The East London Women Ropemakers' Union: 1888-1898. A Case Study in Victorian Female Unionisation: 'Desperate Women' and 'Irresponsible Advisers'?

Rees, Edward (2019). The East London Women Ropemakers' Union: 1888-1898. A Case Study in Victorian Female Unionisation: 'Desperate Women' and 'Irresponsible Advisers'? Student dissertation for The Open University module A826 MA History part 2.

This dissertation was produced by a student studying the Open University postgraduate module A826 MA History part 2. The research showcased here achieved a distinction.
Please note that this student dissertation is made available in the format that it was submitted for examination, thus the author has not been able to correct errors and/or departures from academic standards in areas such as referencing.
Copyright resides with the author.


The East London Ropemakers' Union came into being in November 1889, a month after the the creation of the Women’s Trade Union Association (WTUA). A year later women workers at one of the largest companies, Frost Brothers, went on strike over low pay. They remained on strike for eleven weeks until January 1891 when their demands were met in full. The Union continued for a decade until its disbandment in 1898. This study examines the forces behind the emergence of the Union, the conduct of the strike itself and the reasons for and timing of the Union’s expiry. It contextualises the agency of these ‘factory girls’ and challenges the model of manipulation of naive workers by Socialist ideologues. The model is tested against primary evidence that, in fact, many of the women were enthusiasts for industrial action who were initially constrained by the moderation of the activists whose preferred strategy was not disruption but recruitment and organisation as the better means of negotiation with employers from a position of strength. The attempt to construct and maintain women-only unions such as the ropemakers was short-lived and arguably a failure. The study argues that there are two complementary explanations for this. Firstly, activists such as the WTUA were forced to acknowledge the overwhelming structural difficulties in the way of organising transient bodies of young workers in small individual factories faced not only with the hostility of employers but ultimately with a lack of support from male unionists . Secondly, those same activists had come to regard the alternatives of full integration of women into the labour movement and the pursuit of legislative protection as more productive routes to the amelioration of working conditions.

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