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Women's and men's Unemployment in Macclesfield Between the Wars

Jill Norris
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Macclesfield Carnival, August 1933. Among the jazz bands and the floats ('Sunset on the Nile', for instance).

"It was noticeable that a great amount of applause for one character came from that section of the crowd which can afford to give little if anything at all. The character was a lady in double-dress. One half represented khaki uniform the other the clothes of some man unemployed for months, maybe years. The former was labelled, "1914 -18, The Great War", and the other half "1933, The Means Test", in other words, "Wanted, soldiers" and "Wanted, work". The one the country's appeal, the other the people's appeal." [/]

This image speaks volumes: a woman, to personify an abstraction; the reality she symbolises, male experience of war and unemployment. This reality, especially as con¬centrated in the person of a Jarrow marcher, has in turn become for later generations the image of the 1930s.

However, an image can obscure as well as illuminate. The spotlight has focussed on the unemployed man, and women's unemployment has been hidden in the shadows. There is no detailed national study of the issue; indeed, its very existence has gener¬ally passed unnoticed. [2] In concentrating on the town in which I live and in which I was unemployed for two years, I hope to use a local study to raise questions that are relevant to our experience today.

Macclesfield still has the appearance of a mill town, stranded between the Pennines and the farming land of the Cheshire plain. Until the last war it was very much the "silk town"; silk had been its staple industry since the early eighteenth century, and although it contracted sharply after 1860 the mills still dominated the life of the town. Industrial isolation and decline had had their results by the 1930s. The town's popula¬tion had fallen from 39,000 in 1851 to 33,846 in 1921. An unusually large majority were women: in 1901 Macclesfield contained 1247 women to every 1,000 men (the national figure was 1,068). [2] In 1921 there were 18,808 females to 15,038 males.

The principal reason for this imbalance must be the decline in employment for men. As the British silk industry contracted, men's jobs disappeared faster than women's; in 1851 there were 53,936 male silk workers and 79,787 female, while in 1901 the num¬bers were 8,805 and 21,905. In Macclesfield male employment in silk declined by 74% between 1851 and 1901, female by 53%. [4] By 1921 the town's silk workforce con¬sisted of 2,056 men and 3,551 women, a proportion of roughly 4:7.

There was little diversification. A look at the census information for 1921 shows that there was no other industry providing a comparable number of jobs. The total work¬force in that year was 15,836, of whom 8,156 were men and 7,680 were women (48.5%) After textiles (silk and cotton—2,372), the principal male occupations were "commer¬cial and financial", 1,139, and transport, 1045. There were also 686 metal workers, 371 agricultural workers, and 491 men involved in tailoring and making-up. It has been es¬timated that one fifth of the men had work outside the town. [5]

For women workers, the only industry approaching textiles (3,682) was making-up (1,768), itself largely a development of the silk industry. 501 found jobs in domestic service, 445 in commercial and financial occupations, and 364 in "professional" work, principally as teachers or nurses. The 1931 figures show little change for women or men. In other words, for working-class girls leaving school in the 1920s and 30s, the obvious employment was in silk, and the industry depended heavily upon its female workers.

During the Second World War, silk was difficult to obtain, and afterwards the town council made serious attempts to broaden the town's industrial base. Today, the main product is chemicals, made on a new estate on the outskirts of the town. Making-up is still important, though most of the fabric used is not manufactured in the town. The few mills still working weave mainly polyesters into tie cloth, though a certain amount of silk is still woven and printed in Macclesfield. The unemployment rate at present is high [6]

During the inter-war years, Macclesfield's prosperity, or lack of it, followed a pat¬tern similar to that of other long-industrialised areas of Great Britain, though with lo¬cal variations. Silk shared in the boom in the national economy immediately after the First World War, and in the slump that followed in 1920. A Board of Trade Enquiry in 1923 produced a divided report, and no government action was taken. However the in¬dustry began to recover, slowly at first, and then more quickly following a degree of protection against foreign imports introduced in Churchill's 1925 Budget.

