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Book review: Ten Per Cent and No Surrender: The Preston Strike 1853-1854

H.I. Dutton and J.E. King.

Cambridge University Press. 1981. £18.50.

From the six months after October 1853, the cotton workers of Preston were engaged in a stubborn struggle with their employers. They were on the offensive under the slogan “10% and No Surrender’’. When the operatives went on strike in support of their claim, the manufacturers locked them out; and thus they remained until forced back for lack of funds at the end of April 1854.

This extremely well researched and detailed account based on scrapbooks found in Lancashire County Records Office deals with the situation from different aspects. The scrapbooks were compiled by one of the masters and one of the leaders of the strike and the material obviously reflects that balance.

The situation in Preston marked the efficient organisation that the mill owners had initiated to deal with just such a strike. Marx noted that the master spinners and manufacturers had formed an Association intended to resist, “all demands made by associated bodies of mill hands, fortifying the monoploy of capital by the monopoly of combination, and dictating terms as an Associated body’’. It is a pity that the authors did not use Marx’s “Letters In The New York Daily Tribune”. Written as they were during the strike, they offer comment and elucidation which would have strengthened the narrative. To characterise Marx at that time as “the obscure and penniless German refugee’’ when his reports in the American press were being used throughout Europe, is possibly carrying academic “impartiality’’ to extreme limits.

The authors reveal another skeleton in their cupboard in their attitude towards the women who participated in the strike. Reporting that “the appearance of women on platform was evidently a rare event’’ they then describe the work of Mrs Cooper and her sisters-in-law, Ann and Margaret Fletcher who seem to have travelled the length and breadth of Lancashire raising support for the locked-out-workers, and say, “but in general (and in spite of their massive numerical preponderance among the turn-outs) women played a very subordinate role in the entire ten per cent campaign’ ’.

This approach is, sadly, the usual male assessment based on male sources and tinged with male prejudices. Women’s history requires much more thorough research before it can be accurately written.

The Preston strike was the centre of a massive organisation which, at its height, was raising three thousand pounds per week. The lessons learned in terms of organisation and tactics were not lost in the inevitable defeat. Trade Union organisation became increasingly difficult for the masters to oppose. But they too learned their lesson from the 1853 strike and when, in 1878, the centre of activity was Blackburn, the Preston masters again locked their doors, this time to prevent their workers from being able to contribute to the strike funds.

Although the strike was not successful in obtaining the ten per cent, those participants who had been uneducated before it were certainly graduates at the end and the outstanding feature of the strike was the solidarity and support of the cotton workers throughout Lancashire. During the strike one of the leaders, Mortimer Grimshaw, “The Thunderer of Lancashire’’ said, “the Manchester Guardian was the Bible of the usual intensity and moulded the popular Conservatism and immature Labour party... ’ (p.xv.). Liverpool merits attention also, he suggests, because of ‘its ethnic grouping, its ulcerated poverty, its industrial strife, its philanthropy and municipal enterprise, and its caucus systems of political management’ (p.xv.). Moreover for a city of its size Liverpool was unique in its industrial structure which was skewed so decisively towards distribution and commerce. In this context it is remarkable that the Tory party reigned supreme for much of the period covered by this book, the Liberal party being no more than a wrangling, ineffective sideshow. It is as well to remember also that the Labour party did not secure control of the city council until 1955.

Issues such as these that require explanation and commentary encourage one to read the book with keen anticipation. In some respects there are rich pickings but in other respects a sense of disappointment. Perhaps to expect any one scholar to deal adequately with the multiplicity of political and social features of Liverpool’s progress over seventy years is asking too much and to be fair to Waller he informs us immediately of the thrust of his book: ‘The structural integrity... lies in the competition of four main parties, Conservative, Liberal, Irish Nationalist, and Labour for the favours of the Liverpool electorate, and in the reflection of this scene against the national political background from time to time... Interlocked... are sketches of social, economic, and spiritual movements... whenever they impinge directly or significantly upon the sense of politicians or upon the outlook and behaviour of the electorate.’ (pp. xiv, xv).

The book is, therefore, a political history with social elements providing the background. The main actors on the stage are the boss politicians and their acolytes and antagonists. It is a rich and varied scenario treated in Wagnerian proportions. The changing fortunes of each political party are analysed, municipal elections are detailed and commented upon as are general elections in so far as they had an impact upon local politics and politicians. The issues that were faced by the parties or introduced by them are carefully delineated. Poverty, unemployment, the drink question, poor relief, housing and education are among such issues but the perennial matters are ethnicity and sectarianism. The Tories’ strength lay in their defence of Protestantism while the Liberals, the Irish Nationalists and later the Labour party were beset with the problem of how best to embrace the Irish and Catholic voters without doing irreparable harm to their Protestant support. Dominating much of this book are the two successive Tory leaders Arthur Forwood and Archibald Salvidge. Forwood was a council member for twenty-seven years and leader of the Conservative party for eighteen years up to his death in 1898; Salvidge inherited his mantle until his death in 1928. Both men had to contend with internal divisions within the party and both had to come to terms with the more violent face of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish feeling. The wheeling and dealing is examined in meticulous detail and a host of characters flit across the pages who sought to manipulate or were manipulated by the party boss. It is here that Waller s grasp of detail is most impressive and, in particular, the role of the (Liverpool) Working Men s Conservative Association is examined for the first time. Founded in 1868 Waller claims ‘its importance was such that Liverpool politics have to be seen through its lens (p.18) This aggressive protestant organisation used by both Forwood and Salvidge did not decline until ‘Tory jingoism died on the battlefield (of the First World War)... and the young were joining trade unions’ (p.286) By 1936 its membership had shrunk to 700 from the 8,000 of 1900. Its appropriateness disappeared as ‘political and demographic redistributions had purged the slum wards’ fetid antagonisms (p.350)

