Salford’s Unemployed & Community Resource Centre: workers’ rights, anti-racism and gender equality

Everyone knows that a good thing is worth fighting for and this couldn’t be more true when it comes to workers’ rights. On paper, a plethora of laws may claim to protect workers against unfair dismissals and redundancy but in reality they are often left to singly-handedly fight big corporations to enforce their basic rights. In Salford, this is where the radical Unemployed & Community Resource Centre comes in.

Set up in the 1980s, the centre was officially the third Trade Union Centre to open in the UK and has been offering free advice on employment law and representation at tribunals ever since. The centre has also gone on to introduce a computer education course, debt management advice and to launch a radical ‘Salford Prison Scheme’ to mentor offenders from the area. It has also been involved in some of the biggest unemployment cases to hit Manchester, such as the infamous ‘Accident Group’ which made its workers redundant via text message.

Thatcher and Unemployment in Salford

“Salford was one of the workshops of the world,” explains Alec McFadden, an active unionist and anti-fascist campaigner who runs the centre. “There was a massive engineering industry which employed thousands of people and you had very active docks. Thatcher came in 1979 and started a campaign, very very quickly, against the manufacturing industry and the reason was that in manufacturing you had very strong trade unions.” A couple of years later came the Miners’ Strike in 1984-5 along with increasingly weakened unions and then, recession and mass unemployment. “The pound was weak and as the whole economy of Salford which was based in manufacturing and engineering went, unemployment shot up and a lot of young people went 5 to 10 years without ever having a proper job.”

The centre was subsequently funded by a government quango (the Manpower Services Commission) as McFadden puts it, “to reduce unemployment- not to solve the crisis of capitalism but to hide the number of unemployed people.” As well as rising unemployment, the radical activity in the area ,especially in Eccles, which had the biggest Communist Party in Britain at the time, made the centre an obvious choice.

When the centre first opened there were around 20 part-time workers running it but by 1995, when McFadden joined, it only had three workers. One of the first cases McFadden was involved was trying to stop the council shutting down a nearby social security office. “By closing the office, the unemployed had nowhere to claim for social security except the main benefit office which was three miles away and then you had to go on two buses.” It was occupied by around 46 supporters and gained a lot of publicity. Three months later, however, it was shut down.

Salford’s Fourth Emergency Service

Despite this minor setback, the centre has been involved in thousands of cases since, many more of which have ended successfully. “We classify ourselves as the fourth emergency service in Salford after the police, fire services and ambulances, because we keep people alive. We’ve stopped people from committing suicide by getting them their benefits and their rights for them,” says McFadden.

“We’ve done a whole host of cases for workers who are being exploited and sacked. One of the big ones that I spent a lot of time on was against P&A Packaging when five young men were made redundant by their employer.” The company had recruited 10 East European workers, trained them and then got rid of the higher-paid original workers. “We appealed and I explained to their employer, Peter Smith, that he had flaunted the laws of Britain… You can’t just sack and make workers redundant… He said he didn’t believe me and that he could do what he wants with his workers.”

On the eve of the tribunal, after being told by the company’s solicitor that the centre would lose the case, they were approached and offered thousands of pounds in settlement for the workers. Negotiations took place under a confidentiality clause and so the settlement amount was not disclosed although newspapers were reporting around £25,000. As a result of this success, more and more cases came through the centre’s doors and the staff are always happy to help.

“We are completely different from the CABs (Citizen’s Advice Bureaux). Its like whether you are from Afghanistan or Eccles is irrelevant to us- you’re a human being with a problem and we are exactly the same about whether its fundable or not.” Just the previous week, McFadden successfully won a case for a young Latvian girl who was mistreated at work. “Two of the girls were working for a hotel and one of them was sacked and the other one was threatened with disciplinary action for nothing. They were both very well educated and their mother tongue is Russian and they were disciplined for speaking their mother tongue at work.

“I rang the company and said that I was going to deal with the case and they were dismissive of me and I said ‘before we enter this situation, write my name down and go on to google and ring us back’. They rang us back and the girl who was given the final written warning, that was withdrawn immediately and the other one, I was allowed in to represent her and on Thursday they apologized for sacking her. They agreed to pay her two months wages after sacking her and she starts back at work today.” A real success story and, McFadden insists, “I have never lost a single case and I think for the community to have this resources is great.” He also added that anyone going to a solicitor and paying for their services when they are freely available at the centre ‘must be crazy.’

Mass Education Campaign

In 1997, the council put forward a ten-year plan for Salford to resolve certain social, housing and financial problems. “Salford was poverty-stricken, as it is now, and derelict, was just one hell of a state,” says McFadden. “You had major problems with Ordsall which had the highest negative equity levels in the UK… there was the issue of housing as the council had so many properties that were in disrepair- they weren’t repairing them- and people were living in horrendous conditions.” The centre decided to take time and consider what its contribution to this ten-year plan could be.

“We came up with this strategy in which we would continue to look after people’s welfare benefits but also look after debt. We would start defending workers in short-term jobs and their employment rights because if you’re not in the union, there is no one to represent you at work.” Another issue that the centre decided to tackle was education and training as a lot of people were alienated from colleges and universities and had only secured low levels of education. “So we started this mass education campaign which over the last 10 to 11 years, I would say, has been incredible.”

After a couple of false starts in which the centre was ram-raided and 4 computers stolen, a computer course was launched with the help of lottery funding. “We had people on the course who had never worked for years. We had a woman who had been involved in the sex trade for eight years, sometimes as a prostitute, sometimes on the sex lines.

“She took to the computers very quickly and was the third person to pass. And not only did she do that, she ended up as a volunteer helping other and when the tutor was ill, we employed her for a month. With that experience she got a job as an admin assistant and two year later was an admin officer in the national health service- so that was something very positive to come from the course.”

Salford Prison Scheme and Male Widowers

As well as supporting those with troubled backgrounds by teaching them new skills to help them move forward, the centre has initiated a new project to rehabilitate offenders. The Salford Prison Scheme “is a project for young men who are in Manchester prisons, come from Salford and are coming back into Salford after less than a year in prison.” They centre employs a full-time worker who works with the short-term prisoners while they are still in prison to resolve issues such as welfare needs, benefits, education, housing and employment.

“One of the main issues is getting them off drugs,” explains McFadden who started the project as he felt that offenders’ educational and employment needs were being ignored. Those serving shorter sentences for crimes like theft and burglary receive no support, such as probation officers, on release, and yet research shows that they are most likely to re-offend. “It’s an area which is completely neglected and I am hoping to announce by the end of September that we have funding for another two years.”

Alec McFadden has also led workers’ rights campaigns on issues very close to his heart. McFadden , who was widowed in 1997 after his wife Berit died of cancer, led a campaign along with another widower Alex Love to enforce the rights of male widowers to benefits. “The law at the time was the if a man died in a marriage, the woman would receive a pension and a lump sum but if the woman died in a marriage, the man got nothing.” The official reason given to McFadden and hundred of thousands of other male widowers was ‘sorry, you can’t receive any state benefits because you are not a woman’!

“So I campaigned in 2001 and the law was changed so that bereavement benefit was established – I now get £599 a month as I have two children to look after. That alone has provided billions for people across Britain.

“We have a reputation at the centre that when everyone else in the country says no, people can ring us and we say yes.”

Unemployed Workers Union

The centre has also recently announced that they are seeking to establish the first Unemployed Workers’ Union (UWU) for 25 years. “We have reached a stage where officially there is 2.5 million unemployed and the reality is that it is nearer 3.5 million. There are loads of young people who can’t sign or have decided not to sign because of the hassle, the stigma- there is no one looking after them. In fact, there is no one looking after the unemployed who are living on £64 a week, which is a scandal,” says McFadden.

Campaigning on issues such as the right to work, an increase in the minimum wage and free public transport for the unemployed (“when you’re unemployed how can you afford bus fares?” says McFadden), the UWU hopes to look after the unemployed who are currently ignored by the trade unions. “There is something that Tony Benn says and that is ‘If you want something done, do it yourself’ and so we thought it’s time to re-establish an unemployed workers’ movement to try and get unemployed people to work together.”

McFadden explains that he seen the impacts of unemployment on a community many times in his life – domestic violence, alcohol and drug-addiction as well as an increase in crime are only some of the implications – “The key thing to give these people is some hope.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Link:
Salford Unemployed & Community Resource Centre

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Paddy O’Donoghue

Paddy O’Donoghue was head of the Irish Republican Army in Manchester 1919-1921, co-ordinating jail escapes and attacks on buildings. He was jailed in 1921 but freed after the treaty was signed between Britain and the Republican government in 1922.

