Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy: Manchester’s Free Love Advocate and Secular Feminist

As an advocate of ‘free love’, a pacifist and more controversially a secularist, the Victorian feminist Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy did not exactly lead a conventional life. Born in Eccles in 1833 and self-educated, she went on to become a significant pioneer of the British women’s emancipation movement. She was at the heart of almost every Victorian feminist campaign ranging from the demand for better education, the right to vote and the rights of prostitutes to the sensitive issue of marital rape.

Unfortunately, her rather forthright nature as well as the scandal surrounding her pregnancy out of wedlock meant that she was marginalised in official histories. In accounts by the Pankhurst family, she is unfairly portrayed as a bad mother, a scandalous ‘free love’ secularist; her partner Ben Elmy is painted as a cruel and unfaithful man. Maureen Wright, who teaches history at the University of Portsmouth, wanted to challenge that misrepresentation with a more balanced look at Wolstenholme-Elmy’s life.

In her book Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist Movement – The biography of an insurgent woman, Wright portrays the complex and also contradictory nature of her subject. The book is broken down into eight chapters which chart Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy’s life from her birth to her death at the age of 84 in March 1918 – just days after hearing the good news that women had been granted the right to vote. Arwa Aburawa interviewed Maureen Wright for Manchester Radical History.

Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy was born in Eccles, Salford in December 1833. Can you tell a little about her early experiences and how they help shape her activism around education and universal suffrage?

Maureen Wright: Although born in Eccles, Elizabeth’s father Joseph Wolstenholme was an Independent Methodist Minister and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of Richard and Mary Clarke of Roe Green, Salford. By the time Miss Wolstenholme was 12 she had lost both her parents. Her mother had died when she was little more than a week old and her father died in 1845. At that time Elizabeth and her brother, Joseph Jnr., became the wards of their maternal Uncle, George Clarke of Worsley. While Joseph Jnr, aged 17, became a student of mathematics at St John’s College, Cambridge, Elizabeth’s two years of secondary education drew to a close when she was just 16, her Uncle having declared that by then she had ‘learnt everything it was necessary for a woman to know’.

But Elizabeth defied her guardian and studied privately, preparing herself to be a governess and, latterly, headmistress of her own girls’ school. She had no desire to remain in the domestic realm. She placed her commitment to feminism from the moment when, acting as a bridesmaid aged 17, she fully realised what marriage meant for women – a “lifelong sentence of pauperism and dependence” with no control over their actions or autonomy over their own bodies.

Elizabeth’s political commitment was to liberal ideals. She was brought up in the environment of the ‘Manchester Radicals’ – namely the group of Quaker-inspired activists gathered around Richard Cobden and John Bright and others who had led the anti-Corn Law movement in the city. She believed wholeheartedly in the rights of the individual. For her, votes for women was a simple matter of women receiving the vote ‘on the same terms as it is, or shall be, granted to men’ – for it must be remembered that, at this time, it was property, not individuality, that enabled men to claim citizenship. When she placed her signature on the petition for women’s suffrage in 1866 Elizabeth was asking not for special treatment for women, but equal treatment or “justice”.

Although Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy was part of a quite a small groups of women emancipators working in the nineteenth century, she never really got much recognition for her work. Why do you think that was?

Two of the earliest significant histories of British women’s suffragism were written by Ray Strachey and E. Sylvia Pankhurst. Strachey’s book, The Cause, (1928) told the story from the point of view of the ‘constitutional’ suffragists – those women who did not support the militancy of the suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Wolstenholme Elmy’s opinion of these activists was not always complimentary as she believed that their commitment to ‘the cause’ was not total. Many were content, she believed, “to give their name” to the movement without engaging sacrificially to its work. Elizabeth’s somewhat scandalous private life caused her to be criticised by many among this more conservative group, and thus she received only a couple of mentions in Strachey’s work.

The other significant book, The Suffragette Movement, (1931) was written by Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter, Sylvia. While Pankhurst did acknowledge Elizabeth’s significant contribution to the early years of women’s suffragism from the 1860s, she clearly wanted to place her mother and her father (the “Red Doctor”, socialist lawyer Richard Marsden Pankhurst) in the premier roles. Elizabeth was, therefore, marginalised and damned with faint praise as an overworked woman and an ‘instrument in the grasp of progress’ – her small physical frame likened to that of a ‘Jenny Wren’. Subsequent scholars failed to realise her significance to the movement until the 1980s when revisionist scholars began to uncover the extent of her contribution. My biography is the first full-length narrative of Elizabeth’s life, some 30 years after the first call was made for it to be written!

Elizabeth’s early passion was education for women. Tell us a little about how that emerged and the role Manchester played in her development as a campaigner.

