“The 1913 strike may have begun in Wednesbury, but its effects were felt throughout the country.
Wednesbury was at the centre of industrialisation during the 19th and 20th centuries and, inevitably, there were times when workers and bosses didn’t see eye to eye…. But something I didn’t know was”;
There have been many strikes in Wednesbury, as far back as 1801.
Frequent periods of depression blighted the coal and iron trades in the first half of the 19th century, and the years immediately after the victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 were particularly harsh.
It was then that the miners of Wednesbury dragged wagons of coal towards London and elsewhere in the hope of drawing the attention of the Prince Regent and the government, but to no avail.
Riots took place in the town in 1801, 1826 and 1831, and in August 1842 a crowd of colliers, estimated at 20,000, assembled from all over the Black Country in a place called Russell’s Field, marched to the pits that were still working and ordered the men out.
At West Bromwich the Riot Act was read and the yeomanry brought their prisoners into Wednesbury fastened to their saddle straps, where, before the magistrates, many were committed for trial and some later transported.
There were further miners’ strikes in 1864, 1874 and again in 1892 and 1893.
In 1883 there was a puddlers strike which was the cause of serious rioting. The police had to arm themselves with cutlasses and many of the strikers were arrested.
The employees of the Patent Shaft went on strike in 1888 against fortnightly payment of wages (the weekly wage was quickly restored), and in 1894 and again in 1895 the steelworkers downed tools rejecting a wage reduction.
But more than any of the above, it was the 1913 strike which changed the bosses’ attitudes towards the unions.
The Great Strike of 1913
“Ryder’s Annual Wednesbury Red Book and Directory for 1914 contains a lot of facts and amazing photographs of the 1913 strike.
I have only managed to find the ‘wording’ from the Red Book 1914, which also said:
“Our pictures indicate phases of the strike which were observable day by day.” And then it gives the descriptions of the pictures.
So, knowing what pictures I was searching for, I managed to track them down on the Black Country Bugle archives.
(When researching a subject, the Bugle never let me down, so I hope they forgive me blatantly copying the pictures to go with this article?)”
According to the Wednesbury Red book and Directory 1914, the industrial troubles started on May 9th:
“About 200 employees of Messrs. John Russell & Co. Ltd., Old Patent Tube Works, cease work without giving notice, and demand increased wages. This is the commencement of a great labour upheaval, involving all trades in all parts of the Black Country, and lasting for two months.
The Workers Union secure a 23s. minimum weekly wage for unskilled labour, after negotiations and conference with the Midland
Employers’ Federation, an organisation constituted during the progress of the strike, with the main object of securing and maintaining industrial peace.”
June 1st: “Mass meeting of strikers in Wednesbury Market Place: addresses by Mr Charles Duncan, MP, Miss Julia Varley, and others.”
June 4th: At the annual meeting of the Metropolitan Wagon Company, Mr Dudley Docker refers to ‘the new diplomacy of trades unionism,’ which has resulted in a strike ‘instituted without rhyme or reason, in defiance of agreements, forced on by gross intimidation, the beginning of a reign of terror.’
”June 6th: “In view of the distress among women and children, caused by the strike, the Mayor (Alderman Pritchard) opens a relief fund.”
June 7th: “Borough Member contributes £25 to the fund of the men’s strike committee, and is raising the question of the strike in various forms in the House of Commons, with the view to the relief of the distress, and the ending of the trouble.”
June 10th: “Tom Mann addresses a meeting of strikers in the Market Place: fierce attack upon the capitalist class.”
(2) mass meeting in the Market Place with Tom Mann (seated, with a coat over his shoulder) waiting to address the crowd;
June 21st: “Representatives of employers and men have been in conference during the week: many proposals for settlement discussed, but no agreement.”
June 27th: “Men on strike reject terms of settlement offered by Midland Employers’ Federation. Fetching out of employees in the nut and bolt trade at King’s Hill and Darlaston, accompanied by much rowdyism.
June 28th: “All works trips abandoned owing to the strike.”
June 29th: “Strikers visit Wednesbury Parish Church.”
July 1st: “Strikers fined for assaults on the police: fines paid by Trades Council president.”
