Will You Fight For it?: a past tense history walk

Will You Fight For it?

Join past tense on a Radical History walk… from Camberwell Green to Kennington Park

A snapshot of Chartism in South London… and other radical wanderings in the local rebellious past…

Thursday 14th June 2018
Meet 6pm, Camberwell Green, London SE5

Join Alex from past tense on a ramble through some of South London’s Chartist past… and digressions into other related elements of the area’s subversive undercurrents…

Come along and contribute to the discussions as we investigate Chartist demonstrations, riots and revolutionary plots… discover some of the groups who preceded Chartism… the culture that Chartism inherited and built on… some of the movements that arose from the ruins of the Chartist movement.

for more info, email: pasttense@riseup.net

twitter: @_pasttense_

on facebook

Part of the 1848 Kennington Chartist Project

 

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Today in London educational history, 1968: students occupy Hornsey Art College.

On May 28th 1968, Hornsey Art College, in Crouch End, North London, was occupied by students and some staff. The occupation lasted until July 12 1968. The sit-in led to six weeks of intense debate, extended confrontation with the local authorities and even questions in Parliament.

Here are two brief accounts of the occupation – by participants:

Nick Wright’s account:

“In May 28 1968 students at Hornsey College of Art in North London – in a building now (1988) occupied by the TUC Education Centre – began a 24 hour work-in. The limited aims of the protest – for student control of student union funds – rapidly gave way to a deeper demand for thorough changes in the college regime and in art and design education. A dramatic shift of mood took place as students from the far flung outposts of the college came together across boundaries imposed by age, status, specialism and geography. A feeble attempt by the Vice Principal to re-establish his personal authority by threatening the assembled students resulted only in his eviction from the building. The startled students found themselves in occupation. The ancien regime fled. Twenty four hours seemed too little time to discuss everything.

Six weeks later the occupation was broken. Barbed wire and alsations enforced a six month’s lockout while the Conservative controlled council backed the college authorities in a thorough-going purge which closed departments, exiled teachers and expelled student activists.

Three strands of pedagogical thinking converged in the manifestos of the Hornsey College of Art students in May 1968. The first, partly derived from the reforming trends in progressive education, was nurtured by the movement for the common school. It argued for the elimination of GCE entrance qualifications and rejected examinations in art history and general studies. The egalitarian foundation of this idea was based upon a common experience of art and design students that their secondary education prepared them poorly for a higher education in the visual arts – that methods of assessment derived from the stratified structure of formal academic education were inappropriate and that entry should be open.

The second derived from a diffused idea that art and design constituted a discrete activity within higher education and could legitimately be considered separately from academic or technical and scientific studies by virtue of the special character of art.

The third constituted design, a specific activity and discipline distinct from fine art, admitted the historical continuities but took the machine and the built environment as a starting point for a celebration of a new rationality. This trend borrowed rather uncritically from emergent de-schooling trends, psycho-analytic theory, critiques of consumer culture, trans-atlantic notions of network learning and cybernetics.

These concepts were in daily contradiction with the art school regime and with the dominant trend among the rapidly expanding corps of art educationalists and art school administrators who were wedded to a rather narrow vocationalism.

Students were divided by the institutions, into two basic camps. The first followed courses leading to a Diploma in Art and Design (Dip AD), others followed courses leading to lower grade vocational regional certificates.

The distinction between the two kinds of student. was maintained physically – in Hornsey they studied in different buildings – and by quite different curricula. Generally speaking, vocational students were draw more from the locality, were less likely to be from well-off middle class families, were expected to eventual fill lower and intermediate positions in the expanding design world and followed a course whose narrow vocationalism was mitigated by a token nod in the direction of general studies.

By way of contrast Dip A D students were supposed to be degree equivalent. They received a mandatory grant – the most significant mark of academic respectability – but few were convinced that art and design education was comparable to university studies. Many students and almost all the administrators thought of degree equivalence as the key to comparability – in career advancement, in salary advancement, in salary levels and promotion prospects.

