(First published in 1989 in volume 4, pp. 24-25, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)
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Cosy Co-operation Under Strain
Industrial Relations in the Yorkshire Woolen Industry
C. Wrigley, 1987. Borthwick Papers No. 71
The last twenty years have seen a remarkable resurgence of interest in textile history. As the mill chimneys and factories have been swept from the landscape, and as the number of employees has rapidly declined, the industry and its history have been the subject of re-evaluation accompanied by a tidal wave of nostalgia. Mill chimneys have been replaced by Lowry prints, almost every northern textile community has set up its obligatory industrial museum, and the oral testimony of countless mill workers now fills innumerable shelves in our bookshops. As one American scholar recently commented, 'everywhere dead mill towns are being reborn in late twentieth century minds'.
This resurgence of interest in the textile sector of the Industrial Revolution has resulted in a large number of publications. In particular, attention should be drawn to two scholarly, general surveys of the cotton and woollen industries in D.A. Farnie The English Cotton Industry and the World Market 1815-96 (Oxford, 1979) and D.T. Jenkins and K.G. Ponting, The British Wool Textile Industry 1770-1914 (London, 1982). However there are still areas of textile industry that have been only sketchily examined. For instance, we still know little about employers and their organisations or about the part played by women and adolescent workers. It is often forgotten that the two latter groups provided the bulk of workers in the worsted and cotton industries, and young people were of vital importance in worsted mills. As late as 1873 two-thirds of the hands at Daniel Illingworth's Whetley Mills were under seventeen years of age. In addition, much more research has been devoted to the state of the textile industry up to 1914 than to the period of decline after the First World War. What we needed was a detailed analysis of the fortunes of textiles in the twentieth century, and in this respect Christopher Wrigley's examination of industrial relations in the Yorkshire woollen industry between 1919 and 1930 - a most critical period in the development of the staple industry of the, West Riding is most welcome.
Before 1914 the industry was beginning to experience problems (although these were because of foreign competition, the erection of tariffs, obsolescent machinery and out-of-date methods. Difficult trading conditions after 1870 saw the development of new working practices. There was a clear attempt to extract concessions from labour, especially by way of increased machine speeds, the use of inferior raw materials, the allocation of more machines to each minder and by employing cheap forms of labour. In face of this there was a clear growth of trade unionism, although in 1914 woollen and worsted trade unions were still pitifully weak compared with those in the Lancashire cotton industry. In 1911 there were 274,538 cotton trade unionists as against 23,102 in wool textiles.
Although a whole series of reasons were advanced for this striking imbalance, undoubtedly the key factor, long recognised by trade union leaders in Yorkshire, was the deep and often bitter sectionalism that blighted the wool textile industry and its surrounding communities. As Ben Turner commented:
"The weaver was looked down upon by, the overlooker … a woollen spinner and a woolsorter despised the average man in ordinary grades of labour … the woolsorter had his special chair in his special snug at his customary public house and a wool-comber or a labouring factory worker had to be above the ordinary if he was allowed in that place"
Increased government intervention during the First World War provided a powerful stimulus for unionisation, and impelled union leaders to play a more important part in industrial relations. This was shown at the end of the war by the formation of the Wool and Allied Joint Industrial Council, which was a formally constituted collective bargaining organisation.
Wrigley analyses in detail the working of the Council and the two disputes, the 1925 dispute which seriously weakened the system, and the 1930 Strike which signalled its demise. His analysis is lucid and interesting, but open to question on one crucial issue. From the formation of the Council to its abandonment the trade unions were the strongest supporters of the svstem, as the author points out. However, what is lacking is an analysis of the sectionalism that plagued the employers' side in the 1920s. Too often the employers are seen as a monolithic entity, whereas they were deeply divided over the strategies to be pursued. The worsted manufacturers were adamant that only large wage cuts would bring a return to profitability, whereas the woollen manufacturers and, worsted spinners were far less enthusiastic about the idea. This disunity was shown most clearly during the 1925 dispute, when employers followed different strategies and welcomed independent arbitration with alacrity as a way of escaping wider divisions. Any discussion of the view-points held by different types of employers would have been very useful
This single criticism does not detract, however, from an excellent monograph on a critical period in the historical development (or demise?) of the Yorkshire wool textile industry. What we now require is further study. of the anarchic conditions of industrial relations in the 1930s
©1989, J.A.J. and The Bradford Antiquary