Tom Mann’s Memoirs, 1923

Book one: Europe

IV. The fight for an eight-hour day

First published: 1923
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Company Limited, 38 Great Ormond Street, London WC I
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter

One of the periodic fluctuations in industry brought on a bad turn of industrial depression in the winter of 1885-6. The Social Democrats habitually directed attention to the root causes of unemployment, and explained the economic remedy therefor; but they also laid stress upon the necessity for immediate provision for those suffering from unemployment, this being one of their palliative proposals. There then existed a Fair Trade League, largely the outcome of Mr Joseph Chamberlain’s activities. Three or four men belonging to a group connected with this league usually took a prominent part at open air gatherings. These were Messrs Peters, Kelly, Kenny and Lemon. On February 8, 1886, they organised a demonstration in Trafalgar Square to call for protective tariffs against the increasing importation of foreign goods, for such imports, they alleged, were unfairly depriving the British workers of the opportunity of work, wages, etc. The Social Democrats were present in Trafalgar Square before the arrival of some of the contingents. John Burns was called upon to hold a meeting, and did so. Considerable manoeuvring took place when the organisers of the demonstration appeared, and while the Fair Traders were addressing a portion of the people in the Square, Burns, Champion, Hyndman and Williams were speaking from the National Gallery side. Finally, at the close of the meeting, it was decided to march to Hyde Park with a view to another meeting. On the way rioting took place, many windows were broken, and considerable damage was done. This resulted in the four mentioned, viz, Burns, Hyndman, Champion and Williams being brought to trial at the Old Bailey for sedition. John Burns had carried a red flag in the Square and on the march towards Hyde Park, and he became known as “the Man with the Red Flag”. The trial attracted much attention; in the end the four were acquitted. The stone-throwing, etc, on the occasion of the march led to the immediate opening of a Mansion House Fund to relieve the unemployed, and substantial sums were quickly subscribed. The effect upon business people in London generally was very noticeable, and for a while, whenever the unemployed were about to march in any direction, the utmost concern and caution were manifested. I was working at Peckham at the time. The local unemployed had announced a march during the week in which the riots took place. I remember that the works gates were strengthened, and that props were fixed ready for barricading purposes should need arise. This, of course, was groundless alarm in the minds of persons unable to gauge the situation accurately.

I continued to concentrate upon the reduction of working hours, believing that this demanded persistent attention until the end should be achieved. The program of the SDF demanded ”the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, but also called for palliatives, one of which was the eight-hour day. The Battersea branch of the SDF was in a flourishing condition. Many new members were enrolled every week, and the indoor and outdoor meetings were invariably successful. I was taking my full share of the work of the branch, and, being on the speakers’ list, I went wherever appointed by the lecture secretary, but Sydney Hall was the inspiring rendezvous for all Battersea members. On a certain occasion when the hall was full, I took the opportunity to urge upon the branch the desirability of dealing more specifically with the eight-hours question, as whatever else might be done, this would prove of permanent as well as immediate value. I stated that it was the practice for the recognised spokesmen of the SDF to make incidental reference to the reduction of hours, complained that no definite steps were taken to force the matter to the front … and more on similar lines. As I have said, the hall was full, crowded indeed, and John Burns rose immediately I sat down. He at once expressed entire disapproval of what I proposed. He declared the time had passed for such trivial reforms as the eight-hour day, notwithstanding the fact that it was included among the palliative proposals of the SDF. Amid loud cheers he declared that the capitalist system was on its last legs, and that it was our duty to prepare at once to seize the whole of the means of production and wipe out the capitalists altogether. This received thunderous applause. The next speaker was John Ward, the present Colonel John Ward, MP. He followed on lines exactly like Burns, but if possible more revolutionary. He was ready to take action for a physical-force overthrow, and certainly was not prepared to spend time over anything so paltry as an eight-hour day. When the vote was taken, the attitude of Burns and Ward was endorsed by an overwhelming majority. That was thirty-five years ago. Naturally it has been a matter of considerable interest to me to observe events during this period.

