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Banners of the brushmakers

brushmakers' banner

Lodged in the Working Class Movement Library is a copy of a letter which tells a tale about the Brushmakers of Dublin and the way in which they produced their banner. Although the banner has perished, the letter and the photographs give us a good idea of how the banner must have looked when officially unfurled in 1887.

The photographs are undated, probably taken during the 1930s. It is a mystery as to whether the photos were sent to George Mayes by the letter writer or whether they were collected separately but they do indicate that the banner survived probably into the 1930s.

The letter was written by William Murphy, former branch secretary of the Dublin branch of the National Society of Brushmakers to the then, General Secretary, George Mayes. At the time of writing Murphy was an old man of 77 years, in poor health and in the Royal Hospital Chelsea as a Chelsea Pensioner. The letter is undated but a reasonable guess is that Murphy wrote it in 1937. The thirteen-page letter is a labour of love from a man proud of the achievement of the brushmakers of his native city.

Murphy's earliest recollections are of the uprisings of 1856 and the large number of Irishmen imprisoned as a result of this action. As a lad he recalls going to a demonstration called to seek release of the prisoners in the town of Cabra, near Dublin, in 1869. He recalls the spectacle of

".....bands playing and banners waving in the bright sunshine of a glorious summer's day. The trades who had large banners at that time were the house painters, the carpenters and joiners, bakers, coachbuilders, plumbers and gasfitters and one or two others....".

This demonstration, called by the Amnesty Association, was in fact banned by the police. The trades marched despite the opposition from the police with their banners furled until they had left the city. They then entered the field at Cabra with banners flying. A total of 38 banners appeared at that demonstration.

There were several repercussions of the demonstrations. The British Government relented and released a few of the Irish prisoners including Davitt O'Brien, Sergeant McCarty and a Mr Chambers. The Dublin Trades Council began an agitation which culminated in the formation of a separate Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

This is an image of the Dublin Brushmakers' banner

Seven years later, in 1875, Murphy attended the huge march in Dublin to commemorate the centenary of Daniel O'Connell's birth. By then the young man was apprenticed to the brushmaking trade and obviously shared the sense of anguish felt by his workmates - "the brushmakers had the loan of the Manchester banner which was unsuitable for an Irish meeting" . The depth of its unsuitability is further reflected as Murphy recalls the enthusiasm shown for the commemoration. He speaks of the thousands of Irish from all over the world who were in Dublin for the procession. Fortunately the weather was good because "....there was no room to be found in boarding houses, inns and hotels, so they had to resort to doorsteps, hallways, the footpaths and parks to sleep. Oh boy! what a day! the greatest demonstration ever held in Ireland."

A painting in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin by Charles Russell gives a further idea of what the day must have been like to the young Murphy. The painting reveals something of the nationalist fervour of the sixth of August 1875. Many of the banners carried portraits of O'Connell himself, Erin and her wolfhound and of the militant Brian Boru. The march was itself even larger than an earlier one to celebrate the unveiling of the O'Connell monument in the city centre in 1864.

O'Connell had commenced his political career by supporting trade unionism but his later nationalism provided no room for trade union sympathies. Despite that his memory was widely respected by Dublin tradesmen such as William Murphy.

The Brushmakers themselves set up a drum and flute band, funded by twopenny contributions by members but the band soon collapsed as a result of unexplained, internal bickering! Later, in 1886 when the Trades Council passed a resolution calling for Labour Day demonstrations every year on the first Sunday after May first the branch decided to commission their own banner.

A sub-committee recommended to the full branch meeting that a fine, painted, banner could be produced for an outlay of £80-£100. Two members of the branch, Thomas and Stephen Doyle agreed to produce a banner for branch members to be proud of. Murphy recalls the career of each. Stephen eventually emigrated to Vancouver taking with him a number of medals for his magnificent carving of monograms etc. on the backs of men's hairbrushes. His brother Thomas was killed during the rebellion in 1916 when a stray bullet hit him as he sat reading by an open window.

Agreeing the price submitted, journeymen brushmakers agreed a self imposed levy of ten shillings per head for themselves and five shillings for apprentices. William Murphy goes on to recall that ".... it was the delight of the members in Dublin to go on Sunday mornings to their house [the Doyles'] to see the progress they were making. Both of the brothers worked in their spare time at the painting and wood work of the banner ..." By 1887 the banner was complete.

Painted on both sides, the Irish linen banner measured 12 foot high by 8 foot wide with a complex timber frame which allowed the completed banner to be fixed to a horse drawn trailer. The timber framework had various carved items on the top crossmember, carefully described in Murphy's letter to George Mayes and easily visible in the surviving photographs.

One side of the banner was a suitably amended reproduction of the United Society emblem as issued in 1839, bearing the legend UNITED SOCIETY OF BRUSHMAKERS, DUBLIN BRANCH.

The Custom House in Dublin forms the centre piece of the banner with the allegorical figures of Truth and Justice on either side. Above this is a picture of Erin, seated, with her wolfhound at her feet looking out over the sea at a sailing ship in full rig. The 1839 emblem is virtually identical except that St. Katherine's Dock, London is portrayed rather than the Custom House and Britannia sits with a lion at her feet with the sea and sailing ship in the background!

On the other side of the banner was a large portrait of Erin accompanied by her Irish wolfhound, with the background of the Lakes of Killarney.

Mr. Murphy throws no further light on the history of the banner he so lovingly describes. It certainly does not appear to exist today.

Other Banners of the Society

This is an image of the BRushmakers' Banner

The Manchester brushmakers' banner is described in Murphy's account as commissioned for use at the official opening of Manchester Town Hall in September 1877.

The Manchester brushmakers, which laid claim to be the oldest component part of the Brushmakers Society formed in 1747, paid £80 for their banner. Ruth and Eddie Frow in their pamphlet about the official opening of the Town Hall indicate that about 100 Brushmakers took part in a huge procession, six miles long, of trade unionists on 12 September 1887.

Murphy may have got some of his facts about the Manchester banner slightly wrong. The banner was probably made in the early 1870s, used in Dublin in 1875 then carried at the Town Hall demonstration two years later.

George Mayes, General Secretary of the Brushmakers wrote in 1947 that the Manchester banner was still in existence during that year, stored in the Society Head Office in Hackney Road, London. In the last fifty years however the banner has disappeared.

The banner of the Birmingham brushmakers is much older. It was reputed to have been painted by a famous (unnamed) artist, paid for by membership levy and completed in 1831.  It was carried in the great demonstration in Birmingham in 1831 to protest at the rejection by the House of Lords of the Commons second reform bill. (The Library holds a picture of this demonstration).

The banner was carried in the agitation for further electoral reform in 1866 and was finally destroyed by a fire in the "pan-shop" where it was being stored in 1880.

A final brushmakers' banner survives, apparently only in photographic form. This is the banner of the National Society of Brushmakers which itself was established in the early 1900s and merged with the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades Union in 1983. The photo is undated but appears to date from the 1930s. No further information exists as to the history of this banner. It was certainly not in existence when John Gorman wrote Banner Bright in 1968.


Resources in the Library's collection

Letter from William Murphy to George Mayes [?1937] - Shelfmark: AF Brush Box 9

Ruth and Eddie Frow, Trade unions and the opening of Manchester Town Hall, 1877 (no date) - Shelfmark: AG Manchester Box 6

George Mayes, Unpublished History of the Brushmakers Society (1947) - Shelfmark: AF Brush Box 8

John Gorman, Banner bright: an illustrated history of Trade Union banners (1986) - Shelfmark: M42

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