West Yorkshire Lasses: Female Trade Unionism and its Radical Past

On 13 February 1875, 9000 female and male striking weavers converged in a field near Spinkwell Mills, Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. This large crowd came to listen to a speech on trade unionism in the wake of a ten percent wage cut. While trade unionism had long been dominated by the voices and experiences of men in West Yorkshire, this strike was different. The main speaker at Dewsbury was a woman, Ann Ellis. Moreover, she had been put there by her male and female colleagues to run the weavers strike that took place across February and March of 1875.

‘Working women coming to the front and taking on labour and there wasn’t another place in England where they had done that…’ (Huddersfield Chronicle, 16 February 1875).

On 1 February 1875, weavers learned that mill owners planned to impose a wage cut of two to three shillings per week due to a supposed fall in trade. Male and female weavers alike walked out of the Stubley and Taylor mills in Batley. A few days later, on 5 February, three hundred male and female weavers at Oldroyd’s mill in the neighbouring town of Dewsbury joined the strike. Local paper the Batley Reporter relayed that ‘the male weavers from Oldroyd’s mill walked across town to confer with the female weavers of Batley.’ At their meeting to discuss the impending wage cut, they decided that a leading group of women were better able to organise and fight the strike. The male and female members voted for an all-female strike committee to represent them before the Masters Association cartel, which had imposed the wage cut on 25,000 workers in 50 mills.

This was an unprecedented vote. Never before had an all-female committee represented a group of male and female weavers. The Dewsbury and Batley Weavers Committee was composed of 13 women and no men. The significance of this vote tells us three things. First, that these nineteenth-century working-class men put their trust in working-class women to bargain and debate about the wages of labour with the masters on their behalf. Second, that working-class female voices were allied to radical nineteenth-century trade union activity. And, third, that the male contingent of this group thought an all-female leadership was appropriate and worthy of support.

That men encouraged female-led trade union activity in 1875 makes this strike unique in early labour history. The male weavers and the local press were certainly aware of the unprecedented composition of this committee. The Huddersfield Examiner reported a male weaver’s observation that female weavers in Dewsbury were ‘coming to the front and taking on labour and there wasn’t another place in England where they had done that’. (Huddersfield Examiner, 16 February 1875)

Mr Cox JP and Mrs Wood, President of the Weavers Committee, also spoke at these large meetings, but Ann Ellis dominated proceedings. The Dewsbury News reported that she was nervous at first, as:

She had never stood on a platform as she did at present until this strike…. She would bundle up and go rather than give in to the masters. If they went in at the reduction the rising generation would have to suffer, and she did not want another strike but wanted this to do and so not have two…the women had begun the battle and would have to get on with it…. (Dewsbury News, 16 February 1875)

Her confidence grew and her statements became more radical and resolute:

They could not stand a reduction for rents, rates or coals or flour were dear, as everyone who kept a house would know….and whilst the masters could live on less profits it was not possible for the workers to live on nothing to eat.… (Huddersfield Examiner, 15 February1875)

Male weavers recognised the imposed wage cut would be hard to bear, and knew the Masters Association would wage a fierce fight to keep the cuts in place. One male weaver remarked that ‘the women would need cheek’ when dealing with the masters and that ‘the men should be faithful and true to the women… a man who won’t back a woman is no man at all.’ (Huddersfield Examiner, 17 February 1875). To further enforce their position the women’s committee insisted there would be no arbitration as ‘they were no masters men and would not go back to work until the price was reinstated’. (Huddersfield Examiner, 16 March 1875)

Despite this show of support from some male weavers, others did not share the same degree of enthusiasm. Some men suspected that Ann Ellis ‘must have good wages or she could not make the appearances she did’. She replied that she was no stranger to poverty being a ‘married working woman with two young children to support and her husband earned only 12s per week for the last two years, moreover she had just lost [a child] at Christmas.’ Historian Maria Bottomley has suggested that there was an ‘implicit conspiracy’ between male weavers and manufacturers whom, she argues, connived together to belittle and destroy the weavers committee. In 1833, the Leeds Mercury characterised striking women as ‘more menacing to established institutions than the education of the lower orders’.

Nevertheless, in 1875 most Dewsbury and Batley men were loyal to their female counterparts and encouraged Ann Ellis to speak. In an act of solidarity, loom mechanics, who supervised the female weavers, revealed that the masters often conspired to cheat workers out of pay by giving out longer warps to weave than stated in their official records. (Huddersfield Examiner, 10 March 1875) The masters viewed this revelation as an act of treachery and retaliated by threatening to sack the striking male relations of the female committee members. (Batley Reporter, 20 March 1875)

The endorsement of the male weavers and loom mechanics throughout the strike allowed the Weavers Committee to reject outside help from organizers like Emma Paterson (1848–86), the Women’s Protective and Provident League (later renamed the Women’s Trade Union League) or from the National Union of Women Workers, founded to assist working women through promoting trade unionism. Ann Ellis thought the ordinary working women of Dewsbury and Batley had the numbers and intelligence to champion the strike themselves and form a union on their own. (Huddersfield Examiner, 9 March 1875) Male weavers also resisted calls from the middle-class socialist Mr Henry Hunt to join the all-male Operatives Union. The weavers called for strike funds from the Miners of Wakefield, Whitakers Mill in Lancashire and Weemsland Mill in Hawick. Scottish support helped boost the strike income to over £1200 and as the table below shows, local firms contributed too.

From Source: Ben Turner, A Short History of the General Union of Textile Workers, (Heckmondwike 1920)

Working-class unity, evidenced through the mutual support and collaboration between men and women, led to the capitulation of the Masters Association. This ‘bridge of class’ made it difficult for the masters to divide and rule the workers by exploiting divisions along gender lines. Ultimately, the masters asked the weavers ‘how long would it take to fix this tariff,’ as the strike cost each manufacturer £31 per day in lost profit and led to the reinstatement of the price for weaving picks in all but two of the mills.

Ann Ellis died in the Bradford Workhouse in 1919 at the age of seventy-six, and little has been written about her or her colleagues. Yet, in coming ‘to the front’ in 1875, Ann Ellis and the Weavers Committee should be acknowledged as pivotal to the fight for workers’ rights, recognition and respect. The Dewsbury and Batley Weavers Committee established the fundamentals of New Unionism before the likes of Ben Tillett and Will Thorne ever took to their platforms to preach on trade unionism in the 1880s, and they represented their working colleagues at the Trades Union Congress long before Mary Dalton in 1882 and Margaret Bondfield in 1904.

The Dewsbury & Batley Heavy Woollen Union Committee Source: Ben Turner, A Short History of the General Union of Textile Workers, (Heckmondwike 1920)
The Dewsbury & Batley Heavy Woollen Union Committee.

Whilst no commemoration has been made of the women’s Weavers Committee, their model of trade unionism shines bright as a useful tool for present day activists. It is nearly one hundred and fifty years since these radical nineteenth-century labouring women and men stood together as workers and rejected calls of division to form strong workers’ chains. At a time when workers’ wages have barely risen more than one percent, perhaps it is time for us to emulate and heed their lesson from history.

Thanks to the Labour History Review for giving permissions to reuse the topic. All images from Ben Turner, A Short History of the General Union of Textile Workers, (Heckmondwike 1920).

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