THERE were murmurings between passers-by that there was something afoot. The street was quiet, except for the slight breeze rustling the golden brown leaves in adjacent trees. Shops were open and for many it was business as usual. That was until a gent wearing a trilby and ominously shaking his walking stick about arrived at the front door of one of the women chainmakers’ houses to issue an eviction order. It was the same old story, there were rent arrears to be paid and the master had run out of patience.
Shouting began from both parties, the woman pleading for more time to protect her child who was unwell, but the master would have none of it. He didn't care about the welfare of a child he didn't know or the pitiful circumstances the wretched woman found herself in. She hadn't paid the rent she owed and he wanted her out on the street. It was August 1910 in Cradley Heath, the chainmaking capital of the world at that time, where the women chainmakers were in dispute and fighting for a living wage, and the chain masters were trying to grind down their resistance.
The women were on strike but were well aware that barring a miracle, they would be starved into submission. The fracas in the street drew the attention of the local constabulary and resulted in the reading of the Riot Act. Defiant words had been exchanged, fists raised, and the atmosphere remained very tense.
The plight of the women had however been recognised by a Glaswegian by the name of Mary Macarthur, the leader of the National Federation of Women Workers which she had founded in 1906. She hastened to the Black Country to rally the women and bring hope to their utter despair.
They had no idea who this strange woman was who spoke in a dialect they could hardly comprehend and they were naturally wary of her style and her promises.
But she was a charismatic speaker, a woman with a sincere demeanour who made it clear to the chainmakers how she would support them. By joining the NFWW they would stand together and not be so easily brushed aside, which would happen if they stood alone. They would receive monetary help to see them through the strike and she promised that nobody, woman or child, would starve. It appeared that the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath and all those others from the surrounding chain making villages, had been given their miracle.
Rallies, marches and meetings took place in the following ten weeks. The women had grown strong underneath the umbrella of the NFWW and with Mary Macarthur steering them in the right direction, they achieved their victory. They had won a battle to establish the right to a fair wage, a victory that changed the lives of thousands of workers who were earning little more than starvation wages, and this momentous chapter in the social and political history of Britain is celebrated here in the Black Country every year with gusto and passion.
The Black Country Living Museum provides an authentic backdrop for the battle between the striking women chainmakers and the greedy chain masters, and of course, the ideal location for Mary Macarthur to once again rally the women to march for their right to a fair wage. On Saturday 20th October visitors to the museum became modern day witnesses to this century-old drama as it unfolded, and once again the Black Country Players and members of Fizzog threw their heart and soul into their acting roles.
It was a very pleasant October day in the museum grounds and ideal conditions afforded the opportunity for the Bugle cameraman to take a few snaps that will hopefully transport the viewer back to days of yore. There was also a "first" to acknowledge which the Bugle was privy to and which deserves a mention.
Cradley Heath Male Voice Choir were in attendance on the day and as they assembled in the former Cradley Heath Worker's Institute building, a spokesman for the choir told the audience in the cafe that it was the first time the choir had sung in the 'Stute and the first time at the museum.