Monday, May 02, 2011


Last Monday, I spent the day at Ipswich Records Office reading a book by my great-grandfather, Robert Ratcliffe. Entitled A history of the working class movement in Ipswich, it is the foremost book on the subject, although it has never been published. As I have mentioned previously, Bob was on the railways all his working life, was a leading trade unionist, and was elected on a number of occasions as Labour Councillor for several wards in Ipswich. He joined the Ipswich branch of the Independent Labour Party in 1912; the Ipswich Labour Party in 1930; was elected to Council in 1932; was twice elected Chair of the Welfare Committee; was Mayor of Ipswich in 1957-58; and retired from the Council in 1964.

He wrote the book, which is in four volumes, through the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Each volume covers the following dates: to the end of the nineteenth century (I), 1900-1918 (II), 1918-1926 (III); 1926-1935 (IV). What follows are the notes that I took, almost entirely limited to Volume I. They are rough notes, and of course lack the narrative flow of Bob’s book. They are for my own benefit as much as anything, so I hope you’ll forgive me the indulgence of posting them here.


Combination Laws 1799-1825 – outlawed assemblies of workers, caused depression in wages. “Midnight meetings in open fields” etc. Meeting in The Sailors pub, 1824: “sailors in Ipswich came together to demand an increase in wages; the bailiff banned their mode of assembly but said he would present their petition to the shipowners and merchants.” The dispute was thus settled.

1825 – Combination Laws repealed.

17 December 1812. Meeting in Town Hall to discuss the plight of the poor. Town clerk recommended a town fund, rather than leaving it to individual parishes. A fund was raised, but poverty increased. Rise of the Luddites – 1815 destruction of threshing machines at Gosbeck. 1816 protest at Norton against low wages. Other Luddish incidents at Bury, Diss, Laxfield, Stowmarket.

22 June 1819. Robert Owen addressed a gathering at the Freemasons Hall in Ipswich.

1807. Creation of voluntary schemes to support elderly, and then younger, women, including mothers. Long waiting lists.

1824. First Unions in Ipswich. Shipwrights Provident Union Society & Benevolent Sawyers Society. On their second anniversary, members assembled as follows on the Cornhill:

• One of the Trade on horseback with a model of an axe handsomely gilded.
• Two Union Jacks and a band.
• A purple banner.
• The Shipwrights’ arms motto “union of sentiment is the strength of society” with the inscription “Shipwrights Provident Union Society 1824”.

"A grand procession".

1830. Cobbett visited East Anglia; addressed meetings in Ipswich on “the evils of national debt and church property, and complained bitterly against the government who had spent over £2m to disband the Hanoverian officers.”

6 December 1830. Meeting arranged on Rushmere Heath to protest against church tithes. Concerned magistrates advised labourers against attending: “desperate and depraved characters make it their business to invite men to assemble for illegal purposes who, in the end, leave them to ruin.” But the meeting proceeded in an orderly manner.

9 December 1835. Meeting of working class in Ipswich Arms in support of the Six Men of Dorset.

“In spite of the law against conspiracy, men united for defensive purposes; local unions, craft and sectional, came into being, and were as common as blackberries, some lasting about as long.”

1837 General Election – Ipswich results:

• Gibson (Tory) – 601
• Tufnell (Reformist) – 595
• Watson (Reformist) – 593
• Kelly (Tory) – 593

Tufnell unseated for corruption in ’38 and replaced by Kelly! Eventually both Tories were also unseated for corruption.

Late 1837. Definite formation of Ipswich Working Men’s Association. “The Association adopted the Charter which advocated all voting by ballot, short parliaments, and universal suffrage.” Rural people also involved. August 1838 – big meeting in the Town Hall.

15 September 1838. Report in the Times of a meeting in Colchester. “These vagabond orators do not like work but that of agitation ... the wildest nonsense was uttered ... among the things it was suggested that the working classes might obtain all they demanded by simultaneously ceasing to work ... what must be the consequence? ... a famine, or rivers of blood ... The rich and the poor are mutually dependent on each other ... in a free country like this, there are perpetual changes of condition; the sun of today, which shines on the poor man, may tomorrow rise to gladden him as one of the rich.”