The leader of the IRA in Manchester between 1919 and 1921, Paddy O’Donoghue, was a native of Barraduff, Killarney who ran a grocers shop on Lloyd Street, Greenheys. Before the War of Independence he was best known as the organiser of the annual Irish concert at the Free Trade Hall but he was also intimately involved in the Republican movement in Manchester. O’Donoghue was a close friend of Michael Collins, who had been his best man when Paddy married Violet Gore. Collins apparently brought him into his intelligence and arms-smuggling network in England as early as 1917.

In February 1919 O’Donoghue played a key role in the escape of Eamon De Valera from Lincoln Jail. De Valera was very anxious to get out of jail and go to the United States to present the Irish case for self-determination. A devout Catholic, he served at Mass with the prison chaplain and managed to get an impression in the wax of a candle of the master key . The design was copied onto a Christmas card by Sean Milroy and sent to Sean McGarry’s wife in Ireland but she failed realise the significance of the design. The three prisoners then wrote to Paddy O’Donoghue in Irish and he contacted Collins immediately. A key was then cut to the design and smuggled into the jail in a cake but it did not fit the lock. A further card with the key design was sent to O’Donoghue with the words “ Eocair na Saoirse” (The Key To Freedom”). O’Donoghue had another key cut in Manchester and sent it in but once again it failed to work. Collins now came to England to personally take charge of the operation.

A further key was made inside the jail and on 3rd February, by prior arrangement, three prisoners made their way to the front door of the jail where Michael Collins and his close friend Harry Boland were waiting along with Frank Kelly. Disaster seemed to have struck when Collins’ key broke as he put it in the lock. Fortunately De Valera was able to push the broken key out with his own copy and open the door. The three prisoners made their way to where O’Donoghue was waiting with transport.

Collins and Boland went to London and then back to Dublin. The others journeyed back to Manchester by way of Sheffield. Milroy and McGarry were hidden by leading Manchester IRA commander Liam MacMahon in his own house, while De Valera stayed with a local priest, Father Charles O’Mahony. The police were looking for De Valera, of course, and MacMahon was warned by Thomas Walsh, a sympathetic detective in the Manchester force, that they were getting close. On 18th February, dressed as a priest and escorted by two young Irish women, De Valera travelled back to Dublin. At the beginning of June he went to the United States.

O’Donoghue was involved in another extraordinary episode when he arranged for two young boys to be kidnapped from Barry in South Wales. They were the children of Josephine Marchmont , who worked in the Cork military barracks as a secretary to a senior British officer. She had impeccable security credentials, being the daughter of a Head Constable in the RIC, while her husband had been killed in the war. Her children, however, were in the custody of her mother-in-law in Wales.

Michael Collins learned of this and offered Josephine a deal in which he would arrange for the children to be brought back to Ireland if she would pass information to the IRA. She agreed and with the assistance of Paddy O’Donoghue the two boys were seized and brought to Manchester, where they stayed in his house and were then taken to Cork to be reunited with their mother. Josephine kept her side of the bargain and her information was invaluable to the IRA. Her deception was apparently never uncovered by the British authorities.

In April 1919 a number of IRA prisoners were transferred to Strangeways from Belfast after disturbances there over the issue of political status. Their leader was Austin Stack, Sinn Fein MP for West Kerry, who had commanded the Kerry brigade during the Easter Rising and had been sentenced to death, though this had been commuted to life imprisonment. Also in the prison in Manchester was Piaras Beaslai, Sinn Fein MP for East Kerry.

In August Fionan Lynch, Sinn Fein MP for Kerry South, was released from Strangeways and made contact with Paddy O’Donoghue and Liam MacMahon, who set in motion an escape plan. Violet O’Donoghue arranged for messages and maps to be sent into the prison baked in cakes or buried in butter and jam. Collins followed the development of the plans closely and wrote to Beaslai several times using a code. Rory O’Connor was sent over to examine the plans, followed soon after by Collins himself who actually visited Stack in Strangeways, using a false name and unrecognized.

The escape took place on Saturday 25th October. A dummy pistol already been smuggled into the prison in butter while the prisoners had got hold of handcuffs from a sympathetic Irish policeman in Manchester. They overcame the prison warder on duty, gagging him and placing him in a cell, and then rushed into the prison yard where a rope with a weight was thrown over and, after some mishaps, came within their grasp. The prisoners hauled on the rope, bringing over a rope-ladder, and each in turn climbed up it and over the wall.

Outside the prison some twenty men from Manchester, including Paddy O’Donoghue, held up the street and preventing anyone from passing the prison. Beaslai was taken by a young men named George Lodge in a taxi and then by tram to his house in a Manchester suburb while others made their escape on bicycles. After a week Collins visited Stack and Beaslai and three days later Liam MacMahon and George Lodge escorted them to Liverpool from where they were smuggled home in a steamer to be met by Joe O’Reilly, Collins’ right hand man, at the quayside. The other escapees were Paddy McCarthy (later killed in action), Sean Doran, DP Walsh, and Con Connolly.

According to the report of the escape in the Manchester Guardian the IRA men left behind a letter exonerating the warder from any blame. Sean Doran was later recaptured in Ireland and brought back to Manchester where he was sentenced on 18th July 1921 to two months imprisonment for escaping, to run concurrent with the unexpired sentence of 12 months. Piaras Beaslai played a small but important part in Irish history when on 14th January 1922 he moved the motion to approve the Treaty at a meeting of members of the Southern Irish Parliament, convened by Arthur Griffith as chair of the Irish delegation to London.

The most spectacular series of IRA operations in Manchester took place on 2nd April 1921 when between 6am and 7am a number of Volunteers tried to set fire to offices, hotels and cafes in the city centre. Later that same evening a large number of armed police raided the Irish Club on Erskine Street, Hulme and shot dead Sean Morgan, a member of the IRA. The police arrested a large number of men at the Irish Club and also picked up others over the weekend, including Paddy O’Donoghue (a memorial to Sean Morgan was unveiled in Moston cemetery on the ninth anniversary of his death in 1930.)

The arrested men appeared in court on 4th April with the Chief Constable of Manchester present, accompanied by many officers. The prosecution produced dozens of revolvers and cans of petrol as evidence, claiming that the Irish Club was an arsenal or base of operations from which outrages in Manchester had been planned and carried out.

The twenty-one accused appeared in court again on 26th April before the stipendiary magistrate Edgar Brierley. There was tight security with every entrance to the court guarded by police and even the press having to show cards before they were admitted. A number of men, including Paddy O’Donoghue, were charged with the attempted murder of police officers and there were numerous other charges, including one of “making war against the King”. The police prosecutor claimed that one of the defendants, Daniel McNicholl, had admitted that there were 60 men in the IRA in Manchester, formed into three companies, one based at Albion Street and two at Erskine Street. In a confession to the Chief Constable, McNicholl had also alleged that O’Donoghue held high rank in the IRA and had shot a police officer.

The trial of those charged with treason-felony began on 7th July at the Manchester Assizes before Justice Rigby Swift with the prosecution led by the Attorney General himself, Sir Gordon Hewart. Nineteen men were now charged with treason felony, as well as with arson and shooting with intent to murder. The Attorney General alleged that Paddy O’Donoghue had hired a garage at 67 Upper Chorlton Road, Whalley Range on 13th November of the year before, which had been used to store explosives and firearms. On 25th May the police had arrested a number of men when they came to the garage to retrieve materials, presumably believing that the coast would be clear as some weeks had passed since the arrests of their colleagues. He also alleged that O’Donoghue had shot Constable Boucher at Bridgewater House in the chest and arm.

There was a dramatic incident in court on Monday 11th July. Over the weekend the Irish Republican government and the British government had finally concluded a truce in the armed conflict, which would come into force at noon. At that precise moment one of the defendants Charles Harding gave an order in Gaelic and the rest of the prisoners sprang to their feet and stood to attention for a moment, resuming their seats after another instruction from Harding. That same day, amidst scorching weather, Eamonn De Valera arrived in London to begin talks with the British Government and hundreds of Irish people greeted him at Euston railway station.