When Elizabeth returned to Worsley in 1854 from undertaking two years work as a governess in Bedfordshire it was to inherit a ‘small capital’ on her 21st birthday. Her guardian, who, remember, had advised her against undertaking higher education herself, now suggested that she invest her money in the establishment of a boarding school for middle-class girls. Elizabeth established precisely such a school, at The Grange in Boothstown Road, which catered for between 12-16 teenage pupils. In the spring of 1867 she moved her school to Moody Hall, a substantial Georgian residence in the town of Congleton where she continued in her role of Headmistress for another 4 years. Before her move to Cheshire Elizabeth founded the Manchester Schoolmistresses Association in 1865, and her pupils were among the first to sit the Cambridge Local Examination.

In 1866, Elizabeth had travelled to London to testify before the Royal Commission into Education – known as the Taunton Commission. She was one of the first women in the country to undertake such a role, but did not appear at all daunted at the prospect. If one reads the transcript of her evidence, it’s obvious that her answers were given in a clear and direct manner. As she tells of her work at The Grange, it’s clear too that the curriculum she taught was not one only of female “accomplishments” (such as singing, dancing and drawing) but included political economy, mathematics and other skills thought to be to ‘masculine’ in nature for a girls’ school. Elizabeth sought to fit her girls for not only the world of marriage and motherhood, but for the world of work, and many of them went on to become Headmistresses of schools.

It became increasingly difficult, however, at this time for Elizabeth to continue her career. This was because she was turning against the Christian faith – the teaching of which was, of course, a core element in the Victorian curriculum. The loss of her faith caused Elizabeth deep personal pain and unhappiness and ultimately she couldn’t force herself against her conscience to teach something in which she no longer believed. Thus she abandoned Moody Hall for a new life as the first professional employee of the women’s emancipation movement.

From around 1870, EWE’s role as a feminist took precedence over her vocation in education. What were the major campaigns she worked on and what long-term influence did she have?

Before her move to Congleton, Elizabeth had been active in many areas of female emancipation in Manchester. These included: The Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the Manchester Branch of the Society for the Employment of Women and the Northern Counties League for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. She was a founder member of the Married Women’s Property Committee (MWPC), established in the winter of 1867/8 to campaign for the rights of women in marriage. She was to be its Secretary until the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act, 1882. In addition, she was an Executive Committee member of the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (LNA) from 1870.

Her paid work however (from 1871-74) was as Secretary of the Vigilance Association for the Defence of Personal Rights (VADPR). She was based in London and she termed her work as being as a ‘scrutinizer’ of parliamentary practice – for which her salary was the princely sum of £300 per annum. So effective a political lobbyist did she prove that MPs gave her a nickname – the ‘parliamentary watch-dog’ – and, upon seeing her tiny figure approaching them along the corridors of power, many of the country’s greatest would quake in fear. Elizabeth’s tenacity shines through here. She was a life-long advocate of “small government”, in which the individual’s personal right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ should be as free from government intervention as possible.

The ‘New’ Liberalism of the late-nineteenth century, with its increased emphasis on regulating public behaviour through legislation, was anathema to her. Elizabeth worked tirelessly and travelled extensively to promote the organisation’s objective of an equal right to live in a just society. She published copious reports, minutes, pamphlets and articles and Elizabeth continued her labours in other areas. She was, for example, a Committee member of the Central Committee of the National Society of Women’s Suffrage and remained strongly committed to the work of both the LNA and the MWPC. In fact, one begins to wonder how she ever found enough hours in her day!

One radical aspect of Elizabeth WE is that she was secularist and an advocate of ‘free love’. This was quite hard for many of her colleagues to deal with and was particularly problematic when she got pregnant. Was she perceived as too radical in some ways?

It was when Elizabeth was headmistress of Moody Hall School in Congleton she met the man who would become her life-long companion. Benjamin Elmy was from a Suffolk family, he owned three silk-crepe mills in Congleton but his avowed secularism was always a matter of concern for the town’s civic leaders. One of the most divisive issues was the charge that secularists advocated ‘free love’ (living together un-wed), something which undermined the rigid moral structures of mid-Victorian society.

The couple undertook a ‘commitment’ ceremony in the spring of 1874, making solemn vows to one another before witnesses. But when this and Elizabeth’s subsequent pregnancy became known more widely, there was general outrage and condemnation within their circle of friends. Despite her expressed wish that her marriage (with took place under some duress in October 1874 in London) should have no effect upon her work for women, the opposite was true and the couple were forced to retire from public life for a short period. Elizabeth did however continue her Secretary’s role with the MWPC, working ‘underground’ and unacknowledged in the organisation’s reports for another six years – until her ‘rehabilitation’ in 1880.

Those of Elizabeth’s colleagues who knew of her secularism were prepared to turn a ‘blind eye’ to it before her pregnancy – one reason being that they knew her work was exemplary and her shoes would be difficult to fill. However, the immanent arrival of her son Frank proved to be the catalyst that changed attitudes towards her.

