Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Last updated:22 April 2015

Women and the United Society of Brushmakers

According to William Kiddier in his history of the union, the issue of women workers in the brushmaking trade first arose in 1829.

Emblem of the United Society of Brushmakers

United Society of Brushmakers emblem

In his highly ornate style of writing the historian of the brushmaking trade told the tale of women brushmakers undercutting male journeymen. At great pains to stress that these women were not wives or daughters of members of the society he also made the point that in his view these women who entered the industry were not committing any crime. They were poor women, "say not that it was wrong of them to take mens' jobs at half price" the true criminals were employers who encouraged this to happen.

Again Kiddier has to distinguish between good employers or masters who had themselves started off their working lives as journeymen, and the capitalist or middlemen who had no loyalty to the trade and were purely interested in profits. Kiddier dwells on the pre industrial revolution idyll of the small master who showed his goods in his own shop window and sold directly to the public and contrasts this picture with one of the businessman who "bought cheap and sold dear."

Referring to the old minute book of the London Society, Kiddier reports that on 8 May 1829 resolutions of members meeting in The Sign of the Hope in Drury Lane deplored actions of two employers known as T.P. and B.G. who were employing women workers in the pan-shop. A non-union member, Mr Neap, was persuaded to join and he attended the next meeting where he said that if the society could protect him he would refuse to supply work to the women. This was agreed and on May 27th it was agreed that two members of the society would go to T.P.'s shop to try to persuade him to stop using female labour.

This attempt to talk Mr T.P. into change appears not to have taken place. The Society was now overcome by the financial crisis that was ever ready to overwhelm a trade society in this era of high unemployment - running out of funds. The Society through tramping and home relief sought to support unemployed members. The minute book is now full of the financial squeeze that befell the London Society. The landlord of the pub where the society met, Mr. Hawkins of the Hope, agreed to loan first £50 and later another £100. There was a need to gain further loans from other societies such as the Denton Hatters, but in the end the financial crisis in the Society was stabilised and by September 1829 "the usual £15 emigration money was voted to a man willing to go to America."

Of the issue of women undercutting men's work and wages, Kiddier finishes the chapter with the cryptic comment, "the matter of women being given men's work at half price was a stubborn fact that had come to stay".

Both Kiddier and the surviving records say nothing more on the question of women workers in the industry but as Ken Doughty explains in his article on new developments in the industry the vexed question of women in the trade became of increasing concern as the nineteenth century progressed.

Co-operative Wholesale Society brush

CWS brush

The baleen used by Hull brushmakers was wholly dependant on the survival of the whaling industry and by mid 19th century there were already signs of decline. Baleen, hair from the throat of the whale was anyway an expensive item for the brushmaker. The importation of bass was the introduction of a cheaper, easier to use substitute for bristle. Bass was easier to work with than boar's bristle. Its introduction heralded cheap brushes for the working class but further undermined the already tenuous hold the Society of Brushmakers held over the industry.

No doubt many employers saw the principal advantage of bass as allowing them to challenge the skilled craftsmen and introduce women pan-hands into the brushmaking process. A United Society of Brushmakers rulebook of 1874 has a rule stating that a man doing certain work for women brushmakers needed to gain the society's permission or face expulsion. This is almost certainly a recognition of the fact that women were well established in certain parts of the trade.

The official history of Messrs Hamilton Acorn, Norfolk Brushmakers indicates that in 1890 the Star Brush Company of Holloway, London employed only girls and boys making machine made brushes. The manager, Edward Bailey reported to a government inquiry into prison work that their output was ten times that of adult male workers. Page's of Norwich opened a factory in Wymondham solely to recruit lowly paid female villagers who preferred rather to work in the brushworks than the farm! In March 1891 these women joined the Amalgamated Society of Brushmakers and went on strike when they realised that their wages were substantially below the Norwich rates.

In the Library's archive is a record of an attempt to form a Female Brushmakers Amalgamated Society towards the end of the century. The attempt appears to have come from Scotland with John Kelly of the short lived Brushmakers of Scotland Protective Association (1889-1896) and John Spencer, president of the United Society and a resident of Glasgow being among those promoting the new body. The draft constitution suggests a shadowlike parallel to the United Society of Brushmakers with broadly similar rules regarding limitation of apprentices to journeywomen, and three main branches, London, Dublin and Glasgow. No further reference exists to this body so it is possible that it never got beyond the planning stage. It is however a reminder that in brushmaking, as in certain other craft trades, journeymen could see the selfish benefits of setting up women-only unions long before they could bring themselves to treating women workers in the industry as equals, with equal rights to belong to the same society as the men. It is however further evidence of the men waking up to an issue that needed solution.

This acceptance that women could belong to the same union as the men finally came in 1918. The Library has a copy of the Report of the first Conference of the National Society of Brushmakers, formed in 1917 where the debate for acceptance of females into full membership was debated. The Workers Union was already recruiting among women brushmakers, this no doubt spurred on the decision. One delegate pointed out, "How can we with justice to her and honour to ourselves, ask or allow her to join us while we are expecting sooner or later to tell her that she must vacate her place to make room for a male member who has now returned to take up his job" at the end of the war. Another delegate believed "the dilutee woman would gladly give place to the "boys" when they returned".

The motion to accept was eventually carried and a Female Section set up. However delegates also accepted the proposal that certain grades of female Brushmakers might still be better off in the labourers' unions. The conference later moved successfully to appoint a full time organiser to recruit both men and women.

The following year the conference returned to the issue of equality and successfully moved that bonus and piece work should be replaced by a common flat rate of pay for men and women. It also discussed the appointment of the General Secretary's wife as National Organiser, even though she was not a brushmaker!

An article by RB Aubry tells of a strike in Maidstone, Kent for similar rates to London Brushmakers during 1919. After five weeks the strike was satisfactorily concluded. Men and women members gained identical increases.

George Mayes, General Secretary of National Society of Brushmakers and author of an unpublished history of the Brushmakers written in 1949, records that the Brushmaking Industry Trades Board was set up in 1921. It rapidly became a platform for the discussion of equal pay for pan hands. Mayes reports that a number of employers sought to undermine this proposal by spreading rumours that if agreed, women pan hands would lose their employment. This apparently led to a number of women signing a petition to the National Society of Brushmakers requesting that rates should be left as they were! Fortunately the petition was not widely supported, the claim went through and women achieved equal pay without discrimination or job loss.

The claim made by the National Society of Brushmakers in 1921 suggests that at the time there were 1950 male pan-hands and 850 females. If females were all performing the same work as their male colleagues, and the Society submission to the Trades Board on 21 January 1921, clearly suggests that most were, then a substantial number of women workers would have achieved equal pay with their male counterparts.

Although there are definite signs of equality having been achieved in work, the position of women within their union remains less clear. The National Society of Brushmakers retained a women's section until the 1940s. Benefits were smaller than for their male colleagues but there was a "marriage" payment of up to £2. Sadly, our records come to an end in the 1950s and we know less about the Brushmakers' Society of the 1950s and 1960s than we do about it during the early 1800s.

Sources for this review of the material covering female workers in the Brushmakers' Archive can all be found in the Library. Additional material came from A brush with heritage: the history of Hamilton Acorn (1996).

Click here to go back to the Brushmakers' Unions page

Comment on this page

Cannot read text? Show another

Comments are moderated before publication