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Lancashire's "Revolt of the Field": the Onnsldrk farmworkers' strike of 1913

Alistair Mutch
issue number: : 

TO MOST people the history of agricultural trade unionism is encompassed by the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Joseph Arch. The strike by the farm workers of South-West Lancashire in 1913 has vanished from sight. It is the purpose of this article to record and celebrate the revolt of 1913, and to place it in the context of a rural society very different from the image peddled by rural nostalgia merchants.

The flat landscape of the Ormskirk plain is not that which rural idylls are made of. It is largely reclaimed moss, crisscrossed by drainage ditches. Settlement is in sprawling villages composed in the main of undistinguished brick cottages and barns. Whilst however it may not be attractive to the artist, it is very attractive to the farmer by reason of its enormously fertile moss soil.

The landscape is largely a creation of the years following the Napoleonic Wars when, under the spur of rising prices and expanding urban markets, mosses were drained, fields enlarged, farms amalgamated, new buildings erected and improving leases granted. The agrarian economy that was created rested on a symbiotic rela­ tionship with the surrounding towns, particularly Liverpool. The fertile mosses produced huge crops of vegetables, hay, grain and straw for the rapidly growing human and animal populations of the towns. The fertility robbed by the growing of the crops was restored by the application of vast quantities of manure from urban stables and dairies.2 Some idea of the prosperity which this exchange brought to farmers can be gained by a brief look at the surviving account books of John Pimbley of Maghull. On some 150 acres he produced, besides the standard crops of wheat, potatoes and hay, rhubarb, apples and flowers. Much of his income came from rhubarb: in 1912 this contributed £1,116 to his gross income of £5,073. His surplus over expenditure in the same year amounted to £1,702. This was at a time when the best paid agricultural worker had an annual income of little over £50.3

Such intensive cultivation required the employment of large numbers of workers. John Pimbley employed 20 men, and most farmers needed to employ some labour, if only to supplement family help at harvest time. Thus, when a party of Mersey farmers visited Hesketh Bank they were shown a ten acre field of carrots of which, 'it was said there had been as many as forty weeders in the field at one time', and earlier in the century Robert Neilson of Halewood employed 'a large number of men in gangs of from 60 to 100, in hoeing, cleaning and reaping, so as to get through the work rapidly'.4 The means of satisfying the fluctuating demand for labour was not, however, that adopted in the wheat growing Home Counties, where a vast reservoir of under-employed labour eked out a miserable existence through the winter in order to be on hand for the frantic and all too brief period of full employment during harvest. In south west Lancashire, as in the rest of northern England and southern Scotland, the demand for casual labour was largely fulfilled by Irish migrant labour. Forced by desperate poverty to seek work in England, the Irish labourer was a godsend to the Lancashire farmer. Accommodated either in the barn or in a primi­ tive bothy or 'shant', the Irishman was a cheap source of hardworking labour, who possessed the additional merit of not incurring any relief costs once his work was no longer required.5

As a consequence the Lancashire agricultural labourer generally enjoyed reason­ able security of employment throughout the year. He also differed from his southern counterpart in another respect: by comparison he was well paid. In 1892, for example, average earnings in Lancashire were 19s 8c1 a week, as compared to 15s in Norfolk, 15s 6d in Essex and 14s 9d in Wiltshire6' Basic wage rates climbed steadily during the nineteenth century to stand at 20s per week by 1903. This level of pay was largely due to the ready availability of alternative employment. Work was obtainable on the large scale drainage schemes or on the expanding rail network. The latter also gave easy access to high paid labouring jobs in the towns, as the Speke agent found to his cost in 1897 when he reported that, 'John Henry has left Speke and gone to live in Rotherham, he has gone to some Gas Works and is getting 40s a week. I was sorry to lose him but I could not offer him anything like the wages he is getting there'.7

This ease of obtaining work may have been one reason why there was no history of trade unionism amongst the area's agricultural labourers before 1913. An absence of trade unionism should not, however, be taken to mean an absence of conflict. The evidence is hard to garner, as disputes were not of sufficient duration to warrant a mention in the local press. Careful examination of estate papers reveals some interesting fragments. That landowners were worried by the potential power of farm workers is indicated by Lord Derby's agent's recommendation in 1872, against the background of strikes in other parts of rural England, of an 'increase in the wages of those in your employment, before any demand be made, one shilling per week to the best men'. This concern was made concrete by a strike of the estate's draining gang in 1873, a 'dispute' with workmen at Knowsley in 1890 and 'a strike on a small scale among the men employed on the farm' in 1892.8 A similar story can also be told for the Speke estate. Here it was Irish labourers who were in the vanguard. In 1891 it was reported that:

'The Irish labour is this year giving us a deal of trouble, there appears to be no means of satisfying them, I have had 9 men struck work today at Mount Pleasant farm, this is the secd time this year'.9

These small-scale conflicts were however limited to the boundaries of individual farms. Demands were not generalised and did not necessitate or produce long term organisation. For that to occur required the convergence of a number of factors.

