|Courtesey of Northamptonshire Libraries, Abington Street, Northampton.
An Epic of Trade Unionism
The authors only desire to emphasise that the following pages do not give a complete history of the Branch, even up to the end of the Raunds Strike, with which the account has been concluded, nor are they intended to do so.
Readers are asked to accept this story as illustrative of the vicissitudes of the early trade unionists of the boot and shoe industry, and of their efforts to build up the organisations that the trade boasts to-day and which, the authors would add, it is imperative to preserve.
A. C. ALLEN.
L. J. BARTLEY.
The attitude of the manufacturers at that time in wanting to reserve for themselves the sole right to determine internal condition of their workshops alienated considerable public opinion, and by this claim they seem to have put themselves in the wrong so far as public estimation of the claims the two parties was concerned.
The men say :
'"Your business is not entirely yours" we quote from a leading article in "The Times" "it is ours as well, since our liberty, our time, and even our health may be involved in it".
"Sir Courteney Boyle, the able moderator of the Conference at the Board of Trade, has suggested a wayout of the difficulty. He proposes that a new constitution should be framed forthwith for the Arbitration Boards by a joint committee, and that the rules should be drawn 'as to allow interference in the management of a factory consistent with the right of the workmen to safeguard the conditions under which they work".
We imagine the men’s union would be willing to accept such an instruction and to carry out loyally..... We sincerely hope that the meetings which are to be held during the next few days will not serve to drive the two parties farther apart. If the employers mean war to the knife, if they seriously contend that the men are not entitled to have their rights safeguarded, then it is the merest farce for them to continue parties to the conference.
We trust that this is not so. As to the men's position it is clear enough. They are willing now as they have been from the first, "to submit all matters in dispute to the joint boards, with appeal to an umpire failing agreement. They recognise the immense perplexity of the problems to be settled, and the impossibility of dealing with them otherwise than by calm and patient negotiation. But they will not enter upon fi new era with their hands tied. They decline to be parties to an illusory or one-sided system of arbitration, and in our opinion the men are on impregnable ground, wherein the moral sense of the whole nation will steadily, and when the true nature of the issue is understood, enthusiastically back them".
Writing of local activities during the 1895 strike, Mr. John Spencer, J.P., says: 'We were left largely to ourselves and conducted the dispute in our own way. As we had no headquarters for so large a dispute, an application was made to the High-street Independent Wesleyan Church for the use of the old chapel, which was granted to the Branch for the duration of the dispute.
'This was indeed a great kindness, which was much appreciated by us all. In the morning members reported, orders for the day were given,and a meeting held. Mr. Skeeles and myself occupied the pulpit every morning during the dispute. Marches were arranged in the afternoons, meetings being held at different places along the routes, at Rushden, Higham Ferrers, Irthlingborough, and Irchester. Stirring Labour songs were sung and cheers given for the employers who kept their factories open. Great enthusiasm prevailed and women joined their husbands in the marches, especially at Irthlingborough. The police directed the traffic. Taken altogether, good humour prevailed throughout the lockout, and no officials had a more loyal body of men and women under them.
"After seven or eight weeks the end came. Negotiations were opened and the lock-out ended, the first and only general lock-out in the shoe-trade. Mr. Hornidge came and helped us during the dispute on two occasions, and Mr. Tom Mann addressed three meetings. He was especially eloquent at Higham Ferrers where he spoke for over an hour. The only Sunday meeting held throughout the whole period of the dispute was when Mr. Keir Hardie (the first Labour Member of the House of Commons) spoke to a large and enthusiastic Rushden audience on 'Our native land'."
For a long while failure met all efforts to bring the parties together, but at last these were successful, while the government of the day played a tactful but insistent part, and on April 19th, 1895, Terms of Settlement were signed at the offices of the Board of Trade.
