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. 

Women’s wages

1840 was very much a man’s world and wages for women were pitifully low by comparison.
Let’s look at the schoolteachers. In 1847 the schoolmaster was Archibald Laing. He was paid an annual salary of £100 and provided with a house for his family. His income was comparable with that of an Engine Driver who would earn about £2 a week.
Mr Laing taught the boys and the girls were taught by Emma Hassall who was paid £40 per annum. The infants teacher was Amelia Prince, then about 20 years old. She lodged with Joshua Harris the grocer.
The case of Miss Prince is interesting. She earned £30 a year for a number of years while a boy apprentice could start at 5s per week (£13 a year) and work up  to about £25 a year towards the end of his apprenticeship. At 21 he would go onto a man’s wage, around £1 a week. In the meantime Amelia Prince could labour for years at the same fixed wage.
She did get some advancement, and became the schoolmistress for a £10 a year annual increase. She was on this salary of £40 a year when George Russell became the schoolmaster. He was about 6 years her junior. It appears that they were attracted to each other but this was not a situation which could be condoned by Victorian morality and Mr Russell was dismissed in October 1857. I am sure he left without a stain on his character because he immediately found a job in Poplar, but it was just that a liaison between the Schoolmaster and the Schoolmistress was not considered proper in those days. Miss Prince resigned two months later and followed Mr Russell to Poplar, where they married and later had a son.
Russell continued with his teaching career in Essex and later near Southampton.
The story does illustrate the economic position of women in the mid-19th century.