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Derby’s first great battle of labour

Today Derby celebrates the Silk Mill Lockout — the first major industrial dispute in Britain, which, along with the struggle of Tolpuddle, marked the birth of the trade union movement, writes GRAHAM STEVENSON

“The whole country is astir with what are called trade unions.” These are the words of one progressive writer on the formation of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU), the first trade union congress, in 1833.

It spread dramatically, enrolling 500,000 during that year alone.  

The first Derby GCNTU lodge started with 37 members and rose to 1,500 within seven weeks.  

A town committee of two delegates from each lodge — silk throwsters, weavers, potters, hosiery workers, building operatives and ironworkers — rapidly became a powerful force, and The Pioneer or Trades Union Magazine, associated with the Birmingham Builders’ Lodge, built up a large circulation in the town. 

But in November 1833 Derby’s employers presented a “document” to their workers. Refusal to sign
would mean lockout. 

Employers felt threatened at the burgeoning labour movement — employment of children under nine had just been prohibited and there was a campaign for the eight-hour day.

The immediate cause of the Derby Turnout was a workman at a City Road silk mill’s refusal to pay a fine for disputed faulty work. On November 21 he and his supporters were dismissed, prompting a city-wide general strike. 

Twenty employers met at the King’s Head pub four days later to argue that unions damaged business and focused on the secret oath which bound trade unionists.

By December 4, 1,447 were out on strike, rising to 2,000 by February. Strike pay was being paid to the “turnouts.” 

The Pioneer played a decisive role in raising funds, with tales of support. The Birmingham labour movement even formed a Derby committee, which received funds at its HQ at the Town Hall Tavern. 

Derby’s barbers shaved union men “who are turned out, for nothing.” An independent miller offered his services to buy and mill flour. Stirring messages of support were sent to the “turnouts” at their headquarters in The Morledge.

Serious hardship now hit. “Widow Walker,” who lived at at Court 1, River Street, had a 14-year-old son who was denied parish relief because he “smelt” of trade unionism. They lived on potato peelings. Others stayed in bed all day because they had nothing to eat. 

The GNCTU had begun as a joint co-operative and a general trade union. As the dispute seemed less winnable, thoughts turned to setting up in competition with the masters whose mills were being run by “knobsticks,” or “black sheep.” 

Little came of this due to the high level of capital needed, especially since the huge sum to support a couple of thousand turnouts amounted to £350 a week.

The Birmingham Derby committee estimated that the scheme would cost £1,680 to build and £1,221 to secure the necessary machinery — a colossal sum that could have employed 600 men for a whole year, but in fact such a level of capital applied would only create less than 200 jobs.

The GNCTU had a store in Derby, selling flour at much reduced prices and tons of subsidised bacon were sent from Birmingham. The women of Bradshaw Street launched education programmes for the now out-of-work children, funded by GNCTU.



n January 24, a turnout died and a long funeral procession from the union’s headquarters at the Castle and Falcon to the cemetery saw 80 women leading wearing white dresses and hoods, after whom came a couple of thousand mourners “wearing white rosettes with a sprig of laurel.”

Strike-breakers were imported into Derby, some from abroad, stimulating interest in international trade unionism and politics. 

In January, the Pioneer reported that “nine more willing slaves have left London for Derby, let us put their names on the black list.” 

Peet’s smallware factory in Bridge Street placed beds in the factory, went to London, told new workers they were starting a new factory and gave them an enormous amount of strong ale.

By the time of the traditional Shrove Tuesday football game in the Market Place, all the strikers and their supporters defied a ban that had been put on the game and came out to kick the huge ball filled with cork shavings around the town. 

The event became an enormous solidarity march, organised with military exactitude. Hundreds of women led the march, four abreast, followed by the trades, with colourful flags and banners proclaiming mottos: “Union is Strength” and “Knowledge is Power.” 

A couple of thousand marchers wore crimson silk bands with knots tied over their shoulders and toured the local villages. 

Women played a remarkably important role in the turnout, stirring women throughout the land. 

Their contributions to the central fund was notable, from £3 from the women of Earl Shilton to 6d from Margaret Parrington of Barnsley — “poor in pocket but rich in principle.” 

“Be it known to the world that a female union is begun in Derby, and the tyrants have taken fright at it,” the women proclaimed.

Wherever there were “black sheep” women in the community shunned them. 

The Bath Street and River Street neighbourhood was reported to be in a high state of excitement when “black sheep” were discovered there. 

The women would make an effigy of a black sheep and burn it outside the door of the strikebreaker — “the baa-ing was deafening in the extreme.”

At the time, those in the workers’ movement still saw Derby as their main “cause celebre.” 

Yet the GNCTU was only formally constituted on February 18 1834. In a sense Derby was GNCTU. Its defeat would be the end of the organisation. 

Very slowly, from the end of March, literal starvation gave victory to the employers. The end was never a definite date — it just began to fade. Six-hundred workers, a third of the turnouts, never returned to work for their former employers.

Many union lodges ordered that “the women and young persons should immediately renounce their connection with the union and seek to obtain employment.” 

In late May, 1,000 had returned to work, but nothing was said about giving up the union. If an end came at all it was in early June. 

The decline of the GNCTU after the twin hammer blows of Derby and Tolpuddle was as rapid as its growth. 

But within two years agitation against the distress caused by the new Poor Law began. 

Within two years of that, industrial militancy, combined with political organisation, came like a thunderbolt in the form of the Chartist movement. 

As so often in workers’ history, out of apparent defeat would emerge a kind of victory. 

The Silk Mill march and rally takes place today from 10.30am at the Assembly Rooms, Market Place, Derby. A new book on the Turn Out, Defence Or Defiance? Derby And The Fight For Democracy by Graham Stevenson, is published by Manifesto Press.


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