Lifting our banners


As employers are thinking about ways to bring their staff back to work, it felt like a good time to look at items from our collections which reflect the way workers have traditionally protected and represented themselves.

Carrying of textile banners was commonly associated with Trades Unions and traditionally these would have been carried on demonstrations and marches including during strikes and marches. The history of the political working classes is bound up with the idea of people being ‘under one banner’ or using the symbol of a banner to collectivise. From the earliest records banners and flags were made to show others which household a person belonged to, which side they fought for in war or which trade they belonged to. Part of this long and colourful history was the adoption of banners and insignia by friendly societies and trade guilds representing industries facing change. 

In Lancashire and Yorkshire, towns associated with wool combing held ‘Blaise Festivals’ in honour of the Bishop Blaise (Patron Saint of the craft), carrying banners and wearing costumes to celebrate their trade. In London, companies like the Master Rope Makers and the Thames Shipmakers also hoisted ceremonial banners showing common unifying symbols of beehives and oak trees. Membership of these societies was a way to insure members against, unemployment, sickness and burial costs. 

During the development of the industrial age, banners started to be used by associations to unionise and protest for labour and social reform.

In the early 19th Century it was illegal to swear private oaths or to form a ‘secret society’; so holding a meeting or being found in possession of such a banner could be dangerous. After unrest culminating in the 'Peterloo Massacre' of 1819, enforcement increased and those forming unions could be punished by imprisonment or transportation as was the case for the famous Dorset craftsmen transported to Australia in 1834 -  later known as the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’.

The carrying of banners became a political act which helped forge an identity and solidarity in employment in trades unions but also associations of miners, bricklayers and other working class occupations made colourful banners with striking imagery as a ‘call out’ for others to support. All sorts of community groups had banners made, and the demand was such that a specialist centre existed in London, established by George Tuthill in the 1840’s. Artists were employed to paint designs onto silk, bordered by jacquard pattern weaving and fringes. The style of construction was to remain the same for the next hundred years as the trades unions movement grew and strengthened. 

Co-operative Societies and affiliated organisations such as the Women’s Co-operative Guild (1893), and the Co-op Party (1917) had a variety of banners, some highly decorative, employing the slogans and symbols of co-operation, others very plain and to the point. What they had in common with trade union banners was a visual way to call members to arms in the same way a household insignia would have done 500 years before. Rather than to fight in battle; these banners encouraged members of co-operatives to educate themselves, to come together and to campaign together for positive change which would impact their whole community, whether for the right to vote, the support of workers on strike or to try to prevent the outbreak of war in Europe, they had a job to do.

Until the 1970’s painted banners could still be seen at events from the Durham Miners Gala to the Co-operative Congress and organised rallies. Gradually though; as membership trends began to change, these objects were used less often and often left hanging in office buildings or stored away due to their increasing fragility and often poor physical condition. The Trust as the repository for the material history of all co-ops in the UK holds a number of these banners made of cotton, canvas and silk. Textiles are problematic for public display in the museum itself as they are prone to being easily damaged by environmental factors such as light, heat and humidity as well as tension strain due to size when hung for long periods. We cannot display them full time; so instead have worked with professional photographers to capture a sample to turn into digital images which are much more accessible. Turning them into gift cards and souvenirs might also help ensure that we have the funds to continue to look after these treasures in the long term. Look out for these on our website when they are ready!

Lift up the People’s banner

Now rising from the dust; 

A million hands are reaching

To guard the sacred trust.

With steps that never falter,

And hearts that grow more strong,

Till victory ends our warfare,

We sternly march along.

Through ages of oppression

We bore a heavy load

While others reaped the harvest 

From the seeds the people sowed.

Down in the earth we burrowed,

Or fed the furnace heats.

We felled the mighty forests,

We built the mighty fleets.

But after bitter ages of hunger and despair,

The slave has snapped his fetters,

And bids his foes beware.

We will be slaves no longer,

The nations soon shall know,

That all who live must labour,

And all who reap must sow.

Co-operative Press : By Joseph Whittaker - to be sung.