Although there was trade union activity in Chelmsford as early as 1785 when the United Cordwainers (highly skilled hand sewn shoe makers) had a presence in the town, there was no great tradition of trade unionism in the area until the latter part of the 19th century. Carpenters and Joiners did, however, attempt to register a Friendly Society in Chelmsford in 1814 but by 1861 the only trade union activity came from the Friendly Society of Skinners. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers formed a branch in Chelmsford in 1885 and the
It was on 13 October 1899 that the Chelmsford Trades Council held its first meeting. This took place at the
Black Boy Inn, Springfield Road; present were delegates from the Amalgamated Society of House Painters and Decorators , the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, the Society of Operative Bricklayers, the United Builders’ Labourers and the General Union of Operative Carpenters and Joiners. It was a modest gathering that launched the Council; indeed those that attended represented a mere 155 trade unionists.
Since its birth the Trades Council has always been a campaigning body and within months of being formed it launched a petition calling for houses to be built at affordable rents. Aware that politics could not be ignored, its first priority was the local elections. The Trades Council gave its support to A. Lunney, Vice Chairman of the local House Painters and Decorators Union. His main aim was to get Chelmsford Borough Council to adopt the Housing of the Working Class Act, but he also sought to improve the town’s water supply and sanitation. Lunney topped the poll and throughout his term of office, he never forgot his roots and always defended the interests of working class families.
Another important campaign took place in 1917 when the Council launched a petition to secure working class representation on the local Food Control Committee. This had been established during a period of severe food shortages to ensure a fair distribution of food, and to keep prices at an acceptable level. However, profiteering continued, and it was not until representatives from the Trades Council and the Co-operative Women’s Guild were appointed to the Committee, that prices began to drop.
After the First World War and virtually throughout the 1920s and 30s trade unionists and many families suffered badly. Amongst the most exploited were the agricultural labourers, and in 1918 Chelmsford witnessed one of the largest demonstrations in its history when the Council, in conjunction with the National Union of Railwaymen and the Agricultural Workers’ Union, held a rally in the Select Cinema where speakers repeatedly called for improvements in pay, and a reduction in the working week of farmworkers.
By 1921 Chelmsford was experiencing considerable hardship and an Unemployment Committee was formed by the Trades Council. The Committee repeatedly called for a soup kitchen to be established to alleviate hunger, but although the Mayor and some Councillors were sympathetic, the Town Council was not, and the appeal was rejected. Local engineers were locked out in 1922 and the Trades Council mobilised its delegates to provide support. Such was the depressed state of industry and trade unionism during this period that the Trades Council was dissolved in 1924. It did, however, return to activity during the 1926 General Strike, and its delegates played an active part during that historic event. Following the miners’ defeat in 1926 the Government exacted its revenge by introducing harsh anti-union laws; these remained on the statute book until the election of a Labour Government in 1945. This did not deter the Trades Council from having some fun, and its first Dinner and Dance took place in 1928.
It is, perhaps, the Hunger Marches that evoke the saddest images of the period between the two world wars. Those who had fought so bravely to “win the war to end all wars”, quickly found that capitalism was unable to provide them with work. In thousands they took their message to the streets and invaded the local Board Guardians demanding jobs and better benefits. After having been dormant for three years the Council was revived by Alfred and Richard Seabrook in 1932. Since then it has had an uninterrupted existence.
Disillusioned by the actions of the Labour Government and disgusted by the betrayal of the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, many activists turned to the Communist Party. Amongst their number were Richard Seabrook, its Secretary, and Alfred, who was Chairman. When the Tyneside Hunger Marchers visited Chelmsford on their way to London in 1932, 1934 and 1936, they were looked after by the Trades Council and the Chelmsford Star Co-operative Society, which supplied everyone with a meal and “made sure their boots were in good order.
Unfortunately, the divisions between the Labour and Communist Parties led to the TUC introducing its “Black Circular”, forbidding Communists to be elected as delegates to Trades Councils. Given their record of service to the Council, delegates were reluctant to implement the circular, but it had no option. Now banned, the Seabrooks continued to pursue other working class
interests; Richard eventually became President of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and Lord Mayor of Norwich. Alfred, who was also elected to the USDAW Executive, became President of the Braintree Co-operative Society and, just before he died at the age of 91, he still retained his interest in the progress of Chelmsford Star Co-operative Society. The political differences of the 1930s did not prevent members of the Trades Council, all political parties of the left and the Co-operative Women’s Guild, from uniting on a wide range of activities including the anti-fascist campaign, the Peace Council, the Chelmsford Left Book Club and, most important of all, Medical Aid for Spain. It was certainly a period of intense activity with door to door requests for money, condensed milk, tea and coffee. The campaign won the support of thousands in Chelmsford including its Bishop and Mayor.
