Barber's chair at Menai Bridge, Geoff Charles Collection, National Library of Wales. Via Flickr Commons
Barber’s chair at Menai Bridge, Geoff Charles Collection, National Library of Wales. Via Flickr Commons

In recent years, historians have taken something of a ‘beard turn’, by which I mean even something seemingly mundane and innocuous as facial hair finds itself under the historical microscope. What are the trends? Why does facial hair come in and out of fashion? What is the relationship between facial hair and masculinities? Much of this work comes from a cultural history context, but I have been thinking about whether or not there is a labour history angle to this as well. What was the relationship between those who worked in the hairdressing industry and the emerging labour movement around the turn of the twentieth century, for instance? Did hairdressers stand aloof from party politics and trades unionism or did they get actively involved? The answers to these and other questions are fascinating and pose even more questions about just what the labour movement of the early twentieth century was all about when we strip away the big unions like the miners, the railwaymen, and the dockers.

If you look carefully at the early reports published by the Labour Representation Committee (that is between 1900 and 1905), you will find a plethora of different trades unions affiliation. Amongst them is the Hairdressers Federation of South Wales and Monmouthshire – the reason I spotted them is entirely due to their 1904 conference delegate having the delightful name of “Mr Rainbow”. The Federation was established towards the end of 1900, when a number of local hairdressers’ associations – although not all, the wealthy Cardiff Association held aloof – met to safeguard their industry and working conditions. Within a few weeks the Federation had a membership of around 500 shops and some 50 delegates regularly attended its meetings in the early days. The inaugural president was W. J. Flooks of Merthyr Tydfil. He was joined on the committee by Thomas Coole (1845-1904) of Pentre in the Rhondda (vice president), Samuel Jeffreys of Morriston (secretary), and Wallace Winter of Swansea (treasurer). High on the agenda of the Federation was the question of working hours, notably working to bring about complete Sunday closing, blacklegging, and pay. Across much of South Wales in 1900 or so, a shave could be had for as little as 1d, which the Federation’s members regarded as tantamount to ‘starvation wages’. The price was held low by ‘adventurers’ – ‘boys [who] had learnt the use of the razor and scissors […and] started all round on their own in business’.

Of the list of original officers of the Federation, perhaps the most interesting figure was Samuel Jeffreys, whose barber’s shop stood on Llangyfelach Road in Swansea. A long-serving member of Morriston Trades Council – and its secretary – he was also a leading figure in Swansea Trades and Labour Council at the beginning of the century running as a labour candidate in the municipal elections in 1901. Jeffreys had previously lived in Newport, running a barber’s shop and furniture dealers in Commercial Road, moving to Swansea when his Newport business burnt down in 1895. It is clear, from the adverts that Jeffreys took out in the press, which referred to him as a ‘hairdresser, wigmaker and fancy hair worker’ that he thought of himself as a worker rather than a small-time businessman.

The contrast – at least in political affiliation – was with Thomas Coole, who was the first hairdresser to establish a business in the Rhondda during the mining boom. Born in Castletown on the Isle of Man, he arrived in the valley in about 1867, after serving an apprenticeship in Liverpool and various stints in Aberavon and Aberdare, settling in what became Pentre. An Anglican, Coole was a staunch supporter of the Conservative Party but was nevertheless a keen mover in the organisation of hairdressers into a trade union in the Rhondda.

It’s easy to think of Jeffreys as unusual, but that would be a false impression. Despite Coole’s politics, the Rhondda Hairdressers’ Association that he was president of and helped to found were firm supporters of William Abraham arguing that their support for the miners’ leader was ‘quite in keeping with the rules of the association that, as trades unionists, they should support a trades unionist candidate’. They even established their own parliamentary levy of sixpence per worker, which was then donated to Mabon’s parliamentary fund. In Merthyr, the Hairdressers’ Association was an active member organisation of the town’s trades and labour council, as it was in Aberdare. In fact, at Merthyr, the trades and labour council were wholehearted supporters of the hairdressers’ campaign to abolish Sunday trading and issued appeals to trades unionists in the town to get their hair cut and have a shave only at those shops that were members of the Hairdressers’ Federation. Perhaps the closest relationship, certainly from the point of view of the hairdressers, was with the Miners’ Federation (indeed, there is some evidence that the confederal nature of the hairdressers’ union had been modelled on the South Wales Miners’ Federation itself), with whom they worked to prevent collier-barbers from undermining the skilled trade. As one hairdressing trades unionist put it:

Here comes the inconsistency of the collier. He is continually harping upon the tyranny of the masters. He takes harsh measures to eject non-unionists from the colliery. He denounces unskilled labour at the mines, and condemns the colliery proprietor for any step which may be taken to increase profits. He would have the world believe he is the most pious-minded trades unionist in the land, and that he metes out to others the same measure of justice as he seeks for himself. Here we have him in his true colours, and, because a professional hairdresser has dared to join a federation for the improvement of the conditions of labour and advanced the price of a shave from 1d to 1½d, that collier prefers walking a quarter of a mile rather than be scraped by an unskilled man at a penny. It is immaterial to the collier-barber whether the penny is a living wage or not. He is not dependent upon the craft for a living.

A number of resolutions were passed by the Miners’ Federation districts calling on members to get their shave and haircuts in trade union shops and eventually such tactics worked. By 1918 the price of a shave had risen to 3d across the central coalfield, and the craft-based nature of the industry made secure.

But was the Hairdressers’ Federation really a trade union on the same lines as the South Wales Miners’ Federation? It was certainly a craft union, representing skilled labour. But for the Shop Assistants’ union in particular, membership of hairdressers on trades councils, trades and labour councils, and above all the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) was highly controversial. They waged a long campaign for the removal of the hairdressers, successful in some parts and not in others. On a national level, the Shop Assistants even threatened to withdraw from the LRC in protest – the resolution being presented by a Cardiff delegate at the union’s 1905 annual conference – although upon being put to a vote it was overwhelmingly resolve to remain in. Locally, similar resolutions were passed condemning Merthyr Trades and Labour Council for allowing the Hairdressers to be affiliated, and in Aberdare the matter came to a head in 1908. Putting forward a resolution calling for the disaffiliation of the valley’s hairdressers association, the shop assistants were drawing on a campaign conducted within miners’ lodges and in other trades union branches in the Aberdare area. Other crafts unions protested that this would leave them open to disaffiliation proceedings too, but to no avail. The vote was 45 in favour of exclusion, 38 against. Cheers arose from the delegates of the bakers’ union, who were warned by the dismayed chairman that they might be next.

The Hairdressers’ Federation of South Wales and Monmouthshire was a small, but nevertheless omnipresent, organisation but its history in this part of the twentieth century invites many questions about the way in which the labour movement was developing. For much of the nineteenth century, trades councils had been dominated by craft unions providing representation for skilled labour on a relatively localised scale. By the early twentieth century, things were beginning to change. The hostility of the Shop Assistants’ Union towards the Hairdressers’ Federation was symptomatic of this change: on the one hand a new union organising labour on a wide scale; on the other a localised craft union whose disputes were about protecting the rights of skilled workers. In the middle were the South Wales Miners’ Federation, whose existence had altered the landscape of trades unionism in the region, and the emerging Labour Party who willing drew on both strands to press the case for independent labour representation in parliament.

And so to return to the ‘Beard Turn’. Yes, it is indeed very interesting that beards can be interpreted as guides to masculinity and to the ways in which popular culture shapes and is shaped by facets such as class, gender, and sexuality. But this is also an interesting field for historians working from other historiographical traditions – including labour history. Recognising hairdressers and barbers as workers, who unionised, who were active in the labour movement, helps us place those trends observed by cultural historians into other kinds of contexts. Perhaps in the end miners grew beards because they didn’t feel comfortable breaking solidarity with co-federationists but simply didn’t have the 3d to spend for a scraping? Plenty of us in the twenty-first century can feel sympathy with that!