MACARTHUR, Mary (1880-1921)
Plaque erected in 2017 by English Heritage at 42 Woodstock Road, Golders Green, London, NW11 8ER, London Borough of Barnet
Philanthropy and Reform, Politics and Administration
MARY MACARTHUR 1880-1921 Trade Unionist and campaigner for working women lived and died here
The trade unionist Mary Macarthur was a leading organiser of the women’s labour movement in the early twentieth century. Remembered as a brilliant orator and publicist, she was largely responsible for increasing the female membership of trade unions from 142,000 in 1892 to 1,342,000 in 1920. She is commemorated with a blue plaque at 42 Woodstock Road in Golders Green, where she died in 1921.
Mary Macarthur came to London from Glasgow in 1903 having given up her Conservative politics for the cause of trade unionism. She had already dazzled her fellow unionists with her passion and self-confidence and was quickly made Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). Macarthur transformed the WTUL from a philanthropic body without a typewriter or telephone into an effective campaigning organisation. She gave inspiring speeches, not only at conferences and open-air meetings but more importantly at the factory gates.
It’s for her work with the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) that Macarthur is best remembered. She founded the NFWW in 1906 in order to unite delegates from all the women’s unions and form a more politically and financially powerful body. She quickly recruited members and set up a weekly penny paper, The Woman Worker, in which she laid out her manifesto in favour of trade unionism.
During this time the NFWW’s offices at the Club Union Buildings in Holborn became a powerhouse for the labour movement. The socialist reformer Beatrice Webb remembered Macarthur as ‘the axle round which the machinery moved’ while Gertrude Tuckwell, a former President of both the WTUL and NFWW, said:
She acted as if something great was always going to happen and she made an atmosphere in which it usually did.
Macarthur campaigned tirelessly for the regulation of homeworking and for an end to ‘sweated’ labour – work carried out in poor conditions with low pay and long hours. Macarthur herself contracted diphtheria while investigating the lacemaking industry in Nottinghamshire and gave a compelling, first-hand account of the unacceptable working conditions to a parliamentary select committee on homework in 1908.
When the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath in Staffordshire went on strike in 1910, Macarthur ran a highly effective publicity campaign which aroused sympathy from far beyond the labour movement. She made a film highlighting the terrible conditions, represented the case at the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and published articles in a range of journals and newspapers. The campaign raised over £4,000 in donations and the dispute was resolved with all employers agreeing to pay the chainmakers the minimum wage.
Macarthur continued to fight for the rights of female workers throughout the First World War. She forced the government into improving wages and conditions for the thousands of women working in munitions factories, and demanded they receive the same pay as their male predecessors.
At the general election of 1918 Macarthur stood for election as the Independent Labour Party candidate in Stourbridge, but lost by just 1,333 votes, partly because the returning officer refused her request to be listed under her maiden name as well as her married name. She sent a telegram to her husband – William Anderson – who had also been defeated, which said ‘Cheer up! Better right than top!’
GOLDERS GREEN HOME
Macarthur moved into 42 Woodstock Road with her infant daughter, Anne, in June 1919 following the death of her husband earlier that year. She was at the height of her reputation while living here and masterminded the amalgamation of the NFWW within the National Union of General Workers (NUGW) and the creation of women’s department within the TUC. In 1920 Macarthur became ill with cancer and her fellow campaigner, Susan Lawrence, shared the home during her last illness.
Macarthur died at her home in Golders Green on New Year’s Day in 1921, aged 40. Her funeral at Golders Green cemetery was attended by a formidable array of labour politicians and union organisers, as well as by confectionary workers from Bermondsey, munitions workers from Edmonton and chainmakers from Cradley Heath.