On Saturday 18th September 2010 the Midlands TUC and Black Country Living Museum commemorated the 100th anniversary of the 1910 strike of women chainmakers for a living wage.
The Museum's major labour history event recalled the fight of the Cradley Heath Women Chainmakers, who in 1910 went on strike for ten weeks and were successful in winning the first ever minimum wage. The festival, now an annual event hosted by the Black Country Living Museum, celebrates one of the most significant events in the history of the Black Country and gives a new focus for the interpretation of Black Country history and culture.
Midlands TUC Regional Secretary Roger McKenzie said, "Last year's festival proved to be a fantastic day out for trade unionists from all over the country. This year we aim to provide an even better day of entertainment as a fitting celebration of the historic achievements of the Cradley Heath women chainmakers who suffered a ten-week lockout in their struggle for a minimum wage."
The festival is supported and funded by the TUC, the Midlands Trade Union movement, and legal firms involved with local trade unions. The festival won the prestigious Black Country Tourism Awards for best festival in 2007.
In 1910 there were 3,500 chain makers working in small shops in the Cradley and Cradley Heath district. Two thirds of them were women. Tired of working day and night for starvation wages, the women chainmakers downed their hammers and stood up for their right to earn a living wage.
In March 1910 the Chain Trade Board agreed a minimum wage of 2½d an hour to replace the old piecework system. Although this was low it meant a 100% rise for most of the women, giving them 10 to 11 shillings for a 55 hour week.
Many companies did not keep to this and tricked women (many of whom could not read or write) to consent to a contracting out of this agreement.
The women, led by the founder of the National Federation of Women Workers, Mary Macarthur, began a 10 week strike and successfully established the right to a minimum wage.
Mary Macarthur was born in Glasgow on 13th August 1880, one of six children, but only three survived, all of them girls. Mary attended the local school and after editing the school magazine, decided she wanted to become a full-time writer. She was converted to the cause of trade unions by a speech made by John Turner about how badly some workers were being treated by their employers.
In 1902 Mary became friends with Margaret Bondfield who encouraged her to attend the Shop Assistants' Union's national conference and later recalled: "I had written to welcome her into the Union, but, when she came to meet me at the station, I was overcome with the sense of a great event. Here was genius, allied to boundless enthusiasm and leadership of a high order, coming to build our little Union into a more effective instrument." Mary was eventually elected to the union's national executive.
Mary moved to London in 1903 where she became Secretary of the Women's Trade Union League. She is perhaps best known for founding the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) in 1906. She began as president, but then became general secretary. Mary was especially concerned about the relationship between low wages and women's lack of organization. She sat on the executive of the Anti-Sweating League and gave evidence to the select committee on homework in 1908.
In 1910 the Cradley women chainmakers won a battle to establish the right to a fair wage following a 10 week strike. This landmark victory changed the lives of thousands of workers who were earning little more than starvation wages. Macarthur was the trade unionist who led this fight for better pay, commenting that "women are unorganised because they are badly paid, and poorly paid because they are unorganised.
Mary Macarthur also campaigned for a legal minimum wage and she stood as a Labour candidate in Stourbridge in the 1918 General Election but was defeated.
Mary married Will Anderson on 21st September 1911 and was devastated when he died in the 1919 influenza epidemic. She developed cancer in 1920 and after two unsuccessful operations died at home in Golders Green on 1st January, 1921.
Money was collected during the strike by well wishers which avoided the women being starved back to work. George Cadbury donated to the fund. Another donor was the Nobel Prize winning author of The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy. He wrote a report on the strike in a chapter of his book of essays "The Inn of Tranquillity" in which he calls the women: "the chief guardians of the inherent dignity of man".
Wednesday 19 October 1910 marked the end of a 9 week strike that involved around 1000 women chain makers living in the area immediately around Cradley Heath who refused to work until they all received the newly-agreed minimum rate of 2½d an hour. Small chain making was the first industry to obtain minimum wage legislation, and local people, rightly, look back on the part they played in this campaign with pride.
Thanks to the arrival of Pathé news in June 1910, the scandal of the women's sweated labour attracted world-wide interest and sympathy from influential people who gave their support to the cause.
The meeting where the dispute ended was held in the schoolroom of Grainger's Lane Primitive Methodist Church, the same place where it had begun on 22 August, when the formidable Mary Macarthur inspired the women to stand up for their rights. It was from these same premises that the women received their strike pay, and there that they held a mammoth tea-party with bread supplied by well-wishers.
Sadly that building was demolished in 2007, after its congregation had re-located to Overend Methodist Mission in Cradley. The leadership of the church in 1910 included people from all sections in the dispute, and some of their descendants are members at Overend today.
A celebration service to commemorate the centenary of this event was held at Overend Methodist Mission, Banner's Lane, Cradley on Sunday 17 October 2010.
The Book of the Strike
Margaret Bradley, author and co-author of many books on the History of Cradley, has published a new book The Cradley Heath Women Chain-makers' Strike of 1910, price £4.20. For further details e-mail to: Cradley Bookshop for details of postal charges and for overseas postage.
The Workers' Institute
Supported internationally, the strike fund received so many contributions that a building was constructed with the surplus in Lomey Town, Cradley Heath. The Workers Institute, or the 'Stute' as it is known, became a centre for women to meet and organise, a place to learn and to socialise.
The Institute was under threat of demolition until the Black Country Living Museum intervened and saved it. It was taken down brick by brick and reconstructed at the Museum site.
The Workers' Institute now overlooks the canal-side village and is the second largest building in the Museum. It is the first of a number of buildings in a new High Street. It has been fitted out as it would have been in the 1930's, with original period displays and, in a new departure for the Museum, a multi-media time-capsule room.
Now restored, once again the Stute can be used for its original purpose and thereby preserve an important piece of local history for posterity and future generations.