Beatrice Webb – Fabian founder and union advocate
Beatrice was born in Standish House near Gloucester. The grand-daughter of radical MP Richard Potter, she attended school in Bournemouth and in 1886 her father settled in a house near the Royal Bath Hotel. She was in Bournemouth when her letter on unemployment was printed in the Pall Mall Gazette and seen by Joseph Chamberlain, a leading Liberal. She had an infatuation with the ageing widower and it stirred her political writings. During her work on co-operative history, Beatrice met Sidney Webb. In 1890 she noted in her diary: “At last I am a socialist.” Sidney had come to Bournemouth to recover from scarlet fever and in 1891 they were married. The couple wrote a book on the history of trade unions that is still used as a key publication for scholars.
In 1910 Beatrice spoke in Bournemouth on her Minority Report on the Poor Law Commission. Organised by the Poole and Bournemouth branch of the National Committee for the Prevention of Destitution, the meeting heard the Fabian case for public spending to relieve poverty. Beatrice appealed to those living comfortable lives in the town to help.
Emma Paterson – Bristol union leader, first woman on TUC General Council
Emma Paterson (1848-1886) was born in London. In 1867 she became assistant secretary of the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union, gaining trade union experience. In 1872 she became Secretary of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. Paterson founded the first women’s trade union: the Women’s Protective and Provident Association in 1874 and in 1875 in Bristol formed the National Union of Working Women. The union represented a wide range of workers including dressmakers, upholsterers, bookbinders, artificial-flower makers, feather dressers, tobacco, jam and pickle workers, shop assistants and typists. In 1875 she was the first ever woman delegate to the Trade Union Congress held in Glasgow as a representative of the bookbinders’ and upholstresses’ societies. She went on to become the first woman member of the TUC General Council.
Enid Stacey – Bristol socialist and union activist
Enid Stacey was born in 1868. She became active in trade unionism during the upsurge of radical ideas in the 1870s in Bristol. She helped women sweet workers fight poor pay and conditions and raised money and support during their strike.
Ruby Part – Somerset organiser of glovers
The West Country has long had a leather industry producing a range of products including gloves and shoes. Unions have a history of organising the workers – men and women. In 1916 Ruby Part was an organiser for the Workers’ Union in Somerset. She successfully opened a chain of new branches for women glove-makers even in isolated rural areas.
The National Union of Glovers and Leather Workers was formed in 1920 and primarily based around Yeovil. It was not until 1931 that it opened its ranks to women and then only on restricted terms. Women who joined risked the reaction of the employers. Twelve women at Ensors in Chard joined the union and were threatened with the sack. The union stood by the new recruits and the boss backed down. By 1938 there were three women on the Union’s Executive and equal memership terms were agreed. It took a lot longer to get equal pay. The various unions came together in the National Union of Footwear, Leather and Allied Trades which then became part of the Community Union.
Julia Varley – helped lead Cornwall’s 1913 china clay strike
Born in Bradford in 1871, Julia Varley was influenced by her Chartist grand-father and the memory of the Peterloo Massacre. She started work at the age of twelve in the local mill and so got involved in the union. She was involved in the unsuccessful strike at Manningham Mills in 1890 and she played wider roles in the growing ideas of a Labour Party and women’s rights. She was arrested and imprisoned for joining a suffragette protest at the House of Commons. Varley moved to Birmgnham as secretary of the city’s Women Worker’s Organisation Committee, which aimed to assist women workers, especially in Cadbury’s Bourneville factory. She threw herself into helping the 1910 women chainmakers strike in the Black Country and became an organiser for the rapidly growing Workers’ Union. When the strike of china clay workers broke out the union called on Varley to help marshall support amongst the families and communities around east Cornwall. After her Cornwall experience she helped the Blists Mill strikers in the Cotswolds and her talents led her to being elected to the TUC General Council. She worked closely with Margaret Bondfield and the pair became the leading women in the trade union movement.
The 1913 China Clay Strike booklet showing Julia Varley leading women on a march through St Austell
Julia Varley – trade union organiser and fighter for women’s rights – Unite Education publication
Emily Phipps – headmistress, feminist, barrister and teachers’ leader
Emily Frost Phipps, the oldest of five children, was born on 7 November 1865 in Devonport, Plymouth. She became a teacher in an elementary school but progressed to head teacher in Cambridge and then transformed a poorly performing school into one of the most successful in Wales.
A committed feminist, she, together with fellow West Country woman and lifelong friend Clara Neal, joined the Women’s Freedom League in 1908. The meeting had been attended by Lloyd George who claimed that women were being paid to disrupt the meeting, and that they should be forcibly removed. Emily Phipps and Clara Neal were so disgusted they became militant suffragettes.
They supported the boycott of the 1911 Census, staying overnight in a sea cave on the Gower Peninsula. At the NUWT dinner called to celebrate full female suffrage she explained the reason for the action:
“Many women had determined that since they could not be citizens for the purposes of voting, they would not be citizens for the purpose of helping the government to compile statistics: they would not be included in the Census Returns.”
Emily Phipps was an active member of the National Union of Women Teachers (NUWT), which was formed as part of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in 1906, following on from the Equal Pay League. Emily was elected President from 1915 to 1917 and was the first editor of the NUWT journal, Woman Teacher, from 1919 to 1930, which she ensured was forthright and political. She wrote the History of the NUWT published in 1928. She stood for Parliament as an Independent Progressive candidate for the Chelsea constituency in the 1918 General Election but was heavily defeated.
