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Subject: ‘Labour Party’

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In 1888 the Match Girls went on strike and won the day

Posted in Historical articles, History, Industry, Labour Party, London, Politics on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

This edited article about the Match Girls’ Strike first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 568 published on 2 December 1972.

Match girls on strike,  picture, image, illustration
The Match Girls at Bryant and May went on strike, by Peter Jackson

Each evening, a few minutes after the whistle had blown, they could be seen streaming out of the Bryant and May factory off the Bow Road, a female army of pale ghosts dressed in drab and tattered clothing and wearing down at heel shoes. Stamped with the indelible mark of poverty, their eyes red-rimmed and heavy with permanent despair, they shuffled off nightly to their respective hovels in the slum wasteland of the East End. If no one gave them any more than a passing glance as they went by, it was because such sights were all too common in the streets of London.

The members of this particular pitiful army were known as the Match Girls, who were even more worse off than most. Working in the Bryant and May Match Factory, meant working long hours in primitive conditions, with no proper washrooms and toilets, More to the point it meant handling dangerous chemicals which turned many of them into physical wrecks. For this they were paid anything from 4/- (20p) to 13/- (65p) a week, from which fines were deducted for such trivial offences as answering back the bullying charge hands who had the power to fire any girl on the spot who seemed a potential trouble maker.

It was the year of 1888, and thanks mainly to the Trades Unions, recent legislation had put a stop to some of the worst abuses carried out in the factories. But the little that had been done had been confined to the skilled workers. The illiterate, unskilled workers remained as they had always been, underpaid, and exploited, and with seemingly no opportunity of having their wrongs redressed.

But for the Match Girls, at least, help was at hand in the formidable shape of one Mrs Annie Besant, a woman of forty, who had already made herself unpopular in many circles for her fight for women’s rights, which were practically non-existent at the time.

Among other things, Annie Besant was a member of the Fabian Society, a small group of people who had named their society after the Roman, Quintus Fabius Maximus, known as the Delayer, because he had harrassed Hannibal’s army for three years without once entering into a major encounter on the battlefield. The Fabians, who were all Socialists, hoped to use similar tactics to bring about a number of social and economic reforms. Using the slogan “Evolution not Revolution,” they hoped to break down the prejudices of their Establishment with reasoned argument. But reason, alas, does not always prevail, and already it was beginning to dawn on the Fabians that militancy was sometimes necessary. Mrs Annie Besant was perhaps rather different to the other members of the society inasmuch as that she had always been a militant. Aggressive, determined and totally devoted to the cause of women’s emancipation, she was the ideal person to fight for the cause of the Match Girls. Her efforts on their behalf were to have far wider ramifications than she could have ever realised.

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In 1926 the army and the middle classes broke the General Strike

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Industry, Institutions, Labour Party, Politics, Trade on Thursday, 20 February 2014

This edited article about the General Strike first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 559 published on 30 September 1972.

The General Strike of 1926,  picture, image, illustration
Volunteer bus drivers were protected during the General Strike of 1926 by John Keay

Overnight, the country seemed to have died. Docks, factories, mines and power stations were idle. There were no trains, buses or newspapers . . . half of Britain was on strike against poverty, but the other half was determined to keep the country alive.

The soldiers stood with their guns at the ready, their eyes wary and watchful. There had been no trouble yet, but the tenseness, the almost eerie calm of the strikers lining the roads to the London docks might explode into violence at any moment.

Inside the dock gates, some of the older men loading lorries with meat and flour were wilting under the effort, for they were quite unused to this strenuous labour that hardened the hands and mesmerised the mind with its tedium. The undergraduates who worked with them were naturally more energetic, but were just as obviously strangers to dock-work. Their expressions lacked the sullen glower of the strikers in the crowd outside. Their faces were free of the undernourished grey, and the lines stamped by poverty and restive envy of those to whom life had been less generous.

