Ethel Axby was a remarkable young woman. Only 5’4” and dark-haired. she was the eldest daughter amongst seven other brothers and sisters of Joseph and Ada Axby. She was born in 1893 and spent some years growing up in New Bradwell before moving to Wolverton at 27 Windsor Street. Joseph Axby was a body maker in the Carriage Works and after she left school she worked as a paper ruler at McCorquodales.
|McCorquodales factory and offices at Wolverton|
1915 was her year, in more ways than one, which I will now describe.
The war which had broken out in the previous year had an enormous impact on the civilian economy. So many young men had volunteered to fight (and die) for the cause that the recruitment of women for these vacancies was the only alternative. Wolverton Railway Works began to recruit women for the first time and McCorquodales, which had lost some of their male work force, brought in more women to fill those roles. McCorquodales was perhaps a special case in that the company had always employed women, and indeed the factory was set u for this express purpose, but they were not married women. Young girls left school, went to work at the”print” until they got married, whereupon they were required to leave. So in 1915 McCorquodales encountered a somewhat different mix in their workforce. From being a work force of young girls, overseen and managed by men with careers, it found itself with a rather more mixed work force – experienced married women who had returned for the duration of the war and young women who undertook the work formerly done by men for a much lower rate of pay.
|Some at machines in McCorquodales|
On Sunday May 2nd 1915 the Wolverton and District Labour Council organised the annual May Day event. One of the speakers was a Mrs Lewis who was the national organiser of the Women’s Trade Union League. She told the crowd, which must have included Ethel Axby and her friends and work colleagues, that if women were doing men’s jobs they should demand an equal rate of pay. Further, she added, now that they were essential workers, this was now the right time to assert their rights.
Her words must have resonated in the minds of her listeners, because less than three weeks later, on May 20th, there was a dispute at McCorquodales over non-payment of a war bonus. The war bonus had apparently been paid paid to a few chosen members of staff, and everyone else, understandably, felt that the management should be even handed with all. After lunch on Thursday afternoon, several hundred girls stopped work and pressed their demand. The company responded by closing down the factory at 3 pm. They further warned that the plant would remain closed until a majority returned to work on the existing terms. Matters stood at an impasse.
Mr F O Roberts, from the National Executive of the Typograohical Association travelled to Wolverton from Northampton to meet with the manager of McCorquodales, Mr Meacham. He reported then to the striking workers. Mr Meacham had said that the girls had nothing to complain about and that he had never heard any complaint. Mr Roberts advised the workers, that it was not his role to respond but the girls should make representations to the management.
|Herbert Meacham, General Manager of McCorquodales|
At this meeting Ethel Axby stood up and made the point that if representations were made by the girls they should not be accompanied by a male supervisor, as had been the practice to date. Her audience warmly agreed. A large meeting was scheduled for the following day, Tuesday May 25th at the Science and Art Institute, There it was agreed that officials should negotiate on behalf of the workers. Ethel Axby was elected secretary of the new Wolverton branch of the print union. She appealed to the girls to stand firm and that they would not return to work until the bonus was paid to everyone.
On Wednesday May 26th about 50 workers out of the 800 returned to work. The remainder stayed out. The management tried to intimidate the strikers by placing a notice on the door that said that as a consequence of the previous Thursday’s action all would forfeit their long service and marriage grants. However, if they returned to work immediately under the existing terms, the management would be prepared to overlook this transgression. Carrot and stick! This was a world where married women, at least, “respectable” married women, were not expected to work, and it was practice at McCorquodales to pay their employees a grant, based on years of service, when they left for marriage. Since Ethel Axby was intending to marry that year, she would be impacted. However, this did not deter her.
Pickets were placed outside the works and over 700 women and girls met at the Palace Cinema. There was now a new spirit of determination. They would not be browbeaten by management. They now felt that they had the support of the whole trade union movement nf that if management permitted in their attitude then the poor pay (which was about one-third of London rates) and working conditions would be exposed. There is no doubt to that the girls had overwhelming support in Wolverton.
|Striking Workers and sympathisers matching down Anson Road|
The police were out in full force in anticipation of trouble. That evening some of the girls visited the houses of “black leg” workers, and they were shadowed by policemen. No ancients were reported.
