Today we focus on the world of industry by singling out Bradford’s first prominent female trade unionist who build a national reputation.
Julia Varley (1871-1952) was a passionate campaigner for women’s rights who dedicated her life to trade unionism. After the end of World War One, women over 30 earned the vote and could stand for election to Parliament; this incentivised the Trades Union Council to follow suit in allowing women into its highest echelons. From the Workers’ Union Julia Varley was elected in 1921 as one of two delegates for the new Women’s Section in the TUC General Council.
There could have been no more suitable candidate to break through this barrier. She never married and devoted her life to trade union activity. Her career came in two stages – one based in her home city of Bradford and the other in Birmingham.
* Growing up in Bradford: Born to millworkers, the eldest of seven siblings, in a back-to-back in Horton, Varley learnt as a child that her great-grandfather had been a protestor at the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819 and that her grandfather had been active in the Chartist riots of the 1840s. When she was 12, she inevitably started work in a local textile mill, as a ‘half-timer’ going to school but also working as a sweeper. A ‘full-timer’ when 14, she joined the General Union of Textile Workers and soon took on a role of full-time organiser and branch secretary. On her mother’s death she had to give up full-time mill work to care for her siblings, but this did not stop her union work, remarkable at a time when few women were members of unions, let alone active in them.
In 1891 she witnessed at first hand the bitter strike at Manningham Mills. She later became the first woman elected to the Bradford Trades Council.
When 24, she deliberately lived for six weeks as a tramp, walking from Leeds to Liverpool to find out for herself what it was really like to live on Poor Law handouts. This must have been invaluable experience when, from 1901 to 1907, Varley became one of the few women to be elected a Guardian of the Bradford Poor Law Union.
It is no surprise that Varley was also a prominent suffragette. On one famous occasion in 1907 suffragettes tried to break into the Houses of Parliament. She was imprisoned for 14 days, one of seven from the Bradford area in a group of 57 so punished.
* Moving to Birmingham: From 1909 Varley moved to Birmingham as a trade union organiser, principally for the WU. Here she established a reputation for helping workers win many disputes over many years. For example, she played a leading role in the women chain-makers’ strike of 1910. A £4,000 strike fund enabled 2,450 workers to strike for 10 weeks before employers agreed to better pay.
The same year, working alongside the National Union of Operative Bakers, Varley secured Birmingham bakers a minimum wage of 26 shillings a week for a 54-hour working week. Previously, they worked 70 to 100 hours a week for 22 to 26 shillings.
In 1912 she became one of the first women officers of a mixed-sex trade union in the UK, helping WU membership soar from 5,000 to 65,000 between 1909 and 1914. A year later, Varley organised the families of 5,000 striking clay workers in Cornwall. Although the strike collapsed amid police brutality, in January 1914 one of Cornwall’s largest clay companies agreed to recognise the union and establish fair pay. Other clay firms soon join them.