At the same time that the Trades Council was actively supporting Medical Aid for Spain, it was confronted with a bus strike that eventually assumed national proportions. It was all about unreasonable bus schedules, inadequate pay, poor conditions of service and public safety. Following a number of small stoppages elsewhere, virtually the whole of the Eastern National bus workers employed at Chelmsford stopped work on 19 April 1937. A concert, organised by the Trades Council, raised money in their support, and a large demonstration of uniformed bus workers took place in the centre of the town. To co-ordinate action it was decided to hold a national conference in Chelmsford, and delegates from 14 bus fleets, in 11 counties, attended. A few days later London bus workers joined the strike bringing their number to 30,000. It came to naught. Badly let down by their leader, Ernest Bevin, they returned to work without any improvement in their conditions. Eventually, a few minor concessions were made, but the strike ended in considerable bitterness. The one positive benefit was that TGWU branch 1/699 obtained 100% membership of Eastern National drivers, conductors and clerks. This, in due course, laid the basis for improvements in their conditions. It still remains an affiliate of the Trades Council.
As it was the trades unions that gave birth to the Labour Party, there has always been a positive relationship between the Trades Council and the local Labour Party. A good example of this was in the pre-war era when they jointly published The Chelmsford Searchlight. Printed in Derbyshire, the paper received some financial support in the form of adverts from Chelmsford Star Co-operative Society.
The Searchlight was a remarkable production and contained a vast range of local information. The paper had, in fact, been born from necessity as the local press had boycotted Labour Movement information and had distorted speeches by Labour Councillors. Not only that, letters submitted had either been withheld or altered beyond recognition. It would not be the last time that the Movement experienced such problems.
It was not only the political environment that changed for the better in 1945; the welfare state was born and local trade unionists became involved at all levels of its administration. If later Tory Governments had no love for the welfare state, they were reluctant to attack it head-on. Campaigning for social improvements did not stop, and there were many new challenges to be met. One that particularly captured public support was the Trades Council’s “Clean Food Campaign”. This was launched in 1955 and led to the Borough Council initiating a hygiene survey of all local food establishments. The vast majority were found to be far from satisfactory but matters were corrected and the campaign brought long-term benefits to the town.
By the late 1960s, with Labour again in power, the Trades Council was represented on a vast number of local bodies including Disablement, Employment, Safety, Youth, Pensioners, National Savings, National Insurance, Appeals Tribunals, War Pensions, Territorial Army Welfare and Housing Committees. If that were not enough, delegates were also members of local Hospital Management Committees and had been appointed as governors of schools and colleges. Democracy had now been extended to a wider part of society than ever before; indeed, the contribution made by trade unionists to the benefit of Chelmsford was enormous and one of which we can be very proud.
From the 1960s onwards the Council has repeatedly condemned the USA blockade of Cuba; its intervention in the affairs of Vietnam and in the 1970s, the murderous regime of General Pinochet. This was never forgotten, and in 1999, the Council called on the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to implement the request from Spain that he be extradited for crimes against humanity.
Meanwhile, British industry was changing; the Trades Council campaigned against local factory closures and with many workers employed on military projects, it argued that companies should diversify their interests and use the expertise of their employees to make other products that would safeguard the long-term interests of the firms. The Council also opposed the swingeing cuts that took place in the public sector and meetings were held on every Council estate to oppose rent increases.
In 1974, after its Secretary, David Hedgecock, had examined virtually every concessionary bus fare scheme in the country, it was found that Chelmsford had almost the worst in existence. On this the Council focused its attention, but although improvements were made, current concessions continue to fall well short of those provided in many other towns.
In 1977, faced with a growing threat of racism, the Trades Council brought together all the local political parties and a number of individual supporters, and launched the Mid-Essex Campaign against Racism. The Council was also active in helping to establish the Chelmsford hostel for battered women at a time when it was unfashionable to admit that such a problem existed.
Such was the level of its campaigning that the Council decided to make an appeal for the purchase of a banner. Its affiliates, individuals and both Labour and Communist Parties, along with its guest speaker at the 1977 May Rally, Joan Maynard MP, responded magnificently. The banner was purchased for £150 which proved to be a remarkably good investment.
In 1979 the Trades Council celebrated its 80th Anniversary in great style by publishing its history and holding a dinner. Guests of Honour were Alfred and Richard Seabrook and Mrs Jayaben Desai, who, during 1976-1978, had led the heroic strike at Grunwick in North London to win union recognition. It was a memorable occasion.