Technological change also played an important part. Rayon (also known as artificial or "art" silk), which had been developed in the pre-war years, became increasingly popular as a silk substitute. It could be produced on existing silk machinery, but sold at lower prices. Its impact was most noticeable in hosiery, where the fashion for shorter skirts had created an increased demand for fine stockings. The actual knitting of stock¬ings was only a very small-scale industry in Macclesfield, but the town's throwsters, or yarn processors, became the main suppliers of both silk and rayon yarn to the East Midlands hosiery industry.

Other sections of the Macclesfield silk industry, however, had much less success. Silk weaving, knitting of fabrics, dyeing and making-up were very dependent on changes in fashion, and production followed seasonal patterns. The busiest period was the first few months of the year, when the new spring and summer lines were pre¬pared. A misreading of trends or a prolonged spell of bad weather could have severe consequences, and there was much sporadic unemployment and short-time working.

Macclesfield in the 1920s and 30s, then, presents a fairly well defined field of study of the question of unemployment and the extent of its Impact on both women and men. It was a small, fairly isolated town, with one main industry, whose workforce was pre¬dominantly female. Unfortunately I have found it difficult to obtain the necessary sta¬tistics; my main source has been the local newspaper, the Macclesfield Courier & Herald. This of course was interested in news "stories", so that information was printed regularly only when unemployment was at its worst, in the late twenties and early thir¬ties. There is a hiatus from mid-1932 to mid-1934, and intermittent figures thereafter.

Given these limitations, it is obvious that the extent of women's unemployment in Macclesfield was, at times considerable. The highest point was in September 1928, when a total of 3,373 women, either wholly unemployed or working short time, were signing on at Macclesfield Labour Exchange. With an assumed workforce of around 8,000 (from the census figures of 7,680 in 1921 and 8,160 in 1931), that gives a percen¬tage of 42. September 1928 was also the peak for the number of women totally unem¬ployed: 1,813, a rate of 22%. The highest number of women workers on short time was in August 1930, with a figure of 1,894, or a percentage of 24.8.

So women's unemployment was a very real problem in Macclesfield at this time. However, the case for studying the history of women, rather than simply extrapolating from the history of men, lies in the distinctness of their experience. In this instance, it must be asked whether men suffered the same rate and kind of unemployment. If not, we are faced with question of how and why men's and women's experiences were dif¬ferent, and have a clear example of the need to consider women's history separately from, although in relation to that of men. [7]

The equivalent figures for male unemployment, therefore, were: a workforce of 8,156 (in 1921), and 10,930 (in 1931). The highest number of men signing on (wholly and temporarily unemployed) was 2,387, in December 1930, which using the 1931 cen¬sus figure as a base, gives a percentage of 22. The peak number of wholly unemployed men came in September 1930:1,047, a percentage of 9.6. The peak number of men on short time was in December 1929: 1,844, or 17%. In all cases both the absolute num¬bers and the percentages of unemployed women were considerably higher. In other words, women experienced more acute unemployment.

However, a consideration of longer-term trends during this period gives a different picture. The numbers of totally unemployed men were consistently higher, in absolute terms, except for late 1928. By contrast, a graph of short-time working was generally, though not invariably, higher for women, and that for the total number of unemployed varied, though mainly with higher figures for men. It is possible then to conclude that men experienced more chronic unemployment. These generalisations do not of course rule out considerable individual variations.

It is then necessary to consider why the overall pattern of women's unemployment was different from that of men, and why the differences took the forms that they did. The obvious answer is because women's and men's patterns of employment were dif¬ferent, as described above. Women were concentrated far more in silk, while men could be found in a much great variety of industries. It is therefore reasonable to ex¬pect that women's employment would follow the fortunes of the silk industry, while men's would approximate more closely to national trends. This would certainly explain the different timing of the peaks in men's and women's unemployment.

However, the silk industry was the town's largest employer of men as well as wo¬men, so it is relevant to ask whether both sexes had the same experience of unemploy¬ment within it. Here again, it is necessary to consider the patterns of employment. Within the silk industry there was a high degree of sexual segregation. Jobs were de¬fined as male or female, and there seems to have been very little overlap. The one ma¬jor exception was weaving; men or women could be weavers by hand or power.

