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Ewan MacColl: The eight looms strike

Eddie Frow:

" In 1932 ...in the north-east of Lancashire, which is the weaving area, the cotton employers were trying to introduce into the mills what they called the 8-loom systems. The weavers, who were men and women, of almost equal proportions, had been used to working what they called the 'Four Lancaster Looms' and the employer felt that they weren't working all day from first thing in the morning, until last thing at night so therefore he could double the number of looms and they could look after eight looms instead of four.

Well, this caused a tremendous amount of resistence and opposition and the CP at that time was working on the idea that its policy was to give what we called 'independent leadership' of workers in struggle, in other words, if workers were involved in a battle, we were prepared to go there and see if we could give assistance.

So, some of us from Manchester, I myself was one, spent a short time in Burnley while I was unemployed, involving myself in the struggles that were taking place there. And of course, this was, other groups went, like the Red Megaphones, or Theatre for Action, just say, for the day, on a Sunday. Went in the morning, came back in the evening, or the Saturday afternoon, came back Saturday evening.

And they performed - they probably scripted something with the assistance of the comrades that were there - that was suitable for the cotton workers - something related to the 8-loom system - why it should be resisted, how it could be resisted. Portraying in as vivid a form as they could, the policy of opposition to the introduction of 8 looms."

Ewan MacColl:

"The struggle against the introduction of the eight-loom system in the weaving sheds of Lancashire and Yorkshire took place against a background of mass unemployment. The textile workers argued that the doubling up of the number of looms to be worked by a weaver would result in a 50 per cent cut in the labour force. Events proved them right. Another important factor was that most of the machinery in the Lancashire mills had been installed between the 1850s and the 1890s. It was cumbersome and grossly inefficient. The slightest inequalities in the yarn resulted in breakages. For workers employed on a piece-work basis, time spent on tying up ends was time without wages.

So we began, rather blithely, writing sketches about what the eight-loom system meant. What we hadn't realized was the way the industry was organized, and the state of the trade unions. We hadn't realized that the textile industry was the industry par excellence of craft unions. There were unions with sometimes as few as twelve members in them. There were unions of little piecers, backtenters, big piecers, card-room workers, combers. It seemed to us that there was a union for every single process in the cotton industry.

So it wasn't a question of going to a factory and saying, 'Weavers, all out against the eight-loom!' One had to appeal specifically to cardroom workers, backtenters, little piecers, big piecers, combers, weavers, spinners, the lot. We just didn't have the knowledge. The acquiring of that knowledge had to be encompassed in a matter of days. You couldn't spend a year reading in a library and hope that the strike would hold off until you were ready. You had to cram it all into a very short space of time. It was our two weavers that made it possible.

It was arranged that we would accompany them 'Saturdaying', a traditional Lancashire cotton-mill practice. Technically the mills were closed on Saturday, but two or three workers from each department would spend the morning cleaning up and preparing the machines for Monday morning. The mill at such times had something of a holiday feeling, no clatter of looms, no whirling belts, just the girls talking.

The result of that visit was that eight workers from two mills attended a meeting with us the following week and explained their jobs to us. Blondie and Nelly, our two weavers, acted as interpreters - that is, they described technical processes and translated the specific terminologies of the different trades, the short-hand of factory workers for describing processes. By the end of that session we had a fairly good idea of how to go about writing our eight-looms script.

I think we produced either four or five different sketches about the eight-loom system, and each one of them was open-ended. Because in addition to the craft divisions inside the industry, there were also regional divisions inside the industry, this kind of thing. Generally speaking, in south-east Lancashire you got spinning exclusively, for instance, in Oldham, Delph, Waterford, Huddersfield. Now most spinners were men, and they were on male wage rates. In north-east Lancashire you'd get towns where there was nothing but weaving, or a mill where there was nothing but weaving. Take a place like Skipton which is on the Yorkshire/ Lancashire border. Strictly speaking it's in Yorkshire, but it's for textiles. Now, in the main mill there you got spinning, you got weaving, you got processing - that is bleaching - all in the one mill. Well, in the mill across the road you got nothing but back-tenting and weaving. So obviously you couldn't go with the same sketch to the two mills, because they would say, 'Oh, we don't want to listen to that!' So you had to be very genned up on what the organization of a specific mill was.

