Trade Unionist / Women’s rights advocate / Peacemaker
Sarah ‘Saidie’ Patterson was born on 5 November 1904 to William, a blacksmith, and Sarah Patterson (neé McKinley Moore*). She was the second of three children born to the couple, and the young Methodist family lived in the Shankill area of Belfast, Northern Ireland. After a very short illness, Saidie’s father died in July 1907, leaving her mother, Sarah, with a new-born baby and another two children under four. Her home became somewhat of a lodging house thereafter in order to provide income for the family. On 2 July 1913 Sarah married Thomas Gracey, a clerk, himself a widower and father of six**. Tragedy struck again just one day before Saidie’s tenth birthday in November 1914 when the youngest of the Patterson children, Mary, died aged just seven years old. To add further woe to the lives of the struggling family, Gracey’s health ‘rapidly declined until he was made physically helpless by a nervous complaint’ over the years that followed, and the responsibilities of income fell to Sarah and the eldest children during a time already made tough by the First World War. The family became so poor that they could not afford the doctor’s fees to attend Sarah who was in childbirth on 13 December 1918, and she died of shock and post-partum haemorrhage. Of the tragedy, Saidie said that initially she was bitter because she knew medical attention could have saved her mother. But she would later recall:
‘As I stood in my dear mother’s blood, I didn’t shed a tear, but I felt a Cross being put on my back and, at the same time, I felt a strange warmth coming into the room. Looking back now, I’m convinced it was the Holy Spirit. From that day on I put my hand to doing what I could for what was right […] that night I became an adult.’
This experience would drive Saidie’s passion for workers’ rights in the coming years. About this same time, she got a job in Ewart’s Mill as a weaver. Despite leaving school at a very young age to join the workforce, Saidie retained a thirst for learning and for twenty years she was very involved with different branches of the Belfast Girls’ Club Union whose members were, for the most part, girls employed in various factories, who were taught arts, crafts and other skills through the Club which they would ‘not otherwise have learned.’ The depression of the 1930s saw over 100,000 people unemployed in Belfast alone and anyone who had work in the factories faced long hours and very low pay. Of the time, Saidie remarked ‘…if you spoke out of turn when you saw injustice done you were out. There were a dozen women waiting outside for your job.’
‘The closer you get to the big and pompous the smaller they look.’
It was around this time that Saidie met Robert ‘Bob’ Getgood, a politician and trade unionist. In 1938, Bob, along with Ernest Bevin, one of the founding members of the Transport and General Workers Union (one of the largest trade unions in Britain for a time) arrived at Saidie’s house in Woodvale Street to try to persuade her to organise the textile workers. ‘He said the job would be as big as a mountain,’ Saidie later recalled, ‘and I would only have a spoon to use to move it. He said I would have to fight with truth and justice.’ A few months later, in January 1940, the staff of Ewart’s Linen Mill, most of them women, engaged in a strike which would last seven long weeks. They were striking because
‘the working conditions were terrible – the dust was thick, and the humidity needed to produce the linen made many of the workers consumptive. Women would have babies and be back in the factory 48 hours later […] we were supposed to be earning 24s a week but because we were on piece work, we hardly ever got it. Work would be held up and we would lose our money […] we had two days off at Easter and two at Christmas and a week for the 12th July – all without pay…’
Throughout the course of the strike the women subsisted on 12s per week (£33.31 by 2019 standards): ‘we were hungry all the time and we lived on bread and potatoes. We went through hell mentally and physically, but we got support from all over the world…’ Saidie’s untiring work, along with the work of others such as Betty Sinclair of the Revolutionary Worker’s Party, managed to accomplish a lot, from better wages and improved working conditions to holiday pay and tea-breaks.
Saidie became known as a ‘tough negotiator’ in her permanent role as a trade unionist in Bevin’s Amalgamated Transport and General Worker’s Union. During one negotiation she ‘swept a whole tableful of papers onto the floor’ and couldn’t bring herself to apologise. She arranged another meeting with him and there said to him ‘do you know, you are a very difficult man. You were 99% wrong at the last meeting but I was 1% wrong. I should not have done what I did.’ At this, the man nearly fell from his chair in disbelief at her unexpected apology. ‘I can truthfully say that it was the beginning of a tremendous change,’ Saidie explained, and from whence took a more peaceful approach to conflict.
‘Peace can never come through violence. You need a superior idea in your head and love in your heart.’
Alongside her trade unionism, Saidie also got involved in the Moral Re-Armament cause, which had begun in 1938 and sought to show that military re-armament alone would not solve anything, but rather that ‘[t]he nations must re-arm morally. Moral recovery is essentially the forerunner of economic recovery. Moral recovery creates not crisis but confidence and unity in every phase of life.’ In 1945 she attended a conference regarding such notions in Switzerland, which further solidified her belief that ‘you have to get rid of hate and bitterness before you can build a better world.’
In 1953, Saidie was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth for her work with trade unionism and for the next twenty years she would travel the world talking about trade unionism and Moral Re-armament, having on one occasion got an invitation to India by Gandhi’s grandson, but the Troubles in Northern Ireland would have her back in Belfast trying to arrange a ‘unity […] that people would come from all ends of the earth to see.’
‘My aim is to build bridges – not barriers.’
After a strenuous illness, Saidie retired from her position in the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union in 1960 however she continued her roles as honorary treasurer of the Standing Conference of Women’s Organisations, chairman of the Old Girl’s Association of the Belfast Girls Club, on the executive of the Labour Party, on the board of the White Abbey Training School for Girls, and a committee member of the Belfast Business and Professional Women’s Club throughout the sixties.