Lydia Becker (a close friend and confidante of Elizabeth’s since 1867) demanded at one meeting that the Registers at Kensington be searched to confirm that the October wedding had taken place. Another close friend since 1866, the physically frail Josephine Butler, recorded in a letter from her sickbed that she wished she had ‘never heard of such people as the Elmys’. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, never especially close to Elizabeth, chastised her with the fact that she had brought the women’s movement into disrepute. For Elizabeth the hurt of their rejection of friends was so great that she retired to Congleton for the birth ‘wishing never to be spoken of again’. Obviously, her resolve on this matter did not last long.

Although Elizabeth WE preferred to work outside party politics (apart from her support for the Independent Labour Party), there were political movements and figures which influenced her. Could you talk us through the main players which informed her political consciousness?

Elizabeth believed that party politics ‘ruined work’, as it caused divisions and factionalism where there should be a united desire to improve life for all. The bedrock of this belief, I believe, came from the Quaker influences of her early life. She was a lifelong pacifist, a cause to which she held true even throughout the jingoism of the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War. The family refused, in 1902, to join in the celebrations in Congleton Park after peace was restored and although there are no first-hand sources to confirm or deny this, I feel sure Elizabeth’s reaction to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 would have been one of complete horror.

Though of radical-Liberal heritage, Elizabeth found William E. Gladstone, three times PM of the United Kingdom, a trial. She believed he was the biggest stumbling block to women’s freedom, as he was known to use his veto as Prime Minister to prevent the passage of women’s suffrage bills through parliament. Elizabeth herself became a member of the Manchester Central Branch of the ILP in 1905 but her commitment to socialism in its strictest sense was never total, unlike that of her husband, who she wrote of as being an ‘ardent socialist’ until his death in March 1906.

The truth about Elizabeth’s politics is that she was, first and last, a humanitarian and she was not above using any party-political machinery she could to promote her work. As secretary of the Women’s Emancipation Union from 1891-99 she had as much contact with the labour movement’s Women’s Co-operative Guild and Trades’ Unions as she did with the Conservative’s Primrose Dames, using these and many other organisations to promote feminist views and propaganda.

The decision in 1909 to force feed the militants of the WSPU was seen by Elizabeth as ‘state torture’ – even though she condemned the actions of the women themselves, which grew increasingly more violent after 1912. She berated them for their antics of window smashing, axe throwing and arson for, she wrote, “how could they be certain not to hurt the innocent?” From that moment on (and bear in mind she was almost 80 years old) she continued her campaigning as a ‘non-militant’ – even leading the NUWSS procession into her home town of Congleton in 1913. By now, as an octogenarian, she had earned the respect even of her former critics.

One of the controversial topics which Elizabeth WE spoke about was marital rape- indeed she was the first woman to speak on the issue in a public platform. Why did she feel so strongly about this issue?

Elizabeth’s abhorrence of marital rape became clear in 1880, when she stood on the platform of the London Dialectical Society to declare her desire to see the practice criminalised. Her opposition was in part built on personal reasons and a desire to see a legal inequality quashed.
Wives were often beaten or starved for non-compliance or, as evidence from one notable legal case of 1891 shows, imprisoned against their will. Elizabeth saw the crime of marital rape as one common to women of all classes, and thus a cause of unity. At a moment when even polite society was concerned with the ever-increasing rise in sexually transmitted diseases she found a receptive audience, in some quarters, for her views.

That is not to say her path in this regard was an easy one; far from it, for she found herself apologising to her 1880 audience for speaking, as a woman, on so ‘delicate’ an issue in public. Of all the disadvantages married women faced Elizabeth believed this ‘sex slavery’, as she termed, it to be the worst. For all her efforts, Elizabeth did not see a law passed against it in her lifetime – in fact this did not pass the Statute Book until 1991.

Reading through some of the exchanges and letters of Elizabeth WE it’s clear that whilst she was hard to work with at times, people respected her and her work for the feminist movement deeply. One example of this, is the financial support she received after the death of her husband.

Ben Elmy’s firm was a victim of the textile recession in north-west England in the late-1880s and was sold at a significant loss. After his death, Elizabeth and her son Frank had little more than their house and the £52 a year Frank earned as a local council rate collector. What saved them financially was the assistance of Elizabeth’s colleagues, led by Harriet McIlquham along with Frances Rowe and Louisa Martindale. These women could see beyond the sometimes acerbic exterior to the woman beneath and, to ease her material burdens, established the ‘Grateful Fund’ in the mid-1890s, which provided an income for the Elmys of £1.00 per week. The ‘Grateful Fund’ and, latterly, a Testimonial organised in 1910 by (among others) Lady Constance Lytton and Emmeline Pankhurst, provided for her care in the final years of her life.

Sometimes, as Elizabeth’s letters show, the money kept the family from real poverty – although she only accepted it on the grounds that it let her work continue. The reality is that as many as found Elizabeth difficult found her vulnerable, and they loved her with real devotion and commitment, understanding that she worked from pure, selfless motives. Elizabeth’s significant collections of letters and other documents, which form the documentary base for the biography, are wonderful resources and they tell many times of her gratefulness to her benefactors. Often written late at night, after she had completed a full day of domestic and political work, her letters to Harriet McIlquham are full of love and tender concern.

