A group of Socialist Labour Party members and supporters trekked off to Cradley Heath to celebrate the centenary of the Chain Maker’s strike when women workers achieved a magnificent victory in substantially improving pay and conditions for working people. The leader was not a local woman at all as we heard from one of the speakers at the Salvation Army Hall. Former MP Sylvia Heal told the 200 or so assembled about the story of Mary McArthur who had come from a privileged background in Scotland where her father was an anti-trades union Tory.
It transpired that McArthur’s stay in Cradley Heath was just one episode in a life which had achieved a number of notable landmarks for working people and for women. While she supported the campaign for votes for women she was less happy with the suffragette movement who wanted votes for women with property. Her outspoken criticism didn’t make her popular with them but when voting rights came it was universal. Mary MacArthur was influential and her stand with the women of Cradley Heath gained the notice and support of the likes of Winston Churchill, then a Liberal MP, Ramsey MacDonald and Keir Hardy. George Cadbury donated funds to her cause. She stood for parliament as a member of the Independent Labour Party in which her husband had been an MP. As a socialist she was an internationalist and a founder of the International Labour Organisation. She died from cancer at the age of only 40.
Earlier Tony Barnsley, author of “Breaking their Chains” spoke about his book and film was shown of interviews with strikers, something which has been lying in BBC archives for years. How much more working class history lies untouched? I have come across such invaluable material before when viewing the work of Phillip Donellan whose subjects were also connected with the Midlands.
The afternoon concluded with a procession through Cradley Heath to a garden and play area opened by the lady mayor of Sandwell in Edwardian costume. We had the pleasure to meet and talk to descendants of the chain makers who also dressed for the period with their leather aprons and a chain across their shoulders. The youngest, Sarann, was with her mother who still demonstrates the craft at the Black Country Museum in Dudley. The Mary McArthur Memorial Gardens is on the site of the former chain foundry now rebuilt at the Dudley museum. It is just opposite Cradley Heath station which can be accessed from Snow Hill, Birmingham.