The government now tried to intervene. McCorquodales had a number of important government contracts and these were now in some jeopardy. According they asked Sir George Askwith, the Chief Industrial Commissioner, to look into the dispute. His first effort was to contact the union leaders to tell them that work should resume immediately, and then he would arrange a hearing for both sides. The union responded that the girls were not on strike but locked out. Further they demanded that the union be recognised and the bonus be paid. On this assurance they would return to work.
By Saturday May 29th, when the girls received their first week’s strike pay, the union was able to report an amazing surge in branch union membership. A week earlier the branch had 22 members, including Ethel Axby; now membership topped 500. Wolverton and New Bramwell demonstrated their solidarity by turning out for the meeting – men and women. It was estimated that a crowd of over 3000 gathered and they went in procession headed by both the Wolverton and New Bradwell Town bands to a mass meeting in the space beside the old market place.beside Glyn Square.
Various union leaders made speeches before it was the turn of Ethel Axby. She showed some spirit and humour and appeared to have a natural ability to communicate with a large audience. She told them, referring to the police, that she had never had so many men looking after her! The audience laughed, and in the same vein she added, “All of the girls are doing their best to make eyes at the police and special constables, but I don’t think any of us have had an offer (of marriage) yet.” She concluded by saying that they had “come out with a bump, and they were going back to work with a big victorious bump.”
On Monday May 31st Ethel Axby travelled to London with senior union officials, Mrs Hayes, Mr Roberts and Mr Evans, to meet the Industrial Commissioner. There they received an assurance from Sir George Askwith that the union would be recognised. Further, there would be no delay in the bonus settlement. On this basis the union leaders agreed to put the matter to a vote on Tuesday.
The settlement seemed reasonable and with some good will the girls returned to work, only to discover that these promises were not upheld fully by McCorquodales. Some of the striking girls were not allowed to go back to their former positions and in some cases no work could be found for the girls. They complained and the blue-blooded Mr Norman McCorquodale, in charge of the Wolverton factory, deigned to meet with Ethel Axby and two other union representatives. He told them that he was not going to recognise the union or allow any interference in his management of the company. The girls would work where they were assigned.
|Winslow Hall, the residence of Norman McCorquodale|
Mr Roberts sent a telegram to Sir George Askwith warning him that the girls were likely to go out on strike and Sir George hastily arranged a meeting the following day. As a result a meeting was arranged between the management and union in London for Thursday June 3rd. It lasted for three hours. By the weekend the Commission made a decision. The girls would receive an immediate increase of 7 1/2 per cent to be implemented the week after June 3rd. One proviso was added, that this increase should be regarded as “war wages”. Presumably with the implication that the increase would not continue once the war was over.
However, it was a great victory for the working girls and the union and was duly celebrated at mass events afterwards. In one speech Ethel Axby suggested rather cleverly that those girls who went to work during the strike because they said they didn’t want the bonus should be asked to donate this additional money to charity. Collection boxes were being prepared. Industrial relations settled down after that and one former worker, recalling the events some years later, reflected that there was little animosity between management and workers, or even between the strikers and non-strikers once things went back to normal. There was still a war on and the prevailing mood was to get on with it.
As I said at the outset, 1915 was Ethel Axby’s year. On the 15th of August she married Frederick Baldwin from Newport Pagnell ad they settled in a new house at 34 Peel Road. She was now a celebrity and the wedding attracted great interest from well-wishers. Sadly, the marriage was short lived as Frederick Baldwin died in 1924 at the age of only 32. At present, I have no more information about his death.
Ethel Baldwin continued her work as secretary for the union branch, although she was required to leave the employ of McCorquodales after she married, according to the normal standards of the day. She was of course a woman of her times and would have seen nothing amiss in her giving up paid employment to be a wife and mother. Her circumstances therefore limited her prospects of achieving further emience in union activities. However, during her brief exposure to prominence in 1915, she proved herself more than equal to the leadership role she undertook. The strike itself, brief as it was, does not seem to have made a deeper impression. I watched a film a while back based upon the efforts of Dagenham women workers to get equal pay with men. It was a good story and it was well told but you would come away from this film believing that this was the first time women had taken industrial action. This was the 1960s but in 1915 the women of McCrquodales at Wolverton were out on strike for better pay and conditions. The action by the women workers at Dagenham in the 1960s for equal pay catered much more attention and was much more long lasting. Yet this early dispute in 1915 must have been the first strike by women in their quest for equality in the work place. There was a long struggle ahead and 100 years later we cannot claim to have fully equalised the gender pay gap.