The Labour movement comprises the trade unions, the various political patties of the left and the Co-operative movement. These are the self—help organisations of working people set up in the first place to mitigate the dire consequences of the Industrial Revolution such as unemployment, low wages, child labour, poor housing and working conditions etc. The history of these institutions in Walsall while following the mutual pattern in some respects, reflects the uniqueness Of the town in other ways.
As the only incorporated town in the Black Country, the resistance to tyranny by ordinary people in Walsall dates back at least to the seventeenth century when "Tinker" Fox organised military resistance against the pretensions of Charles I to rule by divine right against the interests of the people. In the eighteenth century as the town continued to grow, protests, mainly against bad harvests and the high cost of food, took a less military but still violent form of organised rioting, and there were food riots in the town in 1776, 1780 and 1800.
The promised liberty, equality and fraternity of the French Revolution brought much sympathy, and political clubs and trade clubs were formed. But the Napoleonic wars and trade crises brought the Combination Acts which made such clubs illegal from 1799 until 1825.
Despite this, after 1815, the modern form of protest appeared centred around political clubs with the aim of peacefully agitating for Reform of Parliament. The first of these agitations was for the 1832 Reform Act Which gave the vote to the middle class but not to working people who had done most of the demonstrating through the Walsall Political Union. From this time workers organised themselves and the result was the most important campaigns of the nineteenth century in Chartism which mounted mass petitions to Parliament demanding votes for all working men. Again Walsall played a full part through the Walsall Chartist Association.
Chartism was not successful (although most of its six points were conceded by 1900 partly because from 1850 to 1875 was the period of Britain’s industrial supremacy and full employment meant that horrors of the conditions of the industrial revolution were ameliorated somewhat. Dining this period trade unionism developed in Walsall and the main political culture for "advanced radicals" was Secularism. This supported reforms such as the 1867 Reform Act which gave the vote to working men in towns, the abolition of Church rates, and support for freedom fighters abroad such as Kossuth in Hungary and Garibaldi in Italy.
Secularism was also a virulently atheist organisation championing rational thought against Christian "superstition" and was particularly hostile to the Church of England whose priests were on weekdays the Justices of the Peace who sentenced working people to jail for demanding reforms. In Walsall the centre of Secularism for thirty years was E S Scholey's Temperance Coffee House at 68 Dudley Sheet. Secularism culminated in Republicanism in the early 1870s looking hack to the English Revolution in the seventeenth century.
This was fed by the feeling that the monarchy was useless as Queen Victoria from public life after the death of Albert; also the indignation felt at the vast estates and wealth accumulated by the aristocracy which it was felt could be better utilised by nationalising the estates and selling the land to the labourers who tilled it.
All good things come to an end and the Workshop of the World pedal ended with the (beat Depression which lasted from 1874 to 1895 as foreign competitors industrialised and took our markets. The depression killed Republicanism stone (lead and shipped the powers of the trade unions. It took ten year's for demoralisation to end and a new Socialism to emerge in the late 1880s.
Three strands of socialism emerged. One was Fabianism which advocated the peaceful development of Socialism; this shawl led onto the present Labour Party. The other two trends were revolutionary Marxist. One was the Social Democratic Federation (SDI') which most towns in the Black Country adopted. The other was the Socialist League organised by William Morris as a breakaway front the 51)1'. This organisation was almost immediately captured by Anarchists who were held to be addicted to assassination and bomb throwing. This made sense in Russia and other parts of the world where there was no freedom, but little sense in Britain where legal protest and reform was possible. Walsall was the only town in the West Midlands where Anarchism was embraced with consequences both interesting and bizarre. The interesting one is that Haydn Sanders was elected as a Socialist to the Walsall Town Council in 1887. He was not only the lust Socialist Councillor in the West Midlands, but also one of the first in the country. Sanders was a considerable organiser and was seduced away from Walsall to organise a trade union in the north of England just in time to escape the bizarre consequences. By 1889 there was a Socialist Club at 18 Goodall Street and it was here that were enacted the events of the Walsall Anarchist Bomb Plot. Secretary of the club and also of the Socialist League Branch was Joseph Deakin. He was a railwayman who possessed a privilege ticket which enabled him to travel the country, particularly London. Here he met Continental anarchists in exile some of whom came to Walsall to look for work. One of these, Auguste Coulon, who was later regarded as a policy spy, suggested that bombs he made for them in the iron foundries of Walsall. Parts of a bomb were made, but the CII were already aware of the "plot" and the Socialist Club was under surveillance. Deakin and three of the foreign Anarchists were arrested and charged with "conspiring to cause an explosion in the UK". The foreign anarchists were sentenced to ten years imprisonment and Deakin to five years.THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
These pioneering Socialist organisations were overtaken by more permanent bodies such as the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Labour Party itself which began life as the Labour Representation Committee in 1900. Prosperity horn 1910 to 1914 brought the Great Unrest when in Walsall and the Black Country the Workers' Union organised unskilled and semi—skilled workers through a series of strikes to obtain for the first time a living wage.