One of these was mechanisation. The desire to avoid labour conflict was a reason behind the alacrity with which the area's farmers adopted machinery, particularly from the 1890s onwards. The Speke agent, quoted above, went on to say, 'fortunately I have the Potato Digger otherwise I should be in quite a fix'. Little work has been done on the adoption of machinery by farmers, as opposed to its invention and technological development, but from that which is available it appears that experience in south-west Lancashire deviated significantly from that in the rest of the country. David Morgan, for example, has argued that, 'mechanical aids to harvesting were slow to be accepted in English agricultural practice, and the extensive use of hand tools continued right up to the end of the century'.10 By contrast, in south-west Lancashire the available evidence indicates a fairly rapid take-up of machinery, caused partly by the strong market orientation of the area's fanning, and partly by the desire to escape from dependence on casual labour.11 In 1897 the Ormskirk Advertiser complained that, 'The comparative dearth of labour is very freely com­ mented on throughout the district. Irish harvesters, in particular, were hardly ever known to be so scarce'. The solution was, said the paper, the use of the self-binder, which enabled 'the farmer to get through his work with less work than heretofore, and with comparative independence'.12 In the same way farmers sought to substitute women and children for Irish labour during the potato harvest by the use of the potato digger. The importance of mechanisation in our context is that it, 'transformed the harvest situation to the advantage of the regular farm servant'.13

This change was accompanied by a much slower and deeper change, the demise of the farm servant and the opening up of the gap between farmer and labourer. The decline of the farm servant, hired by the year and living in the farm house, was observed in the 1850s; and by 1913 he was a rarity. Farmers wished to take advantage of the buoyant price of their produce by selling in the market and forcing their workers to bear the full cost of the reproduction of their labour. A desire for status, occasioned by their prosperity, was also a motive for the exclusion by farmers of workers from their houses. 'The great body of farmers', complained William Roth-well in 1850, 'seem to care little about their servants, except to extract the greatest amount of labour from them'.14 This widening of the gap between employed and employer was much bemoaned by nostalgic writers. At Christmas in the past, recalled one such writer in 1913, parties were held for the workers' children and the 'farmers joined their men in a shooting sweep-stake and generally there was a regular fraternising of all hands of the farm. But we see little of these doings nowadays'.15

Farm workers were also less likely by the early years of the twentieth century to have any prospect of obtaining a farm of their own. The area was typified by its small farms, the tenancy of which the labourer could aspire to. It is important to see that these small fanners were far from being subsistence peasants. They sold the bulk of their produce in the market and most employed labour. However, their existence meant that the farming class was not a homogeneous one. The layer of small farmers blurred class distinctions. 16 The small farmer tended to work alongside his men. More often than not he would share their religion in an area with a strong dissenting tradition. The Church of England was clearly identified with the 'gentry' and large farmers, the chapel with small farmers and labourers.16 The small farmer was how­ ever under attack throughout the course of the nineteenth century. Landowners seized the chance of time expired leases to amalgamate farms and as urban villas encroached on the countryside they swallowed up many smallholdings. Thus while farms under 50 acres constituted 80.62% of all holdings in 1870, the proportion had dropped by 1910 to 62.59%. It was always difficult for a farm labourer to obtain a farm in competition with a farmer's son, but by the early twentieth century even the possibility was beginning to recede.

The growing gap between farmer and worker was accentuated by the increased political awareness of the farmers. They had formed their own organisations, pre­ cursors of the N.F.U., in a successful bid for a share in the leadership of rural society.17 Their orientation was thus away from their workers towards the land­ owners. With this political change came a more 'commercial' attitude towards their farming. Along with new machinery came the growing of new cash crops and the more aggressive marketing of produce. As a writer in 1913 observed, 'A farmer's bank balance was formerly reckoned on the amount of hay he had about the place', but now, 'if the price is considered satisfactory for the crop, no matter the month or time of the year, the produce is sold off and the money in hand'.18

Contemporary accounts asserted that this shift in attitudes had its impact on farm worke, amplifying the changes brought about by machinery. In 1897 it was claimed that, 'The modern "express" process of doing things seems in these days to apply to hay drying, for it is not shaken about and fork made to anything like it was in past days'.19 A concrete illustration of this change in work methods is provided by the decline of the ploughing match, once such a popular event. By 1910 Thomas Barnes, publican at Little Crosby, was complaining that they had 'died away almost in all districts', and that, 'it is the same all round now a day get as much done as you can'. The skilled ploughing promoted by the match was no longer required; 'the object desired is to crunch and pulverise the earth as much as possible, and the rougher the better'. 20

