Monday, 3 August 2015

Oldham's Robert Ascroft statue commemorates a Tory MP who was a trade unionist.

Robert Ascroft Memorial Statue, Alexandra Park, Oldham.

Taken from the Rebel Road project of Unite education at

A bronze statue of Ascroft was erected in 1903 by public subscription in memory of 'The Workers Friend' who acted as the legal advisor to the Association of Operative Cotton Spinners * (AOSC) that represented male mule spinners between 1870 and 1970 and which had 18,000 members at the time of Ashcroft's sudden death in 1899 at aged 51. The high density of union membership amongst cotton spinners meant AOSC members could negotiate significantly better wages and working conditions than other British industrial employees such that mule spinners became known as the Barefoot Aristocrats. 

Ascroft was a skilled negotiator who ensured that the 1892 Brooklands Agreement - one of the earliest and most famous of the agreements between capital and labour for the purpose of providing machinery for the settlement of disputes without having recourse to strikes or lockouts - that emerged out of a bitter dispute helped place industrial relations in the cotton industry on a more balanced footing. 

Ascroft was also a leading campaigner for better working conditions and between 1895 and his death he was one of Oldham's two Conservative MPs. 

Many thanks to Alan Bedford, a Unite safety rep at BAE Systems in Middleton, Manchester for information on Ascroft. "I can't imagine in years to come that anyone in a trade union will want to put up a statue to the current lot of Conservative MPs," said Alan.   

Mary Macarthur statue and plaque, Cradley Heath

Mary Macarthur, Cradley Heath

Taken from Rebel Road project of Unite education at

The successful strike by women chainmakers at Cradley Heath in the Black Country in 1910 is commemorated by a statue of Mary Macarthur, who led the strike, and a monument to the strikers in a park named after Macarthur.

It took artist Luke Perry more than two years to create the statue which stands at 10ft and weighs nearly three-and-a-half tonnes. It was unveiled in 2012.

Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland next to the
Mary Macarthur statue in the Mary Macarthur Park.

The strike is celebrated at an annual Chainmakers Festival that is organised by the Midlands Trades Union Congress. There is live music, comedy, stalls, speeches, street theatre re-enactments and fun fair rides along Cradley Heath High Street where many of the women lived and worked over a century ago.

Cradley Heath High Street during the 2015 Chainmakers Festival

Chainmakers were highly skilled and badly paid. Writer Robert H Sheard described their lives in his ‘The White Slaves of England’ book.  'At Anvil Yard...I could see nothing but sorrow and hunger and grime, rags, foul food, open sores and movements incessant and laborious.'

Non-union women workers, who earned less than the unionised men doing the same jobs, were especially poorly paid, earning well under 10 shillings (50 pence) a week. 

Trade union organiser Mary Macarthur started the fightback by establishing in 1906 the Hammered Chain Branch of the National Federation of Women Workers. 

There was further progress when the Chain Trade Board - established by the Trade Boards Act 1909, which created the first boards legally able to set a minimum wage - agreed a 100 percent pay rise.  Many smaller companies though sought to avoid paying up and exploited their female employees illiteracy by tricking them into signing contracts that started the new rates six months later. 

Realising they had been duped around a thousand women, inspired by Mary Macarthur, began strike action to force their employers to pay the newly agreed minimum hourly wage of 2.5d (1 p). 

Strike funds were collected and when MacArthur, aware of the media's power, encouraged Pathe News to cover the strike this produced worldwide public sympathy and donations. The £4,000 collected maintained the struggle for 10 weeks at the end of which a famous victory was achieved when all the employers agreed to pay the minimum rate.

Actor Lynn Morris 

At the 2015 Chainmakers Festival, Macarthur’s victory speech was wonderfully recaptured by actor Lynn Morris. ”You no longer need a Mary Macarthur. You will find your own leaders and voices, but a word of warning on this glorious day, take heed for that which has been so hard won can be so easily lost. So keep the unity, keep the union and keep together.” Morris said today’s young women should use Macarthur as inspiration.

The Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland told the crowd the women Chainmakers are being replicated today by “women workers in hotels, who after decades of campaigning are beginning to make gains because they are getting organised through Unite.

“The Cradley Heath women Chainmakers show that if you are organised and in a union you can win in the most difficult of circumstances. They also by helping found the national minimum wage showed unions are not going to allow a race to the bottom. 

“It is important that we keep alive the memory of those brave women of over a century ago and this Festival is a marvellous way of doing so.” 

For more information on the strike go to
See also The Cradley Heath Women Chain-makers’ Strike of 1910 by Margaret Bradley 

Monument to the women chainmakers  in the Mary Macarthur Park.

All photographs are copyright Mark Harvey of ID8 photography, Sheffield. 

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Plaque to Annie Kenney in Lees, Oldham

Annie Kenney - Oldham, Lancashire 

There is a blue plaque to Annie  Kenney at Leesbrook Mill in Lees in Oldham where the working class suffragette started full-time work in 1892 as a weaver's assistant. She later suffered a serious injury when one of her fingers was ripped off by a spinning bobbin. 

Kenney became involved in trade union activities but she is best known for her involvement in the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). In October 1905, Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst interrupted a politician meeting to ask Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey about their views on whether women should be allowed to vote. 

When neither man replied and the women then got out a banner declaring 'Votes for Women' they were thrown out and arrested for obstruction. Kenney went to prison for 3 days. She was later involved in many other similar acts and suffered imprisonment on many occasions and during which time she was often force fed after participating in hunger strikes.  

Kenney was unusual in that unlike many of the leading WSPU members she was working class and when the organisation decided to open a branch in the East End of London she agreed to leave the mill and work full-time for the WSPU. 

When Christabel Pankhurst fled to France in 1912 to avoid arrest it was Kenney who was put in charge of the WSPU in London.  After the WSPU began destroying the contents of pillar-boxes and attempted to burn down the houses of two government members opposed to women having the vote, Kenney was again arrested and sentenced to 18 months in gaol for 'incitement to riot.' She became the first suffragette released from prison under the provisions of the 'Cat and Mouse Act' that released women on hunger strike in order to prevent them becoming martyrs and then re-arrested them when they recovered. 

Kenney escaped to France and when the First World War was declared in 1914 she returned home after the WSPU ended their campaign and backed the military conflict with Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst helping recruit men to the armed forces. 

Kenney later lost interest in politics and she died on 9 July 1953 with her husband, James Taylor, claiming his wife had never properly recovered from her hunger strikes.

Rebel Road would like to thank Oldham's Alan Bedford, a Unite safety rep who is a technician at BAE systems in Middleton, Manchester, for information on the plaque to Annie Kenney.

"I am a life long socialist and my local area of Oldham has a great working class heritage that should be celebrated and brought to the attention of the current generation so they can be inspired to emulate the great people of the past," said Alan.    

Photographs copyright Mark Metcalf. 



Taken from Rebel Road project of Unite Education department

A bespoke memorial plaque in honour of the Newry Dock Strike and lockout of 1907 and the man who led it, James Fearon, was unveiled by Newry and District Trade Union Council and the Newry Maritime Association on 30 March 2015.

Written information about the strike on the plaque, which is located on Merchants Quay, is accompanied by a photograph of Fearon and Newry dockers as well as a starving family and bread and roses on the plinth. 

The strike started on 19 November 1907 when Newry dockers, who were members of the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL), one of Unite's predecessor unions, supported striking Belfast dockers by refusing to unload ships diverted from Belfast. Newry dockers had become organised after James Fearon had accompanied James Larkin when he returned from Britain in 1905. 

Despite hostility from local and regional employers, politicians, the church and press the strikers showed great resolve as they pressed to improve wages and working conditions. Poverty ultimately brought down the strike on 30 December when those who returned to work had to agree not to belong to the NUDL, whilst those who remained members were victimised and unable to find employment and feed their families. 

