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FUSTIAN WEAVERS' STRIKE

Hebden Bridge, 1906-1908

This fascinating essay on the Fustian Weavers' strike by Leslie Goldthorp is in the 1982 booklet from the HB Lit & Sci: Local history booklet number 3. The hundredth anniversary of the start of strike was on July 26th 2006.

Leslie describes the background to the strike, including the plan to create a cooperatively run mill at Eaves Bottom as an alternative for the weavers. Sadly the coop didn't survive.

The story of the prolonged fustian weavers' strike in Hebden Bridge which began in July 1906 is, by any standards, a remarkable one. This is not only because of its duration (although a dispute lasting almost two and a half years has seldom if ever been paralled in the whole history of the cotton industry), but also because of several features which, if not unique, are to say the least, especially when taken collectively, very unusual indeed. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to cite another industrial dispute which (a) became interlocked at one stage with the Suffragist movement in the persons of Mrs. Pankhurst and other leaders, (b) led to the setting up of an industrial venture on copartnership lines, and (c) resulted in one of the strikers, with virtually no capital, starting his own little business which was destined to become one of the largest firms of its kind in the world!

The strike began on 26 July 1906 at Messrs. Ashworth Bros., Foster Mill. The weavers, backed by their trade organisations, were insisting on being paid at the same rate as their fellow workers in Bury and other Lancashire towns, which would have meant an increase of 10% on twills and 5% on fustian. Ashworths were not prepared to concede more than a flat increase of 2 1/2%, which would have amounted to little more than 6d a week for adult males, nor would they agree to improve conditions of work.

As a result of a ballot the weavers at Foster Mill struck, and were followed a week later by 130 employees of Messrs. R. Thomas & Son, Hangingroyd Shed. By the second week in August over 200 were out on strike. During the next few weeks the strike assumed a more serious aspect when a unanimous decision to join it was taken by the fustian weavers at Messrs. Roger Shackleton & Co., Hangingroyd and Salem Sheds, and Richard Thomas & Co., Calder Mill Shed. Meanwhile Messrs. Tattersall, Pecket Well Shed, posted a notice offering to advance the wages of their fustian weavers by 7'/2 % and to improve conditions.

By early October the strike had reached such proportions that the Rev. A. G. Harding saw fit to preach a sermon on it at Birchcliffe Baptist Church. Everyone was wondering whether it was the beginning of a general strike in the town.

The Hebden Bridge Urban District Council urged the masters and workers to put an end to their differences by resorting to arbitration. Hope began to stir when masters and men agreed to have a joint meeting in the Council chamber, but certain proposals put forward by the employers were turned down by a ballot vote of 280 against 23.

It was reported that Mr. Elton Thomas of Thomas & Sons, Hangingroyd was contemplating going out of business and selling his mills as a going concern. In the meantime an invitation had come to hand for 100 weavers who could be found work in Lancashire at the `standard price list' (i.e., the standard wage rate), but it is not known whether anyone took up the offer.

Although hitherto there had been no street disturbances, the 18th week of the strike saw hostile demonstrations in the Foster Lane and Nutclough areas against weavers who were still working. It is highly probable that most of these workers would be employed at the Fustian Manufacturing Co-operative Society Shed at Nutclough, which, because it was run on the co-partnership principal, would doubtless have a reasonably contented workforce.

December brought little or no change in the situation, apart from legal proceedings taken against certain strikers for intimidation. Early in the month 41 weavers employed by Ashworth Bros. sued the firm for breach of contract at Todmorden County Court, but did not find the judge particularly sympathetic to their cause.

In the trade review for 1906 it was stated that whereas the year had begun well it was ending gloomily, not only as regards fustian weaving but also in the ready-made clothing industry. The year 1907 opened with a stern warning from the local magistrates about violent picketing, but the strikers remained as determined as ever to fight for what they considered to be their rights.

In January 1907 there was a new development; several employers, in an attempt to break the strike, began to `import' weavers from Luddenden and Midgley. The strikers at first contented themselves with jeers and catcalls, but a little later disorderly scenes ensued; the strike-breakers were pursued as far as County Bridge, Mytholmroyd, where a large crowd took up the cause of the strikers with shouts of "Knobsticks" (blacklegs).