As the result of the decision of the SDF branch not to give special attention to the eight-hours question, a group of us who held this to be necessary decided that, while remaining active members of the branch, we would independently form an Eight-hours League,and this was done. It was necessary to shape a definite course, and to hold meetings dealing specially with the question of reduction of hours, and to get in touch with the trade-union branches of London. Amongst other prominent personages who became identified with the league was Mr Cunninghame Graham, MP. He had recently been returned as the member for North-West Lanark. His maiden speech in parliament attracted much attention, and we lost no time in securing his adhesion and his advocacy. Our chief task was to communicate with trade- union branches, offering to send one or more speakers to address the branch on the eight-hour day. This proved a great success, and after many branches had been visited, a conference of London trade unionists was specially convened at Bricklayers Hall, Southwark Bridge Road, to discuss their attitude towards the eight-hour day. Over ninety per cent, of the delegates to this conference voted in favour of the proposal. This was the first time that such a conference had been held, and henceforward the London trade-union movement was correctly classed as favourable to the eight-hour day.

The SDF persistently kept up an agitation on behalf of the unemployed. It was made the chief subject in all the propagandist speeches, much correspondence took place in the press, etc, and, as Lord Mayor’s Day approached (November 9, 1886), the SDF issued a manifesto calling upon the unemployed to demonstrate in their thousands, and to follow the Lord Mayor’s procession through the city. The next day there were enormous posters on the hoardings, directing attention to the doings of the SDF, and declaring that no procession other than the officially recognised Lord Mayor’s procession would be allowed on the line of route. The proclamation was signed by Sir Charles Warren, Chief of the Metropolitan Police. At a council meeting of the SDF the subject was discussed at great length, and it was decided to call for a mass meeting of the unemployed instead of a procession. A new manifesto was issued, saying:

Trafalgar Square not being on the “line of route”, we call on the unemployed to assemble there, etc.

This was issued on November 8 the eve of the great day. During the night Sir Charles Warren had a fresh lot of eight-foot posters put up, forbidding any procession or meeting or display of placards or banners, or speechifying in Trafalgar Square or in any other street or thoroughfare adjacent to the procession. So matters were really interesting. A rapidly convened meeting of the council was held that morning near Trafalgar Square, a plan of action was decided upon, and various comrades were selected, with their own full approval, to participate and to be in readiness for all eventualities. At that time Mr John Ward was a militant member of the SDF, ever ready to take his share of responsibility. It was part of my accepted task to stand quietly as an observer on the west side of Trafalgar Square, and to receive and pass on any important message as to police manoeuvres, etc. The police had by this time entirely surrounded the square, and on the upper level in front of the National Gallery there was a double row of police. Just as it reached the stage when everything appeared to be passing off very tamely, several SDF men headed by John Ward made an attempt to pass through the police ranks. This, of course, caused a diversion. The arrest of John Ward monopolised the attention of the police, and inside of one minute some hundreds of us that were near to the spot walked past the police into the square, a few of us mounted the plinth of the Nelson Column. Here, Mr George Bateman (for many years now closely connected with the Daily Chronicle), acted as chairman, made a short speech, and called on myself. I reviewed the situation, telling why such action was taken, and dealt with the SDF proposals for the relief of unemployment. After discussing the economic remedy, I recited some verses from Shelley. By this time the square was filled with a lively but quite orderly mass. Several other speakers followed, and the resolution was duly submitted and carried with the greatest enthusiasm. Then there was a call that the Horse Guards were coming, and a couple of minutes after the resolution had been voted the mounted Guards came along and trotted their horses through and round about the square to disperse the crowd. But the crowd had already largely responded to a cry of “Now for Hyde Park”, which was shouted out immediately on the resolution having been carried. To Hyde Park the crowd marched, and a meeting was held there. I did not go to the park, but, learning that John Ward had been taken to the King Street Police Station, I made for that spot to see how matters were developing. During the evening, Ward was set free, and we reunited at Battersea. Here, John Ward became a regular drill sergeant, preparing the comrades for possible physical-force eventualities.