With the election of the Tory Government in 1979 the political consensus that had existed since 1945 was swept away. To achieve their objective of rolling back the welfare state and strengthening the bargaining power of the employers, anti-union legislation was enacted. The Trades Council opposed all cuts in welfare and social services budgets by organising motorcades, public meetings and demonstrations, and printing its own leaflet in support of the TUCs Campaign for Economic and Social Advance. These demonstrations attracted considerable support, as did its meetings attacking the rise in umployment. In conjunction with the Labour and Communist Parties, celebrations for May 1980 were spread over several days with five events being held; these included a social, film evening, motorcade, leafletting and its traditional rally. This encouraged the Council to develop its May activities even further; later events included cartoons for children, the Marxist magician, Ian Saville, the CAST production of "Sam the Man", and the Framework Theatre’s presentation "A Woman Alone". In solidarity with the South African Sarmcol strikers, who had been in dispute with the giant UK company BTR since 1985, the Council sponsored "Sisters of the Long March" when they performed in Chelmsford in 1988. Support was given to firefighters, seamen, ambulance workers, teachers, GCHQ employees, journalists on strike at the Essex Chronicle, and many other groups in dispute with their employers. A Chelmsford Trade Union Support Group was organised by the Trades Council to support those sacked by News International and it is fair to say that there has not been a strike or campaign of significance called by members of our Movement, that has not been supported in some way by delegates.
Since 1979 Tory Governments gradually whittled away other aspects of democracy; new QUANGOS (quasi-autonomous non governmental organisations) were set up, and trade unionists were largely excluded from positions of influence; political patronage became common. Today, under a Labour Government, more favourable union legislation has been enacted, but we still have the most anti-union laws of any democratic nation remaining on the statute book.
In response to industrial change, many unions have amalgamated, thus enhancing their bargaining power. However, these changes have also reduced the number of branches from which the Council could draw its delegates. This led to a drop in affiliations and attendance, but it did not detract from the quality of its work. Indeed, the Council has continued to fulfil its historic role. Support was given to the TUC-sponsored People’s March for Jobs and throughout the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike the Trades Council and its friends collected money, food and, at Christmas, toys for miners’ children. Many in Chelmsford donated generously; in all, the collections amounted to goods and cash worth over £10,000. Amongst the contributors was Chelmsford Star Co-operative Society which had also supported our 1926 Miners’ Hardship Fund. Thanks largely to Bill Wright, (our current President), Basil License, (our former President) and Jan Wallace who organised the rotas, it was a masterpiece of organisation. A number of trips were made to the Kent coalfield, where everyone was warmly welcomed.
With unemployment becoming ever more serious, it was the Trades Council that convinced the Borough Council that an Unemployed Centre should be established. Although this did not last for more than a few years, we did not give up, and delegates gave their support to the Welfare Rights Centre that was established by the local unemployed group, CUE Action, in 1993. Other campaigning activities in which the Council was involved included the establishment of the Chelmsford Anti-Apartheid Group and the Anti-Poll Tax Campaign.
After 56 years of relative industrial peace the Chelmsford TGWU branch 1/699 hit the headlines once again when, in a disgraceful act of reprisal, 105 local bus workers were sacked on 18 November 1994 after a short one-shift strike against contractual changes. The new contracts worsened conditions, and its implementation was widely seen as a potential safety threat to bus drivers and their passengers. The strike, which lasted for seven months - the longest strike in Chelmsford’s history - quickly captured the nation’s interest.
Throughout the dispute the Trades Council gave the branch its total support and assisted in staffing their bus service which was supplied free, courtesy of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Several demonstrations and rallies took place in Chelmsford and people came from far and wide to indicate their support. With the active support of TGWU General Secretary, Bill Morris, the remarkable solidarity shown by the people of Chelmsford and trade unionists throughout the country, the company was finally forced into offering a settlement.
For nearly three decades the May Rally has been a feature of the Council’s annual programme and several international speakers, MPs, and trade unionists of stature have attended. In addition, at monthly meetings, speakers regularly address delegates on subjects of topical interest.
In October 1997, after twenty years as Secretary to the Trades Council - by far a record - Roger Welch gave notice of his resignation as he was leaving the area. He has been greatly missed but he left the Council with a sound administrative structure. It also had a plan for the future, and its “Join a Union Campaign” was launched at the 1998 May Rally. A series of events emanated from this campaign including an Advice Table in the precinct, an exhibition in County Hall and, courtesy of the TGWU, it took its Advice Table to the Essex County Show.
