When Mary Bamber died in 1938, at the age of 64, her cremation was, at her request, a stark affair. No flowers, a red draped coffin, the cortege led by members of the International Brigade, the only music the singing of the Red Flag. But she was a remarkable woman. Pat Ayers tells us of her life.
Mary Bamber was a socialist, trades unionist, orator, social worker, suffragist, friend and colleague of George Garrett, Ellen Wilkinson, Sylvia Pankhurst and a host of other leading radicals. She was active in the city and nationally for the best part of fifty years, present at key moments in local labour history, in the forefront of several prominent disputes, Labour councillor and a Justice of the Peace who promoted the dissemination of contraceptive advice as a mechanism to empower women.
Born in 1874, to a prosperous, middle-class Edinburgh family, privately educated and living in one of the best parts of that city, Mary’s early life was, though, a world away from the poor of Liverpool she was ultimately to live among. However, when still a girl, her lawyer father took to the drink and one day walked out on the family never to be seen again. Her mother Margaret Little’s life up until then had been poor preparation for the rigours of single motherhood with six children to provide for. She worked hard charring and in other jobs to support her family, making a close acquaintance with near destitution and, when her eldest son got a job with a printer in Liverpool, the family came with him.
The Liverpool they came to, dominated as it was by casualism and irregularity of income, was characterised by poverty, ill health, appalling housing conditions and hand-to-mouth subsistence. The local labour market was highly sex-segmented and if the situation of male workers was bad then that of women was dire. Linda Grant has shown that women’s employment was concentrated in the service industries with just a minority of female jobs in manufacturing/processing. Much of this work was irregular and very poorly paid. Most factories operated a marriage bar and the situation of single women with dependents was perilous. Homeworking and sweating were common and the nature of women’s work made it incredibly difficult to organise them into trades unions. Moreover, the ambivalence of the male labour movement towards women – they were regarded either as a threat to male wages or as engaging only in peripheral service work rather than real work – meant that women were seen as being outside local politics.
The winter of 1906-7, with the usual misery of working-class subsistence exacerbated by severe trade depression, found Mary on the rota of women who made soup to sell at a farthing a bowl from a Clarion caravan parked on St. George’s plateau. She visited the sick, collected for the unemployed and kept open house for travelling socialists. She frequently spoke at outdoor meetings, often at Liverpool’s Hyde Park corner – the Wellington monument - but equally so on street corners or anywhere she could gather an audience. Sylvia Pankhurst described her as the “finest, fighting platform speaker in the country”. In a city dominated by sectarianism, she refused any religious identification and was a regular heckler at both Catholic and Protestant political rallies.
It was, though, through her work as a trade union organiser that she became best known and where she becomes most visible. In the years leading up to the First World War, she worked tirelessly as an official for the Warehouse Workers Union. She travelled the length of the dock road, organising women from Johnson’s Cleaners and Dye Works in the North end to Wilson’s Bobbin Works in the South.
It was her attempts to organise those in the worst sectors of the female labour market, however, which perhaps command most respect. This was an incredibly difficult and thankless task. She was often up before dawn to catch bag women as they walked to work. They made and mended the millions of sacks used to contain and transport the products which passed through the port. Like employment in rope manufacture, which also drew Mary’s attention, this was heavy, filthy, poorly paid work often undertaken by only the most desperate – women caring for dependents, married women or those old and single. Mary gave a great deal of time, often fruitlessly in terms of actual recruitment, to talking to these women, pressing leaflets on them and persuading them to come to meetings.
Her work as an organiser though central to her politics was interwoven with other activity. She was present at the August 1911 Bloody Sunday demonstration. In 1919, she stood as the Labour Party candidate in the Orange stronghold of Everton. Accompanied by a bodyguard – hustings often ended in violence and the hurling of abuse; fruit, bottles and other missiles were common occurrences. Campaigning on everyday issues such as milk, education and municipal laundries, she won by a tiny majority. The same year, she became a founder-member of the local Communist Party and, in 1920, attended the Second Congress of the Third International in Moscow. She was a local committee member on the National Unemployed Workers Committee and, in September 1921, was one of those arrested at the occupation of the Walker Art Gallery. She did not seek a second term as city councillor and, by 1924, had left the Communist party saying that it interfered with her work as an organiser. She was present at all the key demonstrations held during the 1920s and into the thirties. She spoke at her last meeting just two weeks before she died.
However, in celebrating her life, energy and commitment it is important to note that we only know so much about her because she was the mother of Bessie Braddock and, as the key influence on her life, has had a presence in the limited and somewhat partial accounts of Bessie’s career. Had she not been made visible by this relationship, then, aside from the snippets of information and vignettes offered by those who have studied this period – most obviously, Linda Grant, Sam Davies and others of the Merseyside Socialist Research Group – she would be as elusive as all those other unnamed and uncelebrated women who worked alongside her.
She was only one of a group of women who took her turn on the Clarion soup van, only one of the strike leaders who led the strikes of laundresses and bobbin workers, only one of those who worked so hard to translate their socialist commitment into real changes to transform society and assist those most affected by the poverty and deprivation that were endemic in Liverpool at that time. Ironically, given the contemporary prominence of her public position, in the end, it was Mary’s role as a mother that rescued her from the oblivion, which was the fate of so many others.