THIS somewhat compressed account of the development of agrarian capitalism and its workforce in south-west Lancashire has brought us up to 1913. The immediate context of that year is important. Whilst wages had risen steadily during the nine-teenth century from 1900 they stayed constant while prices rose. This combination was a factor in the great labour unrest of the years 1910-1914. This unrest was of course particularly marked on Merseyside where the 1911 transport strike had seen as many as 70,000 workers on strike and confrontations between police and strikers. This massive surge of activity could not fail to have some impact on farm workers, but what was required to turn grievances into concrete action was organisation. In the autumn of 1912 farm labourers began to join the Norfolk-based National Agricultural Labourers and Rural Workers Union in large numbers. By November of that year there were seven branches, and in the following year the union was claiming a membership of over 2,000. 21 The organisational impetus was provided by two railwaymen, George Newman and John Phipps. What is particularly interesting is that both men were committed socialists, a political type not often associated with farm workers, who have been seen by many as the perfect example of the conser-vative, deferential worker. What the following account makes clear is that it was possible for such men to relate their conceptions of trade unionism to supposedly 'backward' workers.22

George Newman, born in 1873, was the son of a Buckinghamshire gamekeeper and, at the age of sixteen, went to the U.S.A. for four years to work as a cowboy.23 (It is interesting to note that another member of the 1913 strike committee, Corsini of Melling, had also worked in Canada for two years. It is possible that this experience made both of them look at rural society with a more critical eye when they returned.) Newman returned to England in 1893, to work, first as a porter, then as a relief signalman in Burnley. He 'joined the union, discovered the "Clarion" and became a socialist of the somewhat elementary Blatchfordian type'. Then he met a socialist named Joseph Tamlyn and: 'With an almost brutal shock I was made to realise that, in common with most of my class, I was ignorant and uncultured. I learnt from him the beauty of poetry, and glory of science, literature and history. The works of Shelley, Heine, Ibsen and Hardy were opened to me; and, greatest gift of all, I learnt to understand the Marxian dialect and philosophy'.

After an illness he was transferred to Southport. Here he worked in a signal box at Pool Hey on the outskirts of the town, where he no doubt came into contact with farm workers. He began to enrol them in the union, and his efforts were noted with thanks in a letter from the executive in 1912.

The union was not so appreciative of the efforts made by Phipps. In 1912 the Executive complained that he was opening branches but money was not reaching them .24 Phipps, who was secretary of the Ormskirk branch of the National Union of Railwaymen, had the attitude that it was more important to recruit members and spread the union as fast as possible than to pay strict attention to matters of finance.

Phipps was deeply involved in the wider labour movement. He was a member of the 1911 Liverpool strike committee, and a supporter of the election campaign of the syndicalist George Brown of Hull for general organiser of the N.U.R. Phipps' support for syndicalism appears to have been because of its stress on industrial action, rather than because of any firm belief in its theory, as he was also firmly committed to political action. He saw unions using their financial strength for political ends. He argued for a local fund to enable: 'labourers to compete against the farmers for Labour representation on their ownUrban District Councils. This would enable them to reduce the long hours and increase the small wages of those poor men who keep our roads in repair'.25

Not surprisingly, farmers objected to this 'outside interference', resenting 'the interference of window cleaners and signalmen, and considered that the officials of the National Union of Clerks would be better employed in looking after the interests of their own class'.26 Railwaymen were not, however, the 'outsiders' of this demono­ logy. Many of them were drawn from the ranks of farm workers, and came into regular contact with them. For many a job on the railways was the only way to escape farm work. Margaret Penn tells of one labourer's son whose 'hopes on leaving school were set on getting into the tiny booking office of the Cheshire Lines at Kilnbrook. A gentleman's job which might eventually lead to higher things, such as work for the Company in Warrington, or, higher still, in Manchester'.27

Railwaymen were not slow to recognise these links, and the motion to donate £500 to the N.A.L.R.W.U. at the 1913 T.U.C. conference was moved by J. Halfpenny of the Railway Clerks and seconded by E. Charles a railwayman from Griffithstown, Monmouth, who argued that:

'the badly paid agricultural labourer has been a stumbling block in our path, and the farmers are protesting against the railway companies raising the labourers' wages, because it makes it more difficult for them to get labour for the land. We want the labourers' wages to be pushed up along with our own for our mutual help and protection'.28

In Lancashire the support given by railway workers to farm workers was motivated by more than self interest. In Ormskirk the N.U.R. branch was, 'very enthusiastic in support of the labourer during his first fight for economic freedom' and much of this enthusiasm stemmed from the fact that they had first hand experience of the farm workers' conditions? From their position of relative security they were able to give concrete help and in doing so they were outside the constraints that weighed upon the labourer, but not outside the local working class. What the farmers objected to was the counterposing of an alternative link—that of farm workers with other workers—to their model of a farming community with vertical links between them­ selves and their workers.

