One Friday afternoon in February 1912, the women who worked on the French netting machines at Gundry’s net-making factory in the market town of Bridport, Dorset, SW England, were informed (without notice) that their pay was to be reduced to match the wages of the girls and women who worked on the other machines in the factory. The women refused to accept this pay cut and immediately came out on strike. There was no precedent for this, and the women were on their own, there was no union backing, it was regarded as a wildcat strike.
They marched through the town, waving banners saying “We want our rights”, singing Suffragette songs, including the “March of the Women”, which had only been composed some six months earlier by Dame Ethel Smyth as an anthem for the Suffragette cause.
The women received support from the whole town – in fact a collection was made for them, and nearly £10 was raised (this would amount to around £800 in today’s money).
The women were offered arbitration, and they eventually called on Miss Ada Newton, a representative of the recently formed National Federation of Women Workers, who came down from London to arbitrate with workers and management. A successful end to the strike was announced, and the women subsequently joined the union, being the first women in the town to be unionised. Details of the event were published in the local newspaper, the Bridport News.
This part of Bridport history was completely forgotten until recently, when a presentation was given by Carlos Guarita of the work of local photographer Clarence Austin who had taken photographs of the strikers. This inspired local women to get a group together to reproduce not only the photograph, but also to march through the town on 14 February 2015. We sang “March of the Women” and several other songs especially written for the day itself. A video has been made of the project itself, which you can watch here. There is also a Facebook page, please come and join us there.
Although the project itself was inspiring and good fun for us to do, it must be remembered that these brave women were putting their jobs and livelihoods on the line. They are real “Sheroes”, unsung working-class women who stood up for their rights, inspiring generations of women to do the same.
Written for Sheroes of History by Heather Hamer, who is a member of BridFem, Bridport’s Feminist group.
See the local news report of the reconstruction event here.