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Strikers, Hobblers, Conchies and Reds

Strikers, Hobblers, Conchies and Reds: A radical history of Bristol 1880-1939, by Dave Backwith, Roger Ball, Stephen E Hunt, Mike Richardson, reviewed by Gemma Edwards

August 25, 2015
3 min read

strikers-hobblersWritten by members of the Bristol Radical History Group, Strikers, Hobblers, Conchies and Reds unearths Bristol’s history ‘from below’, starting with the first fires of anarchism, through to the peak of the New Unionist strike wave in 1889-90, and ending with the dying embers of the unemployed movement’s ‘hunger marches’ in 1932.

In between we are introduced to a variety of currents interwoven with the story of labour. We learn about the water pilots of Pill, whose navigational skills were required to guide ships safely along the Bristol Channel and river Avon; first world war conscientious objectors; Bristol’s coffee taverns (where you might be inspired by a lecture from the ‘sandal-wearing vegetarian’ socialist Edward Carpenter); and the garden city movement that played an important part in shaping Bristol’s suburban landscape.

Through the accounts of these different periods in Bristol’s history, a narrative emerges of the local and national ebbs and flows of working class struggle. Nowhere is this clearer than in the discussion of New Unionism, the spread of trade unions to previously unorganised workers from the late 1880s.

Here we appreciate the personal stories and motivations of Bristol’s leading socialists, and the notable role played by women such as Miriam Daniell and Helena Born, who organised strikes among Bristol workers, including the Barton Hill cotton women. Through the charting of personal and local experiences – animated by the collective memories of Bristolians – we also gain a wider account of the social, economic and political transformations that at times made solidarity possible, and at others created weakness and division.

Strikers, Hobblers, Conchies and Reds combines the local and the personal with a national account of the forces that have shaped socialism, making it an engaging and informative read. While the areas of Haymarket and the Downs come alive with the ghosts of a century of struggle in a way that will satisfy the local reader, Bristol remains but a ‘microcosm’ of collective responses to developments in capitalism that has echoes in the present day.

You don’t have to be a Bristolian, or looking to the past, to appreciate that the picture painted so vividly in this book of economic downturns, housing crisis and the repressive policing of protests to control a rising tide of anger from working people is one of enduring importance.