Prejudiced mill owner drove his workers into the unions

Prejudiced mill owner drove his workers into the unions

Samuel Cunliffe-Lister

First published in News by

HE may have been the head of a dynasty of worker-bashing mill owners, but a closer look at Addingham's most famous son reveals he could have been inadvertently responsible for helping to create the Conservative Party's deadliest rival.

Samuel Cunliffe Lister, the First Baron Masham, is celebrated in Bradford as a former industrial giant and a great benefactor to the city.

There is a statue of him in Lister Park, a green space which he kindly donated to the city, but arguably his greatest monument is the Italianate splendour of the towering chimney of Lister's Mill, Manningham, which still dominates the city skyline more than 100 years after he breathed his last.

Samuel's grandfather, John Cunliffe, was a textile manufacturer and substantial landowner in Addingham, who began his textile career at Low Mill.

The family's future was assured when John's astute son, Ellis Cunliffe, married a member of the wealthy Lister family, of Manningham, Bradford, whose fortune he subsequently inherited by conveniently changing his name to Cunliffe-Lister. Samuel was the son of Ellis's second wife after his well-heeled first wife died at a young age.

Despite inheriting the right through another relative to be Rector of Addingham, Samuel took up the cloth trade instead.

After his original Manningham Mill burned down in 1871, Samuel built and operated the largest textile mill in the North of England. He became a highly successful businessman, inventor and, what was much more lucrative, patent owner of textile machinery. At its height, Lister's Mill employed 11,000 men, women and children, manufacturing high quality textiles such as velvet and silk using state-of-the art technology.

Some textile history writers have claimed that the multi-millionaire Lister was held in great affection by his employees but his attitude towards the workers in the famous strike of 1990-01 seems to contradict this anodyne assurance.

Unlike today, wages in the Victorian era used to be regarded by employers as a variable rather than a fixed cost to the business. When outside influences threatened profit margins, the lost revenue could be regained by the simple expedient of cutting wages.

When the introduction of US import tariffs began to impact on the profit from the plush' department at Lister's, managers posted a notice in the mill announcing the intention to cut the wages of 1,100 workers by 25 per cent in the run up to Christmas, and threatening lock-out to those who refused.

The unorganised but determined workforce resisted and at its height the strike saw 5,000 people downing tools at the mill. The dispute dragged on from December to April with riots in the streets and frequent but futile attempts to negotiate a settlement.

Various reports describe Lister's attitude as obstinate, overbearing and undiplomatic'. He was also accused of shifting his negotiation position frequently in order to prevent a mediated settlement.

But the most damning indictment of his conduct and attitude came from his own hand. After threatening to close down the mill altogether and move production to Addingham, he wrote a self-justifying denunciation of his workforce in a letter to the local paper, displaying his ignorant prejudices.

"The women spend their money on dress and the men on drink, so that the begging box goes round - it matters not what wages are," said the great paternalist and benefactor.

Hardly surprisingly, since they were denied any help from the Poor Relief, poverty and hunger drove the strikers back to work in April, giving Lister a complete victory and ensuring that his profit margins remained at an optimum.

Remarkably, this belligerent attitude towards striking workers seems to have been passed on in the same way as the huge estates, family titles and coats of arms to subsequent generations of Listers.

Philip Loyd-Greame who married Samuel's granddaughter, Molly, and inherited her fortune by changing his name to Cunliffe-Lister (not a bad trick that) served as President of the Board of Trade during 1926 when the Conservative Government of Stanley Baldwin confronted the TUC during the General Strike.

He subsequently became the Earl of Swinton and was succeeded to the title by his son David Yarburgh Cunliffe-Lister, who served as Margaret Thatcher's Chief Whip in the House of Lords when she trounced Arthur Scargill's miners in the bitter dispute of 1982.

As enemies of the working class, in popular parlance, the family - many of whose remains lie in the collapsed vault beneath Saint Peter's Parish Church in Addingham - have got form'.

But how less interesting history would be without irony? As the body of Samuel Lister Cunliffe was being mourned through the streets of Addingham, whose residents were reported to have closed their shutters as a mark of respect in the frosty second month of 1906, the seeds sown by the bitter Manning Mills strike were beginning to take root.

As a result of the strike's defeat, the previously unorganised workers in textiles and other industries flocked to the ranks of trade unions, turning their back on the Liberal politicians who had dramatically turned their backs on them during the dispute.

The workers realised that a new, specifically working class party was needed and the formation of the Bradford Labour Union led by a series of stages into the formation of the Independent Labour Party, the forerunner of the modern Labour Party.

Had Samuel Lister-Cunliffe given in to his strikers, and accepted a paltry five per cent drop in yearly profits - a figure which would have saved the company as much money as a 25 per cent reduction in wages - the history of 20th century British politics could have been so different.

The Lister family's links with the Conservative Party over the years could not have been stronger. Its seat at Swinton Park in the Yorkshire Dales became a training base for future Conservative MPs and agents, hosting shooting parties and opportunities for like minded souls - including Christine and Neil Hamilton - to meet and develop relationships.

But the hungry workers of the Manningham Mills strike came back to haunt the Cunliffe-Listers in the shape of the Parliamentary Labour Party which became the main rival to the Conservatives.

Samuel's greed and indifference to the people who made his fortune acted as midwife to his political antithesis, ensuring that the workers in a manufacturing economy had a powerful political voice to represent them in future struggles with their employers.

Send us your news, pictures and videos

Most read stories

Local Info

Enter your postcode, town or place name

About cookies

We want you to enjoy your visit to our website. That's why we use cookies to enhance your experience. By staying on our website you agree to our use of cookies. Find out more about the cookies we use.

I agree