Bradford Labour Party advertising poster

​​In May 2015, millions of people up and down the country turned out to vote. The general election result divided the nation with emotions varying from pride and contentment to disappointment and anguish. Yet again, the Labour party had strong support in Bradford; this included the comfortable retaking of Bradford West by Labour from George Galloway and a Labour majority for Bradford Council in the local elections. Not surprising considering that the Independent Labour Party, a precursor to the modern Labour Party, was established in Bradford as the product of a Victorian strike by Bradford mill workers.

The Scene in Victorian Bradford and Beyond

Victorian Bradford was a key player in the country’s textile industry. The booming industry provided jobs for many in the mills, sorting fleeces, spinning roving, weaving yarns and mending cloth. The industry made many mill owners rich, building textile dynasties that would last for generations. A growing resentment developed in the mills as the workers were expected to work longer days, for less pay, often overseeing multiple machines or looms. Mill workers were going home to appalling living conditions; cramped back to back houses and never enough food on the table. On a local and national level, many socialist parties and organisations, as well as trade unionism, had emerged in the 1880s. As the mill owners squeezed the labour force to make more profit, something was going to give.

The Catalyst – The Manningham Mills Strike

Manningham Mills was one of the largest textile mills in Bradford, known for speciality fabrics such as silks and velvets. The mill building itself was, and still is, a dominant landmark in the Bradford skyline. Samuel Cunliffe Lister (Lord Masham) was an international textile entrepreneur and inventor who ran his successful business, Lister and Co., from Manningham Mills from 1838. The number of employees grew from 1,848 in 1878 to 5,000 in 1890.

Tension between mill management and workers boiled over in December of 1890. Workers were confronted on Tuesday 9th with a notice announcing wage cuts, affecting a fifth of workers, starting on the 24th of December, Christmas Eve. This bitter blow was deepened by the fact that the shareholders had just received an 8 percent bonus. Several reasons for the cuts were listed to justify them. The workers, tired of the growing rift between the rich and poor, the owners and labour force, knew action was needed.

Several local individuals (socialists and key players in the local textile trade union, The Weavers’ Association) were invited to speak to management on behalf of the workers, even though very few workers were members of trade unions. Negotiations took place over several days with the Association representatives suggesting that the company should accept a 5 percent cut in profits rather than introduce wage cuts of 20 percent. [1] But Lister and Co. refused and on the 16th, the workers felt that action was needed; by the weekend over one thousand workers (majority of which were weavers) were on strike.  

It was hasty decision advised against by the Association officials. Hardly any of the workers, mostly women, were members of trade unions and the majority of “the strikers [were] without funds”, according to the Manchester Times. [2] Poor relief was not an option as Bradford Corporation saw them as refusing work, rather than out of work. The strikers quickly published their manifesto to rally support and sought to create a strike fund to support the strikers and their families. Many were “entirely dependent upon charitable contributions”. The Belfast News-Letter described how “the strikers formed a procession about a quarter of a mile in length, and, headed by a band of music, marched through the streets to the centre of town, making collections on way”. [3] The strikers persevered into the New Year.

Management at Lister and Co. tried to encourage the strikers back to work by starting up the mill again, but no strikers crossed the picket line. However, other workers were found to fill the vacancies and operations resumed on and off at the mill. Two new female mill-hands were thrown down a flight of stone steps “sustaining serious injuries” by strikers or strike supporters, as The North-Eastern Daily Gazette reported. [4] The violence towards the working mill-hands boiled over on a few occasions with “riotous demonstration[s]” outside the mill. Police had to attend to calm and disperse the crowd. The working mill-hands, intimidated by and fearful of the strikers, were sleeping at the mill to avoid confrontations with the strikers, with Lister and Co. purchasing 50 beds to accommodate them.

