It’s been 102 years since Mary Macarthur and the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath marched back to work, singing and waving through the smoky streets of Cradley Heath, celebrating a landmark victory that would inspire women for generations to come.
A century ago, the Black Country was one of the most intensely industrialised areas of Britain. 90% of all chain production took place there and in the nearby towns that now form the boroughs of Sandwell and Dudley. The industrial success was underpinned by a near global monopoly in chain making. The economic success was not reflected in the lives of the chainmakers that produced a thousand tons of heavy iron chain every week.The new factories employed men to produce heavy chains while the smaller chains were often made by women and children, paid as little as a fifth of the men’s wages. Sweated trade saw women making goods from home. Working individually it was easier for employers to pay women a pittance. Not for them the collective strength of their male counterparts on the factory floor.
Sherard called the Black Country women ‘The White Slaves of England’. In his book he described how women of all ages made chains in brutal conditions. Lifting and hammering heavy metal for twelve hours a day, the women often had badly blistered hands and were burnt on different parts of their body from the flying sparks. Their metal products were often produced in cramped hot outhouses in between childcare. Sherard observed ‘hunger can bind tighter than iron links’. This was not hyperbole. The starvation wages received by women meant that chronic hunger was a reality for most female workers. It was not uncommon for children to be fed on sop (bread and hot water) or begged-for dripping. Margarine was a luxury milk and eggs hardly ever seen.
The radical Liberal government that planted the seeds of the welfare state famously introducing pension provision and National Insurance passed the Trades Board Act in 1909. This attempted to improve the conditions in the most exploited of the sweated trades. The chainmakers trade board announced a minimum wage of two and half pence, many employers simply refused to comply.
The women of the Black Country took their inspiration from the match girls famous challenge to matchmakers Bryant & May less than a generation previous. To these tired, poor and hungry women the term strike – coined from the striking of a match to create a flame – was a brave and revolutionary act. The women of Cradley Heath were left with little alternative to fight for the wage increase they were entitled to. Winning would have doubled their pay but for them it meant their children would be fed. 800 women workers downed tools and took a stand.
She spoke passionately about the cause, describing the conditions she saw in Cradley Heath as ‘hell’. Translating this into pamphlets and using the new medium of cinema, support flooded in from people of all walks of life.
Employers had not expected the level of solidarity the chainmakers received, anticipating a short strike. But ten weeks after the women first walked out the bosses conceded and reluctantly gave the women the rights they were entitled to. The victory was a seminal moment in industrial history – not just a victory for the women of Cradley Heath it helped lay the foundations for today’s minimum wage.
When teaching the Industrial Revolution, my year 8 class were shocked that girls their age wouldn’t have been in the classroom but could have been in the forge making chains. When I asked them when they thought a minimum wage was introduced, most pupils said five or ten years later. They were shocked; almost confused to learn the answer was 1999. This 89-year gap highlights that while the chainmakers victory was a great step forward it was only the end of the beginning of a struggle for equal rights and conditions for women.
And today’s gender pay gap shows Macarthur’s struggle is not yet complete. Forty years after the equal pay act women are still paid nearly 15% less than men. And we still see it in the political realm. Only 22% of MPs are women. 84% guests and contributors to Radio 4s Today Programme are men. Inequality and discrimination are still sadly a reality.
Despite the momentous victory that Mary Macarthur can be credited with there is a hidden injustice. Mary might well have shared the mantle of first woman MP with Viscountess Nancy Witcher Astor. But the law required a female candidate to stand using her married name. Though Mary Macarthur was a household name, her married surname was not recognised by the voters of the Black Country – who might well have elected her as Labour’s first female MP had they recognised her identity.If she were alive today I suspect Mary Macarthur would be disappointed with the inequality that still exists in the modern workplace. I suspect she would condemn the Tories for leading the biggest attack on women in a generation, 73% of money raised from the cuts comes from women. And despite the great social progress by successive Labour Governments, I have a hunch that she would be pressing the Labour Party to do more to close this gap, to hear women, especially working class women in Parliament.
This weekend the annual Women Chainmakers Festival returns to its roots. Bearmore Park in the heart of Cradley Heath will see the chainmakers remembered and a statue unveiled to symbolise their courage and commemorate their legacy.
As women trade unionists, it’s down to us to honour the memory of Mary and the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath. In their struggle to make chains, they helped release women from the bond of sweated Labour.