Theatre: Rouse Ye Women by Townsend Productions
Women workers’ militancy during the ‘great unrest’
Townsend Productions’ new folk ballad “Rouse Ye Women” follows events in the 1910 chainmakers’ ten-week strike in Cradley Heath, the Black Country.
The Cradley Heath women (and children) made the smaller, lighter chains at their own home forges, while the heavy chains were made by mainly men in factories. Home working was a common form of commodity production in Victorian and early 20th century Britain.
The result of course was the women were the most exploited of the whole workforces and subject to the vagaries of the middleman – the “fogger” – who gave them the work, including the tools and iron rods to make the chains.
What was unusual about the chainmakers was that, despite their relative isolation, they were roused to organise themselves in the first place it seems by a dynamic middle-class woman, Mary Macarthur. She agitated and led the women out on strike.
Mary had earlier founded the National Federation of Women Workers, which by the early years of the 20th century had grown to around 100,000 members.
The play follows in a long line of productions by Townsend. These include the events around the 1976-78 Grunwick strike led by Jayaben Desai, the building workers’ strikes also in the 1970s – where pickets Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson where jailed for their activities – and a reworking of Robert Tressell’s socialist classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, among other productions.
The songs and scripts were a joint effort by Neil Gore and John Kirkpatrick (see interviews in the Socialist).
Neil plays a number of roles including the fogger. Mary Macarthur is played by Bryony Purdue (who as far as I could tell is a trained opera singer). The third actor, playing one of the home workers, is Rowan G-del.
I thoroughly enjoyed the whole production as the songs, using familiar tunes but with new words, followed the build up to the strike and the tremendous support it had from around the country – primarily by the efforts of Mary MacArthur a one women publicity machine.
The strike, as I explained in a question and answer session after the performance, was part of a larger workers’ movement in Britain at the time known as “the great unrest”.
Workers throughout the country, after a period of economic downturn and the rise of ‘new unionism’ at the end of the 19th century, saw a red tide of militancy develop which the capitalists were unable to stop.
The great unrest was eventually cut across by the outbreak of World War One.
The women chain makers eventually won their battle when the bosses were forced to concede a minimum wage which increased, it seems, the wages of the workers by 100%. That was from an extremely low point of around two shillings and five shillings a week – roughly £10 to £30 today.
As Neil Gore says in the play’s programme: “The story of the charismatic union organiser and campaigner Mary Macarthur and the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath… helped to focus the attention of the world on the plight of low paid women workers in ‘sweated’ industries and make the principle of a national minimum wage a reality”.
- Rouse Ye Women is on tour until 18 April. See townsendproductions.org.uk for dates