Wigan was mostly mixed textiles, with a lot of velvet weaving - Japhites - which was easy for thern because that was also the same in most of the Salford mills, including the mill that Engels used to run. But you'd go into another place where it was completely different from Salford so you'd need a different sketch, so you had to inform yourself on the way.

We performed the first of the 'eight-loom' sketches outside Howard's Mill, Salford. Howard's was a fairly big mill that was weaving velvets amongst other things. We decided to launch the sketch outside the mill as operatives knocked off for the day. We assumed that that was our best chance of getting people to stop and listen. In actual fact it proved nonsense, because after a day's work everybody's keen to get away, and get the fluff out of their hair.

A few stayed to watch, and they appeared to like it. When we asked them 'What d'you think?', they said, 'Oh, it's great, love, it's great, you must do it again.' I would guess that maybe ten or fifteen people saw that performance. The sketch lasted about eight minutes. We felt it was too long, I remember, and reduced it to about five.

Two days later, we performed it again outside Elkemar Armitage's mill in Pendleton, and we really got a good response there. Except the police came and moved us on before we had time to talk to anybody afterwards. In fact we were gabbling the last few speeches because we could see the police coming, and there we were talking faster and faster and faster! But we got cheers and cries of encouragement, as well as a few raspberries, mostly from the men. The girls were much more prepared to accept us than the men were. Then the strike started and we went to Oldham, to present the sketch outside a spinning mill, where the workers were still undecided about joining the strike. As it happens, they voted to come out. I like to think that we played a part in that decision, but I doubt it. We were all youngsters - the oldest in our group was only seventeen."
(Theatre of the Left: pp 233-5)

"As the strike gathered momentum we became more and more involved. We were out on the streets almost every night of the week performing, or trying to perform since the police harassed us continuously. Those areas like Earby, Burnley, Nelson and Colne which had been among the first of the towns to come out on strike were soon feeling the pinch, and union funds, which were small, soon gave out.

Now was the time for workers throughout Britain to show their solidarity with the strikers. The response to the union's appeal for help was magnificent. Food convoys began to roll in from Glasgow, Tonypandy, Hull, Whitechapel, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Sunderland and Sheffield. We added the collection of food to our performance routine and after each performance of our eight-looms sketch we went from door to door with an old hand-cart we had acquired and collected food for the strikers.

The more active we became the more the police hounded us and scarcely a week went by without one of us being arrested and fined for obstruction, creating a public nuisance or contravening any one of the thousand and one restrictions and by-laws that are there to safeguard the status quo.

The strike dragged on and we found ourselves going further afield at week-ends, to places as far away as Todmorden, Blackburn, Burnley and Great Harwood. More often, however, we would take a threepenny or fourpenny tram ar bus ride to a nearby town and play two or three shows there. Where there were three or four towns adjacent to each other we would play all of them in a single afternoon. A typical itinerary would be Ashton-under-Lyne - a show in the market-place and, after a couple of quick appearances in the main shopping area, off to Dukinfield where the pattern would be repeated. If we succeeded in raising a few coppers in the collection we would then take a tram to Hyde where we would repeat the routine again, finishing up in Stockport or Failsworth.

The following week we might play Oldham, Rochdale and Bury. During the week we generally confined ourselves to performances in Manchester, Salford and, occasionally, in Eccles, Monton, Pendlebury and Swinton."
(A-P:xxv-vi)

"We went to Wigan on the Saturday morning, and that was marvellous, because there was a market there and we just stepped into the middle of the market-place, near one of those big ornamental lamp standards. Some Wigan comrades had set up a coal-cart there, and we climbed onto it and went through our whole repertoire, every sketch we knew, starting off with Billy Boy. To our amazement a couple of hundred people gathered round us. We did our eight-loom sketch there, and it went down a bomb. And then we did a little sketch we had on mining, I forget what it was called. We'd learnt it specially for Wigan, because Wigan was a mining town. So we put that on, and got rapturous applause. Finally the stallholders began to object because we were taking away their customers.