Two powerful currents fought out a subterranean battle in art schools. One held to the traditional centrality of fine art studies with vestiges of the atelier system enshrined in the peculiar status accorded painting and sculpture students and teachers. Hornsey prided itself on the large number of established or up-and-coming names who taught part-time. Drawn mostly from abstract expressionist and non-figurative trends they played an important part in the marketing of Hornsey as a prestige institution.

However, fine art studies played a declining and subordinate role in the life of the college. Painting and sculpture students were based at the Alexandra Palace building, they laboured in a shanty town of individually constructed work spaces in a huge hanger like hall. Some even constructed roofs to their work wombs, others preferred to work at home. As a metaphor for the dominant thinking among fine art student this peculiar perversion of the People’s Palace into an Arndale Centre of individualistic fine art boutiques is highly appropriate.

A second current placed design at the centre of curriculum. In part this was a mere reflection of the market lead pressures on the college to turn out a range of design specialists – in part it derived from the centrality accorded to basic design skills and visual research studies by the Modern Movement. Graphic design studies were based at a scruffy Civil Defence building on the North Circular Road. Graphics was run by administrators of staggering mediocrity but taught by part-time lecturers with one foot in the real world of commodity fetishism. To a greater or lesser extent the professional ideologies of fashion and industrial design dominated the design departments at Hornsey. There existed a striking discontinuity between the fashionable image of the college and the poverty of its buildings.

It has become conventional to attribute the Hornsey occupation, the Guilford strike which rapidly followed, the outbreak of similar manifestations throughout much of the art school world as somehow connected with the May and June events in France. Undoubtedly there was a resonance. But it would be misleading to suggest that these developments were in some essential sense spontaneous. They were characterized by a certain spontaneity – as is all mass action – as is all protest and revolt. But as with all social movements, the qualitative leap into dynamic action was preceded by, conditioned by, a slow accretion of signs – secret and public – that change was needed. In the case of Hornsey, the May 28 revolt was paradoxically and in part the product of an alliance between students, staff and the principal. He was a curious blend of petty minded ambition, obsessive bureaucrat and quite striking imagination. Self-promotion was fused with a sense of historical moment into a formidable drive for resources and publicity for Hornsey.

In 1967 his plans were threatened by a plan to incorporate Hornsey into a new polytechnic to be formed by amalgamation with Hendon and Enfield colleges of technology. Quite correctly, he and the corps of senior administrators, saw the Polytechnic Plan as a threat to their position. Enfield, in particular was run by a pair of high powered academic sharks, public advocates of polytechnic education, and well connected politically. The Hornsey incompetents would have been eaten alive.

Students and staff had other worries. Real concerns, about job security, status within the institution for art and design studies, and the future of art and design education as a discrete discipline were mixed up with daft Utopian ideas about the uniqueness of art education and the supposedly special character of art students as bearers of universal values in a machine age. An uneasy alliance came into being. The student union – which had gradually acquired a more politically experienced leadership and established contacts with the NUS and other London art colleges – organised a series of departmental meetings and demonstrations at the Wood Green civic centre to protest against the Polytechnic Plan. The principal and senior staff gave silent sanction to the protests. Theory and arguments were provided by a group of younger teachers; designers and general studies tutors in the main.

The campaign never stood a chance of success in the long term. However, it created a new atmosphere in the college. Cross departmental links were made, the experience of mass action generated new interest in the student union and strengthened membership of the teachers association. Delegations from Hornsey attended the annual NUS conferences and the newly instituted art colleges conference. The pressure for student participation in the college government began to be felt at departmental level and raised expectations among junior and part time staff that they too might gain access to power. A college chapter of the Radical Students Alliance was formed and its banner began to appear at anti-apartheid and Vietnam solidarity rallies. An art student candidate stood in the local elections to publicise the case for the college’s independence. A £100 (four times a policeman’s wage in 1967) was collected from students by the Young Communist League to buy a motorbike for the Viet Cong.

The case for student participation had been hammered out in a series of policy statements between the NUS and various associations of educationalists and local authorities. But these weighty documents had little effect on the college regime or the Conservative worthies on Haringey Council. The college continued to be run by diktat and informal committee. The Bursar and Vice Principal unilaterally ended the convention whereby the student union president was granted a year’s sabbatical and paid from the student union funds. By vetoing the president’s sabbatical the college authorities created a conflict over the issue of student union autonomy at precisely the moment when students wanted to play a more active part in running the college. Consequently, pressures which had been diffused at departmental level became focussed on this single question.

