Saidie Patterson (1904-1985)
Saidie was born and lived throughout her life in Woodvale Street, Belfast. As a child, she helped her mother, who was an outworker in the linen industry and was thus fully aware of the exhaustion and poverty suffered by such workers. Her sense of this injustice was exacerbated by the death of her mother in childbirth in 1918, unable to afford a doctor’s fee of 3/6d. When Saidie went to work at Ewarts Mill on the Crumlin Road at the age of fourteen, therefore, she was keen to alleviate the poor conditions in which her fellow workers toiled.
Saidie’s challenges to authority slowly gained the women’s confidence and, conscious of the difficulties in organising female trade unions, she sought the co-operation of male trade union and socialist leaders. It was with their encouragement and the promised support of the Transport Union that she called for the full unionisation of Ewart’s workforce in 1940, calling a strike when this was rejected. Almost 2,000 workers joined the strike, with the sight of these women parading through Belfast in their Sunday best leaving a lasting impression. The strike lasted for seven weeks and was brought to an end only in the wider interest of the National Emergency. The benefits of this show of solidarity may not have been immediately realised, but wage increases, sickness and holiday pay were introduced by the end of the year.
Her leadership skills were acknowledged in her appointment as the first full-time official of the textile branch of the Transport and General Workers’ Union in Belfast, with special responsibility for women workers, a post she continued to occupy for the next twenty years.
Her interest in social welfare went beyond the workplace, and as an active member of the Girls Club Union for over fifty years, she brought girls from the Falls and the Shankill together to join in a range of activities. The Standing Conference of Women’s Organisations, formed in 1943 to bring 35 women’s groups together and of which she was Treasurer, also provided opportunities to exercise her particular brand of Christian Socialism, focusing on infant mortality and the scourge of tuberculosis. Saidie broadened her horizons with her association with the Moral Rearmament Association, which convinced her that only through personal relationships could reconciliation – between any opposing factions – be brought about. In 1973 she became Chair of Women Together, formed to provide shared holidays for the segregated children of Belfast; in 1976 she was made a lifetime Vice President. She went on to play an important role in the work of the Peace People, organizing the potentially explosive march of 50,000 women between the Falls and the Shankill. Saidie received five international peace awards, donating the money received to charities, and at the age of 69, she was presented with the World Methodist Peace Award. She died in 1985.
David Bleakley, Saidie Patterson: Irish Peacemaker (Blackstaff Press: Belfast, 1980)