UK Politics

The strike that threatened an English summer

Cricket ball makers on strike in 1914 Image copyright Getty Images

The thwack of cricket balls being hit and the sight of bowlers running in are part of an English summer. But, 100 years ago, a strike almost put an end to things.

In 1907 an anonymous satirist made a joke which still resonates today.

Writing in Mr Punch's Book of Sport, he (or she) stated that the "British sphere of influence" could be described in just three words: "The cricket ball."

A few years later, as the Great Powers were edging closer towards the slaughter and misery of World War One, this round, red symbol of summer - and Empire - came under threat.

Angered by their low wages, the cricket ball makers of Kent went on strike in April 1914.

Fears were raised that the season would be affected, even cancelled.

'Hard to imagine'

Hand-crafted in the area for more than 150 years by that time, the balls of west Kent, home to firms such as Dukes and Alfred Reader, were seen as the best. The workers were proud.

The Times, many of its readers fearful of a summer without watching the greats of the day, such as Jack Hobbs and Frank Woolley, in action, gave unusual prominence to such a small-scale dispute.

"Workers employed in the manufacture of cricket balls at Tonbridge have gone on strike to enforce their demand for an increase in wages," it reported.

Image caption The characteristics of a cricket ball have a continuing fascination, as commentator Brian Johnston and England spin bowler Jim Laker - fresh from 19 wickets in a Test match - showed in 1956

"They want an advance of five shillings per dozen balls. The manufacturers admit that highly skilled workmen only earn 30 shillings a week, but state that retailers refuse to allow a sufficient margin to allow of the payment of a fair wage."

In other words, cricket clubs wanted cheap balls, even if this came at the expense of a tradition.

Semi-rural Kent does not lend itself to the image of a hotbed of industrial trade unionism, but its workers were offended.

Its ball manufacturers employed several hundred people at the time, many of whom complained of being treated like "sweated labour".

"The power of the union may be largely a thing of the past, and cricket ball manufacture, along with pretty much everything else in cricket, has now largely moved to the subcontinent", says Matt Thacker, managing editor of The Nightwatchman, the Wisden Cricket Quarterly magazine.

"But it's great to be reminded occasionally how deeply ingrained into the fabric of English life cricket was.

"It's hard to imagine these days an English season coming under threat from anything but the IPL (Indian Premier League)."

Of all sports, except perhaps baseball, cricket is the most reliant on its balls. Spin, swing, bounce - the varying state of the five-and-a-bit-ounce, stitched mass of cork and leather can massively affect the nature of play.

Almost unthinkably now, Kent was the centre of an export trade, with enthusiasts in countries like Australia and India buying its wares.

After a few weeks, the Amalgamated Society of Cricket Ball Makers came to an agreement with the manufacturers and the threat of an end to cricket was abated.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Cricket ball makers cheered as, one by one, their colleagues walked out to join the picket line

A few months after the strike, World War One began and, within weeks, the first-class game came to a halt, but leagues, particularly in the north of England, continued and even thrived. Demand for balls continued.

The cricket ball makers were not alone in being able to flex considerable muscle on a local scale.

"There were lots of small unions around at this time and they were often very effective," says Chris Burgess, curator of the People's History Museum. "For instance, you had the Cigarette Machine Operators' Society and the Sheffield Chauffeurs' Society.

"Cricket ball making was a skilled trade. The union would have had a big presence within the factory, looking after workers' rights and campaigning on issues like wages."

After the 1918 Armistice, the Amalgamated Society of Cricket Ball Makers' books were found to be in a terrible state.

Amid disquiet over this, a separate group, the Teston Independent Society of Cricket Ball Makers, was formed in 1919, as its title suggests, in the village of Teston, home of the Alfred Reader factory.

The two unions' job got harder as the once-closed world of ball manufacture - rather like Britain's position as undoubted ruler of the Empire - came under challenge.

In 1930 the ASCBM again became involved in a dispute over pay. The Australian government imposed an import tariff on cricket balls and manufacturers proposed cutting wages to cope with a loss in profits.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Stars like Jack Hobbs entertained large crowds in the last summer before World War One

The Australian press noted that firms in the Tonbridge area still supplied "almost the entire Empire".

This had changed somewhat by the start of 1953, when another walkout occurred.

The ball makers demanded a 9% increase in wages, but their employers would only offer 6%.

The Times noted with concern in early April: "There are only 90 craftsmen in the country and 45 have not made a ball since March 27."

The workers soon returned.

Over the years, English ball-making continued to decline, with much of the work being outsourced to lower-wage countries, such as India and Pakistan.

Kent workers held another strike in 1962, calling for a sixpence-an-hour rise. After a month out, they accepted three-and-a-half pence. It was something of an industrial relations last hurrah.

Only a few people are employed in ball-making in west Kent today.

One of them, Matthew Waldock, says: "I started in the 1980s and there were about 50 or 60 people working here. The Test Match balls we made were a work of art."

Most of the work today involves selecting the English leather to be sent abroad and testing the quality of the balls when they arrive back from factories in India.

In 2006, the Teston Independent Society of Cricket Ball Makers disbanded. It had just six members, making it probably the UK's smallest union. The Sheffield Shearers Society, with just nine members, folded a year later.

Mr Waldock, general secretary of the Teston society at the time it was wound up, says: "We were going nowhere, so we decided to call it a day."

The photographs of dozens of craftsmen - in their cloth caps, shirts and collars, some perched on bicycles - defiantly on strike in 1914 show how things have changed.

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