May Day 1973 was the launch date of the Banner Bright, John Gorman’s rediscovery and celebration of British trade union banners. Thousands of these were made in the 19th and 20th centuries. Workers proudly unfurled their banners in celebration and in protest and triumph in their battles with employers. So why banners? Where did this come from and what was there to celebrate?
We celebrate May Day as one when industrial workers in many countries assembled beneath many union banners and slogans to fight for the eight-hour working day. May Day had for centuries before that been a day of defiance, revelry and partying. Robin Hood, the maypole The Midnight Notes Collective claims “there is a Green side and there is a Red side, Green is creation of desire; Red is class struggle. May Day is both”
Gwyn Williams introduced Gorman’s book with the tale of an insurrection (the red side) by the workers of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales in 1831. These workers marched to recapture petty properties that had been confiscated by debtor’s courts under demands from shopkeepers. They marched under a banner that called for “Death to kings and tyrants! The reign of Justice for ever!”
To have marched in the Merthyr Riots marked a man for years Williams claims. It was remembered in court and in obituaries. The next day they confronted soldiers under a black or red banner and after much argument the marchers attacked the soldiers who fired and killed many people. The rioters headed for the hills to raid farms and powder shops for weapons. On Abedare Mountain, the rebels ritually sacrificed a calf, washed a flag in its blood and impaled a loaf of bread on a staff. The red flag was on the march.
Nine years later a more formal Chartist protest march but an equally strong demand for justice with banners once again the key. This saw the workers greeting chartists Peter Douall and John Collins who were released from gaol. The released men saw thousands in the green scarves of Chartism with the lead banner having Douall’s portrait and THE TYRANTS FOE writ large upon it.
The march saw many bright and beautiful banners of British labour with mottoes that last forever – “Unity, Benevolence; The Rights of Man”; “Liberty and Equality” “Labour, the Source of All Wealth”.
The Welshmen were beaten back in 1831 and the Chartists saw their hopes shattered and the movement dissipated. Trade unionism began to develop from time however.and it spread rapidly to the colonies. The founders of many early craft unions in Australia, and of the eight-hour movement that was so successful in Victoria were veterans of the chartist protests, who sought more fertile ground for their ideas in Australia.
But the origins of the banners and motifs are older than the craft unions that produced many of the elaborate banners in those early days, and workers movements provided much of the custom for Tutill the major bannermaker in the UK for over 100 years.
The banners and motifs stemmed from the forerunners of the early craft societies. The friendly societies and Masonic lodges, with their regalia, passwords and secret signs provided sickness benefits, unemployment benefits and superannuation for their members. Trade unions carried on this role for many in the UK until after WWII.
The 1889 Dockers Tanner strike in London saw protest marches on many occasions and the final triumph of the workers saw an enormous development of the new unionism and an international solidarity acknowledged on many banners at many branches of that union. The British and Australian worker remained the union centrepiece until the formation of the Transport and General workers Union in 1920
The next year saw the first May in London with 400 banners unfurled.
Eleanor Marx and Fred Engels were on the podium (see above). Engels wrote " On May 4, 1890, the English working class joined up in the great international army. . . . The grandchildren of the old Chartists are entering the line of battle. . . . What would I give if Marx had lived to see this awakening." (Article in Vienna Arbeiterzeitung, May 23, 1890.)
The new gun is the eight hour gun, fired here by the workers of Woolwich Arsenal towards the Houses of Parliament.
The other banner illustrated has the “coat or arms” of a union and is one of the kind that is justly celebrated and conserved today in such institutions as the Peoples History Museum in Manchester, the Museum of Victoria, Kalgoorlie and in Sydney Trades Hall. The symbols of unions and of nations are inscribed on this and many surviving banners .
The oldest trade union banner in the Sydney Trades Hall collection (we think) dates from the time of that London May Day march. The Pressers Eight Hour Society banner was commission by a union that had formed in 1885 when they were “100 strong”.
The symbol of the bundle of sticks used show the strong links between the early unions across the British Empire and between the unions and the earlier friendly societies. The bundle refers directly to Aesops Fable of the small child who can break a single stick but bound together a strong man cannot break them.
Other symbols that are used in many union emblems include the All Seeing Eye. According to Leeson (United We Stand) The eye (Of God) dates to the Rosicrucians and alchemists of the middle ages, and was well known to those predecessors to the unions, the guilds. It was adopted by freemasons (and then stonemasons) societies. Annie Ravenhill-Johnson in her guide to trade union emblems (The Art and Ideology of the Trade Union Emblem, 1850-1925. Anthem Press, 2013) shows how many emblems have carried on in various forms since Alciati published a guide to them in 1522. Yes 1522. Leeson in Travelling Brothers dates many craft societies and guilds back for 800 years with symbols of solidarity carrying through to today
The members of the societies had to keep the fact of membership secret in earlier times. The Unlawful Societies Act (1799) and the Unlawful Oaths Act (1797) together with the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 were attempts to suppress political and industrial reform, a time of revolutionary upheaval in France and of developing dark satanic mills in the UK. Employer combinations were supposedly covered by these laws but of course never faced prosecution under them. The Luddites from around 1814 showed that state violence was needed to suppress workers determined to protect their livelihood from those who introduced machinery with no consideration for the workers displaced or forced to work like machines to survive.
The repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 make trade unions legal in a limited form, and the oldest banners in existence in the UK date from precisely this time. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported in the 1830s because the Unlawful Oaths Act remained in force.
The banners the size of sails were a way of broadcasting the messages of solidarity through words and images, in the days before radio, television and the internet. Many banners and certificates show the importance of education that many in the working classes had and wanted others to have. The symbols and words were codes, dating sometimes to ancient Greek scholarship. The depictions of machines on the banners later in the 19th century showed a more confident labour movement. The machines are under the control of the united working classes, not the bosses.
More straight forwardly, many of the banners and emblems refer directly to sickness benefits, unemployment benefits and superannuation. All provided by the society or union long before union pressure brought state based support.
So why should we care about old banners now and why should we maintain and extend the tradition? If the union was providing these benefits, as well as fighting for decent wages and conditions and had survived repression by the state and employers, why wouldn’t you celebrate your work and your union through identifying strongly with the union banner, carried proudly through public space in defiance and celebration.
Ian Millis and Ian Burn put it this way in the 1980s:
“ …The history of labour has markedly influenced the character of culture overall in Australia …
This historical consciousness is crucial; it is the understanding of labour's achievements and defeats. While labour movement pressure has forced the enactment of much enlightened social and industrial legislation, in many ways the struggles to advance workers' rights and conditions are the same and merely being fought on different ground… trade unions play a vital role as a creative force within the society.
Art and Working Life: Cultural activities in the Australian trade union movement