The rupture in conventional college life came about over the issue of student union autonomy but behind this lay more substantial issues. A constant thread in discussion throughout the Polytechnic Plan campaign -and a big part of the broader education debates led by teachers unions and the NUS was the issue of the binary system in higher education. Criticism was focused on the Polytechnic Plan precisely because it seemed to further institutionalise the disparity in resources and status which existed between universities and public sector colleges. Buried within this discussion were echoes of the controversies over comprehensive secondary education. It seemed as if a high proportion of Hornsey students came from outside London and from working classes and lower middle class backgrounds. A rather diffused sense of deprivation fused with more local and departmental concerns to produce a general demand for change.

Recovering the rather prosaic foundations of the Hornsey revolt from the spontaneist myths of ‘68 should not obscure the extraordinary boldness and imagination of the students and staff. The foundation of their discontent lay in the failure of the art and design education system to reconcile the contradictory pressures for vocational training and increased specialisation with the need for a broad education. Their demands were broadly democratic in character, their tactics strikingly original, their reserves of courage and organisational ability constantly surprising. As innocents they made the classic mistake of substituting dreams for reality, elevating the tactic of occupation to a principle and believing that an agreement with a more powerful adversary would hold. As a consequence they were defeated. But it is the victors who are forgotten.”

Nick Wright went to Hornsey College of Art in 1965 to study graphic design and typography. He became Secretary of the HCA Student Union in 1966 and President in 1967. In 1969 following the student occupation of the college the authorities obtained a High Court injunction preventing him from entering the premises. Fifteen years later he returned to Middlesex Polytechnic and completed his degree before taking an MA in Art History at Sussex University.

Hornsey College of Art uprising, by David Page

“On 28 May 1968, at Hornsey College of Art, what was to have been a one-day teach-in turned into a six-week occupation. There was a parallel occupation at Guildford School of Art, and the action spread rapidly round most of the art and design colleges in England in various forms. It produced two books, a film, an exhibition at the ICA, newspaper and magazine articles, demonstrations and street events, television interviews, a large number of educational documents containing analysis and proposals for reform, as well as posters, an articulate constituency and (indirectly) the only serious piece of government research into the sector (see The Employment of Art College Leavers: Ritchie, Frost and Dight, HMSO, 1972).

That’s one way of summarising it. In strict dictionary terms it was a revolution – the overthrow of the established government by those who were previously subject to it.

The authorities fled from the main college, which was then run for the duration by students and staff, 24 hours, seven days a week, demanding total commitment. There was a building to run and keep clean, a canteen to staff, food to be purchased, cooked and served, visitors to be monitored and controlled, alongside a system of seminars producing reports to be typed up, reproduced and fed back into the general meetings (and also to the outside audience), where hundreds of students and staff managed to debate and take decisions in an orderly fashion. Because the graphics department was in the hands of the authorities, printed matter had to be produced by available means – mainly linocut – but the rougher images produced seemed to meet the mood of the time, and were consonant with what was being produced via silk-screen in Paris. Some more sophisticated work found its way to printers, such as George Snow’s Snakes & Ladders, and a typographic poster of John Donne’s “No Man is an Iland, entire of it selfe” quotation, which was felt to embody the spirit of the sit-in, featured in a number of London bookshops.

There was much interest from notable people in other cultural areas – indeed, the establishment. William Coldstream, John Summerson and Shirley Williams (at that time Education Minister) treated it with respect, and even some admiration. None of that from the local councillors and aldermen, who had little idea what the institution in their control might be about, but were clear that authority, their authority, was being challenged, and they weren’t having it. Their stance culminated in “The Day of the Dogs”, when a team of security men with Alsatians were sent to surround and seal off the main college building. In the event, students tamed the dogs with biscuits, and the whole episode collapsed into farce. The people who did understand the educational arguments pulled back, saying that, regrettably, there was nothing they could do, thereby leaving the field to Haringey Council, which did not understand, and furthermore did not wish to understand, thank you very much. While this local political battle went on wasting a lot of time and energy, a social and spiritual development occurred alongside. What we aimed to do was simple: as William Blake put it, to build Jerusalem. William Morris, another artist-rebel who started with a concern about furniture and ended up grappling with the whole structure of society, followed a similar path. In 1964, surveying the new DipAD (Diploma in Art and Design), Quentin Bell wrote: “Henceforth it should be possible for a college to develop entirely on its own lines, to follow no matter what eccentric course it pleases, and it does not matter how eccentric that course may be if only the teachers are sufficiently enthusiastic.” (Crisis in the Humanities, edited by JH Plumb, Penguin, 1964.)

