Blandford’s Unions: the rise and fall of Henry Mayor
Mark Churchill tells the story of the National Agricultural Labourers' Union (NALU) in Dorset
Published in October ’15
Henry Mayor was born in 1826 in Marylebone the fifth of six children – four boys and two girls. By the time of the 1841 census, the family had moved to Charlton Marshall, near Blandford, where his mother Anne is recorded living with the six children in one of the cottages on the main road just below the church. His father James cannot be found on that census, although at the end of 1840 he was a plasterer working at Kingston Lacy, about five miles across country from Charlton Marshall.
William John Bankes inherited Kingston Lacy in December 1834 and lost no time in calling upon the architect James Barry to carry out his long-held wish to remodel and modernise the house. From 1837 onwards James Mayor worked on Kingston Lacy and as his sons became old enough they joined him.
In 1852 Henry married a Charlton Marshall girl, Elizabeth Palmer. Sadly the marriage lasted only just over ten years as Elizabeth died in 1863 leaving Henry with four young children. Henry had set up his own business and by 1870 was well established in Blandford. In the 1871 census he is no longer described as a Master Plasterer but as a Builder employing seven men; he had a house and yard in Damory Court Street. In an advertisement in the Blandford Express he described himself as ‘Builder, Designer, and ornamental Decorator’ and says that ‘having had great experience, both in London and the country feels confident … to carry out any kind of work in the building Trade’. In particular he claims he can restore old ornamental ceilings to their original state and create new designs without the need of an architect. Significantly, Henry said that examples of his work are attracting attention at Kingston Lacey (sic). The elaborate plasterwork ceilings of the Drawing Room and Dining Room were created during William John Bankes’ remodelling, and presumably it is some of this work that Henry is referring to.
Henry had many interests in addition to the ‘day job’. On Thursday evenings he continued to teach a Bible Class for adults at the chapel in Charlton Marshall and was secretary of its Temperance Society. His passion however, was the rights of the working class through the National Agricultural Labourers Union (NALU).
NALU had its origins in Northamptonshire. It was formed on 29 May 1872 by the coming together of a number of regional unions. Its leader was Joseph Arch, himself a farm labourer and a local preacher in the Primitive Methodist Church. Significant among their convictions were the political implications of Christian faith and the role of lay people; these were expressed particularly in their involvement with the needs of the rural poor. The Union made clear that its object was to improve workers’ pay and conditions, not to call strikes.
Within two years of its foundation, NALU had achieved a membership of 86,000 nationwide – more than one tenth of all the agricultural labourers in the country. In the 19th-century censuses, a majority of the men in Dorset are recorded as agricultural labourers. By the autumn of 1872 there were branches across Dorset from Poole to Powerstock and Lulworth to Sherborne, and many villages in between. This was the county where 30 years previously, six men from Tolpuddle had been arrested, tried, and transported – they too were Methodists.
On the evening of Saturday 12 October 1872 Henry Mayor had organised an open air meeting which was described in the Blandford Express as ‘one of the largest assemblies we have ever seen in Blandford’ and the Union was described as ‘this increasingly popular institution’. The meeting was held outdoors, in a large open area called ‘The Tabernacle’, because the civic authorities had refused permission for the use of the Corn Exchange. The principle speaker was JC Cox Esq. JP from Derbyshire, a member of the Union’s Consulting Committee and a significant voice at a time when many JPs were from the landed gentry and strongly against trades unions.
At the end of October 1872 the Secretary of the Dorset District, Mr JW Barnett of Winterborne Stickland, resigned, and Henry Mayor was appointed in his place. In December Henry was one of the speakers at a rally in Dorchester. The following month a meeting was booked for the Masonic Hall in Wimborne. After it was advertised, the hall committee changed their mind, returned the booking fee of two guineas to Henry Mayor, and employed someone to remove all the posters advertising the meeting. The meeting took place in the Square and an estimated 2000 people attended. The speakers were Joseph Arch and JC Cox and afterwards a branch was formed in Wimborne.
One aspect of the union’s work was to help labourers find employment. Sometimes it was possible to find jobs in other parts of the country and help families to move home, but another option was emigration to the colonies, especially Canada. At the end of November 1872 Henry wrote to the Blandford Express saying that about a fortnight ago, he had sent away from Blandford twenty three men with their families and since that, a further eleven men and two other families to various destinations, and that ‘men are leaving from other stations at the same rate’. He continued: ‘an order came in last evening for 20 more men’ and then he indicated that funds to get labourers into work kept pace with openings becoming available, and he thought he would soon be led to follow the example of George Muller at the orphanage in Bristol – to live on faith. This last statement indicates just how much he was driven by his Christian faith.