THE NEW members had a considerable impact on the union. Five motions came to the 1913 General Council from Lancashire branches, calling for an immediate increase in wages, the payment of overtime, the establishment of a minimum wage by the Government and closer links between unions. The Lancashire members also formulated their local demands: a ten hour day; a four shillings per week rise on their basic wage of 20 shillings; 6d an hour overtime; and a half day on Saturday from 1p.m. While authorising a local conference around these demands, the Executive warned that, 'sanction cannot be given to a cessation of work considering the present financial state of the union'.30 Part of the reason for this was that the Executive were, 'all Norfolk men meeting in Norfolk and out of sympathy with a demand which was for nearly double Norfolk rates'. But there was also hostility arising out of the brand of unionism practised by the Executive, and in particular by the General Secretary, George Edwards. He was a Primitive Methodist lay preacher and declared proudly that, 'all through my long connection with the Labour Movement... I have always been against the strike weapon being used until every other means have failed to secure justice'.31 It is not surprising that he found Phipps' militant and expansionist conception of trade unionism repellant. He arrived in Lancashire in May 1913 with the clear intention of damping down discontent, 'In all future actions... he would advise them to be very moderate in their demands and courteous to their employers, and not give them any excuse to take extreme action'.32

By this time, however, the 2-3,000 members were not satisfied with such messages. In addition the farmers were provoking action by their victimisation of union members. Victimisation pay was granted by the Executive to members in Banks and Downholland in early 1913, and in late May eight union supporters were evicted from their tied cottages at Barton. A demonstration of 2,000 headed by the Melling Brass Band marched from Lydiate to Barton on June 1st to protest against this action. 33 Meanwhile farmers were meeting to decide their strategy. Their initial response was to reject all the demands as impossible given the unique conditions of farming. The lie was given to this by the farmers' subsequent actions, both indivi­ dually and collectively. The Lancashire Farmers' Association called a meeting at Ormskirk, and speakers advocated concessions. Some farmers, like J. Pilkington of Halsall, felt that any concession would be seen as a sign of weakness by the union. But another speaker recognised the vital need to prevent a strike which he thought, 'would strengthen the union. By allowing the men to strike they felt their strength'. Accordingly the meeting offered a 2 o'clock stop on Saturday, hoping by this to 'squash' the union.34 Many individual farmers went further than this and raised their men's wages.35 The union, however, demanded equal conditions across the area, which would, if conceded, have amounted to recognition. Faced with the refusal of the farmers to yield on this, coupled with lock-outs and pressure from the members, the union issued strike notices on June 14th, to take effect on the 23rd. Even at this late stage the union hoped to achieve a negotiated settlement, unsuc­ cessfully seeking the mediation of Lord Derby (the largest landowner).36

The farmers ignored the union's notices, hoping that most of the men would not obey the union's instructions. As the Ormskirk Advertiser, virtually the farmers' organ, put it: 'It is found that many have joined the Union not fully understanding all the consequences entailed. When it is known that it means standing by to watch their masters' crops perish in the fields, many old and faithful servants will have full and aching hearts'.37

In the event this was shown to have been wishful thinking. 2,500 labourers struck on the 23rd in an area from Speke in the south to Scarisbrick in the north, and west to the coast. An indication of the depth of support the action enjoyed is provided by the sympathy strike of twenty men on a farm in Maghull whose employer had already conceded the full union demands.38 In addition the Irish labourers, on whom the farmers had relied to break the strike, proved to be staunch union supporters. 'Practically every Irishman in the countryside is a Union man. They appear to have known of the movement before coming over, and on arriving in Lancashire to have inquired at once for the local branch of the union'. Many went straight to Yorkshire on finding out the local position.39

The Manchester Guardian's correspondent described the strike as, 'one of thestrongest conflicts in modern industrial warfare'. No doubt such a response wascaused by surprise at seeing farm workers taking action, and well-organised action at that. A strike committee of ten was elected which insisted that only it could come to any settlement, and mass mettings were held. Picketing of roads to stop wagons taking produce to market and of farms to stop strikebreakers was organised and maintained through the night.40 As one account put it: 'The strikers are perfectly organised. They are distributed over the whole area in little garrisons, which are connected by a cyclist scout system, so that they can be mobilised rapidly whenever they are needed. Soon after dawn a cyclist recon­ naisance had found out at which farm waggons were being loaded for markets, and when the waggons came out, they were held up at convenient places by the strikers. Where a safe conduct was shown they were passed on. The others, who were usually escorted by one or two policemen, were dealt with in a different fashion, the method being to cut the tarpaulin sheet, or remove the lynch pin from the axle and upset the load'.41