We would have said amen to that: what happened was nearly the opposite. The politics of Hornsey emerged from the conflict between Bell’s aspiration and the structures and practices we actually encountered. When eventually an unsatisfactory agreement was brokered between the authorities and the occupiers, the main college was briefly reopened. The authorities’ first act was to tear down everything which pertained to the sit-in: Hornsey posters, French student posters, etc. There’s no vandal like an official vandal. Within a week or two they had also broken all the terms of the agreement. Staff and student sackings and other repressions began. (“No way to run a whelk-stall, let alone an art school” – Lord Longford.) I managed to salvage at least some of the poster lino-blocks before they were destroyed. It was easier to gather documents (which had been sources for The Hornsey Affair): they remained in cardboard boxes through several house moves, and were sorted, years later, by two successive and devoted researchers (the first of whom had to sift out the mouse turds).

What Hornsey meant depended on where you stood, whether you were a teacher or a student, where you were in your life, and so on. This article expresses a partial view by a member of staff, so I asked two friends who were students then to sum up what it meant to them: “As a student on the industrial design course at Hornsey in 1968, I became very strongly aware of the powerful and pragmatic role design could have as an agent for social change and development. The sit-in burst into this environment, and its activities were a natural forum to explore these issues, both through debate and practical projects. Design for learning as a radical process has driven my work since that time” – Prue Bramwell-Davies.

“The Hornsey thing was a startling illustration of the potential for a disparate group of people with insignificant initial common cause to develop the ability to discuss and act together in such a way that cohesive and pragmatic philosophical and political expression emerges. That this phenomenon is extraordinary and deeply threatening to institutional establishments is a profound comment on our social organisation and the way in which it continues. It is significant that these were art and design students, doers and makers rather than talkers”– David Poston.

Various documents on the Hornsey occupation were presented by David Page in 2008 to the Tate Gallery.

 The Hornsey sit-in, and one at Guildford Art School, which followed on a week later in early June, inspired a ferment of agitation and debate throughout the art-school world: there were sit-ins, active discussions and demands for radical reform in a large number of colleges. The Hornsey and Guildford students founded a national movement, the Movement for Rethinking Art and Design Education (MORADE), which held a conference in the Camden Roundhouse in London in July.

1968 saw a number of student occupations in the UK, inspired to some extent by the events of Paris, though also by homegrown issues.

Some more UK student occupation from 1968:

Essex University

Brighton

Bristol

There are a couple of books on the Hornsey occupation:
The Hornsey Affair, Students and Staff of Hornsey College of Art, Penguin Education Special, 1969. Hornsey 1968: The Art School Revolution, Lisa Tickner, Frances Lincoln, 2008

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London freethought history: the first stone of South Place Chapel laid, 1822

If you’ve ever been to a meeting, conference, concert, lecture, bookfair or debate, (or any one of a myriad of other events) at London’s Conway Hall… You might be interested in the history of the organisation that gave birth to it. Although Conway Hall as an institution itself dates back to the 1920s, the tangled skein of the South Place Ethical Society goes back nearly a century and a half before that…

The South Place Ethical Society evolved from its beginnings as a dissident Unitarian church congregation in 1787, known then as a non-conforming sect of the Philadelphians or Universalists. They had distinguished themselves by a refusal to accept the doctrine of sinners suffering punishment in an eternal hell. This marked the beginning of a long and winding development from universalism and unitarianism to humanism, the position which the Society had reached by the end of the nineteenth century.

