Lizzie Willson: Remembering One of Leicester’s Radical Trade Unionists

Note: If you read this blog post and have any more information about Lizzie Willson’s background then please do leave a comment on this post so trade unionists in Leicester and beyond can (collectively) do more to celebrate her life.

Based in Aylestone, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Willson was once a well-known militant trade unionist who, in 1910, succeeded in becoming the first women to be elected to sit on the Executive Council of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives (NUBSO). In recent years her historic achievements have been featured in the work of Dr. Matthew Kidd, the author of the 2020 book The Renewal of Radicalism: Politics, Identity and Ideology in England, 1867-1924. As Kidd has surmised:

“Although she has received very little attention in official accounts of the union’s history, Lizzie Willson was arguably the most influential female activist in the Boot and Shoe Operatives’ Union  before the First World War. Born in Islington [in 1875], Willson’s family eventually moved to Leicester, where she learnt her trade as a heel builder in the local industry. Willson quickly joined the women’s section of the local union branch, and was elected its secretary shortly after. She also began to participate in the national life of the union by attending national conferences, where she persistently sought to convince union leaders and officials to spend more time organising women in trade. Her advocacy of a minimum wage for women, and her determination to get this question discussed at regional and national conferences, also meant that ‘the female labour question’ became an important topic of conversation throughout the union.”

NUBSO 18th General Conference held in Rushden, Northants, June 1908 (source: rushdenheritage.co.uk)

Another academic who has written in more detail about Willson’s past is Dr. Richard Whitmore, who in 2000 completed a doctoral thesis at De Montfort University that was titled “The ‘Shrieking Sisterhood’: Membership, Policy and Strategy of the Women’s Social and Political Union in Leicester and the East Midlands, 1907-1914.” Although he is now more famous locally for publishing his 2017 book Alice Hawkins and the Suffragette Movement in Edwardian Leicester, Whitmore’s discussion of Willson is also very informative. He writes:

“Dubbed by her male colleagues in the Labour movement as a radical fire-brand, Lizzie Willson had long been a prominent trade unionist in the NUBSO and supporter of female suffrage, but although largely sympathetic to the WSPU [Women’s Social and Political Union], as far as it is known she never actually joined the organisation. Instead she devoted all her time and energies to the trade union movement and as such, alongside Alice Hawkins, implored women to join the trade union. Indeed, as early as the middle of June 1908, she had attended a NUBSO conference at the Trade Club in Higham Ferrers Road in Rushden to complain that not enough was being done by the national union to help and support female workers in the industry. In conjunction with this assault on the high citadels of male trade unionism, both Alice Hawkins and Gladice Keevil undertook a series of meetings at the request of the United Trades’ Club in Kettering to try and capitalise upon Lizzie Willson’s initiative and drum up support, not only for women’s suffrage, but also trade union membership. On this point it is important to note that in Leicester, as well as elsewhere, the two often went hand in hand, and although Bertha Clark acknowledged that the commitment to the movement was not easy for married, working women, the benefits once won would all be worth while. Thus, she implored all who heard her to support not only the WSPU and its campaign for the vote, but also the striking women in Leicester.

“Throughout 1911, both Alice Hawkins and Lizzie Willson, because of recent anti-trade union activity by the Employers’ Federation, implored the Trades’ Council to take action against local firths discriminating against female workers. but to no avail. At every turn the Council rejected joint action to combat what Alice Hawkins had dubbed “those firms that wage war against trade unionism.” The Trades’ Council always deprecated such disturbances and tried hard to discourage or prevent open conflict. Instead its members complained that they had enough on their plates in trying to control the situation without the interference of militant women. Mr T Richards, President of the NUBSO, lamented that for the first time in the history of the Union, a section had become adherents to the suffrage movement. Alice Hawkins quickly replied that one did not have to be a suffragette to fight for trade union rights, although she no doubt thought it helped. Instead, she pointed out that they were quite capable of conducting their trade union business without the aid of the WSPU, even if the president could not conduct the business of the national union without the aid of socialism. As a consequence, the women were increasingly isolated at a time when male trade unionism, according to Alan Fox, was becoming more socialist, and the lack of action taken by the Trades’ Council only strengthened the hand of the employers to such an extent that many women in the hosiery trade were signing up to the No 3 branch of the NUBSO. However, when pushed by belligerent employers, these women later backed down and to the dismay of Alice Hawkins left the Union.

“By 1910 the relationship between the sexes had all but broken down and when a meeting was held between the Union and the Arbitration Board, at which the Union settled for shop statements instead of a uniform agreement to cover all rates, the women rebelled. As [Alan] Fox later wrote [in his history of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives], Lizzie Willson’s subsequent vitriolic attack on the then president of the Union, Mr Freak, was “so unrestrained as to shock all but her followers.” In some ways this failure by the union at large to take into account the issues raised by the women signalled the parting of the ways and while Alan Fox lambasted both Lizzie Willson and Alice Hawkins for waging a sex war that distracted the male members from the more serious issues of the day, the whole protracted and bitter contest merely reflected the desperate plight many women were forced to endure. For well over twenty years little in the way of positive gains had been sought on behalf of industrial women workers. Thus the shock of the Union’s decision to yet again exclude women from a rate-fixing agreement evoked a quick response from both Lizzie Willson and Alice Hawkins. In direct defiance of the union’s instructions they bypassed the Board of Arbitration and called upon the services of Margaret Bondfield to negotiate on their behalf…” (pp.180-2)

Whitmore, in his thesis, then goes on to provide more details about this crucial turning point in trade union history and explains how Willson was subsequently suspended (along with Alice Hawkins) from NUBSO after making a “veiled threat” that she might form a breakaway union for women. Around this time, on January 7, 1911 both Lizzie Willson and Alice Hawkins were elected to become members of Leicester’s Trades’ Council, and later that year, on September 2, the pair launched their new union, the Women’s Independent Boot & Shoe Union in Leicester.

Further reading

For more background on trade union organising efforts undertaken in Leicester, see Barbara Drake’s 1920 book Women in Trade Unions; also see Ned Newitt’s short biographical note for Lizzie Willson.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s