This strange reversal of roles, in which solicitors, stockbrokers, students and other members of the middle class temporarily assumed the tasks of labourers, occurred on 9th May, 1926, at a time when want and insecurity still marked the lives of many British working men.

All over Britain, overcrowded slums polluted towns and cities, spawning a population whose health was suspect, whose work was menial and could be dangerous, and whose diet sometimes barely skirted starvation level.

After World War I, it was to people like this that employers addressed demands that wages should be cut.

The protests were, naturally, vigorous and, at first, seemed successful. After strike action by railwaymen in 1919, proposals to reduce their wages were withdrawn. And though miners’ pay was forced down in 1921, the mine-owners three years later conceded a rise and a seven instead of an eight-hour day.

The basic conflict however, remained; and it remained at its most aggressive in the mining industry where, despite sporadic flickers upwards, exports were falling in the face of European competition.

In this situation, employers and employed took firm and stubbornly opposing stands.

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The Trades Union movement has its famous martyrs

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Industry, Institutions, Labour Party, Law, Politics, Trade on Friday, 17 January 2014

This edited article about Trades Unions first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 517 published on 11 December 1971.

Tolpuddle martyrs, picture, image, illustration
Even when they were pardoned, their neighbours regarded the Tolpuddle Martyrs as convicts and avoided them by Ken Petts

Ten million working men and women in Britain today possess small cards which show that they are members of a trade union. They come from all walks of life; they include artists, actors, professional men, engineers, builders, shop workers, bus drivers and managers.

What in fact is a trade union?

It is simply an organization designed to protect the interests of all the people in the country who are employed on any one job. For instance, railwaymen, many of whom belong to the National Union of Railwaymen, or town hall workers, who belong to a union called the National and Local Government Officers Association.

In Britain today there are about 650 unions – some quite small, others with scores of thousands of members.

The unions generally have an important job to do for their members. They bargain with the employers for good wages, hours and conditions of work.

To do their job the unions must, of course, be organized and have officers and funds. Their money is contributed by their members, who each week pay a small sum from their wages to their union to support it.

Just as all men doing a certain job combine to form one union, so many of the unions, in turn, associate to form a national policy for all the unions.

This association meets once a year and is called the Trades Union Congress. It is a kind of voice of the working people, and it is now such an important body that the Government takes careful note of its views.

Many times during the eighteenth century workers in Britain tried to form trade unions, but Parliament always forbade them.

At last in the year 1824, Parliament agreed to recognize unions. A man named Francis Place had led the opposition to what were called “combination laws,” that is, laws directed against workpeople forming societies, or “combinations.” Now the trades unions grew rapidly.

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America’s Industrial Workers of the World were crushed by big business

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Labour Party, Ships on Thursday, 12 December 2013

This edited article about America first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 491 published on 12 June 1971.

Seattle dock, picture, image, illustration
The Seattle dock where the Wobblies marched in columns

They marched four-abreast down to the docks. They were tired and hungry and many bore the bruises and scars of their recent battles with police and vigilantes. Some looked grim and defiant, but most of them were in high spirits and sang exultantly:

We meet today in Freedom’s cause
And raise our voices high.
We’ll join our hands in union strong
To battle or to die.

It was a song that had found favour with the transport workers in Britain early in the century. Now, in November 1916, it was sung in the American west-coast city of Seattle; and the singers were the Industrial Workers of the World, better known by their nickname, the Wobblies.

The I.W.W. was a trades union founded in Chicago in 1905. It aimed to combine workers all over the world into one big union which would overthrow capitalism and build a new society in which workers would participate in the management and control of industry. To begin with, however, the Wobblies fought against the unjust treatment meted out to workers by the great American business corporations; their principal weapon was the strike.

They also became involved in a running battle for freedom of speech – the right to hold street meetings and to recruit members. They devised an effective means of attack. Wobblies would come from all over the west to towns where their meetings had been forbidden. They would hold demonstrations and, when these were broken up, would go willingly to gaol. So great were their numbers that they clogged the judicial system and the disruption they caused in this fashion far outweighed the trouble they caused with their meetings. Eventually most authorities refused to implement the laws against them.

