Sunday, 10 October 2010

Book Review: Breaking Their Chains

From LSHG Newsletter, No. 40, Autumn 2010

By Tony Barnsley
Bookmarks, 2010, £ 5.00
ISBN 9781905192649

It is 50 years since the formation of the Society for the Study of Labour History, and there have been a
number of pieces this year on its development and where it might be going in future. It remains in general a deeply ‘unsexy’ subject in the academy.
If I promote a seminar on British Labour History at the Institute of Historical Research in central
London I can guarantee a low attendance. It might be argued—correctly—that it underlines the progress that has been made that such a seminar can take place at all. Even 20 years ago it would not have done. Even so, there remains much work to be done and research to be carried out in the area, and people are working away on it. Not least of the tasks for labour historians is to bring before new generations of socialist activists some of the labour history of the 1960s and 1970s which is now out of print and fast receding from
There remains a huge amount which we don’t know about our history. For example, with the anniversary of the Great Unrest of 1910-14, how many of those active in that period went on, less than 10 years later, to become founder members of the CPGB? What was their journey, and what did they bring to the Party? There has been no comprehensive work on this.
Fortunately, there is work being done on the Great Unrest. Tim Evans has been running a project around West Wales, and Sean Creighton plans something for London. An important addition is Tony Barnsley’s study of the 1910 chainmakers’strike in the Black Country. Perhaps 30 or 40 years ago this might have been published as a monograph in an academic history journal, giving it respectability but a small readership. It would be lucky to find such a space now, so it is fortunate that the socialist publisher Bookmarks has recognised the value of the work.
The core of the book relates the conditions of the Black Country chainmakers in the early years of the last century and in particular the very low and unequal pay they received. As with the Match Girls’ strike 20 years earlier, the largely female chainmakers were not the obvious candidates for taking militant action. They had no tradition of doing so. However, the context of the Great Unrest, where workers across the country were taking on the employers, was infectious.
That in itself, however, would not have provided the spark for action, which is why the book also focuses on the organising and leadership role of Mary MacArthur. MacArthur was a national leader of the chainmakers’ union and a member of the ILP. Pressure on employers and the middlemen centrally involved in much of the small scale production first forced them to set up the Trades Board to regulate wages. This, in itself, did not
make them concede, but it provided a key opening whereby pressure could be applied. In the end, it took a strike led by MacArthur to force the employers to shift. The strike, which received international support, eventually forced the employers to give way, and the women got a 100% pay rise, though still not equal pay.
The Union was built, and MacArthur went on to stand as a Labour candidate in 1918. She had been
against the war, however, and lost narrowly. She died too young, aged 40, in 1920, arguably rather
similarly to that other great socialist union organiser of the period, Tom Maguire.
A very worthwhile book. One to learn about a hidden episode of our history and one which hopefully will inspire both further research and activism.
Over 2000 people, some in period costume, were on the centenary march
for the Chainmakers' dispute at Cradley Heath in the Black Country

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