‘I believe that the women of Ulster will create a society in which ignorance, fear and hate shall give place to liberty, justice and peace.’
In early 1973, Saidie became the chairman of the Women Together group, set up in 1970 to bring Catholic and Protestant women together to stand in solidarity against violence in Northern Ireland. Members of Women Together often roamed the streets stopping rowdyism among youths, removing burnt out cars, and supporting the victims of sectarianism. In 1974 she took on the role of chairman on the 14-strong steering committee behind the more gender-neutral group – People Together – which saw over 1,000 people attend its launch in September of that year. The idea was to ‘get peace work moving among ordinary people, before asking for direct intervention from politicians.’ People Together groups were set up across the province of Ulster and by October 1974 over 50,000 people had signed their petition for peace. This petition, calling for ‘peace, partnership and reconciliation,’ eventually signed by 130,000 people, was handed over to secretary of state, Mr Merlyn Rees, at Stormont in April 1975 by members of the People Together group, which included Saidie. Like Women Together, People Together organised inter-denominational religious services, carol services, exhibitions, and fundraising events in order to bridge the divide between communities, and also to help alleviate the suffering the people in these communities were facing on a daily basis.
‘It’s not about who’s right, but what’s right.’
Saidie stepped down from her post as chairman of Women Together in 1976 and was succeeded by Leslie Haslett who stated, ‘nobody who succeeds Saidie Patterson would claim to be able to make any improvements.’ It is no wonder then, that Saidie was made lifetime Vice-President that year, allowing her continued involvement with the organisation into the 1980s. In 1978, aged seventy-four, she was presented with the first World Methodist Peace Award, and $1,000 in prize money. She later donated the money to the Northern Ireland branch of the Arthritis and Rheumatism Council, where she was elected to the council’s steering committee. In 1980, a biography written by her friend, David Bleakley, was published detailing Saidie’s life and was so popular that it warranted a second edition re-print. Journalist Alf McCreary, upon reviewing the book, wrote of Saidie that it was people like her ‘with hope in their hearts and the initiative to erect bridges, however tiny, who are the real heroes of our time.’ He continued:
‘Their work alone will not bring peace, but by pointing to the better way they make the work of warmongers more difficult. The true worth of peacemakers cannot be quantified while the din of battle is still rising above reason, but God only knows how much worse it might have been without their challenging influence.’
That winter, Saidie received 2,509 Christmas cards from all over the world including the UK, Sweden, France, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, to name but a few. None went to waste either, as she distributed a portion of them to special care schools ‘for the children to use in making Christmas cards for 1981,’ and others she gave to the elderly ‘who were not fortunate enough to receive any cards.’
‘When I die, I’ll go up there and organise the angels, starting with St. Peter.’
Saidie Patterson died in 1985.
On International Women’s Day - 8 March - 2018, she was honoured with a blue plaque, unveiled by Baroness May Blood, at the Shankill Road Methodist Church, sparking renewed interest in ‘this local woman who has played such a prominent role in our history.’
Herstory invites students and artists to create brand new portraits of Northern Ireland’s peace heroines. To have your art featured in the Herstory 2020 project please send your name, age and high resolution jpegs to firstname.lastname@example.org
*Sarah’s maiden name is either McKinley or Moore or both. In some records she is recorded as McKinley, and in others Moore. On her first marriage record she states her father is Hugh Moore, and on the second she records it as Charles McKinley.
**The youngest Gracey child, Sarah D Gracey, born just a few months before her mother’s death, was adopted shortly thereafter by her maternal aunt, and therefore did not live with the Patterson family.
Roger Sawyer, We are but women: Women in Ireland’s history, (London, 1993), p. 152.
Mervyn Jess, ‘Shankill Saidie’ earns blue plaque’, BBC News, 9 Mar 2018, online at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-43335596 (accessed 20 May 2019).
Belfast Telegraph, 5 June 1980.
Belfast Telegraph, 30 Mar 1956.
‘A Century of women – 1930s’, A Century of Women, online at https://www.acenturyofwomen.com/1930s/ [accessed 20 May 2019].
Belfast Telegraph, 24 June 1963.
Belfast Telegraph, 3 Mar 1972.
Figure found using conversion calculator on http://www.in2013dollars.com/uk/inflation/1940?amount=1 [accessed 20 May 2019].
Belfast Telegraph, 3 Mar 1972.
Belfast Telegraph, 3 Mar 1972.
Frank N.D., Buchman, Remaking the World (London, 1955), p. 46.
Belfast Telegraph, 3 Mar 1972.
Belfast Telegraph, 26 May 1960.
Belfast Telegraph, 24 Jun 1963.
Belfast Telegraph, 12 Sept. 1974.
Belfast Telegraph, 21 Apr. 1975.
In December 1974 between 7,000-10,000 people attended the People Together Christmas Service. See: Belfast Telegraph, 23 Dec. 1974.
Children from across Northern Ireland were invited to draw posters showing how they saw the province’s hopes for new prosperity, and a selection were shown in an exhibition. See Belfast Telegraph, 18 June 1975.
Belfast Telegraph, 8 Mar. 1976.
Belfast Telegraph, 5 June 1980.
Belfast Telegraph, 12 Jan. 1981.
The Irish Times, 9 Mar. 2018.
Herstory by Katelyn Hanna.