What about the workers?

Tony Harcup tells the story of how a group of Leeds journalists helped form the NUJ more than 100 years ago.

News junkies, history buffs and anyone with even a passing interest in current affairs will find plenty to enjoy at the Breaking the News exhibition currently (2022) running in Leeds (at the Central Library until 7 April and later at Armley). However, visitors perusing the fascinating exhibits would be forgiven for not realising that journalists in West Yorkshire were among the prime movers behind the formation of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in the early years of the last century.

It was back in 1906 that newspaper workers in the West Riding of Yorkshire teamed up with colleagues in Manchester to sow the seeds of a journalists’ trade union to improve pay and conditions within the industry. Before they got together in the NUJ, journalists were commonly working six or even seven days a week, up to 80 or 90 hours, for what one described as “the paltriest remuneration”.

There already existed an Institute of Journalists (IoJ) but it tended to ignore the low wages and poor working conditions of most journalists, having a conservative ethos that may have had something to do with the presence of newspaper proprietors among its membership. Exasperated by this, a group of journalists began meeting in Leeds to discuss forming an effective journalists’ union to fight for their collective interests. George Lethem, a Scot who became chief sub-editor on the Leeds Mercury and later worked for the Yorkshire Post, was elected secretary and drafted the proposed union’s constitution and rulebook.

George Lethem, the Leeds Mercury journalist who was a pioneer of the NUJ in Yorkshire.

Simultaneously, a group of journalists across the Pennines came up with the name NUJ, modelled on the National Union of Teachers. They contacted their Yorkshire colleagues, and a meeting to form a provisional West Riding branch of the fledgling NUJ was called for the Metropole Hotel in Leeds towards the end of 1906. The invitation was signed by JR Toplis (Yorkshire Post), Walter Meakin (Yorkshire Daily Observer), A Bostock (Yorkshire Evening News), John Birch (Harrogate Times) and George Lethem (Leeds Mercury) himself.

At the Metropole meeting more than 150 journalists voted to form a provisional branch and to send representatives to the union’s founding conference in March 1907. At that conference, held in Birmingham, Lethem seconded the successful motion to form the NUJ, telling those present: “I hope and believe that this will prove to be a gathering which in the annals of working journalists will be historic.”

A mock-up of the Yorkshire Post produced by Leeds NUJ branch in 2006 to commemorate the centenary of the historic meeting at the Metropole Hotel. The photograph by Steve Riding shows local journalists Peter Lazenby and Christine Talbot wearing Edwardian costume to mark the occasion.

As the union’s first historian Frederick Mansfield put it: “To these starveling scribes scattered all over the country came the call to fight for economic justice.” Within six months the NUJ had a total of 773 paid-up members in 22 branches, with West Riding being the second biggest with 114 members. In 1908 the West Riding branch had so many members it split into three: Leeds; Bradford; and Huddersfield & Keighley. The same year saw Leeds host the union’s first proper Annual Delegate Meeting, at which George Lethem was elected national President.

Unlike some trade unions, the NUJ admitted women and men on an equal basis from the start. The union also took up journalistic as well as employment issues, and its first campaign for press freedom was a resounding success within 18 months of the NUJ’s formation. Local authorities at the time had the absolute right to refuse journalists permission to attend council meetings; even to exclude any particular reporter whenever the fancy took them. As a result of NUJ lobbying the Local Authorities (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Act 1908 became law, which stipulated that representatives of the press shall be admitted to all local authority meetings subject to temporary exclusions for certain limited reasons.

Today the NUJ continues to campaign on a range of ethical as well as industrial issues and Leeds remains one of the union’s strongholds. The spirit of the pioneering West Riding activists lives on, with the local story coming full circle now that members in Bradford and Huddersfield have re-joined forces with the renamed Leeds and West Yorkshire branch. You can follow the union’s activities on Twitter at:

And on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/NUJLeeds

So, when you are looking around the Breaking the News exhibition – or consuming news via online, broadcast or print – please spare a thought for the “starveling scribes” who actually produce the stuff.

*Tony Harcup is a Life member of the NUJ whose books include Journalism: Principles and Practice. His pamphlet A Northern Star: Leeds Other Paper and the Alternative Press 1974-1994, which is on display in a corner of the exhibition, was published thanks to a donation from the local NUJ branch.

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