Burrowing deep into the Great War… the War Emergency Workers National Committee

A guest post from Andrew Simpson, who has recently used our Archive to research the War Emergency Workers National Committee.

For me, the importance of the People’s History Museum is the story that it tells about the people and events that have for too long been marginalized in history books.

Standing in front of the impressive trade union banners or listening to the words of the orator Henry Hunt, Fergus O’Connor and Keir Hardie is to be reminded of the long struggle made by working people to improve their lives and to gain a voice in the decision making of our country.

And along with the exhibitions and special events the museum has a rich collection of material held in its archives.

In my case it is the correspondence sent to and sent out by the War Emergency Workers National Committee which was set up on the day the Great War began in 1914.

Its role was to protect the interests of working people on everything from working conditions to the supply of essential commodities and also covered agriculture, pensions, railways, war babies, air raids and women’s war service and provides a counter interpretation to the one which is usually presented by historians and the media about the war.

All too often this focuses on the role of women in the munitions factories, the odd Zeppelin raid and the dreaded telegram from the War Office but fails to record the anger felt at profiteering and the exploitation of the workforce.

During the war there were massive rises in food prices along with fuel and rents, a persistent concern about the adulteration of food and growing anger at pay levels and working conditions.

And all these issues were being grappled with by the National Committee.

There are correspondence about the separation allowances paid to the wives of men who had enlisted, reports of sweated labour and the exploitation of children and the availability of speakers on a range of issues from food prices to rent rises.

It is the stuff of everyday life made more vivid by the backdrop of the war.

JP Manchester & Salford Trades & Labour Council cropIn 1915 the Stockport Labour Party reported on the level of representation on pensions committees, and Mr J. Robinson of the Stockport Branch of the Tailor’s Society queried the rates for making Khaki tunics.

Later still in 1917 the National Committee was engaged in the registration of shops in Manchester and the rising price of coal.

What makes these documents fascinating is that not only do they cover the whole country but are powerful examples of ordinary people challenging wrong doing and seeking to improve conditions.Woolwich Tube Factory Mollyneux Brothers Lon266 (2)

Mrs Annot Robinson writing in the Daily Citizen  in 1915 called attention to the continuing practice of paying women under the Government guidelines in munitions factories while observing that “There is already a shortage of men workers in Manchester  but so far as I am aware no women taking on a man’s work will be receiving a man’s wage.“

1915 Feb 14 mass meeting Food JPEGDuring the same year the huge meeting at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester called to protest at rising food prices is covered in great detail in the minutes of the committee including the leaflets that were distributed and the reports in the national press.

Along with these are the persistent fears of the Agricultural Labourers Union of the employment of children on the land and growing numbers of Food Vigilance Committees set up to address the cost and shortages of food which led to calls for the control of the production, distribution and pricing of food to be in the hands of Government and assisted by the labour movement.London Food Vigilance Committee page 1 a 1915

And so what became a day’s research in the archive has become a much longer project and one that I continue to  write about in my blog, War Emergency Workers National Committee http://chorltonhistory.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/The%20War%20Emergency%20Workers%20National%20Committee

All of which just leaves me to record my thanks to the staff in archives and look forward to booking the next set of visits.