Ethel Axby and the McCorquodales strike of 1915

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.

WWI Soldiers from McCrquodales

Recently I became aware of a book that had been prepared and printed by McCorquodales to commemorate their former workers who served in the 1914 – 1918 war.

This copy, which is by now extremely rare, was salvaged from a skip by a New Bradwell history teacher, Tanya Kenny, at the time that McCorquodales was being demolished. Tanya has agreed to share this with a wider audience and I asked Steve Clarridge to photograph the book. Here are photographs from the Wolverton section.

The men range in age from the very young to men like Edward Beard who enlisted in August 1914 in his mid-thirties and saw almost four years of action before meeting his end in 1918.

Names and details are included with each photograph.

Liverpool Connections

When I was writing about McCorquodales it occured to me that there was more than one Liverpool connection with Wolverton.

Brabazon Smyth Stafford, the Works first chief accountant, came to new Wolverton in 1838 and stayed until his retirement, whereupon he went to Liverpool.

Hugh Stowell Brown worked in Wolverton as a boy and young man from 1840 to 1843. He then went on to some fame as a Baptist preacher in Liverpool, where a statue was erected in his honour. His autobiography gives us several very interesting insights into the early Wolverton.

Edward Bury, Wolverton’s first Locomotive Superintendent established his locomotive building works in Liverpool.

George McCorquodale, as I wrote the other day, was also a Liverpool man.

Changes in the Stratford Road

The first photo was probably taken mid-1960s with a telephoto lens – hence the foreshortening. McCorquodale buildings are on the left and of course the wall continues endlessly throughout Wolverton.
On the right you can see the Regent petrol sign at Michael Pages Garage at the corner of Jersey Road. Beyond is the old sign for the Craufurd Arms.
In the 1960s there was a huge increase in the volume of traffic on the Stratford Road as freight moved from the railways to the road and large trucks, known as “juggernauts” thundered down the road, shaking the house foundations.
Post Milton Keynes, new by-pass roads left the Stratford Road more-or-less open to local traffic only.

Some of the roof lines on these Stratford Road houses have changed and the lamp standards are newer. The north side has undergone a complete transformation with steel and glass buildings replacing the Victorian redbrick.

The McCorquodale’s Strike of 1915

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.

This was the period of the Great War of 1914-18 or World War I as it is sometimes known. Many men signed up and many unfortunately did not come back. The war changed Wolverton as many of its railway workshops were diverted to war production. The work load increased at McCorquodales because increased government activity resulted in increased demand for printing services.

These pressures were put upon the work force, which would have been fair enough, except that it was not fair enough. Women had  traditionally been paid less than men, the argument being that the man was the breadwinner and his higher pay took account of these responsibilities. But 1914 brought about a huge social change. The traditional bread winner was at the war front risking life and limb and their wives were left at home with the responsibility of making ends meet.

Ends could not meet. Living costs were rapidly rising and wages were – not for the first time – not keeping pace. The first representations by the women were largely ignored but the trigger for the strike came when it was learned that the relatively few men working at McCorquodales were being paid a ‘war bonus”. The women mobilised. Over 500 of them joined the Paper Workers Union.

The Wolverton Express reported:

The work girls and men at Messrs McCorquodale’s works were locked out on Thursday the 20th May, in consequence of a demand for a war bonus which it was alleged had been given to some of the men. Some 800 to 900 workers have been affected.

This photograph from the Living Archive collection shows the strikers on the Stratford Road. they appear to be very orderly and there are women with prams and push chairs and other children in the picture.

The “lock-out” was a favoured tactic of management at that time, believing that by punishing everybody the troublemakers would be quickly brought to heel. They eventually discovered that such tactics only served to unite the workforce against them. Sir George Askwith who had been appointed Chief Industrial Comissioner by the government was called in. He appears to have patted the girls on the head (metaphorically) and assured them that everything would be alright. On this assurance some went back to work only to find that management was not prepared to honour anything. They rejoined their colleagues on the picket.

I have looked in the archive of The Times to see if the strike got any national attention. It did not, and obviously The Times reporters had more interesting work to do than focus on a protest by women workers.

The National Union of Paper Workers was formed in 1914 and in 1921 it merged with another union. Apparently very few records survive from those war years.

