World War One: Cleator Moor female workers fought for rights

Cleator Mill Strike Committee, 29 April 1915 Image copyright TRADES UNION CONGRESS LIBRARY COLLECTIONS
Image caption All of the women wore their union workers' badges for the photograph at Cleator Moor

Women taking up roles in the workplace, emptied of men as World War One began, soon showed conflict was not confined to the front line. One group of Cumbrian textile workers made sure the fight for their rights got national attention.

Drafted in to fill the gaps in factories and offices, more than one million women joined the workforce between 1914 and 1918.

But the poor conditions and long working hours soon left them with the need to launch the battle for their rights.

Little is now remembered about the fight for better pay of women working at Ainsworth Mill in Cleator Moor.

But recently a picture taken of them was uncovered in the archive of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and there are now plans to ensure more people learn about it.

The women's actions were always going to attract national attention because they were producing khaki thread for the uniforms of soldiers under a War Office contract.

The textile workers were given low wages of seven to nine shillings per week for 60 hours work - something that, for the wrong reasons, attracted the attention of an MP.

On 11 March, 1915, the issue of working conditions and labour at the mill were raised in the House of Commons by Labour MP William Mr Anderson, the husband of trade union leader Mary Macarthur.

Mr Anderson called for an investigation into conditions in the mills and 250 women and 20 boys went out on strike.

Their demands were met with their wages being increased, but it was short-lived and they would need to undertake further action when the war ended.

Image caption Mary Macarthur formed the all-female trade union the National Federation of Women Workers in 1906

'Smiling at the camera'

The photo of the Cleator Moor women at the time of their campaign was discovered by archivists in Cumbria while searching records online.

Cumbria Archive Service senior archivist Robert Baxter, said: "You look at this photograph and it looks like a Sunday outing... they're smiling at the camera, but really it's a photograph with a lot of weight and a lot of significance.

"These women are not only fighting for better pay for themselves, but in a sense all women that were doing war work during that time.

"This strike was very quickly picked up as having national importance... it is significant that this photograph of these women at Cleator Moor actually ended up in the TUC archive."

He said it was a "lucky fluke" the photograph had a local connection.

"When we found this photograph, the whole story that had just really sunk below the water since 1915 unearthed there and then," he said.

He said the archive service was trying to find out who all of the women pictured in the photograph were after "collective knowledge" of the strike locally had been "lost"

'Girl power'

At the time Ms Macarthur visited the women at the mill and gave them her support.

In 1906 she formed the all-female trade union, the National Federation of Women Workers, to campaign for minimum wages for women in sweated trades.

Image caption Feminist Mary Macarthur helped the Cleator workers' fulfil their demands for better conditions and pay

Trade unionism became increasingly important during the war for female workers who had been less unionised than their male counterparts.

This was because they tended to work in smaller firms which were less unionised and existing unions were often hostile to female workers.

  • Between 1914 and 1918, an estimated two million women replaced men in employment, resulting in an increase in the proportion of women in total employment from 24 per cent in July 1914 to 37 per cent by November 1918.
  • The increase in female trade union membership from only 357,000 in 1914 to over a million by 1918 represented an increase in the number of unionised women of 160 per cent.
  • This compares with an increase in the union membership of men of only 44 per cent.

The war forced unions to deal with the issue of women's work and, after six weeks, the Cleator workers' demands for better conditions and pay were met and they were given a 10% war bonus.

Full recognition of the union was also obtained.

What seemed like a small victory, it carried significance for the rights of other women workers, but only for a short time.

Jacqueline Moor, searchroom assistant for Cumbria Archive Service, said: "The women of Cleator mill were successful when they went on strike during WW1, they got an increase in their wages, and we hope better working conditions.

"But after the war was finished, in 1920 they found themselves going back out on strike again, and the mill wages were actually the lowest in the country.

"So, although they had girl power during WW1, you see how that power declined just a couple of years later."

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