Women have been involved in the Warrington wire industry and its associated trades since the very beginning.
During the 18th century hundreds of women and girls in Warrington, some as young as 10 years old, were employed, often at home, in piece work pin-making. From its earlier origins as a cottage industry the wire merchants soon seized the opportunity to develop factories. The women and girls turned brass wire into pins using “heading” machines or inserted the pins in paper pouches ready for sale – a process known as “pin-sheeting”. Boys were never employed as pin-sheeters as they were considered to be filthy creatures who would only get the papers dirty!
Although the Warrington wire industries of the 19th and early 20th centuries were dominated by male directors, managers and workers there were a few areas of wire work where women workers were commonplace.
One of these was wire weaving, particularly to make products such as spring bed frames or conveyor belts. It was delicate and dangerous work where the weavers were required to run machine-made wire through their hands. Sharp wire ends would often lead to injuries to hands or fingers and it was not unheard of for strands of wire to impale limbs and hands. Some women even lost eyes to such accidents, their pay would be docked from the moment of the accident because manufacturers could legally pay workers with disabilities less than their colleagues. They were deemed to only be able to do half the job if they had only one eye.
In 1965 a female worker in the wire industry was paid around £7 for a 42 hour week, equal to around £123 today. The equivalent male worker would be paid around £9 a week, around £159 today.
As with other manufacturing industries the campaign for equal pay met with some opposition. Whilst many male workers did come out on strike in solidarity with their female colleagues, other men saw equal pay as a threat to their status. Eventually the Labour government brought in the equal pay act in 1970 and the position of women in the wire industries improved as a result.
By the end of the 20th century women could be found in all areas of wire work, but even today women still make up less than 33% of the workforce and occupy less than 26% of management positions in manufacturing. Women have a vital contribution to make to the industry in roles from the shop floor to the board room.
This article was written for the Wire Works Project 2020-2021, a National Lottery Heritage funded project aiming to highlight and celebrate the legacy left by the wire industry, which dominated Warrington’s employment structure for over 170 years, putting the town at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution.