From the Archives: The Great Manningham Mills Strike, 1890

We reprint below an article by Keith Narey, a supporter of the Militant newspaper (now called the Socialist) which was published in 1978.

The Great Manningham Mills Strike, 1890
By Keith Narey (Chairman, Manningham Branch Labour Party)

It is over a year now since the Tory press took up its campaign against Marxism in the British labour movement. At that time right wing Labour MPs and cabinet ministers such as Shirley Williams argued that socialists who believed in the existence of a class struggle – labelled by Harold Wilson as “comers-in”- had no place in the tradition of the British labour movement and should somehow be removed from the Labour Party.

This view is consistent with the “official” history taught to each new generation – that the trade unions and Labour Party have always been “moderate” organisations of “responsible” people who rejected such foreign notions of class conflict and mass struggle. But the real traditions of the British working class are light years removed from this one-sided view. Those mighty organisations of labour were built up by the mass movement of the workers themselves in times of bitter conflict and upheaval, always in the face of the ruthless and openly biased intervention of the state on the side of the employers.

It was out of a huge wave of militant industrial struggles involving dockers, gasworkers, match girls and many others in the 1890s that the Labour Party was created. In this article Keith Narey, Chairman of Manningham Branch Labour Party, who was last year picked out for attack by the Tory press as a Marxist, gives an account of how one such battle led to the formation of the Independent Labour Party, a forerunner of the Labour Party.

The Manningham Mills strike of 1890 in Bradford was a turning point in the history of working class struggle, not only for the local movement but also having repercussions nationally.

It clearly showed the basic class conflict between labour and capital, exposing the sham paternalism of many mill owners, and furthermore highlighted the true class loyalties of the Liberal party.

The owner of Manningham Mills was one of the archetypal ‘entrepreneurial’ capitalists who had built the wool trade in Bradford, mainly by purchasing patents of all combing machines so that he could monopolise the trade with his own Lister-Donnisthorpe machine.

His name was Samuel Cunliffe Lister, later to become Lord Masham after spending £800,000 of his profits on buying country estates at Swinton Park and Jervaulx Abbey.

He had amassed his fortune by building up his mill in Manningham to a massive complex employing 5,000 operatives. Due to the lack of trade union organisation among his largely female workforce, he was able to cut wages during the 1880s.

The workers grumbled that the 30% reductions during this period were never restored in boom years. The last straw came when, in response to the McKinlay tariff, Lister announced wage cuts of up to 35% in certain departments.

Low wages

The managing director has the cheek to describe wages of 14/- per week as “unnaturally high” and pleaded for reduced wages to defeat foreign competition. Those words have a similar ring today and the argument was proved just as fallacious the when it was pointed out that most of the competition came from Germany where wages were almost double those at Lister’s!

The workers angrily drew attention to the previous year’s profit of £138,000 and the dividend of 10%, the feeling being that past profits should help to bolster present losses.

Lister’s attitude to the workers and that of his managers contributed to the tension and one of the operatives remarked that:

“…the opinion of the work people with whom I am acquainted is that there are too many gentlemen to maintain who wear collars and cuffs: also petty under managers strutting about with pencils and notebooks who might be better employed…”

Despite the lack of union organisation, after negotiations with the directors had failed, on the 16th December 1890, the operatives walked out in protest – in the middle of winter and just before Christmas. They called on the Weavers’ Association and Bradford Trades Council to help them organise. The result was widespread working class support for the strike.

Appeal

The Weavers’ Association circulated 25,000 copies of a manifesto calling for trade union support, outlining the significance of this dispute for the working class. An excerpt reads:

“In the face of these low wages we are of the opinion that we should be doing not only an injustice to ourselves but to the whole of the textile industry in the West Riding of Yorkshire by accepting the proposed reduction… help us fight against this enormous reduction. Our battle may be your battle in the immediate future. We trust, therefore, that in our present state of need and disorganisation you will liberally support us.”

This special appeal raised a magnificent total of £11,000 mainly from trade unions, and a large amount from the Yorkshire Miners’ Association.

The strike united many diverse political elements in the trade unions, and brought to the fore many radicals in previously moderate trade unions. The support of socialists such as Fred Jowett of the Bradford power loom overlookers, Ben Turner and WH Drew of the Weavers, as well as Ben Tillett and Tom Mann, helped to politicise the strike and pave the way for future developments.

