For the story of this fascinating period in village history we have been reliant on one source-Doris Coates charming book “Tunes on a Penny Whistle.”If anyone can supply other info on the strike-if not from personal experience then from accounts passed down from parents etc-then we would be delighted to hear from you.
Another significant event impacting substantially on village life began in 1918 and was to continue until after the war had ended.
This was the strike in the Boot and Shoe industry and I am deeply indebted to the book “Tunes on a Penny Whistle” written by a splendid lady called Doris E.Coates. The book is a fascinating recollection of growing up in Derbyshire and Doris actually hailed from Eyam. However her family was profoundly affected by industrial action which covered both Eyam and Stoney Middleton.
At the time that the first indication of conflict occurred with an open air meeting on January 2nd 1918 the background position was that workers in boot and shoe factories in Stoney Middleton were working considerably longer hours for noticeably less money than the majority of workers in the industry nationally.
The recently formed union NUBSO (National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives) had negotiated a 48 hour week with a rate of pay between 45s and 55s per week for most operatives in well known boot and shoe making areas such as Leicester and Northampton.
These were for male workers and comparable rates in Stoney Middleton were 35s per week for a 58and a half hour week.
The highest wage union representatives were able to identify for a female employee was 16s for a 55.5 hour week.
Obviously a very wide discrepancy although readers should note that the majority of industry production both in Derbyshire and the rest of the country came from local family firms employing fairly small numbers of people thus making it very difficult from a standard national wage to emerge.
Nonetheless the union clearly felt that there were wrongs to be righted and an organiser named John Buckle was sent to the area to recruit in Stoney Middleton and Eyam.
Given the union’s success elsewhere in the country Mr.Buckle may well have approached his task with a degree of optimism but in fact he was about to take the first steps along a road to a long-running and at times bitter and increasingly divisive dispute.
Doris Coates is able to quote from Mr.Buckle’s contemporary journal which records a gradual and cautious start as follows:
January 2nd 1918.An open air meeting was “well attended but no results for the union”.The local vicar ,the Reverend Riddlesden who was due to play a significant part in proceedings later on,told Mr.Buckle that he had made a good impression.
January 4th 1918 “Open air meeting at Stoney Middleton.Good attendance.Keen interest.No members.”
January 6th 1918.”Dinner hour meeting at Stoney Middleton.No members”.
January 9th 1918. “Meeting at Stoney Middleton in Reading Room.21 males joined the union”.
January 10th.1918.”Met Stoney Middleton and Eyam members at night”.It is worth noting that by this time a union did exist but it was decided to have one branch covering both villages rather than one each.
Limited progress so far but the stage was been set for the way matters were to flow in the future with the local employers involved (seven firms according to Doris Coates-four in Stoney Middleton and three in Eyam) setting their faces absolutely against the union and immediately sacking any worker who joined.
As early as January 12th a Mr.Bill Slater who had taken up the position of Branch Secretary was dismissed,albeit to be reemployed by the union at his existing rate of pay visiting houses and spreading the word.
Mr.Slater’s employers were Ridgeway Brothers who had sacked a further four men by the 18th one of whom,as we shall see later,was Doris Coates’father.
The firm of E.West and Sons had also by now sacked the “alleged” union Branch President,Mr.Tom Barber.Mr.Barber had in fact joined but the evidence used against him to dismiss him at the time this was done was the word of a little girl.
A further tactic used against the union was that it was standard practice with most boot and shoe manufacturers in the area to apply for their workers to be exempt from military service as their work was “indispensable” to the industry.
Britain was of course still involved in the First World War at this point.
As soon as a worker joined the union though his “indispensability” apparently ceased to operate with employers refusing to apply for exemption for them.
The Tribunals which decided on exemption locally were held in Bakewell * and the union apparently did attend to represent their members achieving a degree of success from time to time in getting exemption extensions for a month for some workers.
[*It is remarkable what you learn when you begin to research local history.I was aware that some professions were exempt from military service in war time –my father was exempt as a member of the baking trade during World War Two-but I had no idea how the system operated.Potentially we have a whole new area for research here-were some professions (e.g. mining) totally exempt but others required an application?Was the position the same in both World Wars?An interesting task for someone-someone other than me though].
Nevertheless by 4th February the union had recruited 80 members and a Mr.E.L.Poulson, who held the post of Secretary of the union nationally, felt it was an appropriate moment to visit the employers “with the intention of inviting them to pay our National Conditions.”
This proved to be optimistic in the extreme-no employer was willing to even speak to him-“we want nowt to do wi’ the union” been the unequivocal response.
It is worth stressing that at this time what was at issue was recognition of the union and with that in mind on February 17th the union sought the intervention of the Ministry of Labour-again without success.
Therefore at a meeting on 21st February Mr.Buckle asked each of his members to hand in their notices with a view to commencing a strike.Officially this began on February 28th with Eyam notices going in,followed by Stoney Middleton on March 1st.
This initially seems a curious course of action as strike action involves the withdrawal of labour by the striker not a termination of employment per se but presumably this must have been the practice at the time.
