Saturday, 28 May 2016

Fact Meets Fiction : Jessie Eden and Peaky Blinders

Fact met fiction in Peaky Blinders once again this week, as the Shelby women decided to show solidarity by walking out on the Good Friday strike of 1924 with the rest of Birmingham's working women. "Let's go to the Bull Ring"  Helen McCrory's Aunt Polly declared, striding out of the Shelby's illegal gambling den in Small Heath to see Jessie Eden, shop steward at Lucas' Motor Components factory, demand equal sanitation rights for her female members.


Jessie Eden
1902~1986

Unfortunately, the episode didn't actually show us Jessie Eden, or her rally at the Bull Ring, though it is revealed that a drunken Aunt Polly, burdened with guilt at the Shelby's increasing murderous exploits, got very pally with the twenty-two year old firebrand though found her too diplomatic for her tastes!



Peaky Blinders, Series 3 Episode 4;
The Shelby Women discuss Jessie Eden's strike


It appears that Peaky's writer Steven Knight has taken both the 1926 General Strike and a subsequent week-long strike for female workers in January 1931 as his main inspiration here. In reality, the first recorded act of militant unionism that Jessie Shrimpton (her maiden name, and as she was then known) undertook was in the General Strike, which means Knight has used some licence to depict her as politically active some two years prior to what we actually know. It's not the first bending of fact Knight has undertook - many will remember how, in series two, he wrote of Tommy Shelby and Churchill as being active in the British forces at Verdun; a First World War battle that occurred between the French and German armies only.

The General Strike lasted 9 days from 4th May to 13th May, an attempt to force the government to halt wage reduction and worsening conditions for the 1.2 million locked out coal miners. Despite over a million people standing in solidarity and transport and heavy industry being particularly effected, the action proved unsuccessful thanks to a prepared government reaction and the enlisting of middle class volunteers to run services struck by the industrial action. 

For the fiftieth anniversary of the strike, The Birmingham Post interviewed a then 74-year-old Eden - then using her final married name of McCulloch - for her memories of the day she downed tools at Lucas' and led all the women in her section out to join the traditional May Day march onto the streets of Birmingham alongside some 25,000 fellow marchers from across the city.

"When policemen laid hands on trade union tomboy Jessie McCulloch at a workers' meeting in the old Bull Ring during the 1926 General Strike they pretty soon realised they had made a mistake; 'One policeman put his hands on my arm. They were telling me to go home but the crowd howled 'Hey leave her alone' and some men came and pushed the policemen away. They didn't do anything after that. I think they could see that there would have been a riot. I was never frightened of the police or the troops because I had the people with me you see; I don't know what I'd have felt like on my own'"

On strike, the Shelby womenfolk march to the Bull Ring to hear Jessie Evans speak; Peaky Blinders, Series 3, Episode 4.

She soon got a taste of it. In 1931 Jessie went down in history when she led 10,000 Birmingham women out on a week long strike - virtually unheard of at such time. It all started when Lucas' management instigated a time and motion study from America called the Bedaux System, after its creator Charles Eugene Bedaux, which had so impressed factory owner Charles Lucas on a visit to the US. It was universally accepted among the management at Lucas' that Jessie's work filing shock absorbers at the plant was both the quickest and most efficient and the plan was to set the time by her and expect her colleagues to keep up with her. The two Americans brought to Birmingham had even begun to time the women's visits to the toilet and this offensive act spurred Jessie and 140 of the girls into action; refusing to participate in the project, the Americans were chased from the screw machine shop, with one of them taking to the roof! 

Jessie initially went to the AEU (Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union) to ask them to represent her fellow women in this dispute but, whilst the AEU were the most populated and largely Communist union at Lucas' at the time, they did not accept women as members. So instead she turned to the TGWU (Transport and General Workers Union) who promptly signed up the female workforce at her behest. A rank and file committee was duly formed, holding lunchtime meetings at the gates. Numbers increased rapidly and eventually, Jessie led thousands of women out of the gates in an all-out strike. 

With support from other factories and the Birmingham branch of the Communist Party (which Jessie had now joined) Lucas' seemed set for a complete stoppage and an anxious management dropped the Bedaux system as a result.Tasting victory, the jubilant workforce hoisted Jessie up onto their shoulders in celebration. But triumph proved to be short-lived; a 5,000 strong victory march the following day was broken up by Birmingham's Chief Constable who was booed by the procession and arrests of known communists were made in attempts to stage a May Day rally. After a while, cutbacks at the Lucas plant and a vengeful management saw Jessie lose her job. She subsequently received victimisation pay from the union and a gold medal from Ernest Bevin and had so impressed the party that they would sent her to Soviet Russia to help rally the female workers at the Moscow Metro.

Returning to England, Jessie raised her family, remarried and remained politically active, playing a prominent part in the 1939 mass rent strike across the city and would spend much of the war involved in pro-Soviet activity building bridges with the USSR's ambassador and many visiting delegations in an attempt to improve our relationship with Russia. She unsuccessfully stood for council representing the Communist Party in the 1945 election for the Handsworth district, but drew a respectable 3.4% of the vote. She protested against the Vietnam war in the 1960s and remained an active and much respected member of the party until senility struck in the late '70s. She died in 1986 after spending her last years in hospital from heart failure and dementia. She was 84 years old.



For more on Jessie, the Midlands and the Communist Party, visit Graham Stevenson's website.

4 comments:

  1. Mark, thank you! I'm Andrea McCulloch, Jessie's daughter in law. I hadn't seen this episode of Peaky Blinders, absolutely thrilled to bits that Mum's role in history has been recognised, even if they didn't let the facts get in the way of a good story.
    Today, 14th July, (Bastille Day) is the 25th anniversary of the death of Alex McCulloch, Jessie's lovely brother in law, who acted as my surrogate Dad in law after Walter's death. Lovely man.

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    1. No, thank you! I am so glad you stopped by and left a comment. I hope I have done your family justice with this little write-up. If only there were more like Jessie today! And much respect and best wishes to you and yours on this anniversary.

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  2. Hi, thank you for this article. It is very useful for me, since I am trying to write a paper for University about Peaky Blinders and it was quite difficult to find any information about Jessie Eden, considering I don't live in the UK. So, I would be really grateful if you could suggest me any books or articles about her that I could use. I hope this is not too much of a bother. :)

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    1. That sounds like a very interesting paper! Unfortunately, there's not a great deal of info immediately available on Jessie in the UK either as the establishment try to eradicate our socialist past and its achievements. I got info from archive newspapers, the odd book and some websites. You may find more out here

      http://www.communist-party.org.uk

      In the book Against Fascism and War: Ruptures and Continuities in British Communist Politics 1935-1941 by Kevin Morgan (I got some info from there)

      and on Graham Stevenson's site. http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=727&Itemid=83

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