About the same time, the SDF organised a very successful demonstration in Trafalgar Square on the occasion of the visit of fourteen trade-union delegates sent to London by the Municipal Council of Paris. In addition to open-air gatherings and indoor meetings, there was given in honour of the French delegation a public banquet as a climax to the visit. The speeches naturally dealt chiefly with the desirability of closer international relationships. For me it was quite an eventful year, and I found scope at the street corners, public parks, and many indoor meetings, for the advocacy of the principles I had come to appreciate with whole- souled fervour.

Early in 1887 I was out of employment, and, as I was becoming somewhat notorious, it was not easy to get a new job. A strike had been entered upon in the coalfield of Northumberland. It was supported by the Northumberland Miners’ Union, and affected all the mines in the county. I was asked by the SDF to go to Newcastle-on-Tyne, and to report as to whether the prospect was favourable for educational work. I agreed to go, and went. I reported that there was a grand opportunity for propaganda work amongst the miners, and that I should have no difficulty in getting audiences. I commenced operations, and remained in Northumberland and Durham all that year.

Every Sunday evening I addressed large audiences at the Cattle Market, Newcastle; every Wednesday I also had a meeting in Newcastle. On Sunday mornings I addressed meetings at the Quay Side, and on other days of the week in some mining town or village in Northumberland or Durham. The progress of the dispute showed clearly that the methods of organisation were unfavourable to the solidarity of the miners. The Northumberland Miners’ Association included the miners and others at the pits on the north side of the River Tyne; the Durham Miners’ Association catered for the men on the south side of the Tyne; but the utmost goodwill prevailed and friendship existed between the officials and the men of the two unions. While the whole of the Northumberland men were out resisting the employers, the Durham men sent messages of congratulation, and also substantial contributions to the dispute funds; but they did not cease work to make common cause. They saw nothing wrong in even supplying the customers of the Northumberland men, and thus contributing largely to bring about the latter’s ultimate defeat. This taught a lesson. Henceforward it was recognised that a closer relationship must be established between the miners of these two northern counties. Furthermore, efforts were made that later on resulted in the whole of the miners of Britain being incorporated into the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain.

It was during this year, 1887, that I was requested to visit Dundee and give a series of addresses there. I did so, and my visit was considered a success.

When the Northumberland men’s dispute was over, and I sought to obtain employment at the engine shops on the Tyne, I found the task far from easy. I did start at the North-Eastern Engineering Works, Wallsend. Everything went on all right for about four days, when pay-day came on the Friday. I was then told that “the whole of my time would be in”. This meaning, “no time kept in hand“ — in a word, discharge. I went to the foreman and asked for a reason. His reply was: “I am carrying out instructions. When I started you earher in the week, I didn’t know your name, and didn’t ask for it, but I was soon told that I had started Tom Mann. It’s not my doing that you are stopped. It is from the office.”

I had a similar experience the next week on the south side of the river when I started at Clarke Chapman’s, and after three days was stopped in a similar way. Economic pressure was pretty strong at this time. I had a fairly good collection of books, a violin and a telescope. All had to go to obtain necessaries. It was, however, an intensely interesting experience I had on the Tyne. Many public debates, many outdoor meetings, organising the unemployed, making demands on their behalf, pressing questions on the municipal council to obtain relief measures, etc. As part of the propagandist effort, coupled with an earnest attempt to get something done for the unemployed, we organised a church parade on a Sunday morning, and announced we would march from the Quay G7 Side to St Nicholas Cathedral Church. I was speaking from the base of the big crane prior to the audience lining up four abreast for the march to church. I had a small red flag easily handled, and while I was addressing the crowd, and stating what the arrangements were, describing the route we would take, and so on, I saw the mayor, Mr Benjamin Browne, of engineering fame — afterwards Sir Benjamin — in company with the superintendent of police, walk up to the edge of the crowd, and stand there listening. I thought “Hello! This looks like forbidding the march.” I ignored them, finished my speech, jumped off the pedestal, lined up the men for marching. As we were about to start the mayor approached me, and spoke in quite friendly terms, saying that he would walk to church with us if we had no objection ; and he did.

