Postgraduate researcher Hazel Perry on a twelve-week dispute involving a largely female workforce that drew the attention of the national labour movement.
In December 1928, eighteen people appeared at the Norman Cross Petty Sessions in Peterborough for ‘breach of contract’ and ‘wrongful absence from work.’ The workers were summonsed during a twelve-week strike at the Celta artificial silk mill owned by Messrs Kemil Ltd. Research that I am currently undertaking on Peterborough Trades Union Council (PTUC), suggested that industrial action at the Celta Mill in 1928 resulted in the longest phase of strike action in Peterborough’s industrial history. However, the strike was important for other reasons too: the artificial silk industry was prosperous for a short time in Britain during a period of economic crisis; the strike attracted attention from the national labour movement; and many women were involved in the strike, unusually for the time.
Kemil were part of German Celta, one of three prosperous conglomerates in the artificial silk industry. The mill opened in Peterborough in 1924 during the interwar period when economic crises were punctuated by phases of mass unemployment. The arrival of Kemil Ltd, was therefore important to the local economy because it provided plenty of new jobs for workers, who made artificial silk from Canadian Fir using the viscose process. The viscose process included the use of dangerous chemicals such a caustic soda, but it provided cheap material for textiles. The Peterborough mill, which ran continuously using three work shifts a day, was one of three using this particular patented process. The other two mills were located in Germany and France.
The strike started on Thursday 25 October, the day after a spinner was suspended for allowing viscose to drip into a 7lb tin of prepared artificial silk. The Thursday afternoon shift did not turn up to work and by Friday there were 1,000 people out on strike – most belonged to the Workers Union (WU). The mill’s manager, Claude Isch-Wall, refused to meet the union representatives and District Organiser, J. L. George. As a result, the sympathetic strike turned into one concerning trade union recognition. Additionally, issues such as pay, which was below the industry wage, and health and safety matters also came up.
The dispute was debated in Parliament when former PTUC secretary and MP for Rochdale William Kelley submitted a question for debate. The strike also attracted speakers from the local and national labour movement to meetings and strike rallies in Peterborough. Speakers included officials from a variety of trade unions, and Labour Party members such as Frank Horrabin, who became Peterborough’s first Labour MP in 1929. Ernest Bevin also spoke at a strike rally in Peterborough as did TUC Secretary Walter Citrine, who commented that, ‘if a little judgement and ordinary human kindness had been displayed there would have been no dispute’.
Women occupied 1,500 of the 2,000 positions created at the mill by Kemil Ltd. It is therefore likely that most of the strikers were women, unusual in 1928 when domestic service still provided the majority of employment opportunities for women in Britain. As a result, the WU women’s organisers from Birmingham and London, Miss Weaver and Kate Manicom visited Peterborough and spoke at strike rallies. Additionally, Clara Rackham, campaigner for social justice and prospective Labour parliamentary candidate for Huntingdonshire, attended a meeting to explain the reasons for the dispute to the parents of striking girls. Rackham was a Factory Inspector during the First World War and was therefore knowledgeable about factory conditions. Yet despite the role of women in the strike, it was only the male workers who were summoned to the court. The men were each charged a nominal amount of 1s damages, 2s 6d costs and surprisingly, Isch-Wall took them for beer and cigarettes afterwards at a nearby hotel.
This research on the Celta Mill strike has been carried out using reports in the Peterborough Standard, accessed through the British Newspaper Archive Online. There is much more archival research which I intend to do, on both the strike and the artificial silk industry which although an international success was fleeting in Britain. The Kemil Ltd mill, for instance, declined rapidly after the strike laying off 300 employees in the early 1930s and shutting down entirely soon afterwards.
Hazel Perry is a Postgraduate Research Student at De Montfort University in Leicester working on a PhD thesis concerning Trades Union Councils and working class politics 1899-1979.