Also, albeit infrequently, they show what one eminent historian has referred to as ‘bile and vitriol’, spiteful commentaries regarding colleagues who, Elizabeth believes, have fallen from the true, selfless, feminist path. Particular targets of criticism include Florence Fenwick Miller, Ursula Bright (sister-in-law of John Bright), Millicent Garrett Fawcett and the leadership of the NUWSS. It is true that some of these letters can be read as being excessively critical of some of her colleagues, but the context in which she wrote them is important – particularly when she was under severe strain following Ben Elmy’s business failure in 1888. The fact that she was herself working over 50 hours a week in the textile mill to try and save its fortunes, plus her ‘normal’ domestic duties and feminist campaigning, perhaps makes her somewhat harsh style a little more understandable.

What do you think is the key aspect of EWE’s legacy?

Simply, her tenacity. Without her single-mindedness and untiring focus, I wonder just how successful Victorian feminists would have been in changing so many of the laws that repressed women in all circumstances of life. Elizabeth was foremost in campaigns which made it possible, for example, for working women to have a right to their own income; for separated wives to have increased rights of access to their children; and for the campaign for the vote to be rooted not in the possession of property but simply on grounds of individual autonomy. She died having achieving much of what she had set out to do. The parliamentary vote had been granted to women over thirty year of age (and to women University graduates) a mere six days before her death.

As I have written in the conclusion to the book, it is satisfying that she died at a moment of triumph in feminist history but she still would not have been content because the issue of ‘sex slavery’ had still not been resolved. Her true legacy though is that she never stalled in her objectives, no matter how ill or tired, no matter what her age or personal circumstances, she put all thoughts of self aside. Her place in history should be, perhaps, as one of England’s greatest humanitarians.

Title: Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist Movement – The biography of an insurgent woman
Author: Maureen Wright
Price: £65.00 (hardback)
Published: 2011
Publisher: Manchester University Press
ISBN: 978-0-7190-8109-5

Article by Arwa Aburawa

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Ellen Tooley and women’s rights in Eccles

On the November 1st 1933 Ellen Tooley made history by becoming the first woman councillor in Eccles. Although she wasn’t particularly fond of her new title as the first woman councillor in Eccles, she lived with it all her life and it no doubt it helped inspire many other women to play an active role in local politics.

Women in Eccles had been trying to get elected to the Eccles Town Hall without any success since 1919, yet in 1933 the town voted in two women councillors. Ellen Tooley was first to be announced as the winning candidate for the seat of Winton; literally minutes later, Mary Higgins was elected as the councillor for Barton. Veronica Trick, the granddaughter of Ellen Tooley, describes the night in an article titled The Power to get Things Changed! Ellen Tooley, Eccles’ First Woman Councillor:

“The teams counting their [Ellen Tooley and Mary Higgins] votes began to count as fast as they could, competing to be the first to count a woman councillor in. In spite of having 500 more votes to count than the other team, Ellen’s team finished first so that she became the first councillor for Winton just two or three minutes before Mary Higgins became the councillor for Barton. So it was purely because her team were faster one that my gran acquired her title.”

Veronica Trick, who published the journal on Ellen Tooley which forms the basis of this article, decided to find out more about her grandmother when she stumbled across newspaper cuttings and poll cards whilst sorting through her mother’s belongings. “When we were growing up my cousins and I were all very proud of our famous grandmother, Ellen Tooley, who was the first woman councillor for Eccles, although we had only the vaguest ideas about what that meant,” writes Trick. She decided to do some digging and what she discovered was that her grandmother had worked hard and overcome many obstacles to become Eccles’ first woman councillor.

Born into Poverty

Ellen Tooley was born in Plymouth in 1875/6 to a mother who was a laundress and an Irish father who was a private in the army. Her father was an Irish Republican sympathiser and his influence is credited with Ellen’s subsequent commitment to the Republican cause as well as her interest in politics. Despite a steady income, the family which consisted of five children must have been quite poor and this gave Ellen her first experience of poverty. At the age of 15 she was working as general domestic servant in Exeter, although an incident in which a small pile of money was left out by her employers – a common practice at the time to test the honesty of servants – angered her and she left in protest. At some point between 1891 and 1899, she ran away from home and came to the north.

Her father made several attempts to bring Ellen home but she resisted and finally settled down and married a widower named William Tooley who was a Protestant. As her father was a Catholic, this marriage was seen as the ultimate betrayal and he never spoke to Ellen again. Over the next ten years, Ellen had six children and they lived in various addresses in Ancoats and Greengate. Although her husband William was a skilled worker, the family struggled to make ends meet as William was fond of ‘The Demon Drink’ and would drink away his wages. Many of the houses they stayed in were appalling and the final house they lived in before moving to Eccles was a back-to-back house in Salford with a one upstairs room, one ground floor room and cellar. Twenty-six families had to share a row of six outdoor privy lavatories.

