Julia Varley

Pioneering trade unionist and suffragette


Born in Bradford, 1871. Pioneering trade unionist and suffragette. A two-time prisoner with an OBE. Loyal friend to the working classes and to royalty.


Left school at 12.

Key positions held

  • Sweeper, textile mill, Bradford (1883)
  • Branch secretary, Weavers’ and Textile Workers’ Union, Bradford (1886)
  • Family carer, Bradford (1896–1902)
  • First woman member, Bradford and District Trades and Labour Executive Committee (1900)
  • Guardian, Board of the Bradford Poor Law Union (1901–1907)
  • Member, Women’s Social and Political Union, Women’s Trade Union League, National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW)
  • Speaker with Women’s Trade Union League and Mary Macarthur, Scotland (1909)
  • Organiser, Cadbury’s Bournville branch of NFWW (1909)
  • Secretary, Birmingham Women’s Workers’ Organisation Committee
  • First woman member, Birmingham Trades Council executive committee (1909–1919)
  • Organiser, Workers’ Union (1912–1929)
  • Chair, General Council of the TUC Women’s Group (1921–1935)
  • Chief Women’s Officer, Transport and General Workers’ Union (1929–1936)

Career highlights

  • 1886 – At a time when it’s a “moral crime for women to be in unions”, 15-year-old Julia becomes branch secretary of the Bradford Weavers’ and Textile Workers’ Union.
  • 1909 – The Cadbury family recruits Julia to Bournville to organise Black Country women workers. Julia plays a leading role in the women chain-makers’ strike of 1910. A £4,000 strike fund enables 2,450 workers to strike for 10 weeks before employers agree to better pay.
  • 1910 – Birmingham bakers work 70 to 100 hours a week for 22 to 26 shillings. Working alongside the National Union of Operative Bakers, Julia secures them a minimum wage of 26 shillings a week for a 54-hour working week.
  • 1912 – With the Workers’ Union, Julia is one of the first women officers of a mixed sex union in Britain. She helps WU membership soar from 5,000 to 65,000 between 1909 and 1914.
  • 1913 – Julia organises the families of 5,000 striking clay workers in Cornwall. The strike collapses amid police brutality. But in January 1914 one of Cornwall’s largest clay companies agrees to recognise the union and establish fair pay. Other clay firms soon join them.
  • 1914 – With men going to war, Julia travels the country to ensure that women doing men’s work get fair pay and conditions. By 1918 the WU has 80,000 women members. Julia also manages to organise a group of stranded Chinese sailors.
  • 1931 – Julia is awarded an >Order of the British Empire.
  • 1935 – Julia is presented with the TUC Gold Badge, which is awarded by the TUC every year to a female trade unionist with an outstanding record of trade union and community or voluntary work over a period of many years.


  • Birmingham Mail, 1931 – During the Black Country Strike of 1913, “Julia was outstanding in her gift of meeting the strikers’ wives and women associated with the strike, explaining to them the importance of the fight their men were making, and turning them into active supporters.”
  • Obituary in Labour Women, 1953 – “Self-reliant, fearless, often impetuous but abundantly blessed with solid common sense …”
  • Friend and activist Margaret Horwill – “She dined with bishops but always remained one of the people.”

In her own words:

“I have worked and lived for the bottom dog and I think he or she has benefited a tiny bit from what I have done.”