Julia Varley: champion of the woman worker

In September 2016, as part of Birmingham Heritage Week, Sheroes of History organised an event about Birmingham Sheroes at The Library of Birmingham. It was a pleasure to hear Dr Cathy Hunt speak about Julia Varley. Below is a transcript of her talk. [Not to be cited without the author’s permission.]

The woman I am going to talk about this evening was not a native Brummie. She was born in Bradford in 1871, but I think that the fact that there is a blue plaque on the house in which she lived in Bournville for a large part of her adult life, highlighting the work that she did for women’s suffrage and for trade unionism gives her at least honorary Brummie status – and well deserved it is too.picture1

Miss Varley was once described as a woman who always enjoyed a good fight if the fight was in a good cause and she certainly identified her cause at a very young age.[1] She became a hugely respected figure in the labour movement, championing women workers and seeking better pay and working conditions for them. Their bravery in joining trade unions in the face of intimidation and the very real threat of losing their jobs and then not being able to find another, of standing together to demand workplace justice is just as worthy of recognition as those, like her, who are remembered on blue plaques and so this is very much their story too. And this is indeed what Julia Varley herself would have wanted;  when she was newly arrived in Birmingham in 1909, she was instrumental in setting up the Birmingham Social Service Committee to teach young women workers the principles of trade unionism and above all, to give them the confidence to organise themselves rather than wait to be led by others.

Julia Varley left school aged 12 to work in a textile mill and by 15 she was secretary of the Bradford branch of the Weavers’ and Textile Workers’ Union. I think that when we look at her life, we need to remember how much courage she displayed in stepping out of the roles that society expected of a working class woman in the late 19th century. Her father was not at all keen when she became involved with the union – a male colleague later recalled that she had done so at a time when it was more or less a moral crime for women to be in Unions. And here she was, not just a member, but the branch secretary.

She had to give up paid work when her mother died because she was needed in the home to look after her younger brothers and sisters – a much more typical role for a working class daughter than running a trade union branch. Her father was horrified anew when, after being elected as a Poor Law Guardian, Julia decided, aged just 24,  to go ‘on the tramp’ in order to find out what life was like for women who had to sleep in the casual wards of workhouses or in seedy lodging houses – regarded as disreputable places, particularly for women. Disguising herself as a married woman looking for her husband who she said was a chap called Jim working on the Liverpool docks, she went tramping  to become a ‘ninepenny dosser’, learning along the way a great deal about the harshness and injustices many women faced. [2]In fact, she recalled that one of the reasons that she was initially drawn to the fight for the vote for women was because one evening she was propositioned by a man in evening dress outside a music hall in Oxford. When she returned to her lodging house, she found out that one of the women there had been arrested for accosting. Julia realised then that if her earlier encounter had been witnessed by a policeman, she too would have been arrested, while the nicely dressed gentleman would have got away scot free, his story believed over hers.[3]

She was, she said, determined to get to see the inside of a women’s prison so that she could compare it to life in the workhouse and her chance came when, as a suffragette,  she served two short spells in prison as a result of attempts to enter the House of Commons.[4] She treasured all her life the summons from the Metropolitan Police which bound her in the sum of £2 to appear before Westminster Police Court for obstructing the police and behaving in a disorderly manner. Incidentally, her other most prized possession was the letter bidding her to Buckingham Palace to receive an OBE in 1931 – quite something for a jail bird!

In 1909 she moved to Birmingham at the invitation of Edward Cadbury to encourage the organisation of working women into trade unions. He was acutely aware that conditions for many working women in trades across Birmingham were nowhere near as good as those existing in his Bournville factory. There were thousands of women engaged in different manufacturing processes across the city and the Black Country, some in factories and workshops, others working at home on various forms of so-called sweated work where wages were extremely low. Women trade union leaders at the time estimated that the average wage for a working woman in England could be as low as seven shillings and sixpence, compared to around 25 shillings and nine pence for an adult male. Many women were on wages that were even lower – the women chain makers of Cradley Heath, for example, with whom  Julia Varley became involved, commonly earned just five or six shillings a week for 14-16 hour days. Here’s a description of a visit that a trade union organiser made to the house of a woman making buttons ( a home industry that Varley encountered in Birmingham) in a lightless and insanitary house where ‘the table was filled with cards and buttons, three children and an old man sat with fingers flying up and down, scarcely a pause, as the buttons were stitched on the cards…the woman was hoping to have a good week, they were trying to finish the last lot which, if done in time, would bring in 6 shillings for the week – mother, 5 children and aged grandfather – a good week, 6 shillings. Father, when in full work was paid 18 shillings a week but he was delicate, had a weak chest and was often ill.’[5] Julia Varley witnessed tiny children who ‘spent every minute between bed and school beside a table helping to put the buttons onto card, ‘mites with the hurt of ages in their eyes, the skill of adults in their fingers’.[6]

In three years, Julia Varley had made a great impression in the Birmingham area, taking a prominent role in the successful women’s Chain Makers strike in 1910 for a minimum wage and also in a strike in Bilston where she was injured when she was ‘pitched head first by an employer some seven or eight feet down a steep bank’. She refused to prosecute, however, considering that as she had stood on the employer’s wasteland, she had taken the risk.[7] After a spell with the all-female National Federation of Women Workers, she was, in 1912, appointed as the sole women’s organiser for the mixed sex general Workers’ Union, believing that for effective unity and strength, men and women ought to be in unions together, not pitted against each other. Her post was a remarkable achievement for a woman at that time and was desperately needed by working women. Too often, employers sought to employ women because they could get away with paying them far less than men and this of course led to resentment from many men, rather than an understanding of the importance of being in the union together to stamp out such practices.

