Where have all the banners gone?


Lois made an enquiry about trade union banners and their whereabouts in Lancashire? Unfortunately, our knowledge about this particular aspect of labour history collections is quite limited. Having contacted the Working Class Movement Library (WCML) in Salford and the Trade Union Congress (who have yet to reply), the simple answer is that there does not appear to be one collection, or one collection point. What we do know is that the aforementioned WCML have one or two banners, the People’s History Museum in Manchester likewise and banners often appear in local exhibitions such as the one extant at the Museum of Wigan Life in Wigan.

However, what we can add is that it was the tradition of marching, to make protest, that is the origin of banners. Political groupings that did not march, such as the Anti Corn law League or the anti-slavery movement did not possess banners. For hundreds of years banners have been used in the marching tradition and the first banners probably evolved, prior to the repeal of the Combination Act in 1825, in the secret meetings of trade societies. Thereafter, banners were used to identify groupings: from trade unions, to friendly societies, to temperance groups. Interestingly, despite the proliferation of banners in the nineteenth century only one banner remains from the infamous Peterloo gathering in Manchester in 1819 and none from the Chartist period that we are aware of!

As trade unionism increased throughout the nineteenth century so did the banners. George Tutil became a famous banner maker from 1837 onwards and the tradition survived and grew with the Suffragettes in the Edwardian era. Banners were embroidered, stencilled and appliqued and would profess similar values of dignity of trade, brotherhood, unity and justice. The effects of banners as historical artefacts can be ‘read’ by historians to locate evidence and meanings. Interestingly, Nick Mansfiled has argued more recently that the appearance of the Union Jack on many nineteenth century trade union banners ought to lead us to question the radical nature of many trade unionists and reassess the many stranded nature of working class radical politics.

A final thought on banners was brought to us most recently by Nick Hunt of the Mid-Pennine Arts Project. In October of 2019, Nick organised a banner exhibition at a Brierfield textile mill in the heart of North East Lancs. The exhibition displayed banners from Greenham Common, the Durham Miners and the Hillsborough football stadium disaster. A tribute to the tradition of marching to be heard it would appear that Lancashire is a setting with more than its fair share of colourful emblematic expression.

Peter John Fyles

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