The Red Rose Guild had its origins in an exhibition held for two and a helf days in October 1920 in Houldsworth Hall in Manchester, under the banner of 'The Red Rose Guild of Arts and Crafts'. The initiative came from a group of northern artist-craftsmen living in London, including Dorothy Hutton and Kathleen Smartt, who wished to exhibit their work in Manchester. The exhibition was very successful, attracting so much interest that the Red Rose Guild of Artworkers was formed in January 1921. The name was changed in the early 1940s to 'The Red Rose Guild of Craftsmen' to reflect its emphasis on craftwork.
The symbol of the Guild, the red rose of Lancashire, reflected the Guild's origins in the North West, and its regional focus persisted despite the participation of craftspeople from across the country. It held annual exhibitions showcasing leading practitioners of craftwork, and sought to promote the importance of craftwork in modern society.
The organizer of the original exhibition was Margaret Pilkington (1891-1974), a wood-engraver who had been taught by Noel Rooke and Lucien Pissarro at the Central School in London. She served on the committee for the first 40 years of the Guild's existence, for many of those years as Honorary Secretary and occasionally as Chairman.
Quality of work was paramount to the selectors - membership of the Guild did not automatically guarantee a place in the exhibitions (a rule that caused some dissent among members). Each exhibitor was responsible for the display and sale of his or her work, but the committee would often give guidance about which works to show. By 1925, 60 applicants were applying for 32 stalls, and the number of stalls increased throughout the 1930s; by the 1950s there were more than 80.
Margaret Pilkington was deputy chairman and honorary director of the Whitworth Art Gallery on Oxford Road, Manchester, from 1936 until 1959, and successful spring exhibitions were held there in 1938 and 1939 in addition to the exhibitions in Houldsworth Hall, which took place in November/December. In 1940 the Guild moved its headquarters to the Whitworth.
Records of the annual exhibitions were kept in albums, including exhibition layouts, invitations, tickets, catalogues and photographs of the hall and of individual stands. Up to 1939, each year was comprehensively recorded, often including copies of the annual report.
During the Second World War no exhibitions were held, but between 1940 and 1942 the Guild published a quarterly magazine, 'Crafts', edited by Harry Norris (1901-1968), exploring the needs, the aims and the philosophy of life and of work of craft practitioners. The Guild was one of 27 societies involved in the inauguration of the Central Institute of Art and Design in November 1940, and contributed three delegates to the committee to deal with matters of concern to craftsmen.
After the war 'Crafts' reappeared as an annual publication, and the Guild began to extend its work. For example it was one of five sponsors of the Craft Centre of Great Britain, Pilkington and Harry Norris serving on the council. They were energetic in the promotion of the commissioning of wedding gifts, prizes, presentations and civic regalia from craftspeople, and advocated approaching Guild members to carry out this work.
The Guild changed its name in the 1960s to the Red Rose Guild of Designer Craftsmen. There was always debate about whether a permanent outlet for displaying and selling craftwork would be the Guild's best method of operation, and from 1963 to 1974 there was a permanent exhibition space, at the Crane Gallery, No.35 South King Street, Manchester, and a limited company, the Northern Crafts Centre, was formed. Harry Norris was the first Chairman of the Centre and was the driving force behind it until his death in April 1968.
The deaths of senior members of the committee and the closure of the Northern Crafts Centre in 1974 were threats to the Guild's future, but Dr Henry Spittle, one of the remaining council members, organised a very successful exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery in 1976, after which a new council took the Guild forward by once again staging annual exhibitions, usually at Manchester Polytechnic's Undercroft Gallery. However, the growth of local guilds, including the Northern Potters' Association, founded in 1977, and North-West Craftsmen, founded in 1980, left the Red Rose Guild increasingly irrelevant, and its last exhibition was held in 1985.