A century ago the streets of Cradley Heath emptied of smoke—and filled with joy. Some 1,000 women chainmakers stopped work and marched with their children through the Black Country town, singing, smiling and waving flags.
This was the beginning of the chainmakers’ strike—a strike that would see the women win a minimum wage for the first time, doubling their pay.
The women’s struggle inspired a generation—and it is still a powerful tale 100 years on.
For years, many thought the women chainmakers were unorganisable. The domestic chain trade was made up of hundreds of small forges, many in people’s backyards. Some employed as few as two workers.
The chain bosses “commissioned” the work through middlemen, who would then negotiate with each chainmaker individually. This system meant the women, who needed the work, seemed to be in no position to force up their wages.
On her first visit to Cradley Heath the trade union agitator Mary Macarthur described the forges as something akin to medieval torture chambers.
Poverty wages were dominant. While the average pay was 26 shillings a week for men and 11s a week for women, the domestic chainmakers in Cradley Heath earned just 5s to 6s for a hard 54-hour week.
The only public facilities in the area were the workhouse and the mortuary.
Not surprisingly, one social commentator described Cradley Heath as “hell”.
But in 1910, the women workers broke their chains—by discovering the secret of united action.
After a national campaign against low pay by the Anti-Sweating League, the government had introduced legislation to end “sweating” in four trades, including the domestic chain trade.
This was supposed to mean a minimum wage of 11s 3d a week. But the employers refused to pay it.
By then Mary Macarthur and the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) had recruited some 400 domestic chainmakers to the union.
The NFWW demanded that the women be paid the 11s 3d immediately.
The response from some of the smaller factories was to lock out the workers. This was the spark for them to start to fight back. Macarthur organised a mass meeting and called upon all the domestic chainmakers in the area to attend.
The strike had begun.
“For an hour the pageant wound through the dejected street... till it came to a deserted slag heap, selected for speech making,” wrote John Galsworthy, author of the Forsyte Saga, who was there that day.
“As I watched, a strong fancy visited my brain... I seemed to see over every rugged head of these marching women a little yellow flame, a thin flickering gleam... a trick of the sunlight maybe?
“Or was it the life in their heads, the indistinguishable breath of happiness, had for a moment escaped prison, and was fluttering at the pleasure of the breeze?”
The employers did not expect a long strike. They knew how little the women were paid, and that to go without meant hunger.
Macarthur, aware of the dire need for money if the chainmakers were not to be starved back to work, threw her energies into raising enough solidarity funds to pay the strikers.
By 1 September some 650 chainmakers were on strike, going on daily marches to collect money. Collections were held outside church congregations and football grounds.
Macarthur wrote leaflets and letters asking for support. But she also used the new media of the era—cinema. She made a film exposing the miserable conditions of the chainmakers to win support and solidarity. Watched by some ten million people, it helped generate the much-needed cash.
Very quickly, enough money was being raised to pay every striker 5s a week. The strike not only remained solid, but gained momentum.
The chainmakers’ choice was to be paid 5s to keep working or to receive the same amount for fighting to double their wages, marching, visiting places they had never been before and being in control of their day.
In other words, they had nothing to lose but their chains.
The empowerment and sense of liberation must have been intoxicating to women who had been largely shackled to their forges.
On 3 September a march by the women to a neighbouring town convinced more to join the action, bringing the total number of strikers to 800.
Then a delegation of chainmakers addressed the TUC, which pledged its support. With the strike solid and solidarity flooding in, the bosses and the middlemen were feeling the pressure.
After another month, they finally caved in.
On 22 October, Mary Macarthur addressed a mass meeting in Cradley Heath and declared that the new minimum wage of 11s 3d a week had been secured by the strike. The chainmakers had won a 100 percent pay rise.
By that time they had raised enough solidarity money to pay all the strikers’ wages. There was even enough left over to build a workers’ institute.
This was a huge victory—one that fed the mood for an escalation of strikes before the First World War, known as the Great Unrest.
By the time those years of struggle were over, the size of Britain’s trade union movement had doubled from two million members to four million.
Tony Barnsley is the author of Breaking Their Chains and joint assistant branch secretary of Sandwell Unison general branch. He writes in a personal capacity
Breaking Their Chains: Mary Macarthur and the Chainmakers’ Strike of 1910 is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk
The Women Chainmakers Centenary Festival: A 100th anniversary celebration of the women chainmakers’ strike. Saturday 18 September, 10am, Black Country Living Museum, Tipton Road, Dudley, DY1. Go to www.chainmakersstrike.co.uk