In 1914 came the (heat War, which Socialist parties throughout the world had vowed to) oppose on tile wound that war was made by capitalists and workers of the world should not kill each other. These promises were quickly forgotten but some opposition to the war was maintained by the ILP, the British Socialist Party (formerly the SDF) and Conscientious Objectors As the war ground on the whole Labour movement came to the view that it was being unnecessarily prolonged for the benefit of war profiteers and to gain colonies. All these bends were present in Walsall.
After the war the people were promised a Land fit for Heroes. But a dreadful slump from 1921 to 1923 meant a return to the pre-war world of slump, unemployment and poverty. In addition the Russian Revolution brought the threat of a continuation of the World War as a war against the Bolsheviks and divided the country into supporters of the Russian Revolution including the newly formed British Communist Party and large sections of the Labour movement and opponents which comprised Tories, Liberals and even larger sections of the Labour movement. These differences were all represented in the politics of Walsall.
The vision of a better life culminated with the Strike of where Workers shuck not for General Strike of 1926 higher wages for themselves but against cuts in wages of the miners, knowing that if the miners were defeated the wages of all people would he 'nought down. The strike was called off by both trade union and political right wing leaders who neither wanted the strike nor believed that it could he won. In Walsall the response to the strike was solid: also a large number of miners in the town had to he supported after the strike was betrayed and the miners had to fight on alone.
In 1929 a second minority Labour Government was returned and Walsall's first Labour MP J J McShane, was elected. The high hopes of this government were overtaken by the Great Depression of the 1930s and when cuts in unemployment benefit and lower wages were advocated as the age old remedy for slump, Ramsay MacDonald the Labour Prime Minister defected from the Labour Party and set up a National Government with Liberals and Tories.
The 1930s again brought slump and mass unemployment; also the rise of Hitler and the appeasement of the dictators by the Tories in an effort to persuade Hitler to attack the Russians in the East and not attack in the West. Walsall Labour activists played an honourable part in opposing appeasement, particularly in support of the Spanish republican government against the rebellion of General Franco and his use of German and Italian armed forces. Several Walsall people fought in the International Brigade against Franco and one of the two Bennett Mothers was killed. Walsall also supported a home for Basque children who were evacuated to Britain after the bombing of Guernica.
The struggle to avoid war was ultimately unsuccessful, but fighting against fascism again raised widespread feelings that we should never return to a society of mass unemployment and war. "I he result was the election in 1945 of the first majority Labour government with a massive majority and the creation of a welfare state. Several decades later we are dreaming not of a land lit for heroes to live in but a land fit for ordinary people to live in. The result is the New Labour of Tony Blair.CO-OPERATION IN WALSALL
It was in the field of Co-operation that Walsall excelled other towns in the Black Country.
