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Wesker Sarah

Sarah Wesker

 

Sara Wesker is peripherally famous today as the aunt of playwright Arnold Wesker. A thinly disguised theatrical version of her appears in the play “Chicken soup with barley”. But the reality of Sarah is far more solid than her stereotype.

 

Born in 1901, she lived in the Rothschild Buildings, a block of flats in Spitalfields tenanted mainly by Jewish families, having been designed and funded by members of the Anglo-Jewish aristocracy. Sarah was by no means alone in being radicalised by her community environment. The flats produced a number of Communists who played an important role in the labour movement of the east end.

 

Sarah Wesker was an executive committee member of the National Union of Tailor and Garment Workers (NUTGW), before trying the United Ladies' Tailors' Trade Union (ULTTU), a Jewish union founded before the First World War.  She was enabled to gain a leading role within ULTTU and then a formidable reputation as a trade union organiser in London garments industry.

 

In 1926, she became, briefly, an East End celebrity; Mick Mindel (see separate entry), later Sarah’s lover, was walking down Commercial Street when he saw the Daily Herald poster blasting the news: "Trouser workers strike for a farthing a pair." The all-female workforce at Goodman's factory had walked out, led by the young trouser machinist named Sarah Wesker.

 

In 1927 she had organised the young women at the Rego factory (see entry for Sam Elsbury). In 1929 she took a leading part in the strike at Polikoff's; and in 1930 she led a strike at the Simpson factory in Hackney. 

 

Less than five feet tall, Sarah has been described as being “arrestingly sallow”, so much so that she might be deceptively thought of as being permanently ill. The Communist Party would later despatch her to a Crimean spa in a bid to improve her health but the Soviet doctors could find no wrong. But, when she spoke, audiences felt moved beyond belief. She was a ferocious speaker, “as if the energy of five men was balled up inside that miniature frame of hers”. She was as fluent in Yiddish as English, making it easy for her to relate to the older women in the sweatshops.

 

Despite the considerable progress made by Sarah Wesker in organising women workers, the view taken by most male members of the ULTTU (it may have been almost exclusively Jewish but, despite its name, it was by no means exclusively female) was that the organising of female labour, especially in an era dominated by the concept of the `family wage’, was of peripheral importance. The economic collapse and consequential mass unemployment, and the structure of the industry – with many small workshops and sweated labour conditions – seemed much more significant issues to confront.

 

In 1929, Sarah was one of those who founded the United Clothing Workers' Union (UCWU). She was its only female member on the executive committee and in 1933 she was appointed full-time woman organiser of that union.

 

Mick Mindel (see entry) met her when he was but 19 and she an accomplished activist of 27. She became his teacher, allowing him to see the world through her eyes. Such an age gap was relatively unheard of then, even in the Communist movement.   

 

Sarah was elected to the Communist Party’s Central Committee at the 12th Congress in 1932.

 

Following the decline of the UCWU, it was largely as a result of her efforts that its members were mostly absorbed into the NUTGW in 1935. The following year she was elected to the women's committee of the London Branch of the NUTGW. The year after, in 1937, she was appointed women’s organiser by the NUTGW executive committee. This was a signal for an entirely new approach to female workers. Inroads were made in several large factories where the women had previously been totally unorganised and, in 1939, the ULTTU amalgamated with the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers.

 

East End as much as anywhere else. Nevertheless, they became `an item’.  Under her tutelage, Mick soon developed into a formidable speaker and organiser himself. Making his formal political debut by obtaining a place on the social committee of the ULTTU, victory came easy due to his connection with Sarah. He became chair of the union in 1938 and remained a union officer in the NUTGW until retirement.

 

But Mick would desert Sara in a deceitful way, some say that the first she knew of his new romance was when she visited Party headquarters on King Street. "`I hear Mick's getting married’," Peter Kerrigan said by way of small talk. He had assumed that Mick and Sara had broken up a while ago. But then he saw Sara blanch, wheel round and head for home. Her niece, Della, found her there, sobbing in the scullery, her arm on the mantelpiece. “`The bastard never even told me,’ she was saying again and again.” Sara never got over Mick, never fell in love again and never married. Thereafter she devoted all her energies to the causes that had brought them together, the union and the Communist Party. They became her life.” 

 

Sara died of a stroke in 1971 but Mick spoke at her funeral. He broke down as he addressed her coffin: "I always loved you, Sara, and I always will."

 

Sources: include Jonathan Freedland `Jacob's Gift - A Journey Into The Heart Of Belonging’ and “East End Jews in Politics, 1918-1939: A Study in Class and Ethnicity” Elaine Rosa Smith [1990]