Saturday, 7 September 2013

Curious Curio- Colourful Marches.

Curious Curio - Part 5

Marching behind those banners...

The franchise demonstration march in Glasgow, on the 6th September 1884, must have been a colourful affair. The Glasgow Herald newspaper reported that the weather was fair - which, as a Scot, I take to mean no rain. It doesn't mean it was stunningly sunny, but an absence of rain would have meant a great deal to the officials of the unions and associations who turned out on that day. No rain would have meant that their silk banners and silk/fine velvet rosettes would not have been rain damaged.

My research has indicated that the trades association banners tended to be made of silk and were therefore very fragile and perishable- accounting for the fact that there are few left from the era in good condition. The banners were prominently displayed at meetings and carried on demonstrations but were not designed for heavy, or waterproof, use.

But what was on those banners and those that had come before?

The imagery on some of the banners appears to have been quite spectacular, the artwork and skill in the making of them as detailed and beautiful as many paintings would have depicted - in my opinion - it was art in its own genre. It's not been easy to find images to use here on this blog,(copyright issues) but the research I've done recently, and also some years ago when studying the Victorian era, indicated that the artists involved were very competent - if mostly anonymous.

I asked myself what were the aims of those artists who were under contract to create the banner images. Volunteers from the work force who were skilled amateur artists may even have designed some of the banners. After the banner image was designed and approved by the union or association members, there were print makers throughout the UK who made the actual silk screen printed banners. The art of the mid Victorian era was highly evocative, very colourful, sometimes depicting classical themes, and at others a highly cleansed version of what real life was like.

Work by Ford Maddox Ford - Wikimedia PD

This glorious allegorical painting, by Ford Maddox Ford, done approx in the 1850s or early 1860s, displays a scene full of dignified and strapping working men, appearing keen and eager to complete their tasks in what looks like a 'clean' environment. A penetratingly blue sky highlights the fine clean brickwork of the buildings at the top left. The scene is clear of industrial smoke and the grime, of factories and other messy works, is notable by its absence. The clothing of the workers may be sensible and work like but it is pristine and unblemished, as are the clothes worn by the others in the painting. A sanitised version of a Victorian scene- that cannot be denied - but it is a wonderful painting with many interpretations. Even the flower seller has clean feet, and wears clean looking rags. The two men chatting on the right are well dressed and probably the overseers of the workers, perhaps factory owners, or those who have given the men the building work task. Their casual lean against the railing seems, to me, +to indicate men who have a job to do that doesn't involve manual labour, who like to keep tabs on those doing the work yet can enjoy some leisure during the process. Though it isn't a true depiction of mid-Victorian life, it is a scene full of contemporary Victorian aspects of life.

The images in 'Work' by Ford Maddox Ford represent different classes of people, some doing an honest and industrious days work.

Idealised imagery of work being noble and industrious dominates the union emblems and certificates I've been able to research- though not able to show all here. The certificates of the 1850s embody the aspirations of the unions in a dignified and classical manner. Earlier ones, I imagine, were fairly similar.

The first trade unions of the 1830s and 1840s, had difficulty surviving, their aims tending to have more than an enfranchisement element. Those earliest unions were campaigning for better working conditions, better pay and better equality for the workers in terms of those who were more skilled receiving a fair pay for the job they were doing. For them, it was too much to ask at that time and frustration dogged their tails.

During the 1830s and 1840s, the Chartist Movement (subject of a different blog on some distant day) had methods of campaigning which were too radical and too aggressive for many of the workers who wanted to improve their lot, but without any damage to man or property. The aims of the Chartists were, however, sound in that they petitioned Parliament to approve: universal suffrage (all men to have the vote); secret voting; annual parliamentary elections instead of every five years; equally sized constituencies; election of Members of Parliament without the property qualification and that Members of Parliament should be paid. Between early 1830 and the 1850s there was continual unrest since the working man had campaigned hard but the First and Second Reform bills had not improved their conditions.

Frustration over lack of advancement, despite the efforts of the Chartists, led to many of those early unions failing. It took some years, and some reorganisation, before new unions were born and set to thrive. The classical image of the phoenix rising from the ashes was a fairly common image and signified that re-birth.

At approximately the same decade as Ford Maddox Ford was painting his allegorical snapshot, during the 1850s, there were many artists at work creating banner images and union certificates which were just as detailed and splendid. The aims of the union banners and certificates were slightly different in that it was the working man who was represented and not their employers.

This excellent certificate (1851), of monumental structure, was issued to those who signed up to the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, Machinists, Millwrights, Smiths and Pattern Makers. Those relevant tradesmen, who paid their shilling fee, were the proud owners of a print of this certificate to display on their walls, or to whip out at any moment to show the status of the qualified tradesman.

The six images directly above the texts show the five different trades in their working environments. Above those pictures is what seems to be a phoenix rising from fire perhaps showing that the Society was formed from different earlier unions who have come together for strength. The fiery flames may also be something to do with industrial forges and may be the closest to anything resembling the heat of the factories.

The three portraits are in celebration of the achievements of technical innovators of the time - Crompton, Watt and Arkwright - all men of humble backgrounds who overcame any difficulties and produced machinery which improved working conditions.

Flanking the portraits are classical figures- the outside seated figures representing 'Unity is Strength'. On the left a single stick can be easily broken but on the right a bundle of sticks is harder to break up. Men banding together in unions or associations were more likely to be victorious.

The classical standing figures representing peace and war demonstrate the unions aspirations to achieve their aims for better working conditions through negotiation rather than violent campaigning.

The two working men near the top of the certificate stand proud and clean - good honest workers seeking fair conditions. 

The angel at top centre rises aloft and appears to symbolise the amalgamation of the trades, their bond and aspirations a common one.

If the banners which were carried during the 1884 franchise demonstration in Glasgow had imagery like this one they would have been a sight to behold! Even a fraction of the quality seen on the certificate with bold Victorian lettering would have been splendid.

The wearers of badges like mine would have proudly worn their rosettes- a bright red silk backdrop to the shining new metal- walking in those lines of eight abreast behind something beautiful fluttering in the breeze.

My forebear may have been marching behind a colourful banner of the Cabinet Makers and French Polishers Association/Union since my great grandfather was a cabinet maker.

I hope you can picture some of that scene along with me.


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