On 13th July O’Donoghue made a statement from the dock in which he pleaded guilty to the charge with respect to the garage admitting that the arms had been paid for by him as an officer in the IRA. “It is my firm belief that had the IRA been better equipped negotiations for the settlement now in progress would have long since been held”. He denied however having anything to do with shooting policemen. “I have always fully realised that I was committing an offence against the constitution of this country in smuggling arms to Ireland but at the same time I felt I was morally bound to help my country to regain its freedom”. Sean Wickham also made a speech from the dock, adding that he was an officer in the IRA. Addressing the court he contended that the signing of the truce was virtually a recognition of the claim of the accused to be treated as prisoners of war and he also rejected the Treason Felony Act.

The Manchester trial was raised in the House of Commons by Captain Redmond, Irish Nationalist MP for Waterford, who asked Lloyd George whether the Crown would discontinue the charges of conspiracy against certain Irishmen now being held at Manchester Assizes. In his reply Lloyd George claimed that they had pleaded guilty (which was a lie) and were entitled to a verdict.

Captain Redmond persisted, asking a logical question. “How can the government reconcile their actions in taking proceedings against certain Irishmen in England for conspiring with whom the government themselves are at present entering upon open negotiations during a period of truce?” Lloyd George dodged the question, merely repeating his previous answer.

Only two men – Nicholas Keogh and Daniel Mullen – were acquitted by the jury. The rest were found guilty and sentenced to varying lengths of prison.

The Treaty was finally signed in the early hours of 6th December 1921 but fell well short of the independent Republic the Irish had already proclaimed, conceding only Dominion status to twenty six counties of Ireland within the British Empire under the title of the Irish Free State and confirming the partition of Ireland for six out of nine counties of Ulster under the political and military domination of the Unionist Party.

After a lengthy and sometimes bitter debate Dail Eireann approved the Treaty on 7th January 1922 with 64 votes in favour and 57 against. Sinn Fein had already effectively split into two camps with De Valera opposing the Treaty and Collins and Griffith supporting it.

Republican prisoners in jails in Ireland had been let out as soon as the Treaty was signed, as had those imprisoned in Britain for offences committed in Ireland. Those convicted of offences committed in Britain still remained in jail, however, and on 11th February the Irish Self Determination League organised a demonstration in Trafalgar Square to press for their release. Five columns of Irish people carrying tricolours marched in from different parts of London. and were addressed by Art O’Brien and Alderman John Scurr. There was an unexpected third speaker – Shaun Wickham from Manchester – released that morning from Wandsworth Prison. Still dressed in his prison clothes of a cheap grey coat and striped trousers, he shivered in the February cold. The Manchester Guardian wondered why his friends had not bought him a warm coat.

Wickham had been freed because the previous day the British and Irish governments had simultaneously issued statements of amnesty. Collins’ statement granted amnesty to the British aimed forces and civil service “in respect of all acts committed in the course of the recent hostilities”, while the British statement (issued by the Colonial Office and not the Home Office) granted the immediate release of prisoners now in custody “for offences committed prior to the treaty in Great Britain from Irish political motives”.

Back in Manchester prisoners were also released from Strangeways and the authorities told the Evening Chronicle that all the Irishmen imprisoned there for political offences had now been released. So unexpected was their release that there was no welcoming crowd. The following day, however, thousands marched to London Road station to greet ex-prisoners, although they actually arrived at different stations. Several men eventually did make their way to the station and were given a tumultuous welcome and, Irish band playing, escorted to Central Station. Some sixty other prisoners were released and most went to London.

Paddy O’Donoghue left England for Ireland and in his later years managed a greyhound stadium.

Article by Michael Herbert. Michael is author of The Wearing of the Green: A Political History of the Irish in Manchester (2000), copies of which can be bought by contacting Michael directly at mossley [at] phonecoop.coop.

Mary Quaile: Trade Unionist and fighter for working women

Mary was born in Dublin and came to Manchester in 1908. She became active in the trade union movement and rose to a prominent position in TGWU. She was on the TUC General Council during the General Strike of 1926. In her later years she returned to Manchester.

Mary Quaile was born in Dublin (where her father was secretary of the Irish Brick & Stonemakers Union) and came to Manchester in 1908, working in the Socialist Clarion Cafe at 50a Market Street. She helped establish a Cafe Workers’ Union in Manchester and became its secretary.

In 1911 Mary was appointed as Assistant Organiser to support Mrs Aldridge at the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Council. The Council had been established in February 1895 at a meeting in Manchester Town Hall with a view to promoting trade unionism amongst women workers. The Committee was drawn principally from prominent Liberals in Manchester, whose politics were progressive, not socialist. In 1904 the Council became divided over the issue of women’s suffrage and its two paid organisers – Sarah Dickenson and Eva Gore-Booth – resigned and established a rival organisation, the Manchester & Salford Women’s Trades and Labour Council.

In 1914 Mary became the organising secretary for the Council after Mrs Aldridge left. In April 1919 the two Manchester women’s trades councils merged with the Manchester & Salford Trades Council (with Sarah Dickenson appointed Women’s Organiser) and that same year Mary took up a new post as National Women’s Organiser for the Dock, Wharf & Riverside Workers’ Union, which eventually joined the Transport & General Workers Union in 1922. She quickly became prominent in her union, standing for election to the General Council of the Trades Union Congress in 1923 when she came third in the ballot behind Margaret Bondfield and Julia Varley. When Ramsay MacDonald appointed Margaret Bondfield to a job in the first Labour Cabinet as Minister for Employment in January 1924 she resigned from the General Council and Mary took her place as the runner-up, attending her first meeting in March.

Mary replaced Margaret Bondfield on the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations, joining Julia. Both women attended the National Conference of Labour Women in May 1924. At the end of the month they went to a conference of International Women Trade Unionists in Vienna where they were instructed by the General Council to maintain the position of the TUC, which was that women should be organised inside the International Federation of Trade Unions and not form a separate autonomous organisation. After the conference finished they stayed on in Vienna for the International Trade Union congress.

Mary was a member of the TUC Women Workers Group, which was looking at the organisation of women in trade unions, following a resolution at the TUC the previous year. In May 1924 the TUC sent out a letter to all unions stating that in their opinion “much could be done to further the trade union organisation of women if all men Trade Unionists would do their utmost to get their wives and daughters to see the importance of becoming trade unionists themselves.” This was followed up by circulating over 100,000 copies of a leaflet Get That Union Feeling, directed at women workers.

Mary attended the TUC Women’s Conference held on 20th March 1925 in Leicester which discussed ways of recruiting more women workers and called on stronger trade unions to come to the aid of the weak, blaming past Executive Councils and union officials for not having made special efforts to organise women. Later that year at Congress Mary spoke in the discussion on women’s organisation within the TUC, stating her belief that it was necessary to have a women’s group “because of the work that had been done not only in organising the women but in educating them in their responsibilities, and the part they had to take in their own trade union movement” and was chair of the women’s trade union delegation to the Soviet Union in 1925. Mary was elected again in 1925 to the General Council, beating Julia Varley when Margaret Bondfield stood again. She was now one of the most prominent women trade unionists in Britain.

The Leicester conference resulted in the TUC launching a recruitment drive for women in the early months of 1926 with Manchester and Salford as its first target, where Mary spoke alongside Margaret Bondfield and Walter Citrine, the new TUC General Secretary. She also spoke at meetings in Leeds and Bristol.

In May 1926 the TUC called the General Strike in support of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, whose members had been locked out by the coal-owners. The strike was very solid in Manchester and Mary spoke at a mass meeting in Platt Fields, attended by many thousands on Saturday 8th May. Despite the magnificent response of trade unionists across Britain the TUC, in the greatest betrayal in British trade union history, called off the General Strike unilaterally after ten days without consulting the miners, leaving them to fight on alone until starvation forced them back on the owners’ terms in the autumn.

In September Mary attended the First Annual Women’s Conference in Bournemouth. She did not stand for the General Council in 1926 and the following year Mary returned to Manchester, living in Levenshulme, and again took office as secretary of the Women’s Group on the Trades Council. In 1935 she was elected Vice-President of the Trades Council, the first woman officer of the council, and from 1936 to 1958 she acted as Treasurer. In her later years she was awarded the TUC Silver Badge for Trades Council Officers at a reception at Belle Vue attended by some four thousand people.

