On September 1, by which time 648 women were on strike, Patience Round’s moving story appeared in the newspapers. The Chain Manufacturers’ Association (CMA), which included many church and chapel goers and local dignitaries, had grown increasingly concerned by the label of ‘sweater’ that had been attached to them. Events now moved swiftly.
On Friday 2 September, the CMA agreed to meet the strikers’ representatives. The women held a big procession through Cradley Heath and marched to Old Hill to picket the meeting. A photograph was taken of a group of older women chainmakers, including Patience Round, holding collection boxes and placards proclaiming ‘England’s disgrace’.
The employers had seriously underestimated the support the women would receive from all classes of the public, nor had they reckoned with the resolve of the women themselves.
They also began to see the strike as an opportunity to remove middlemen from the trade. Furthermore, the government, in accordance with Trade Board legislation, refused to tender contracts to firms not paying the new minimum rates.
This was a strong bargaining weapon. At the meeting on 2 September, the CMA offered to pay minimum rates in its members’ factories, but only if the NFWW guaranteed to support financially women who continued to refuse to work below the rate.
Essentially, the CMA was asking the union to protect it against unfair competition from non-associated masters and middlemen refusing to pay the minimum rate. The NFWW decided to accept the CMA offer because the employers had agreed to pay the minimum rate, and, thanks to the generosity of the public, the fighting fund could keep those women refused the minimum rate by their employers out on strike.
Members of the CMA signed a document, agreeing to pay the minimum rate, which was then forwarded to the Trade Board for the firms’ names to be included on its register. This became known as the White List.
This was the turning point, but by no means the end of the dispute. The following day, Saturday 3 September, the number on strike actually increased to 800 when the Cradley Heath Town Band headed a huge march to Old Hill two miles away to successfully persuade the chainmakers there, who did not know about the increased rates, to ‘throw down their hammers’.
On 6 September, Trinder and Co. agreed to pay the new rates and 120 women returned to work. Other companies gradually followed suit but it was necessary to keep up the pressure. In the second week of September, the women chainmakers secured the support of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) meeting in Sheffield, as Julia Varley and other members of the deputation chained themselves to the platform.
The Daily News wrote:
‘On the flower-decked platform appear three worn and pale-faced women clad in black, and holding forth a chain… one of them spoke… But though she scarcely uttered 20 words, the remembrance of her terrible misery gave an eloquent ring to her pleading voice. “For making this yard of chain, she said, we get a penny”.’
The congress pledged the women chainmakers the moral and financial support of the whole organised labour movement.
On 3 October, another procession marched through the town to a meeting at the Empire Theatre where free bread was distributed. It was not until 19 October that the last meeting was held, by which time the CMA had agreed only to deal with foggers who had signed up to the new rate and only a handful of employers had failed to sign the White List.
The strike was effectively over but the mood was subdued rather than triumphant. J. J. Mallon, secretary of the Anti-Sweating League, described the atmosphere as unusually quiet ‘like a prayer meeting’. Perhaps the women sensed that something special was coming to an end. The dispute ended on 22 October when the last employer signed the White List. The women chainmakers of Cradley Heath had won a famous victory through their determined and well-publicised strike.
When Mary Macarthur returned a few months later they presented her with a gold bracelet watch. Over 2,000 women were there to greet and thank her – and for once their heroine was lost for words.