Centenary of a working class tragedy

By Tom Wood

Today marks the centenary of an explosion that occurred at Dudley Port, Tipton that claimed the lives of 19 young girls aged between 13 and 15. To put this into a present-day context, these girls would have died before having sat their GCSE exams.

This tragic piece of history began in 1916, when John Knowles started a small business on Groveland Road, just off Dudley Port. He decided to name it the Dudley Port, Phosphor Bronze Co. In 1922 Knowle’s company purchased 160 tons of cartridges left over from the Great War. The company’s intent was to recover the lead from the cartridges in a process where the lead bullet was separated from its copper casing.

The work was carried out by a score of hard-working young girls who were in their early teens. One can only speculate that one of the reasons children were employed for this task is that, owing to their age, their small hands were nimble enough to manipulate the cartridges without much fumbling. However one definite reason these young girls were employed was because they were cheap and this meant that Knowles could maximise his profit margins by exploiting children. These young girls could expect a pitiful weekly wage of between 4 and 6 shillings for the dangerous, long hours they worked.

The girls were under instructions to empty the gunpowder from inside the cartridge onto the floor. This was then to be swept up, dampened, and dumped into a close-by canal basin. However, this process alone was insufficient in being able to deliver safe working conditions for the girls. Not to mention that the gunpowder was only intermittently removed from the factory floor. It is clear to see how this was a disaster waiting to happen.

On the morning of 6th March 1922 these dangerous, negligent and unforgivable practices caught up with the unscrupulous Knowles and his manager, named Chadwick. At around 11.45am a tremendous explosion occurred at the factory. The whole building was engulfed in flames as the roof was catapulted from the building by the shockwaves.

Witnesses saw young girls running and screaming frantically as they escaped the factory. Some were scorched black, had patches of hair and whole eyebrows burnt off and were entirely naked on account of the fact their clothes had caught fire. The horrific aftermath appeared to be a scene taken straight out of the nightmares of the Great War, according to veteran eye-witnesses. Locals did their utmost to help the children; however, one-by-one, the girls succumbed to their injuries until only a handful of them were left alive.

Local Tiptonians, horrified by this event which had transported them back six years to when they had been raided by Zeppelins, banded together in this time of need. A huge effort was made to raise a relief fund for the bereaved families and to pay for funerals.

Shortly after the explosion, Knowles and Chadwick were arrested. They were charged under the Explosives Act and received a charge of manslaughter. Limited justice was achieved as Knowles was sentenced to a mere five years of penal servitude – a measly amount of prison time given that his greed and pursuit of profit had put the girls in imminent danger and ultimately cut 19  lives short.

Not enough attention is paid to the fact that child labour continued into the 20th century in Britain. Child labour, of course, is ubiquitous in almost all paintings, descriptions and dramatizations of Victorian Britain. Charles Dickens did much to highlight this in his novels which were set in the Victorian age.

British capitalism, being characteristically parasitic and vile, was slow to release its grip on children as an easily exploitable section of the workforce. As Karl Marx said in 1864, “British industry, which, vampire-like, could but live by sucking blood, and children’s blood, too.” Profits are much higher when employing children simply because capitalists get away with paying them 10-20% of an adult’s wage. After all, children are easily intimidated and are in that position due to inescapable poverty.

British children have been granted their right to a childhood in a piecemeal fashion. Attempts in the early 19th century, in the form of the Factory Acts, proved fruitless. It was the Ten Hours Act of 1847 that brought children, as well as adults, the ten-hour working day. In 1856 the age at which it was permissible to employ a child for a 60-hour week was raised to 9. In 1901 this was raised to 12. Then in 1880 the Education Act made schooling compulsory up to age 10, and later 12. However, this wasn’t due to any niceness in the capitalist system. This was simply a response to the growing division of labour, specialization and technological innovation which demanded a more educated and switched-on workforce. After all, if people, including children, are going to be exploited, they may need exploitable skills.

This legislation fell far short of what was needed, as Dudley Port shows, as, legally, these children could work full-time as they were 13 and above. This is after the 1918 Education Act that made education compulsory between the ages of 5 and 14. However, children as young as 13 were to be found among the 19 who lost their lives. Legislation is one thing, but execution and practice is another. Cleary capitalism is unable to guarantee that laws put in place for the benefit of children are followed, as it is unable to deal with both the deprivation that forced those girls to sell their labour in the first place and the depraved bosses who will willingly break the law in order to maximise their profits.

What is of critical importance here is that what caused the deaths of the 19 was not a mere accident caused by one especially unscrupulous boss. The cause here is the very system that facilitates such reckless exploitation of children in the first place for the sake of profits. Capitalism, far from loosening its stranglehold on child wage-labourers, has sprouted extra arms for the sake of taking more children under its death-grip.

To say that child labour is a monster that perished long ago is a purely Western-centric view. It is even incorrect when applied to the West. Child labour, if it was simply a monster in 1922, has grown into a full-scale leviathan since. This is something that the Global South can testify to. Kept in a state of constant deprivation by the imperialist powers, countries such as Bangladesh and India see some of the highest rates of child labour. In these countries, events such as those that occurred in 1922 happen all too often. Sweatshops, which pump out tons of garments that fuel the fast fashion industry, collapse and condemn those stuck under the rubble to an early, unnatural end. Yet child labour is on the rise.

Interestingly, defenders of capitalism who refer to the growing electric car industry as a sign that the market is fit to deal with pressing matters such as climate change conveniently forget that Lithium mines in Africa, which are used for car batteries, are some of the largest employers of child labour.

Child labour is turning up in places that those defenders of capitalism who wholly ignore its depravity would least expect. Chiefly, the USA has seen a rise in the use of child labour as its fast-food chains look to maximise their own profits. Children, at chains such as Chipotle, are working 10 hour shifts without food or breaks on school nights.

It is without doubt that capitalism cannot guarantee a happy and healthy childhood for all children across the world. In countries such as the UK, which have compulsory education, we see education systems crumbling under the strain of repeated attacks from austerity. Here the minimum wage for those who are under 18 and on apprenticeships is a pathetic £4.81 (from April 2022). Teenagers in the UK remain some of the most under-appreciated, under-paid, exploited and repressed members of the working-class.

After the deaths of the 19 there was an outpouring of public sympathy: even King George and Queen Mary offered their condolences. Shortly after the avoidable tragedy, a monument was erected in Tipton to commemorate those who lost their lives. On the bottom of this monument are the words of one of the girls’ favourite hymn. It reads: “There is a green hill far away, without a city wall, where our dear lord was crucified, who died to save us all.”

However, apologies from monarchs and Christian pieties are of little use in preventing or challenging the system that the monarchy and state religion exist to validate and justify.

For the sake of children worldwide, for the sake of the children past and present, and so that the 19 did not die for nothing, we must learn from history and draw the correct lessons. At a time when some people are defending child labour under the guise of giving children ‘life skills’ this is especially the case. The economic system of capitalism needs to be replaced.

Under socialism children will be freed from the fear of being sacrificed on the altar of a bloodsucking capitalist system. Instead, socialism, through providing proper funding for education, full employment, housing and eliminating the material conditions that push children to conclude their childhoods early and begin lives as wage labourers, will provide peace, security and happiness to children worldwide.

Tom Wood is a graduate in History with Political Science and International Relations from the University of Birmingham, a member of the Labour Party and of Unite.

Image: Child labour. Author: FaiQe Sumer,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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