The First World War saw a significant  increase in the number of women trade unionists and Julia Varley, who had considerably strengthened the women’s membership of the Workers’ Union in the years before the war, continued now, helping  women  munitions workers to ensure that government and employer promises of fair pay were upheld. Although very few women achieved equal pay with men, unions did make gains in terms of pay and conditions, largely due to the tireless efforts of women organisers, several of whom joined Julia Varley at the Workers’ Union.  Their understanding of the demands placed on women’s time, particularly in war time came in very useful; it was often hard to find the time or the confidence for women workers  to attend union meetings (so often dominated by men), amidst a backdrop of combining work with running a household single handed while husbands were away fighting, looking after the children, rushing to queue for food items that were in short supply after work. Julia Varley taught the women who joined her as organisers that ‘pleasant Sunday afternoon, Mothers’ meeting methods’ of recruiting women into the union were largely ineffective and what was needed instead was for women to be treated like equal members of the union alongside the men.

When the war ended and women began to be driven back into traditional low paid work, union organisers feared that the gains made during the war would be lost and women would disappear back into work where, because they were so isolated, union organisation was hard to achieve. This was certainly the case for domestic service and although many women deeply resented a return to this low paid role. Others who had not worked as servants before the war objected to the implication that service was naturally and traditionally women’s work and that they should simply be capable and willing to do it, but for many there was precious little other work to be found in these post war years. Rather than urge women to avoid working in service, unions sought to raise the status of the job and to obtain more rights for servants. Julia Varley’s union provided space for women servants to meet in Loveday Street in Birmingham’s  Gun Quarter in rooms furnished with chintz curtains and matching chairs, a Broadwood grand piano, the latest illustrated weeklies and plenty of books. The room was made as welcoming as possible and girls could drop in for a cup of tea after their shopping, all of which was intended to reassure them that they weren’t as isolated in households as many had been before the war. The girls’ mistresses were welcome too but this was definitely a club with trade unionists at the forefront, described by the Daily Chronicle in 1920 as a servants’ paradise and the envy of the girls’ mistresses.[8] A Servants Charter was drawn up emphasising the necessity of regular hours for servants who should not be exploited by employers who simply expected them to be available whenever required, a minimum wage, a fortnight’s holiday, a comfortable bedroom and the use of the bathroom once a week, and decent plain food.[9]

Interestingly, when Julia Varley was asked why the club only survived for a couple of years, she said it was due to snobbery. ‘You wouldn’t believe the class distinctions there were among servants. The cook wouldn’t mix with the housemaid and all that sort of thing’.[10] But perhaps the main reason for the failure was one faced by the entire trade union movement – as unemployment in the 1920s and 30s rose so trade union membership fell. But Julia Varley kept fighting for women’s workplace rights. She continued in her role as chief women’s organiser for the Workers Union and then also became chair of the TUC’s Women’s Group. She was also involved in the work of the Society for the Overseas Settlement of British Women, travelling to Canada in 1925 to meet women who had settled there  and was deeply involved in the Industrial Welfare Society.

Her connections with Birmingham continued well after her retirement in 1936, despite a progressive loss of vision and eventually a return to Bradford to live with her sisters became necessary. She died in 1952. One of many obituaries described her as ‘self-reliant, fearless, often impetuous but abundantly blessed with solid common sense, she had all the qualities needed for the pioneering struggles in the period up to the First World War’.[11]

One final story: According to Julia, radicalism was in the family. Her great grandfather had been at the Peterloo demonstration for parliamentary democracy in 1819 and was also a Chartist in the 1830s. She told a story about her work in Birmingham during the First World War when the size of the task had overwhelmed her and she was nervous and depressed. Above the offices at Loveday Street the Spiritualists used to hold their meetings and one of the officials said to her, ‘Julia, for goodness sake, get up to t’spirits’. As she sat in the meeting, the medium suddenly said, ‘there is a lady sitting in the second row and a very old man standing behind her. He is wearing old-fashioned clothes and he has a message for her – pull yourself together, you are not fulfilling your destiny’.[12] Julia Varley went on to do just that.

You can watch Cathy’s talk here:

References below. Many of the newspaper and journal cuttings can be viewed in the Papers of Julia Varley, University Archives, University of Hull, U/DJV/16

Copies of the Workers’ Union Record and other materials on the Workers’ Union can be found at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick

[1] Labour Woman, January 1953, ‘Julia Varley’

[2] Evening Despatch, 8 May 1936, ‘The Story of Julia Varley: Champion of the Underdog’

[3] Daily Herald, May 23 1935

[4] Evening Despatch, 8 May 1936

[5] Workers’ Union Record, November 1913

[6] Labour, September 1935 ‘The Joy of Service’

[7] Workers’ Union Record July 1914

[8] The Daily Chronicle, 31 January 1920

[9] Daily News, January 27th 1920

[10] Bournville Works Magazine, September 1951 ‘The Happy Warrior: Further Reminiscences of Miss Julia Varley’

[11] Labour Woman, January 1953

[12] Bournville Works Magazine, September 1951




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