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Mary Macarthur and the Chain Maker’s Strike

Listen to how Mary Macarthur changed things for women working in the Black Country...

The Black Country Living Museum is a pretty cool place to find out about the places we’ve come from. It’s also a great to find out about the people behind our history too.

In this episode we go inside the Cradley Health Workers’ Institute and learn about Mary McArthur who fought for better pay and rights for the country’s chain makers.

The Cradley Heath Workers’ Institute stands as a monument to the struggle of the women chain makers of Cradley Heath who laid down their tools in 1910 to strike for a living wage.

Mary McArthur was the leader of the National Federation of Women Workers and it’s thanks to Mary and those who went on strike that the world began to see the plight of Britain’s low paid workers and as a result the law changed and a minimum wage was introduced and in time conditions too would improve.

Black Country’s Chainmakers

The Black Country was renowned for it’s chain making – whether enormous chains for anchors for ships, to smaller chains used in factories and in business.  These chains were often made by women and children in cramped dangerous hot conditions, for very little pay.

Inside a chainmaker’s hut.

Chainmakers’ earnings prior to strike 5s per week. (That’s around £17 per week today)

Chainmakers’ earnings after strike 11s per week (That’s around £37 per week today – still not a lot!)

How much did things cost in 1910?

Rent 3s 6d – 5s per week

Loaf of bread 2½d

1 pound butter 1s 2d

1 pound sugar 3d

1 pound tea 1s 6d

20 pounds of potatoes 10d

1 pound cheese 6d

1 pound bacon 9d

1 pound onions 1½d

Dozen eggs 1s

1 pound biscuits 8d

1 pound lard 7d

1 pound jam 5½d

1 pound apples 3d

12 pints milk 3d

1 pound meat 10d

Wrights Coal Tar soap 4d per tablet

Child’s boots 2s 11d

Letter post 1d

What’s a strike?

A strike action (or simply a strike) is when many workers stop working in protest. Strikes are usually done by workers to get better pay, hours, or working conditions, but people can also strike to gain change from the government or authorities. Maybe you took part in Greta Thundberg’s School Strikes to raise awareness of climate change, and to demand change from the governments?

History of Strikes

They became important during the Industrial Revolution, when many worked in factories and mines. In many countries, it is against the law to strike. In other countries, people who strike are protected under certain conditions.

Trade & Workers Unions

Unions are a way for people to work together to improve conditions for all.

Mary McArthur led the said this about the power of unions and of collective action such as striking:

“A trade union is like a bundle of sticks. The workers are bound together and have the strength of unity. No employer can do as he likes with them. They have the power of resistance. They can ask for an advance without fear. A worker who is not in a union is like a single stick. She can easily be broken or bent to the will of her employer. She has not the power to resist a reduction in wages. If she is fined she must pay without complaint. She dare not ask for a ‘rise’. If she does, she will be told, ‘Your place is outside the gate: there are plenty to take your place.’ An employer can do without one worker. He cannot do without all his workers.”

Who was Mary McArthur?

Mary was born on 13 August 1880 in Glasgow, the eldest of six children to John Duncan Macarthur, the owner of a drapery business, and his wife, Anne Elizabeth Martin.

She attended Glasgow Girls’ High School, and, after editing the school magazine, decided she wanted to become a full-time writer.

After her Glasgow schooling she spent time studying in Germany before returning to Scotland to work for her father as a bookkeeper.

After becoming politically active, Mary met and eventually married William Crawford Anderson, the chairman of the executive committee of the Independent Labour Party.

Mary Macarthur waged an effective campaign and the striking women won widespread national support.

Donations came pouring in and by 22 October 1910 when the strike ended all the employers had agreed to pay the new higher rates. The women’s victory was to have a huge impact right across the British Labour Movement. Soon more regulatory Boards were established in other industries as the government accepted for the first time that every worker was entitled to a living wage.

When the strike was won there was a surplus of £1,500 in the fund. Mary Macarthur proposed that it should be used to build a ‘centre of social and industrial activity in the district on a spoil heap which had been the venue for many rallies during the strike.

About the building

The Cradley Heath Institute.

The two-storey building was designed by Albert Thomas Butler (1872-1952), a local architect, in the Arts & Crafts style. With its prominent gables, leaded windows and tiled panel bearing its name, the building embodies the spirit of traditional vernacular construction and craftsmanship. Thousands of people attended the opening of the building by the Countess of Dudley on 10 June 1912. The Institute became a centre for educational meetings, social gatherings and trade union activities in Cradley Heath. Between 1915 and 1933, its auditorium operated as a picture house being known locally as ‘The Stute’.

Trade Union Banners

In the Institute you can see some colourful stitched fabric banners used by the protestors.  Banners such as these were a way to get the message across and to show off the names of the unions taking part.

Activity: Design a placard

A colourful banner inside the institue.

Over to you!

Is there a change you’d like to see in the world?

Why don’t you have a go at designing your own strike placard that demonstrates your point of view. It should be bright and easy to read and make clear exactly what it is you are striking against. Like Mrs Macarthur’s banners!

MOBILE: History for Kids

Discover what life for children was like throughout the ages

Adventures Through Time is made with support from The Black Country Living Museum

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Adventures Through Time

Learn all about The Black Country and its amazing history with this series!

More From Adventures Through Time