The passes referred to were given to farmers who had settled, or who employed no labour. The effect was soon evident in the Liverpool market with less than half the usual amount of produce being on sale, and cabbages, in particularly short supply, rising from their usual price of three a penny to half a crown a dozen. The effect was also apparent in the fields, as the strikers had chosen their time well. Cabbages had just been planted between the rows of early potatoes, which were being lifted. A delay in lifting would mean that later crops would suffer. It was also time for the hay harvest—in other words the peak labour demand of the year. The strikers' pickets effectively turned out most of the labourers still working, and the few 'volunteers' from Liverpool were not adequate replacement. 'On one farm, it was reported, 'a clergyman on vacation was reaping and on another a school teacher on holiday was giving a hand.... these feeble attempts to make headway against the serious injury of the hay crop and the over-ripe potatoes were quite pathetic'.42

The bitterness with which the strike was conducted shocked observers. Incidents ranged from the stoning of wagons and non-union labour to an alleged case of incendiarism when a hay barn at Lydiate was burnt down at a cost of £1,000. The charge was denied, but the Southport Advertiser complained that, 'there were few volunteers assisting the firemen'.' At Ormskirk Police Court on July 4th eight men were found guilty of intimidation and fined between 5s and 10s, with one of them also found guilty of assaulting a policeman.44

The violence was not confined to one side, with reports of workers being shot at by farmers' sons.45 There were also considerable numbers of police in the area, and Edwards complained of violence on their part. Fifty extra police were drafted in from Wigan, along with mounted police. They were billeted in farmhouses and used to escort convoys of wagons to Liverpool. Joseph Cotter, of the National Union of Ships Stewards, was quite prepared to answer violence with violence. The police were, he asserted, 'only hooligans in uniform. If the police were at liberty to carry sticks they must carry sticks, and if anyone hit them they must hit back'.46

Despite the damage being done to both the marketing and harvesting of their crops, the farmers refused to contemplate any 'barrier' being placed between them and their men, and met any approach from the union with contempt. The strike committee felt that they had no option but to continue the strike, stating that: 'After yielding on the recognition question, and in view of the contemptuous refusal of the farmers to meet a deputation of their own labourers, we are now determined to see the matter through, as unconditional surrender means humili­ ation and disgrace'.47

It was at this point that the intervention of other trade unionists proved decisive. No doubt (heir involvement owed a good deal to the contacts that Phipps had in the Liverpool labour movement. Liverpool unions contributed to a strike fund which reached a total of over £787, and on June 14th the Trades Council held a demonstra­ tion of some 3-400 at West Derby in support of the farm workers. The Manchester Guardian noted that, 'nearly all the speakers were men who had been members of the Liverpool Strike Committee during the upheaval of two years ago' of which Phipps had been a member. Such men advised the labourers to enlarge their demands 'on the grounds that they are too modest' and soon came into conflict with Edwards.48 At the close of the strike the Trades Council minutes reveal that, 'a strong protest was levelled at the attitude taken up by Mr. Edward (sic) of the Agricultural Labourers towards the Council, the secretary being instructed to voice the feeling of the Council on his conduct'.49

Liverpool workers also took concrete steps to help. The dockers and ships stewards picketed boats to ensure that strikebreakers were not brought in by sea, and transport workers refused to handle non-union goods.50 The decisive action was taken by Ormskirk N.U.R., which sent the following telegram to Aspinall, General Manager of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway:

'At a meeting of all grades held 27th inst. you are respectfully requested not to receive any farm produce during the present dispute, owing to excited state of railwaymen in the present crisis'.

They followed this with the resolution, 'That we refuse to handle or convey any farm produce during the present agricultural labourers' dispute'.51 On the following day Liverpool N.U.R. gave financial aid and unanimous support, and threatened to follow the Ormskirk branch's action.52

On July 7th the strike ended. The role of the transport workers was crucial, as the great bulk of the area's produce was carried by rail. The nature of the produce carried was not such that it could be stored, and so farmers were faced with complete loss. In the face of this they agreed to a settlement suggested by the superintendant of police in Ormskirk.