The first Co-operative Society in Walsall dates from I829. This was the period of Owenite Socialism when Robert Owen laid vast schemes to peacefully supersede capitalism by the creation of self—sufficient colonies where people would both live and work. These schemes were utopian and Mack Country Owenites are remembered tor their atheist attacks on religion rather than support Socialist colonies. A second society was started in Walsall in the 1860s and a third in the 1870s, but all failed.The consolidation of Co—operation in Walsall was associated with one of Walsall's most remarkable citizens, Samuel Welsh. Welsh was a Scottish radical Liberal who came to Walsall in 1859 become the editor of a new newspaper, the Walsall Free Press. Ile soon became the initiator and secretary of the Walsall Cottage Hospital where he was the stalwart supporter of Sister Dora from the time she was appointed to the hospital in 1863 until her death in 1878. Not content with that, Welsh associated himself with the working class movement and was an initiator and lust president of Walsall Trades Council formed in 1872. The Trades Council initiated the Walsall Lock Co-operative in 1873 with Welsh a founder member and in 1886 the Walsall consumer Co-operative Society was formed with Samuel Welsh as its founding Chairman.
The first successful Walsall Co-operative Society was thus a producer co-operative. Many such co-ops were set tip during times of good trade but most failed in limes of depression. The Walsall Lock Co-operative was an exception. It maintained itself through the Great Depression of 1875-95. As it absorbed other firms it emerged as one of the leading firms in the Lock trade under the name of Walsall Locks and Cartgear Co-operative. It successfully penetrated the export markets of the world. It survived for 113 years and was destroyed during the Thatcher holocaust in the 1980s when so much of Black Country industry was destroyed.
Walsall Locks and Cartgear divided its profits among its shareholders who were its employees and some of its Customers, hut few producer co-ops were as successful as Walsall and they never came near Robert Owen's dream of superseding capitalist enterprises. The real breakthrough in co-operation in Britain came with the consumer societies pioneered in Rochdale in 1844. These distributed their profits to their members on the basis of a dividend on their purchases. The Walsall Co-operative Society established in 1886 adopted these principles and flourished. The quarterly dividend became a mainstay of working class budgets and interest at 5% on shares held made it the best and safest source of people's savings. The Walsall Society quickly became the largest in the Black Country. By 1914 it had over 10,000 members (more than one in two of all households in Walsall). Sales of over £150,000 and it was paying a dividend of 2/-d in the pound. During the first World War it became a potent source of price stabilisation while other traders were putting up prices because of food shortages. Walsall Co-op continued to grow in the inter-war years and by 1938 had more than 60,000 members.
The attraction of the Co-op was not only the dividend, but that it was a self-governing institution whose Board of Directors was elected annually from its members. This generated a loyalty and devotion to the movement which transcended the lure of money. Many people devoted their whole lives to the Co-op. An outstanding example in Walsall was William Miller chip. Ile was active in Locks and Cartgear from 1887, was president of the Walsall consumer society from 1896 to 1910 and became a national leader of the Co-operative movement as a member of the Co-operative Central Board from 1913 to 1938. I have compared Millerchip favourably with his contemporary Thomas Lipton who spent most of his life building up a national chain of grocery stores making a vast fortune in the process and the last part of his life seeking honours from the government.
Finally, the Co-operative movement was a vast social movement. The Rochdale pioneers recommended that 2.5% of all profits should be devoted to educational purposes. Not many societies reached that figure but both Locks and Cartgear and Walsall Co-operative usually did. From this expenditure was financed, among other things, the Women's Guild. Again, Walsall was a shining example. Whereas most Societies sustained one or two Guilds, Walsall was almost unique in having a Guild for almost every Co-op shop in its area. The Guild was the largest mass organisation of working class women; it trained them in self-government, public speaking and many women rose not only in the ranks of their society, but to the management of the regional and national movement. Their local activities included the discussion and participation in local and national issues such as child welfare and birth control. They organised children's activities such as Christmas parties, summer outings, mass education classes in co-operative principles, and the town-wide annual sports meetings for school children. The women also initiated and assisted the children's Co-operative organisations such as Comrades' Circles and the Woodcraft Folk.
The decline of the Co-operative movement in the past period has therefore not only deprived people of a self-governing source of cheap and reliable shopping, but also the loss of the social organisation for which no satisfactory alternative has been found. It is to be hoped that the recent surge in Co-operative activity will help to restore this position.