The Bradford Trades Council was also politicised, with the radicals gaining control against the liberals, and organising street collections, public meetings and concerts to support the strikers.

Mass meetings

Lister aroused the anger of the strikers by accusing the women of walking around in fine furs while the men drank the profits from the begging bowl. He also threatened to close the Manningham Mills altogether as ‘uneconomic’, but these arguments, again familiar to workers today, were exposed by the strike leaders, with reference to the wages paid in other concerns in the area which were higher.

The ranks of the strikers were swelled by other departments of Manningham Mills walking out in sympathy, especially the overlookers who refused to train blackleg labour and were subsequently locked out and then fired.

The meetings called by the strike committee rapidly broadened into mass public sympathy meetings, and began to debate the political issues involved. The Tory council, dominated by the wool merchants and mill owners, reacted by sending in the police to intimidate and harass pickets and members of the public attending the meetings.

Public protest meetings against these tactics, organised by the Bradford Trades Council, reached massive proportions. At several open air meetings attendances reached between 60,000 and 90,000. The watch committee responded by banning all open meetings except under licence.

This led to a massive outcry against suppression of free speech. Demands were made to liberal councillors but they sided with the authorities. The police replied with arbitrary arrests, and in one case a seventeen year old girl was charged with ‘intimidation’ against two burly male blacklegs!

The dispute now attained national prominence and underlined the political, as well as industrial, struggle between capital and labour, adding to the socialists demand for an independent political party.

In defiance of the ban on public meetings, the strike committee and the Trades Council organised a meeting on Sunday April 12th 1891. The vast crowds overflowed into the public square by the Town Hall, and after arresting Ben Turner and Councillor Harry Saunders from Rotherham, the police cleared the square.

The following day large crowds gathered in the town centre, determined to fight the council’s ban on public assembly and free speech. Extra police were called in, along with 106 members of the Durham Light Infantry.

The mayor read the Riot Act, and the streets were cleared, first by police with batons, then by the soldiers with fixed bayonets.

The ensuing street battles, which raged from the afternoon until midnight, with the crowds hurling knives and stones at the troops, became something of a legend in Bradford labour history, and were described by some as being ‘like scenes from the French revolution’.

Starved

This was followed by a meeting on the following Saturday of 90,000 people in the town centre. The crowd was so vast that five platforms of speakers were required simultaneously in order to address the audience.

The strike, however, was being starved to an end. With a hard-faced attitude similar to that of the Tory Party today, the Poor Law guardians refused relief to strikers and anyone who refused to blackleg, local traders were forced to withdraw credit and after nineteen heroic weeks the workers were forced back.

But from this defeat came some great victories. Trade union organisation was boosted by thousands of new members and new unions sprang up to take in unskilled and casual workers. The Bradford Trades Council shed its liberal leadership and became committed to independent, working class politics.

One of the strike leaders, Charlie Glyde, later to be secretary of the Gas Workers’ Union, said at one of the mass meetings: “We have had two parties in the past; the ‘can’ts’ and the ‘won’ts’ and it’s time we had a party that will.”

The ‘party that will’ was formed a month later at Firth’s Temperance Hotel in East Parade, Bradford. This was the Independent Labour Party[1], which was to have its national founding conference two years later in Bradford. The leaders stated: “The Labour Party intended to have labour representation in the Town council and to take the whip out of the hands of those who have been flogging them…”

The first Independent Labour councillor was elected in Manningham in November 1891 and the next year Manningham returned two ILP councillors, one of whom was Fred Jowett, later destined to be the first ILP MP for Bradford in 1906. His words in the 1982 election form a fitting conclusion to this episode of Labour history.

First on the strike itself: “In the Lister strike, the people of Bradford saw plainly, as they had never seen before, that whether their rulers are Liberal or Tory, they are capitalists first and politicians afterwards.”

And finally to the Liberals and Tories: “You have run this machine too long, we see the prejudicial results of your management – starvation, misery, crime and a state of general unwashedness, body and soul, and we mean to take the matter in hand and try to make a better thing of it ourselves.”

The climate was ripe for change, Manningham provided the catalyst and the opportunity.

[1] This was actually the founding of the Bradford Labour Union, it was renamed Bradford ILP the following year.

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