By 1793 the society had its first premises in Bishopsgate. Their next doctrinal step was to reject the idea of the Trinity – this led to many of its members departing, in the first of several raucous schisms that was to hone its ideas…

In 1817 William Johnson Fox became minister of the congregation.

Fox was a sometimes challenging minister, pushing the congregation and provoking them. After Richard Carlile was prosecuted and jailed for blasphemy for selling Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason in 1819, Fox suggested that the chapel should have stood up to defend him.

Plans were put in motion for them to build their own premises, and a site was chosen at South Place, in Finsbury Square.

Having already raised over £600 towards the cost of the building, the Committee for Erecting a New Chapel looked to raise additional funds by asking for subscriptions from the congregation. Some gave relatively small amounts, such as John Mardon who contributed £1. Whereas others, such as E. Bricknell, who pledged £100, promised more significant contributions. In total £2117.2d.4s was raised through subscriptions.

In May 1822 the first stone was laid. Their Unitarian Chapel took two years to complete, and was opened in 1824. By a deed dated February 1, 1825, its chapel was to be held by trustees on trust to permit it to be used “for the public worship of one God even the Father and for instruction in the Christian religion,” as professed by the society.

Through the early decades of the nineteenth century, the chapel became known as “a radical gathering-place”. The Unitarian congregations, like the Quakers, supported female equality – under the leadership of Fox, the South Place chapel went further, opening its pulpit to activists such as Anna Wheeler, one of the first women to campaign for feminism at public meetings in England, who spoke there in 1829 on “Rights of Women.”

In 1831, Fox bought the journal of the Unitarian Association, the Monthly Repository, of which he was already editor; he helped to transform it from a religious into a general radical journal. Under Fox’s editorship it published articles that gradually alienated the Unitarians, such as one advocating divorce (on the grounds of women’s rights) in 1833. Literary figures as luminary as Tennyson and Browning  contributed verse in the Repository, and regular authors included John Stuart Mill, Leigh Hunt, Harriet Martineau, Henry Crabb Robinson and a fearless iconoclast, William Bridges Adams, whose outspoken series of articles on marriage, divorce, and other social questions (along with those of Fox) split the South Place congregation again.

Among the causes with which Fox identified himself and the Society were the spread of popular education and the repeal of the Corn Laws. In 1847 he entered Parliament whilst remaining minister at South Place for several more years.

In later decades, the chapel moved away from Unitarianism, changing its name first to the South Place Religious Society, and after abandoning prayer in 1869, changed its name to the South Place Ethical Society.

The most famous of Fox’s successors running the chapel was an American, Moncure Conway, after whom the Society‘s present home is named. Conway, raised in Virginia in the US, had been an active anti-slavery activist, although he had two brothers serving in the Confederate army during the civil war, and came to England in 1863 on a speaking tour to raised support for the Union side.

Conway took over a minister at the South Place Chapel from 1864 until 1897, except for a break of seven years (from 1885 to 1892) during which he returned to America and wrote a famous biography of Thomas Paine. Conway abandoned theism after his son Emerson died in 1864. Under his leadership, the South Place Society continued to move toward a more humanistic Freethought. Moreover, women were allowed to preach at South Place Chapel, among them Annie Besant, secularist and socialist, who was a friend of Conway’s wife.

Conway and the South Place congregation continued to evolve further from the beliefs of the Unitarian Church. Conway remained the leader of South Place until 1886, when Stanton Coit took his place. Under Coit’s leadership South Place was renamed to the South Place Ethical Society. However Coit’s tenure ended in 1892 after a power struggle, and Conway resumed leadership until his death.

In 1868 Conway was one of four speakers at the first open public meeting in support of women’s suffrage in Great Britain.

The Society occupied the Finsbury site for 102 years, until 1926, after which it moved to Conway Hall, in Red Lion Square, a building which was opened in 1929. Today, a plaque commemorating the South Place chapel can be seen on the building at River Plate House (nos. 12–13) which stands on the original site.