As a result seven strikers were arraigned before the County Court judge at Todmorden and fined. It was about this time that the weavers claimed that although various attempts had been made to break the strike, now in its 25th week, not one of their number had returned to work. The cost in strike pay to the local branch of the Weavers' and Winders' Association during 1906 had amounted to £2,353.

During the last week of January no less a person than Mrs. Emeline Pankhurst, one of the leaders of the suffragettes, announced that she was going to lend a hand in the dispute by addressing a public meeting in Hebden Bridge. She was to be accompanied by another suffragist leader, Mrs. Mitchell of Ashton.

Excitement in the town ran high, and on the evening of the big occasion it reached fever pitch. Large crowds assembled in the streets, and a brass band consisting of strikers was in attendance. About four hundred of the disgruntled strikers marched from the Weavers' Institute at Wood End to the Victoria Hall and the lesser Co-operative Hall.

Huge crowds had to be turned away, and Mrs. Pankhurst's address, in the words of The Hebden Bridge Times, "created scenes unparalleled in the history of Hebden Bridge. Twelve policemen were present, but there was no disorder." Nevertheless, four local men, along with two suffragettes, one from Halifax and another from Stockport, were proceeded against at Todmorden the following week for unlawful assembly.

Perhaps it would not be out of place to record here that three young Hebden Bridge suffragettes, Misses Lavena Saltonstall of Buttress Brink, Lilian Cobbe of Industrial Street, and Lizzie Berkly of Bankside, were amongst others of their movement to be arrested after an attack on the House of Commons in March 1907.

All three were fined 50 shillings and costs with alternative of 14 days' imprisonment; they opted for the latter and were incarcerated in Holloway Gaol. A year later Miss Saltonstall, who had moved to Halifax, was brutally assaulted by a gang of youths at a suffragettes' meeting in that town which had been organised to welcome her back home after a second spell in Holloway.

In their weekly report for mid-February, 1907, the strike committee alleged that one firm had given an increase in wages to 'blackleg' weavers, and that it had stated it was prepared to take on other workers on condition that they were not members of the Weavers' Union.

Towards the end of March the committee issued the following statement: "It having come to our notice that certain persons are going about the district stating that they are on strike in Hebden Bridge and asking for alms, we beg to say there is no distress amongst the weavers and that these people are impostors." In mid-April the committee reaffirmed its determination to continue the fight to the bitter end, and revealed that after 39 weeks £3,570 had been paid out in strike pay.

In May, a provisional committee was appointed to try to find work for the strikers by starting a new mill to be run on the co-partnership principle. This committee consisted of Coun. Joseph Greenwood (manager of the Hebden Bridge Manufacturing Society Ltd., Nutclough), Mr. John Stansfield (president of the Hebden Bridge Industrial Co-operative Society Ltd.), Mr.J.W.Garside (manager of the Hebden Bridge U.D.Council's electricity works), Coun. Greenwood Pickles (weaver, Windsor Roard), Mr.W.H. Brown (weaving expert, Bethel Terrace), Mr. W.H. Helliwell (weaver, Heptonstall), and Mr.A.Cunliffe (weaver, Cambridge Street).

By the end of June an agreement had been signed for the purchase of Eaves Bottom estate, near the foot of the Colden Valley, which comprised some 48 acres of freehold land and two six-storied mills, formerly used as silk spinning factories.

Much of the estate was suitable for dwelling houses, and it was intended to form a co-partnership tenants' society to develop this project. No doubt stimulated by the success of the enterprise at Nutclough, the committee declared its intention of making the new society a sound commercial concern, the profits of which would then be apportioned amongst those who had produced the goods.

Above all, they would educate men to govern themselves to live in perfect harmony with their fellows. Seldom can a group of self-help enthusiasts have embarked on a co-partnership project with such idealism. The journal, "Co-Partnership", shared in the enthusiasm that was being engendered locally: "The site is fitted to become an arcadia and to ring with song and happiness. It has its church (St. James', Mytholm), its factory, its streams, its rocky cliffs, its woods and meadows, and some day it will have its cottage homes- a garden village, where its people will live lives free from carping care, free from lock-out or strike, happy in their beautiful sur¬roundings on their own hillside."

