Julia Varley was the first female manual worker to rise to the ranks of trade union leadership. Born on 16 March 1871, she began work at the age of 13 as a sweeper in a Bradford woollen mill. She joined the Weavers’ and Textile Workers’ Union and within a year became the Bradford branch secretary and one of the union’s executive members – still aged only 14! – and the first woman elected to the Bradford Trades Council.
From 1904 to 1907 she was a Poor Law guardian in Bradford. To gain an insight into the social problems of poor working class women, she went ‘on the tramp’ from Bradford to Liverpool disguised as a tramp searching for her husband.
She was one of the first campaigners for women’s suffrage to be imprisoned. Indeed, she went to prison twice in 1907. She said:
‘We work shoulder to shoulder with the men in the mills, and in the councils of the workers; why should they deny us the right to help us choose the men who make the laws that govern the workers?’
Julia had come to believe that men and women should be in the same unions and in 1912 she became a Midlands organiser for the Workers’ Union, a large general union and one of the few which took the recruitment of women as well as men seriously. She retained this post when the Workers’ Union amalgamated in 1929 with the Transport and General Workers’ Union – which itself amalgamated with Amicus on 1 May 2007 to form Unite, Britain’s largest trade union. She remained a prominent figure in the trade union movement, serving on the TUC General Council from 1921 to 1924 and 1926 to 1935. In 1931 she was awarded the OBE for her trade union work. She died in Bradford in 1952.