By Mike Axworthy
Walking through the Museum of Liverpool Life I found many displays that I could associate with; however, as a Garstonian, the most interesting was a poster with the headline: ‘Police Brutality now Police Persecution’.
Strong stuff indeed, not from the recent past but from 1912 - when the workers of the Bobbin Works in Garston went out on strike.
The poster that alerted me to the historic strike at the Bobbin Works called for a protest ‘against the dastardly conduct of the Authorities’, due to the police persecution of Garston workers.
The poster also gave the names of supporters and contributors to a distress fund set up by women to ease the suffering of strikers. It seemed the whole of Garston supported them - all the pubs and factories in the area, many shops and individuals also made donations. I felt proud of the workers’ struggle and solidarity in the face of much suffering and hardship, and in particular standing up to the police brutality and persecution they suffered.
Wilson Brothers Bobbins and Shuttles began business in Todmorden during 1823, to meet the needs of a rapidly growing cotton industry. Britain exported textiles to the world from the thousands of cotton mills around Lancashire and Yorkshire. The mills needed wooden bobbins, and Garston Bobbin Works - the largest in Britain - supplied them.
Garston was the ideal place to produce bobbins because of its position on the Mersey, where it was the main port of discharge for timber cargoes from Ireland.
In 1912, there were 2,000 workers at Wilson’s Bobbin Works, and in line with many other industries they were organising to improve conditions and pay (1911-1912 was a time of industrial turmoil, with the dockers, railway and coal strikes taking place), which generally were very poor and in some cases dangerous. In those days there was a 6 a.m. start and the basic wages were low even by 1912 standards. Many of the workers were women, who earned even less than the men did.
The Council of Trades in the shuttle and bobbin turning industry called a strike after the management refused to negotiate with the leaders of the five unions affiliated with the Transport Workers Federation, with a view to securing better conditions for the workers.
The strike began on 4 May 1912 and lasted until the end of August. It was not 100% solid, and scab labour was brought in by the company. There were angry scenes after work, when the strikebreakers were escorted back by the police to their waiting trams in Speke Road. Large crowds would gather - some to protest, some just to watch until the crowds were broken up by baton charges.
One of the most controversial aspects of the dispute was the action of the police. The historical records of the day show a number of sworn eyewitness accounts of the police charging, hitting out indiscriminately with their batons and badly injuring several women and even children.
Finally - after fifteen weeks - both sides agreed to submit to binding arbitration by the Board of Trade and normal working resumed. An agreement was made on 17 August 1912, that all work people who had come out on strike be reinstated.
The Bobbin Works strike still stands as one of the most significant in Garston’s history. It is extraordinary that the strikers’ alternative to not accepting their wages and conditions was the workhouse or the street.
The Liverpool Echo of 14 August 1912 reported:
‘A sequel to the Garston strike was heard at the Liverpool Crown Court when Michael Wall was fined 40 shillings and costs for assaulting Constable Charsley and in the words of the court “assaulting a loyal worker who went into work.”’
In the same article the Echo said that extra police were drafted into Garston to protect the girls going home from the Bobbin Works. A large crowd made a hostile demonstration and had charged the police batons with their heads.
Two women were also fined 40 shillings for insulting behaviour. Ellen Grimes made a statement in her defence: “It is not right for them to come from Liverpool and work while Garston girls are on strike.” (40 shillings plus costs would have been about three weeks wages at that time.)
Cecilia Philips - the wife of a dock labourer - pleaded guilty to a breach of the peace - she was said to have booed and called a girl a ‘scab’.
Witness statements about police brutality:
Arthur Charles Keats, of 36 Lincoln Street, Garston
I am a Plater and work at Morton’s Iron Works, Garston. Neither I nor anybody connected with me had anything to do with the strike.
I had finished work at 5 o’clock and changed my clothes and was going out to the park to play cricket when I saw the crowd at the bottom of Church Road. I saw the car with the loyalists (strike breakers) coming down Speke Road and go up St. Mary’s Road and I saw the police behind the crowd as they were moving slowly up Church Road.
I was just close to Inspector Keelan when I saw him knock the ground with his stick twice and immediately the police formed four deep, drew their truncheons and attacked the crowd, which was mainly composed of women and children, and at the time they were doing no harm but walking up Church Road. The police struck out right and left. I saw a woman with light hair struck, whom I understand is Mrs. Dodd. She was lying on the ground. I immediately ran up Banks Road lest I too should be struck.
Mary Jane Southall, of 29 Byrom Street, Garston
I am the wife of Ezra Noble Southall, a dock labourer. I am not a striker. I have never worked at the bobbin works neither has my husband.
On the evening of August 13th I went out to look for my child. I saw a large crowd down Church Road and went down there. The crowd then was moving down Church Road towards King Street. I thought I saw my child amongst the crowd and ran forward with my baby 7 months old in my arms. As I did so the police charged and a constable made a blow at me but I dodged and it struck my baby on the forehead raising a large lump, which I afterwards attended to. The constable then struck another woman just behind me. The constable’s number was 122F.
My husband who was present at the time saw the assault.
For more information on the Bobbin Works contact Garston & District Historical Society at Garton & District Community Council.
Thanks to The Museum of Liverpool Life for the picture of the ‘Bobbin Girls’ in their Sunday best and for the poster.
First opened in 1986, as the Labour History Museum, it is now closed until 2010.