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The Bristol Cable

An age old question in Bristol: Elections or direct actions?

Edition 3

130 years ago Bristol workers made a direct challenge to the power structure of the time.

Illustration: Sam Knock /sknockers.tumblr.com

“Working men were toadied to a great deal too much and their best friends were those who told them so,” said Alderman Fox to Bristol City Council in 1887 to cries of “hear, hear” and laughter from his fellow councillors. To the Bristol establishment of the Victorian era, the notion that workers would presume to take a place on the Council was considered an impertinence.

A year earlier, Bob Tovey, a cloth cutter, who had the cheek to stand for St Paul’s against the Mayor in order, said it was “to give expression to working class views on matters dealt with by the Council”.

He had lost narrowly but, in the same year as Alderman Fox’s speech, won as a Labour League candidate in the same seat with a majority of 26. Despite Tovey’s victory, at this time there was considerable debate within the labour movement as to whether standing for election was the right course to take. The emergence of a new, strong trade union movement amongst unskilled workers led some of its leaders to insist that

“we have been at pains to discredit appeal to the legislature.”

Bristol-born Ben Tillett and Tom Mann went on to say,

“The statement that the ‘new’ trade unionists look to governments and legislation is bunkum; the key-note is ORGANISE first and take action”.


Although the Reform Act of 1885 had extended the right to vote, it still excluded 40% of men and all women and the General Election of 1886 gave the Tories a comfortable majority. For these reasons it wasn’t surprising that many Bristol workers saw trade unions as a more effective route for advancement and in 1889 Bristol became, in the words of a local history of the labour movement written in the 1920s, “a seething centre of revolt”.

Up until then the Bristol Trades Council had refused to accept female workers as members but after two Bristol socialists, Helena Born and Miriam Daniell, moved out of their Clifton homes to live in St Philip’s and help female cotton workers to form a union, attitudes changed rapidly.

In a show of solidarity, all three groups united for marches and mass meetings and the dockers’ leader Ben Tillett, though based in London, seized the opportunity to put himself at the head of Bristol dissent.

The cotton workers conducted a partially successful strike and their example was followed soon after by dockers, miners and female confectionary workers – the latter employed by the Sanders family in Redcliffe and known locally as ‘Sanders’ White Slaves’.

Speaking at a Bristol rally on 11th December, Tillet spoke of “the imperative necessity of forming themselves into a Labour Party for the purpose of securing direct labour representation upon all public bodies”, thereby promoting the vote as a means of working class empowerment.

But when he spoke again on 18th December he advocated direct action. At the climax of that meeting, he got the crowd to repeat after him the words,

“I will, if necessary, defend my home and wages by any means, violent or pacific”.

On the night of Friday 23rd December between 20,000 and 30,000 people marched through Bristol under the banner of ‘Away with Politics, Labour to the Front’ and then crowded into the Horsefair for a ‘Monstre Meeting’. Scuffles broke out and the meeting was charged first by police and then by Dragoons. 57 demonstrators and 51 police were injured and a ‘Black Friday’ song spread rapidly.

“Along the streets the soldiers rode

Dispensing sabre cuts

The bobbies drew their truncheons out

And bashed in people’s nuts.”

Tillett was then prosecuted on the grounds that, despite his absence from the ‘Monstre Meeting’, his words had acted as a retrospective incitement. The prosecution was unsuccessful but so too was the outcome of the dockers’ and sweet girls’ strikes. This led to some questioning of what could be achieved by direct action, even when it had massive support. A Bristol Trades Council Labour Electoral Association was formed and early in 1893 the Independent Labour Party (ILP) came into being across the UK with a strong local base in Bristol. By the turn of the century the ILP was beginning to win seats on the City Council.

Some, like Tom Mann, held on to the radical trade union dream that a successful general strike would establish workers’ control of industry and directly challenge capitalist control and ownership of the means of production. But most unionist and left-wingers in Bristol, whilst continuing to be active in their trade unions, now focussed their efforts on building a Labour Party and on extending the franchise to include all adult men and women. It proved to be a long and bitter struggle for the right to vote and those involved in it would surely view with incredulity those who now advocate not exercising it.

This article draws heavily on ‘Strikers, Hobblers, Conchies & Reds’ produced by Breviary Stuff Publication. Find out more on this important and significant period of Bristol’s history in this and other Bristol Radical History Group publications.

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