Conway Hall has hosted more radical events than can possibly be ever counted…Campaigners exposing undercover police officers infiltrating campaigns for social change in the last fifty years generally reckon Conway Hall to be the most spied-on building in the UK – certainly a fair whack of the Special Demonstration Squad and other secret police units have passed though its doors. Nor to mention some of MI5 by all accounts… Hence an event at Conway Hall coming up in July: 50 Years of Resistance: Despite Police Surveillance

Conway Hall remains a venue for radical meetings and events…

More information about the building of Conway Hall 

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s indebted history: Amazons of Southwark Mint repulse the bailiffs

From around the mid 1670s until the mid 1720s, there were certain areas in London whose inhabitants claimed certain rights and liberties, most notably to be free from being arrested for debt.

Imprisonment for debt was a constant threat for nearly everyone in eighteenth century London. Due to the scarcity of coin, many transactions had to be done on credit, making everyone a debtor of sorts, even if they were owed more than owing. And because this was a civil process, not a criminal one, everyone was at the mercy of their creditors, who had a powerful legal arsenal at their disposal. Debtors could be confined before any hearing. Release could only be obtained through settling the debt, even though imprisonment precluded earning the money necessary to do so. No determinate sentence was set, and time in jail did not work off any of the sum owed. Consequently, debtors could find themselves locked up for very long periods for trifling sums.

Many creditors resorted to the law, and many people suffered for it. The available figures suggest there were thousands of debtors incarcerated at any one time. Before the American revolution ended transportation, the vast majority of the prison population were debtors. The prison reformer John Howard found 2437 so incarcerated in 1776; a pamphlet of 1781 listing all the debtors released by the Gordon Rioters from London’s prisons alone gave a similar number; government enquiries revealed 9030 locked up in 1817. To hold all these people there was a vast national network of gaols: nearly 200 across England and Wales in the eighteenth century, with 10 in London and Middlesex and 5 more in Southwark

One way of avoiding prison was by taking refuge in the sanctuaries. There were eleven of these active in London and surrounds in the 1670s: on the north bank of the Thames in Farringdon Ward Without were Whitefriars, Ram Alley, Mitre Court, and Salisbury Court; on the north side of Fleet Street Fullers Rents; the Savoy off the Strand, the Minories by the Tower, Baldwin’s Gardens in Middlesex, and in Southwark Montague Close, The Clink and The Mint.

Each of these places claimed some sort of independent jurisdiction. In some case, such as Whitefriars, Montague Close and the Minories, there was a memory of religious sanctuary, notwithstanding the abolition of that right under James I. In others, there were charters allowing a level of autonomous governance, as with Whitefriars again, and the Clink. The Savoy was owned by the Duchy of Lancaster. And with the Mint in Southwark, there seemed to be both an administrative vacuum, and the ambiguity of being within the ‘Rules’ of the King’s Bench, an area outside that prison but where inmates were allowed to live.

What all these refuges had in common was a population of debtors prepared to physically defend these claims and take on the bailiffs that would arrest them.

Poor Robin’s Intelligence was a two page broadsheet, written by the hack journalist Henry Care, published through 1676 and 1677, and sold by “the General Assembly of Hawkers” on the streets of London. Care coined the term ‘Alsatia’ for the area around Whitefriars, after the territory nominally part of France but with many independent cities.

Although not a resident of any of the sanctuaries, Care was clearly well informed of the goings-on in them, and regularly reported, in a fantastically florid and mock-heroic style – but always sympathetically – the frequent battles with the bailiffs.

An early account of such a fight described the ‘Amazons’ of The Mint in Southwark, one of the longest lasting sanctuaries, surviving until 1723. On its dissolution, nearly 6,000 Minters applied for relief and exemption from prison, giving an indication of the size of that shelter. Of these, some 7.5% were women. Although, under the iniquitous doctrine of ‘Feme Covert’, married women and their property were subsumed to their husbands and so not considered capable of having debts in their own name, single and widowed women were at risk of imprisonment as much as men. And judging by Care’s account, they were fearsome opponents of the duns:

“From the Mint in Southwark, May 17” [1676]
“A party of Counterians [bailiffs] strongly ammunition’d with Parchment and green Wax [Warrants of arrest], lately made an entrenchment upon the prerogative of this place, hoping to bring us in subjection to those Laws from which by custom we are exempted; but the White and Blew Regiments of our Amazonian guards resisted them with such an invincible courage, that the assailants were forced to a very base and dishonourable submission, prostrating themselves in the very Highway, and begging Quarter; their chief Commander we took prisoner, who freely offer’d all his wealth for his ransome; so that being solemnly sworn upon a Brick bat, never again to make the like presumptuous attempt, and humbly acknowledging himself to be the son of a Woman by birth, and a Rogue by practice, with the blessing of a good woman, which she gave him cross the pace with a Broom-staff, he was by consent dismiss’d.”

