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From A History of the National Boot & Shoe Operatives by A. Fox. Transcribed by Jacky Lawrence
The Great Lockout 1895

By 1895 there was great concern about the presumed militancy in the boot and shoe industry. If it was to be challenged the Federation leaders needed to choose their moment carefully. Strikes and lock-outs were not allowed by the 'Rules' unless the other side had wilfully transgressed them. So, the Federation had to wait until the Union put itself in the wrong and in the September of 1894 an opportunity presented itself. The men at the Freshwater factory at St. Albans, which the Union believed was non-federated, were brought out on official strike for a minimum weekly wage of 3Os.

The firm then claimed to be a member of the Federation and invoked Federation support, which they got. Sir Thomas Wright, the President of the National Conference, instructed Inskip to send the men back to work as Federation membership entitled the firm to protection under the 'Rules'. Inskip refused as the firm had only joined the Federation when it was clear the Union intended to enforce the minimum wage. Wright submitted to pressure from Inskip to hold a small informal meeting in Leicester so that the Union arguments could be presented.

Wright decided that the Union was in the wrong and again instructed Inskip to send the men back. Instead, Inskip brought counter-charges against certain employers in Birmingham, Northampton, and Rushden, demanding that the Federation attend to these grievances as a condition upon his sending the Freshwater men back to work. Wright refused and there began a long and involved correspondence between them.

Eventually Wright decided to have no more to do with the issue and with him out of the way and the Union constitutionally in the wrong the Federation's path seemed clear. Inskip sent the Freshwater men back but requested a National Conference to discuss the defaulting employers of Birmingham, Northampton, and Rushden.

The Federation leaders were extremely reluctant to have a general lock-out if it could be avoided. Proposals were suggested known as ‘The Seven commandments’.

1.       That there shall be no advance or reduction of the present minimum rate of wages or piece-work statements, or alteration of the hours of labour applying to a town or district, within two years of December 31st, 1894, or within two years of the date of any subsequent award.
2.       That every employer is entitled (a) to the fullest control over the management of his factory, and to make such regulations as he deems necessary for time-keeping and good order; (b) to pay either the recognized piece- or day-wages; (c) to introduce machinery at any time without notice.
3.    That the present is not an opportune time for the introduction of piece-work in connection with lasting and finishing machinery. That whenever such time arrives, the wage list shall be based on the average wages earned on day-work, and the time fairly occupied in each operation.
4.        That there shall be no interference with the output either from machine or hand-labour by the Union or its officials, and instructions shall not be given by them to restrict the amount of work to be performed by workmen in connection therewith.
5.        That every employer is entitled to have his work, or any part of it, made in any town or place, provided he pays (a) the recognized rate of wages in such town or place, or, if no rate of wages has been fixed, then (&) such wages as may be fixed by mutual arrangement with his workpeople.
6.        That each employer has the sole right to determine what workmen he shall employ.
7.        That the statement of the secretary of an association  or of a branch of the Union shall be accepted on either side as proof of membership for Federation purposes.

All the local Manufacturers' Associations were now instructed by the Federation to take the seven proposals as rules governing their procedure on the local boards, and not to discuss any question contravening them. Inskip's immediate reply was vehement. 'A more damnable position was never taken up by a body of employers’.

A Special Delegate Meeting was called to test Union opinion was held at the Secular Hall in Leicester from January 24th to the 26th, 1895. The ‘Seven Commandments’ were rejected but a specific mandate from the rank-and-file membership was needed. He wanted no risks of possible recriminations from the militants and accordingly pre­pared an alternative statement and submitted both to the Union vote. The size of the subsequent vote was, in Inskip's words, 'a great disappointment' had but the vote itself supported the E.C.'s proposals.

The Executive's reply was duly sent to the Federation who stated that there could not be any possible utility in a Conference with the National Union as it refused to accept any one of the proposals. It was deadlock. Peace could be preserved only by the Union accepting a two years standstill and the contracted scope of collective bargaining. The Federation was not prepared to bargain on any new claim, so for two years the Union could only attempt to secure fresh concessions by means of strike action. It was now obvious that any such strike action would be met by a general lock-out.

Inskip waited until the winter and slack trade had passed and then, when the brisk Easter season began, threw down his challenge. To have accepted the Federation's 'standstill' and its restriction of bargaining issues would probably have meant loss of all effective power to the militants.

The challenge was delivered to the Leicester and Northampton employers whose position had already been found to be in accordance with the seven proposals. On the Leicester Board the employers' represen­tatives refused to discuss an advance for clickers and pressmen as did Northampton.

The Union put in notices on six firms in Leicester for the abolition of 'basket work' and an increase in the clickers' and pressmen's minimum, and on three firms in Northampton for a revision of the statement on welted work. The notices expired without the employers either conceding the demands or indicating readiness to put them before the local boards. The Council then called out the men of the firms concerned and by March I3th, 1895, the Federation struck. The Great Lock-out had begun.