Up til this time our audiences had never numbered more than fifteen or twenty. More often it was twelve or fifteen. And suddenly we found ourselves with this great audience, and we went through all our pieces, took about thirty-five minutes. The cops had always moved us on before. While we were performing, one of the blokes in the audience climbed the central lamp standard and tied a piece of red cloth to it. And a great roar went up from the crowd. When we'd finished, we said, 'Well, that's all we know.' And they said, 'Do it again,' so we did it again. We didn't actually get through it a second time because the police came. They were very polite on this occasion because the crowd was a big one; when there was only a few people around they would come up and say 'Piss off,' but here they were quite polite, just moved us on, it was a great day.

The following day was Sunday. We went to Rochdale and played in the streets. It was perfect conditions, everybody could see you, they only had to come and stand on their doorsteps, and you could bet your life that every family you were playing to had somebody working in the mill, or somebody who'd once worked in the mill and was now unemployed. That morning we gave about hall a dozen performances in the Rochdale streets and in the afternoon we gave three performances in Bacup and about the same number in Haslingden. We must have given about twelve performances that day, and that's hard work. We didn't know bow to use our voices properly, and pretty soon we were croaking like frogs.

But we were getting a fairly good response though occasionally we'd get blown a few raspberries, or somebody'd shout: 'You don't know what the bloody hell you're talking about, piss off,' that kind of thing. After ah, we were strangers presuming to tell them about their jobs. Blondie and Nelly Wallace were towers of strength, as textile workers themselves they spoke with an authority that the rest of us didn't possess.

The songs were nearly all parodies, either parodies on songs that everybody knew, or on pop songs of the time. Often they'd consist of a verse and a chorus. They were almost always satirical. In that respect they were bang in the Great English tradition, and the great Scottish tradition too, since almost all the best of the English and Scots political songs have been satirical.

North-east Lancashire was the storm centre of the struggle against the eight looms, and Burnley was the heart of it. The authorities recognized this and the police, presumably under instructions, were given orders to seal off the town. The textile workers said things differently: their idea was that every single town in Lancashire would be represented in a giant assembly in Burnley. There they would make their demands known to the whole nation. By this time the whole of the organized working class of Britain were being appealed to for help, and those areas which were hardest hit were responding to these appeals. The first of the great food wagons to roll into Burnley carne from Tonypandy - where two-thirds of the population were unemployed - where unemployment was endemic. Then Manchester, Salford, Liverpool, Glasgow, places like Hackney, Bethnal Green, West Ham. They were all sending food. It was magnificent to see the convoys rolling through the towns. We'd get notice that trucks would be coming through Manchester on Wednesday morning - and we'd be there, maybe fifty, sixty people to cheer it on; right through every town in the country this would be the case.

We were invited to Burnley by Jim Rushton - who was one of the strike leaders, a party bloke, for whom there was a warrant out by the police. We were invited to go up and perform there on the day of the big meeting. And we managed to get in, we slipped in in our food convoy that we'd picked up on the road coming from Liverpool actually - these great Pickford vans, huge things, absolutely filled with food. And when we got to Burnley the crowd was all through the whole centre of the City, it was just an occupied area. They just made way for the food convoys that carne in and you just joined the ranks of these great trucks - and they stretched boards across a couple of them and we climbed up to the top of them and performed from the top there.

There we were with our gleaming megaphones, and it was a lovely summer's day, I remember, the sun beating down and the stragglers kept getting in - the workers from Earby had come over the moors and actually had had to fight their way through columns of police when they came in - bloodily - and a great cheer went up when they came in, and it was a thrilling experience to stand on the top of that truck and sing and perform, for your own people - it really was the most magnificent experience, I never will forget it - it's what theatre should be. It was what it must have been like in the time of Aeschylus in great popular theatre. Crude? Yes, but as honest as we knew how to be, and we went on performing all through that period.

Shortly after that there was a by-election at Skipton, and the Party put up Jim Rushton as candidate even though there was a warrant out for his arrest, and he was sleeping in a different house every night so the cops couldn't get him and appearing on election platforms. We started doing a number of sketches for that election. The Skipton area was 140 square miles that we had to cover. It covered little mill villages like Grassington, where the owner of the mill lived in a kind of feudal hall and everybody else lived in company houses. Imagine performing in a place like that! And Skipton itself- up on the borders - and Oswaldtwistle. It included maybe twenty small towns, perhaps more than that even, as well as a lot of pastoral land. We were employed on that for something like three weeks and then we came back. (Theatre of the Left: pp 236-8)

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