It is a well known fact that for many decades the women of Derry were the bulwark of this city’s workforce. They worked hard for what they earned and quite rightly took pride in their work ethic and the bonds forged on the factory floor between these women remains famed to this day.
As the Troubles escalated in Derry they also impinged on the lives of workers. As most shirt factories were located in the city centre it was unavoidable that ‘factory girls’ would be caught up in the ‘bother’ in some shape or form.
When nine factory girls were arrested in July, 1970 accused of riotous behaviour the authorities perhaps underestimated the grit, determination and unity of these women. As the nine defendants appeared at Derry courthouse on these charges a protest march comprised of their work mates descended upon Bishop Street to express their anger.
On July 10, 1970 the front page headline of the ‘Journal’ said ‘Factory girls stage protest’, and recorded that there was ‘angry scenes as girl gets jail sentence’.
The report read: “Over 100 girls from several Derry shirt factories protested yesterday outside the local courthouse, where nine girls appeared on disorderly behaviour charges arising out of recent disturbances in the city.
“And, inside the courthouse at the end of the days proceedings, there was an angry scene after a 20-year-old girl had been sentenced to three months imprisonment. Two 17-year-old girls were also sent to prison for three months. Appeal bail was allowed in all three cases.”
The protest was organised by the Shirt Factory Girls’ Committee of the Derry Labour Party. After marching up Bishop Street the women were met at the courthouse door by an RUC superintendent. Ten of the women were admitted to the courthouse, which was almost full, to view the proceedings. The rest of the women continued to march up and down outside the court whilst the hearing went ahead.
The ‘Journal’ continued: “For thirty minutes in driving rain the women sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ and chanted slogans such as ‘release the workers’ and ‘we want justice for the girls’.
“Altogether nine girls appeared before the court. All were arrested in an army swoop in the Rossville Street area on June 28, after two Saracen armoured cars split up a rioting crowd. Three of the defendants were sent to jail for three months each, two had their cases dismissed and the prosecution withdrew the cases against the other four.”
In the case of the 20-year-old woman sentenced to three months it had been alleged that she had thrown a stone at Kells Walk on the Sunday night. She denied the charge.
A Corporal William Stretch gave evidence of being in a personnel carrier when it drove down Rossville Street scattering a group of stone throwers. He said that as he got out of the vehicle he and other soldiers with him stood and saw the defendant throw a stone from Kells Walk. He claimed the woman was just ten yards away from him when he saw her.
“He took particular notice of her and singled her out. She was in a group of ten girls and they were standing at a ramp. Witness and the other troops ran into Kells Walk and one of the troops with Corporal Stretch grabbed the defendant, put her against a wall and apprehended her. She was wearing some red clothing. He examined her hands but did not find them dirty,” the ‘Journal’ continued.
In response the defendant claimed that after attending a peace meeting at Free Derry Corner she and her sister left a friend to a bus stop at Shipquay Street around 10pm. On going back she walked down Fahan Street and after being told by another sister that the rioting had stopped they went via Kells Walk to see if the troops had removed the barricades.
She said their intention had been to get to Creggan St and that she then stood talking to a group of girls at Kells Walk for a few minutes and witnessed Saracens going up Rossville Street. It was then she said, that the British army came up to Kells Walk and having run past them, some troops then came back and arrested them.
Then, the defendants evidence took a somewhat humorous turn that no doubt caused a dent to Corporal Stretch’s ego. The 20-year-old woman told the court that he had once bought her a cup of coffee after a dance when he was leaving one of her friends home. Earlier, during the dance, she said the soldier had asked to leave her home and she had refused on the grounds that ‘I didn’t like him!’
The soldier responded to the defendants claims that he didn’t remember buying her a coffee or meeting her on any social occasion. The defendant’s sister told the court the group of girls were standing around 75 yards away from where the army entered Kells Walk.
“Some ran past us and then came back and grabbed the first they saw by the hair,” she said.
The Resident Magistrate in Derry court said there was no confirming evidence in the case but the soldier was absolutely positive that he saw the 20-year-old defendant throw a stone and he was sure she was guilty.
Following sentencing Corporal William Stretch had to remain in the court room for some time until the angry crowd of factory girls outside dispersed. The defendant was released on police bail pending bail.