23rd January 1940

Trades union leader Margaret Irwin dies

Margaret Irwin was a tireless campaigner for women’s rights and for workers more generally through her leadership of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC).

She studied languages at St Andrew’s, then enrolled at the Glasgow School of Art and the city’s Queen Margaret College. Following her studies, she pledged support for women’s suffrage. This was the start of her involvement in politics on a wider scale and, five years later, she was appointed secretary of the Scottish Council for Women’s Trades. It was in this role that she helped found the STUC, of which she was elected the first secretary.

Working conditions exposed

In 1894, she exposed women’s working conditions in shops, finding that “the hours worked… are excessive and injurious to health and… the practice of taking meals on the premises tends to irregularity, and to insufficiency of time being allowed for this.”

Women shop workers’ wages were lower than those of women in other industries, and they frequently had to work very long hours. One example cited in her report, as published in the Glasgow Herald of 16 August 1894, revealed “with reference to a butcher’s shop that kept very late hours, that many of the customers were wives with intemperate husbands, and that they had to wait until the public-houses were closed in order to get what was left of the earnings spent there.”

Irwin recommended both that hours should be reduced, and that workers should organise among themselves to demand better wages. But Irwin wasn’t only a representative: she was also an employer, and she ran her own business – a fruit farm in Perthshire – along far more equitable lines, making sure that all her workers had appropriate housing. She was awarded a CBE in 1927 and died on 23 January 1940.



Other events that occured in January

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