Support for the strikers expanded beyond the county. Many contributed money, goods and food or put on events to raise funds. Soup kitchens were set up to nourish the strikers and their families who not only had to contend with the lack of income, but a harsh winter. Many supporters were sympathetic locals and Methodists; some were socialists and trade unionists. The Liberals and Tories on Bradford’s Board, the Watch Committee and police force were unsympathetic to their plight. It was reported in March that the ranks of the strikers had reached 5,000 when the spinners and drawers at Manningham Mill joined the strike. Throughout the strike period, there were multiple talks, meetings and gatherings by strikers and strike supporters. Although at times, attempts for public meetings were hampered by the Watch Committee and highly attended meetings were met with the police force or military to disperse them. This included a meeting at St George’s Hall (theatre) which had 20,000 attendees.

By the end of March and into April, many strikers were feeling the effects of the strike. The courts dealt with many cases in which people had fallen behind with their rent; some were evicted from their homes; people had to resort to pawning goods to raise money. It was no surprise when the spinners returned to work on the 22nd of April, followed by the rest on the 27th after nineteen weeks. On the face of things, the strike had achieved nothing.

Strike Legacy – The Rise of Labour Parties

Within a month of the strike ending, the Bradford Labour Union was formed, a local independent party for the working class. This stemmed from the realisation that the strikers had lacked key political support and a local party was needed to reflect and support working class Bradfordians. In 1892, this became the Bradford Independent Labour Party (ILP) and other local ILP branches were created throughout the country, particularly in surrounding textile towns. Two years later, in January 1893, the national ILP was formed in Bradford with MP Keir Hardie as its chairman. The party programme was based on improving working and living conditions for the common man. Made up of individuals from other socialist and Labour groups, and pulled into different directions due to the variety of interests, the ILP lacked direction and strong leadership. It was no surprise that it failed to do well in the general elections of 1895. 

When the Labour Party was formed in 1906 (orchestrated by Keir Hardie), the ILP quickly become affiliated with it, having provided much of its support. With the backing of the Labour Party, support for the ILP grew. The ILP eventually felt that the Labour Party was too passive and some ILP branches split from the Labour Party to form the British Social Party with the Social Democratic Federation. Membership of the ILP grew to 30,000 by 1914, although its pacifist stance during the First World War did not do it any favours. The tension between the ILP and Labour Party continued throughout the following decades and it became disaffiliated with the Labour Party in 1932. The ILP continued on its own. This was disastrous in terms of membership; it went from just under 17,000 members in 1932 to just over 4,000 in 1935. It continued on its own and again when WWII broke out, it resumed its pacifist stance. In the 1950s and 1960s, the ILP supported the anti-nuclear movement and continued to support workers. In the 1970s, it had a change of heart about the Labour Party and decided that it was more suited as a pressure group within the Labour Party. In 1975 the ILP became known as the Independent Labour Publications and continues to be committed to democratic socialism.

With this deep rooted history, it is no surprise that labour parties (parties representing the working class) and the Labour Party frequently receive strong support in Bradford. Although this may be due to subliminal messages within Bradford’s civic motto: Labor Omnia Vincit (Latin for ‘work conquers all’).

Lauren Padgett was a PhD student at Leeds Trinity University. Her PhD research investigated representations of Victorian women in contemporary museums. As a Bradfordian, she is interested in Bradford’s local history, particularly its Victorian past.

[1] In 1889 Lister and Co, made £138,000 in profit, equivalent of just over £8 million in today’s money.

[2] ‘Work and Wages: Strike at Bradford’, Manchester Times, Fri 19 Dec 1890, Issue 1742.

[3] ‘The Strike at Manningham Mills’, The Belfast News-Letter, Fri 9 Jan 1891, Issue 23561.

[4] ‘Strike of Bradford Mill-hands’, The North-Eastern Daily Gazette, Wed 7 Jan 1891.

Photo credit: This Bradford mural was painted in 1993 to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the formation of the ILP. Photo taken by Lauren Padgett.

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