In the town of Everett, however, the authorities, bolstered up by the town’s businessmen, stood firm. When Wobbly meetings were held, the sheriff – a man called Macrae – and his deputies set on the attenders in large numbers and beat them up. Consequently, the Wobblies planned a demonstration in strength. They would charter a boat to sail from Seattle across the Puget Sound to Everett, where they would land to demonstrate, several thousand strong. Thus it was that on 5th November the Wobbly columns marched to the Seattle dock to board the steamships Verona and Calista, bound for Everett.

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The Wall Street Crash ushered in the Great Depression

Posted in America, Anarchy, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Labour Party, Politics on Tuesday, 10 December 2013

This edited article about the Depression first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 486 published on 8 May 1971.

Unemployed marchers, picture, image, illustration
Unemployed British marchers during the Depression

Wall Street’s Stock Exchange where grave-faced men of business dealt in millions every day was like a madhouse. Telephones shrilled, messengers rushed in and out, ticker tapes chattered – all unheeded. The share prices they showed were hopelessly out of date before they received them. Millions were being lost every minute. The crowd groaned in despair. Dupont, one of the greatest American companies was named. Its value had dropped again. It was now half yesterday’s. Worse, Trans America had lost 840 million dollars and stopped trading. Other names told the same story. The brokers were stunned!

The hypnotised trance lasted only a moment; then the crowd broke. Hundreds of men scurried hither and thither. Some to a telephone to pass on the news, some to seek buyers, others believing the indicator board was way behind, sought more information. Pandemonium resumed. Others did nothing. They either sat, or walked slowly like zombies, unable to believe their fortunes of a month before had vanished, as if stolen. That day, 29th October, 1929, a number of them committed suicide. They were ruined, everything they had worked for had gone in the worst financial disaster of the century, the Wall Street Crash, when the American business world ran out of money and stopped.

The crash reverberated around the world. Its impact no longer measured in terms of money lost but in jobs lost. Without buyers for their goods, manufacturers went bankrupt, or nearly so, and could no longer pay wages. Millions were unemployed. Economists call this kind of drop in trade a depression, but this downturn lasted so long and was so bad it came to be called the Great Depression or Slump.

It was a few months before it had an effect on Britain. When it did it was as disastrous as elsewhere. Nine months after the bank crash in New York, unemployment here doubled to two million. It crept up to two and a half million by December, 1930. In Germany the effect was far worse. In 1933, the darkest year of the whole grim business, there were 6 million out of work.

Irresponsibility is one word that could well describe the cause of the Wall Street crash. Because America’s economy was booming after the First World War, even foreigners were eager to invest their money in anything American. To oblige them, speculators began setting up companies that on paper were worth millions. An example might be real estate. Huge office blocks were built to be let at enormous profits – if the boom continued. When it didn’t the owners were left with no money and a brick and mortar pile thousands of miles away.

Before the crash investing on the Exchange had become as common as saving through a bank. All over America, ordinary people had begun to invest, and while prices were high they were happy. But when one of the regular downturns in trade occurred, thousands of these amateur investors were frightened. They panicked and sold for what they could get. The effect snowballed and the slide in prices began.

The wave of selling spread further and faster till it careered on out of control. The smash, when it came, wiped out savings as well as fortunes.

America’s economy and that of the rest of the world slowly picked up over the next few years. New industries such as cars and electrical goods proved their worth and money eventually began to circulate between trading nations again.

Margaret McMillan pioneered medical examinations for schoolchildren

Posted in Education, Historical articles, History, Labour Party, Medicine on Wednesday, 29 May 2013

This edited article about medicine originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 272 published on 1 April 1967.

British schoolchildren, picture, image, illustration
British schoolchildren in the early twentieth century

“Open your mouth and let us see if you have nice, white teeth.”