Influential Women in Eccles, Suffragettes and Co-op Guilds

The move to Eccles seemed to have marked a new period of stability and success in Ellen’s life. Their home was much bigger with its own garden and private lavatory and Ellen was inspired by other local women to get involved in local politics. Even so, Ellen never forgot her earlier experiences of poverty and she worked tirelessly to improve housing conditions and welfare provisions during her political career.

Although Eccles was, and remains, a small town there were many influential women who managed to make their mark on local politics and served as role models. Influential women from Eccles include Sofia Roe, who founded an orphanage on Green Lane in the 19th century and Kathleen Lyttleton, the wife of the Vicar of Eccles, who founded the Eccles Branch of the Co-operative Women’s Guild in 1895. Two women’s suffrage organisations- the non-militant North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage and the more militant Women’s Freedom League- also had local branches and their meetings were well attended by women in Eccles.

Ellen Tooley, who was five feet tall with red hair and a temperament to match, joined the Women’s Co-operative Guild and Independent Labour Party in 1916. The Independent Labour Party was strongly pacifist at the time and this suited Tooley’s anti-war stance. By 1918, her brother had been killed in the war and her husband and two sons were conscripted into the war effort. In fact Tooley’s first publically recorded speech was as one of the main speaker at an anti-war demonstration.

In 1919, the first women ever to stand for election in Eccles were Mary O’Kane and Louisa Mathews, who were both members of the Co-operative Guild. As Veronica Trick explains, the Co-operative Guild gave many working women an opportunity at education and also the confidence and skills they would need to succeed in local politics. Although both women candidates had failed to get elected, this didn’t stop other women from trying to influence local politics through other routes – namely local committees. The number of women on these local committees in Eccles went up from 9 in 1920 to 17 in 1925.

Local Committees, Working Class Women and Birth Control

Although women were increasingly present in local politics, working class women were still struggling to make their mark in the same way that upper/middle-class women had. Ellen Tooley noted in the Eccles Journal in 1925: “There are women in Eccles amongst the workers who are capable of serving the community equally as well as those co-opted, with a knowledge of conditions gained by practical experience which is after all ‘the best teacher’” (cited in Trick, The Power to get Things Changed, p23). There was one committee, however, where the presence of a working class woman was mandatory and this was to be the first committee Ellen served on.

The 1918 Maternity and Child Welfare Act had set up the Maternity and Child Welfare Committees, influenced by campaigns by the Women’s Guilds, and Ellen was appointed in 1920 to serve on the Eccles committee. As such, Ellen Tooley played an important role in the mother and child clinics which improved contraceptive advice to women- particularly working class women who could not afford to pay a private doctor for contraceptive advice.

The orphanage originally built by Sofia Roe in 1880 was refurbished under the committee and set up as a Mother & Baby Clinic with significant success. “Six years later the Medical Office of Health was able to proudly report to the committee that infant deaths in Eccles were only 47.2 infant deaths per 1,000 births. The only urban district which had performed better was Nelson with 44.9, Manchester, in contrast, had 83.0 and Salford 103.2.” (cited in Trick, page 22)

TB, Death and Disease

The relative success of Ellen’s political career was, however, tainted by a string of personal tragedies during the same period. After Ellen’s husband returned from the war he had become more abusive and violent towards her, particularly whilst drunk, and during one incident in 1921 Ellen’s two older sons attacked their father and forced him out of the family home. One son joined the army to escape prosecution whilst the other, Edward, moved away for a year.

In 1922, Ellen’s daughter Eveline was diagnosed with TB and her other daughter Dora, who was Veronica Trick’s mother, developed a bone disease in one of her knees and was confined to a special bed-chair. Eveline did recover for a while in 1923 but died a year later in 1924. In May 1926, Ellen’s son James died of TB and in the same month her husband died of bronchitis and a cerebral oedema in Hope Hospital.

Election Success

In 1924, Ellen Tooley was nominated for the first time to run for election. However, it was widely acknowledged that she had been allocated a seat (Irwell) that would be very difficult for a Labour candidate to win and indeed she failed to secure the seat. In 1927, she was a delegate to the Labour Party’s annual conference in Blackpool and stood, again without success, for the Barton ward. In 1930 she stood as the Labour candidate for the Winton ward along with Mary O’Kane who was nominated at the Co-op candidate for Patricroft – they both failed to secure their seats. For the next two years there were no women candidates in Eccles. Finally in 1933, Ellen stood once more and managed to win her seat in Winton along with Mary Higgins who became councillor for Barton.

The two women formed a formidable alliance and became members on committees related to health, libraries and schools, as well as working to improve child welfare and provide work for the local unemployed. Although Ellen tried to get re-elected in 1938, local elections were suspended due to the outbreak of World War Two and by the time the war had ended, she was 71 and her health was beginning to deteriorate. Ellen died in April 1955 at the age of 79 and was buried on the 2nd of May. The title as the first woman councillor of Eccles, which Ellen shrugged off as pure chance, was chiselled on her gravestone.

