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Last updated:02 August 2018

Alice Foley

Alice FoleyAlice was born in 1891 in Bolton. Her family was poor but they were very keen readers.  She learned to read at an early age and retained a huge interest in learning and adult education throughout her life.  Her father’s belief in education meant that she did not become a half-timer* but remained in school until 13 when she left for the world of work.  After trying and hating shop work, she went into the cotton mills as a tenter (a weaver’s assistant, looking after machinery).

Involved in the socialist movement of the town, the Labour Church and the Socialist Sunday Schools, Alice became a supporter of the Clarion vans and joined the Clarion Cycling Club. Her use of leisure time to explore the countryside around Bolton was to stand her in good stead and leave her with a lasting appreciation of life beyond her factory work.

In 1912 the welfare state as we know it today began to come into existence when Government social insurance legislation came into force.  Trade unions became part of the machinery for implementing the new scheme.  Union officials had to understand the regulations and apply the scheme for the benefit of those injured or incapacitated by their work.  It was a position that required tact and knowledge.  Rather to her surprise, Alice got the job of applying the new system as the Amalgamated Weavers Union sick visitor.  She was to do the job until 1917.  In that year the Assistant General Secretary (AGS) resigned.  The Executive decided not to replace him but moved Alice from the insurance section and made her a temporary clerk doing the job normally done by the AGS.  This entailed helping members to understand their wages, based on highly complex calculations and also negotiating with employers.

When the war ended in 1918, the executive decided that now they needed an AGS.  The procedure was based on a written examination.  Out of six candidates, one got 72%, the nearest rival managed 38%.  The executive never revealed who got the highest score but decided not to appoint.

The following year the executive again raised the issue of an AGS.  This time they announced that no applications be accepted from women members.  In her own words Alice “plodded on”.  In fact she was highly active in many areas.  She was a delegate to the Bolton Trades Council, a magistrate and active within the Co-op and the Workers Education Association.

In 1942 the AGS position became vacant again. This time rather than make her AGS, the committee made her the Chief Woman Officer. To a degree of course, the union was itself merely reflecting the prejudices against women, common elsewhere in society.

Finally, in 1948, the retirement of the then General Secretary resulted in the appointment of Alice as General Secretary in 1949, without any hesitation and at the same salary that the retiring secretary had received.

Her long hard work for her members was at long last recognised.  But it was not just the union that paid tribute to her work.  In 1950 she was awarded an MBE and ten years later, Manchester University honoured her with an MA for her contribution to adult education.  Alice died in 1974.

*The half-time system was the first compulsory education in Britain and it arose out of the provisions of the Factories Act passed in 1833. This said that no child under nine years of age could be employed in any factory concerned with the textile trade in its widest sense. Children between nine and thirteen had to have a certificate from a schoolmaster showing that they had attended school for at least two hours a day during the preceding week.  After compulsory primary education was introduced in the 1870s the half-time system was allowed to continue. However, it soon became apparent that those going to school on a half-time basis were unable to keep up with children able to attend school full time. Gradually the hours and ages were changed to ease the situation and after the First World War in 1918, the half-time system was ended.

Resources in the Library by and about Alice Foley:
Five tapes and transcript of an interview with Alice Foley along with correspondence about the recordings and the deposit of her archives at Bolton Library and Museum Service.  Shelfmark AG Foley, Alice Box 1
Foley, Alice. A Bolton childhood. Manchester, 1973. Shelfmark  BO9   
Photograph of Alice Foley. Shelfmark FRAMED/608
Bolton and District Weavers and Winders Association. Committee Meetings: Minute Books, 1959-1982.  Shelfmark L31/12 to L31/18  
Bolton Trades Council.  Minutes 1897–1968.  Shelfmark AF Trades Councils Boxes 23 to 28

Resources elsewhere:
Archives held by Bolton Archives History Centre - The Alice Foley Collection.  Ref ZFO