The strike at Bliss Mill

Police line at Bliss Mill 1913-19-14. Picture 'Courtesy Barry Davis
Police line at Bliss Mill 1913-19-14. Picture 'Courtesy Barry Davis

Just before Christmas listeners to BBC Radio Oxford were reminded that 2013 marked the centenary of an industrial dispute at the Bliss Tweed Mill in Chipping Norton.

On December 18, 1913 some 250 employees went on strike over the issue of company opposition to members of their workforce wanting to join a trade union.

Significantly the Bliss family had been noted for their paternalistic approach to running the factory.

However by 1913 the Birmingham Banking Company had taken over the business and put in place a Mr A.H. Dunstan as manager.

He was unpopular with the workers who were dissatisfied with low wages and poor working conditions.

The Banbury Guardian issue for January 1, 1914 reported on a meeting at which those taking industrial action were able to make public the receipt of numerous letters of support. One of these had come from the Bishop of Oxford, Canon Scott Holland. In it he stressed that workers should be able to combine freely in situations of collective bargaining.

He was positive about resisting company preference for an internal association of workers.

Indeed the Bishop went further by enclosing a small monetary contribution in response to an appeal to help the women and children of those who had withdrawn their labour.

Some days later came the interesting news that a settlement of the dispute had been reached. The company had agreed terms with the strikers which included recognition of the right to join an external union.

They also stated their willingness to reinstate certain of those who had taken action.

Furthermore, a cheque for £50 was made available for women and children.

In the final analysis this proved to be a false dawn.

Striking workers reacted by insisting on a defined period of time within which reinstatement should take place.

Additionally there was no disguising deep-seated resentment of certain blackleg workers who continued to work.

This precipitated a variety of disorderly scenes and as today’s picture reveals resulted in a police line at the factory gate, truncheons at the ready, to escort loyal workers.

There were numerous related incidents about the town.

PC Messenger was thrown to the ground in New Street and window smashing was a common occurrence, although there were doubts concerning responsibility for these actions. Did the blame attach to the strikers or sympathisers within the public?

What is clear is that on Thursday and Friday nights Chipping Norton was in an excited state. Court cases occurred from time to time, as when Thomas Horwood of the Leys assaulted PC Messenger.

He was fined £5 with the alternative of 21 days in prison.

Shortly afterwards four strikers were bound over for alleged intimidation of a non-striking employee of the Mill.

By early February people in Banbury had been made aware of the Bliss affair by means of an open meeting held at the Cross.

This attracted a large audience and resulted in the subscription of a considerable sum of money to the strikers’ cause.

It seems that this gathering represented the peak of public support.

In the Banbury Guardian for March 5, 1914 a report included reference to the diminishing interest.

As if to revive concern for the cause a crowd of Bliss workers fêted the release of one Mrs Cooper who had been in Oxford Gaol for 14 days. She was drawn around Chipping Norton in a waggonette to the sounds of a band playing ‘See the conquering hero comes’.

At a subsequent meeting she was presented with a silver teapot in recognition of her martyrdom.

The strike dragged on into June of 1914.

On the reverse side of the post card used as illustration, a worker at Bliss records with gratitude that he would be returning to work.

By contrast many of the strikers left Chipping Norton and as much as anything this was a significant factor in bringing about an end to the dispute.

l I will be running a new course on Banbury’s history on Wednesday afternoons 2pm-4pm starting January 29. Please ring 01295 264972 for details.