Article by Michael Herbert

Len Johnson; Manchester boxer and Communist

Len Johnson was born in Manchester in 1902. His father was William Benker Johnson, an African seaman, and his mother was a young woman from Manchester, Margaret Maher. After leaving the merchant navy his father worked for a time on boxing booths and, after a spell in engineering, Len followed his father into the profession. He fought professionally as a middle-weight from 1922 and 1933, and beat some of the best British and foreign fighters of the day, including Roland Todd, Len Harvery, Gipsy Daniels and Leone Jaccovacci. However Len was not allowed to fight for official British titles because the British Board of Boxing Control said that only white boxers could compete for titles. After he left the ring he toured his own boxing up and down the country. During the war Len worked in civil defence in Manchester and after the war worked as a bus driver and then lorry driver. During the war he had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and become an active member, standing 6 times in the Moss Side ward but attracting only a small vote. He attended the Pan African Congress in Manchester in October 1945 and later set up the New International Society in Moss Side which was both a social club and campaigning organisation. He had retired from active politics by the 1960s and died in Oldham in 1974

Leonard Benker Johnson was born on 22 October 1902 at 12 Barnabas Street, Clayton. His parents were William Benker Johnson and Margaret Maher. Billy (as everyone called him) was from Sierra Leone and came to England as a seaman, never returning to his native land. Marrying Billy was a brave decision for Margaret. Popular racism against black men, their partners and children was overt and sometime violent. Margaret was once attacked in the street and suffered permanent disfigurement.

The Johnsons were a part of small black community that established itself in the early years of the twentieth century in Manchester and Salford as result of the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal, which brought ships from Africa into the heart of the city. Some of the seaman, such Billy stayed put, married local women and raised families.

Len was followed by two brothers Billy and Albert, and by a sister Doris. The family moved to Leeds where Billy senior worked in a boxing booth. There was a long tradition of black boxers in Britain, stretching back to the prize fighting days of the early C19th. Boxing was one profession where a man’s skin colour might for once work in his favour, and not against him.

With the outbreak of war in 1914 the family returned to Manchester and Billy joined the British army. When he was old enough Len went to work at Crossley Engines in the foundry, later joined by his brother Albert. Len got into a fight at work with another young lad and their father took the two brothers to see some boxing matches at the Alhambra on Ashton Old Road. To Len’s great surprise (and it has to be said consternation) his father arranged for him to box in a few bouts in the hall. Totally inexperienced, Len won his two fights but then lost the next two. His boxing career seemed to be over.

A few weeks later, however, he was persuaded by friends to enter a competition at a boxing booth at Gorton fair, run by Bert Hughes. Hughes was impressed and offered Len a job. It lasted six months, during which time Len greatly improved his boxing skills and stamina. Len was to be part of the world of boxing booths for the next twenty years.

Len’s first official fight as a professional boxer was on 31 January 1922 against Eddie Pearson at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. His professional career lasted eleven years, during which he fought some 127 contests, winning 92, losing 29 and drawing 6. He fought in Europe on a number of occasions, spent 6 months in Australia in 1926 where he had 8 fights, and also visited the United States (but did not succeed in being matched). For most of his career he fought as a middle-weight.

Len came to national attention after defeating Roland Todd (a former European and British champion) twice in 1926 in front of packed houses at Belle Vue. In 1927 he defeated Len Harvey, who later to become the British middleweight champion. In January 1928 he defeated Gipsy Daniels, a recent British light-heavyweight champion. In November of that year he defeated Leone Jaccovacci, the European middleweight champion, in a non-title fight before a home crowd at Belle Vue, Manchester. In December 1929 he defeated Michele Bonaglia, the cruiserweight champion of Europe, also in Manchester. Once again the title was not at stake.

Len’s victories had brought him to forefront of British boxing and he should by rights have been entitled to a chance at the British middle-weight championship. The British Boxing Board of Control, which ran the game, refused to allow this on the grounds that Len was black, even though he had been born in Britain. This was matter of Imperial politics, pure and simple. Behind this decision was the fear that the myth of white superiority, the political principle on which the vast British Empire was based, would be undermined if white boxers were seen to lose to black boxers. Despite protest from many quarters and controversy in the boxing and Manchester press, the sporting and political establishment closed ranks against Len.

Disillusioned, Len bought his own boxing booth and toured Britain, occasionally returning to the ring. In May 1932 Len Harvey did agree to face Len in a fight which was billed as being for the British middle-weight championship but was not recognised as such by the BBBC. Len lost to Harvey after a tough fight. His last appearance in the ring was on 12 October 1933, losing to Jim Winters in Edinburgh.

For the rest of the decade Len continued to tour with his booth. He also turned his hand to writing , producing a series of short stories set in the world of boxing which were published in Topical Times. He seems to have given up his booth shortly before the war started. During the war he worked in the Civil Defence Corps and later as a Civil Defence instructor. After the war he worked as bus driver and later as a lorry driver for Jack Silverman in Oldham.

Towards the end of the war he had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain which was then at the height of its prestige after the part played by the Soviet Union in defeating Hitler. Len seems to have to been politicised by his own experiences of prejudice and racism. He also met Paul Robeson on one of his trips to England in the early 1930s and stayed in contact with him. Len was very active in the party until the early 1960s.

In October 1945 Len attended the 5th Pan African Congress, held in Manchester, which was very significant event in determining the course of the post-war anti-colonial struggle. Together with two other party members – Syd Booth and Wilf Charles – Len founded the New International Society, a club in Moss Side which combined social and political activities and ran for several years. In May 1949, for instance, Paul Robeson visited the club and sang to the people in the street and Len spoke at the same platform as Paul later that evening at a big rally at the King’s Hall, Belle Vue ( the site of many of his boxing triumphs in the 1920s)

Len also stood for the council on six occasions in Moss Side between 1947 and 1962, though he never attracted more than a handful of votes. In the mid 1950s he wrote a monthly column for the Daily Worker. Len was also active in the campaign for Paul Robeson, whose passport had been withdrawn by the US government preventing him travelling abroad. On 11 March 1956 there was a public meeting in the Lesser Free Trade Hall at which a special recording from Paul Robeson was played.

In his later years Len suffered much ill-health, perhaps as a result of his many matches, far more than would be allowed nowadays. At some point in the 1950s he spent several months convalescing at a Black Sea resort in the Soviet Union.

His last years were spent in Waterloo Street, Oldham, where he lived with his partner Maria Reid. He was not forgotten though. Members of the Ex-Boxers Association in Manchester held a collection and delivered a TV and groceries . Len died on 28 September 1974 at Oldham General Hospital. The Morning Star ran an obituary written by Jim Arnison.

Len was a major figure in C20th British boxing, though he never held any titles, and he was important activist in the labour movement in Manchester in the 1940s and 1950s. He deserves to be remembered.

Michael Herbert’s biography of Len Johnson, Never Counted Out! was published in 1992 and is available via the author at mossley [at] phonecoop.coop

Article by Michael Herbert

John Doherty

John Doherty was born in Ireland and moved to Manchester as a young man, working as cotton spinner.. In 1819 he was sentenced to two years in prison after taking part in a strike. Undaunted he led the Manchester spinners on two occasions and attempted to set up a national union for cotton spinners. He also supported factory reform and Irish independence. For a time he ran a radical bookshop and published radical newspapers.

John Doherty was born in Buncrana, County Donegal either in 1797 or 1798 and began work in the town’s cotton mills at the age of ten. A few years later he moved to Larne and thence on to the growing industrial city of Manchester where he arrived, probably in 1816.

Trade unions

John quickly became active in the cotton spinners’ union and played a leading role in a strike in the summer of 1818 whilst working in George Murray’s New Mill. The strike was well organised but unable to force the masters to concede.

He was involved marshalling and directing pickets to stop scabs (or “knobsticks” as they were known as in those days) going to work. There were outbreaks of violence and a spinner was shot dead. John was arrested outside Birley’s mill on 26th August. The crowd tried to free him and the Deputy Constable, a brutal fellow by the name of Nadin, had to call out a regiment of soldiers to escort his prisoner to the New Bailey prison. John was tried in Lancaster in January 1819, along with a number of other strike leaders, and sentenced to two years hard labour in Lancaster Castle.

The harsh sentence did not diminish his zeal and he recommenced his union activities on release. John was closely involved in an attempt to form a federal union of the spinners in 1824-25 and also in their successful agitation against the re-imposition of the anti-trade union Combination Acts. He was secretary of the Manchester spinners between 1828 and 1830 and again between 1834 and 1836.