From its office at Howarth's Restaurant, 35 Market Street, Hebden Bridge, the new society's prospectus was issued. It was inviting applications for shares at £1 each, payable at 2s. 6d. on application, 5s. on allotment, and the balance in instalments. Nominal capital of the new venture, which was to be styled the Eaves Self-Help Manufacturers Ltd., was fixed at £15,000. By the middle of September almost £5,000 worth of shares had been purchased by nearly 400 people, whilst in addition the sum of £1000 had been subscribed by the Hebden Bridge Industrial Co-operative Society.

Amongst the supporters of the project were D.J.Shackleton, MP, and other well-known social reformers. Meanwhile a band of willing workers, share-holding weavers out on strike, had been working hard under William Brown, the manager, repairing roads, water¬ways, dams, etc., and cleaning out and preparing one of the former silk mills for the advent of the looms.

The weavers' dispute, meanwhile, was no nearer to a solution; the strike committee heralded the 50th week by the following statement: "whilst employers in other districts have made advances of 10% on twills and 5% on fustian, the employers in Hebden Bridge are still offering us a 2.5% advance".

A new move in the dispute was made in August 1907, when the chairman of Hebden Bridge U.D.C. tried to arrange a meeting between the strike leaders and the employers, but unfortunately there was no response. In the following month yet another attempt was made to settle the strike, this time by Mr. John S. Sigham, MP for Sowerby Division. He had been in touch with both sides, and it was widely reported that a settlement of the dispute, now in its 61st week, was in sight. The reports, however, proved to be inaccurate and the strike continued.

When the dispute had lasted 65 weeks the local Weavers' and Winders' Association stated that it had cost them £3,441. If this figure is correct, and the sum of £3,579 mentioned earlier as having been paid out in strike pay by the 39th week is not inaccurate, then clearly money must have been forthcoming from more than one source.

By the end of October it was reported that the project at Eaves Bottom was really getting under way; over 40 looms had been installed, and the engine and boilers had been given a satisfactory try-out.

November brought an important new development in the strike situation. A conference took place between representatives of Messrs. Ashworth Bros., Foster Mill (where the dispute had begun over 15 months previously) and the executive of the Northern Counties Amalgamation. The parties were called together with a view to discussing terms for a settlement; an agreement was ultimately arrived at, but both sides decided not to disclose anything until the weavers at Ashworths had had an opportunity of coming to a decision.

It is not clear what agreement had been reached, but it is obvious from what follows that the Foster Mill operatives went back soon afterwards. According to figures issued by the local Weavers' Association in mid-November there were then only five firms still involved in the dispute, the number of strikers having been reduced to about 200. A fortnight later it was announced that the only concerns still involved in the strike were R. Thomas & Sons, Hangingroyd and Calder Sheds, and R. Shackleton & Sons, Royd and Salem Sheds. The Weavers' Association declared that although settlements had been reached at three of the firms originally involved, they represented only one-third of the total number that had gone on strike.

There is patently some discrepancy here; the original number of strikers was in the region of 500, and therefore, if by this time only 200 were still out it follows that about three-fifths of the total must have resumed work.

Another disparity, this time with regard to the cost of the dispute, occurs at this juncture. It was reported in the local Times that a Manchester newspaper had put the cost of the weavers' strike to the men's union by the end of December, 1907, at between £18,000 and £20,000. Although there was obviously some confusion at this date as to the proportion of weavers still on strike and as to the amount paid out in strike pay, it is clear that there had been a partial settlement, and it remained to be seen how much longer it would take to achieve a complete return to work.

In the meantime the Eaves Self-Help Manufacturers, Ltd. were pressing forward with their project, and by this time had purchased all the looms and effects of Harry Sutcliffe's of Rose Shed, Mytholmroyd. In February an appeal was made for more generous support both for the strikers and the Eaves mill venture. The new company stated that it was hoped in the near future to have a trial run of all the looms so far installed, but only a week later a jarring note was struck, both as regards the aspirations of the striking weavers and the prospects at Eaves Bottom.

In a report on the state of the local cotton industry trade was described as "extremely dull, very few inquiries are being received and orders are scarce." A few weeks later the trend was obviously continuing: several firms in the Todmorden area found it necessary to go on short time, and some Hebden Bridge concerns were `playing' on Saturdays.

