In the late 19th century, a growing number of blind people were entering the labour force. But many suffered exploitation, both in private industry and in the charity sector. So a group came together to form a trade union specifically for blind workers – the National League of the Blind (NLB).
Why a union?
The founders of the League didn’t want charity. Rather, they wanted recognition for their abilities, fair conditions of employment and state pensions for sightless people who couldn’t work. The league affiliated to the TUC in 1902, and to the Labour Party in 1909.
In 1912, blind workers went on strike in Bristol, staying out for six months. This was the first of many strikes by blind workers which, along with the League’s intense political lobbying, had an impact in Westminster.
The Blind Persons Act
In 1920, a Labour MP Ben Tillett introduced a Private Member’s Bill, entitled “The Blind (Education, Employment and Maintenance) Bill”. His aim was to raise awareness of the demands of blind workers. Although few MPs opposed it, the government wouldn’t offer its support, instead promising to introduce their own bill.
Marching on London
The League’s members weren’t content to wait for government action, so they decided to organise a march on London, building public awareness of their campaign along the way. In the spring of 1920, three different contingents marched from cities around the UK, eventually holding a mass meeting on Trafalgar Square. They walked arm-in-arm and carried banners that read “We demand justice not charity”.
While many newspapers expressed pity for the marchers – which was not what they wanted – members of the public were supportive and expressed their admiration. In some cities, marchers were provided with food and lodging in private homes and at Macclesfield, a local band led them into the town square.
The march was also a financial success. On its first day, marchers collected £65 in Stockport and the donations kept coming – hitting a peak of £400 in Northampton.
Unfortunately, the government wasn’t quite so generous. When the march arrived in London, the League’s leaders had to wait five days before being permitted to meet with Prime Minister Lloyd George. And while the Blind Act did pass into law in September 1920, it wasn’t as far-reaching as the League had hoped. But for the first time, the particular needs of blind people were recognised in law and the number of ‘known’ blind people doubled in ten years.
The march’s legacy
While it’s often forgotten today, the 1920 march was the first of its kind and provided the inspiration for many other similar efforts – most famously the Jarrow March of 1936.
The League continued to advocate for blind people, and its representatives frequently spoke at the TUC Congress and Labour party Conference. in 1968, the league expanded to become the ‘National League of the Blind and Disabled’, which later merged with the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation to become part of the union Community.