Already our proposals for dealing with unemployment were before the council, and apparently the mayor had decided to see for himself what the unemployed looked like. One of these proposals was the planting of trees around the town moor, which at that time was very plain and bare. At the council meeting a few days later, the mayor made a very sympathetic speech respecting the necessity for action to provide for the unemployed, and advised that several of the proposals our committee had made should be acted upon, including the one for the planting of trees around the town moor. This was agreed to and carried out. These trees are now a genuine ornament and valuable asset to Newcastle, with thirty-five years’ growth. But the unemployed problem is not yet solved. Unemployment is as rife in 1923 as it was in 1887, when the shipbuilding trades had twenty-five per cent of their members out of work.

Early in 1888 there was a strike of engineers at several of the principal firms in Bolton, Lancashire. While this was on I was requested to visit Bolton, and did so. Before I left, the Social Democrats of that town requested me to take up my residence there and help on the movement in Lancashire. I did so and in this, to me, new area I found scope for effective propaganda. I usually spoke from the Bolton Town Hall steps twice a week; and I regularly visited Bury, Rochdale, Blackburn and Darwen.

One of the active young men of that time, Councillor Chas A. Glyde, was subsequently a member for many years of the borough council of Bradford, Yorkshire, and secretary of the Bradford branch of the National Union of General Workers. In that capacity he issued the Socialist Vanguard for a number of years. Not long before his death, on August 25, 1923, he published a series of articles titled Thirty Years’ Reminiscences in the Socialist Movement. One of these was devoted to the time I am now dealing with. It is written in his usual racy style. He says:

Tom Mann was invited by the branch (SDF) to come to Bolton as organiser, and agreed. A shop in one of the main streets was stocked with tobacco, newspapers, etc, and he was installed as manager. Tom drew very large crowds to the Town Hall Square. Street corner and propaganda meetings were held in the surrounding towns and villages. His fiery speeches were marvels of eloquence and power. I was always with him, pushing the literature while he did the speechifying. The authorities got alarmed with the results of his brilliant burning eloquence, and his name was taken by the police authorities with a view to prosecution for creating an obstruction on the Town Hall Square. It was also alleged that the meetings interfered with the clerks in the Town Hall when working overtime.

Tom stoutly stood to his guns, he never flinched, his crowds grew to enormous dimensions, his popularity increased, his name was taken night after night by the police, he never wavered, although he knew that he was hampered by his family of little chicks. He won the right of free speech hands down, the opposition of the police and corporation collapsed, they dared not prosecute him, he never received a summons, he vindicated and won the right of public meetings on the Town Hall steps, which I believe has not been interfered with since.

He started an economics class of which I was a member, and under his leadership the branch made splendid progress. An agitation sprung up in the town for the Sunday opening of the public library and reading room. Tom was one of its foremost supporters. Nearly the whole of the clergy and nonconformist parsons, and the church and chapel people opposed the proposal. A public meeting was called in the Temperance Hall, the largest meeting place in the town, by those who were opposed to opening. Tom and a small band of SDFers attended for the purpose of moving an amendment. The chairman was a local landowner, named Ainsworth, and when Tom rose to move his amendment on behalf of the socialists, he was received with howls of derision and jeers by the large crowd of members of chapels and churches, but he stood his ground and eventually the chairman invited him on to the platform. The principal argument used by those who opposed was that it would cause attendants to be on duty on Sundays, but when Mann pointed out that the coachman for the chairman of the meeting did more work on a Sunday than any other day in the week, the nonconformists and church people met him with a storm of booing. Our amendment was defeated by an overwhelming majority, and when I raised my hands in favour a young churchman spat on them, a typical example of religious intolerance, bigotry and anti-fair-play. However, the following week a very large meeting was held in the same hall in favour of Sunday opening, with the Vicar of Bolton (Canon Atkinson) in the chair, he being the only prominent churchman in favour, and all the chapel people held aloof.