Fearon was later forced to enter the local workhouse and in 1912 he left to move to Scotland where he continued to play a part in the trade union movement up until his death in 1924. A short book on Fearon's life was published in 2000: The Third James(*), James Fearon, 1874-1924, An unsung hero of our struggle. This was written by Bill McCamley. Rebel Road is hoping to make this available in due course. 

C Patton also wrote his dissertation, titled, The Newry Dock Strike 1907, and, again, Rebel Road hopes to make this freely available in due course. 

Many thanks for the information that appears here to Ronan Turley, a Unite rep in Warrenpoint and who is a delegate from his branch to Newry Trades Union Council. "I was really pleased when it proved possible to get the plaque designed and unveiled. It should encourage people to find out more about this important labour movement event," said Ronan. 

  • This is a reference to James Connolly and James Larkin.

Further incinerator study delay

Incinerator study delay 
Infant mortality rates higher near some sites 

From Big Issue in the North magazine of 13-19 July 

There has been a further delay to a major study on the impact of municipal waste incinerator emissions on infant mortality rates. 
Health Protection England, now Public Health England (PHE), first promised such a study in 2003 but it was not until 2011 that research began by a team from the Small Area Health Statistics Unit (SAHSU) at Imperial College London. 
The study is examining 22 municipal waste incinerators (MWI), including the ones at Bolton, Grimsby and Kirklees districts, where infant mortality rates remain historically higher than regional and national averages. 
It was envisaged that preliminary results would be available in March 2014 but now Dr Simon Bouffler, of PHE’s Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, has said: “Because of the unanticipated complexity in gathering data this has been delayed. 
“SAHSU is aiming to submit the papers from their project to peer-reviewed journals at the end of 2015. It will then be up to the journals when the papers are published, but it is likely to be in early 2016.” 
According to Bouffler the delay is caused by some of the data emissions being unexpectedly held in paper format and difficulty in accessing all the health data because it is stored with different sources. 
In the period since the study started, construction has commenced on more MWIs. Infant mortality levels have also dropped to an all-time low, with 3.8 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2013. Respiratory and cardiovascular disorders accounted for 44 per cent of the 2,686 infant deaths
in England and Wales. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that mortality rates were highest amongst groups in routine and manual occupations. 
PHE contends: “MWIs are not a significant risk to public health.” But a major study conducted in Japan in 2004, found a “decline in risk from distance from MWIs for infant deaths”. 
Air pollution 
Critics of MWIs believe that it would have been better if a study had been conducted here before incinerators were given the green light, especially as US studies have also shown that air pollution from industrial sources damage schoolchildren’s health and academic success. 
Michael Ryan of Shrewsbury began examining the health record of incinerators after he considered that the loss of two of his children could have been the result of having lived downwind of an incinerator. When he examined all of London’s wards he found that there were clusters of above average mortality rates around MWIs in Edmonton, Colnbrook, Kings College Hospital and Bermondsey. Ryan also found that death rates in affluent areas such as Chingford Ward Green in Waltham Forest near the Edmonton incinerator were above average. 
The incinerator in Bolton was first opened in 1971 and is sited in the Great Lever ward. That ward is among the six wards in Bolton’s 20 where infant mortality rates are highest, at above 8 deaths per 1,000 live births. Four of Bolton’s other wards with the highest infant mortality are among the seven bordering Great Lever. 
Ryan would like SAHSU to examine these publicly obtainable figures. “Infant mortality is not just about poverty, as the ONS contends,” he said. “It is also about air pollutants. Even as far back as 1914, Dr William A Brend, a lecturer in forensic evidence, found that whilst wages in agricultural areas were notoriously low the infant mortality rates there were below average.” 
Asked if Ryan’s work was being examined as part of its study, a PHE spokesperson said: “Modern and well managed municipal incinerators make only a very small contribution to local concentrations of air pollutants. 
“PHE is not aware of any evidence that requires a change in our position statement.” 

Organise like the women chainmakers at Cradley Heath

Workers' struggles headline at Great Yorkshire Show

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