It’s not just women who are largely ignored by history, of course.
Despite decades of attempts to foreground working-class and black and ethnic historiographies, we seem to be back to endless kings and queens and the heritage agenda, in which rosy-cheeked rustics are jolly happy with their lot, the aristocracy is kindly, everyone knows their place and there’s no need for any of that nasty politics – for “politics,” read anything vaguely left-wing or working-class.
Consider the fate of the Women Chainmakers‘ Festival.
Cradley Heath in the Black Country was the centre of chainmaking in England.
The work, often carried out in sheds behind the women’s own homes, was hard and dangerous.
A woman had to hammer up to 5,000 links a week to earn the equivalent of 25p.
Robert Sherard, in his White Slaves Of England, saw women trying to make the best of things, talking and singing as they worked.
“At first, the sign of this sociability makes one overlook the misery which, however, is all too visible… in the foul rags the women wear, in their haggard faces and the faces of the frightened infants hanging to their mother’s breasts, as these ply the hammer, or sprawling in the mire on the floor, amidst the showers of fiery sparks.”
The son of a chainmaker later talked to a local historian about his own birth.
His mother had made chains from 6am to 6pm before crossing the yard to give birth, returning immediately afterwards to her anvil, where she worked until 10pm.
In 1909, legislation required an increase in wages in some of the most exploitative trades, including chainmaking.
Employers instead tried to trick workers, many of whom couldn’t read, into signing forms opting out of the minimum rates.
Those who refused were told there was no work for them.
The National Federation of Women Workers called a strike, and the so-called “Cradley Heath lockout” began in August 1910.
Backed by Mary Macarthur, Labour MPs and ministers, donations to the strike fund poured in. Pathe news showed film in 600 theatres of the women marching and singing protest songs.
But not until October did the last of the employers cease their machinations and agree to be bound by the new rates of pay.
After the women’s victory, there was still sufficient in the strike fund to build a Workers’ Institute, a two-storey building known as the “Tute.”
In 2006 thanks to a lottery grant of £1.5 million, this was moved brick by brick to the Black Country Living Museum.
The museum began to hold an annual Chainmakers‘ Festival, which became increasingly popular, featuring national speakers and entertainers, including recreations of the marches and speeches of the strike in period costume.
In 2009 the museum asserted the importance of the event.
“The festival ensures that this historic episode is celebrated by the local community and trade unionists from all over the country.”
But by 2011 the festival was banned by the museum as “too political.”
New director Andrew Lovett was behind the ban, supposedly based on complaints he had received.
The festival has now come back home to Cradley Heath.
Hands off our history.
Louise Raw is the author of Striking A Light: The Bryant & May Matchwomen (Continuum Press). Louise Raw, a Unite member and the author of Striking A Light: The Bryant & May Matchwomen And Their Place In History (Continuum Books) spoke in the Left-field tent