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History An inspirational bus stop

NICK MATTHEWS recalls the life and deeds of union organiser Joseph Arch

THE number 15 bus from Stratford-upon-Avon to Warwick is a great ride that begins with Shakespeare’s birthplace and ends at the mighty Warwick Castle. 

For me, however, there are a couple of sights on route that are even better. One is a bus stop in the village of Wellesbourne.  

It’s not often that there is a huge gathering of the labour movement to open a bus shelter, but 70 years ago, in June 1952, thousands of trade unionists turned up for such an opening in memory of the inspirational founder of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union’s (NALU), Joseph Arch. 

Why? Well on this spot, on February 7 1872, something amazing happened, as Arch himself will tell you: “It was an extraordinary sight, and I shall never forget it, not to my dying day. 

“I mounted an old pig-stool and in the flickering light of the lanterns I saw the earnest upturned faces of these poor brothers of mine — faces gaunt with hunger and pinched with want — all looking towards me and all ready to listen to the words that would fall from my lips.”

To say Arch was a character is an understatement. Born in the nearby village of Barford in 1826, he started his working life at the age of nine as a crow-scarer and grew up to be a highly skilled farm worker. 

As a leading figure in the Primitive Methodists, known colloquially as “the Methody” (as in Adam Bede by George Eliot), he was well used to public speaking. 

Country preachers played a crucial role at that time enabling labourers to develop, building respect and the capability to speak, read and write, but this caused tensions. 

For many squires and parsons, the arrival of the “Methody” was an act of rebellion. Trade union organisation often focused on the Methodist chapel, as Eliot recorded in her notebooks: “The class Wesley liked least were the farmers!” 

A clash was brewing, but Arch had a great advantage — he owned his own cottage and so was near untouchable for his radical activities. 

Asked to speak at the Stags Head pub in Wellesbourne in favour of forming a union, he thought 30 people might turn up. In fact the best part of 2,000 did, spilling across the road and under a large chestnut tree. Further meetings sprang up across the county, then the country. Arch addressed as many as he could. 

In 1870 agriculture was still our biggest employer, with almost a million workers, despite many rural areas being drained to supply labour for the new manufacturing districts. 

Wages, however, had hardly budged since the demands of the Swing Rioters or the Tolpuddle Martyrs 40 years earlier. Arch’s charisma and the dreadful poverty of the rural labourer meant the union grew at an incredible pace. 

By May 1874, NALU had 1,480 branches, and 86,214 members and was organising over 150,000 farm workers.

Karl Marx, writing to a friend overseas, remarked: “The great event here is the awakening of the agricultural labourer.” 

The union manifesto focused on improving working conditions, but also recognised it was a time of change: “To elevate the social position of the farm labourers … to increase their wages: to lessen the number of working hours; to improve their habitations: to provide them with gardens or allotments; and to assist deserving and suitable labourers to migrate and emigrate.” 

The Malthusian touch at the end acknowledged that the arrival of farm machinery reduced the need for labour.

Indeed, Arch went to Canada to explore the possibility of emigration for farm workers, with mixed results. 

The union had many successes, including a positive effect on wages, but it wasn’t long before the employers fought back.

Later in 1874 at Newmarket, Suffolk, farmers resolved not to employ union members.

This led to a series of strikes across the eastern counties, met with lockouts that involved thousands of workers, lasted months and resulted in many workers leaving the union to get work.

Several years of bad harvests and cheap imports of wheat from Russia and the United States compounded this hardship and led to splits in the union. 

Although there were local struggles, it would be almost two decades before agricultural workers would rise again.

By 1884 registered membership was down to just over 1,000 and did not recover until 1906 with the formation of the National Union of Agricultural Workers (NUAW).

Arch focused on the fight for the widening of the franchise, which until then only included property owners.

This resulted in the passing of the 1884 Parliamentary Reform Act. In the ensuing 1885 general Election, Arch was returned as the Liberal Party MP for North-West Norfolk, the first agricultural labourer to enter the House of Commons.

He was re-elected to Parliament 1892 when he was one of 12 “labouring class MP’s”!

In 1898 he published The Story of His Life Told By Himself, which he used to settle some old scores; attacks on the squirarchy and the established church did not go down well in some quarters, though the foreword by the Countess of Warwick, opined rather than it being the union that caused “the discontent of the peasants, it was the discontent of the peasants that caused the union.” 

In 1900 he left Parliament and retired to his birthplace in Barford. 

He died in 1919 at the age of 92. The Birmingham Post said: “As an agitator he was a more commanding figure than any industrial agitator of recent times.

“He agitated for better wages for agricultural labourers, and they got what they sought, he agitated to obtain votes for them, and there came in 1885 an extension of the franchise; he agitated for land for the labourer, and allotments were provided.

“To say that he alone secured these results would be indulging in the egotism that was one of his weaknesses.

“But those who regarded him 40 years ago as the spirit of revolutionary discontent, as a dangerous enemy of social order, have long since come to think of him at least with respect as the instrument of improved conditions in rural England.”

The memory of visit by Arch and Arch’s oratory leading to the formation of the union encouraged generations of agricultural trade unionists.  

One hundred years ago, 50 years after the formation of the NALU in 1922, a new generation of agricultural trade unionists assembled in Barford to unveil a granite obelisk in Arch’s memory in St Peter’s churchyard, near another stop on the number 15 route.

Today there are many rural workers in agriculture and the food-processing industry who once again need the support a union can bring.  

This year on June 25 we hope to recommence the annual celebration of Arch’s life with a three-mile walk between the two memorials. Anyone up for joining us?

Contact Nick Matthews at [email protected].

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