Discover more from Rebel Britannia
30th April 1920:
Everyone's heard of the Jarrow March of 1936, but not so many these days recall what it was modelled on: the 1920 Blind March.
The National League of the Blind of Great Britain and Ireland organised blind and partially-sighted workers across all the limited trades in which they were able to find work, as well as unemployed blind people. It existed as an independent trade union from 1899 until 2000, when it merged with the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, the Power Loom Carpet Weavers and Textile Workers Union and various others to form the basis of a new general union, currently called Community.
The League in its early days used strikes and other weapons to improve the very poor pay and conditions of blind workers, but another of its main aims was to get the state to take over from charities (often the worst employers of all) in accepting responsibility for the welfare, employment, pensions and education of blind people. In autumn 1919, some of its members disrupted a sitting of the House of Commons to draw attention to their campaign. A trade union MP introduced a Bill along League lines, but it was easily defeated.
So in 1920, the union came up with a new idea, designed to use public opinion to force the politicians to take notice of them. On Easter Monday, April 5th, groups of blind working men from all over the UK assembled at three points - Manchester, Newport and Leeds. This was a novel (and later much-imitated) model of protest march, carefully choreographed to cover as much of the country as possible.
By holding onto a long rope that ran the entire length of the march the men were able to stay in step. Under banners such as "Social justice not charity," they marched hundreds of miles, holding public meetings in cities and big towns along the way. Union branches and local co-op societies found them accommodation at night. Unsurprisingly, they won huge public sympathy - not least because there were so many more blind young men around, as a result of the Great War.
The three different routes converged in Trafalgar Square on 25th April, where the 250 marchers were met by a rally of 10,000 supporters including Labour politicians and union leaders. Their next job was to secure a direct meeting with the prime minister, David Lloyd George. That proved easier said than done, but by continuing to embarrass the government (for instance, by being seen taking tea at the the Commons with sympathetic MPs) the cunning League leaders eventually achieved their appointment.
The League delegation arrived at Downing Street on 30th April, having been kept waiting for five days. Lloyd George was his usual unhelpful and slippery self, but the blind men facing him across the negotiation table had grown up in a hard school, and were not intimidated or lulled by their surroundings.
The government was left with no politically acceptable choice but to pass the Blind Persons Act 1920, often described as the world's first legislation aimed at improving the lot of disabled people. It fell well short of the union's demands, but even so it was of immense significance: it reduced pensionable age for the blind from the standard 70 to 50; it required local councils to "promote the welfare of blind persons," including through the provision of workshops and hostels, and to register the number of those affected in each area.
The Blind March was, by any standards, an extraordinary success, achieved by a group of workers which the government might have thought too downtrodden to pose any threat. It's worth noting, though, that even today the vast majority of blind and partially-sighted people of working age in the UK are unemployed, due to lack of opportunity.