While still a head teacher, Emily Phipps studied for the Bar and was admitted as a barrister in 1925. She gave up teaching and moved to London acting as council to the NUWT. Clara Neal moved to London with her until they retired to Eastbourne. Phipps died on 3rd May 1943.
Margaret Bondfield – Chard-born shop workers’ leader and first female cabinet member
Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953) was the first woman cabinet minister in Britain. Born in Chard, Somerset, the eleventh child of Anne Taylor and William Bondfield, she was a textile worker with left-wing views. She began an apprenticeship at the age of fourteen in a draper’s shop in Brighton and soon got involved in the union.
In 1896 the Women’s Industrial Council commissioned her to investigate the pay and conditions of shop workers. In 1898 she was elected assistant secretary of the Shop Assistants’ Union and in 1908 became secretary of the Women’s Labour League. She was President of the TUC General Council in 1923. In 1923 Margaret Bondfield was elected Labour MP for Northampton but lost her seat a year later. She won again in 1926, in a by-election in Wallsend. Three years later Bondfield was appointed Minister of Labour by Ramsay MacDonald,the first woman to be a Cabinet Minister. She supported changes to unemployment benefit to eight shillings a week, earning her the nickname ‘eight-bob Maggie’.
After she lost her seat in the 1931 general election she became chair of the Women’s Group on Public Welfare. She also wrote a number of books including: Socialism for Shop Assistants (1909), Why Labour Fights (1941) and A Life’s Work (1949).
Margaret Bondfield Photo: TUC Library
Red Kate Spurrell – Plymouth teaching unionist
Kate Spurrell was a teacher in Plymouth and in the 1920s was accused of preaching communism. She was active in support of the General Strike, speaking at rallies and raising funds. She stood for Labour in Totnes in 1929 and in 1935 for the Independent Labour Party in Camborne. She was friendly with Jimmy Maxton the radical leader of the ILP. Spurrell and Lady Nancy Astor were fierce political opponents in Plymouth and always mutually critical in public. Spurrell asked Lady Astor, then Mayoress, for help in evacuating children. Help was given generously and a lasting friendship formed. In 1942 she officially opened the nursery centre at Dartington Hall.
Jessie Stephen – Bristol Trades Council President
Jessie Stephen (1893-1979) grew up in Scotland and became a socialist. In 1912 she organised maidservants in Glasgow into the union and became active in the suffragette cause. A member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, she was assigned to drop acid into pillar boxes. In 1944 she moved to Bristol as Area Organiser for the Clerical and Administrative Workers’ Union. In 1952 she was elected President of the Bristol Trades Council and to the City Council. Jessie was awarded an MBE in 1977 and died in 1979.
Angela Tuckett – from Bristol to Swindon, activist and peace campaigner
Angela Tuckett was born in 1906 in Clifton, Bristol to prosperous Quaker parents. Her father ran the family law firm. The family had a radical background with Angela’s aunt, Enid Stacy, a well-known socialist.
In 1923 Angela became the first female law student to attend Bristol University. Using the family firm, she gained her articles and became a solicitor in a professional environment ran almost completely by men. She joined the Communist Party in 1929 as the economy was crashing and unemployment rising. She supported the hunger marches that often led to clashes with the police such as the one in Bristol in 1932.
Angela was a keen hockey player and in 1931 was selected to play for England. When playing in Berlin in 1935 she refused to give the Nazi salute and possibly as a consequence was dropped from the team and never played for her country again. She became more politically active and supported the fight against Franco’s fascists in Spain. She loved music and arts and helped form Bristol Unity Players that put on theatre through the war. She moved to London to become Head of the Legal Department at the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty) before joining The Daily Worker as legal adviser, reporter and sub-editor.
After the war she moved to Swindon and married Ike Gradwell in 1962. The couple helped build a strong Communist Party presence in the town. Angela wrote books, songs and poems. In her retirement, Angela was a feature of Swindon street stalls, marches and campaigns on peace, trade union disputes as well as folk music events. She died in 1994 and in 2015 Rosie MacGregor researched her life story and wrote a book Angela Remembered.
Angela and Ike Gladwell signing a peace petition in Swindon
Pamela Enderby – Bristol speech therapist and champion for equal pay
Dr Pamela Mary Enderby was a speech therapist employed by the Frenchay Health Authority in North Bristol. In 1986, with the help of her trade union, Manufacturing, Science and Finance (MSF – now part of Unite), she began a legal claim for equal pay for work of equal value. Speech therapists were predominantly women and at that time she was paid £10,106, well below other comparable, mostly male, professionals such as a principal pharmacist who got £12,527 and a Grade III principal pharmacist who was paid £14,106. This launched the most lengthy and comprehensive equal pay claim ever. The case involved twenty-six court appearances (including the European Court of Justice), 2,000 applicants and sixteen test cases.
The case proved a success for women workers but was a powerful example of the long and drawn out process which can be involved in Equal Pay cases. The case started in 1986 and it took just over ten years to bring it to its final conclusion. The resulting compensation cost the government some £30 million. The Enderby case led the Labour government to institute a review of pay and grading scales throughout the health service in the form of the ‘Agenda for Change’. This was a massive job evaluation programme for everyone who worked in the Service to ensure equal pay.