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By Iain Dalton

A 120 years ago today, 8 March 1895, one of the greatest socialists in the history of Leeds passed away. Tom Maguire was the driving force of the Leeds branch of the Socialist League, a body which spurred the development of ‘New Unionism’ in West Yorkshire and the birth of the ILP. Through his branch of the Socialist League passed several figures who would go on to play important (though not always positive roles) such as Ben Turner and Fred Jowett. Such is Maguire’s importance his name, along with that of Isabella Ford, is enshrined in the name of the local radical history society.

Maguire was a photographer’s assistant and poet, living in a back-to-back house in Burmantofts. Of Irish-Catholic descent, he sang in the choir of St Anne’s Cathedral and attended Sunday school. Yet he grew to reject religion altogether and it was in the Leeds secular hall that he first came into contact with Socialist ideas in 1883. Maguire founded a branch of the Social-Democratic Federation in the city the following year and when the SDF split, he joined William Morris’ Socialist League along with the rest of the Leeds SDF branch.

The staple of the league’s activity was holding regular meetings, outdoors if possible, at Vicar’s Croft (now the outdoor market)( to interest new layers but as a leaflet from 1887 says ‘During the winter months lectures will be given and discussion held at 17 Chesham Street, Sweet Street, Holbeck’, The list of meeting titles on the leaflet ranges from the agitation ‘The National Loaf: Who Earns It, Who Eats It’ to the theoretical ‘The Principles of Socialism’ to the more practical ‘The Lesson of the Trades Congress’

In the summer, groups of Socialist Leaguers would go on walks through the dales or South Yorkshire coalfields, stopping to hold meetings in villages and sell literature. Into the Socialist League was brought such figures as Ben Turner, a journalist on the Yorkshire Factory Times and a pioneer of trade unionism amongst wool & worsted workers and Fred Jowett, a textile worker who was one of the first ILP councilors and later MP for Bradford East.

But it was not only propaganda which Maguire and the Leeds Socialist League engaged in, building support amongst trade unionists, especially amongst the miners and the Amalgamated Society of Engineers.

The New Unionism

Maguire and the Socialist Leaguers were also involved in attempts to organise unskilled workers that preceded the start of the ‘New Unionism’ with the Bryant and May matchworkers strike in 1888. As early as 1885, they had directed efforts towards the miners and engineers and also had a member, Joseph Finn amongst the city’s jewish tailors when they won a small reduction in hours. By early 1888, Maguire and the Leeds Socialist Leaguers found themselves at the head of the three jewish tailors unions in Leeds, bodies that had survived from ill-fated strikes earlier in the decade.

The song Maguire wrote for the strike “The Song of the Sweater’s Victim”, gives an indication of the conditions suffered opens,

“Up in the morn, at break of day,
To the Sweater’s den we go;
We sweat our health and strength away,
And pale and sickly grow,
That the sweaters may dwell in mansions fair,
And wear the costliest clothes,
Whilst our children starve in hovels bare
Where the sunlight seldom goes.”

The 1888 dispute was over the call by the tailors for a closed shop, in response to attempts to bring in non-union labour, 3,000 workers struck on May 5th. Four days later 5,000 rallied in Victoria Square (outside the town hall) address by Maguire & other Socialist Leaguers, plus a sympathetic employer and in the first fortnight of strike the Socialist Leaguers organised 15 meetings at which members of the local labour movement spoke. Yet after three weeks, when local merchants refused to further extend the strikers credit, the strike collapsed for lack of funds.

From a membership rocketing at the beginning of the strike up to 800, it crashed afterwards to nothing, being resuscitated the following year and merging into the newly developing Gas & General Labourer’s Union (GGLU).

Although this strike took place several months before the famous matchwomen’s strike at Bryant & May in London’s East End, it didn’t play the same role of kick-starting the rush of New Unionism. The fact the watchwomen were victorious, alongside their close links with other workers in the area (many of the matchwomen were married to or were children of dockers) meant that the famous words one matchwomen used to describe their strike ‘it just went like tinder’, could be applied to New Unionism in that part of London over the next year as gasworkers and the dockers, most famously, began to found powerful unions and score impressive victories.

New Unionism in Leeds

Sometimes, the difference between a successful movement and not can amount to a bit of luck in meeting the right people to organise with. In Leeds, ‘new unionism’ began with precisely that phenomena when a group of bricklayer’s labourers attended one of the Socialist League’s open air meetings.

The labourers weren’t the only attempt to organise semi-skilled and unskilled workers in Leeds. Factory inspector Clementia Black and Quaker, Isabella Ford, attempted to encourage trade unionism amongst the tailoresses, through the formation of a society providing sickness benefit. Like the Jewish tailors, this experience was built upon failed attempts in the past.

