At this event we were delighted to formally present the minutes of the Manchester and Salford and District Women’s Trades Union Council to the Working Class Movement Library. These two handwritten volumes are the complete record of the meetings of the MSWTUC from 1895 to 1919. They came to light several years ago during research for a pamphlet on Mary Quaile, who worked as an organiser for the Council from 1911-1919. It appears that she took the volumes with her when the MSWTUC merged with the Manchester and Salford Trades Council in April 1919, and the office was closed. Fortunately her family had preserved them after Mary’s death in 1958 and were kind enough to give them to the Mary Quaile Club, who decided that their natural home was the WCML.
The event took place in the WCML’s Annexe and was chaired by Ciara O’Sullivan from the Mary Quaile Club, who welcomed the audience to the event. She introduced Maggie Cohen, chair of the Trustees of the WCML, who spoke about how delighted the library was to receive the minutes, and the importance of the stories contained in their pages, which she illustrated with a number of examples.
She was followed by Bernadette Hyland from the Mary Quaile Club, who has transcribed the whole of the minutes (130,00 words) for a website on the MSWTUC. She began by stating that, “The history of the MSWTUC is a reminder of how a small group of determined working and middle class women and men working together could make a real difference to the lives of working women.” She went on to give a short account of the history of the Council, which had been set up in February 1895 by middle-class philanthropists such as C P Scott and Julia Gaskell. The stated aim of the MSWTUC, she explained, was “to bring trade unionism within the reach of scattered individuals working in unorganised trades and to draft them off into their own trade unions.”
The work of the MSWTUC was carried out by a number of organisers, who, during the life-time of the Council, included Olive Aldridge Frances Ashwell, Sarah Dickenson and Eva Gore-Booth. The offices were at 9 Albert Square: for most of the life of the Council they did not have a telephone or even a typewriter. Bernadette noted that, “These women worked extremely hard. They had to travel on public transport everywhere; they worked long hours, they were often not allowed on the premises of workplaces to talk to women and had to meet with them at their homes or in the evenings in the office.” Some of the unions they organised included Cigar-makers, Fancy Box Makers, Tailoresses and Upholsteresses. In 1902 they helped set a Weavers’ Union in Salford which soon had 800 members.
In the autumn of 1904 the Council split acrimoniously over the issue of adopting “Votes for Women” as an aim, a proposal put forward by Christabel Pankhurst. When this was rejected at a Council meeting by 4 votes to 2, Sarah Dickenson and Eva Gore-Booth resigned their posts with the MSWTUC and were joined by seven unions. They set up a a new body: the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades and Labour Council. For this part of her talk Bernadette was joined by actress Joan McGee, who read out some of the letters and minutes relating to the split. Bernadette explained that with the passage of time the two Women’s Trades Councils began working together, particularly during the First World War.
She ended her talk optimistically, noting that groups of women workers eg the LSE cleaners in London, the Durham TAs, the St. Barts hospital workers in London, and McDonalds workers had been fighting back, using social media to meet up and organise as well as taking part in strikes and demos. “They are the inheritors of the MSWTUC,” she concluded, “they are the modern day Mary Quailes who believe that trade unions are as important for women as women are for the trade union movement.”
Bernadette was followed by Lauren McCourt, an activist in BFAWU, who has been organising in McDonalds. Lauren noted the similarities between the situation for workers described by Bernadette – and the situation in 2018. She explained that many young people had little or no idea of what a trade union was, but were responsive to initiatives to address low wages, zero hours contracts, poor working conditions and bullying. Despite the difficulties she was positive that things could change for the better, if people got organised.
After a short discussion the audience adjourned to the main building for refreshments and to look at the minutes and letters which had been placed on display in the foyer.
Our thanks to Joan McGee and Lauren, and to Maggie, Eleanor, Chris and Elaine from the WCML. We must also thank Lindsey and Jane, two members of staff at the WCML, who created a wonderful display of the minutes, letters, photos and other items.
The MSWTUC minutes may be read in their entirety here.