John also led the Manchester spinners in a six month strike against wage cuts in 1829, issuing weekly addresses on the state of the dispute and calling for public support. The strike failed but undaunted he immediately tried to establish a national union of the spinners, The Grand General Union of Operative Cotton Spinners. Seventeen delegates from across Britain met in Douglas on the Isle of Man in December 1829 to set up the union which lasted until 1831.

John Doherty was also involved in an attempt to set up a national union for all trades – the National Association for the Protection of Labour . . After some initial successes in attracting trades and members the association declined and was finished by 1832.

By now he was working as a bookseller, running a bookshop, coffee-shop and newsroom at 37 Withy Grove, where he also lived with his wife Laura and four children. In 1834 the family moved to 4 Withy Grove. Not only did John sell the radical press but he also published a number of radical and trade union newspapers himself, including The Poor Man’s Advocate..

In 1833, influenced by the co-operative and labour-exchange ideas of Robert Owen and in particular his plan for the “National Moral Union of the Productive Classes”, John undertook a number of speaking tours in support of a plan to reduce the hours of adult workers to eight hours a day without any loss of pay. In Sheffield he spoke on the same platform as Robert Owen. Abstinence from drink was another cause he supported (Doherty was a member of the Manchester Temperance Society) and advocated in his newspapers.

In 1834 six agricultural labourers from Tolpuddle were sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia – ostensibly for administering unlawful oaths – but in reality for joining a trade union. There was a national outcry against the sentences and John spoke at a meeting on 7 April in the Reverend Scholfield’s chapel on Every Street, Ancoats in which he attacked the “crafty, base and cruel Whigs”, who like the Tories before them “now sought to trample them underfoot”. The Tolpuddle Martyrs – as they had now become known – were eventually pardoned and returned to England in 1838.

That same year John gave evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee which was enquiring into trade unionism at the instigation of Daniel O’Connell, who had presented evidence of violence amongst trade unionists in Dublin, Glasgow and other towns. The unions feared that the government was planning to bring back the Combination Laws and make them illegal again. Doherty was asked by the Manchester spinners to represent them at the enquiry although, as he admitted himself, he had not had anything to with them for some years. He gave evidence in defence of trade unions on 7th June and insisted, despite long cross-examination by O’Connell, that a workman would be perfectly free in Manchester to accept spinning work at reduced prices and without joining the union and still not be subject to violence.

Ireland

Ironically John was a great supporter of O’Connell and advocated the repeal of the Union in the newspapers he edited or published. When the Whig government introduced the Suppression of Disturbances Bill early in 1833 to crush protest in Ireland, radicals held a great protest meeting in Manchester on 4th March in Camp Field. John wrote that he hoped “the people of Ireland would not rashly fling themselves on the bayonets and bullets of the borough-mongering standing army; but first make a trial of their strength”. He also asserted that within six miles there were “at the least 20,000 real, stout, determined Irishmen, prepared to assist them by every means within their power, and that feeling was not merely confined to Manchester or this neighbourhood”. Doherty’s shop was one of the places where a petition could be signed against the bill, tithes and the Poor Law.

John became secretary of the Manchester Repeal Association with branches in the Irish districts of the town and in early 1834 meetings were held in different Lancashire towns in support of O’Connell’s campaign. On 10th February, for instance, Doherty and local radical John Knight spoke in Oldham where an association was set up for repeal and radical reform to be supported by weekly penny subscriptions. Having been denied rooms in Manchester an outdoor meeting attended by a thousand or so Irish weavers was held outdoors on 17th March at St George’s Fields near St Patrick’s church, which was addressed by Doherty and a number of other local radicals including Archibald Prentice and James Wroe.

Towards the end of the meeting the St Patrick’s Day parade organised by the Manchester Hibernian Society came onto the fields and John asked the crowd to give them three cheers, believing that they were about to join the meeting. Instead the marchers continued on their way and Doherty then attacked them in his speech, saying that “at the very moment when Englishmen and Irishmen were deliberating on the best means of relieving Ireland from her present degraded condition they had insulted the meeting by parading near the place where they were assembled”.

At the end of the four hour meeting James Wroe moved the successful motion in favour of a petition to parliament to repeal the Union. Doherty published a two penny twenty page pamphlet on behalf of the Repeal Association which sold over twenty thousand copies by May. By the following year, however, Daniel O’Connell had made his peace with the Whigs and the Repeal Associations lapsed until O’Connell revived the movement in the 1840s.

In 1835 Doherty became the Manchester agent of the weekly Dublin Satirist and in the autumn of 1836 he published the Life, Trial and Conversations of Robert Emmet in thirteen weekly parts. He does not seem to be have been involved in Irish affairs after 1840.

Factory Reform

For two decades Doherty was active in the campaign for factory reform, which was trying to limit the excessive hours being worked in mills and factories. Workers set up Short-time Committees in northern towns to support the campaign for a parliamentary bill. In November 1828 , for instance, he chaired a meeting at the Manchester Mechanics Institute, called to adopt measures to prevent the overworking of children in cotton factories, where most of the speakers were spinners. In October 1832 he made a public speaking tour of the Lancashire cotton towns, ascertaining and publicising the treatment of workers by employers in each town. In January 1836 Doherty chaired a delegate conference in Manchester on how to take the long campaign forward.

In January 1842 he spoke for an hour and a half at a meeting on the necessity of a ten-hour bill. Victory was finally achieved when a ten-hour bill was passed in the Commons in June 1847

Last Years

After twenty five very busy years, Doherty’s public political life seems to have ended by 1845. He died on 14th April 1854 at 83 New Bridge Street, largely forgotten. A character named Allen in Harriet Martineau’s novel The Manchester Strike was reputedly based on Doherty. His own words from August 1831 may serve as an epitaph.

“I want to better the condition of the people-to have them stand erect and look boldly in the faces of their masters, and to tell them “We are not your slaves; we are your equals. We are one side of the bargain, you are only the other. We give you an equivalent for what we get from you, and are therefore entitled to, at least, equal respect”. Whoever opposes the present system will be the object of attacks. I will persevere to oppose it in whatever situation I may be placed. I am so convinced of its injustice, that the idea of those who create all receiving scarcely anything is so monstrous, that I can never be persuaded to remain quiet as long as the system exists”

Further Reading

Michael Herbert, The Wearing of the Green ; a political History of the Irish in Manchester (2000)
R G Kirby, The Voice of the People, John Doherty 1798-1854. (1975)

Article by Michael Herbert

Eva Gore-Booth

Born to an upper-class Irish family, Eva Gore-Booth became a leading campaigner for trade union rights, votes for women and Irish independence in the first three decades of the 20th century.

Eva was born in Lissadell,County Sligo in May 1870 into a prominent Anglo-Irish family, the Gore-Booths. She enjoyed a conventional upper-class upbringing but from an early age was entranced by nature and by the delights of novels and poetry. The poet William Yeats was an occasional visitor to the great house and after the deaths of both Eva and her sister Constance Markiewicz wrote a bitter-sweet poem in their memory, whose opening lines recalled those long-ago visits:
The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.

The turning point in Eva’s life came in 1896 when she was in Bordighera, Italy. Here she met Esther Roper from Manchester, sent there to rest by friends who feared for her health through overwork. Ester told Eva of her work campaigning for trade union organisation amongst women and for women’s right to vote and the two women became friends, for life as it turned out. Eva decided to leave her comfortable home and way of life in Ireland and move to Manchester to help Esther in her work , sharing her house at 83 Heald Place, Rusholme

Trade Unionism

Within months of her move to Manchester Eva was addressing branches of the local Independent Labour Party and Women’s Co-operative Guild on the necessity of women’s suffrage and was soon recognised as an activist in her own right. In June 1900 she was appointed joint organising secretary of the Manchester, Salford and District Women’s Trade Union Council. Eva worked alongside the other worker Sarah Dickenson in their offices at 9 Albert Square. Sarah later remembered Eva thus in a letter to Esther:

“I met her first at your office when she came to Manchester, and my first impression of her was her charming and interesting personality. When I knew her better I found how very genuine she was in all her dealings and discovered all the beautiful traits in her character. The friendly way that she treated all the women trade unionists endeared her to them. If she was approached for advice or help she never failed. She is remembered by thousands of working women in Manchester for her untiring efforts to improve their industrial conditions, for awakening and educating their sense of political freedom, and for social intercourse.”

The Trades Council had been established at a meeting in the Lord Mayor’s Parlour in the Town Hall in February 1895 by a group of men and women mainly connected with the Liberal party, with the aim of assisting women workers to organise and lobby for the improvement of working conditions.