July 3rd: “Tom Mann again visits Wednesbury.”
July 11th: “Strikers ballot on the subject of an agreement reached at a joint conference between the representatives of masters and men, under the presidency of Sir George Askwith, and decide by a large majority to accept the terms.
Advantages gained on behalf of unskilled workers include a 23s. minimum wage, standardisation of rates for youths and girls, and recognition of the Unions. Universal satisfaction at the settlement of a long and disastrous strike.”
“Let us hope that the settlement which ended the strike may prove the beginning of happier days, and that in the relations between the employer and the employed there will be manifested in the future the spirit of goodwill, justice, honour, and respect from each to the other.”
So why have we forgot?
Adrian Bailey MP said it was an important that 1913 Wednesbury Strike, which began on May 9, 1913 at the Crown Tube Works of James Russell should not be forgotten.
The only organisation noting the anniversary was the Wednesbury History Society, who gave a talk on the subject by local historian Paul Fantom on Wednesday, May 8.
The Wednesbury strike of 1913 is a story of hardship and struggle that isn’t even recorded in Wikipedia’s history of the town.
But the strike that started 100 years ago on May 9th, helped trade unions to enjoy a significant rise in membership right across Britain, and to begin a new approach to the relationship between bosses and the rank and file.
In the Edwardian Age in Wednesbury, thousands were employed in the factories, in particular making tubes, and one of the biggest companies was James Russell & Sons founded in 1811.
Its famous Crown Tube Works was opened in High Bullen in 1823, and by 1865 was producing over 5,300,000 feet of tubing a year, helping to make Wednesbury the tube making capital of the world.
The strike led to three months of great hardship, when charity and hand-outs of free food became the difference between life and death.
During the strike Tom Mann, who together with Ben Tillett had formed the National Transport Workers’ Federation three years before, visited Wednesbury to lend his support to the strikers.
The Wednesbury strike of 1913 seems to have paled into insignificance in comparison to the Women Chain makers strike of 1910 that was centred around Cradley Heath, which in more recent times has been remembered every year, both at the Black Country Museum and at The Women Chain maker’s Festival at Beamore Park, Cradley Heath.
(*This is an update even before it has been posted. A local poet/playwright, Brendan Hawthorne, is also pursuing the cultural impact of the strike and has written a musical play about the events of 1913.
Permission for this to be performed during the summer is being sought from the local authority.)
(* Another update: Paul Fantom says: “The reference to the dispute starting at Wednesbury’s Crown Tube Works? it didn’t! This is due to an error in J.F. Ede’s History of Wednesbury, in which he mixes up the names of two Wednesbury firms: James Russell’s Crown tube works and James Russell’s Old Patent tube works. Ede incorrectly states that it started at the Crown Works, whereas in fact it began at the Old Patent Works on 9th May, 1913, and this is borne out by the primary research I have conducted.”
Also, Paul Fantom is undertaking a PhD at the University of Birmingham. He says: “I have recently written an extensive academic article, which is currently being reviewed for publication by a professional history journal, and which aims to make the connection between the events of 1913 and the manner in which these continued to resonate during the years of conflict”.)
The following are F.W. Hackwood’s reflections on the industrial evolution of Wednesbury:
“The industrial reputation and commercial prosperity of this town have been built up in the main by the labour and sweat of our simple-minded forebears, who toiled long hours for scanty wages, and whose joys were as few as their pleasures were primitive.
The Wednesbury of my early childhood was a very different place from the murky industrial town of today.
King’s Hill and Mesty Croft were still agricultural districts, their fields not as yet cut up into streets by the Building Society, and Wood Green was a village a mile outside town.
“My home was in the Upper High Street, then the main thoroughfare of an ill developed parish, which, through the inventions of the patent tube and the patent axle, had grown somewhat rapidly from a sleepy and pleasant little market-town into a jumbled aggregation of mining and manufacturing industries;
A transformation whereby it had gained the population of a town while yet retaining the government machinery of a mere village, and was struggling along with the municipal resources of an antiquated parochialism.
The Wednesbury of the 1850s was but the skeleton of an agricultural township from which the last vestiges of verdure were being gradually obliterated by the all pervading smoke that a forest of gaunt chimney-stacks vomited forth day and night, though the grime and the ugliness of the scene were mercifully blotted out after nightfall.