Meanwhile the weavers' strike still continued in all its bitterness. There was a serious affray between strikers and non-union weavers employed in Hebden Bridge, which resulted in two of the strikers appearing before the Todmorden magistrates on charges of assault. The Weavers' Association, in the 92nd week of the strike, stated: "We ask that the same prices (i.e. wages) and conditions of labour shall obtain at the firms in dispute as obtains ...at other firms. But this has up to the present been denied us, hence the conti¬nuance of the dispute."

Despite the falling off in the cotton trade the Eaves company was by no means curbing its ambitions. At the second half-yearly meeting of shareholders it declared its intentions of increasing the number of looms to three or four hundred. "We are in possession of an engine which can provide power for an excess of 400 looms; also water-wheels that can be far more economically used with a larger number of looms."

In their report on the 100th week of the strike the local Weavers' Association stated: "Time may wear away the active enthusiasm and support of outside friends, and even among the strikers themselves, but it cannot alter the justice of the question at issue which is our fight for a standard rate of wages."

The Hebden Bridge Times of August 2, 1968 looking back. sixty years, says: "It was reported that there were still 200 union weavers out of work. (Presumably this means `out on strike' - not quite the same thing.) The strike had cost £20,000 in union funds and constituted a record in the cotton industry, both for duration and cost." It would appear that the Times had taken the figure produced by the Manchester paper mentioned earlier as an accurate one, but, as has been seen, the statements of the local Weavers' Association, while almost certainly not infallible, are likely to be nearer the mark.

A new development, which reflected the worsening situation in the cotton industry, occurred by the middle of August 1908. In a ballot paper issued by the Federation of Master Cotton Spinners employers were asked whether or not they were prepared to support the application for a 5% reduction in wages and to close down their mills if the operatives refused to accept the reduction. In early September a notice was posted in Salem Mill giving the employees 14 days' notice of the intention of the management to cease operations.

It is not without significance that three weeks later the local Weavers' Association announced that a month's notice would be given to the married women still on strike, and that after that time their strike pay would cease. This decision somewhat unchivalrous on the face of it, was nevertheless a perfectly understandable one in the circumstances. In mid-October the 150 weavers still on strike were informed by their union that their strike pay after November would be cut by a further day's pay.

The end was in sight; on December 31st, 1908 the remaining 108 male strikers received their last strike pay. The weavers were thrown on their own resources, which meant, in effect, that the strike was over.

In their report for 1908 the Todmorden and District Weavers' and Winders' Association declared: "This is the final account in connection with the strike at Hebden Bridge, which dispute was closed on 31 December. This strike.. has lasted for a much longer period than any strike in the history of our Amalga¬mation, and though we cannot claim a victory, yet the prices have been improved ...Our failure to obtain what we sought to achieve ...must be laid at the door of the workers themselves, for had it not been for our fellow-workers in other districts coming and taking the places of those on strike, we might have had a different result to record. The weavers who came out on strike stood out loyally and have earned our respect, omitting, of course, those few whose membership with this Society dates only a little more than the strike itself, and...closed with the closing of the strike. The action of such only shows the way that sympathy can be abused, but ...the door is closed to such practices in the future, and only those who contribute in times of peace will receive financial assistance in times of war..." The report added that £7478. 13s. 7d. had been paid out in strike pay during the year 1908.

A Hebden Bridge Times leader, commenting on the great inconvenience and financial cost of the strike to both masters and men, goes on to say: "It has also been incalculably costly in the destruction of the friendly feeling which ought to exist between employer and employed. The strike has practically been allowed to wear itself out. People in Hebden Bridge have not been used to strikes, and do not know how to deal with them ...Had a similar strike occurred in the neighbouring county (Lancashire?) there would have been a mutual settlement long ago."

On the same day that this appeared (1 January 1909) the Daily Dispatch also concerned itself with the strike; "It will be a matter for wonder that we, with all our boasts of civilisation, all our talk of the purpose of mankind, all our ideals of efficiency, should have found no better way out of an industrial dispute than this ...What is a strike such as this but one prolonged sulk? The excuse that it is a matter of principle only intensifies the absurdity of it ...A principle which is worth nothing more than 126 weeks (sic) of gloomy sullenness is a thing which the ordinary person would rather be without." So that was what Lancashire, or more precisely Manchester, thought of Hebden Bridge!