A further notable contribution lies in a comprehensive account of the activities and influence of the notorious protestant pastor George Wise. Born in London in 1858 he was confirmed into the Church of England in 1878 and moved to Liverpool in 1888 where he remained until his death in 1917. He was the scourge of Catholics, whipping up Protestant aggression to new heights (or depths). In 1903 his open air crusade led to his imprisonment for two months as he refused the Head Constable’s request not to use St. Domingo Pit, Everton with its catholic seminary, two convents and three catholic churches nearby. A George Wise Defence Committee was formed and a petition for his release was signed by 63,000 people. When he was released ’60,000 people followed him from the gaol to St. Domingo Pit which, by occupation, became the Protestants’ forum’ (p.201). The inflammatory activities of Wise reached a climax in the sectarian riots of 1909. But, as Waller points out, ‘Wise did not cause Liverpool’s sectarianism; he activated it’ (p.240).

While Wise was leading his protestant crusade the Labour party was seeking to make some impression upon local politics. Success was, however, limited. The Liverpool Trades Council remained ambivalent over adopting a political stance and although James Sexton, general secretary of the National Union of Dock Labourers from 1893, and J. Wolftone Morrisey, an insurance agent, were elected to the city council in 1905, a Labour group did not emerge until 1911 in the wake of the general transport strike of that year when seven Labour candidates were successful. Following the First World War representation gradually increased under the leadership, successively, of William Robinson, Luke Hogan and John Braddock. The problems facing the Labour party were of a multiple nature and the party experienced major vicissitudes in the inter-war period when it might have been expected it would make dramatic advances during the depression. As might be expected ethnicity and sectarianism persisted as divisive factors. Waller claims that ‘Labour inherited rather than won Nationalist seats; the outstanding feature of the 1920s had been the failure of the Labour party to sweep aside the church-protected remnants of the old Nationalist party’ (p.324). Moreover ‘the Catholicism of many electors and elected came before their Socialism’ (p.324). Over one-third of Labour councillors were catholics between the wars. The potential for division was clear and is classically illustrated over the disposal of the nine acre site of the Brownlow Hill workhouse in 1929/30. Labour councillors divided by 23 votes to 18 over the development of the site. The majority favoured a housing scheme but the catholic opposition supported Archbishop Downey’s proposal for the building of a cathedral. Ultimately the city council accepted the catholics’ offer but ‘sectarian differences had been re-animated’ (p.324). Indeed, Reginald Bevins commented that Labourites ‘hated each other far far more than they hated the Tories’ and ‘likened the monthly Labour Meetings to “an exercise in apartheid’’, where members segregated themselves according to religion and prejudice’ (p.325).

Sectarianism but ‘dimly glowed’ during the Second World War but the swing to Labour in Liverpool in the general election of 1945 was only 6.5 per cent, well below the average national swing of 12 per cent and Waller comments that the party machine in Liverpool ‘bore an uncanny resemblance to the Conservative machine of the 1920s’ (p.348). Braddock was obsessed with loyalty and discipline and although Labour secured power in Liverpool for the first time between 1955 and 1961 he appeared more interested in controlling the party than in embracing imaginative plans for the future of the city.

Waller’s account of the rise of the Liverpool Labour party is contained within a general narrative of political developments and the social and industrial issues that increasingly came to dominate the thinking of electors and the elected in the city in the twentieth century. Sectarianism and nationalism are no longer issues that determine electoral success but ravialism has re-emerged as a divisive feature of Liverpool’s inner city problems. Waller suggests that ‘some parallels exist between the sense of injury and frustration felt by Irish communities in Liverpool from the 1840s and the grievances about status and security felt by coloured communities from the 1940s’ (p.353).

With the problems of unemployment now facing Merseyside those grievances are no longer confined to coloured communities.

The strength of Waller’s book lies in the detailed descriptive narrative of city political development since 1868. Yet at times this reader at least would have welcomed a relief from the meticulous descriptive treatment. Although there are many pertinent insights these are often obscured by thickets of empirical data and it would have been an advantage if Waller had devoted a greater proportion of treatment to an overview of of the significance of the events he has so scrupulously chronicled. Such an analysis drawn from his knowledge of Liverpool’s history would have considerably enhanced the value of his study. Even so there is no doubt that this is a major contribution to our understanding of Liverpool’s political development over the last hundred years.

Eric Taplin