Saturday, 15 July 2017

Another side to life on the Home Front in Manchester during the Great War

“This meeting views with grave concern the enormous rise in the price of foodstuffs and coal, which is equivalent to a considerable reduction of wages of those fully employed and the enormous profits that Shipping, Dealers and other gamblers in the means of life are at present reaping by their unholy profiteering.

We therefore call upon the Government to take immediate action to control supplies to regulate food prices and to put an end to this flagrant exploitation of the necessities of the poor.”*

Such was a resolution passed by a large audience in the Free Trade Hall on Sunday February 14 1915.

It was the culmination of a few days of factory and street corner meetings which focused on the swift rise in rents as well as food and coal prices since the beginning of the war.

And it is an aspect of life on the Home Front which does not always feature prominently in many accounts of the Great War.

The popular story of how we coped during the four years tends to fasten on the participation of women on the shop floor and in the fields; the impact of Zeppelin raids and the blackout but all too often skips over the huge hike in the cost of living.

As Henry Hyndman the leading socialist pointed out “since the war had begun prices had gone up 22%, so that now the purchasing power of a sovereign was from 13s. 6d to 13s.9d.”**

And this was the context behind the industrial conflicts which rumbled on and which some at the time and since have sought to characterise as greedy workers exploiting a country at war.

The reality was very different as Sam Hague who spoke at that Free Trade meeting was quick to point out, “there never had been a time in the nation’s history when the working classes had so solidly backed the Government.”***

Working hours increased, and under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 and The Munitions War Act 1915 workers were being prosecuted for absenteeism and striking over wages and conditions.

In Manchester the first prosecutions under the Munitions War Act were held at the Town Hall on Friday July 30 when thirty-two men employed at Craven Bros Ltd Reddish were brought before the Recorder charged with going on strike  over wages and working conditions without first submitting the matter to the Board of Trade.****

But this is to get ahead of ourselves.

Back in January the Manchester Guardian had reported “the all-round advance in the price of most household commodities since the outbreak of hostilities – an advance amounting in several instances to over 50% [was] causing concern to the average householder whose income is inelastic”*****

And amongst working class families this all-round advance was causing great hardship more so because it was accompanied by rises in rents and fuel prices.

But strikes to maintain living standards were not the only response to the jump in the cost of living.
On the day war broke out the Labour Movement had formed the War Emergency Workers National Committee tasked with defending the interests of organised working people.

During the next four years it received daily reports all on everything from rises in rents, the cost and quality of food to pensions and conditions in factories and on the land as well as the railways, war babies, air raids and women’s war service.

Much of the correspondence came from local Labour and Trades Councils across the country which set up their own local committees.

Here in the city the Manchester & District Workers (War Problems) Joint Committee consisted of Manchester & Salford Trades and Labour Council, Manchester & Salford Labour Party, Gorton Trades Council, the Engineering and Shipbuilding Trades Federation, Building Industries Federation, Women’s Trade Union Council, Manchester and Salford Women’s Trade & Labour Council, Manchester & Salford ILP, Manchester Salford  & District Co-operative Societies, Women’s Co-operative Guilds, Women’s Citizen’s Association, and the Women’s War Interest Committee.

This was a broad cross section of those organisation representing the working class.
In turn Food Vigilance Committees were set up across the country to monitor prices and ensure local councils were enforcing regulations on both prices and the quality of food.

They also called meetings, distributed leaflets and like the War Emergency Workers National Committee pushed hard for more Government intervention in regulating the abuses thrown up during the war.

Now that to me promises to be a fascinating story.

Pictures; courtesy of the Labour History Archives & Study Centre,  at the People’s History Museum, Manchester,

*Resolution passed at the Free Trade Hall on February 14 1915


***ibid Manchester Guardian Feb 15 191

****O’Neil Joseph, Manchester in the Great War, 2014

*****FOOD PRICES AND THE WAR, Manchester Guardian January 31 1915

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