A HISTORY OF THE WORKING CLASS MOVEMENT IN IPSWICH - II
This is the second part of my attempt to summarise a book that my great-grandfather Robert Ratcliffe wrote called A history of the working class movement in Ipswich. The first part covered the nineteenth century, up until the mid-1880s, when the first Trades Council was formed in Ipswich. This post goes into more detail about the successes and failures of the Trades Council and takes us into the early years of the last century.
What is most striking is how many failures the organised working class had to endure during the last quarter of that century. The formation of the Trades Council was a great success, as it brought together disparate groups of agricultural and urban workers. But the Trades Council was only a means to an end, and for decades it seemed to achieve little in getting working people represented on public bodies. If there is a political point here, it’s that the political relations and institutions which were taken for granted in the twentieth century were by no means inevitable a few decades earlier. Indeed, the men of the left who lived in Ipswich in the 1880s and 1890s must have wondered if their labours would ever bear fruit; and reading Bob Ratcliffe’s book now, we might almost wonder the same thing.
30/8/84. Meeting at the Saracen’s Head pub to form the Trades Council (TC).
First meeting of the Trades Council – first time unskilled workers had organised en masse. Dockers’ Union members could only join if accepted by other members. David Ault, president, was assaulted by stevedores [who loaded and unloaded the ships] at one meeting. They claimed he wanted to do away with them; he said the Union was interested in preventing sub-contracting.
The Ipswich Dockers’ Union was the first to have its own banner.
David Ault died aged 32. Hundreds attended his funeral on a wet day, and the banner was carried at the head of the funeral procession. Described as “nothing but a Docker, a man of good spirit, honest in all his dealings and thorough in all his ways, who possessed a power to raise the class he was so proud to lead and had faith in the people among whom he laboured.” He lived at 362 Spring Road.
Also in 1885, Mr Castledene fought St Clement’s ward (a slum district) for the TC. Fought on a ticket of improving conditions for workers who were paying high rates. Came last.
15/12/1885. Formation of Ipswich Debating Society, inspired by a letter in the local press. 1886 – became the Ipswich Parliament and met regularly but soon dissolved.
Ipswich Election Petition. Local MP Jesse Collins (a Liberal) had fought for land reform and free secular elementary education for all, and was unpopular with religious groups who lodged a petition. Later MP in Birmingham, but split from the Liberals over Home Rule.
26/8/1886. “[There] opened up in Ipswich a Labour Bureau, the first of its kind in the country. During the first seven months, employment was found for 235 out of a total of more than 500 applicants for jobs.” The bureau sometimes supported strike breaking, sending men to corners of England to fill in – seen as a divisive body.
“Mrs Annie Besant, the noted Socialist agitator, addressed a large public meeting in the Cooperative Hall on Wednesday 10 March 1887. She dealt at some length on the aims and objects of Socialism, and on the evil effects of private ownership of land. Mr Manning Prentice of Stowmarket presided; Mr George Hines and Mr H. Bailey moved and seconded a vote of thanks.”
London dock strike – a milestone in the creation of unions for unskilled workers, including Bargemen’s and Dockers’ Unions. In Ipswich, many of these became affiliated to the TC. Many were Radicals and used the TC for party-political ends.
Effects of ’89 Dock Strike in Ipswich. Dispute between the Gas Company and the workers: “the rate was 5½ d per ton ... a week later the men came out on strike for an advance of ¼d per ton ... the manager listened to the men’s statements and decided to meet the men halfway ... by offering them one eighth of a penny increase.” The men refused and fought scab labour. 20 December – meeting of the Dock Labourers Union in Princes St, addressed by Mr Tom Mann (“now famous for his work in connection with the London Dock Strike”) and “he appealed to the men not to be content until they had the ‘tanner’ [a rate of sixpence an hour] as they had in London.”