By Arwa Aburawa

Benny Rothman and the 1932 Kinder Scout mass trespass

Kinder Scout 75 years after

The young man, just turned twenty-one and up on charges of riotous assembly, assault and incitement at Derby Assizes, had prepared notes of what he was going to say to the jury. He wanted to make a case, he said, for the right to go walking in the countryside.

“We ramblers after a hard week’s work, and life in smoky towns and cities, go out rambling on weekends for relaxation, for a breath of fresh air, and for a little sunshine. And we find when we go out that the finest rambling country is closed to us,” he said. “Because certain individuals wish to shoot for about ten days per annum, we are forced to walk on muddy crowded paths, and denied the pleasure of enjoying to the utmost the countryside.

“Our request, or demand, for access to all peaks and uncultivated moorland is nothing unreasonable,”
he went on.

The speaker was Benny Rothman and the trial, held in the summer of 1932, was the aftermath of what has now become an iconic event in the story of the British outdoor movement. The ‘mass trespass’ of Kinder Scout, held on Sunday April 24th that year, saw some hundreds of walkers – perhaps three hundred, perhaps four hundred – stage what amounted to a political demonstration on the flank of Kinder Scout, in the Derbyshire Peak District. They’d been summonsed by hastily duplicated flyers distributed around the Manchester area. “If you’ve not been rambling before, start now, you don’t know what you’ve missed. Come with us for the best day out that you have ever had,” said one, given out in Eccles.

In the short-term, the trespass seemed to succeed only in attracting the wrath of the British state. Benny Rothman’s uncompromising speech from the dock in Derby failed to convince the jury, who – it turned out later – comprised almost a complete cross-section of the Derbyshire county establishment. He was jailed for four months. Four other young people in the dock with him were also imprisoned, on terms from two to six months.

But the story of the Kinder trespass refused to disappear from sight. There were rallies on Kinder Scout to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary in 1982, the sixtieth in 1992 and the seventieth in 2002, and it was the memory of the trespass which helped to inspire a new generation of walkers to campaign successfully for the legislation which, finally in 2000, achieved Benny Rothman’s “not unreasonable” demand for open access to the hills and moors. And though the right to roam is now won, there will be a rally in April this year as well, to make the 75th birthday celebration of the trespass.

The problem with an event which has been retold many times and has entered legend is that it’s difficult sometimes to get a real sense of what actually happened then. It’s worth remembering that the trespassers were, like Benny himself, overwhelmingly young, and that (we know from later accounts) they were determined that they were going to have a good time. The atmosphere, like so often on demonstrations, was good-humoured, and there was plenty of singing as the walkers headed off from the village of Hayfield towards Kinder Scout. What did they sing? They probably sang the Red Flag (this is what one unsympathetic press report claimed, anyway) but they gave Tipperary several renditions too, according to Benny Rothman. And there was another song produced for the occasion, a parody of Harry Lauder’s famous The Road to the Isles:

For by Kinder, and by Bleaklow, and all through the Goyt we’ll go

We’ll ramble over mountain, moor and fen

And we’ll fight against the trespass laws for every rambler’s rights

And trespass over Kinder Scout again…

Benny Rothman was the main organiser. He’d grown up in the north Manchester inner-city area of Cheetham, like many in this part of the city the child of Jewish immigrants. It was a difficult time to be young and working class: the country was going through the great depression and unemployment was high. Walter Greenwood’s novel Love on the Dole, published in 1933, offers a lightly fictionalised account of Salford and Manchester at the time, describing among other things the major unemployed demonstration held in 1931 which had ended with police violence against the marchers.

Benny Rothman was fortunate in that he had work, his first job being an errand boy in the motor trade. In his spare time, he was discovering the countryside, like many others joining the Clarion Cycling Club. “I was a seasoned camper and cyclist at the ripe old age of 16, or so I thought when I paid my first visit to the Lake District . I was a townie on a heavy ‘sit up and beg’ bike, home made tent and Woolworths map,” he later recalled. He was also becoming politically active and when he was about sixteen began to be drawn in to the activities of the Young Communist League. Politics and outdoor interests naturally came together. In his late teens, he helped establish a Lancashire branch of the British Workers Sports Federation, a communist-inspired organisation which had already led one successful campaign, for sports facilities in working-class Tottenham.

It was what happened at the Federation’s 1932 Easter camp which provided the spark for the Kinder event a few weeks later. The camp was being held a few miles west of Kinder Scout, and the programme included an organised ramble on to Bleaklow. Or at least that was the plan. Benny later recounted what happened: “The small band was stopped at Yellow Slacks by a group of gamekeepers. They were abused, threatened and turned back. To add to the humiliation of the Manchester ramblers, a number of those present were from the London BWSF on a visit to the Peak District, and they were astounded by the incident. There were not enough ramblers to force their way through, so, crestfallen, they had to return to camp.”

