Strikes and grievances

From the opening of the factory in 1846 to 1910 wage rates for the employees hardly changed. Between 1889 and 1911 the price of food increased by almost exactly 10% and that of coal by 18% but the earnings of people in Reading did not follow suit. The depression in trade after 1903 had reduced the level of overtime payments and in 1909 and 1910 there was much short-time. Just after Christmas 1910, 400 men and boys had to be laid off.

The 1911 strike

During the autumn of 1911 increased union activity in Reading led to many employees joining a union to campaign for better wages and working conditions. The protest came to a head when 200 temporary hands, both men and women, were discharged in December at the end of the busy season. The company took the opportunity to get rid of a number of other workers, with between ten and forty years service, whose work or conduct was considered unsatisfactory.

The case was taken up by the unions and the editor of the Berkshire Chronicle pointed out that low wages at Huntley & Palmers were prolonging the trade depression in the town. The dispute escalated and was soon being discussed in the House of Commons.

Refuting the claims

Just after Christmas over 1200 employees met to protest indignantly against the 'shameless and lying statements' being circulated about conditions in the factory. Some of these employees, including one or two girls, wrote letters to the local press strongly refuting specific allegations.

In response to the campaign for better working conditions, non-union members demonstrated against what they called 'lying statements' being made about the company and issued this report. (REDMG : 1997.82.31)

Were the workers badly paid?

The unions had argued that Huntley & Palmers' pre-eminence in the town had made it easy for Reading's other employers to keep wages down. A survey carried out at the time came to the conclusion that in terms of overcrowding, Reading came out fairly well. However, in terms of income, Reading had an unusually high proportion of skilled workers on low wages. Nearly one in five were living in primary poverty or below the minimum level of income considered necessary to maintain physical health.

The company raised wages from October 1912 for the first time since 1900. These averaged about 12% for lower-paid workers so that the adult wage was now 21s for men and 11s for women.

During the nineteenth century the cheap housing at Coley Steps was perhaps the most impoverished area of Reading. This photo was taken in 1911, around the time of the first Huntley & Palmers strike. (REDMG : 1999.1.1)

The 1916 strike

In 1914 Huntley & Palmers laid down a standard wage of 24s a week for men and 12s for women over eighteen. Despite increases in food prices of 40%, the directors refused to discuss further wage increases. In 1916 a girl left early and was sacked and the tensions came to a head. A few days later the largest demonstration ever held in Reading took place, campaigning for higher pay and better working conditions.

This photograph from the Berkshire Chronicle cutting shows the striking workers outside the biscuit factory entrance on King's Road, Reading. (REDMG : 1973.705.1)

The directors categorically refused to discuss wages with the unions. Instead they called representatives from each department which led to the establishment of the Workers Representative Committee. The dispute was settled with an agreed pay increase of 5s a week for men and 3s a week for women.

Learn more about the war years at Huntley & Palmers in the next section.