coincided with growing workplace activism, not just in industrial towns but also in the countryside. By mid-December 1913 at least 230 Bliss mill workers had joined the newly formed branch of the Workers' Union.

In response Dunstan sacked three prominent union organisers. In their defence two-thirds of the workforce - 125 women and 112 men - came out on strike just a week before Christmas.

The result was that Dunstan agreed to recognise the union - though not to reinstate the sacked men - and on January 5 1914 the strikers reported to the mill for work.

They were told that only some of them would be re-engaged. The response from the 237 strikers was a united "all or none." A strike committee met in the Fox Hotel where a soup kitchen provided food for the strikers' families.

Picket lines were established at the mill and delegations of strikers were sent to London and Birmingham to seek support.

Dunstan, with the support of the town council, in turn drafted in 40 extra police. In the inevitable conflicts that followed a number of strikers were fined or imprisoned.

Most notable of these was Annie Cooper, who had worked at the mill for more than 20 years. Convicted of assault on a strike-breaker, she refused to pay the fine and was sentenced to 14 days in prison.

On her release she was feted by jubilant supporters, paraded around the town with her father and husband in a wagon accompanied by a brass band and presented with a silver teapot by Julia Varley, the full-time organiser for the Workers' Union who had herself started work at the age of 13 as a sweeper in a Bradford woollen mill.

The Bliss mill strike became a national cause celebre and received wide support. The bishop of Oxford sent a letter and a donation supporting the right of workers "to combine freely in trade unions with the view to collective bargaining." Fabian writer GDH Cole also urged support, arguing that rural wages needed to be increased if industrial struggles in Oxford were not to be undermined.

Oxford students mobilised. One action included women suffrage campaigners on motorbikes encircling the Chippy police station where strikers were being held.

In March an intransigent management offered to re-engage just 100 strikers. This was rejected in a secret ballot by a vote of 179 to one, but by the end of May although only 35 strikers had returned to work it was clear that the struggle was over.

Poverty and a hard winter meant that some strikers sought employment elsewhere, many leaving the town altogether, and jingoism in the period prior to the first world war meant that popular support fell off and town opinion hardened against the strikers. Despite their solidarity and the support they received, the strikers were ultimately forced to concede defeat.

One of their leaders, Jack Hieatt, who had been among those sacked the previous November, was drummed out of town. His father-in-law George Sandels was re-employed by the mill, though not until after the outbreak of World War I and like many others on piece-work, only to lose his right arm in unprotected machinery. His compensation was a Christmas gift of a single glove for his remaining hand.

Others enlisted, many to die fighting for "king and country."

While the collapse of the strike showed, as so often, the disproportionate power of capital over labour, it also demonstrated the resilience, initiative and solidarity of working people in the struggle for dignity, self-respect, union recognition and just reward.

Many of those who took part in the strike became political activists after the war. Hieatt became a full-time organiser for the Workers' Union. He and Julia Varley, the first woman member of the union's staff and ever present on the Bliss mill picket line, were later awarded OBEs for their contribution to trade union organisation.

A Chipping Norton branch of the Labour Party was formed in 1920 with Hieatt's comrades Thomas Winnett as chairman and Arthur Woodward as secretary.

The history of the strike and the strikers provides a significant focus of Chipping Norton's Local History Society, which opened its wonderful Chippy Museum for the centenary celebration.

Its legacy lives on, not least in the collective identity of those whose forbears were involved with the strike - not necessarily as strikers.

The excellent centenary pamphlet on the strike, just out, is by Mike Richardson whose grandfather was one of the police drafted in to protect the strike-breakers - and by all Chippy residents and visitors who are proud to be associated with a "Chipping Norton set" with rather different values from those of Cameron and his cronies.

 

Mike Richardson's pamphlet on the Bliss Tweed mill strike can be obtained from Bristol Radical Pamphlets (www.brh.org.uk). More on the Bliss Strike can be found on the Country Standard website (www.country-standard.blogspot.co.uk/). It is intended to make the celebraton of the Bliss mill strike an annual event and to explore the refoundation of a Chipping Norton trades council. Contact Steve Akers at s.akers@unison.co.uk or 07903 870-695 for further details.

OWNED BY OUR READERS

We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 6,920
We need:£ 11,080
15 Days remaining
Donate today