On this day … 20 May 1854

The Preston papers reported the end of the great ‘Lock Out’, probably the most serious industrial dispute to hit the town in the nineteenth century. The story of the dispute can be briefly told. In 1847, when trade was bad, Preston’s mill workers had agreed to a ten per cent cut in their wages, on the understanding that the cut would be restored when trade picked up again.

By 1853, the mill owners were again prospering, but not the mill workers, whose pay was still held at the 1847 level. So they went on strike, and soon many of the mill owners were agreeing to the terms. But not some of the leading firms, headed by the giant Horrockses enterprise and its principal shareholder Thomas Miller.

The mill owners then ganged together and shut their mills, locking out the workers with the intention of starving them into submission. The move eventually succeeded when the strikers ran out of funds to keep the dispute going.

The strike and lockout generated widespread press coverage and sympathy for the workers, as the Preston historian Henry Clemesha noted, ‘the eyes of all England were turned to the town where hard-headed and determined Lancashire men fought out their battle until sheer exhaustion on the part of one of the combatants put an end to it’.

And it was not just in England that the plight of the workers was attracting attention. Writing in New York, Karl Marx declared, ‘The eyes of the working classes are now fully opened: they begin to cry “Our St Petersburg is at Preston” ‘.

The dispute brought Charles Dickens to town, and it may have supplied him with some background for his novel Hard Times. It certainly provided inspiration for Elizabeth Gaskell for her novel North and South.

What was missing in all this coverage was the role of women in the dispute. This neglect was highlighted by Catherine Barnes Stevenson, a professor of English, who pointed out that nearly twice as many women as men made up the estimated total 18,000 striking workers: 11,800 women and only 6,200 men.

What surprised Prof Stevenson was Elizabeth Gaskell’s avoidance of any consideration of the role of women in the dispute in her novel that she modelled on the Preston lock out. Prof Stevenson says Mrs Gaskell could not have been unaware of the gender composition of the workforce, and yet there is only one female factory worker in the novel, and she had left work because of illness.

Prof Stevenson writes:

Why did Gaskell shrink that female majority into a solitary disabled worker? One might say that she is simply participating in a general silence in Victorian fiction about women’s work in the factories. According to Wanda Neff, the unpropitious appearance of the factory girl and the strangeness of her labour to the middle-class reader made her unpopular as the heroine of a novel. But Gaskell’s silence about women’s work in the mills, her repeated use of the generic “men” to describe factory workers, and her celebration of cooperative domestic labour indicate how problematic she — like other members of the Victorian middle class — found the whole issue of women’s work outside the home.

The role of women in the dispute was downplayed by Dutton and King who wrote the key work on the dispute, Ten Per Cent and No Surrender: The Preston Strike 1853-1854, as one of the reviewers of the book, who took them to task for also downplaying Marx’s commentary, noted:

The authors reveal another skeleton in their cupboard in their attitude towards the women who participated in the strike. Reporting that “the appearance of women on platform was evidently a rare event’’ they then describe the work of Mrs Cooper and her sisters-in-law, Ann and Margaret Fletcher who seem to have travelled the length and breadth of Lancashire raising support for the locked-out-workers, and say, “but in general (and in spite of their massive numerical preponderance among the turn-outs) women played a very subordinate role in the entire ten per cent campaign”.

This approach is, sadly, the usual male assessment based on male sources and tinged with male prejudices. Women’s history requires much more thorough research before it can be accurately written.

Women did feature in a series of cartoons produced during the lock out, as Irish blackleg labour, as a ‘recruiting sergeant’ attempting to bribe women strikers back to work, and as women strikers angrily rejecting her inducements:

The Victorian Web: https://victorianweb.org/authors/gaskell/n_s4.html
North West Labour History Society: http://www.nwlh.org.uk/?q=node/138

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