To the Banner Born: Inside the People’s History Museum
It’s a banner you wouldn’t want to argue with.
“Honour good men,” it says. “Be courteous to all men. Bow down to none.”
We are at the start of the Flying the Flag tour at the People’s History Museum in Manchester and this banner, made for the East Bradford Socialist Sunday School in 1914, is giving us all pause for thought.
For Chris Burgess, the museum’s curator, it’s a fascinating relic of a time when socialism was being cultivated as a faith. “There were ten socialist commandments,” he explains. “You would sing socialist hymns and read socialist texts. The Sunday schools weren’t just for children, they were for adults as well.”
For Jenny Barsby, one of the museum’s conservators, the banner represents a technical challenge in the face of ever-creeping physical decay. As we admire the vivid colours of its symbolic rising sun and abundant fruit trees, she outlines the ways in which materials degrade and paint breaks down, and how the museum takes steps to carefully rectify the damage.
“The paint tends to crack and break away,” she says. “So we often have to consolidate that using various adhesives. It’s also sagging slightly but we can’t do anything about that without remaking the whole banner, which isn’t something we’d tend to do because we always aim for minimum intervention.”
For me, it’s a portal to my family’s past, or an imagined version thereof – a possible background detail from my Granny’s Bradford childhood, an object she might have seen paraded through the streets representing the optimism of working people in her city and beyond.
Granny and Grandad Colmer were Bradford socialists of the inter and post-war eras. They were Methodists too, and pacifists, ticking all the non-conformist boxes in a city that excelled in quiet resistance and unadorned faith in the future. Even better, Granny’s uncle was a man named Fred Jowett – the first socialist elected to Bradford Council and eventually a member of Ramsay Macdonald’s first Labour cabinet.
According to contemporary accounts, Jowett was “quiet-voiced, slightly-built, demurely-dressed”. It’s a description that would have suited both those grandparents and, as I inspected a photograph of the Socialist Sunday School banner being held aloft by flat-capped kids in the 1920s, I couldn’t help but imagine them all of a type. Quiet-voiced, slightly-built, demurely-dressed – in the vanguard of a whispered revolution.
The People’s History Museum, which tells the story of Britain’s democratic struggles, houses the biggest collection of trade union and political banners in the world. While the Socialist Sunday School banner actually belongs to the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, and is on loan to the museum for conservation and display purposes, there are more than 450 others in the permanent collection, each with its own attendant tales and memories – whether factual, or imagined like mine.
Every January a new selection of banners is chosen for display among the accumulated objects and captions in the museum’s fine gallery space. The Flying the Flag tour I attended was a chance to inspect a few of them up close accompanied by expert comment from Burgess and Barsby, curator and conservator respectively, who were both keen to pass on their professional insights and answer questions from the curious.
Over the course of an hour I learnt about the difficulty of organising rural labourers, the collapse of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and the trade union banner manufacturer who wouldn’t let his workers join a union. I discovered the role of blotting paper (remember that?) in the removal of antique creases, and the judgement that goes into deciding which imperfections to remove and which are considered historic. And to my surprise, I learnt that the museum doesn’t solely deal in artefacts of the left. In among the hammers and sickles, the clasped hands and raised fists, hangs an altogether daintier piece of fabric.
“This banner is from an organisation called the Primrose League,” explains Burgess. “It was founded in 1883 to encourage working class support for the Conservative Party, particularly working class women. It was the kind of organisation that would invite you for tea on the vicar’s lawn.”
Here, there are no groups of optimistic workers with eyes fixed on a golden future. Instead, over a background of primroses (Disraeli’s favourite flower apparently) and alongside some heraldic looking crests, is a diagonal slash carrying the words ‘Ye Old Trafford Habitation’.
“Rather than being called lodges, clubs or associations, each Primrose League branch was called a ‘habitation’,” explains Burgess. In contrast to the utopian visions and fevered declamations of some of the left-wing banners, it was remarkable how this piece seemed fixated on a mythic, Medieval-ish past. Antiquated in its language and regal in its style, the ghosts it conjured up were the kind that clanked around in armour rather than being spectres of the type that haunted Europe.