Job segregation began as soon as the young worker entered the mill. Boys usually began as "bobbin boys'' (the equivalent of "doffers'' in the Lancashire cotton indust¬ries), collecting full bobbins and distributing empty bobbins in the throwing mills, or as general assistants to male workers in the weaving sheds or printing works. Girls be¬gan straightaway to learn adult trades in throwing (the generic term for the processes involved in the preparation of silk yarn.) Alternatively they learned the processes that preceded weaving.

The great majority of the adult workers in the throwing firms were women, who were considered to have the dexterity necessary for handling the delicate yarns. A few men were employed, mainly as warehousemen, washouseworkers and supervisors. Manufacturing, or weaving firms employed a far greater proportion of men, although many of the tasks preliminary to weaving were usually done by women. These in¬cluded warping, that is, arranging the threads in the correct order on the beam of the loom, and twisting in and entering, in which the warp was fastened onto the loom har¬ness.

Weaving was the one job which was done by even roughly equal numbers of men and women (the census figures for 1921 are 575 and 730), though particular kinds of weaving were usually done by different groups of workers. The main type was broad- loom weaving, the making of silk fabric. Most was done on power looms, but a number of handloom weavers, variously estimated as 150 or 250, still remained. Most of those working in the mills were men, but the few "outside" or home weavers included a number of women. Smallware weaving, the making of ribbons, braids and trimmings, did not have the status of broadloom weaving, although it required considerably skill and care. It seems to have been mostly women's work, as was the making of tassels and similar ornaments.

Embroiderers were mostly women, although men were in charge of some of the machines.

Vital to the work of weaving were the overlookers, or tacklers, who kept the looms in working order. This was a male job (the census lists 72 male "Foremen and Over¬lookers" for weaving, compared with 3 women), requiring a formal apprenticeship. The overlookers, a small group with great pride in their skill, controlled entry to their trade and were the best paid of all silk workers. Dyeing, printing and finishing were also male jobs (357 men to 5 women).

The section of the industry that showed the greatest growth during this period was "making-up", to the extent that the largest number of workers of one sex listed in any category of the 1921 census was "Sewers, Stitchers, Sewing Machinists"—973 wo¬men; there were also 213 "Dress and Blouse Makers". These two categories ac¬counted for 12 and 1 male workers respectively.

Although some opportunities in managerial or supervisory positions were available to women in the making-up section of the silk industry they only formed a minority of such posts, and were concentrated in the lower grades. In 1921 there were 23 women "employers and managers", compared with 53 men, and 23 women "foremen and overlookers", compared with 12 men. In other words 46 women and 65 men were in authority over a workforce of 1,768 women and 491 men.

In the rest of the silk industry, "employers and managers" comprised 142 men and 10 women, and "foremen and overlookers (including loom overlookers) 183 men and 65 women, in charge of a workforce of 3,682 women and 2,372 men.

Women, then, provided the great majority of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Men had the vast majority of managerial and supervisory posts, as well as the skilled jobs and the heavy or dirty ones. In other words, even within the one industry men's and women's experience of work was different, and this might be expected to influ¬ence their chances of steady employment.

The silk industry was one that was frequently subject to underemployment and short-time working. In August 1938, some 5,140 people were employed in the textile industry (excluding cotton). [8] Another 695 were on short-time, and 348 were wholly unemployed. "Hosiery" & "Blouse-making" accounted for 1892 in work, 300 on short time, and 97 wholly unemployed. Although these statistics were not broken down by sex, the above were industries in which, as we have seen, women predominated. In contrast, "Engineering", a largely male industry, had 250 people in work, 28 on short time, and 25 wholly unemployed. The figures for "Building" were 1,178, 1 and 147 re¬spectively, and for 'Farming" 530,1 and 26.

Silk was particularly prone to periods of short-time working as it was a luxury indus¬try, heavily influenced by fashion changes and seasonal demands, and both men and women were liable to temporary lay-offs. However, although no statistics are avail¬able, it seems likely that women were at greater risk than men within the one industry. Certainly the much higher figures for "temporarily stopped" women suggest this. One reason might be that men who were rated as skilled workers were regarded as valuable assets by their employers, unlike the great majority of women workers. Speaking on behalf of the Macclesfield Silk Trade Employers' Association, Mr. H.O. Hambleton told the Board of Trade Enquiry into the depression in silk in the early 1920s:

"Many of our Workers have been totally unemployed, and we have been compelled to dispense with the services of capable and promising young men who have taken high degrees and scholarships in Textile Designing and Manufacturing."

