Believe it or not, before vaporisers folks used to actually smoke something called tobacco?! Peg Leeson takes a look at a nasty habit, a factory that used to produce it and the women who worked there. Of course we still have folks getting sacked for trying to start unions but hey who chews tobacco anymore?!
Look up out the back of the Victoria Train Station, no not the multi-storey atrocity that is the Days hotel but onto the glittering, mosaic facade of Murray, Sons & Co Tobacco Works. Built in 1900, the rich colours and bold geometric designs hint at the Art Deco style yet to fully emerge. Situated on the corner of Linfield Road and Sandy Row the building is testament to an industrial heritage built around the North Atlantic Drift and the noxious weed produced by the – increasingly former – colonies. Yet, it also stands as testament to the island’s labour movement and the pivotal, yet under-recognized, role that women play in it.
In the latter 19th-century the cigarette was gaining popularity over the more traditional cigar, snuff, pipe and chewing-tobaccos. Each variation was associated with its own laborious processing. At one end of the spectrum, cigars only required the leaves to be ‘liquored’, ‘stripped’ and ‘rolled’, while snuff, made for the equivalent of ears-and-arseholes needed more complicated, mechanical processing. Cut and plug tobaccos also relied on various stages of manufacture. Cigarettes were relative newcomers, a taste bought back by veterans of the mid-19th-century Crimean War. They not only replaced the need for a pipe but were also associated with exotic sexuality from an early stage. The opera Carmen, in which the lead character works in a tobacco factory and easily seduces men, epitomises the Victorian linkage between cigarettes and the darker, untamed passions. Before full mechanisation the white cylinders were hand-rolled. Obviously, to a Victorian sexist, the delicate task was easily framed as women’s work given their earlier dominance of cigar production…and the infamous match factories.
In 1907 over 1,000 female workers in the now demolished Gallagher’s tobacco factory went out on strike. The act was in solidarity with seven colleagues who were sacked for attending a meeting held by Jim Larkin. The Belfast women textile workers had form. The previous year they had gone on strike for a 10% pay rise. Most of us would not recognise the working conditions that these women, and their children, endured. Hours were long, pay was crap, weekends and holidays a rarity; not far off someone working a couple of zero hour contracts.
The action rippled through the city’s other works and mass protest gripped Belfast, as well as other industrial centres throughout the country. It would eventually lead to the formation of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in 1909. But even though their role was so important women found it hard to find their voice in the male-dominated labour movement. The foundation of the Women Workers Union in 1911 stands as testament to that struggle. Over a hundred years later and we are battling for basic workers rights and gender equality. Look up at the facade of the Murray’s tobacco works, juxtapositioned against the tribal tricolours of Loyalist Belfast, and you’ll remember we’ve still a long way to go and some insidious hurdles to cross.