A leading article in the Daily Chronicle ran: "We rejoice to say that the struggle in the boot trade is over. Yesterday, after a prolonged conference between masters and men at the Board of Trade, terms of peace were drawn up and agreed to, and work is to be resumed as soon as possible. The settlement is creditable to all parties to the Government which, for the third time in its history, has come forward as peacemaker at a time of grave industrial crisis; to the employers who have accepted counsels of reason, and discarded those of force and prejudice; to the men who, whilst standing out for certain vital principles, have been willing to meet the employers wherever they could honourably do so. The peace concluded yesterday is also a great personal triumph for Sir Courtenay Boyle.
"The meetings at the Board of Trade are indeed, of good omen", the article continued. "They show that the conscience and common sense of the community are shaping themselves to good effect, that the old idea of the State as policeman is giving place to an altogether wider conception of its functions. Where, we may ask, should we be to-day if the Government had followed the old rule and satisfied themselves with keeping the ring clear for civil war? The fight would have gone on to the end, till the men were driven to the wall or the employers were face to face with ruin..... It is something to have averted this, to have saved homes from being broken up, organisations which are founded upon mutual help and kindness, from being shattered, a great industry from utter desolation".
Writing in the twentieth century, practically forty years after the event, one might askare the Terms of Settlement enough in themselves to ensure peace in our industry? Magnificent as they are as an achievement of common sense; monument of goodwill though they may be to the people who made them possible and to those who appended their signatures to them, they are of no avail without the will to observe them. In themselves, they are not enough to maintain peace and fair conditions in the industry. They should have the force of law.
One sidelight on the great dispute may conveniently be noticed.
At the end of March seven Rushden operatives, and one man from Higham Ferrers were charged at Wellingborough with following, with a view to preventing two men from following their calling as clickers at the firm of Messrs. Hewitt and Noble, at Rushden on March 21st.
Mr. A. T. Toller, barrister, prosecuted, and the defendants were represented by Mr. G. J. Phillips, of Northampton.
The first witness, one of the two men said to have been "followed", said he was a non-Unionist, and did not go out on strike. On Thursday, March 21st, he left the factory in Moor-road, he said (according to a contemporary newspaper report) at 6 o’clock. There was a large crowd outside numbering about 1,500, and they started hooting and were disorderly. Witness was with a fellow workman, and the two of them walked across Moor-road in company with Police Inspectors Brown and Onan, and the crowd followed them.
One of the defendants tried to trip witness’s companion up, he continued, and when they got to Queen-street the men called witness a "scab" and he was compelled to take refuge in a house. He was afraid to go any further because the crowd began to throw stones.
The other employee concerned told the court he had to ask the Inspectors for protection. While in Moor-road he was kicked and in Queen-street hit on the head with stones, but he did not see any of the defendants throw stones.
Inspector Brown, of Wellingboro', said the crowd became very excited when the two men came out and one of the defendants shouted "You scab. You turncoat. Do you call yourselves men?' Others used much the same language, and there was hooting and hissing. One of the two men and witness were hit by stones, and he also heard a remark "give 'em it".
Mr. Phillips contended that no offence known to the criminal law had been committed and there must be some specific act of offence. If the magistrates convicted, he said, they would be flying in the face of the law of the land.
After lengthy evidence for the defence the magistrates concluded that the rase had been made out, and they imposed a fine of £5 and costs.
When once the Terms of Settlement were signed, men and manufacturers quickly made up their minds to forget the past. We give a typical instance of this new and better frame of mind.
No sooner was the lock-out over than a Rushden manufacturer, who has asked to be nameless, called his men together and presented them with sovereigns and half sovereigns. The men trooped along to a certain public house in Rushden, and the publican, good fellow that he was, advised the men to take their money straight home, as their wives and children stood in dire need. "Don't spend your money on drink'', he urged. "That is the last thing your employer would wish".
'But we haven't come to spend it," he was told, "all we've come here for is to ask you if you will let us have a room for a meeting". Mine host readily agreed. The result was that the men unanimously resolved to buy their employer a marble clock and ornaments as a token of their gratitude and esteem.
The employer has asked us not to mention his name in this because he does not seek to appear any better than anybody else. We respect his wishes, but surely such acts of goodwill should not be forgotten.