In 1889 the great strike for the docker’s “tanner per hour” broke out in London, and B. Tillett sent for Tom to assist him and John Burns. The strike was won and the trio became famous everywhere where the English language was spoken. Tom Mann at the time he was in Bolton was in his prime. He was well-grounded in socialism and economics. He was one of the best speakers I have known. Of medium height, well built, with black hair, and with the first word uttered he gripped his audience and kept them spellbound until the end. He had a thorough command of language, and he sent forth his arguments in rasp-like incisive sentences which greatly impressed his auditors and carried conviction to their minds. During his stay in Bolton I was his towel carrier, bottle holder, and sponger down, and he has never forgotten his humble follower of bygone days. He has made mistakes, let him who has not, cast the first stone, but he has been as true as steel. He has always tried to assist the bottom dog, the unskilled and semi-skilled worker, as is proved by his services to the dock labourer, and his connection with the Workers Union as one of its founders. He has adopted new methods and new ideas, always with a view to the betterment of his class, and to obtain for them a share of the good things of life. I raise my hat to this great tribune of the workers, who has always followed the dictates of his conscience and brain whatever the consequences. All his talents and abilities have always been at the service of his class.

It was one of the rules of the ASE that members should as far as practicable belong to a branch near to where they resided. On leaving Newcastle, therefore, I joined one of the Bolton branches. In November of this year, 1888, an International Conference was called in London, by the parliamentary committee of the Trade Union Congress, and I was sent as delegate by the Bolton engineers, with the endorsement of the Social Democrats. It was my first congress of the kind. Substantially it was a congress of trade unionists, though amongst the delegates were a number of well-known socialists, including Mrs Besant, John Burns, and Keir Hardie. Owing to some bungling in the invitations or credentials, no Germans or Austrians were present; the British were in the majority, with seventy-nine delegates. France sent eighteen, Belgium ten (including Anseele), Denmark two, Italy one. The conference was held in Newman Hall, Oxford Street, London. No decisions of vital import were arrived at. I was responsible for a resolution dealing with unemployment, and was vigorously supported by Mr William Parnell, of the West End branch of the Furniture Trades Union, one of the best men of the time in the trade-union world. How the voting went I forget, but I have a feehng that the conveners of the congress were doing their best to prevent any success on socialist lines. The chairman was George Shipton, at that time secretary of the London Trades Council, supported by Henry Broadhurst, MP, who had for long been officially connected with the Stone Masons Union. Thomas Burt of the Northumberland Miners and Charles Fenwick of the same organisation, both MPs, also William Abraham, MP (Mabon) of the South Wales Miners. I knew Keir Hardie pretty well, as I had earlier in the same year put in a couple of weeks at electioneering work with him when he stood as Labour candidate for Mid-Lanark. I had opportunities of getting into close contact with the dour side of a certain type of Scotsman amongst the electorate, also I came to know their fanatical devotion to the Liberal Party. Keir Hardie polled 617 votes. In after years I became a close fellow-worker with Keir Hardie, and our relations were always harmonious. Another man who later became world-famous, and who was one of Hardie’s chief workers at that Mid-Lanark election, was Bob Smillie, one of the finest men in the Labour movement. Two years ago, when Mr Smillie was reported to be seriously ill, I wrote of him as follows, in the columns of the Engineers’ Journal:

I have known Robert Smillie for over thirty years, since the early days of the attempts to run Labour candidates for parliamentary elections. When Keir Hardie contested Mid-Lanark more than thirty years ago, Bob Smillie was one of the most energetic and capable fighters, and never a year has passed over his head in all the time since then but Bob has been right in the forefront of the militant working-class movement. Although Bob has spent so much of his life in Scotland, he is really a Belfast man, and a most genial and lovable man at that.

Brother Bob has known every phase of working-class struggle, and early in life realised the necessity for industrial organisation. He knew by continuous personal contact with the hardships of mining life that there was no hope for betterment unless the miners could learn to organise and to consolidate with all other miners throughout the country. Never has a man worked more faithfully, more consistently or successfully. He has lived to see the miners become organised equal to any body of men in any industry, to obtain influence in the community, to compel respectful consideration in the chief councils of the nation and, what is more pleasing to him, to have obtained substantial reductions of working hours and increases in pay.

Mr Smillie has consistently remained an advocate of nationalisation, presumably believing that if the personnel of parliament could be changed and the machinery of government democratised that public ownership of the right kind would follow, and in any case Smillie has stood for public ownership by legislation, and apparently he still has faith in the good results likely to follow nationalisation.