Most of the sanctuaries were dissolved by statute in 1697; the Mint persisted until abolished by legislation in 1723. Refugees from there set up in Wapping for a short period, until suppressed by the army. Civil imprisonment for debt was ostensibly abolished in 1869, but in reality was made ‘contempt of court’, a criminal offence. Coupled with the increasing financial demands of the state upon the population by way of taxes, imprisonment for debt continued unabated.

For moer on the debtors’ sanctuaries, see Alsatia.org.uk

Today in rebel history, 1972: sit-down strike in Wormwood Scrubs Prison.

As we related two days ago, Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP) was formed on May 11th 1972, by a group of mostly served time inside UK jails, to campaign and organise for improvements in legal rights and better conditions within British nicks. PROP had emerged during a wave of protests by both remand and convicted prisoners across a number of British penal institutions; the group’s formation and the publicity that accompanied its founding was to contribute and help escalate this movement.

There had been a number of protests, mostly peaceful sit-down demos, over various demands, between January and early May 1972; mid-late May saw many more. On 13th May, 350 men staged a sit-down at HMP Wormwood Scrubs in West London. The Scrubs was widely recognised to have one of the most brutal and inhuman regimes at the time.

During the following 6 days there were protest at Brixton, Gartree in Leicestershire (twice), and Strangeways (Manchester). By the end of May, there had been peaceful demonstrations in 15 jails, in which over 2500 inmates had taken part. In Armley Jail in Leeds, 996 men, the whole prison population, staged a 24-hour strike to protest the conditions they were held in. (PROP supported this action with a demonstration outside, which although it attracted on 27 people, did help the sitdown get some good publicity).

PROP’s main problem in supporting the spreading protest movement was communication with prisoners. Prison authorities routinely censored all communications between cons and anyone on the outside. The vast majority of letters sent to PROP from inside, or replies by PROP to any that got through, simply never arrived, if they were sent by regular mail… The letters that got out tended to be the ‘stiffs’ – communications smuggled out by visitors, or by sympathetic staff (often parole officers, though there was the odd screw). The difficulty of regular communication did cause some resentment and disappointment inside: some prisoners active in protests perceived PROP as not up to the job of supporting them on the outside. To some extent PROP were a victim of their own publicity, as they managed to make themselves seem larger, more effective, and more connected to, or responsible for, the protests inside. In reality a fairly small group, PROP weren’t able to fully mobilise the large numbers on the outside to match the willingness of prisoners to demonstrate.

However, these problems didn’t prevent the protests from spreading. In late May, PROP announced that the sitdowns and demonstrations would continue, and would culminate in a national prison strike at some (then unspecified) future date, unless the Home Office Prison Department entered into negotiations over PROP’s demands. The Home Office may not have gone that far, but the protests did force some admission that there were problems that needed addressing – that some of the inmates’ demands were based on legitimate complaints. Some concessions were granted to the remand prisoners at HMP Brixton, for instance, where cons had been among the most active. The prison governor and a Home office representative had met a sitdown protest there on 17th May and gave in to several of the most immediate and easiest granted demands (radios in cells, longer exercise periods, a movie a week), which the more aware cons saw as sops to try to keep them quiet, but also validated the collective tactics inmates were taking.

The collective form and peaceful approach to the protests had proved difficult for prison officers to respond to. Screws dealt out routine brutality and violence to cons on a daily basis, and were accustomed to dealing with the form resistance to this usually took – individual force. Which they could easily overpower by force of numbers (and greater availability of weaponry). Collective peaceful protest left them baffled and they didn’t know how to react. Picking out individuals and labeling them ringleaders also backfired – it generally provoked more inmates to join the struggle, and ‘ghosting’ (a quick move of an identified ‘troublemaker’ to another prison) only succeeded in spreading the movement across the system (this remained a factor in UK prion protest movements – the same dynamic also characterised some of the April 1990 demos following the Strangeways riot).