It applied to all the federated centres: Leicester, Northampton, London, Bristol, Leeds, Kingswood, Birmingham, Kettering, and Rushden, plus a few minor places.

Non-unionists were employed and had to sign a declaration agreeing not to join the Union and not to help any Union member financially Pressure was put on federated firms not to purchase goods from firms still working and where this was unsuccessful, threats were invoked against the leather merchants to dissuade them from supplying materials to those firms.

The stoppage had aroused intense national interest and was featured strongly in both national and provincial press and as the weeks passed the sufferings of the unionists and non-unionists locked out became acute.

Union leaders sought to maintain morale by organizing processions. Although even the 'moderates' among the Union leaders were speaking passionately and bitterly there was little or no violence and intimidation. Despite a few small disturbances and some stone-throwing in the main centres, the general consensus was that the stoppage was remarkably trouble-free in these respects.

Writing of local activities in the Rushden and District Branch, Mr. John Spencer, J.P., gave a typical picture of how the stoppage was conducted:

'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. 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 lock-out, and no officials had a more loyal body of men and women under them. Mr. Tom Mann addressed three meetings and Mr. Keir Hardie spoke to a large and enthusiastic Rushden audience on "Our native land" '.

With such powerful allies behind him, Inskip continued to make defiant speeches threatening indefinite resistance to the employers' tyrannical demands. But the defiance was now hollow and the Federation leaders knew it. Over £56,000 had drained away in Lock-out Benefit, the Sick Fund had been raided and loans raised from branch funds. Thus ended, after nearly six weeks, the Great Lock-out, the last major battle waged in the industry. On April 19th, at the offices of the Board of Trade, Inskip and his fellow negotiators signed the Terms of Settlement.

The poster for the impending Lock-out
To Boot Manufacturers, Boot Operatives, and the General Public.

Being threatened with a Lock-out by the Boot Manufacturers' Federation, we feel it our duty to lay the facts of the case before you, as that, if possible, the crisis may be averted.

For years past, sorme unscrupulous employers have been employing an excessive number of boys, who have been kept on full-time, while the few men they employ to manipulate the more important parts have frequently been on short time; thus leading to continual reductions of wages, until, in some cases, the wages paid are miserably low. With the view to remedy this state of things, we took the worst place first, viz: Northampton, and six months ago asked them to meet us in a friendly way and discuss how best to alter it. They refused so to do, and sent it to the Federation to deal with: the latter body, whose professed object is to ENFORCE ARBITRATION, say our propositions are unwise, unworkable and impracticable, and interfere with the liberty of employers. BUT THEY REFUSE TO MEET US TO DISCUSS them and show us their impracticability. As for the interference with their liberty, we would remind them that labour and Capital are partners, and each have an inherent right to a fair share of the joint profits We leave you to judge between us, after considering the following:

1st. We have asked the Northampton employers for a uniform meal hour, some firms making 12. others 12.30, and others again 1 o'clock, as their hours for dinner. How can three dinners a day be provided for a family out on the miserable wages paid?

2nd. We have asked for 54 hours to constitute a week's work. Some insist upon 56.

3rd. We have asked for a substantial increase in wages for Clickers and Pressmen, numbers of whom do not average £1 per week the year round. Is this enough to bring up a family in decency?

4th. We ask that 1 Boy to 3 Men be employed. A census of the members proving that there are only 1 Boy to 7 Men between the ages of 13 and 18 belonging to the men working at our trade.

5th. We have asked that the principle of Classification be applied. Those cutting best work to have, when in full employment (which, in many places does not mean above 7 or 8 months in the year) CIickers 32/- per week. Pressmen 30/-. Those cutting Seconds, Clickers 30/-. Pressmen 29/-. Thirds. Clickers 23/-. Pressmen 26/-. Fourths, Clickers 24/- . Pressmen 22/-.

6th. We asked for a Conference on the above, promising, if it could be shown our demands were unworkable, we would withdraw them.

7th. We have offered to submit the whole of the questions to ARBITRATION unreservedly.


1st. We sent Mr Inskip to the Federation Committee Meeting to state the case on behalf of the men: after keeping him waiting two hours they refused to hear him.

2nd. They refuse to discuss the limitation of Boys to be employed in the Clicking and Pressroom.

3rd. They refuse to discuss the question of Classification.


5th. They express their willingness to submit the following questions to an arbitrator:- "Does the state of trade warrant an increase in wages and decrease in the hours of work or not?" The motive for framing such a resolution is too transparent, to need comment.

These then are the issues at stake, and to avoid a Lock-out, with its consequent loss to employers and misery to the workers, we again offer to withdraw the notices if they will agree to ARBITRATION pure and simple, if not, then they must take the consequences of their refusal. For ourselves, we shall advise the men to legally press forward their claims and not give way until they are attained. And should dire calamity fall on the place, the responsibility must rest with those who refuse to adopt the more peaceful method of settling disputes, namely, ARBITRATION.

We are, faithfully yours, the Executive Council of the Men's Union,

WM. INSKIP, Gen. Sec.

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