Back at camp, retaliation was planned. What was needed, the young people decided, was a body of ramblers so numerous that the keepers would have to give way. Someone came up with a name: the mass trespass.

Benny Rothman later wrote his own account of the Kinder trespass, published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary in 1982. The original plan, to begin with a rally in Hayfield, was altered at the last minute to outwit the police, and instead everyone gathered in an old quarry a short distance away in the direction of the open moors. Benny Rothman clambered up to address the crowd: “There were hundreds of young men and women, lads and girls, in their picturesque rambling gear: shorts of every length and colour, flannels and breeches, even overalls, vivid colours and drab khaki (khaki shorts and shirts were fashionable at the time), multi-coloured sweaters and pullovers, army packs and rucksacks of every size and shape,” he recalled.

The idea hatched by Benny Rothman and one of his friends was to head northwards close to Kinder reservoir, taking the established right of way up William Clough (then it was generally known as Williams Clough), before breaking off to scramble up the steep hillside towards the Kinder plateau. Another of the trespassers later described what happened: “When we reached William Clough a whistle sounded and we all stopped, then turned right facing up Kinder, as a second whistle sounded. It was then that I saw against the skyline a line of keepers, some of them wielding sticks. A third blast of the whistle and we started scrambling up the steep incline. The keepers offered little or no resistance and we just walked past them…. Having got past the keepers we lined up and marched about 400 yards on to the moors where we met a group of ramblers from Sheffield.”

The plateau of Kinder had been reached, albeit some distance north-west of Kinder Downfall. It was good enough. As Benny Rothman put it, “We were on the holy of holies, the forbidden territory of Kinder.”

Later it transpired that one of the keepers had been slightly injured, and when the ramblers returned to Hayfield the police were ready to pounce. But ironically the prosecutions and prison sentences, widely regarded at the time as vindictive, helped publicise the event and the cause of countryside access. For the establishment, it was something of an own goal.

It’s necessary to add that the Kinder trespass was by no means the only attempt to put access on the political agenda. Year after year, from the mid-1920s to the outbreak of war, the ramblers’ federations held sizeable rallies in Winnats Pass near Castleton. Attempts to shepherd an Access to Mountains bill through Westminster had been regularly made since 1884, and equally regularly had failed. The more respectable ramblers’ bodies were, in fact, deeply angry that Rothman and his comrades had barged into the argument and, as they saw it, compromised their lobbying work. For his part, Rothman retaliated in kind, criticising at the time their tactics as futile (later he accepted that he had been unwise to antagonise potential allies).

Access to Kinder Scout was finally achieved through voluntary agreements in 1952 and in 1958 (though other parts of the Peak District remained forbidden land until 2004). The peat groughs at the back of the Kinder Downfall where once there were only gamekeepers are there to be walked and enjoyed by all. Benny Rothman, who died in 2002, must be there in spirit.

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was published in TGO magazine, 2007

Bill Watson and Eccles Communist Party

Bill Watson joined the Communist Party in 1965, after a chance encounter with a Communist at a construction site in Wolverhampton. He had been working as a bricklayer for six years and after witnessing the exploitation on building sites and how his parents had suffered at work, Bill immediately joined the party. He went on to become a leading member of the Eccles branch, campaigning against Thatcher’s policy to end school milk, to save the last local cinema as well as various issues such as Northern Ireland, Unemployment and Anti-apartheid.

Bill Watson was born in Irlam in 1944 to a working-class family. His father worked as a bricklayer and his mother worked on a farm as well as in munitions factories during the Second World War. Despite the lack of active political involvement in his family, his personal experiences of work and seeing his family struggle did influence Bill’s political awakening. “My father slogged his guts out for 50 years to enrich other people and all he got out of it is bronchitis. My mother worked on a farm; the farmer drives a big car, my mother’s got rheumatoid arthritis.” Bill also remembers that since his teens, he’d always thought that socialism and communism was a great idea but believed that human selfishness would prevent its realisation. This all changed after a meeting with the Communist party when when he was 21.

“It was as if the curtains were opened and this thing about nature was a load of baloney really. Human beings are capable of being everything from terribly evil to wonderfully good, depending on the environment that they live in and how they react to it.” The meeting profoundly affected Bill, who states that he learnt to look at society in a new way and acknowledge that change was possible. “We as humans have changed so much already, we weren’t set in stone.” He moved back to Irlam and got involved with the Eccles Communist party the same year. Bill was also greatly influenced by two books he read at the time: Robert Tressell’s ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ and Engels’ ‘Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’.

School milk and the last cinema

The Communist Party in Eccles was not a particularly large branch – it only had around 80 members – yet they were very active and campaigned on various local issues. One of the memorable campaigns was against Margaret Thatcher’s policy to end school milk during her time as Education Secretary in 1971. “There was a major campaign over that in Eccles. We had hundreds of school parents outside school gates with placards.” Whilst they failed to change the policy, Bill states it was an example of the party leading a campaign without actually doing in its own name, as they wanted as many different people to get involved and to just win on the issue.