It is necessary to make this clear to those who wish to understand Bob Smillie and his policy. The capitalist press has in recent years referred to him as an out-and-out devotee of direct action. This is very far from correct. Bob is not and never has been, a direct actionist in the sense implied, which means that one resorts to trade-union or industrial-union methods to achieve economic changes, having no belief in the necessity for, or the efficacy of, parliamentary action through and by the machinery of state.

Mr Smillie simply recognised that in order to command any attention in parliament it was necessary to possess industrial power, and to have the intelligence and courage to dare to use it as occasion required to force the position, but Robert was all through a parliamentarian.

It would not be fair to Bob to attribute to him the attitude of mind of the thorough-going direct actionist, and indeed it is preposterous to think that one who had no belief in the parliamentary institutions would be identified with the formation of a program whose chief item was nationalisation.

Elsewhere I propose to discuss this and kindred questions. Here I simply want to pay my full meed of praise to a splendid character, a clean man, a straight man, a reliable man, and a first-rate comrade in humanity’s cause.

… He is loved by hundreds of thousands, he lives in the hearts of not only the Scottish miners, but also of a very large percentage of all the workers throughout the British Isles. May he … live to see increasing thousands of young men he has helped to educate and inspire participate in the great work for the uplift of the workers in all lands.

Good luck and long life to you, Bob; lang may your lum reek.

While attending the International Conference already described, I learned that Sir John Lubbock (afterwards Lord Avebury) had successfully piloted a measure through parliament stipulating that no person under eighteen years of age might work for more than seventy-four hours a week including meal times; but since no inspectors were appointed to see that the act was complied with, it remained practically a dead letter. The act also provided that the regulations embodied in it were to be exhibited in a conspicuous place, where the young persons could see them. A voluntary committee was formed to see that the measure was enforced. This body decided to appoint a voluntary inspector until such time as an amendment to the act could be carried putting the responsibility definitely upon a public official. I was asked if I would come to London and serve as inspector, looking up cases, taking out summonses and conducting the cases in court when there were no complications. A barrister who was friendly to the work of the committee, Mr Thomas Sutherst (went down in the Lusitania), would be ready to advise and help when expert assistance was required. I accepted the proposal, which necessitated my returning to London early in 1889. I was given a free hand as to the use of my leisure time.

I soon obtained evidence of violations of the measure, applied for summonses and secured convictions, thus enforcing compliance with the act to the limited extent within which I was able to operate. These cases I regularly reported in the columns of the Labour Elector, a weekly paper run by Mr Champion.

I had already been closely associated with the paper, which was written very smartly, and delighted in exposing those employers who posed as benefactors, and made fortunes out of the low-paid workers.

One special case to which attention was drawn in this way was that of a large firm of chemical manufacturers. The head of the firm was a member of parliament, being reputed to be an advanced Radical and a keen sympathiser with the poor.

Information reached the Labour Elector that the conditions of work in many departments at the establishment referred to were, in some cases, exceedingly fatiguing, and in others very dangerous. There was the milk of lime department, known to the men as “Milky Lime”. The duties involved were that a man should push a heavy iron wheelbarrow to a furnace where it was loaded with red-hot lime; thence along planks up to a big tank, into which the barrowload was tipped; then back to the furnace; and so on for a twelve-hour shift.

In another department the effects of the alkali were such that a strong young man getting work there would soon show signs of the bad effects upon his system. A dark man’s hair would turn a deadly dull, lifeless brown, his gums would gradually but surely grow black, his teeth would drop out one bv one, until some of the men would not have a tooth left.

In yet another department a “muzzle” had to be worn. This was in the soda-ash chamber, where no man could freely inhale without being “gassed”, that is, overcome by the powerful fumes, taking time to come round and requiring restoratives. So the method of work was, first to get a length of thick flannel, some four or five feet long, and about five or six inches wide. This was placed one end over the mouth, the edge close up against the nostrils, and folded to and fro until the whole length formed a pad covering the mouth with an inch-thick material, and with strong cord tied over the head and under the chin, thus keeping the “muzzle” tight over the mouth and nostrils so that no breath could be drawn except through all these folds of flannel. The object was, of course, to filter the poison-laden atmosphere of the soda chamber. This apparatus alone made it difficult to breathe; but in addition, the workman had to grease the parts of the cheeks not covered by the flannel to wear large goggles to protect the eyes, to don a paper hat, and, in this complicated rig-out, to shovel the soda ash. Two minutes was the limit of time a practised shoveller could work before putting his head out of the chamber to inhale better air; if by any chance the flannel was knocked off, or was loose enough to permit the unfiltered dusty air of the chamber to reach the nostrils or mouth, the man was “gassed”.

