Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Lives revealed, commitments rediscovered

“they were robbed of their childhood and of the opportunity of a sound education .... the emigration of young children for working purposes savoured of a traffic in child labour carried on between agencies in this country and agencies in Canada and children would not be allowed to go from the care of the Guardians to anything like such conditions in this country.”

I have been thinking that William Edward Skivington deserves to be remembered. His was a short life spanning just 42 years from 1869 to 1911.

 There are no blue plaques to him in the city, nor to my knowledge has he been honoured in any way for his work on behalf of the unemployed and poor of Manchester.

 No photographs of him have survived and even the mean little streets in Hulme where he grew up and lived are long gone. But some of what he said and did and something of his political ideas do exist and from these I want to tell a little of his history.

 I first discovered him as one the three socialist Guardians on the board of the Chorlton Union which administered the Poor Law across south Manchester. Time and time again the three spoke out against the sending of young children from our workhouse to Canada to work on farms and as a domestic labour. They questioned the often petty but humiliating practices that existed, demanded better conditions and opposed any perceived cuts in the provision of relief to the inmates.

Now admission into the workhouse for working people was just an accident away, be it unemployment, ill heath, old age or just bad luck. And it was a scenario which William Skivington would have been all too close to himself.

His father was a bookbinder, his mother a bookfolder, and both he and his brother had worked as iron turners. He began his married life in a one up one down back to back in Hulme and his brother died at the early age of 17 from an industrial accident.

He was a member of the Socialist Democratic Federation which was formed in 1884 and was the first Marxist political group in Britain. The membership included trade unionists like Tom Mann, John Burns and Ben Tillet as well George Lansbury, William Morris and Eleanor Marx. During the mid 1880s against a backdrop of economic depression the SDF campaigned for “the Right to Work" and demanded the establishment of state directed co-operative colonies.

Now I don’t know when he joined but in 1896 he nominated an SDF candidate in the municipal elections and may have already been in the party when he unsuccessfully stood for election as a Poor Law Guardian two years earlier.

 The SDF experienced splits and defections along with short periods of greater political unity. In 1900 it had come together with the Independent Labour Party, the Fabian Society and some trade unions to form the Labour Representation Committee, but left just seven years later. William remained in the SDF speaking at its meetings and on occasion arguing against members of the Independent Labour Party within the unemployed movement.

And it was the unemployed movement which dominated much of his political life during the first decade of the 20th century. In the winter of 1904 in Manchester something like “7,000 heads of families were out of work, and that probably twenty-one thousand children were on the verge of starvation”* and William was at the centre of the campaign to publicize the situation and argue for change.

Over the next seven years he was on delegations which met the Prime Minister and leading Government Ministers, organised mass meetings, as well as marches and sat on the Distress Committee which had been set up by the Unemployment Act of 1905. He argued for improved rates of pay for the unemployed in the public works schemes, highlighted poor working conditions, constantly pushed for the adoption of new opportunities for the jobless and the rights of women workers.

Above all it was not just about the right to a job but about a person’s dignity. So when the Distress Committee found work for some men carrying sandwich boards at eighteen pence a day, “it was not right that human beings should be employed as perambulating hoardings.”**

Likewise “He was opposed to emigration as he thought its only use was to supply Canada with cheap labour so necessary to that country. He had received a letter from a friend out there, who said the prison in the town where he was was filled with boys from a well known charity organisation in the country and the asylum with young men who had been homesteading.”***

Which is pretty much where we came in.

I would like to end on a positive note but stories don’t always end such. Unemployment remained an issue and by 1910 -11 we were locked into a period of industrial unrest which highlighted the class fault lines.

And William was dead at 42. His obituary notes that “as his home was in the working class district of Hulme he was constrained by his interests in the improvement of the conditions of living there to bring forward many propositions for an active policy in the provision of work by the municipality” **** 

Which is a fine if brief record of a man’s commitment.

But nor is this quite the end. William it seems died of neglect, at the hands of the Royal Infirmary after he had attended feeling ill. It could almost have been one of his own campaigns to highlight the disparity between different health services. But that is another story for another day.

 *J B Hitchen speaking at a mass rally in Stevenson Square quoted from the Manchester Guardian November 17th 1904. **Manchester Guardian March 21st 1906 *** Manchester Guardian June 26th 1905 **** Manchester Guardian November 17th 1910

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