Both sides agreed to accept the recommendations of a mediating committee under an independent chairman, S. Brighouse, the county coroner. The result was a twelve hour day, a 2p.m. finish on Saturdays, 6d an hour overtime and rises of between two and three shillings a week. In addition a committee of six labourers and six farmers was set up to settle grievances arising out of the strike.53 As George Edwards pointed out, 'This was the first time in the history of agricultural labourers that they had obtained a reduction in the hours of labour'.54 The most important result of the strike was that it saw farm workers acting as a class with links with other workers, rather than with their employers in a 'farming interest'. The Speke agent certainly felt that things would never be the same again. The workers would be, he wrote, 'trouble­ some for some time to come, but I don't anticipate any more strikes until another year, when it will in all probability come to the front again'.55

THE SPEKE workers did indeed prove 'troublesome' in the following year. They were 'difficult to manage, and are influenced to a great extent by Agitators against doing their duty to their employers'. The idea of getting rid of workers during the winter had to be abandoned as 'there are no others to be had'. Far worse, a fire at Mount Pleasant Farm destroyed two Dutch barns and their contents, valued at £600. 'There is little doubt', thought the agent, considering all the circumstances, that it was fired by someone connected with the place, and I am inclined to think that it is the work of someone connected with the Mens Union'. Further, he had heard of 'anonymous post-cards Sr writing on the gates in the parish giving warnings of further damage'.56 The Executive granted victimisation pay to members in Burscough and Maghull, and there seems to have been a polarisation of rural society. W. Hutchinson of Maghull protested 'against the action of local tradesmen and others in boycotting our members'. Phipps lost his job for his part in the strike, and Ormskirk N.U.R. roundly declared that, 'action shall be taken against all concerned, and we shall return boycott for boycott, and if our opponents desire the class war they shall have it to their sorrow', and advised workers to join the C.W.S. as by doing so they could 'slowly but surely crush out of existence the present rotten capitalistic system'.57

Despite this atmosphere of polarisation and the gloomy predictions of the Speke agent, little concrete action was forthcoming, save that, 'Meetings by some agitators have been held at Hunts Cross in the open and have been largely attended by the Irish labourers, with a few local men with them, but I have not heard yet what they are asking for, beyond the fact that they want to leave at 12 noon on Saturday'.58

The reason for this lack of activity was that the union itself was divided. Phipps saw the task as by no means ending with the Lancashire victory. He wrote after the strike that, 'This work has only commenced. This union is going to extend all over the Kingdom'.59 To achieve this aim he envisaged a rapid expansion of the union into neighbouring areas and the establishment of a fund under local control. It has been seen above that Phipps planned to use this fund for political purposes; it would also secure a local source of finance independent of the union executive. Of course, this aggressive concept of trade unionism was totally opposed to that held by the Executive, even with the resignation of Edwards and the succession of R.B. Walker, superficially more radical than Edwards. They were determined to maintain a strongly centralised organisation with control firmly in Norfolk.

The first dash came when Phipps, without the authorisation of the Executive, put to the Lancashire members the idea of a local fund to maintain a full-time organiser.`' The fund was to be set up initially from the money left from the strike fund, out of which Phipps was already being paid as a part-time organiser, and then was to be financed by an increase in the contributions of Lancashire members from 2d to 3d. A ballot of the county membership agreed to this as from January 1914, until which time Phipps was to continue as organiser.

In the interval the Executive tried to find a replacement, and on 13th December it was decided to sack Phipps and replace him with James Coe. The Lancashire members were outraged by this and forced a ballot, in which Coe was decisively beaten by Phipps. They also won the 'legislation' of County Federations, now to be known as County Committees. The Executive now decided to counter Phipps by alternative means. The means chosen was the alteration of the basis of represen­ tation to the 1914 Annual General Council. Delegates were to be elected from districts on the basis of one per 100 with a maximum of 7, with large branches over 100 having their own delegate. Lancashire and Yorkshire were to constitute one district, Norfolk four. Furthermore the basis for delegation was to be the 1912 membership, i.e. before the majority of Lancashire members had joined. The result was that, of an A.G.C. of 53 delegates plus 16 Executive Committee members, 41 were from Norfolk, and it was from this body that the Executive was elected. With this gerrymander achieved and the grant from the T.U.C. received, the Executive felt itself in a stronger position to deal with Phipps. In April they resolved to send Walker to Lancashire, 'empowered to give Mr. Phipps notice at once taking into consideration the unsatisfactory position of Lancashire generally'. Phipps was sacked and demands for an inquiry from the Maghull branch rejected.