Another campaign led by the party was against the proposal to shut down a local cinema in 1974. “Eccles used to have three big cinemas and this was eventually reduced to one, which was the Broadway cinema, and the proposal was to turn this into a bingo hall. We thought it was a terrible idea.” Locals were also worried that the loss of the cinema would be detrimental to the youth, who already had very limited facilities. The campaign gathered significant support with local people, who expressed their concerns to the council and Labrokes’ company which was suggesting the bingo hall. The campaign was successful in the earlier stages but it went to tribunal and they lost the cinema in the end. Even so, the 1980s saw the rise of unemployment as a major issue in Eccles and the party would play an important role in tackling it.

Working together to tackle Unemployment

Local workers staged strikes against redundancies in local factories such as Gardener, which made diesel engines, and the Eccles communists worked hard doing things like food collections to support them. They also set up an important organisation known as ‘Eccles Community Campaign Against Unemployment’ (ECCAU), working alongside local clergymen, labour supporters and Salford’s trade council. “We would always try to work on as broad a basis as possible because that’s the way that we saw politics as developing- people working together instead of in isolation with groups fighting each other.”

ECCAU campaigned against unemployment and sought practical ways to resolve it by setting up the Salford Unemployment Centre. “We approached the council and for asked for the centre, and after a lot of campaigning and hard work (which included the Labour councillors too), we got the building and some funding.” The management team reflected the role the communists had played and it was composed entirely of ECCAU members apart from a few council personnel. “I think that they were just there to keep an eye on us and make sure that we didn’t do anything stupid, which we wouldn’t anyway!” Bill speculated. There was also a people’s march for jobs which ran the whole length of the country and came through Eccles and Salford and was supported by the Eccles Communists.

Support also came from unexpected places such as Salford’s Conservative Mayor, Tom Francis. “It was the same on issues like race- there were people in the Tory party that were good on race and there were people in the Labour party that were awful on race. There were even people in the Communist Party that were awful on race.” Watson was influenced at a young age by his father’s hod-carrier (a worker who carries bricks to the bricklayer) Billy Taylor, who was Afro-Caribbean, and he went on to campaign against Apartheid and cycled from Manchester to London to raise money for the ANC after Mandela was released in 1990.

Northern Ireland and meeting Special Branch

Bill Watson and with his wife, Sheila, were also heavily involved in the Northern Ireland issue and Sheila even visited Long Kesh internment camp for Republican prisoners on behalf of the Eccles Communists. The following was published in their branch newsletter ‘Red Rag’ on April 1974, describing her time there:

“There was barbed wire and fences and soldiers and guns everywhere. We went into another hut where we were searched. They took my driving license. Then through another door and we waited until our names were called. I visited the husband of the girl I was staying with. He had served three years of a 12 years sentence. The morale was great- they weren’t miserable or anything. He kept talking about when he was out and getting things done but I just couldn’t believe the type of place he was in. Long huts. You know, just like concentration camps in films. Grey and miserable.”

A meeting was also organised by the National Council of Civil Liberties (now Liberty) on Northern Ireland at which Edwina Stewart, of Northern Ireland’s Civil Rights Association, was invited to speak. Bill, along with Bert Cottam, went to pick her up from Manchester airport to find that she had been escorted by Special Branch, straight off her plane. “Burt and I started asking questions and we both got arrested. I managed to make a phone call that Edwina had been lifted from the plane, I think it was to David Lancaster, one of the councillors here, and then they asked for our names.” Bill initially refused to give his name, but was then threatened with a week’s jail and so he cooperated to avoid imprisonment. Edwina was also later released, although the meeting she attended was viciously attacked by the Ulster Defence Force (an extreme, right-wing protestant group with links with the BNP).

“I saw them pick up chairs and just batter old people to the floor with them,” says Bill. “They had been posted round the audience and there must have been a signal, as at some point they all stood up and started battering people. It was all over in a minute and then off they went.” The UDF had sent in coaches from Liverpool and on their way back, they were stopped by the police but no-one was arrested. Students from UMIST, who had hosted the meeting, took out a private prosecution against some of the attackers, which were successful and resulted in prison sentences.

The beginning of the end

Following the collapse of communism in Russia in the early nineties, the Communist party in Britain disintegrated into smaller parties such as the ‘Democratic Left’ and the Communist Party of Britain (as opposed to the Communist Party of Great Britain). Today, both carry very little influence in mainstream politics and many other members joined the Labour party. Eccles Communist party met a similar fate because, as Bill points out, the political culture where people sign up to a party just doesn’t exist anymore. Although many of the campaigns that Bill worked on were unsuccessfully and the party collapsed, he says he has absolutely no regrets. “I absolutely loved it. I learnt a lot during my time with the party and I really hope that it benefited people in some way.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

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