Shortly before the action commenced Mr.Buckle also wrote to well known Labour M.P.Will Thorne.To anyone familiar with Labour history Mr.Thorne was at the time a leading light in the movement, and a hero of the successful 1888 Dock Worker’s Strike, who had by now moved on to Parliament.
Willie Thorne asked a question in the House concerning the workers’conditions and visited the area on more than one occasion to address the strikers.
In the event this made absolutely no difference and the stage was set for a bitter two year dispute causing untold hardship and inevitably dividing people in the village who were virtually forced to go with one side or the other.
During these two years we have a only a sporadic record of a number of events.
It is known that by the second week in March some four-fifths of the workforce had joined the union.
John Buckle’s diary for May 26th-27th records:
“ Negotiating with Higginbottom and Sons at Stoney Middleton.The firm has orders for war-time boots and the leather to start,but no boots have been made for 6 weeks owing to the strike.I have told him that he will not make a boot in 1918 unless he starts under the National Agreement Conditions and sticks fast to them.Not as he didwith his previous contract for Russian Boots to pay minimum wages during production of order and then revert to 49 hours and bad wages”.
Clearly John Buckle felt that the employer was putting wages up briefly to fulfil an order which was particularly lucrative and then quietly returning to the standard rate for more regular jobs.
Not an uncommon tactic during a strike and Doris Coates elsewhere chronicles the use of “blackleg” labour –with those willing to continue to work for one local employer paid a “bonus” in herrings purchased from the local fishseller.
Employers also brought in relatives to keep items such as sewing machines operating.
Nonetheless Doris Coates also recalls that “the firm of Lennon and Mason sold-up”.Obviously this was not an entirely permanant state of affairs as Lennon’s is now the only surviving boot and shoe maker in the village.
In the meantime the union sought solidarity from other workers –asking J.H.Thomas MP for support from the railway union in refusing to handle goods from the strike area.This proved an unsuccessful attempt.
In May a Church parade jointly organised by the union and the Labour Party took place in Stoney Middleton.From the attached photo graph[NB P.78 of book] it is clear that it was very well attended and received support from the Sheffield Munition Workers and a William Boden,an organiser from the National Gas Works union.
Eyam also supplied their Village Brass Band to enliven proceedings.
More controversial enlivenment came from the then local vicar the Reverend J.B Riddlesden who nailed his colours to the mast by preaching a very pro-union sermon on the theme “Am I my brother’s keeper?”.Apparently his church was empty of its usual congregation that night but the Reverend had obviously decided where his Christian values should lead him.
In June Mr. Poulson had another go at getting a solution ,on this occasion approaching a local J.P.,a Mr.William Nixon of Eyam with a view to his acting as an independent arbitrator .
Mr.Nixon was happy to oblige but by the end of July John Buckle was again writing that no progress had been made.
And so on and on it went finally petering out in 1920.
Who won at the end?
Well,in1920 the Union President wrote “Eyam we have fought for over two years and are still fighting.Everything we could invent we have tried ,but without success,in forcing the firms to accept our conditions”.
A further union report from August 1920 records that the strike had been the longest in the union’s forty-six year existence and had cost them a total of £8,445.1s.6d,mostly in strike pay.
At the end of all this the employers were still refusing to recognise the union.On the other hand in a report from December 1919 John Buckle states that “we have reduced hours from 59 to 50 per week and raised wages from 22 shillings to 47 shillings and 50 shillings per week”. Indeed, apparently, some employers were by now paying slightly over the union rate.
The amount spent by the union would have been a small fortune in those days and, with the partial apparent exception of the firm of Higginbothams, the outlay had not even been sufficient to bring employers to the negotiating table on a face-to-face basis with union representatives.
Doris Coates praises the commitment and courage of ordinary people and “unlikely militants” but says their efforts were “doomed to failure”.
However from the wages figures supplied by John Buckle it is clear that individual employers must have agreed increases with their individual workforces and that pay and conditions had improved noticeably during the period of the strike.
When the strike petered out in 1920 the employers still had not officially recognised the right of the union to negotiate on behalf of the workers but they were paying rates at least in line with what the union would have been looking for had such negotiations taken place.
Each reader can form their own view but however you see it is difficult to disagree with Doris Coates when she points out the degree of determination and courage shown by a large proportion of the working people of the villages in standing their ground for so long.
As she points out there was at this time in history no Unemployment pay,no Old Age Pension (until 70 when you got 5s a week),no Family Allowance or Child Benefit,no NHS (if you were ill you paid privately for a doctor or,if this was not affordable,you resorted to homespun remedies or you stayed ill) and no Tribunals or other form of redress if you were wrongly dismissed or evicted from your home (often rented from your employer).
If you decide to read “Tunes on a Penny Whistle” in its entirety (and I strongly suggest that you do) you will encounter a very poignant account of the experiences of her father who was sacked in mid-January 1918 on suspicion of having joined the union. Ironically, at that precise time, he actually hadn’t joined but then promptly did so and became extremely active.
Doris tells the tale of the difficulties faced by her father and her family as a whole extremely well and whilst I have not reproduced it here in full it is worth considering that many men and women in Stoney Middleton would have encountered similar privation.