The result was a split in the union in June 1914, centred on the Aughton, Melling, and Maghull branches, three of the largest. They formed the Farm and Dairy Workers Union and took most of the Lancashire members with them. At least 22 branches in Lancashire were recorded as sending contributions in 1913; this had fallen to 13 the following year with lower contributions, and only the Downholland and Thornton branches adhered to the Norfolk union in any strength. Unfortunately, the attitude of the Ormskirk Advertiser to trade unionism, coupled with the looming shadow of the world crisis which was to lead to war, means that little information on the new union is available. It spread its influence into Cheshire and North Wales, and merged with the Workers Union in 1918. Many of its members later rejoined the N.A.L.W. U. after the war.61

It has been said of the contributors to The Victorian Countryside that for most of them 'Victoria was queen of the southern English corn belt'. The same argument could be extended to other works ranging from History Workshop's Village Life and Labour to G.E. Mingay's Rural Life in Victorian England. This bias conceals the tremendous regional differences in both economy and society that existed in nine­ teenth century rural Britain. It has been the intention of this article to go some way towards correcting the balance. However it can only be a starting point for a much deeper analaysis of Lancashire rural society. The bitter industrial conflict of 1913 must raise questions as to the nature of the society which produced it. Particularly fascinating are those 'model' villages like Speke which were on the surface pictur­ esque and harmonious, but underneath seem to have contained deep tensions. The traditional picture of the rural worker gives us the archetypal deferential conser­ vative: 1913 gives us the trade union militant. This surely must warn us against creating eternal types of consciousness and direct us towards an analysis of the material conditions that shape and direct attitudes and actions.

I should like to thank the following for their help in the research which led to this article: Mike Rose; Andy Charlesworth; G.H. and J.A. Newman; Bill Corsini; and officers of the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers at both local and national level. Thanks are also due to Andrew Bullen for his helpful suggestions.


1 This article is based on my thesis, 'Rural Society in Lancashire, 1840-1914' (Ph.D. University of Manchester, 1980) and many of the points which can be only briefly alluded to here are taken up in much greater detail there.

2 For 'improvement' see T.W. Fletcher, 'The Agrarian Revolution in Arable Lancashire, Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, 72 (1962); for a contemporary account see A.D. Hall, A Pilgrimage of British Farming 1910-1912 (Lon­ don 1913).

3 I have to thank Judy Cavanagh and Andy Charlesworth of Liverpool University for a sight of John Pim bley's accounts.

4 Ormskirk Advertiser (O.A.), 26th July 1894; F.W. Garnett, The Farming of Lancashire', Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, 30 (1849), p.14.

5 See E.J.T. Collins, 'Migrant Labour in British Agriculture in the Nineteenth Century', Economic History Review, Second Series, 29, (1976).

6 E.H. Hunt, 'Labour productivity in British Agriculture, 1850-1914', E.H.R. 34(1967) p.280.

7 Liverpool R.O., Speke papers, 920SPE, 10/18, 8 October 1897.

8 Liverpool Record Office, Derby papers, 920DER (15), Hale correspondence, 26 April 1872, 29 June 1873; Diaries, 13 April 1890, 30 October 1892.

9 Speke papers, 10/6 8 October 1891.

10 D. Morgan, 'The place of harvesters in nineteenth century village life', in R. Samuel, Village Life and Labour (London, 1976), p.61.

11 A Mutch, 'The Mechanisation of the Harvest in South West Lancashire 1840-1914', Agricultural History Review, forthcoming.

12 O.A., 22 July 1897.

13 Morgan, op.cit., p.66.

14 W. Rothwell, Report of the Agriculture of the County of Lancaster (Warrington 1850(, p.127. In Aughton farm servants still outnumbered labourers by 115 to 103 in 1851. Twenty years later the positions were reversed, with 64 servants to 144 labourers. P.R.O., census returns, HO/107/2196 and R.G./10/3870.

15 O.A., 9 January 1913.

16 M. Penn, Manchester Fourteen Miles (Cambridge 1947), p.158.

17 A Mutch, 'Agricultural Depression and Farmers Organisations: a reassessment of T.W. Fletcher', Agricultural History Review, forthcoming.

18 O.A., 16 January 1913.

19 0.A., 22 July 1897.

20 Thomas Barnes, Changes along the banks of the River Mersey (typescript, c.1910, at Little Crosby Hall), p.119; O.A. 7 March 1912.

21 Reading, Museum of English Rural Life, records of the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers, Executive Council minutes, B/1/3, 2 November 1912. The first great upsurge of trade unionism among farm workers came in the 1870s when the National Agricultural Labourers Union, under Joseph Arch, and a proliferation of smaller local unions organised rural workers in their thousands. A decline set in at the end of the 1870s and the 'National', which had 55,000 members in 1877, dwindled to just 4,254 by 1883. The next twenty years were barren ones, despite occasional flurries of organis­ ation. The founding of the Eastern Counties Agricultural Labourers and Small Holders Union under George Edwards in 1906 came about largely as a result of the victimisation of Liberal agricultural labourers in Norfolk during the General Election. The union changed its name to the National Agricultural Labourers and Rural Workers Union in 1911 after the replacement of liberals on the Executive Committee by Labour suppor­ ters. For the history of rural trade unionism see R. Groves, Sharpen the Sickle, first issued in 1948 and reissued in paperback by Merlin in 1981.

