Mary Quaile: Working-Class Hero



Long before women were represented in Parliament, they were active in trade unions, campaigning for the rights of all working people. The history of these early labour activists is less well-known than that of their male counterparts. Yet women have historically played a crucial role in all aspects of trade unionism – organising and recruiting members, advising on the issues facing workers, and leading campaigns to improve working conditions.

Mary Quaile was just 12 years old when she left school to work as a domestic servant in England. The year was 1898; servants had few rights and child workers were even more vulnerable. As soon as she was able, she fled the harshness of domestic servitude to seek work in France, before taking a job in a Manchester cafe.

In 1909, inspired by the trade union leader Margaret Bondfield, and no doubt by her Irish father’s involvement in the Brick and Stone Layers Union, Mary decided to set up a union for cafe workers in Manchester. Two years later, she was offered the job of Assistant Organising Secretary at the Manchester Women’s Trade Union Council.

In the years before the First World War, Mary and the Organising Secretary, Olive Aldridge, held hundreds of meetings with women in different types of employment. They found that one of the most common complaints by women workers was being unfairly dismissed from their jobs. In the winter of 1911-12, they raised money to support 300 mill workers from Bradford who were on strike due to low wages. The majority of the mill workers were girls and women. In 1914, Mary was promoted to Organising Secretary, a post she held throughout the War.

Throughout her life, Mary held various positions in trade unions, always highlighting the particular issues faced by women and girls. In 1925 she led a delegation to the Soviet Union to research conditions for women and girls. A year later, she addressed an estimated crowd of 20,000 people in Manchester during the General Strike, urging striking workers remain peaceful and not to provoke the authorities.

After retiring due to ill-health, Mary continued to volunteer for Manchester Trades Council until her death in 1958. Her obituary in the Manchester Guardian celebrated her “determination to get trade unionism for women accepted”. The newspaper recalled that, even though she was “often met with jeers, boos, rotten apples, and threats of violence, [she] never betrayed any sign of fear.”

So many of the women who campaigned alongside Mary Quaile are forgotten today, and the women’s rights activists we remember tend to be from more privileged backgrounds. Yet Mary’s own working-class roots reflected the people she fought for, and brought her closer to them. She was remembered by those close to her for her “warmth and lovable personality”. For the rest of us, her courage and determination shine through in the hard-won rights that we often take for granted.

(Photo: Mary Quaile. Copyright holder unknown. Please contact me if you are the copyright holder for this image.)


Lucy Nabijou: Making Refugees Welcome

Lucy N (on left)

Lucy Nabijou (left) with other members of Refugees Welcome Haringey

Since the end of the Second World War, tens of millions of people fleeing conflict and persecution have had the right to be recognised as refugees. Yet in practice, despite their need for sanctuary and the dangerous journeys they make, reaching a safe country is not always the end of the refugee’s struggle. Since 2011, the conflict in Syria has displaced several million people to refugee camps in neighbouring countries. In these camps, people live in limbo until they can be resettled in a third country or returned to a safe home. Yet safe countries are often reluctant to open their doors to refugees, fearing a political backlash. Throughout Europe, activists have countered this political unwillingness under the loosely-formed “Refugees Welcome” campaign.

On 2 September 2015, the body of a three-year-old child washed ashore on a beach near Bodrum in Turkey. Alan Kurdi and his family had set out at night in a small inflatable boat to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Greece, in the hope of making a new life after escaping the horrors of the Syrian civil war. When their overcrowded boat capsized, Alan, his brother Galib and mother Rehana were among those who drowned.

Photos of the little boy’s body made news headlines around the world, bringing a human dimension to the vast tragedy of the Syrian crisis and the hundreds of migrants and refugees who drown each month in the Mediterranean. In the UK, following an outpouring of sympathy for victims of the Syrian war, the Prime Minister reluctantly agreed to resettle 20,000 vulnerable Syrians. Yet their resettlement depended on local council authorities finding housing and other resources for the new arrivals.

Lucy Nabijou watched these events unfold from her home in Haringey, London. Despite having recently retired from work due to ill-health (she has multiple sclerosis) Lucy felt a personal responsibility to do something for these Syrian families. With her background as a teacher of migrants and asylum-seekers, and experience of working with Palestinian refugees, she understood how politics can get in the way of humanitarian acts. Proceeding with caution due to her disability, she nevertheless realised that there was something she could do right there in Haringey that could save people’s lives.

She quickly formed a dedicated group of volunteers who called themselves Refugees Welcome Haringey, which set about pressuring their local council to find homes for vulnerable Syrians living in refugee camps. At first, the local authority refused to sign up to the resettlement scheme; in fact, Lucy found them to be “stubbornly opposed to our calls and openly hostile to us”. Realising that they would not change the council’s stance with words alone, she decided upon a different tactic.

One of the council’s reasons for not inviting vulnerable Syrian families to Haringey was a lack of affordable homes for them to live in. So Lucy and her fellow volunteers began searching the borough for suitable homes. Property prices in London are notoriously high. Yet, after much research and many difficult discussions, Lucy was able to convince a number of private landlords to offer their houses to Syrian families for well below their normal rental price. This meant that the council could now afford to pay the rent for these families to be re-housed in London.

Running out of excuses, and with a growing number of Haringey residents joining Lucy’s campaign, including the two local Members of Parliament, the council backtracked. In November 2016, Haringey Council agreed to resettle 10 Syrian families, taking them out of camps in the Middle East and giving them a new start in life.

Lucy continues to campaign for more private landlords to join the scheme, and for the council to open the doors to more women, men and children from Syria. The organisation she created has grown and now supports refugees and migrants who settle in Haringey, helping them to integrate into the local community, and is changing attitudes towards migration in London. By creating a local response to a global issue, and looking beyond the limitations of her disability, Lucy continues to change the lives of people whose futures would otherwise have been very bleak indeed.

Refugees Welcome Haringey is currently working to counter the UK government’s “hostile environment” policies, which threaten the safety and livelihood of anyone with precarious immigration status and fuel divisions and tensions in society. You can read more about the group’s work here.