Working Men’s Association superseded by Ipswich Chartists. Did not contest elections in 1841 or 1842 (which was caused by the unseating of two Liberal MPs for bribery). Further by-election in 1842 (more bribery) saw Harry Vincent (Chartist) coming close 4th with 472 votes. Vincent was well-known and had an election song:

The time has arrived when freedom’s voice shall ring
To fling from our services the foes of the King.
The choice of the people, tis plainly clear
Is Vincent the brave, with a conscience so fair.
...Then hurrah one and all, rush away to the poll
And return the man who’s not tempted by gold.

During the following years, Vincent addressed packing meetings on Cornhill / Theatre. 1847 election: Vincent again 4th, but with 546 votes.

Chartist meetings widely attended until April 1848. Little political activity for a while thereafter. Also meetings opposing slavery.

15 June 1846. “Eastern Union Railway, the first railway to reach Ipswich, was opened to the public ... the station was situated where the present loco department now is in Croft St.” Tunnel dug through Stoke Hill – poor working conditions. 6 April 1846 – poor weather meant men assembled on Cornhill. Protested against low wages etc. Fear of violence meant shops were closed, police called.

1846. Successful strike action at foundry. Unsuccessful strike a year later. 1852 – strikes at Ransomes and May.

Post-1825. Formation of trade unions, especially 50s and 60s. Various petitions for increases in wages: agricultural workers, coal porters (’53), shipwrights (’55). 100 seamen met at the Steam Packet Inn on Duke St in 1853 to establish a society, which quickly grew and gained negotiating power. 1860 Building Dispute over the length of the working day. Also, 1860 – Mayor’s fund to alleviate poverty and unemployment by getting them back to work (“the general conditions of the workers were very low and poverty was very acute ... the Mayor’s appeal eased the position bu little, for it did not deal with the causes of the trouble”).

1862. Establishment of a Working Man’s College “in a room at the Town Hall ... Dr Christian, who was a lecturer on science, became the principle, and with the help of Dr GS Elliston, the Medical Officer of Health, and a few others, the college soon caught on and became a going concern. Lecturers were arranged and scholarships for students offered. All this for ½ d per week ... later on moved to premises in Tower St.” “By 1865, the College had 1000 books and this number was added to by Mr Read who presented 100 more ... the College lasted for several years ... later on, it lacked new entrants and in the end disbanded.”

1865. St Helen’s & St Clement’s Working Men’s Clubs.

Further strikes: builders (’65), painters (’66), shipwrights (’73) etc. Not very successful on the whole.

1872. The Nine Hour Movement – appeal from carpenters, bricklayers, labourers to the Master Builders for a half-day on Saturday . The Master Builders refused, the men came out on strike on 4 May – over 100 in all. The Master Builders offered a ½ d per hour advance, but no change in hours (financially this represented a better deal than the half-day). Master Builders threatened a lockout in case of the men not returning to work. But the pickets went on. Strike committee met daily at 33 St Matthews St. Eventually settled by arbitration, where the men got the half-day and were awarded extra rates for overtime. Significant, as this was an assembly of different types of trades.

April 1874. The Great Agricultural lock-out. Agricultural Labourers Union asked for increase from 13 to 14 shillings per hour for a 54-hour week. Farmers responded with a lock-out. Spread across Eastern and Midlands counties. 500 men on the Ipswich strike funds; open-air meeting on 2 May. Collection boxes handed round on the Old Cattle Market. Farmers set up their own Farmers Defence Association and a scab organisation. “The struggle ended in July after the union had spent £21,365 in strike pay. Several farmers refused to take men back, others were dismissed. Grass replaced grain over hundreds of thousands of acres, and the demand for agricultural labour fell off. So bad were the conditions that many emigrated to the Colonies. It is recorded that in one week seventy persons left Suffolk for Canada. It was often the painful duty of Mr Arch [secretary of Agricultural Labourers Union] to advise the men to accept lower wages. This lockout almost broke up the nation.”

1875. Formation of Ipswich Representation League. Contested by-election following death of Tory MP Cobbold. Their candidate: William Newton from Stepney. Election attracted national interest as it was one of the first to follow the Secret Ballot Act of 1872. Election on 1 January 1876: Con 2213, Lab 1607.

(“Tailoring, one of the oldest known trades, was first introduced by Adam and Eve, although we do not know what kind of needles they used, whether they were “between” or “shapes”!”)

1876 Dock Dispute. “No organisation existed to assist the dock-workers; they had to strike the best bargain they could on the spot.”

1884. The first Trades Council for Ipswich. W.E. Wingate [another of my great-grandfathers was 23rd President; R. Ratcliffe the 21st. [The last chapter of Volume I is dedicated to its first 25 years]


More to follow...


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