At this time the company’s balance sheets showed that debenture-holders were receiving the usual interest, while the ordinary shareholders — I am writing from memory after this lapse of years, but the details are still firmly impressed on my mind — received forty-nine per cent. The workmen, under the conditions I have described worked twelve-hour shifts.

I should explain that the “process men” — to use the local term — worked twelve-hour shifts; the mechanics, such as engineers, carpenters, plumbers, etc, worked the customary nine-hour day, also the labourers in the same departments; but the others, all those actually engaged in the manufacture of the chemicals, not only were on twelve-hour shifts, but seven shifts a week at that. The machinery ran day and night, continuously. If a breakage took place, it was so arranged that the part could be disconnected and repaired without a general stoppage. The average hours, therefore, were eighty-four a week — seven times twelve — but in order to change the men to alternate weeks of days and nights, the hours were regulated as follows: the day shift began on Monday morning at six o’clock, and these men continued till five in the evening without any stop for meals. Then the night shift men took up duty and continued at work till six the next morning, or thirteen hours continuous work without stoppage for meals; thus making in five shifts from Monday evening till Saturday morning, sixty-five hours work. The same men who left work at six on Saturday morning returned to work at two o’clock on Saturday afternoon, and commenced a shift of seventeen hours consecutive work, till seven o’clock on Sunday morning, thus making a total of eight-two hours for the week.

The day-shift men who worked eleven hours each day on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, worked only eight hours on Saturday, leaving work at two o’clock, so far having made sixty-three hours, but these men relieved their mates on Sunday morning at seven o’clock, and commenced a twenty-three hour shift, till six o’clock on the Monday morning, thus making a week of eighty-six hours.

Of course, I do not mean that the men did not get any food on these long shifts; I mean that each man was continuously at his work the whole of the time. At intervals one man would be responsible for his own work and that of his mate while the latter had a snack; but the mill went on unceasingly, grinding away at top speed. Mr Champion, as editor of the Labour Elector, received a great deal of information respecting these working conditions, and had published much of it when a writ was served by a firm of solicitors acting on behalf of the chemical works, demanding an apology, and claiming — I think it was — £5000 damages. The next issue of the Labour Elector contained a statement to the effect that no apology would be given, and that it was the intention of the editor to continue the systematic issue of statements concerning the conditions of labour until the hours were reduced by one-third, giving three shifts of men instead of two, without reduction of wages. Being in touch with trade unionists who could advise me as to the best course to take, in order to get work under conditions that would enable me to substantiate the information, I decided to apply for a job as labourer, and dressed the part. Since caution was necessary, I adopted the name of Joe Miller. I learned the customary time and place of taking on, etc, and applied. The second morning I was started as a general labourer, and put with a gang emptying trucks of slack. I was not on the “process” but on general works, so I was liable to be moved about to any rough job; also, I had meal hours. I was “posted” as to what departments to take stock of, etc, and in about ten days I had all the confirmatory detail required. Just at this time a public meeting was advertised a few miles distant, chiefly political in character, really to serve the political interests of the head of the firm. I had now left the firm as an employee, and attended the meeting where eulogies of the firm were indulged in largely. When question time came I took part in a manner that caused some consternation; but very few knew me by sight, and not more than two knew me by my own name. Suffice it to say that in a few months all legal proceedings against the Labour Elector were suspended, and the eight-hour day was established at the works of Messrs Brunner, Mond & Co, Cheshire.

