Socialist Party archives - 1976 Interview with Ted Brown a veteran Belfast socialist

1919 strike
Interview with Ted Brown, veteran Belfast socialist

Militant Irish Monthly, April 1976, No. 42.

Ted Brown: I was born in a working class are in Belfast. My mother was a weaver in a York Street linen factory; my father was a platers helper in Harland and Wolff. My mother came out of the factory somewhere between 8.oo and 8.30 in the morning, and the eldest ones in the family had got the youngest ones dressed and washed for school. My mother made the breakfast, you then got out your lunch and went off to school. Then you had to wait to 6pm before you saw here again. Well, out of the blue, as far as I was concerned, a strike took place. And here was I that normally went to school with a lunch, that oft times was eaten well before the lunch break, here with the strike on I could go home and have a dinner with my mother in the house.

Bedlam

They didn’t get the 44 hours but they got the 47. And that meant that instead of having to go out to work art 6am in the morning in the mills, mines and factories, they went out to work at 8am. The 47 hours made a change. Parents, in a good many cases, where the women had to go out to work, were at home to see that their kids were going out to school at least adequately fed and clothed and with lunches. But one remarkable thing took place arising from that strike, apart from the reduction I hours, and that was the blasting of halftime in the mills and factories into oblivion. No longer would kids be denied the right to go to school – not two days or three according to the shift in the mine or factory – but for the whole five days a week these kids could now go to school.

Naturally arising from this my mind started to look at things in the kind of world I lived in. I had a pal at school who was an orphan, and when he came 12 years old (before the strike) he had to leave school and go half time in the mill. Well I saw him occasionally at night, and he said to me one night; “I have to go to the mill on Saturday morning to get my wages, would you like to come down with me.” And he took me down to Jenny Mount Mill, and if bedlam ever existed, that was bedlam for me.

Women in their bare feet, spinners, dockers, the blowing of whistles, the banging of machinery, the wheeling of trucks. Naturally I got an abhorrence and decided that as far as I was concerned, I wasn’t going into that hell on earth to earn a living.

Militant: what were the conditions that led up the 1919 strike in Belfast and elsewhere?

Ted Brown: Well obviously, speaking from hindsight, these conditions were very bad and gave rise to the radical mood of the working class at that time. This strike was the first attempt by the working class and the trade unions to change the social conditions.

One of the things I noticed before this strike took place was that a woman called Mary Galway used to come and visit my mother. As kids we were given a piece of bread and jam and sent about our business. While Mary and my mother and maybe two or three other women had their talks and determined tactics and ways and means to get the workers in the factories organised.

The roots of the strike went back years to when James Connolly had laid a basis for the union in Belfast. Connolly came to Belfast in 1911 and organised large numbers of workers into trade unionism. In fact he not only organised the workers but he also organised a police strike. [Soc. Party note: Ted was mixing up several disputes here, but it was Larkin, not Connolly who was involved with the 1907 police mutiny, see this article which goes into the details.]

The year 1919 was my first experience of what they called the ‘pogroms’. And obviously they had a very determined effect on trade union and political organisations of Labour in the city of Belfast.

But by 1921 there was a very popular place in Belfast known as the Custom House steps, where all the different speakers, mostly religious, put forward their views. Well one Sunday at the steps I saw a crowd standing listening to two old men preaching what was to all intents and purposes Christian Socialism. One of the men was Bob Dorman, who eventually became a Senator, and the other was a retired Unitarian minister known as Bruce Wallace. And every Sunday these two men spoke on the steps. But eventually trade Union leaders like Billy McMullen, Sam Kyle, and others took the platform. But remember that if you took the platform you took your life in your hands. On one side was the Protestant League, and on the other was what was alter to become known as Catholic Action.

Eventually I saved up the magnificent sum of one shilling [5p] and went up to one of the socialist speakers at the meeting and asked him, ‘How do you join this movement?’



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