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Remembering Margaret Bondfield – a true hero of World War I

PETER FROST introduces us to Margaret Bondfield, a woman who bravely campaigned for peace in the first world war and did so much more

THE Morning Star news pages recently reported that Jeremy Corbyn and Glastonbury Festival founder Michael Eavis had opened new social for-rent cottages built on land donated by Eavis in Pilton, Somerset, the location of the Glastonbury Festival Site.

The 13 new  homes, clad in stone paid for by the Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Union Council (BWTUC), were built on a new close named after a Somerset-born woman Margaret Bondfield.

So who is Margaret Bondfield? I’ve always had a soft spot for her and indeed have written about her in the Morning Star in years past, but it is a story well worth retelling.

In 1909 she wrote a book called Socialism for Shop Assistants. I have never been able to find a copy but that title alone won my heart to Margaret.

Now it is good to see her and other women pioneers of the labour movement being commemorated as with these new affordable cottages in Pilton.  

Bondfield is not well enough remembered, except perhaps among the socialists and anti-war campaigners. My local market town Northampton remembers her because it was here she was elected, in 1923, as one of the three first-ever Labour women MPs in Britain.

Bondfield was born in 1873 in a cottage in Chard, Somerset, not too far from the site of the new cottages. When she was eight, her father lost his job as foreman of a lace factory after 60 years’ hard service. The unfairness was something that stayed with Bondfield all her life.

“He was dismissed with a week’s notice,” she recalled in her biography. “That week’s notice planted in me the seeds of revolt. The old radicalism and nonconformity of Chard… must somehow have got into the texture of my life and shaped my thoughts…”

She learned her early radical political ideas from her parents and by the age of 14, Bondfield left home to become an apprentice in a large draper's shop in Hove.

She became friendly with one of her customers, Louisa Martindale, a strong advocate of women's rights. Through Martindale she met progressive thinkers and discovered political books and periodicals.

In 1894 Bondfield went to live with her brother Frank in London, where she found work in a shop. It didn’t take long before she was elected to the Shop Assistants Union’s district council.

In 1896 the Women's Industrial Council asked her to carry out an investigation into the pay and conditions of shop workers. The report was published in 1898, the same year she was appointed assistant secretary of the Shop Assistants' Union.

By now Bondfield had become Britain's leading expert on shop workers. She gave evidence to the select committee on shops (1902) and the select committee on the truck system (1907).

With Mary Macarthur, she established the first women's general union, the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) in 1906.

In 1908 Bondfield became secretary of the Women's Labour League. She was also active in the Women's Co-operative Guild, leading early campaigns for a minimum wage. The Guild also fought for an improvement in child welfare and action to lower the infant mortality rate.

The Guild was also the organisation that would, much later, introduce white poppies in 1933. The first white poppies appeared, mostly home-made and worn mainly by members of the Guild.   

Suffragettes had fought hard for votes for women in the decades leading up to the first world war but when war was actually declared some leaders of the movement suspended the votes campaign to join in the jingoism of the war.

Some leaders demanded that all Suffragettes support the war effort. In return the government released Suffragettes from prison. 

Emmeline Pankhurst, who would later become a Tory parliamentary candidate, announced that all militants had to "fight for their country as they fought for the vote."

After receiving £2,000 from the government, Pankhurst organised a pro-war, pro-government demonstration in London.

The banners read: "We Demand the Right to Serve," "For Men Must Fight and Women Must Work.” Christabel Pankhurst started a recruiting campaign among the men in the country.

But not all Suffragettes were taken in by the warmongering propaganda. Bondfield was one who disagreed with this new policy. She helped to establish the Women's Peace Crusade to campaign for a negotiated peace.

In 1910 the Liberal government asked Bondfield to serve as a member of its advisory committee on the Health Insurance Bill. She persuaded the government to introduce the first maternity benefits.

In October 1916 Bondfield joined with George Lansbury and Mary Macarthur to set-up a new National Council for Adult Suffrage.

In 1929 prime minister Ramsay MacDonald  appointed Bondfield as his new minister of labour. She was the first woman in history to gain a place in the British Cabinet.

In the financial crisis of 1931, Bondfield supported the government policy of depriving some married women of unemployment benefit. It was not a popular move. She refused to join MacDonald's National government and lost her seat in the 1931 general election.

As we mark the centenary of World War I, the Establishment will honour warmongers and jingoistic generals.

Instead it is good to honour Bondfield, who fought for peace and also achieved much more besides for the rights of women.

A great way to honour her are these new homes that take her name. All have lifelong tenancies and cannot be bought.

Eavis has said he is helping to build another 15 houses to bring the total number of homes by 2020 to 50 — to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Glastonbury Festival. “The houses will be for local people or the children of local people,” he said.

“It is important people who work in the village or round about it can afford to live in Pilton. They’ll always be available for rent. They’ll never be sold.”

Lifetime secure social rent tenancies were abolished by the Tories in their 2016 Housing and Planning Act, which also encouraged the mass sell-off of council housing.

While Theresa May and her Tories in Parliament do nothing to provide affordable housing, individual socialists and trade unionists are making a small but important start in Somerset. Margaret Bondfield’s memory deserves nothing less.

Frosty’s Ramblings appears every Friday in the Morning Star.


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