By 1889 there were 105 members of the society, and the union attempted to take up workplace issues, in particular the huge raft of fines levied on tailoresses by Messers Arthur & Co’s tailoring works. Similar to the matchwomen, these could be levied for almost anything – one penny a week was deducted for use of cooking facilities, whether they were used or note, whilst a penny in the shilling was deducted for use of steam power (even if they worked at home).

A strike was called on 22 October 1889, and within days 900 workers were out. Maguire helped Isabella Ford organise strike meetings which drew crowds of upto 3,500! Yet, the new union had little funds despite organising collections on behalf of the strikers, a drift back to work began due to lack of strike pay. Yet despite this a few months after the strike had collapsed, the company dropped the charges for cooking facilities and steam power. Undeterred by this, a year later Jewish tailors struck and won a much shorter working week.

The development of the new unions led to May Day being celebrated for the first time in Leeds, not by the Trades Council, as is the case now, but by the Yorkshire Labour Council, a body made up of the ‘new unions’. 6,000 attended including tailors, dyers, gasworkers, slipper-makers, maltsters, teamsters and labourers. Maguire presided over the main platform at the rally, passing a resolution calling for an eight hour working day.

But the most stunning victory of new unionism in Leeds was the 1890 Leeds gas workers strike. The Leeds gasworks were owned by the local council, which itself was dominated by the local Liberal Party. The men had formed a union with the assistance of the Socialist Leaguers in 1889 and had quickly won the eight hour day, increases in pay and holiday time.

Yet, once the cold weather had passed and demand for gas lowered, the council reneged on its pledges. By June the workers had walked out on strike in protest against these attacks, with a mass rally of over 10,000 to build support for the strike.

The council attempted to import strikebreakers into the city, but this just provoked bigger protests. The extent of which was that the strikebreakers had to be accommodated in the town hall overnight whilst a police and army escort was organised to escort them to the gates of the gas works where tents had been put up inside in the yard. But this was a red rag to a bull – 30,000 turned out to oppose them. Not being able to get to speak to the scabs to convince them to turn around due to the armed escort, strikers and their supporters had to resort to force.

As the Leeds Evening Express correspondent put it “The scene that ensued SIMPLY DEFIES DESCRIPTION, bricks, stones, ‘clinkers’, iron belts, sticks, etc., were hurled into the air to fall with SICKENING THUDS AND CRASHES upon and amongst the blacklegs and their escorts”.

In the end, many of the strikebreakers weren’t aware of what they had signed up for, and the union happily paid their train fare to return home. With the scabbing effort collapsing, the council conceded most of the workers demands.

Whilst Fredrick Engels famously gave Will Thorne a copy of capital with the words ‘To the victor of the Battle of Leeds’, others thought Maguire deserved that title. Leeds Socialist Leaguer Alf Mattison said of Maguire’s role “The part that Tom Maguire played in this struggle cannot be overestimated. He was the life and soul of it. Calm, thoughtful and practical all the time, the credit of its success rests mainly on him.”

What was particularly remarkable about the Gas Worker’s strike is that it came during the downswing of the new unionism as an employers offensive to smash this organised threat developed, on the pattern succesfully tested in the dispute at Silver’s works in the East End of London. That was the mass importation of scabs, use of the police and other forces of the state against pickets and the threat of legal action (only the latter wasn’t used in Leeds). In Leeds workers had been able to beat this strategy, yet this victory wasn’t repeated elsewhere as the defeats began to pile up over the next few years.

But in some ways this foreshadowed the tragedy that was to develop as the Leeds Socialist League split. At no time did a genuine Marxist party exist in Britain – the SDF was a mere caricature of such a party whilst the Socialist League’s looseness allowed it to be taken over by anarchists. Although the leading socialists of the new unionism period had passed through the SDF and Socialist League, many of them were pushed out of these bodies and acted as individuals or isolated groups (some of which formally retained membership of either body).

The official publications of either body failed to offer a genuine lead, and instead the leaders of the Leeds Socialist League took subscriptions to H.H. Champion’s Labour Elector and Keir Hardie’s The Miner to distribute in the city, Maguire even briefly attempted to establish a branch of the Fabian Society in the city. As EP Thompson comments ‘Maguire, Paylor, Mattison – all were in their twenties when this sudden elevation from the status of a sect to that of leaders and advisers to the unskilled of half a populous county took place. They had no national advisers.”

The lack of a genuine revolutionary party in this period, one which could have helped draw the many new threads of the upsurge together could have helped tie these groups together into a more effective force. Instead we had the brilliance of individual isolated groups from the remnants of the Socialist League, a handful of effective SDF branches in places such as Rochdale & Northampton, and brilliant individuals such as Eleanor Marx.