When the sky glowed red and warm from the fiery crests of the innumerable iron forges and blast furnaces.
Those were the balmy days of Staffordshire iron-making, when a view of the Black Country from Church Hill on a dark night was a magnificent sight.
“The earliest hour of the long working-day was made known to me, as I lay wakeful in bed, by the clatter of the clogs worn by the colliers going to the first shift; for the Lancashire type of clog was then much in vogue amongst the Wednesbury miners, and even won the favour of the pit-bank wenches.
The last hour of a Wednesbury working day varied greatly, according to the shifts and turns; but even in the factories and iron-mills, where the hours of labour were regulated, the termination of a day’s work seldom arrived till after the finger of the clock had pointed to six.
No steam bull roared the signal for leaving off, and but very few factories, the Crown Tube works was one, so much as used a bell.
As yet a nine-hour day had not yet been thought of, much less fought for.
And when the day’s labour was over, what was there in the shape of recreation available to the labouring classes?
No Free Library, no Park, no Baths, no places of legitimate amusement.
There was certainly a Mechanic’s Institute, but that catered only for the few who were studiously inclined.
The public houses, truly, were open all night as well as all day; and that orgy of dissipation, the Wake, was still in its zenith.
“All day long the traffic of the streets was mainly composed of dreary processions of lumbering coal carts and clanging iron wagons, varied occasionally by the barrel cart of the street water seller, and the ‘through’ town-to town traffic of heavy spring carts, traps, and carriages.
The foot-paths, purgatorially paved with wretched cobblestones, kidney-shaped ‘bibbles’ set up endways, were scarcely ever traversed by many well-dressed or leisurely pedestrians, except on market-days.
On other days a well-dressed stranger passing along would actually excite some little curiosity.
It was at the beginning and the end of the working day, and at meal-times, that the streets became fairly lively, when hurrying colliers and forge men, puddlers and boilermakers, and work-soiled mechanics of all sorts, were coming or going between their homes and their places of employment. This ebb and flow of human activity marked the divisions of an industrial day which left little opportunity, either in time or wage, for the necessary recreation which goes to the making of a full life.
And how much improved are the industrial economics of today?
The entire Black Country has just gone through the severe ordeal of a strike which lasted several weeks, and in which to the 37,000 unskilled labourers on strike this town contributed almost a sixth. The economical situation cannot be more fairly stated than in the following extract which I culled from the columns of the Wednesbury Herald, when the strike was at its height.
’In the main the strike is a strike of labourers who are seeking a minimum wage of twenty-three shillings a week.
That does not seem an extravagant demand for men who are living in a thriving industrial area, but it represents five shillings a week advance on the general standard of a labourer’s wage in the district which, of course, represents a large increase in the costs of production.
The wonder, however, is not that there should be strikes now, but that the labourers should have remained quiescent through the thirty years during which eighteen shillings has been the standard.’
Wednesbury during that grim strike, with unaccustomed smokeless skies and an unearthly absence of all sound of whirring machinery, wore a weird and strange aspect.
The strangeness of this unwanted modality filled one with a secret dread of lurking misery, of the semi-starvation that was felt to be hiding itself in the background.
In so small a community it was impossible for anyone to assume an attitude of neutrality and detachment.
It is pleasant to think the churches were active in the relief of distress.
During that trying time many of the more tender-hearted of the well-to-do townsmen confessed that they were never able to enjoy a meal, the thought of so many of their neighbours children going about with empty stomachs taking away any appetite they might have had.
The Friday and Saturday markets during the Great Strike bespoke a plentiful lack of buying and selling, and as the economic blight dragged its weary length along for nearly ten weeks, the sellers began to refrain from attending.
Then the deserted stalls presented a strange spectacle; they were put to a very unaccustomed use by the forlorn strikers, who sat on them in rows back to back, like passengers on Irish jaunting cars, except that there was little of mirth among them.
The patient uncomplaining behaviour of the bulk of the men during this period of privation was little less than heroic, and contrasts broadly with the violence exhibited at Leith, Hull, and other places.