22 What little evidence I have suggests that the political attitudes of the agricultural labourer in south-west Lancashire were more complex than the stereotype; but this is one point on which I would welcome further information. Did, for example, Clarion cyclists in Liverpool make forays into the Lancashire countryside as did their Manches­ ter comrades?

23 This section is based largely on an article by Newman in the Railway Review, 26 August 1938, supplemented by information from his sons, Mr. G.H. Newman of Southport and Mr. J.A. Newman of Ambleside. The information on Corsini comes from his son, Mr. B. Corsini of Maghull.

24 NUAAW, B/1/3, 2 November 1912. Again, I would welcome any details on Phipps' life and politics, which have proved exceedingly difficult to track down.

25 B. Holton, British Synddicalism 1900-1914 (London, 1976), pp.167, 169; O.A., 27 November 1913; South Wales Worker, 30 August 1913. See also Railway Review, 20 August 1913, 7 & 28 November 1913.

26 Liverpool Daily Post, 13 June 1913.

27 Penn, op.cit, pp.122-3. See also P.S. Bagwell, Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History, II, 1965, p.9; and R. Groves, op.cit., p.129.

28 Trades Union Congress, Report of 1913 Conference (London 1913), p.313-4.

29 Railway Review, 4 July 1913, p.13.

30 NUAAW, B/6/1, General Council Minutes, 8 February 1913; B/1 /3, Executive Council, 15 March 1913.

31 Michael Madden, 'The national Union of Agricultural Workers 1906-1956; a Study of the Development and Effects of the Policies of Leadership' (University of Oxford, B.Litt thesis, 1956), p.28; George Edwards, From Crow Scaring to Westminster (London 1922), p.177.

32 O.A., 22 May 1913.


33 NUAAW, B/1/3, 11 January, 8 February 1913, Manchester Guardian, (M.G.), 2 June 1913, O.A., 5 June 1913.

34 0.A., 29 May 1913; The Times, 24 May 1913.

35 M.G., 10 June 1913.

36 R. Groves, op.cit., p.141.

37 O.A., 12 June 1913.

38 M.G., 21 June 1913.

39 M.G., 10 June 1913.

40 M.G., 24 and 25 June, 7 July 1913.

41 M.G., 25 June 1913.

42 M.G., 10 June, 25 June 1913; Manchester Evening News, 1 July 1913.

43 Southport Visitor, 12 July 1913; see also M.G. 7 July 1913.

44 Southport Visitor, 3 and 5 July 1913.

45 M.G., 26 June 1913.

46 M.G., 26 June 1913; O.A., 26 June 1913; Southport Visitor, 1 July 1913.

47 M.G., 4 July 1913, in rejection of terms negotiated by the Board of Trade; Groves, op.cit., p.141.

48 NUAAW, Headland House, London, NALRWU Annual Report, 1913, p.4; M.G., 16 June 1913, 11 June 1913.

49 Liv. R.O., 331TRA 1/8 Liverpool Trades Council minute book, 9 July 1913. The letter was noted in the NALRWU Executive minutes for 12 July, but discussion was held over, and no further mention of it appears; B/1 /3, 12 July 1913.

50 M. Fieldhouse, 'Strike Action' in J. Maynard (ed.), A Hundred Years of Farmworkers' Struggle (Nottingham 1974), p.19.

51 Southport Visitor, 1 July 1913; Railway Review, 4 July 1913, p.13.

52 Liverpool Daily Post, 7 July 1913.

53 O.A., 17 July 1913; M.G., 8 July 1913.

54 G. Edwards, op.cit., p.185.

55 Speke papers, 10/14, 9 July and 13 July 1913.

56 Speke papers, 10/14, 7 October and 5 November 1913, 14 March 1914.

57 NUAAW, B/1/3, 16 August 1913, 28 February 1914; Railway Review, 25 July, 20 August 1913.

58 Speke papers, 10/14, 26 July 1914.

59 South Wales Worker, 16 August 1913.

60 The account which follows is based on NUAAW B/1 /3 and Madden, op.cit., pp.29-31.

61 O.A., 25 June 1914; Liverpool Daily Post, 30 June 1914; NALRWU Annual Reports, 1913, 1914; Groves, op.cit., p.143.

62 Ian Carter, 'In the provinces of Britain', New Statesman, 24 July 1981, p.18.