Top photo credit: Ade Marsh Photography
Something I am particularly passionate about is bringing research out of the University library and into more mainstream and accessible arenas. My thesis is all about finding the social history within an institutional history, and because the institution that I research is still around today, I have the opportunity to get away from my desk once in a while and be a part of their contemporary work. Through this, I can share my research with people who wouldn’t find themselves reading a doctoral thesis anytime soon (not sure if anyone does that for funsies, but whatever floats your boat) by attending their events and education courses.
2019 is a big year for the General Federation of Trade Unions – it’s their 120th birthday. The last 120 years have seen considerable changes, as shown in Dr. Alice Prochaska’s book, and their aims and objectives are pretty far from the vision that their first management committees had in their minds. Their first two decades saw them sit side by side with the TUC and the Labour Party, as they represented over a million workers and confidently took up the role of representing British trade unionism on the international scene.
This is where I pick up my first thesis chapter. My focus is on how the then General Secretary, William Appleton, lobbied members of parliament from both sides of the chamber to raise the pay for the soldiers and sailors of the first world war. Their campaign was successful, and it certainly goes some way to highlight how central the GFTU were to working class political movements at the turn of the century. I’ll be presenting my findings at the Social History Conference in Lincoln next week.
In order to celebrate 120 years, the GFTU worked with Sean Michael Wilson to produce a graphic novel/manga history of trade unionism. It’s a great fresh look at a part of history that is often squashed under the weight of Yet Another Churchill Biography, so do take a look. More about that here.
John McDonnell MP hosted the GFTU at a parliamentary reception in which I had the wonderful opportunity of giving a speech about my research. Firstly, he gave a speech about how important it is to understand working class history and its role in changing our political landscape and daily lives. He pointed out that many of the considerable social, political and economic changes seen in the 20th century were not largely driven by those in parliament, but by passionate campaigners and activists, particularly within the trade union movement. Afterwards, Jeremy Corbyn MP spoke about how integral knowledge of history is to the trade union movement, and that books such as Wilson’s will go a long way to increase understanding of the challenges we still face.
As a PhD student, being able to give a speech about my research in parliament, and then chat about my work and where I’d like to take it with MPs that I admire, was an absolutely brilliant experience. I’m confident that a Labour government would transform the way we think about education and how we talk about research in social science and humanities, particularly focusing on giving school children real skills in political literacy and critical thinking, and celebrating the work being done in Universities that allow undergraduates to learn how to assimilate information and convey complex ideas. I think I only need to gesture vaguely at the absolute state of collective political understanding that we see during Brexit debates to illustrate why this is important. One of the ways this is being championed by John McDonnell in particular is his support of the Shout Out UK project, which is helping young people get into politics and give them the tools they need to shape their world for the better. I’m hoping to get involved with the project soon as I can see a great opportunity to talk more about labour history and how the political working classes have shaped our lives today. This project might just be the thing I need to move my ideas forward!
Giving my speech was an incredible experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Dr Prochaska had the unenviable task of giving an overview of the last 120 years in less than 10 minutes, which left me able to talk more specifically about my latest work on soldiers in the first world war. Having John McDonnell walk over, shake my hand then tell me how much he enjoyed my speech is a pretty big deal for me!
Here’s what I said:
“I started my PhD in 2017 and spent the first few months or so gathering information on the wider world of trade unionism and the political working class through the 20th century. I’m very lucky to have Dr Prochaska’s book as a blue print to my thesis – not many PhD students have such a resource. She also kindly invited me to her home, gave me her notes and recorded interviews to help inform my research, and made me lunch. As an impoverished PhD student, I consider anyone who gives me lunch a friend!
One of the things that Alice and I agree on is that the energy and enthusiasm radiates off the pages of their meetings and conferences held in their beginning years. They were changing the world.
At the Holborn restaurant on 13th June 1938, Sir Walter Citrine of the TUC called together what he called ‘the old people’ of the movement. And old they were – Ben Tillett of the dockers was 78, Will Thorne of the General Workers and one of the first Labour politicians was 81. Another attendee was William Appleton, then 79, who had been General Secretary of the GFTU since he was 48. The notes from this meeting show how much the world of work had changed in their lifetimes. Will Thorne couldn’t read or write at the time of his marriage, as he had no access to education, so he signed his own marriage certificate with an ‘x’. Tillett, a long standing member of the management committee of the GFTU, describes horrific industrial accidents that were a part of their daily lives due to a total lack of safety measures. Appleton recalls going to work at the age of ten, on 12 hour shifts, despite being responsible for his younger siblings. The early mornings were so frosty, that he was unable to wear his own shoes due to the severity of his chilblains, and had to put on his mothers wrap-around boots instead.
This was the world they fought to change: child labour, impossible conditions and unfair wages.
One of the most successful changes that the GFTU led was for the armed forces in the first world war. Tillett had long been campaigning on the subject of adequate pay for soldiers and sailors, but the environment of total world war really underlined how unfairly the armed services were being treated, as the soldiers on the front line stood shoulder to shoulder with their colonial counterparts that were on better pay, wore better uniforms and used better equipment.
Despite their best efforts at lobbying number 10, they found the government unresponsive. So Appleton decided to do something he called, ‘an extraordinary departure from normal methods’, and he wrote to every MP and every Lord, regardless of which side of the chamber they sat. On behalf of the GFTU he implored them to consider the welfare of servicemen to be a national issue of great importance, and invited them to a meeting at the House of Commons.
The response was remarkable. Lords, Bishops and MP’s met with the GFTU and formed a committee to push for widespread and comprehensive reform. They didn’t ask for the world, only for fairness. They were ultimately successful, though not quite as quickly as the GFTU would have liked, but nevertheless they changed the world for those on the front. And in doing so, they changed the world of the families back home, and the communities that they were from.
Incidentally, I snuck off early from the GFTU conference this afternoon so that I could take a look at the Lloyd George papers in the Parliamentary Archives. I found a letter addressed to George from a minister, and the basic gist was, “I’ve got this guy Appleton writing me lots of letters about pay for soldiers. We need to respond to him soon, otherwise he’ll just keep writing!” I have to admire his work ethic a little there.
There is much left for me to explore. Once I have completed this section about the first world war, I’ll be moving on the creation of the GFTU education scholarships during the second world war. The GFTU sent 7 people on a week long residential course at Ruskin in 1940. The first students were J H Hitchon, Nora Turner, Lilian Kettell, John Maude, Anne Carr, Gertrude Newton and Frank Walker. I say their names for two reasons – one, I want to know more about the people that made the GFTU, rather than simply knowing more about the leaders. As Osh said, finding out more about the daily lives of these people is what drives my research forward. And 2 – you’ll notice the gender balance in there – in 1940, this is quite something, so I’m looking forward to finding out more and being able to share that with you.
And now I’ll end by simply saying: Happy Birthday GFTU.”