Formation of Eastern Counties Labour Federation (ECLF). Manifesto: eight-hour day; demolition of all insanitary dwellings; submission of all labour disputes to arbitration; prevention of overseas wars; support other Trades Unions. 7,000 men joined in the first year. Within 18 months it had 200 branches, 10,000 members, £487 income and £329 expenditure. Demonstrated to Suffolk workers that they were underpaid and enjoyed poor conditions compared to workers in other counties. In October 1890, the ECLF successfully represented a member in Otley who had been underpaid by a farmer. Several other successful cases in this vein. Fractious relationship with other Unions. Despite having at one point more than 20,000 members, it folded in 1895.
“At this period there were no such things as Labour Exchanges. The unemployed had to seek work as best they could and there was no income for those who were out of work.”
Also at this time, employers often formed scab unions and would share alternate labour when there was a dispute.
TC contested Bridge ward in 1890. Mr Medcalf came last in a poorly organised campaign. “Those who took part in the selection of the candidate and worked during the contest informed me that, as their meeting-place was on licensed premises, it was considered unlawful to publicly nominate a candidate within the building, so after the candidate had been selected they came outside into the street and publicly nominated him there under the street lamp.” The Labour and Wages paper said of the result: “He had not been ‘fiddled by the Tories’ nor ‘dished by the Whigs’; he had simply been neglected by his own class. The working man will do better next time. Their neglect is not due to badness of heart but from want of thought, and they will do better as they grow wiser. He recommends more work and less brawling next time.” Medcalf died of syncope while working shortly afterwards.
An independent Labour candidate, Mr Joseph Robinson, stood in St Margaret’s ward, came second and was thereby elected as the first working man on the Town Council. Proposal to form a party independent of Liberals and Tories, but nothing came of it for some time.
24/9/1892. Mass Trade Union demo “in a meadow below Oak Hill and Stoke Rectory grounds”. The demo met at St Margaret’s Green and marched with banners, including one from Stratford indicating “that the Great Eastern men asked to be paid for Sunday duty”. Another, from the Battersea Branch of the Navvy Bricklayers Labourers Union, “represented a Nemesis over taking sundry evils.”
At another meeting in 1892 a fight broke out between Mr Fred Woodyard, Treasurer of the Ipswich Dockers Union, and Mr Ike Ward, organising secretary of the General Railway Workers Union. “Mr Ward was described as a two months bird of paradise” whilst Mr Woodyard was defined as “a man who had set himself up as a divinity when in fact he was nothing but a false God – a brazen-faced Nebuchadnezzar who must be beaten down from the sight of all men.” A report from the TUC – the main item on the agenda – was never discussed.
The great national coal dispute. Keir Hardie, following the Trades Union Congress in Bradford, got together with others and formed the Independent Labour Party. Ipswich branch met at Neptune Inn, Fore St; set up a tailor’s shop also selling socialist literature and Co-op Wholesale Society products in Falcon St. This ran into financial difficulties and closed, and the Ipswich ILP branch folded. But before this in 1894, the ILP defended Joe Robinson’s Council seat in St Margaret’s. St Clement’s ward was also contested. Both lost badly.
Nevertheless, successes for the Postmen’s Federation; the boot and show dispute; the formation of the Ipswich branch of the Operative Plasterers Union; also branches in Ipswich, Felixstowe, Colchester and Thetford of the Operative Stonemasons Union.
Purchase by the public of Christchurch Park, supported by Cllr Robinson and other members of the TC.
An appeal was sent to working men which read: “Ipswich, with its 60,000 inhabitants, is a long way behind ... as, with the exception of the School Board, the working men are not directly represented on any public body.” Trades Council Committee proposed a subscription of 1d per month to fund a well-organised campaign. But lack of forthcoming funds and interest meant they had to forgo contesting Bridge Ward in 1897.
