Former Merseyside MP Bessie Braddock was only 11 when she witnessed one of the most infamous events in Liverpool’s working-class history.
Along with her mother, Warehouse Workers’ Union steward Mary Bamber, Bessie was present at St George’s Plateau on August 13th 1911 when police baton-charged a rally for striking transport workers.
More than 85,000 had gathered to hear early trade unionist Tom Mann speak when troops and police used military force on the crowd. Around 350 were injured in the attacks and subsequent unrest.
The day would forever be remembered on Merseyside as ‘Bloody Sunday’.
Events escalated two days later when some of the 3,500 troops then stationed in the city clashed with a crowd on Vauxhall Road.
Soldiers from the 18th Hussars opened fire, causing 15 injuries and two fatalities. Docker Michael Prendergast, 30, was shot twice in the chest and carter John Sutcliffe, 19, was shot twice in the head.
An inquest into the workers’ deaths resulted in a verdict of ‘justifiable homicide’.
The General Transport Strike had begun on June 14th when the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union announced a nationwide seamen’s strike.
Dockers, railway workers and workers from other trades downed tools in support, paralysing Liverpool commerce for most of the summer.
As well as sending in the troops, Home Secretary Winston Churchill ordered the cruiser HMS Antrim to be positioned in the Mersey.
The strike marked a milestone in trade union history. It was the first time general trade unions had established themselves as bona fide mass organisations for workers.
It certainly had a profound effect on trade unionism on Merseyside – not least for the young Bessie Braddock. She would grow up to be one of the most potent welfare campaigners Liverpool has ever known.
Born in September 1899 at 23 Zante Street, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Bamber was the daughter of bookbinder Hugh Bamber and his wife Mary, nee Little.
Mary became a staunch campaigner against deplorable social conditions and had established herself as a platform speaker by the time of the General Transport Strike.
By then, young Bessie had left Sunday School to join the youth section of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). It was natural that she should accompany her mother to St Georges’ Plateau.
In 1913, Bessie started work filling seed packets. She then took a post in the drapery department of the Walton Road Co-op store, joining the Shopworkers’ Union at the same time.
She also attended meetings at the ILP’s local headquarters where there were three Elizabeths. To avoid confusion, she agreed to be called Bessie. The name stuck.
In 1918, Bessie left the Co-op for a clerical position in the Warehouse Workers’ Union. Along with her future husband, wagon builder and union firebrand John ‘Jack’ Braddock, she helped her mother Mary win the Everton district council seat.
By 1920, Bessie and Jack had decided that the ILP was no longer radical enough for them and became members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
The new party had been formed from a blend of political groups including the Workers’ Socialist Federation led by suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst.
The pair left the Communist party in 1924, severely concerned that its policies would lead to enslavement of workers. They carried on their socialist activism through the 1926 General Strike and were both elected as councillors by 1930.
In 1936, Bessie stood as the Labour candidate for the Liverpool Exchange seat but was defeated by the substantial business vote.
Through the war, she worked as an ambulance driver – attending every one of the 68 major air-raids on the city – and resumed campaigning in the 1945 General Election.
Bessie was elected in Liverpool Exchange with a majority of 665. In July 1945, Clement Attlee formed the first majority Labour government with an overall majority 146 seats.
In her maiden speech, Bessie made an impassioned plea to Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan to improve the slum housing of Liverpool. She said people were living in ‘flea-ridden, bug-ridden, rat-ridden lousy hell-holes’.
Always a trail-blazer, Bessie became the first female MP to be suspended from the House of Commons in 1952. She protested that the Speaker had failed to call her during a debate on the textile industry.
From 1953 to 1957, Bessie sat on the Royal Commission for Mental Health, whose findings led to the Mental Health Act of 1959.
She served as the MP for Liverpool Exchange from 1945 until 1970 and was Liverpool’s first woman freeman.