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Photo gallery: 'Forgotten' protest is capturing imaginations once more

PUBLISHED: 14:02 17 April 2013 | UPDATED: 16:14 17 April 2013

Some of the people involved in the 1972 Sexton Son and Everard Shoe Factory protest had a reunion at Fakenham Gas Museum. From left Michael West, Margaret Ramm, Marees Dewing, Ian Moss, Pat Howling, Saffron Charlton and Ceri Pop outside of the old factory building which is now a antiques shop. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Some of the people involved in the 1972 Sexton Son and Everard Shoe Factory protest had a reunion at Fakenham Gas Museum. From left Michael West, Margaret Ramm, Marees Dewing, Ian Moss, Pat Howling, Saffron Charlton and Ceri Pop outside of the old factory building which is now a antiques shop. Picture: Matthew Usher.

© Archant Norfolk 2013

The extraordinary story of a determined group of women who saved their jobs after barricading themselves inside a shoe factory for 18 weeks inspired people all over Britain.

How events unfolded back in 1972

March 3 Sexton, Son and Everard, which also had 500 employees in Norwich, has called for the receivers; work is continuing as normally at the company’s Fakenham branch, where the 45 employees wait to hear if their jobs are safe.

March 10 The future of the factory remains in the balance.

March 17 The firm is taken over by property developer Jack Taubman, securing the Norwich jobs, but the 45 workers in Fakenham will be made redundant and the factory will close at the end of the month; 40 of the women and one man stage a protest outside saying they are “hopping mad” that they had been let down by their unions and supervisor Nancy McGrath declares: “Nobody cares what happens in a little place like Fakenham where everyone is ready and willing to work.”

March 24 They complete their first week of a “work-in” and manage to turn away an engineer from the electricity board who had come to turn the power off. The women send a telegram to the Queen asking for her support in their fight to save their jobs; they start making leather goods from suede and leather off-cuts and parcels of material received from an unnamed supporter.

March 30 Letters of support are coming into the factory from as far away as Glasgow and Bristol.

April 7 Two offers of capital support are sent from Brentwood, Essex and Cardiff; Mrs McGrath writes to prime minister Edward Heath.

April 21 A “we will not be moved” notice is proudly displayed outside the factory; the workers lodge an appeal against the Department of Employment’s decision to disallow payment to them.

May 5 They give talks to trade unionists in Leeds at to students at Ruskin College, Oxford about their occupation.

June 16 An announcement is to be made in the next few days about the creation of a company by the women occupying the factory after offers of backing from a company who pioneer co-ownership in industry.

June 23 The new company will be called Fakenham Enterprises; the women are filmed at work by a German TV company; Mrs McGrath says: “We feel our long, weary struggle has been well worth it.”

July 21 - Fakenham Enterprises in launched, backed by Scott Bader of Wellingborough, putting up an initial £2,500 to float the company. Nancy McGrath is managing director and each of the nine women who stayed throughthe 18 week protest becomes a shareholder and is guaranteed a weekly wage of £15.63. Mrs McGrath says it is a “vindication and a victory.”

There was laughter and excitement when some of those involved met to reminisce about a famous 1972 protest, which marks a fascinating episode in Britain’s labour history.

The 18-week protest inside the former Sexton, Son & Everard factory is believed to be the first time in Britain that female workers had staged such a protest, and it showed workers everywhere the potential to resist redundancy and democratise the workplace.

Monday’s reunion was organised by Irene Doughty, from Fakenham Community Archive.

It was held to help Jonathan Moss, 24, who is working towards a doctorate in history at the University of Glasgow.

Mr Moss is researching the history of working women and the labour movement during the 1970s.

He may eventually write a book on the subject.

The group met at the Fakenham Musuem of Gas and Local History and visited the site of the protest on Norwich Road, which is now Fakenham Antiques Centre.

Pat Howling. 67, who now lives in Snettisham and Marees Dewing, 62, who lives in North Walsham, took part in the protest.

They met on Monday for the first time in more than 30 years.

Mrs Dewing said: “It’s lovely to meet again and a shame more people couldn’t be here.

“The sit-in just seemed the natural thing to do. We weren’t trying to make a big political statement or be a part of any movement, we were just trying to save our jobs.

“I remember people saying things like, ‘I’ll put the kettle on, you make sure nobody can get in’.”

Ms Howling said: “I had completely blocked it out of my mind and not thought about it for years until I heard about this research project.

“It’s great to reminisce about it all. There was a great sense of camaraderie.”

Margaret Ramm, who lives in Walsingham, worked at the factory but had left by the time the protest started.

She went back to support her friends during the sit-in.

She said: “I think it was a great thing that we did. People are different nowadays but we showed what can be achieved when you stick together and stand up for yourselves.”

The reunion was organised after the EDP and its sister paper the Fakenham and Wells Times reported the story of Mr Moss’s research project in December.

We reported how the Sexton, Son & Everard shoe factory in Fakenham was due to close and all 45 workers were to be made redundant after the firm was taken over by a property developer.

The main factory in Norwich, which employed some 500 people, was to remain open. The Fakenham workers felt they had been ignored by the trade unions and nine women occupied the factory for 18 weeks in protest.

Their plight attracted national attention and the women ended up buying the factory after a donation from the Scott Bader Commonwealth charity.

They formed a new co-operative trading successfully for several years under the name Fakenham Enterprises.

Ian Gibson, a former Labour MP for Norwich North, attended Monday’s reunion. Back in 1972 he was a 34-year-old East Anglian representative for the national executive committee of the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs, a trade union which backed the women’s actions.

Mr Gibson spent the first night of the sit-in in the factory. He said: “This was the first big protest of this type in Norfolk and I believe the first one ever done in Britain by women.

“There was a lot of sexism in the 1970s and some people didn’t agree with what they were doing, but they had a great deal of support as well.

“It is great to see Mr Moss researching it. The story is hardly ever talked about in detail nowadays and it would be great to see a blow by blow account of this major event in Fakenham’s history.

“This sort of thing just doesn’t happen any more and the story is very topical now with people talking about Thatcherism – I don’t think Margaret Thatcher would have bought one of their handbags!”

Mr Moss, who is from East Lothian, near Edinburgh, said: “These ladies’ actions had an impact on the women’s labour movement and I find it very interesting.

“I’ve seen brief references to it but I believe it has never been written about in great detail in any books before.”

During the reunion Ceri Pope, who ran a soft furnishings business at the time and provided work for the women, told a surreal story of how they made bullet proof curtains for King Hussain of Jordan.

She said: “Women in Norfolk just didn’t do things like they did back then and I was happy to support them. I had done some work for royalty before and was asked to do these huge curtains with a bullet proof lining for the King of Jordan – I ended up getting the ladies at Fakenham Enterprises to work on them.”

Meanwhile, Heather De Lyon from Fakenham, who is doing an MA in creative writing at the UEA in Norwich, is planning to write a play about the protest which she hopes will eventually be performed locally.

Anyone who has any information which could help her with this, can call her on 07810 288712.

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