Such men would be worth retaining and their loyalty protected from unemployment.

There might be discrimination between different groups of women workers: one woman remembered discrimination against the married: "When I was eighteen I remember there was a bit of trouble. This town has always been noted for women workers, you know, and trade at that time was slack—it went up and down—and the married women thought it wasn't fair that they should be put on the dole when work was found for the girls. The boss, his name was Mr Field, tried to explain. "My girls will go where there's work," he told them, "and they won't come back when things improve and I'll lose them. They'll fmd work in another mill. Besides, there's only one wage going in with a girl." But he took no notice that many of the men were on short time or the labour, too, as well as their wives." 191

This quotation raises the point of the impact of women's unemployment at both a personal and a household level; how did the people of Macclesfield, particularly the women, experience these patterns of unemployment? Although a full article is ob- viously beyond the scope of the present article, some indications can be made. In a town where men's wages were low and at a time when their chances of work were poor, women's earnings would be important to the family budget. Another wo- man remembered, "We were very poorly paid. The wives couldn't stay at home on a husband's wage. Women have always had to work in Macclesfield." [10] In other words, the family wage concept was not applicable at this particular time and place. [11]

The census data bear out her statement. Married women had been vital to the silk industry in Macclesfield since its beginnings in the sixteenth century, when it was the women and children working at home who twisted the silk over buttons. They had fol- lowed the industry into the factories in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; it has been calculated that in 1851 27% of all women silk workers were married and 32.5% were married or widowed. A number of them worked at home, but some 20% of the women working in the silk mills were married. Of all married women in Macclesfield, 36.4% were economically active. [12]

A similar situation existed at the beginning of the twentieth century. According to the census data, in 1901 and 1911 about a third of married women in Macclesfield were "in occupations". This figure was the highest in Cheshire, exceeding the cotton towns of Hyde and Stalybridge and the neighbouring silk town of Congleton, as well as being four times the national average.

Percentages of Married Women in Employment

  1901 1911 1921
Great Britain [13] 9.63 8.69 10.04
Macclesfield 33.2 34.1  
Congleton 24.8 24.6  
Stalybridge 28.3 31.6  
Hyde 29.2 29.8  

Local statistics for the 1920s and 30s are unfortunately not available. It seems unlikely that the proportion went against the national trend by falling significantly after holding steady for sixty years, especially since in 1951 the census data revealed a higher pro¬portion of married women in the workforce.

There are probably several important reasons for these high numbers of married wo¬men going out to work. Certainly the one cited above, the inadequacy of men's wages, was important. It had been noted in Macclesfield and the neighbouring Staffordshire silk town, Leek, in the years before the First World War:

"The average wage of a man in full employment is £1, certainly no more... When there are one or two children in the family it is possible by the strictest economy to keep house on £1 or 18/- a week, but nothing is left over. If the husband's wages fall below this sum, as they often do, or if the number of children increases without a corresponding rise in the income, the mothers go out to work. When one adds the cases where there are other dependents, or where the husband is dead, ill, out of work, in irregular or insufficient employment, or morally unsatisfactory, it is clear that most married women who work do so though necessity.'' [14]

Wages remained low during the inter-war years. In 1921 most male silk workers were paid 54-56s a week; dyers earned 60s 5d, and loom overlookers 76s. Most women in the industry were paid 31s 6d to 32s 6d, with warpers receiving 37s 6d. [75] Wage rates subsequently fell during the twenties and thirties. Weavers, the best-paid wo¬men and among the worst-paid men, earned about 45s during the 1930s [16]

Cases in the local magistrates' court indicate the importance of women's contribu¬tion to the family budget. One woman seeking a separation order was reported as say¬ing,

"That her husband had ill-treated her several times, financial matters being the rea¬son for the argument. She considered it all arisen because she had not been able to pay her way and do so much on so little money. Her husband gave her £2 2s. plus 3s 2d her own sick benefit."