The tour took us round 11 of the banners though there are many more to enjoy as part of a museum visit, including the oldest surviving trade union banner in the world. Belonging to the Liverpool Tinplate Workers’ Society and dating from 1821, the banner hangs alongside a mock-up of the Swan Inn’s back room where secret initiations took place – a secrecy forced on the society by the Unlawful Oaths Act of 1797. The Act had originally been intended to deter mutinies in the armed forces, but its applicability to the nascent unions proved useful to the authorities.
Although the banner features the iconography of justice and solidarity – weighing scales, bundles of sticks and so on – plus a rather threatening all-seeing eye, the caption explains that it was painted to celebrate the coronation of King George IV. It even includes a prominent union jack in the corner, an indication perhaps that those much-feared unions and workers’ societies might turn out to be not such a dire threat after all.
I’ve been on plenty of leftish marches in my time, and the sight of classic-style union banners, one following another, never fails to stir my red blood cells. Often deep crimson with ornate golden scroll work and images of firm, manly handshakes, you’d see them ten-deep at events like the Durham Miners’ Gala. There are some huge and beautiful examples in the museum, which is fortunate to have the ceiling height to display them at their best.
However, it was a rather more modest banner belonging to the York Trades Council that was my favourite of the tour. Made in 1975 and consisting of nothing more than some cack-handedly cut-out black letters on a red ground, this was a banner on which I really could see the accumulated layers of the past.
Across its face there lay an assortment of rounds and rectangles, each declaiming support for a cause or for a union, or against some dastardly Tory plan. They were just stickers of the type that get dished out by the dozen at demonstrations, eventually to be peeled off absent-mindedly or washed away in the rain. They are the most temporary of political art forms, and yet the ones seen here had found a more permanent place to land.
“We would never consider taking the stickers off the banner,” says Burgess. “They are part of its history. They show really vividly where the banner has been and the demonstrations it was involved with.”
Dense as they are with political history, the cheap paper stickers also present real problems for Barsby and her conservator colleagues. “After a while they pick up the fibres and curl up – there were quite a few that had curled at the edges. This Coal Not Dole sticker in the centre, from the 1984-85 miners’ strike, is very fragile. I had to do quite a bit of treatment on it using adhesives, but in controlled ways.”
Indicating another sticker, she continues: “I had to do some work on this one just after it had gone on display. Somebody had peeled the corner back. My colleague spotted it and checked with me, then we compared it against a photograph to make sure none of the others had been pulled back too. Then we took it into the studio and did an emergency treatment.”
If the tiniest of paper stickers is eligible for expert paramedic attention, the People’s History Museum is clearly an instituion that takes the care of its collection very seriously. In fact, a large window in one of the galleries allows visitors to watch the action-packed antics of the conservators throughout the day. What may look to us like painfully detailed work under a microscope could be a process that adds another ten years to a revolutionary banner’s angry life.
Once the tour was over, I spent another hour or so taking in the rest of the museum’s collection – the posters, badges, leaflets and membership cards that lead from the Peterloo Massacre and the radicals of the past through to the Bedroom Tax protests of more recent years.
As I made my way through the galleries for the last time, I inadvertantly caught someone’s eye. Not a fellow visitor, but a man in a photograph – black and white, slightly-built, demurely-dressed. It was my granny’s Uncle Fred, my own great great uncle, otherwise known as Fred Jowett of Bradford. There he stood on the Westminster terrace in 1906, one of a group of MPs elected under the banner of the Labour Representation Committee. He gazed directly out from the centre of the image – his heart perhaps full of hope – just a couple of feet behind the great Keir Hardie himself.
I thought again about the Socialist Sunday School banner, about my Granny, about Bradford in 1914, and about the way the city’s people must have felt that history was propelling them forwards – via modest means, but to imagined glorious ends.
There was war around the corner and further horrors lay ahead, but I’m sure the people who carried those banners would be glad that, via this museum, we can still feel the beating of their hearts. And as if to honour their memory, I silently resolved to always be courteous to all men – and to bow down to none.
The People’s History Museum is in Spinningfields, Manchester. For more information, click here.
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.