The Leeds Tailoress’ Strike

Leeds Tailoress’ Strike (1889)
33 Park Square
Messrs. Arthur & Co Ltd tailoring works were based at 33 Park Square: the scene of the 1889 Tailoress’ Strike. The strike began on October 22, when over 600 workers at Arthur & Co. stopped work. The workers were frustrated at a draconian system of fines and deductions,  especially the charge of 1 penny in a shilling for the use of power to run the machines. Isabella Ford, the social reformer and suffragist, spoke out on behalf of the tailoresses and public collections were made to ensure the strike continued. The strike lasted 6-weeks, but the women were eventually forced to return to work.

1850 Ordnance Survey map of Park Square. Messrs. Arthur and Co Ltd is highlighted.

A meeting had taken place on 16 October with attendees such as Isabella Ford, the social reformer and suffragist,  and Tom Maguire, the socialist and trade union organiser, with the aim of forming the first Leeds Tailoresses’ Union. At this meeting several complaints were heard about Messrs. Arthur & Co Ltd. The workers were frustrated at a draconian system of fines and deductions, especially the charge of one penny in a shilling for the use of power to run the machines. The compulsory charge of one penny a week for cooking was also objected to, as well as being compelled to buy the thread supplied by the company at a greater price than could be found elsewhere. Mr Cobb, the manager of the firm, later spoke to his workers about these grievances but no agreement was reached and so workers began their strike on 22 October 1889.

Extract from Leeds Mercury newspaper, Saturday 26 October, 1889.

The next day around 400 of the women assembled in front of the Town Hall to hear speeches by Mr J. H. Sweeney, Mr T. Maguire and Mr T. Paylor. Sweeney emphasised the need for the workers to form a union and ensure every tailoress joined to make their voices heard. Paylor explained how Mr Cobb believed the firm could cope without the women for a few weeks due to it being a quiet time for clothing orders and he believed the general public should be made more aware of the reasons for the strike.

Later that afternoon, at the People’s Hall, Albion Street, Isabella Ford spoke to the crowd again, accompanied by great cheers. She emphasised how she regretted the women had come out on strike before a union could be properly organised and if they had waited a few months then their demands may have had more chance of success. However, she continued to support the workers throughout the strike. A deputation was sent to Mr Cobb and a statement sent to the directors of Messrs. Arthur and Co. in Glasgow but neither were willing to give in to any of the demands made. The striking machinists suggested they were willing to dismiss demands over thread and cooking if a compromise was reached on paying half a penny in the shilling for power, but again this was rejected by Cobb. Several of the Strike Committee were sacked by the company.

Entry for Arthur & Co Limited in Slater’s 1890 Directory of Leeds

To sustain the striking women, collections were made across Leeds with tailoring firms, gas works, Armley Forge and Boyne Engine Works all donating to support their cause. On Saturday 26 October £62 3s 10d was collected and the striking workers themselves took to the streets with collecting boxes.

The strike continued over several weeks but by 26 November around half the women had returned to work and more followed suit. The strike had ultimately failed – but, over time, small concessions were made to the machinists.

c1975-76. View looking onto Park Square West from Park Square North. Buildings visible on Park Square West are, from left, nos.30-33. (c) Leeds Library and Information Service, www.leodis.net

To access any of the resources mentioned here, please contact the Local and Family History department.

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