Object of the Month – December 2014

December 2014 – National Union of Railwaymen, Smithfield branch banner, about 1923

Reverse side of National Union of Railwaymen, Smithfield branch banner, about 1923 @ People's History MuseumThis banner was made by the largest banner making firm, George Tutill Ltd. It is double-sided and highly decorative. On one side a woman in white robes is adorned with the words Light, Education, Industrial Organisation, Political Action and Real Internationalism. The railway workers are looking at an idealised scene of children dancing around a maypole, a common image in many union banners. The words at the bottom of the banner ‘Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains…’ is a popularised version of a quote from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. This side of the banner seems to evoke imagery of escape from urban conditions, which was a popular theme in the Labour Movement in the early 20th century.

The other side of the banner is less idealised with images of buildings and railway workers performing their jobs, and is perhaps more representative of the realities of working life.

The National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) was formed in March 1913 when three railway unions amalgamated. The new union attracted a large number of new members and by the end of 1913 membership had increased by more than 100,000 people.

In 1914 the Triple Alliance was formed between the NUR, the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain and the National Transport Workers’ Federation bringing greater unity between these organisations, but the start of World War I interrupted any planned activity.

Front of National Union of Railwaymen, Smithfield branch banner, about 1923 @ People's History MuseumIn 1919 the NUR and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) organised a nine day national rail strike in order to campaign against the government’s plans to standardise and reduce rates of pay following World War I. The strike action convinced the government to maintain existing rates of pay for another year.

The NUR, as part of the Triple Alliance, played an important part in the General Strike of 1926, the largest industrial dispute in British history. During the inter war years the NUR also focused on transport policy and a campaign to establish public ownership and control of the transport industry.

In 1990, the NUR amalgamated with the National Union of Seamen to form the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), which still exists today.

This banner is currently undergoing conservation work in our Textile Conservation Studio. It will be on display in Main Gallery One from January 2015.