A year later, in December 1873 ‘through a change in the municipal arrangements’ the Union meeting was held in the Corn Exchange which was packed to the doors. Joseph Arch was the main speaker, supported by Thomas Horlock Bastard Esq. Lord of the Manor of Charlton Marshall. Mr JC Cox was once again present and was presented with a testimonial subscribed for by the members. Henry Mayor, during his vote of thanks referred to some labourers who had returned from positions provided for them elsewhere, and commented that they ‘were principally such as could not make up their minds to stay away from their sweethearts’. He said he had more than 200 letters thanking him for kindnesses, and he much enjoyed the luxury of doing good, and was determined to continue in the path of duty till labourers got four shillings a day for their work, enabling them to have a joint of meat on their tables every day.
In April 1875 at a meeting on Green-hill in Sherborne, William Chamen of Blandford and some friends started a disturbance after coming from a local pub. The police did not intervene in spite of being asked to, and some NALU members removed the offenders. A charge was later brought against Henry Mayor and four others that they had assaulted William Chamen although there was clear evidence to the contrary. Maximum fines were imposed and the case made national headlines. Sherborne residents petitioned parliament for ‘a searching investigation’ so that ‘the flagrant injustice constantly practised by unpaid magistrates in rural districts may be brought to light’.
In December of the same year the union was once more refused the use of the Corn Exchange in Blandford and on a bitterly cold evening a meeting was held in the Market Place. Henry Mayor had spoken to the Rector as it was the night for bell ringing practice, and he now called for three cheers for the bell ringers who, at the Rector’s request, had cancelled their practice that evening. Joseph Arch was again the main speaker and a silver tea service and illuminated address were presented to Henry as a token of esteem and of members’ sympathy with him in the miscarriage of justice at Sherborne.
There are no further reports in the paper until July 1877 when a ‘small attendance’ was reported, and one wonders if things were not progressing so well. Both then, and again in November, the meeting was held in the Market Place. Then, in February 1878 a meeting, preceded by a procession led by the local fife and drum band, only moderately filled the Corn Exchange and admission charges were mentioned for the first time – 3d and 6d (members and non-members?). By this time the Union was concentrating very much on calling for a change in the law to allow householders in rural areas to vote; currently only householders in Boroughs could do so, which led to all sorts of anomalies.
In January 1879 Henry resigned as Secretary of the Dorset District of the Union. In February he filed for bankruptcy; one of his suppliers, Hooper and Ashby, builders’ merchants, who had a base in Blandford, had served a notice on him for a debt of £48. Henry, sensibly, took legal advice and was advised by local solicitor William Brennand to pursue ‘Liquidation by arrangement’. On 19 March a meeting of creditors revealed that Henry had debts of £607, 4s, 6d and total assets of only about £108 – mostly stock-in-trade. There was also an apparent shortfall of £173 1s 0d in the accounts of NALU.
On 16 April all Henry’s stock-in-trade and household effects were sold. The list indicates the range of his business: a Portland stone tomb with panelled front, 8 headstones, 8 cement figures of lions, 4 carved stone capitals, chimney pots, a marble table top 6’ x 2’ 6” on a richly carved antique stand, 2 carpenter’s benches, a workshop 36ft x 12ft ‘easily removed’, and much more before it got to his household effects.
As District Secretary of NALU Henry held a paid position. Apparently he had been warned when he took it on that it might not be compatible with running a business of his own, and sadly this proved to be the case. At the end of July, before the local magistrates, he was charged with ‘wilfully and fraudulently withholding the payment of the sum of £173.1s the property of the National Agricultural Labourers Union’. An arrangement was made for the money to be repaid – £20 at the end of a week and £4 per month thereafter, subject to three months imprisonment with hard labour in default. A well-wisher from the Midlands paid the £20. Henry was now destitute and homeless. His sister-in-law at Milford near Salisbury took him in and it was there that he died on 25 February 1884 aged 58.
In Dorset NALU outlived Henry Mayor, and nationally, Joseph Arch was still at the helm when the union was dissolved in 1896. Ten years later, in 1906, a new union was formed which was later to become the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers; in 1982 it became part of the Transport and General Workers Union which in 2007 became part of a new union called UNITE. ◗