On a number of occasions Chelmsford’s firefighters, members of the Fire Brigades Union, who have been affiliated to the Trades Council for many years, have been obliged to take industrial action to protect the public’s interest. Busy though delegates were during the summer of 1998, when the Essex County Council proposed cuts in services, they once again gave assistance to their colleagues to preserve essential fire fighting equipment and jobs. Display posters were circulated, and hundreds of signatures were collected during the dispute. Despite threats of dismissal, 36 strikes were held before Councillors came to their senses. Although no attempt has been made by the County Council to reduce safety levels this year, attempts have been made to worsen conditions of service. The Trades Council has already expressed its solidarity with firefighters.
To celebrate the Trades Council’s centenary a special edition of the Searchlight was published in March; this contained a brief history of the Trades Council and promotional publicity for its celebrations. Also contained within its eight pages were congratulations from Ken Cameron, General Secretary of the FBU, who thanked the Council for its assistance during the 1998 dispute. Congratulations also came from Cuba Solidarity Campaign, Labour Research, the Co-operative Bank, the Chelmsford Star Co-operative Society, Chelmsford Co-operative Party, Chelmsford West Labour Party and last, but by no means least, from John Monks on behalf of the TUC General Council.
The Trades Council’s next advance came with the launch of its website on 10 April 1999 - the first Trades Council in Essex to do so, and probably the third in England. The Trades Council’s first centenary event was a rally; this took place on 7 May in the AEU House.
As usual the room was decorated with posters, some featuring historical events of working class history, others supporting various campaigns of the past and present; there was, of course, an abundance of posters and marketing material from various trade unions displayed on the Advice Table. As its friends gathered to celebrate the occasion they were greeted with music from Chile, South Africa and a variety of British trade union songs. With the press present for the first time in a number of years, the scene was set for some great speeches from Ken Gill, Chairman of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, and Rodney Bickerstaffe, General Secretary of UNISON, now Britain’s biggest union.
As part of the Council’s ongoing “Join A Union Campaign” we offered our services to schools and received invitations to participate in the Industrial Days being held at Boswell and Moulsham High Schools. It was a rewarding experience made even more pleasurable as the Council was immediately invited to return to Boswell’s for a further event in November, and the Council was booked for the Industrial Days to be held at both schools in 2000.
As the Council was making final arrangements for its remaining centenary events, it was confronted with a challenge which set in motion a new campaign, and one that quickly captured the public’s interest - saving 84 hospital beds (occupied by the elderly) from closure at Broomfield Hospital. This would save £1.8 million but many, particularly elderly people who were now labelled as “bedblockers”, were incensed at the plan. Delegates to the Trades Council were equally angry and raised a number of questions to which they sought answers.
The Trades Council quickly registered its opposition to the Trust’s proposal to close the wards with the Community Health Council, and on 22 July, Trades Council Chairman, Andrew Coburn, made the views of delegates known at the Health Council’s consultative meeting. It was also the first day of its campaign to save the hospital beds. Fortunately, by this time, all the Council’s centenary events had been organised and for all intents and purposes all such celebratory thoughts were put to one side as the delegates devoted their energy to the “Save The Hospital Beds Campaign”.
A petition was prepared and letters were sent to the Secretary of State for Health, Frank Dobson MP, Simon Burns MP, (who responded positively and signed our petition), and the Chairman of the Mid Essex Hospitals Trust. The campaign was now in full swing. A table, with the Trades Council banner at the rear and UNISON posters at the front, was established every Saturday in the precinct. The response was quite remarkable and on one day just over 2,000 signatures were collected.
So positive had been the response to the petition that a march and rally was held on 4 September. The speakers at the rally were Alan Hurst the Labour MP for Braintree, Andrew Slade (Secretary Mid Essex Hospitals UNISON branch) Councillor Elwyn Bishop, Percy Bennett (Chelmsford Pensioners), Phyllis Webb (Braintree Pensioners), Andrew Coburn and Greg Grant representing the Trades Council, and Babara Fleming (UNISON). The Chairman was Ian Barber, a full-time official of UNISON. Petitioning continued until 8 October when 15,379 signatures were presented to the Chairman of the Mid Essex Hospitals Trust, Sir Jeffery Bowman.