Women's earnings had to see families through times of male joblessness, and their cessation was serious. Another applicant for a separation order told the court that, "Some time before her baby was born, when she told her husband (an unemployed labourer) she would not be able to work any longer at the mill he gave her a black eye and turned her out." [17]

Evidence from this source is obviously from members of families that have been in a precarious state for some time. However, a more cheerful picture can still illustrate the importance of a woman's work. The following quotation is taken from a lengthy inter¬view in the Macclesfield Courier & Herald which incidentally reveals much about the assumptions of the writer. It was featured on the front page under the title, "Men do Women's Work. Topsy-Turvy Homes in Macclesfield."

"While women are feeding the machines in Macclesfield mills their husbands are having to spend their time at home feeding the children—all because there are not sufficient industries in the town to find employment for all the male labour...

How often do we find the husband is "housewife," "nursemaid" and servant. The wages the women earn and the man's unemployment benefit have to support man, wife and family... This week I visited one of these topsy-turvy homes...

A little lad of eight opened the door to my knock. "Wait a minute, mister, I'll fetch dad." Dad was only just round the corner. "I can't stir far from the door," he said,

"and this is the reasons," pointing to his four months old baby, Alban, sleeping in a pram in the living room.

"You see I'm out of work—have been these last four months, so the missus works in a mill and I get the dole. Having nothing to do I stay at home and mind the baby... This isn't a new experience for me. Some years ago I was on compensation for an ac¬cident in a chemical works and the wife went out to work. I have had nine children and have nursed them all like this... They naturally take a bit of looking after, and I do all the cooking and cleaning for the household. Really I have a woman's duties. What day was it I washed last week, Walter?" "Thursday, Dad."

It was the same week that Alban was born that I finished work. It was a bit of a blow, too. But a month later my wife went out to work at Frost's. So until I can get another job I suppose she will stay there, but as soon as I am in work back she comes to our home. If I don't get work before spring-cleaning time I shall do it—not for the first time." [18]

This interview obviously raises many questions about men's and women's roles and attitudes to work, which cann ot be answered here. One of the remarkable things about it is the way in which the man was prepared to talk to a reporter and to have his name and photograph in the local newspaper, particularly in a small town where, if every¬body does not know everybody else, they certainly know someone who does.

Many men and women could not face unemployment with such cheerful fatalism. In 1927 the Medical Officer of Health blamed the decline in the town's birth rate on it, finding it understandable that "There should be a diminution in the production of more competitors for the restricted means of existence." (It is likely that Macclesfield was simply sharing in the national trend towards smaller families. However, it may be pertinent to ask whether fears of unemployment played any part nationally.) [19]

Death as well as birth could be related to unemployment. Two women committed suicide because they were out of work; "natural" deaths due to poverty caused by un¬employment, if any, cannot be distinguished. The first suicide, an eighteen-year-old silk winder, poisoned herself. Her mother gave evidence to the coroner that, "De¬ceased had worked up to a fortnight ago, but since had been out of employment, and this had troubled her. On Thursday night witness had sat two hours with the deceased trying to comfort her... It was chiefly because she was only bringing Labour money home. She would have nothing to eat, as her money did not keep her." [20]

The other woman was a forty-three year old shirt maker, who hanged herself. Her sister's evidence was that, "She had been in a very depressed condition because she was out of work... She was on the Insurance and she and witness used to go for walks together to try to cheer her up." Her doctor reassured the court however: "Dr Barnes added that (she) was at the change of life." [21]

In spite of such events, and the common knowledge of the reliance on women's wages, public concern over female unemployment in the town was minimal. There was however great concern about male unemployment.

This took various forms. One old-fashioned response was charity, as in the "Potato pie supper and concert given by Councillor and Mrs Abraham, for men out of work... on Tuesday evening last, when 200 men sat down to a most enjoyable supper... Counc. Abraham presided... On leaving the Hall each man was presented with a bag (the gift of the Hovis Co. Ltd.) containing a meat pie (given by Mr J. Gaskell, Mill St), and a currant loaf (given by Counc. T.M. Abraham." [22] More up-to-date efforts included the setting-up of a club where unemployed men could meet to play games or learn skills.

