Friday, December 18, 2015

Port Sunlight in the 1920s: Part 9. The darker side of employment disputes (Reg Keen)

Your Grandad used to work in the centre of the printing room under a notice "Letterpress Printing". He was a "letterpress machine minder". Under the sign "Printing Room" in white was the part of the room used for "paper ruling", its output intended for ledgers, school exercise books and other writing stationery. There were high bridges up near the roof for official visiting parties of sightseers, who could thus watch what was going on without getting in the way of the workers or risking danger from machines or trollies etc moving between them. Official parties under the control of an official guides passed through the whole factory every quarter hour or so. Guides wore white coats and gloves and peaked uniform white caps with a label on the front in gold saying "Guide". It used to take about 40 minutes to do the trip. At the end a box of sample products was presented to each adult member of the party according to sex. I don't know what ladies got; men got shaving soap, white toilet soap and a booklet of comments.

As you know only workers in the factory could live in the village. Grandad started work in the printing room in 1897, and got married in 1907. When he asked for tenancy of an estate house, he was offered and accepted 10, Primrose Hill, which we moved into before I started school (about 1911 or 1912). We all enjoyed our village life, and in 1922 your Grandad received a gold watch for 25 years' service with the firm.

However in the 1920s disaster arrived. Every summer we used to go to Rhyl for one week's official holiday, and that year was no different except that while we were away, an official strike was called, of all printers in Britain. Dad was told that if he wished to take a few extra days' holiday it would be all right, so he decided to hang on till the Wednesday of the following week (even though we had to find fresh digs). We arrived back at Bebington Station about 7.30pm and three of Grandad's works mates were waiting for him at Primrose Hill. They grabbed him and told him the strike was still "on" next day and demanded to be told what he was going to do next morning at worktime. They wished to remain "solid" and what was Grandad going to do? Some of the bosses with the help of apprentices were able to carry on a small service of printing, but that was all. They assured him that none of his other works mates had so far turned in for work, and they pleaded with him to stay out with them. After some discussion Grandad told his mates that if they were all staying out he would stay out with them as an official member of the Typographical Association union.

Next morning those three blokes went into the works and asked if they could start work again and agreed to instruct the apprentices in the job. Your Grandad and five of his other mates nearly blew up when they found out what had been done and that they had been left "holding the baby". The group stayed out on strike for about three months but with the help of some non-union newcomers to the works the firm staggered on almost as usual. Without any warning Grandad got an official letter from the estate office informing him that he had no right to an estate house and that it was wanted for some other worker, so GET OUT. Grandad visited the office and offered to pay the rent outstanding (rent was normally stopped from wages each week, so with not having any official wages we had not paid rent even though Grandad had called in the office and offered to pay it each week).

Meanwhile the strike had ended and Lord Leverhulme had agreed to take EVERYBODY back to the old jobs with NO VICTIMISATION of any sort. The last six men then applied for reinstatement, but nothing happened, in spite of the agreement signed by "His Nibs". Within a month or so a summons was deilvered by a copper and an estate office agent who said, "Here is your notice to quit, Mr Keen." We had seven days to get out, but houses were not easy to get even in those days so NO DICE at that time. Then Grandad had to appear at the County Court in Birkenhead to state why he had not shifted as ordered. The learned judge asked who owned the house and was told, "Lord Leverhulme." The old guy just grunted, then asked, "And who is Lord Leverhulme?" - and that within 3 miles of the huge factory! The Court was taken aback, as they say, but nevertheless the Judge ordered us to clear out of the house completely within 14 days OR ELSE! So Grandad had to pick up any old house he could. He used all his savings to BUY one for £300 before we could be put out on the street by the broker's men. The house was 64 Cobden Street in Tranmere, a slummy area but there wasn't much choice.

Grandad and his Union wrote to Leverhulme and reminded him of his agreement weeks earlier, but got no satisfaction. Those half dozen men never got back into the factory even though they were the cream of the staff employed there. During the next few years they all got responsible jobs with other firms; Grandad and another bloke named Teddy McGleave both got bosses' jobs at Griffiths in Birkenhead, but they both wanted to get back to the village - without any luck.

We lived in Tranmere till 1937 then moved to Bebington to a newly built house, and the old house in Cobden Street was bulldozed into ruin not long afterwards; now it's a wasteland of bricks and grass.

The big "cheat" always rankled with your Grandad. He was always a very straight man who never broke his word to anyone and always played the game at all times - he was perhaps too straight for many creeps he had to deal with - and he presumed everyone would play fair with everyone else the way he did. He never imagined Lord Leverhulme would not keep his word, and he always lived in hope that it would come right in the end. Even when he died, there in the inside pocket of his suit was a letter from Leverhulme refusing to honour his agreement. Poor old Grandad. He learned an awful lesson during those years, that it was never good to trust anybody too much at any time, because not everyone would keep their word. It was all a terrible blow to him and he never recovered his old self. He developed a great hatred for anything to do with Sunlight except the football team, which then played on the Oval. He did go to watch them every week he could, but that was all.



Unknown said...

Your grandad was a man of honour there were many like him who stood their ground for a fair deal .The sacrafices they made we benifit today but looks like we are returning back to Victorian thinking with no proper living wages and long hours.

Carol Warham said...

A fascinating series. I visited Port Sunlight earlier this year for the first time and did find 10 Primrose Hill. It was a sad way for the family connection to come to an end. I'm passing the link on to my friend who was with me that day. She is also from the Wirral and knows the area well.

Terry Ackers. said...

I worked at port Sunlight for 13 years. By that time it was a limited company. It still was not keen on unions.Now the Sunlight factory I knew is nearly totally gone. The new canteen next door to the New laboratory I worked in built both in the early 1960s have been flattened and only one room in use on the soap side.A lot of the houses in the Village are privately owned but they cannot change them as they are listed buildings. It's very strange seeing the once bustling factory so quiet. Even Unilever Merseyside has its Laboratory outside the original factory area at the bottom of Quarry Road was a carpark when I worked there. I think it all made the late Lord Leverhulme very sad.

Mark said...

Amazing history, I wasn't aware of any of this. Thanks for sharing:)