To keep the campaign moving the Council held a public meeting on 21 October. The subject was “The Future for Health Care in Mid-Essex” - the speakers being Phillip Neal, Mid-Essex Community and Mental Health Trust, Ian Goode County Manager, Services for Older People, Councillor. J. Kotz, Chairman Mid-Essex Community Health Council, Harry Lister Regional Officer, UNISON, Peter Mickleson Mid-Essex Hospitals NHS Trust Deputy Chief Executive, Dr. Paul Zollinger-Read (Strategic Lead, North Essex Health Authority and Primary Care Groups - the Chairman was Andrew Coburn. Each of the speakers outlined their department’s position in a positive manner but it was not until Councillor John Kotz, Chairman of the Community Health Council, expressed his views that a chord was struck with the audience. He repeated his Council’s opposition to the ward closures, and insisted that welfare services were still not robust enough, or of sufficient quality, to meet demand.
By this time delegates were becoming increasingly frustrated at the failure of the Secretary of State for Health, Frank Dobson MP to respond to its letters. The first letter on the ward closures had been sent to the Minister on 24 July and the second, on 19 August, merely brought two acknowledgements but no answers to our questions. With the first ward having been closed at Broomfield Hospital the Trades Council immediately faxed the Minister and followed it up with a letter, requesting a meeting. As there was no response, a further letter was passed to the Minister, by hand, through the Braintree MP, Alan Hurst. The silence was deafening. A standard letter was then circulated to all the Trades Council’s affiliated branches and friends, calling on the Minister to meet the Council and their UNISON colleagues. When the Secretary of State for Health resigned, in order to promote his case as the Mayor of London his successor, Alan Milburn, had the same request for a meeting within 24 hours of being in his new post. It is worth noting that Simon Burns was also making efforts to discuss the closures with the Minister but he, too, found his request to see the Minister and his officials denied. It is a sad commentary of a Labour administration that promoted open government before the election but very quickly reversed its position when in power.
During this period of hectic activity the centenary celebrations were in full swing. An exhibition took place in the County Library from 20-25 September; this was largely composed of local trade union historical material, including pictures of the many campaigns which the Council had organised, or been associated with over the years. There was also a range of current trade union leaflets on display, and as people examined the exhibition, approximately 500 signatures were obtained for the Hospital Beds Campaign.
After receiving donations from the TSSA, a number of our affiliated branches and individuals, the Council installed a bench in Central Park to mark the centenary on 22 September. Amongst those present were a number of delegates and friends of the Council and former officials, Sybil Olive and Basil License.
The final centenary event was the dinner; this was held on 16 October in the Essex County Cricket Club’s Pavilion. Many old friendships were renewed amongst the 103 who attended this historic event. Amid those present were not only members from affiliated unions but colleagues in the Labour and Co-operative Party, Democratic Left, and many activists from current and earlier campaigns. Andrew Coburn acted as the Master of Ceremonies, and the guest of honour, Tony Benn MP, delivered a remarkable and exciting speech. This was followed by some wonderful singing from the socialist a cappella singers, Velvet Fist. A raffle was held with all the proceeds being sent to the long running Skychef dispute.
In January 2000 Trades Council delegates, Andrew Slade, Colin Rolfe, UNISON official, Harry Lister, along with Simon Burns MP, John Whittingdale MP, and representatives from the Community Health Council, met Lord Hunt, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State to discuss the continuing problems at Broomfield Hospital. The meeting proved to be useful although nothing immediately positive came from the debate that ensued. However, in March the Mid Essex Trust, now under new management and with a new Chairman, announced that all the remaining beds that had been closed during the summer would now be re-opened. It had been a remarkable campaign and a clear victory for the people of Mid Essex.
During 2000 the Trades Council became experienced in the art of staging exhibitions. In addition to one that marked Workers’ Memorial Day, we participated in an exhibition at Oaklands Museum under a section on Protest. Then, as part of European Safety and Health Week, we staged an exhibition in the public foyer of Chelmsford Library. Since then we have held regular exhibitions to mark International Women’s Day, Workers’ Memorial Day and the European Safety and Health Week. In 2002 we produced a new leaflet (our third) to promote trade unionism amongst young people about to start work.
Considerable progress has been made by trade unionists since 1899 but it is a sad fact that many of the problems facing working people and their families have not changed. Pay cuts and new contracts that worsen conditions are common, and job security is undoubtedly worse for this generation than for any other since the 1930s. Inequality between the rich and poorest sections of society have increased considerably since 1977 and nearly a quarter of our people live in relative poverty. Of particular sadness is that four million of these are children, treble the number of 20 years ago. That trade unions are as essential in modern Britain as they ever were is not in doubt; it is a fact that we understand only too well.
For those who would like more information on the growth of local trade unions since 1785 and the development of the Labour Movement in Chelmsford, copies of the Trades Council’s history from 1899 to 1979 can be obtained through the Secretary.