The little boy looked doubtfully first at the lady and then at the doctor. They both looked kind, and so he opened his mouth wide.

He was the first of millions of British children to have routine medical examinations at school.

Today, school clinics, nursery schools and physical education as part of the school curriculum are taken for granted. But only 70 years ago, Margaret McMillan had to fight to get these ideas accepted.

Margaret McMillan was born in New York on 20th January, 1860. She grew up in Scotland with her mother and her sister Rachel. She planned to become a governess, then for a time she wanted to be an actress. In fact she achieved neither of these ambitions, for she grew interested in politics and became a member of the Independent Labour Party in 1893.

A year later, she was elected to the local school board and, seeing the poor state of health of so many young British school children, she realised that her life’s work lay in helping them.

By 1899, she had successfully fought to impress on her colleagues the importance of regular medical inspection for children, and supervised it herself in several schools. At the same time, with the help of her sister, she began her first nursery school, and, as soon as that was making progress, turned her energies to establishing camp schools for boys.

In 1910, Margaret and Rachel opened their largest clinic for sick children, in Deptford. After a year of hard work, they won official recognition and government help.

During the First World War (1914-18), the two sisters set up an open-air nursery school for under-fives which caused world-wide interest.

Margaret’s final success came in 1929 when she founded a college for training infants’ teachers which carried on her ideas.

Two years later, On 29th March, 1931, Margaret McMillan died at Harrow.

The General Strike of 1926

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Industry, Labour Party, London on Tuesday, 26 February 2013

This edited article about the General Strike originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 161 published on 13 February 1965.

General Strike, picture, image, illustration

In London crowds watched convoys of army trucks loaded with food and guarded by armoured cars, go past.

At pit heads all over Britain on the last day of April, 1926, miners coming off work found the men of the new shift clustered around notices pasted on the mine building walls.

Those who stopped and read them discovered to their dismay that the government was no longer prepared to subsidize the mines. The mine owners, said the notices, therefore regretted that the miners would have to take a cut in wages.

Soon, above the row of the noisy discussion and argument, one word was heard again and again – strike! The next day, May 1, the pits were silent and empty.

Within hours, other British unions declared that unless the Trades Union Congress and the government could find a solution to the coal miners’ problem by midnight of May 3-4 they would strike in sympathy.

Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Government decided to take several precautionary measures just in case no solution was found. The Army was called in to transport food and blankets. And the public transport was commandeered.

These severe measures were very soon proved to be justified, for the T.U.C. and the government failed to settle their differences. And so, at midnight on May 3-4, all forms of communication in Britain suddenly came to a halt. Trains, buses and trams stopped where they were. Dock workers loading a ship left their loading basket swinging in space.

In London crowds of men assembled in the streets and watched convoys of army trucks loaded with food and guarded by armoured cars, go past. Hyde Park was used as a distribution centre for milk and bread.

In the mining areas, miners’ families settled down for a long stretch of poverty. Housewives carefully guarded the family savings so that the money would last longer.

Normal newspapers did not appear and the Government published a daily British Gazette. Broadcasting, three years old, first showed how useful it could be in an emergency.

By May 8 amateur train drivers were making slow cross-country journeys. Volunteers manned the London bus and underground services. Each driver had a policeman next to him, to prevent him being attacked by angry strikers.

Nine days after the General Strike began the T.U.C. expected that the government would compromise with the miners, so they stopped the strike. The date then was May 12. But when the government proposed the compromise to the mining unions they refused to accept it.

For another terrible six months the miners held on; their families slowly starving and their clothes in tatters. Winter closed in, and the weather turned cold. But no smoke came from the chimneys of the mining towns. They could not afford the coal they used to mine – and even if they could there was nobody mining it.

Cold and hunger finally forced the miners to give in. Frustrated, angry and embittered, they shuffled back to work for the same reduced wage that had been proposed six months earlier.