Over the next few years both women worked very hard to encourage women to set up and join unions. It was rarely an easy task. A section in the 1903 Trades Council report described the problems:

“For however severely trade grievances may be felt, the first steps in organisation are always difficult. The timidity of inexperience is hard to overcome, and people naturally fear to jeopardise their week’s earnings. Innumerable meetings are held by the Council, sometimes so small that they are not in themselves worth recording and much personal canvassing and persuasion has to be used before a sufficient number of workers can be gathered together and enough enthusiasm aroused to induce an adequate number of more progressive to take up the responsible positions of officers, committee and collectors.”

One of the difficulties they encountered in getting women to go to meetings was solved by starting a Tea Fund in 1902 to buy tea, sugar, milk and cake:

“It was found that the tea was a great convenience, as many of the women live in outlying districts, they are naturally anxious to hurry home to tea when their work is over and it is both inconvenient and expensive for them to come back to meetings in the evening. We are glad to say that the tea had good results in introducing a social element that promoted good fellowship and a friendly spirit among the members, and the attendance has largely increased.”

The most successful women’s union established by Eva and Sarah was the Salford and District Association of Power Loom Weavers, set up in April 1902. As well as trade unionism the women workers were also interested in politics and the suffrage campaign, sending a resolution just weeks after their establishment to a meeting at the Free Trade Hall called to protest against the imposition of a corn tax. The women’s resolution not only protested against the tax and the fact that it would fall most heavily on women “the worst paid workers in the country” but also objected to the fact that their exclusion from the franchise prevented them “from making an effective protest at the Ballot Box”. Nellie Keenan was the first Treasurer of the union and later became Secretary.

Eva was in demand as a speaker, addressing the May Day demonstration in Gorton Park in May 1902 and a meeting in the Secular Hall, Rusholme later that same month on “The Industrial Position of Women”. In 1903 Eva became the WTUC representative on the Education Committee of the City Council and was later appointed onto the Technical Instruction Committee.

Christabel Pankhurst became friends with Eva and Esther in 1901 and was swiftly drawn into their activities, joining Eva’s poetry circle at the University Settlement, going on the Women’s Trade Union Council, speaking at a number of meetings on the suffrage question and accompanying the two women on holiday to Venice. Her sister Sylvia recalled that at this time Christabel adored Eva “and when Eva suffered from neuralgia, as often happened, she would sit with her for hours, massaging her head. To all of us at home, this seemed remarkable indeed, for Christabel had never been willing to act as the nurse to any other human being”. At Esther’s suggestion Christabel began studying law at the University of Manchester, graduating in 1906 with first class honours. According to Sylvia, Mrs Pankhurst was quite jealous of the time that Christabel spent with Esther and Eva.

In 1904 Eva and Sarah resigned from their posts with the Women’s Trades Union Council in protest at its refusal to support the campaign for women’s suffrage. The issue had been raised by Christabel Pankhurst, who called for the Council to adopt women’s suffrage as a fourth aim. This was rejected by a large majority on the Council on the grounds that “its special work, for which alone its subscribers’ money was asked, was the organisation of women’s labour, and that the advocacy of Women’s Suffrage, however desirable in itself, was outside its scope as a body”. By now passionately committed to the suffrage campaign Eva and Sarah felt that they had no other option but to resign their jobs with the Trades Council.

They did not abandon their work on unionising women workers, however, but immediately set up a new organisation – the Manchester & Salford Women Trades & Labour Council – in September 1904 with Eva and Sarah as Joint Secretaries and with offices at 5 John Dalton Street. According to Esther the next ten years “were full to overflowing with organisation, writing, speaking at large gathering in all parts of England, deputations to Cabinet Ministers and to Members of Parliament. To this was added a new activity, when well-meant and ill-meant efforts were made to restrict women’s labour in various fields. On different occasions, women pit-brow workers, barmaids, women acrobats and gymnasts, and women florists were successfully organized in their own defence.”

Many of the trade unions that the two women had helped to set up withdrew from the Council in their support along with their two thousand members, including the power loom weavers, tailoresses, bookbinders and others. They continued their hard work and by 1907 Sarah Dickenson was able to tell a conference of women workers in Manchester that they now had four thousand affiliated members. Nellie Keenan acted as Treasurer of the new body, which no longer had access to the wealthy Liberal sympathisers of before. Instead they received contributions from local labour and socialist organisations including the Manchester branch of the National Union of Clerks, the Women’s Co-operative Guild, the National Clarion Cycling Club and the Nelson Labour Representation Committee (Eva’s brother Josslyn Gore-Booth contributed a much needed sum of five pounds each year).

Their success enabled them to start a quarterly newspaper called The Women’s Labour News which gave a full account of all the industrial and political activities of the women’s trade unions. In her editorial in the first issue Eva wrote thus.

“Many are the difficult questions connected with labour, many are the misunderstandings and confusions, many are the obscure corners of the industrial world, and many are the wrongs done in the darkness. Those who are working for the betterment of political and industrial conditions of women have great need of fellowship, of coherency and fee discussion, and the ventilation of pressing grievances. The aim of this little paper is to light a few street lamps here and there in the darkest ways, to let us at all events see one another’s faces and recognise our comrades, and work together with strong, organised and enlightened effort for the uplighting of those who suffer most under the present political and industrial system.”

An important campaign waged by Eva and Esther was in defence of women’s right to work. Many men (and some women) – including some leading trade unionists and socialists – believed in the notion that men should be paid enough to support a wife and family, and that in an ideal society married women would not have to work. When David Shackleton, , Secretary of the Darwen weavers, publicly supported this view, Eva wrote a pamphlet entitled Women’s Right to Work, which pointed out how he represented 74,000 married women workers in the cotton industry. When there were an attempt to prevent bar-maids from working Eva and Esther used the occasion of a by-election in Manchester in which Winston Churchill was standing to raise the issue. Eva’s sister Constance came over from Ireland and attracted publicity in a characteristic manner, as the Manchester Guardian reported in April 1908:

“A coach of the olden times was driven about Manchester yesterday to advertise the political agitation on behalf of the barmaids. It was drawn by four white horses, and the ‘whip’ was the Countess Markievicz, sister of Eva Gore-Booth. In all parts of the city the coach and its passengers excited general interest, and in the North-West division especially, the cause of the barmaids was made known not only by demonstration, but by speeches and personal interviews and distribution of literature.”

Eva and Esther also campaigned over the working conditions of other women workers, such as florists’ assistants and the pit-brow women, who worked on the surface at the head of mines in Lancashire sorting the coal. They wore a distinctive working garb of wide trousers and headscarves and wielded shovels with great manual dexterity. In 1911, when parliament threatened to ban women from the work, Eva and Esther organised protest meetings in Wigan and Manchester and made sure that the pit-brow women were on the platform.

Literature and Education

Somehow Eva found time in her busy life to write poetry and plays and a number of collections of her work were published during the lifetime. Some of her poems were set to music by her friend Max Mayer, a Manchester composer, while two others – The Triumph of Maeve and Forth They Went – were set to music after her death by the composer Edgar Bainton. Her work was also included in a collection made by her friend AE in 1904 called New Songs, appearing alongside poems Padraic Colum, Alice Milligan and others. Her interest in literature and poetry led Eva to become involved in the University Settlement, based in Ancoats Hall, Every Street, where Esther was already on the Committee. The Settlement had been founded in 1895, inspired by the work of Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, with the aim of bringing culture into the bleak industrial district of Ancoats. Eva passed on her love of literature to local working class women and after her death one of them Louisa Smith lovingly recalled those classes:

“We were a class of about sixteen girls. I think we were all machinists and we were rough…..We called ourselves the Elizabethan Society because we had no scenery: as we said among ourselves, we had no assets, but we enjoyed every minute of the rehearsals. We were very raw material but keen on acting; she showed such patience and love that we would do anything to please her and she got the best out of us. After rehearsals we would give a show of our own, an imitation of what we had seen or imagined. If any of us were feeling seedy or worried about business or home she could always see, and showed such an understanding sympathy that we came away feeling we had a real friend. I remember one of the girls was very delicate and truly not really fit to fight the battles of life, and Miss Gore-Booth cared for her and sent her little delicacies, and took her to her own doctor, and in a hundred and one ways she cared for us We thought she was a being from another world. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say we worshipped her, but she never knew it, she was so utterly selfless….She took us on picnics, and they seemed to be different picnics from any I had ever been to, so jolly and free, no restraint about them. She was also very keen on women’s rights and trade unions. She persuaded me to join…She was always sympathetic with the downtrodden, and worked and lectured might and main, interviewing Members of Parliament, etc., on their behalf till conditions were mended. She was very frail and delicate herself, but full of pluck and determination, and would stand up for people she knew to be unjustly treated, even though the world was against them, and with all so sweet and gentle that one could not help loving her.”

