SSLH backs drive to conserve historic Belgian trade union banners

The People’s Flag… is in need of a little care, writes Mike Sanders.

Banners and flags have played a key role in Labour movement since its inception. Trades unions and political protesters alike have marched behind banners proclaiming their objectives and values using both word and image. Nor has their symbolic importance escaped the attention of those opposed to the Labour movement. At Peterloo, the Yeomanry Cavalry made a point of capturing and destroying radical flags.

Flag of the Verviers region of the union for food and agricultural workers. Click for larger image.

Nowadays, our historic banners are more likely to be ravaged by wear and tear rather than sabres and truncheons and the Amsab-Institute of Social History based in the Belgian city of Ghent has recently launched an appeal asking for donations to help repair and conserve a number of historically significant banners, including this beautiful example from the Food and Agricultural Workers Union.

The Society for the Study of Labour History has made its own donation of €100 to this excellent appeal. If you would like to help preserve these banners, you can find out more by following the link at Amsab-ISG – flags.

It is also worth pointing out that in the UK the People’s History Museum has an unrivalled collection of banners and a dedicated conservation studio. See Conservation – People’s History Museum: The national museum of democracy

The studio was established in 1990 at the museum’s Princess Street site in Manchester to conserve its extensive collection of banners, provide a source of help and advice for custodians of textiles, and undertake private commissions.

Front cover of Banner Bright.

If you would like to know more about the history and symbolism of British trade union banners, then John Gorman’s Banner Bright is an excellent place to start.

Banner Bright: An Illustrated History of the Banners of the British Trade Union Movement, by John Gorman, London: Allen Lane, 1973, pp.vi + 184, ISBN 071390290, and subsequently in a number of hardback and paperback editions. The book can often be found in libraries and in online secondhand bookstores.

Dr Mike Sanders is Senior Lecturer in Nineteenth Century Writing at the University of Manchester, and a member of the Society for the Study of Labour History’s executive committee.