Textiles: Trade Union Banners at The People’s History Museum

(c) People's History Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationIn October I was involved in an exhibition called The Guild, which was  coordinated with a symposium with a few panelists and speakers.  One of the speakers, Chris, is a curator of the People’s History Museum, Salford. In my last post, I wrote about the Wonder Women 2015 Festival meeting which took place in the conference room of the People’s History Museum. So, with that bit of contact, my friend Sarah and I delighted in having a private tour of the textile banners exhibition with Chris!

We learnt that the museum has the largest collection of trade union banners in the world with over 400 in their collection, including the worlds oldest trade union banner, that of the Liverpool Tinplate Workers of 1821.

(c) People's History Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

secret skeleton

One of my favourites in the collection was a banner that was used for initiation ceremonies for trade societies. The painted banner dates from the early 19th century, circa 1820, a time when trade societies were illegal and meetings had to held in secret. The painting shows a skeleton, the Grim Reaper, holding a scythe in one hand and an hourglass in the other. It was quite large, larger than life size, and it hung from a  box that it could be rolled up in to carry or hide. In the ceremony, a new member would be blindfolded and, with a gun to the head, would recite a secret oath of allegiance. When the oath was done the painting would drop from the box, the blindfold removed and the new member was presented with a shocking reminder of their own mortality, as above the skeleton reads Remember Thy End. A reminder of your fate if you break the oath! The museum had a replica painting made based on descriptions of these types of banners, but then they acquired this authentic one when it was discovered in 2004 in Colorado, USA. The banner is believed to originate from the West Midlands, UK. I wonder how it got to Colorado!

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The museum had an impressive array of Suffragette objects. When Chris was talking about this collection, he mentioned that the Suffragettes were criticised as being too corporate by selling branded items. This wasn’t a common idea back then, so the suffragettes were ahead of the time in more ways than one. They had the usual items such as badges, yet they also had teacups, jewellery and boardgames!

Chris also told us about a 1960s interview recording of a suffragette he had listened to, where she was asked about going to protest demonstrations. The woman replied that she didn’t have time to go out marching because she had children and a job. The interviewer asked what she did to protest then, and her answer was “Well, I wore my sash.” This as a good example of proving there are many forms of protest, and that we shouldn’t focus all our attentions on one day of marching, when everyday could be spent wearing the sash.

On that little gem, I will leave you. If you are in Manchester or Salford, and want to check out the People’s History Museum I wholeheartedly recommend it. The trade union banner exhibit is large, and there are a few more rotating exhibitions around the building too. It also has a textiles restoration centre that you can peek into from the exhibition space. And it has a great bookshop at the end!

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