No fewer than 470 girls employed at a Luton factory lost half a day's pay yesterday [Friday, May 26th, 1916], and the firm lost the labour. At one o'clock, when the girls employed in a certain department should have gone to work, they ranged themselves inside the gates and discussed an incident of which we give their version below.
The girls [munition workers at Vauxhall, although not identified as such as the time] made certain demands from the firm and requested that the manager of their department, Mr Edward H. Bolton, should see them. The manager appeared shortly after one o'clock and, it was said, told the disaffected company that he would allow them ten minutes in which to get to their places, otherwise they would not have an opportunity of resuming until Monday morning.
The announcement was received with indignation, and the girls, after standing about discussing the situation, resolved to march through the town. A considerable number went home, but upwards of 200 paraded and, with much singing and cheering, made their way into the town. As they came along the principal thoroughfares they let the people know:
"We are the working girls,
We are the working girls,
We know our manners,
We spend our tanners,
We are respected wherever we go,
For we are the working girls."
Between the choruses they shouted hearty greetings to the spectators who quickly gathered in the streets, and especially to the soldiers. At the head of the procession was carried a little flag, and as the "rebels" marched past the Luton News office they sang Rule Britannia.
And so on they went along New Bedford Road to Wardown. It was expected that a halt would be made in the park, but not so. Marshalled by a young girl of weight, in more than one sense, they entered Wardown, pausing now and the to cheer the blue uniformed convalescents who rambled about the grounds. On reaching the [Wardown V.A.D] hospital they waved enthusiastically to the patients, but never pausing, they marched round the bowling green and finally into Old Bedford Road.
Turning up North Street, they visited High Town, where many of them live, and then returned by Mill Street, Manchester Street and Bute Street into Waller Street, where they broke up but agreed to meet at the Park Street Recreation Ground at 6.30, before proceeding to draw their wages.
At 6.30 there was no actual procession but, accompanied by mothers and sisters, they went up to the factory in considerable force, many of the group singing and cheering. There they concentrated on the business in hand, receiving their pay and airing their grievances. Two members of the polioce force were on duty, but there was no disturbance. Many of them, however, expressed their determination not to resume work on Monday morning unless their demands are satisfied.
During the course of the afternoon and evening, a Saturday Telegraph representative had several interviews with various strikers. From a group of half a dozen he got this statement:
"There are nearly 500 of us out, and we want another halfpenny per hour. We have made several efforts to get the extra halfpenny, because we do not think it is fair to work for only 3d per hour and only getting at most 16 shillings and 17 shillings a w3eek when girls doing the same job in the town can get over 30 shillings and nearly £2.
"Last week we got 16 shillings, and what is that for girls who have to work hard and can eat well? It doesn't leave much for clothes. Besides, many of us have to come by train, and some of our season tickets come to 13 shillings a month."
In the evening, the Telegraph representative had other interviews, and several girls with whom he got into conversation put their case very plainly and intelligently. One young lady said she had received 14s 9d for a week's work, and produced her card to prove it.
She went on: "It is not nearly enough to keep big strong girls. What is there out there when I have paid 10s for my board and about 1s 6d for my washing? It leaves very little for clothes and for other little expenses, and to enable one to keep respectable."
The girls, if rather jolly, were thoroughly well behaved, and gave the police no trouble.
We asked the manager of the department, Mr Edward H. Bolton, for a statement on the case, and he gave an almost complete denial of the girls' statement.
He said: "It is very difficult to say anything, because we hardly know what it is all about. We heard certain rumours about a strike during the morning, but knew nothing of the reasons. When the girls returned at one o'clock they gathered in the yard and sang themselves almost hoarse.
"About a quarter past one I went out and spoke to them. I gave them ten minutes to return to their work or to be shut out until Monday morning. The ten minutes elapsed and they did not come in, so we shut down. We had no deputation, and had no idea why they took this action. I have never been approached by these girls about any increase of money. There are 470 girls out, and 22 remain in the factory."
Asked if it was correct that the girls who did not come out were getting 4d an hour, Mr Bolton replied: "No, "they are getting exactly the same money as the girls on strike."
"From our side," added Mr Bolton, in the course of further conversation, "we have done everything we can to keep them here, and have paid them regularly week by week, even when some of them have done nothing. I should say there are girls who have sat here and hardly soiled their hands som weeks, and yet they have been paid during that time."
Following the Friday lock-out, the dispute continued on the following Monday, although about 80 of the girls decided to return to work. Later in the morning about 200 of them assembled at the Labour Club in Bute Street to be addressed by Mr Wright, of the Workers' Union.
A large crowd collected and patiently awaited the results of the meeting. Finally, 14 representatives of the respective departments were chosen and, after an hour's deliberation, it was resolved to ask for a penny an hour more wages.
The girls were advised to return to work on Tuesday morning, and this they did pending a settlement of the dispute.
However that was not the and of the issue. On Thursday, June 1st, at the instigation of Vauxhall, 17 of the girls, including 14 from Luton, found themselves before a Tribunal at the Caxton Hall, Westminster. They were not charged with going on strike but a lesser one of leaving work without leave on Friday, May 26th, and Monday, May 29th, from a firm which was under Government control.
The girls were Miss Maggie Gore, of 49 Albert Road, Luton; *Miss Olive Cannon, of 6 Crawley Green Road, Luton; Miss E. Browne, of 46 Kimpton Road, Luton; Miss Blanche Stimpson, of 63 Windmill Road, Luton; *Miss May Ellingham, of 39 Hibbert Street, Luton; *Miss Ursula Blackburn, of 30 Albert Road, Luton; Miss Florence Isaacs, of 43 King's Road, Luton; *Miss Grace Breading, of 26 Langley Street, Luton; Miss Grace Thompson, of 53 Queen Street, Luton; Miss Ethel Greatholder, of 47 Pondwicks Road, Luton; Miss Lily Chapman, of 45 Essex Street, Luton; Miss Cissie Blake, of 200 Hitchin Road, Luton; Miss Lily Pakes, of 3 Ashton Street, Luton; Miss Gladys Warren, of 53 May Street, Luton; Misses E. Tansley and *Adelene Thompson, of St Albans; and Miss Violet Lawrence, of 1 Common Lane Villas, Batford Mills. All were accused of being absent from work on the Friday and Monday, but Vauxhall acknowledged that those we have indicated above with an asterisk had in fact been at work on the Monday.
They could have been fined £4 each per day (£5 per day if the incident had been adjudged by the Tribunal to have been a strike) but in the event they each fined one shilling. At the end of the hearing, the Tribunal Chairman said they could not pass over the fact that there was an offence, but there was blame on both sides and the girls themselves were not earning a great deal of money and had had to pay their fares to the London hearing while losing pay at the same time.
But he warned they should not think the matter was trivial because they had got off lightly. He warned that any future offence by the 17 girls or indeed others would be dealt with more harshly. The Chairman urged that any future disaffection should be settled in a proper orthodox way.
The Luton News/Saturday Telegraph representative, the only Press man at the hearing, was requested by the Chairman to stress to employees not present that they should realise that because the fine was small did not mean it was not an offence of extreme gravity or that either side had gained a victory. He particularly requested that the firm and its employees should make all possible effort to work amicably, and that no resentment should remain on either side.
[The Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph: May 27th, 1916. Additional material from The Luton News: Thursday, June 1st, 1916, and Thursday, June 8th, 1916]