Two significant disputes around foreign labour substitution. First, the Captain of a boat carrying beans from Cyprus refused to pay his crew, then refused to employ local labour to empty the boat, bribing the crew to do it in order to get their wages; they refused and unsuccessfully tried to issue a court summons against the Captain. Meanwhile, the Labour Bureau (see above) provided scab labour to unload the boat, and therefore the crew were out-of-pocket. Second, Messrs Brown and Hooper had employed English silk-weavers from Spitalfields and, having gained much knowledge, dismissed them and employed much cheaper German labour.
Labour contest St Clement’s ward, with Page again as the candidate. Came last.
Ward tries again, under a Lib-Lab banner. This was ridiculed by the Tories, who dismissed them as Home Rulers and claimed that the Liberals had always been in the working man’s pocket. But Grimwade the Liberal won St Clement’s ward and Page came second. Despite this, the two parties would not cooperate in Town Council elections again, preferring not to be compromised.
Conclusion: “There is great satisfaction in observing that at the end of the nineteenth century, the Trades Council was firmly established and a beginning had been made in political activities ... perhaps one of the most important developments arising out of the individual and political struggles in our democracy during those years was the establishment of the Labour movement. In the year 1900 this movement was still very much in its infancy, but it opened up new and hopeful vistas for the future of the working classes in this country.”
We now move to the second book of Ratcliffe’s opus, which coincides with the first days of a new century.
1900/01. New Unions formed, and some disbanded. Trades Council petitioned Parliament to support MPs Norton and Hardie to establish a 48-hour working week and 24 shillings per week minimum wage. Following the Education Act of 1902, schools came under the Local Authority. Mr Whiting became a Trades Council rep on the Education Committee.
Postmen’s Dispute. Wages had stagnated amidst rising costs of living (especially rent), but a request to the Postmaster General for an increase had been turned down. The Trades Council appealed to local MPs to take up their case in Parliament, but the decision stood.
Council Elections. In St Clement’s, Page came last, losing by five votes.
Electric trams replaced horse-drawn trams. Houses were demolished to make way for new lines and 23 new houses were built in Devonshire Road as replacements. Meanwhile, workers protested against terrible working conditions on the trams at the Cornhill in November 1904. At the same time, a depression in the building trade. The Trades Council requested that the Council get local labour to build the Devonshire Road houses, rather than sub-contracting. The Council refused.
Electoral successes. Mixed fortunes in following years.
Ipswich branch of ASLEF formed. Met initially in the old museum rooms; then the Station St Institute, then the EUR hotel, then from 1927 the Loco Club in Rectory Road.
Also in 1906, following national Liberal landslide in 1905, Ipswich branch of the ILP reformed. First meeting place was 22 Norwich Road. “Their agitation took the form of a religious and spiritual nature, and no ILP meeting was complete without the singing of Labour songs.” Also Socialist Sunday schools; open air meetings; “they did much to arouse people’s emotions as well as to draw attention to economics ... Jack London’s books were also in great demand.”
Excerpts from the first annual report of the Ipswich ILP read as follows:
- “having among us a number of the Old Brigade, we are not the result of a new birth, but a resurrection”
- “we shall remember the addresses given by our Chairman and Vice-Chairman, also the evening when we all joined in a general confession of our faith; we each managed to add a few words in reply to the question “why we were Socialist,” and a pleasant evening was spent”
- “we also had an opportunity of witnessing a battle royal between a member of the old school of politics and the new”
- “If one characteristic has shown more than another, it is that the Labour Movement, as we accept it, lives by fighting.”
1906 elections – independent Radical Mr Boast was returned to St Clement’s; ILP candidate came last in Bridge and Westgate wards.
But the movement gained members and the ILP took a room in St Stephen’s Lane rent-free in return for putting it in order. Children were christened there at the “Labour Church”.
Bob Ratcliffe reproduces the 1909 Annual Report in full, but no sooner had I begun copying it out, than the librarians of the Ipswich Records Office announced that it was about to close. That will have to wait for next time.