A woman who fought tirelessly for workers who endured 80-hour weeks and appalling conditions is to be honoured for her campaigning.
A Birmingham Civic Society blue plaque is to be unveiled in honour of Julia Varley, who devoted her life to the fight and was also a leading suffragette and trade unionist in Birmingham and the Black Country at the turn of the 19th century.
Described by one of her colleagues as “a pocket dreadnought”, Bradford-born Ms Varley’s devotion to campaigning on behalf of workers in the “sweated industries” caught the eye of Edward Cadbury after she moved to Bournville in Birmingham in 1909.
Cadbury invited her to establish a branch of the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) at his Bournville factory. Both Edward and George Cadbury were prominent figures in opposing harsh working conditions.
In 1910, Ms Varley and her unionist colleagues fought to limit the hours of bakery workers, many of whom worked in excess of 70-80 hours per week, and to introduce a minimum wage.
She was also one of the leading organisers of the famous Cradley Heath women chainmakers’ strike which arose after many of the chain manufacturers tried to avoid raising the pitifully low pay in line with the minimum weekly wage rates of 11 shillings (55p) established by the Government’s Trade Boards Act of 1910.
After a nationwide campaign, £4,000 was raised to support the Cradley women and the ten-week strike ended once the majority of employers agreed to sign up to pay the Trades Board Act minimum rates – a huge victory for the Cradley Heath women.
Alongside her union activities, which saw her take up national and international leadership roles in the years leading up to the First World War, Ms Varley was an ardent suffragette and twice ended up in Holloway Prison for demonstrating in 1907.
It was not until 1928 that all women over the age of 21 achieved the right to vote on the same terms as men.
In 1931, Ms Varley was awarded an OBE for her services to public work. She retired in 1936 and continued to live in Bournville, until she lost her sight and moved to live with her sister in Bradford, where she died in 1952 at the age of 81.
Birmingham Civic Society will honour Ms Vasey with a ceremony at the Minworth Greaves building in Selly Manor on May 24.
Following the unveiling, the blue plaque will be erected on her former home in Hay Green Lane, Bournville.
Birmingham Civic Society celebrates the city’s heritage and recognises the people and places that have contributed to life in Birmingham with more than 100 plaques erected since 1953.
Rita McLean, chairman of the society’s heritage committee, said: “Julia Varley’s energy and passion for the causes she believed in are visible in the range of roles she undertook. She devoted more than 50 years to fighting to achieve a living wage and improve the working conditions for a mass of women and men employed in low-paid occupations.
“Ms Varley played a prominent part in securing the right for women to vote. The description of her by one of her colleagues – as ‘a pocket dreadnought’ gives us a sense of her character and the fearless drive and determination that must have shaped her activities.”
Among others honoured with Birmingham Civic Society blue plaques are Joseph Lucas, founder of the world-famous industries bearing his name, political reformer Thomas Attwood, printer and publisher John Baskerville and buildings such as the Blue Coat School and the sites on which the General and Dental hospitals were founded.