It will probably never be known for certain how much the strike cost in terms of hard cash, but on two occasions in January 1909 the local Times stated that the Weavers' Union had disbursed over £23,000 in strike pay, and that in addition about £5,000 had been subscribed by the public.

Despite a general improvement in trade during the early months of 1909 when it was reported that "fustian and twill looms were fairly busy" and that Messrs. Thomas were restarting Calder Mill Shed, the Eaves experiment was not faring too well.

During the latter part of 1908 there had been a complete though temporary stoppage of work. During 1909 and 1910 orders were falling off and short time was resorted to on several occasions. The anticipated participation in the Far Eastern trade, which "Co-Partnership" had hailed as a comparatively new departure in the movement, had never quite materialised; Japan in particular had begun her own impressive programme of industrialisation.

A decade earlier the time might have been more propitious; as it was the breakthrough into the Far Eastern market never came. At the half-yearly meeting in May 1910 it was revealed that there had been a loss of £538, bringing the total loss for the year to over £2,000. It was clear that this state of affairs could not go on indefinitely, and not very long afterwards the mills had to be closed.

Eventually a Mr. J. B. Brown erected a dyehouse on the estate, which cost over £20,000 but this too was short-lived. From then on most of the contents of the mills were disposed of, but all attempts to sell the estate were unsuccess ful until finally it was purchased in June 1917 by Messrs. Herbert Wood and Robertshaw Greenwood. A little later the mills were pulled down. The only visible remains of the brave venture which had commenced with such high hopes in 1907 are nearby dams and weirs on the Colden stream, most of the site now being taken up by the Eaves Housing Estate.

The well-intentioned self-help enterprise at Eaves Bottom was one outcome of the fustian weavers' strike, and it had ended, after a short lived career, in complete failure. There was another by-product of the strike, however, which could hardly have been in greater contrast. Among the hundreds of weavers made idle by the strike was a young man named Edgar Thornber. In order to supplement his strike pay he bought a dozen hens and a few orange-boxes, and was soon creating what was in effect the first of the Thornber hatcheries. He was industrious and had a good business sense, and had soon built up a flourishing concern, which enabled him by 1911 to take in his brother Ralph as partner and to secure the tenancy of Newhouse Farm, Mytholmroyd. What follows constitutes a success story, by any standards. In 1913 the firm branched out into the equipment side of the poultry business; chick sales were about half a million per year by 1928, and one million by 1930. 1962 saw the setting up of a new company, Thornber-Colburn Sheep Ltd., which produced a hybrid sheep from which fat lambs could be obtained; and in 1965 a comprehensive pig-breeding programme was undertaken. As the Hebden Bridge runes put it in January 1967, on the occasion of the firm's diamond jubilee: "It is a far cry from fustian weaving to chick, sheep and pig production, but despite the misery which the strike brought to Hebden Bridge .... it caused Edgar Thornber to embark on a business which later gained world-wide acknowledgment."

It only remains for me to say something about the sources I have used in researching this topic several years age. The Hebden Bridge runes as was to be expected, was a fruitful source of information, giving as it did regular weekly commentaries on the progress of the strike and developments at Eaves Bottom.

I am indebted to the Times management for giving me permission to work on the files at their offices. I have also made use of other newspapers as well as one or two journals on oo-partnership and profit-sharing, some of which were appearing at the time of the Eaves venture.

Finally, as is always useful when researching twentieth century topics, I have exploited the memories of elderly people among us whose families were involved directly or indirectly in the fustian weavers' strike. My interrogations elicited the following pieces of information: strike pay never exceeded 7 shillings a week (i.e., about a third of a weaver's average earnings); many weavers who continued to work were 'sent to Coventry' by the strikers, and were in some cases still being ostracised years after the dispute was over; many people in the district considered that the intervention of the suffragettes was to be regretted, and only resulted in exacerbating an already embittered situation.

Links

The strike headquarters was the Tin Tab in Unity Street, recently demolished in spite of widespread protests.

Hebden Bridge History website

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