This was some achievement, and there was a sequel to it. A few weeks after the inauguration of the eight-hour day, “Tom Mann” received an invitation to be present at a meeting to be held by the employees of the firm in a schoolroom adjacent to the works. The meeting was to celebrate the inauguration of the eight-hour day, which had resulted in starting one-third more men. The letter inviting my attendance referred to various other advantages of the change now that the men had some leisure. I accepted gladly, and I duly presented myself at the committee room a little while before the appointed hour. Not more than one on that committee had an inkling that the “Joe Miller” who had taken part in the public meeting of some weeks earlier, and who had made comments upon the firm, was really Tom Mann. One member of the committee was a trade-union official who, doubtless, knew me by reputation; but he had never seen me before except at the public meeting previously referred to, and he had not appreciated the part I had taken in it. His astonishment when he realised that “Joe Miller” was none other than Tom Mann, was so pronounced that it took him some time to get over it. But he did get over it, and as may be easily imagined, a very successful celebration meeting was held. Of all those present, no one was likely to be more genuinely interested than myself.

During 1888, the years of propagandist effort on the part of Socialists, urging the people to bestir themselves and try to find a way out of the terrible poverty that existed were beginning to show results. The first considerable movement came from the women and girls employed at Bryant & May’s Match Factory at Bow. Kindly disposed persons had written about the awful conditions under which many of the girls worked, resulting in the terrible disease known as “phossy jaw”, and other serious troubles, it being argued that better methods might be applied that would materially minimise these evils. In addition, the wages were shamefully low. No response to appeals from the workers was made by the firm. Lists of shareholders were published showing that a considerable percentage of these were clergymen; but nothing brought any change for the better until the women and girls went on strike. This immediately attracted public attention, and Mrs Annie Besant — at that time devoting her whole energies to the socialist movement, and doing splendid work as a member of the now superseded London School Board — at once gave close personal attention to the girls on strike. She was ably assisted by Mr Herbert Burrows, the girls were soon organised in a trade union. Their case was conducted with great skill. A club was formed, which was used as an educational and social centre, and a spirit of hopefulness characterised the proceedings. The girls won. This had a stimulating effect upon other sections of workers, some of whom were also showing signs of intelligent dissatisfaction.

In 1889, a few weeks subsequent to my return to London after a two-year absence, the employees at the Beckton gasworks began to voice their desire for an eight-hour day. I do not remember exactly how I first came in contact with them, but I have a clear recollection of being with Mr John Burns one day when we met Mr Will Thorne, and other workmates of his, telling how they had been to visit Mr Sydney Buxton (now Lord Buxton), the then MP for Poplar, to ask if he could do anything to help them get an act of parliament to fix their hours of work at eight a day instead of twelve; and how they had met with but little encouragement, as Mr Buxton had told them there was not the slightest hope of introducing and carrying a measure such as they desired.

As the result of the conversation with John Burns and myself, the group of gasworkers saw the necessity of our contention that they must first organise industrially, and then put in the claim direct to the gas companies. Will Thorne said it would mean a very big job, as the men in all the gas companies of London desired improved conditions. They had already arrived at a decision as to what they intended trying to get. They had to work thirteen shifts a fortnight, and they wanted one knocked off so as to work twelve. They had to work twelve-hour shifts, and they wanted eight-hour shifts instead, or three shifts in the twenty-four hours instead of two; and, further, they wanted a shilling a day more in wages than they were getting, on top of a one-third reduction of hours.

John Burns and I promised to help all we could if they would show they were in real earnest about it. We had not long to wait; they set to work immediately, and arranged for a series of demonstrations on Sundays, this being the only possible day for meeting under the conditions they were working, and the demonstrations were fixed at various places so as to give the men of every district a fair chance of attending. The campaign proved remarkably successful, and in a few weeks ninety per cent, of the men were organised. It was in connection with this agitation for the gasworkers that I first met Ben Tillett. He also was helping them, and at the same time was missing no opportunity of putting the dockers’ case. The negotiations that followed upon the organisation of the men very soon yielded results. The metropolitan gas companies, all save one, the South, granted the eight-hour day, the twelve shifts a fortnight and sixpence per shift increase in wages over and above what the men had previously received for a twelve-hour shift. This was so substantial an improvement that everyone who gave the least thought to the subject could see the advantages of industrial organisation.