In November 1902 a well-attended meeting of theTailoresses Union was held in the Shamrock Hall, Rochdale Road (lent by the United Irish League) where the entertainment was provided by the Elizabethan Society and a Miss Dora Villey, who played the piano for dancing. Eva also ran a fortnightly Sunday morning reading class for a number of years at 78 Canning Street for the Ancoats Brotherhood, an educational organisation which for many years held lectures, music evenings, art appreciation and literature classes and much else in the New Islington Hall, Ancoats.

The Suffrage Campaign

In Lancashire many women worked in the cotton industry and were members of the weavers unions (though despite the fact the majority of the members were women, the officers of the union were always men). Able to earn their own living in the great weaving sheds of the north, these women provided a solid base of support for campaigns to give them political as well as industrial rights. Esther and other women political campaigners such as Sarah Reddish, Selina Cooper and Sarah Dickenson saw the vital importance of linking the struggles for women’s right to vote with the struggle for better working and social conditions, of convincing working class women that the vote was not an end in itself but a means to an end.

On 1st May 1900 they launched a petition at the May Day meeting in Blackburn, asking women textile workers to sign, and then sent out organisers to contact every group of women workers they could find in every town in Lancashire. Accompanied by fifteen women cotton workers the petition was finally presented to parliament on 19th March 1901 with nearly 30,000 signatures. The following year the women presented another petition from Yorkshire and Cheshire and in the summer of 1903 the suffrage campaigners set up the Lancashire and Cheshire Women Textile and Other Workers’ Representation Committee (LCWTOWRC) with an office at 5 John Dalton Street (where they were joined a year later by the secessionist Women’s Trades and Labour Council). Bertha Mason wrote of their efforts thus:

“It was the appearance on the scene of action of this new and important force (women textile workers) , the organizing of which was carried out by Miss Esther Roper, Miss Gore-Booth, and Miss Reddish, herself at one time a textile worker, which was chiefly responsible for the wonderful revival of interest in the question of the enfranchisement of women which marked the early years of 1900. There can be no doubt that this active and enthusiastic demand on the part of great army of women who earn their bread by ‘the sweat of their brow’, and not merely their own bread but in many cases the bread of relatives dependent on them, made a deep impression on Parliament, and caused many who had hitherto treated the agitation as an ‘impracticable fad’ and ‘the fantastic crochet’ of a few rich and well-to-do women, to inquire seriously into the why and wherefore of the movement.”

The manifesto of the LCWTOWR, published in July 1904, explicitly linked class and suffrage and noted the way that the male labour movement had formed the Labour Representation Committee to secure a political voice, leading to the conclusion that women should do the same.

“Fellow Workers – During the last few years the need of political power for the defence of the workers has been felt by every section of the labour world. Among the men the growing sense of of the importance of this question has resulted in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee with the object of gaining direct Parliamentary Representation for the already enfranchised working men. Meanwhile the position of the disenfranchised working women, who are by their voteless condition shut out from all political influence, is becoming daily more precarious. They cannot hope to hold their own in industrial matters, where their interests may clash with those of their enfranchised fellow-workers or employers.
The one all-absorbing and vital political question for labouring women is to force an entrance into the ranks of responsible citizens, in whose hands lie the solution of the problems which are at present convulsing the industrial world.
In view of the complicated state of modern politics, and the mass of conflicting interests, the conclusion has been forced on those of the textile workers who have been working unceasingly in past years to secure the vote for women, that what is urgently needed is that they should send their own nominee to the House of Commons, pledged to work in season and out of season to secure the enfranchisement of the women workers of the country……What Lancashire and Cheshire women think today England will do to-morrow.”

The women extended the campaign, speaking to local trade union branches, helping to establish local suffrage societies and getting support from the Labour Representation Committees. Almost all their efforts were now directed towards working class women. As Eva wrote in her contribution to a book on suffrage, “Surely the working women of England have paid the price of political emancipation over and over again! It is no mere insignificant statistical fact that that these millions of workers live laborious days of poverty-stricken and upright independence, and produce by their labour so large a proportion of the material wealth of the country. Here is a force that must in the end be reckoned with.”

Another tactic adopted by the women was to make suffrage an issue in parliamentary elections where Labour candidates were standing. In the summer of 1902 David Shackleton stood for parliament in a by-election at Clitheroe. Eva wrote to the Manchester Guardian, pointing out that women weavers were paying into a fund to support their MP (MPs received no payment at this time) and yet had no vote themselves. The women organised a number of successful meetings during the campaign. This tactic was repeated in the campaign to support the Labour candidate Thorley Smith in Wigan in 1906 and many women went to the town to speak. He came second to the Tory candidate. In January 1910 the committee ran a campaign during the general election in Rossendale, but with much less success.

After 1904 Christabel moved away from Eva and Esther, engaging in increasingly bitter attacks on the Labour party for its slowness in supporting the demands of women. Instead she moved towards the Women’s Social Political and Union, a small grouping of ILP women that had been established at a meeting in Mrs Pankhurst house in Nelson Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock (now the Pankhurst Centre) on 10th October 1903. Few took much notice of the WSPU until 13th October 1905 when Christabel and a mill girl named Annie Kenney attended a meeting at the Free Trade Hall to be addressed by Winston Churchill MP and Sir Edward Grey MP, two prominent members of the Liberal Party and future Cabinet members. At the end of the meeting Christabel and Annie jumped up and shouted ‘Will the Liberal Government give votes to women?’ whilst unfurling a banner inscribed “Votes for Women”. After being hustled out Christabel got them both arrested by spitting at a policeman and they spent in a week in Strangeways.

The WSPU seized on the incident, organising a protest meetings in Stevenson Square and rallying support from the ILP and other socialist organisations. A large crowd of friends and supporters greeted the two women on their release, including Esther and Eva who presented Christabel with flowers and also added their names to the list of sponsors for a protest meeting to be held the following evening, ironically, at the Free Trade Hall. Christabel and Annie spoke as did Keir Hardie, who moved a motion condemning the behaviour of the Liberal party at the meeting the previous week. Eva seconded the motion. It was perhaps the last time that Eva agreed with Christabel’s actions. A few weeks later she caught hold of Teresa Billington, a leading member of WSPU, after a meeting and urged her to tell Christabel not to vary her defence from one meeting to another. “….she cannot fit her explanation to her audience. She either deliberately invited imprisonment or she was a victim; she either spat at the policeman or she did not. She can’t tell one tale in Manchester and another in Oldham”.

In May 1906 Eva, alongside Sarah Dickenson, Margaret Ashton, Emmeline Pankhurst and other women prominent in the suffrage movement, was one of delegation which met the new Liberal Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman. In her speech Eva stressed the economic contribution of women on behalf of the fifty working women who had come to London with them from Lancashire:

“The number of women who are engaged at this time in producing the wealth of this country is double the population of Ireland. It is very large number. These women are all labouring under the gross disability and industrial disadvantage of an absolute want of political power. Every day we live this becomes a more grave disadvantage, because industrial questions are becoming political questions which are being fought out in Parliament. The vast number of women workers have their point of view and their interest to be considered; but those interests are not considered and the whole effect of their crushing exclusion is to react on the question of their wages. I am a trade union secretary in Manchester, and know from personal experience what women’s wages are and the sort of money they get for their work. Six or seven shillings a week is not a sufficient sum of money to live on. This not the rate of wages that could be possibly be enforced upon the enfranchised citizens of a free country. We feel, and I think women in other classes, who are working, also feel that our industrial status is being brought down. It results from the fact that we have no political power. That is the lesson which the working women of Lancashire have learned, and that is the thought they want to bring before you and want you to consider.”

To the bitter disappointment of the women Campbell-Bannerman refused to move on the issue and in response the WSPU adopted increasingly militant tactics, beginning with attempts to ‘rush’ Parliament, chaining themselves to railings, smashing windows and eventually even committing arson, burning postboxes and even churches. The ‘suffragettes’ as they had now became known were often brutally treated by the police on demonstrations and when they were imprisoned went on hunger-strike. The prison authorities, backed by the Home Secretary, retaliated by force-feeding them, a shocking and violent physical assault which sometimes damaged the health of women and led to wide-spread criticism of the government by many who were not sympathetic to the tactics of the WSPU.

