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Made in Dagenham



In 2010 a film entitled Made in Dagenham went on general release to great critical acclaim. The film told the story of the women sewing machinists' strike at the Ford Motor Company in 1968. Its release also thrust into the limelight an elderly man living quietly in Kent – that man was my uncle Fred Blake, the trade union official who represented the women in their struggle for equal pay.

I had told him the previous year that a film of the event was in the making and that Bob Hoskins had been cast in the role of the women's shop steward, but we did not envisage that the spotlight would fall on him after all those years! The first indication I had of the media interest was when the Independent on Sunday and the Sunday Mirror both called me within ten minutes of each other. I phoned my uncle and asked if he would be willing to break his long silence on the matter and, to my surprise, he agreed. Within a couple of hours both reporters with their respective photographers had arrived on his doorstep to interview him.

Fred Blake

Fred Blake
Source: Dagenham Post

Frederick James Albert was born to Eastenders Fred and Minnie Blake at Chevet Street, Homerton on 13 May 1919. Fred senior worked for the gas company at Beckton where he was an active shop steward.

The Blake family, which included my father Don, moved to 129 Arnold Road, Dagenham in 1924 and both boys attended Arnold Road School.

One of Fred's early job roles was as a messenger boy for the Commercial Union. He was called up for military service in November 1939. Earlier in the year on 3 August he had married local girl Amy Jefferies. He served in both the Royal Artillery and the Worcestershire Regiment and saw action in Norway, France, Ceylon, India and Burma. Even today he talks little of his war experiences. He was demobbed in 1946 and returned home to find a country ravaged by war – he was to later say that when he saw what the women had been through, he felt it was they that deserved the medals! The effect of the war on family life also had a great personal impact on him for his son Alan did not know his father on his return from overseas and bonding was a long process.

The family moved to a prefab at 874 Ripple Road in 1947 and Fred and Amy had a daughter Christine in December of the following year. In 1958 they moved to a house that would be Fred's home for the next thirty years, 408 Goresbrook Road, Dagenham.

Following his war service, Fred got a job at Fords in 1946 as a seat trimmer in the Trim Shop. Most of his co-workers were women. He acted as a shop steward and, in 1960, he became a full-time official of the National Union of Vehicle Builders, with a membership of around four hundred and largely consisting of the women employed by the Ford Motor Company. In 1968 the women, with Fred's full support, came out on strike in an effort to gain equal pay with their male colleagues. Barbara Castle, then Employment Secretary, met the women in a bid to break the deadlock. Fred accompanied the women, which included the strike leader, Rose Bolan, but Barbara Castle requested that he stay outside and let the women speak for themselves. Following the meeting, Mrs Castle wrote in her diary that Rose was going to be a “tough nut to crack”. Fred joined the women's picket line on a number of occasions and, on one, he and Rose were the only two there and, on another, he got up really early and was the sole picketer until some of the women turned up later. He also defied pressure from officials of larger unions and refused to order the women back to work.

The women did eventually win their case and returned to work with a promise of increased pay and improved working conditions. Sadly, Rose Bolan, of High View House, Marks Gate, died long before the film was made and so her place in history has gone largely unnoticed.

Soon Fred was besieged by women all over the country wanting his help and in January 1969 the Daily Mirror published an article about Fred calling him the leader of the “new suffragettes”. In that year the National Joint Action Campaign for Women's Equal Rights was formed and Fred was appointed unpaid National Secretary and Treasurer at a meeting organised by the feminist campaigner Baroness Summerskill. This organisation spearheaded the national equal pay campaign which led to the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

In 1980 a book was published entitled
The Dynamics of industrial relations: lessons from Ford, by Henry Friedman and Sander Meredeen, which included a closely documented account of the dispute. In this work Fred is described as the “hero of the Dagenham Sewing Machinists”.

By the time Fred retired in 1984, the NUVB had been consumed by the giant Transport and General Workers Union.
He remembers Rose Bolan and and her fellow shop steward and strike campaigner, Lil O'Callaghan with great affection and is sad that they are no longer around to enjoy the recognition they deserve.

In 1985 Fred's beloved wife Amy, a home help with Barking and Dagenham Council, died of a heart attack in Oldchurch Hospital, Romford and three years later Fred purchased a bungalow in Tankerton near Whitstable in Kent and lived there very quietly (until 2010 that is!).

John Blake

November 2010

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