Monday 1 March 2010

Margaret Harkness, mystery & the dockers

During a women's history walk of Manchester yesterday, our tour leader reminded us of writer Margaret Harkness's connections with the city - and with waterfront workers. (She wrote to Engels for an endorsement for one of her books).

The big mystery about this writer (1854–1923) is what exactly was her role in the great 1889 dock strike (pictured right)?

We know that as a member of the Social Democratic Federation, she worked with the key leaders of that strike. And it seems that it may have been she who persuaded Cardinal Manning to intervene. She certainly visited him on 5 September 1889, after which he acted productively as liaison between dockers and owners, and changed public opinion in the strikers' favour.

But what did she say or do that was so effective? No-one seems to know.

(Certainly her novel about working in the labour movement, George Eastmont: Wanderer (1905) was dedicated to Manning: it was critical of the gap she saw between radical men's personal politics and their stated public dreams. )

What interests me is how different her role looks, when we view it from the labour movement, and from the angle of women's literary history. What an extraordinary role for a woman of her posh-ish background. Given the masculine nature of the dock strike, how could a woman, certainly not a docker's wife, be allowed to be so involved?