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Brenda Webber – making history

Martin McIvor · 13 October 2020

As Ada Lovelace Day celebrates the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths, Prospect remembers an extraordinary member who made a powerful contribution both to our union and to the rights and recognition of women working in British science and technology.

Brenda Webber (1937-2014) began work in the Mathematics Division at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington as a teenager in 1953, joining Prospect’s predecessor union of the time, the Institution of Professional Civil Servants (IPCS). She can be spotted in archive photos operating some of the historic early computers designed there by Alan Turing.

But Webber made history in another way when she led a seminal walkout of around 5,000 government scientific assistants in 1961. Public sector workers were seeing real terms falls in living standards under the “pay pause” imposed by Prime Minister Harold MacMillan and his Chancellor Selywn Lloyd. Scientific assistants – of whom a high proportion were women – had been hit particularly hard, having already been at the back of the queue for settlement of a pay claim dating from 1957.

Webber, aged 24, became secretary of an “Scientific Assistant’s Action Group” formed to agitate around the issue, and for several months spent her evenings organising mailouts to a list of sympathisers that grew to 1,300. On 22 September an unofficial one day strike – dubbed a “work pause” to protest the “pay pause” – brought out 5,000 scientific staff from across government departments and agencies including NPL, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Meteorological Office, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Around 700 converged on Whitehall in what The Times of the next morning described as the march of the “White Coats”, delivering a letter to the Treasury before assembling in Caxton Hall. But the paper was surprised to report that “on the platform was not a burly shop steward but Miss Brenda Webber”, whom it declared “a charming strike leader”. “I have never done anything like this before”, she announced. The truth was, no one had. It was the first time Government scientists had ever taken strike action.

A month after the “march of the white coats” gained national coverage, the government’s “pay pause” was debated in Parliament – with the plight of “government scientists” given special mention by Labour’s Shadow Chancellor of the time, Harold Wilson. Within two years he was Labour leader, capturing voters’ imaginations with his famous “white heat” speech about the urgency of investing in the workers driving forward the scientific and technological revolutions of the time.

The next official bulletin of the IPCS admitted that the union had perhaps not given enough priority to the grievances of Webber and her co-workers – and that some officials were nervous about their planned action. But it concluded that “this whole episode illustrates to what lengths the average member will go when the Treasury pushes too hard”, and “undoubtedly it will strengthen the institution in the end”, noting that membership numbers among government scientists had reached record levels.

Webber continued working at NPL, being made operations manager on the KDF9, another important early British computer, until resigning in1969. But as well as the contributions she made to the early years of the ICT revolution, the example she set – seven years before the Ford sewing machinists’ strike, and 57 before the global Google walkouts – continues to resonate and inspire.

Martin McIvor is a Prospect research officer