Prelude to the ILP

Although Maguire had been advocating the establishment of a ‘Socialist Labour Party’ for some time (the website of the Ford-Maguire society includes the text of the leaflet already mentioned aimed at this from 1887), it was the aftermath of the gas workers strike which gave the real impetus to the beginnings of its development in Leeds and helped win over some Liberal supporting trade unionists.

Arthur Shaw, an engineer, was one of those former Liberal supporters won over, a few years later he explained as follows:

“Previous to 1890 I had worked with ardour and perseverance for the success of the Liberal Party in Leeds, believing them to be the friends of the workers. We had just returned, for the South Ward of Leeds, a Liberal Councillor, a professed friend of Labour, when the gas-workers justly demanded an Eight Hours Day.

“To this demand my friends the Liberals opposeda strenuous resistance, as a proof of their friendship, and imported into the town the scum of labour from all parts of England. My particular friend of the South Ward [Cllr J Hunt] entertained them at the Town Hall with “Britons never shall be slaves”.

“Other Liberals provided them with beer and tobacco, while at the same time the Leeds gas-workers were provided with military, as another mark of Liberal friendship. This decided me. I vowed I would never again assist either of the Political Parties, and every day I become more convinced that my course was right.”

At the Gas Workers’ victor rally, George Kinton, a moderate trade unionist from the Boot & Shoe Operatives union announced the formation of a Labour Electoral League to contest the upcoming elections in November.

In the same letter to Carpenter quoted above Maguire makes the point that “I admit the Labour Electoral move is not at all to be desired, but it seemed the next immediate step to take in order to keep the Labour union militants, and to emphasise the conflict of the workers and the employers.”

As a result, the socialists and new unionists around Maguire took a number of steps toward promoting independent labour candidates, inspiring the same move to take place in Bradford which ultimately led to the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893. Yet such immediate success as in Bradford, with a Labour councillor elected in 1892, was not replicated so quickly in Leeds where the first Labour councillor was not elected until 1903.

This indicates how closely the development of working class political representation is linked to struggle. Whereas an electoral challenge was mounted straightaway after the defeat of the Manningham Mills workers, in Leeds the attempt to develop independent political representation became straddled between the Lib-Lab-ers who dominated the Trades Council leadership and wanted to push labour candidates through the Liberal Party and the new unionists who wanted independent workers representatives.

The first real attempt at a challenge came at the 1981 council elections, a year and a half after the strike, where two failed Trades Council nominees to the Liberal party and Cockayne of the GGLU stood, with two of them achieving votes close to the Liberals. Yet this went no further having served the Lib-Lab-ers purpose of merely threatening the local Liberal leaders, and indeed they strangled further attempts such as putting forward a candidate in the South Leeds by-election in 1892.

Maguire’s Last Days

EP Thompson’s account ‘Homage to Tom Maguire’ makes it seem like Maguire largely dropped out after being a delegate to the founding conference of the ILP. Yet the month before his death, he was debating on the question of “Will the ILP gain its ends sooner by remaining independent or by joining forces with the local Liberal Party?”

The tragedy of Tom Maguire, is that his tireless efforts and sacrifice are in part what killed him. In a house lacking heating Maguire died of pneumonia – being found severely ill after his comrades wondered why he hadn’t turned up for a meeting.

400 mourners accompanied his coffin from his home to the Beckett Street cemetery where 1000 were present for his burial. It was a fitting send-off to one who had given so much to the labour movement in such a short space of time.

For someone writing this now, the same age as Maguire was when he passed away – it is incredible to view the scope of the activities he and those around him were involved in. We can best remember Maguire contribution by seeking to emulate it today in the push for a party that genuinely represents the working class and in the fight against the new forms of super-exploitation through low pay, zero hour contracts and other measures.


Battle, J. (1997) ‘Tom Maguire: Socialist and Poet’ Ford-Maguire Society: Leeds
Hannam, J. (1989) ‘Isabella Ford’ Blackwell, Oxford
Kersham, A.J. (1995) ‘Uniting the Tailors: Trade Unionism Amongst the Tailors of London and Leeds, 1870-1939’ Frank Cass: Ilford
Renton, D. ‘Tom Maguire: Classical Marxist? (available online – http://www.dkrenton.co.uk/research/maguire.html)
Thompson, E.P. (1967) ‘Homage to Tom Maguire’ in Briggs, A. & Saville, J. (eds) Essays in Labour History, Macmillan: London
Thorne, W. (1989) ‘My Life’s Battles’, Lawrence and Wishart: London