More radically, and potentially more productively, suggestions were made about al¬tering the industrial base of the town to provide a wider range of job opportunities, with the understanding, usually made explicit, that this meant jobs for men. It is diffi¬cult to be sure where such suggestions originated (they were made at intervals from 1907 onwards), but although they were taken up by the town council they bore no fruit until the 1950s. Each side of industry accused the other of obstruction; the unions were said to be safeguarding their entrenched interests, while the employers were accused of fearing a general rise in wage levels.

One remedy, that women should stay at home so that men might have their jobs, was conspicuous by its absence in Macclesfield at this time. The only trace of it I have found was during the More Looms negotiations in 1931, when the National Silk Wor¬kers' Association (in spite of its name an almost exclusively Macclesfield body) refused employers' attempts to prefer male weavers on an increased number of looms. [23] When the Trades Council discussed unemployment in June 1938, "Mr F. Worsley put forward the view that Macclesfield required non-women industries. It was the men who wanted work so that the women could stay in the homes." Here women's redun¬dancy is seen as the consequence of men's employment, not the cause, and there was no apparent hostility against women workers. At a meeting of the unemployed in August of the same year anger was expressed not against women working, but against pensioners, such as policemen. This lack of resentment towards women workers by un¬employed men and male trade unionists is probably to be accounted for by the extreme job segregation described above.

The only occasion during the inter-war years when public concern (as expressed in the local newspaper) was focussed upon women's unemployment was in August 1928, when numbers reached their peak. Joel Downes, the secretary of the National Silk Workers' Association, exposed the scandalous conditions in the women's section of the Labour Exchange:

' 'The space allocated to the women in which to complete all the necessary forms is one of 20ft by 16ft. It is no uncommon thing for 150 to 200 women to be herded in this confined space for periods varying from half an hour to well over an hour on busy days. The fetid atmosphere caused by this congestion can be imagined, and it is no wonder there are many cases of fainting and dizziness." [24]

Within a few days of this publicity the women's Labour Exchange was transferred to a local Sunday School.

Apart from this incident the unions (of which the NSWA was by far the most impor¬tant) seem to have left the question of female unemployment alone. This apathy might well be explained by the existence of a union structure in which effective power lay with the various shop committees, whose principal concern would be with day to day conditions of work and wages.

In Macclesfield, then, women's unemployment was a considerable problem, simply in statistical terms, as well as in the more elusive area of its effect upon individuals and families. However, it was not seen as a matter of real public concern, in contrast to men's unemployment. Its existence was therefore obscured, as women's unemploy¬ment nationally in the twenties and thirties has been. The parallels with today are ob¬vious.


1 Macclesfield Courier & Herald 25/8/1933

2 I would be very grateful for information about other local studies, either completed or in pro¬gress.

3 Jackson, J.N.: The Population and Industrial Structure of Macclesfield (PhD, manchester, 1959), p.105

4 Jackson, p.50

5 Jackson, p.75

6 Precise figure no known.

7 For a further consideration of these issues, see History Workshop Journal, No. 1 editorial.

8 Macclesfield Courier & Herald, August 1938

9 Macclesfield Silk Heritage Project interview 62; bom 1907

10 Macclesfield Silk Heritage Project interview 64; bom 1907

11 It is interesting to speculate what other local studies might reveal about the reality, as op¬posed to the idea, of the family wage.

12 Spink, M.: The Employment of Women in Macclesfield in the 19th Century (University of Manchester dissertation, 1976).

13 Figures from Gittens, D.: Fair Sex: Family Size and Structure, 1900-1930 (Hutchinson, 1982), p.45

14 Lane, M.: "Leek and Macclesfield", in Black, C.: Married Women's Work (1915)

15 Board of Trade Enquiry into the Silk Industry (1923)

16 Transcript of BBC broadcast,. Workers in Europe (5), Friday March 17th 1933; discussion between a Macclesfield weaver, Miss Florence Holden, and Miss R. Ehrlich, a Swiss weaver.

17 Macclesfield Courier & Herald, 7/4/38 and 8/9/28

18 Macclesfield Courier & Herald, 20/3/36

19 Gittens (1982) describes at length the considerations that on an individual or family level con¬tributed to the fall in the birthrate in the early part of the century.

20 Macclesfield Courier & Herald, 9/3/29

21 Macclesfield Courier & Herald, 24/7/31

22 Macclesfield Courier & Herlad, 1/2

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