Minor outbursts there were, which were sure to occur, but nothing at all serious happened.
The behaviour of the Wednesbury police under the daily strain of a heavy responsibility for the preservation of law and order was quite exemplary; and that too contrasts admirably with what has since occurred under similar circumstances of industrial strife at Dublin and in Cornwall.
The tradespeople of the town positively vied with each other in relieving the prevailing distress, not only establishing soup kitchens, but arranging for the free distribution of bread, of fish and other provisions.
It was a very fortunate thing the strike occurred in the genial months of the summer.
The whole country is passing through a period of industrial unrest, and, taking it all together, Wednesbury is to be congratulated upon emerging from the great economic struggle of 1913 with little loss of either social or moral credit.”
Ian Henery, Walsall’s Poet Laureate, was very interested to read the comments by West Bromwich MP Adrian Bailey. He decided to contact Adrian and at the same time sent this poem to Black Country Bugle, that he feels strikes a chord for Wednesbury.
Ian said: “It’s shocking that more people don’t know about the strike and how it appears to have been airbrushed from the town’s history. How can 40,000 people or more have been simply forgotten?
I’ve dedicated the poem to Adrian, who is passionate about local history and have called it; Wednesbury, Woden’s Town.”
And here it is.
Wednesbury, Woden’s Town by Ian Henery
Real history is not just his-story,
It’s a collective consciousness of souls
Striving together, running for that goal.
It’s her story, your story, our story,
Woden’s Town – a pre-Christian deity
And the oldest part of the Black Country,
Where people work to find greater glory.
Woden – the one-eyed pagan God of War,
Also gave his name to nearbyWednesfield,
Scene of great slaughter where Vikings did yield
Mercia reverting to English law.
Woden, All Father, Wednesday in the week,
His followers were not timid or meek,
These Anglo Saxon settlers on our shores.
The underworld to realms of mortal men
Rode Woden on Sleipnir, mythical horse,
Eight-legged beast, settling scores by force.
Order restored, the world better again,
Woden mediating on land and sky,
Sleipnir his steed, a war horse that can fly,
Returning All Father back to Heaven.
Woden with one eye like a monocle
Saw two battles, Mercia and Wessex:
Wessex lost, Mercia had the success,
All in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.
Athelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great,
Fortified the town, made safe her estates,
No more war that was diabolical.
Coal seam, the canals, railways – Black Country;
Nail making, factories and deep coal mines
Exported newfound wealth down railway lines.
Old Woden’s Town had become Wednesbury,
The world’s tube-making capital, “Tube Town,”
Industry winning a place of renown
Through working class fire, forge and foundry.
Tubes are street art at Wednesbury Bus Station,
Silent sentinels in Loxdale Street:
A reminder of the tube worker’s feat
For trade unions across the nation.
Wednesbury, not just a home for Morrison’s
But the tube makers, James Russell and Sons,
Highlighting trade union relations.
1913 was the tube workers strike,
Abetter wage and living conditions
And just trade union recognition;
200 workers now in the spotlight,
Soon 40,000 in fraternity,
National support, food and charity,
Apivotal chapter in worker’s rights.
Union victory for rank and file,
Bosses defeated, a time of hardship,
Before improved working relationships
After three months of campaigning and bile.
Hand outs, the difference between life and death,
Children starved and women gave their last breath,
Living conditions best described as vile.
Woden’s horse, Sleipnir, flies over us still,
Astainless steel statue, tail like a flame,
The town’s fiery past, industry and fame.
Leaping out, from the metro on the hill,
Symbol of Wednesbury’s dynamism
Like coloured light shining through a prism,
Famous for our people and our steel mills.
Sleipnir travels across time, land and sea
Rooted in the earth, launching into air,
Challenges met for those who want to dare.
Big plans for the future, dream endlessly,
Apeople of industry, this the cast.
Eyes on tomorrow, honouring the past,
A furnace in the hearts of Wednesbury.
All credits go to Black Country Bugle for most of these picture and ‘all’ updates.
(Including a peek into the Wednesbury Red Book 1914)
And as always, I have to thank F.W.Hackwood for putting a lovely romantic slant on the history of our Wednesbury.