The northern suffragists felt alienated by the WSPU campaign and continued to work steadily away at their campaign amongst working class women, gathering increased support and eventually winning over the Labour party to their position. In contrast the WSPU severed its links with the Socialist movement, lost all interest in serious organizing amongst working-class women, and indeed Sylvia Pankhurst was disowned by her mother and sister for continuing to work and organise amongst working class women in the East End.

The dismay of the northern suffragists at the tactics of the WSPU were set out by Eva in a letter to Mrs Fawcett, the most prominent constitutional campaigner, in the autumn of 1906:

“There is no class in the community who has such good reasons for objecting and does so strongly object to shrieking and throwing yourself on the floor and struggling and kicking as the average working woman, whose dignity is very real to them. We feel we must tell you this as we are in great difficulties because our members in all parts of the country are so outraged at the idea of taking part in such proceedings that everywhere for the first time they are shrinking from public demonstrations. It is not the fact of demonstration or even the violence offered to them, it is being mixed up with and held accountable as a class for educated and upper class women, who kick, shriek, bite and spit. As far as importance in the eyes of the Government goes where shall we be if the working women do not support us?”

In June 1908 Eva, her sister Constance, Esther and Sarah Reddish went down to London for a large rally organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Eva told the crowd of several thousand in Trafalgar Square that five million women were working in Britain who were not paid properly for the work that they did, many receiving half the male wage. Constance got the crowd cheering by declaring that “they cannot abolish woman, take away her occupation, and let her starve…We are told that the bar is a bad place for women, but the Thames Embankment is far worse”.

After Manchester

In her memoir Esther Roper records that in 1913 “illness, caused by the climate of Lancashire, made it impossible for us to live there any longer, and reluctantly we left our many friends and went south, though we came back constantly for work”. Not just the soot-filled damp air but surely years of long hours, travel and snatched meals must have taken its toll on the health of both women. In London they took up residence in Hampstead at 14 Frognal Gardens. There was to be no peaceful retirement for Eva and Esther for they were soon caught up in the enormity of the First World War and then the bloody events of the Easter Rising and its aftermath

When the war broke out they opposed it as pacifists as did many of their suffragist and socialist friends, some of whom were active in organisations such the No Conscription Fellowship and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Eva wrote a short story called The Tribunal (which was printed as a leaflet) in which she dramatises the experience of conscientious objectors when arguing for their beliefs before hostile magistrates. In 1915 the two women joined the Womens’ Peace crusade and travelled the country speaking in support of a negotiated peace to end the war. These were very brave actions given the climate of jingoism and anti-German hysteria whipped up by the government and the “patriotic” press.

Constance had followed a very different political path to Eva, joining Sinn Fein in 1908 and setting up the Fianna na hEireann in 1909 as an Irish alternative to the pro-Imperialist Boy Scouts recently established by Baden-Powell. She was an expert shot who in turn taught her young men how to shoot and many of them later took part in the Easter Rising. During the 1913 Dublin Lockout Constance ran soup kitchens to help feed thousands of strikers. During the Rising in 1916 Constance was second in command at St Stephen’s Green and was sentenced to death, though it was commuted to life imprisonment. Eva was granted permission to see her and crossed to Dublin with Esther. On the day they landed they saw newspaper placards announcing the execution that morning of James Connolly. They had been warned not to tell Constance but she guessed from their faces. Writing in Socialist Review a few weeks later Eva said that the rebellion has been a blow to all those who had hoped for a lessening of the hostility between England and Ireland:

“But the severity with which the rebellion was crushed was, many of us believe, a far worse blow. England had her opportunity, an opportunity of treating the Irish rising as De Wet’s rising was treated in South Africa. The rising was crushed, her enemies were at her feet. What a glorious opportunity for killing with clemency the old tradition of hatred and the memory pf the atrocities of ’98 that have festered so long in the imaginations of the Irish people. By some malign fate, as ever England showed her hardest side in her dealings with Ireland. Those irresponsible and extraneous shootings and horrors which seem to be inseparable from the advance of a conquering army were not enough. Fourteen deliberate executions of men widely known and admired were carried out under heart-rending circumstances. And thus Ireland’s old tradition of defiance and hatred gets a new lease of life….”

Constance was moved without warning to England but Esther, usually the more down-to-earth one, had a premonition one late afternoon and they set off to meet the Irish Mail, where Eva found Constance being escorted under armed guard to Aylesbury Gaol. They wrote to each other daily and the letters that survived were eventually published. Constance was let out of prison under an amnesty declared by the British government in June 1917 and returned to Ireland where she became even more involved what was now an Irish revolution. She was the first woman elected to British parliament in December 1918, but along with the rest of Sinn Fein did not go to London to take her seat, sitting in the Dail in Dublin instead. Constance was made Minister for Labour in the revolutionary government.

Eva also gave support to Roger Casement who was tried for treason for his part in the Rising, attending court every day and trying in vain, along with others, to prevent his execution which took place on 3rd August 1916. Many of her poems written at this time reflected the sorrow she and others were suffering in the wake of the Rising and the executions and repression that followed and were published in 1918 under the title Broken Glory, dedicated to Roger Casemnet. In “Easter Week” she wrote thus:

Grief for the noble dead
Of one who did not share their strife
And mourned that any blood was shed
Yet felt the broken glory of their state
Their strange heroic questioning of Fate
Ribbon with gold the rags of this our life.

Last Years

By 1920 Eva and Esther’s work during the war and the trauma of the Rising and War of independence had greatly affected their health, with Eva remaining a semi-invalid for the last years of her life. The two women spent much time travelling in Italy. Always inclined to mysticism Eva became very interested in theosophy, though she still followed affairs in Ireland closely. On 1st July 1921 a letter written jointly by Eva and Clare Annesley appeared in the Manchester Guardian, drawing attention to the fact that a man called Patrick Casey had been condemned to death by a military court for possessing arms and 13 rounds of ammunition. They called on the government to intervene. “If there is to be any chance of peace with Ireland all executions must stop”.

On 10th January 1923 the Manchester Evening Chronicle reported that Eva had refused to do jury service, stating that religion meant to her the determination to avoid punishing or hurting anybody, what ever they might have done. Her pacifist views remained undiminished. “It is absolutely impossible for me to take part in any proceedings which would, under any circumstances, involve me in any share, however small, in inflicting punishment on any human being. For many years I myself have held the opinion that it would be wrong for me to appeal to law for any problem to myself or to take part in passing judgement on anybody else. I, therefore, could not conscientiously sit on a jury.”

Eva continued to write and publish poetry and took up the study of Greek in the last year of her life. She died at home on 30 June 1926 at her home in Hampstead. Her sister Constance followed her the following year. A complete collection of Eva’s poems, together with a biographical introduction by Esther, was published in 1929 and that same year in June Esther unveiled a beautiful memorial window to Eva in the Round House, Ancoats, sadly long since demolished and the window lost. Esther herself died in April 1938 and was buried in the same grave as Eva in the nearby St John’s churchyard.

Sources

‘Women and The Suffrage A Reply To Lady Lovat and Mrs. Humphry Ward’, by Eva Gore-Booth, The Nineteenth Century and After, September 1908

‘The Sinn Fein Rebellion’ by Eva Gore-Booth, Socialist Review, August-September 1916

‘Eva Gore-Booth, Poet, Pacifist and Lover of Humanity’ by R M Fox, Millgate Monthly, September 1926

Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper by Gifford Lewis (1988)

One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement by Jill Liddington and Jill Norris (1978)

‘Miss Eva Gore-Booth’ by J J Mallon, The Woman Worker, 4th September 1908

Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Council, annual reports

Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades and Labour Council, annual reports

‘“If I Could Lose Myself’; Poetic Displacement and Irish-English Literary Politics’, paper on Eva Gore-Booth given by Alyssa J O’Brien at New Modernisms conference, Philadelphia, October 2000.

The Suffragette Movement, An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals by E Sylvia Pankhurst, preface by Dr Richard Pankhhurst (1977 edition)

The Case for Women’s Suffrage edited by Brougham Villiers (1907)

Collected Poems of Eva Gore-Booth, Complete edition and a biographical introduction by Esther Roper (1929)

Article by Michael Herbert