Mary Quaile was born in Dublin on 8 August 1886: her mother was Bridget Lightholder, her father was James Quaile, a mason and bricklayer and an active member of the Ancient Guild of Incorporated Brick and Stone Layers Trade Union. The Quailes emigrated to England in 1889 or 1890.
Mary left school aged 12, working as a domestic servant, which she later described as “by no means a bed of roses” . She went abroad, working in the French port of Brest for a time where she gained a working knowledge of French, a skill which no doubt later proved very useful at international trade union meetings. Back in Manchester she became enthused by trade unionism after the well-known trade union organiser Margaret Bondfield came to Manchester to organise women workers.
Mary started her trade union work after she got a job at the Clarion Café in Manchester, and was involved in the formation of a Manchester branch of the National Café Workers’ Union in 1909 and became its secretary in 1910.
In March 1911 Mary got a job as Assistant Organising Secretary at the Manchester Women’s Trades Council, established in 1895 to organise low-paid, unorganised women workers, worked alongside Olive Aldridge, the Organising Secretary. The two women worked very hard. In 1912, for instance, they attended over 100 meetings with women in different trades and also held 244 business meetings in the offices.
Olive left due to ill health and Mary became Organising Secretary at the beginning of the First World War. As thousands of women replaced men in industry, Mary and others worked very hard to ensure that women workers were not exploited by employers who spouted patriotic slogans, but were eager to turn a profit out of the war. Personally Mary was a pacifist and member of the No-Conscription Fellowship in Hyde where she was then living.
In November 1919 Mary was took up the post of National Women’s Organiser for the Dock, Wharf and Riverside Workers’ Union. She stayed in this post when her union became part of the Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1922, the largest union in the country, and continued her work until 1933 when she retired due to ill health.
In 1923 Mary was elected to the General Council, a position she held for three years. In the summer of 1925 Mary toured the Soviet Union as chair of a delegation of four British women trade unionists who had a brief to investigate conditions for women and children
In 1934 Mary became a Justice of the Peace in Manchester. In 1936 she was elected Vice-President of Manchester Trades Council, the first woman officer of the Council, and from 1936 to 1958 she acted as the Treasurer. In 1951 she was awarded the TUC Silver Badge which was given to Trades Council officers who had held office consecutively for 21 years. Mary was the first woman trade unionist to receive this medal, which was presented to her by Sir Luke Fawcett on behalf of the TUC at a dinner and social evening at Belle Vue Gardens, attended by 400 people. Arthur Deakin, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, sent a message of congratulation.
Mary died at her home in Withington on 16 December 1958. There was an obituary of her next day in the Manchester Guardian which said that:
…her determination to get trade unionism for women accepted was often met with jeers, boos, rotten apples, and threats of violence. She spoke at hundreds of factory gate meetings in both the East End of London and Manchester; she never betrayed any sign of fear when faced with hostility. Her warmth and lovable personality won for her many friends in the labour and trade union movement.
Manchester Trades Council, in its annual report for 1958-1959, said that Mary had “a vast knowledge and experience” in trade union affairs and that the movement had suffered a great loss. After she had been compelled by illness to retire from her national office she had given all her time in voluntary service to the Trades Council:
She never relinquished her post as Hon. Treasurer, nor did the Council wish her to do so, even though her Doctor had compelled her not to leave the house. Whenever she had a visitor from the Trades Council her face would beam with delight. Any news or information about the affairs of the Movement she was able to glean on these occasions were to her a tonic; to her the Trade Union Movement was her life.
For five decades Mary never swerved from her belief that the best way for working women to improve their lives at work was through trade unionism. She dedicated her life to this cause and for this she deserves to be remembered – and celebrated.
Resources on Mary’s life and work in the Library
Dare to be free: women in trade unions, past and present by Bernadette Hyland and Michael Herbert, 2016 (AG Women - Box 14)
Soviet Russia: an investigation by British women trade unionists - April to July 1925 (USSR Box 12)
Manchester and Salford Trades and Labour Council reports 1919 to 1948 (Trades Councils Box 9)
TUC annual reports 1921 to 1933 (R25)
Minutes of the General Council of the TUC 1923-1926 (S34)
Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Council annual reports 1911-1917 (Trades Councils Box 15)
The Labour Woman - the Library has a good run of this journal from May 1913-Sept 1971, the final issue. Full details on our catalogue (S43)