Friday, 4 August 2017

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

Women munition workers Belsize works, Openshaw, 1918 
Yesterday I was thinking back to  one of those mornings which for me was pretty near perfect.

I had been in the Labour History Archive and Study Centre in the Peoples’ History Museum looking at the work of the War Emergency Workers National Committee which was formed the day the Great War broke out “by the Labour Party, the Trades Union Congress, and the Co-operative movement, plus a number of other affiliated organisations such as the Fabian Society. 

Manchester Tramways Employees in uniform, 1915
The main concern of the WNC was to defend the interests of organised working people. 

The size of the collection goes some way toward showing the impact of the war on people’s lives. 

With over 20,000 pages of correspondence on all domestic matters relating to the war including: rents, food, employment, agriculture, pensions, railways, war babies, air raids and women’s war service etc. 
Bullet Factory, the Royal Arsenal Woolwich, 1918

It is a large collection of papers that relates very closely to the day to day domestic environment during the war. 

Importantly it depended on the actions of what used to be called the ‘rank and file’ of the labour/trade union movement for its running, it was far from a ‘top down’ committee.”*

Now there will be those that mutter I have wandered off into the academic stratosphere but not so.

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.

In 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.

So I have no doubt that they will reveal much about life during the war

All of which just leaves me to reflect on what a pleasant place the archive centre is for burrowing deep into the past.  The staff were most helpful and friendly and there are grand views of the river.

Pictures; Women Munitions workers Belsize works, Openshaw, 1918 m08093, courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council, the Bullet Factory, Arsenal, Woolwich, 1918,  from the collection of Mark Flynn, and  Manchester Tramways Employees in uniform, 1915 Don’t You Wish you were boak in Bolton from the collection of David Harrop

* Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Information Guide No. 8, Peoples’ History Museum,

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