Thus the McCorquodale’s strike has been buried in history. We know from the Wolverton Express that there was a strike and that it was eventually settled by offering the women a 7.5% increase for the duration of the war. 
The practice of paying women less money than men continued for many years after this but the strike of 1915 must be some sort of milestone in the march to equality. 

Wolverton: The Envelope Town

Wolverton was a railway town. It was founded on railways. Steam trains punctuated the day as they rushed past on the main line. Thousands of workers filled the Stratford Road three times a day. Those of us who grew up there knew it was a railway town. We  knew of housing built by the railways, recreation grounds built by the railways, churches built by the railways, our fathers worked behind the wall for the railways. How could it be anything else?

Yet, as I mentioned yesterday, after McCorquodales arrived in 1878, Wolverton had a second important industry and the McCorquodale plant at Wolverton was as well known and respected in the envelope manufacture and printing industry as the Carriage Works was in the railway industry.

But it was the fate of Wolverton’s second industry to never quite gain the respect of Wolverton’s first industry. Part of this was of course due to the relative size difference between the industries but other social factors were at play. Work at McCorquodales was only a career choice for a few – and these would be men. Women entered McCorquodales at a young age and mostly only stayed a few years. Marriage brought their paid careers to an abrupt end as they happily embarked on a future of child-raising and home-making. And I should add here, however much the present generation thinks that this strains credulity, that this was a contract that was willingly entered. The majority of women were happy to be Mrs Smith rather than Miss Smith. In fact McCorquodales at one time offered £10 as a wedding grant to those who stayed ten years and there is no doubt that this financial incentive caused some women to put off marriage for a few years. £10 was a deposit on a £100 house.

Colonel George McCorquodale started his stationery and printing business in Liverpool in 1841. His first expansion was to Newton le Willowsin 1846 where he built a large factory.

McCorquodales at Newton le Willows

There is a curious parallel with Wolverton. Newton le Willows was also an early railway town and at Earlestown they built locomotives and later wagons. Clearly George McCorquodale had an affinity with railway towns and it may well be that his successful experience at Newton gave him the confidence to set up at Wolverton.

The Wolverton factory opened in a building more-or-less at the bottom of where Jersey Road starts. At this time the western edge of the town was the back alley to the east of Cambridge Street, so McCorquodales at this time was a little way out in the country. The plant expanded westwards to the limits of railway property and even crossed the road with buildings at the end of Church Street. These have been demolished in recent years to make way for new housing development.

McCorquodales grew from printing for big industries like the L&NWR and in the 20th century worked on large government contracts – stationery, forms, postage stamps, postal orders, pension books and the like.

The Wolverton plant finally closed in the last decade.

Enter McCorquodale’s

For the first 40 years the L&NWR was the principal employer for Wolverton and District, and a successful and expanding one too. But the expansion was naturally accompanied by population growth and with it an emerging social problem. There was always work for men, but what about young, unmarried women who were living in Wolverton in increasing numbers with little to do?

Women did not have the choices in Victorian times that they do today. After school ended at 13 there were a few years to wait for marriage. Domestic work was socially acceptable, as was dress-making, lace-making and straw-plaiting, and they could also work as shop assistants. School-teaching was an occupation for a very few. Women were not allowed into offices until the twentieth century. Girls were a burden on the household until they married.

Smaller rural communities could absorb their girls in some of the activities noted above, and larger towns also had opportunities, but Wolverton was a working class town. There were no big houses or a sizeable middle class in need of domestic servants and in fact the censuses of the period show very few domestic servants employed in Wolverton. The Refreshment Rooms, which in its heyday employed almost 30 girls, was by this time on its last legs. Wolverton presented a unique circumstance in this regard.

Sir Richard Moon, whom I wrote about yesterday, had an idea. He approached his fellow Liverpudlian, George McCorquodale, with a view to establishing a stationery factory at Wolverton. Girls and young women could be employed in a socially acceptable environment. McCorquodale, who had been actively printing for the L&NWR since 1846, took up the idea and in 1878 opened his envelope factory at the western end of Wolverton. The new venture worked and in the 1880s 120 women worked in the factory. The men numbered 20 in total.