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During the 19th century most production of large chains had become industrialised.
But what was often known as “small chain” industry, for agricultural or domestic use, was almost exclusively carried out in the home or a back garden shed.
Much of their manufacture was performed in tiny workshops, mostly by women and young girls and usually hand-worked by women who were largely non-unionised and their treatment bordered on the abusive. Over the years small chainmaking became increasingly focused in Cradley Heath in the West Midlands.
Many of the workers were paid under three shillings a week — an outrageously pitiful sum. In contrast, the London docks strike of 1889 was over a demand for six shillings an hour.
Any pressure for improved terms and conditions saw the employers threaten to invest in mechanisation, which would eliminate the jobs altogether.
In 1905, women chainmakers in Cradley formed their own Cradley Heath and District Hammered and Country Chainmakers’ Association, a bona-fide trade union not often much mentioned in accounts of this struggle.
In 1907, this body entered the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) wholesale by means of block affiliation, to be transformed into the NFWW chainmakers’ section.
Unions in this sphere had tended to be local and craft in character but, as the trade union movement became stronger and more militant in the early years of the 20th century, a trend towards more general organisation ensued.
Alongside this trend, the campaign against “sweated” labour in general industries, mostly dominated by women, finally produced some movement.
In 1909, against the background of a small but rising number of Labour MPs being elected, a Liberal government enacted the Trade Boards Act that would have a galvanising effect on some 60 or 70 years’ agitation in the Black Country chainmaking industry.
The Act provided for the fixing of minimum wages where “the rate of wages prevailing in any branch of the trade was exceptionally low, compared with that in other employments.”
In early 1910 a minimum wage for hand-hammered chainworkers was proposed for 2½d an hour for a 55-hour week, nearly double the existing rate. (A loaf of bread then cost 2½d.)
As the deadline for enactment of the new rates in small chainmaking drew near, employers announced they would simply not pay the legally backed rate and would also keep the old piecework system. Some employers even tricked the women to sign up to a waiver from the regulation.
Noting no sense of any desire by the employers to act, all “female workers engaged in the Hammered Branch of the Chain Trade” were asked to observe the afternoon of Monday April 11 1910 as a half-day holiday, to hear a report on the Trade Boards Act and its effects on the chain trade.
Speakers at the meeting included the trade unionist Mary Macarthur and Mr JJ Mallon, president of the Anti-Sweating League.
At the time, there were 7,000 chainmakers in the Cradley and Cradley Heath district, over two-thirds of them women. Something like 850 now came out on strike or were locked out for refusing to accept the stance of defiance against the trade boards of their employers.
Macarthur was a key name associated with the dispute. As leader of the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), she was certainly able to play a significant role in the corridors of power to push things forward, lobbying in Parliament, with the press and with the Trade Board.
She was also central to the collection of a fantastic amount of £4,000 — estimated at around £370,000 in today’s money — for the strikers, which sustained them in a long battle.
Yet usually forgotten in accounts of this struggle is that most of the actual practical work regarding the dispute, including the hard slog of keeping the women together and maintaining the support of male trade unionists, was carried out by Julia Varley (1871-1952), with Macarthur spending most of her time in London.
Varley had started out in working life at the age of 13 as a sweeper in a Bradford woollen mill.
In Cradley Heath, things had reached a head. Now the women were refusing en masse to sign the employers’ document exempting them from the Trade Board stipulations and, on August 27, the employers declared a general lockout of all workers.
During the first week a mass meeting ended with a procession along the high street with the women singing Onward Christian Soldiers.
Support money was paid out by the Cradley Heath branch of the NFWW to aid the dispute.
In the first week of the strike, 212 union members and 202 non-members received 5/- and 2/6 respectively. The effect of this was electric.
By the second week, numbers supported in this way had risen to 226 members and 430 non-members.
An official demonstration was arranged and 5,000 people gathered outside the Grainger’s Lane School.
Led by the Quarry Bank silver band, the procession proceeded to Cradley and Colley Gate and then back again.
Many small children and babies were carried, while all listened intently to Varley and a deputy for Macarthur from London.
The mood of the women was joyous — liberated, even.
On Saturdays, collectors from among the women went as far afield as Birmingham and all over the Black Country and came back laden with cash.
No-one asked if they had authority to collect on the streets and all they had to do was rattle their buckets and say “give to the Cradley girls’ strike.”
Public support for the strikers was strong and press reports were highly emotional.
On September 1 1910, the Daily Express ran an article about Mrs Patience Round, an “aged striker of 79,” and one of 12 striking chainmakers over the age of 70.
The Birmingham Despatch revealed she had been chainmaking since she was 10 years old. The reports mention Mrs Round’s limited horizons, having “never in her life stepped across the outskirts of Cradley Heath,” as well as her domestic situation — working from dawn to dusk to provide funds to care for her disabled husband.
Patience went on record to say: “These are wonderful times … I never thought that I should live to assert the rights of women.”
There were at this point 638 women locked out, 320 of whom were unionists and 318 non-unionists.
In all, up to 800 individual strikers were paid strike pay, which was almost certainly the reason why, within a month, 60 per cent of employers had agreed to pay the minimum rate.
It was now a game of waiting.
The third week of the strike saw a Monday rally and demonstration at the Empire Theatre, so did the fourth week.
By now 35 manufacturers had agreed to pay the full rate. By September 24 — the fifth week of the dispute — steady progress to resolution was clearly under way.
The middlemen stated that they were prepared to pay the Trade Board rate, if the major employers agreed to place orders only with middlemen who signed up to the board rates.
Six-hundred trade unionists were now working under the proper rates with 140 unionists and 280 non-unionists still in dispute.
In the sixth week of the dispute, on the Sunday, there had been yet another large meeting at the theatre, this time with Labour parliamentary leader Arthur Henderson and celebrated novelist John Galsworthy as the main speakers.
The employers rejected the middlemen’s proposals and the dispute went into October with bitterness increasing. Talk turned to picketing out all factories — what today would be called secondary action.
Eventually there was a sudden settlement.
It was a complete climbdown, since all employers agreed to deal only with middlemen who had signed up to an agreement to pay board rates — there now being no less than 153 such middlemen fully signed up.
A packed meeting of women at Grainger’s Lane School that very day concluded that this was the complete and decisive victory they had been looking for over the last 10 weeks.
The women had been presented with countless chances to settle but, for them, it had to be all or nothing.
Not one employer went out of business as a result of the higher wages, no women lost their jobs, nor did the trade move abroad.
This article is adapted from the Communist Party History Group pamphlet Our History: Rouse Ye Women, The Cradley Heath Chainmakers.
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