In June, there were further demos – 20 in the first fortnight, including five between June 11th and June 13th (two at Armley, two at Pentonville, and one at Albany on the Isle of Wight). The authorities may have been ignoring PROP, but on the inside, the organisation’s very existence was becoming a rallying cry. At a Lancashire Borstal, some boys threatened bullying staff with ‘the union’. The Home Office called all prison governors to a meeting in early June to discuss the growing unrest – the most concrete result was a Prison Dept agreement not to interfere with peaceful demos, or punish any prisoner to took part in them.

Home Office concessions to the prisoners’ movement encouraged them to continue with their protests – it also enraged the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), the screws’ union, generally a voice for repression and brutality, for treating inmates like the scum the screws felt they were. The POA were (and to some extent remain) usually critical of the prison authorities as being too liberal and allowing prisoners too much leeway. Governors and Home Office officials shouldn’t be meeting with convicts. On the ground, officers felt they were losing control of the prisons to uppity cons and needed to regain the upper hand. If the Home Office were going to give in to the protests, many screws felt the only course of action was to crack a lot of heads, hopefully provoking violence and confrontation, which would very likely put the concessions into reverse and result in tighter regimes and more repression. This would soon be put into practice…

The prisoners’ movement continued to grow into the summer of 1972. Lack of any large-scale reforms, or any offer to meet with PROP or even admit they had any legitimacy, resulted in PROP calling a national jail strike for August 4th, which achieved some measure of support in 33 prisons, and involved an estimated 10,000 prisoners., Given the difficulties in communication this was a fantastic result. A series of blustering Home Office and governors’ denials that many of the prisons involved had experienced any protest was undermined by PROP (and some journalists) gathering careful evidence, which undermined the authorities’ lies about numbers and nicks involved. PROP was taken more seriously the more obviously the Home Office blatantly denied what was obviously happening.

However, bitter sentiment among prison officers was soon translated into action. Since brutality was always present anyway, in the way that institutional life was generally administered, the provocation of trouble was easily planned. Regular cell searches, moving inmates around, visits etc can be handled carefully, or violently – escalations in bullying and brutality were strategically targeted in some prisons where the protest movement had been strong, and the inevitable angry response was highlighted to justify repression (with the help of tame rightwing papers, notably the Daily Express). In parallel, the POA introduced an official ‘GET TOUGH’ policy in response to the ‘state of emergency’ it said the protests had created – in effect a combination of an overtime ban and a non-co-operation exercise, so that in the event of a prison protest, screws would do as little as possible and sabotage the normal functioning of the jail, and the POA would back up any officer who was disciplined as a result. This put the governors and Home Office in a position of being forced to back the screws, even if they could easily see they were blackmailing them, as they couldn’t afford to completely lose the officers’ goodwill, or jails would grind to a halt. During some of the larger protests, prisoners in some nicks had come close to taking over the whole prison (eg at Brixton), and the authorities could see that to allow the movement to carry on risked literally losing control.

The twin tactics of targeted localised brutality and work-to-rule blackmail were, in the end, effective in helping to derail the prison protests in 1972. Although the demonstrations inside continued, vicious brutality at Albany prison (which had seen 8 protests throughout August) provoked angry resistance, which was splashed across the press as a riot and escape attempt. In fact it was a very limited protest, but the publicity bolstered the screws’ confidence and the beatings, harassment and assaults were stepped up. This provoked further agro; a ‘riot’ at Gartree in November resulted, after screws waded in to a group of cons who had failed in an escape attempt.

Although the prison protests had gained a high profile, and PROP’s constant press work had helped focus the spotlight on prison conditions, to some extent PROP’s claims to be either involved in the planning of, or even directing, the demonstrations proved to be something of a divisive tactic. One founding member, Mike Fitzgerald, later suggested that it had taken the group very much on a diversion from the solid reforming program the group had launched with, and hampered any efforts to establish PROP as a day to day representative group campaigning in prisoners interests and on bread and butter issues. Given the massive struggle going on inside though, it was very much inevitable that PROP’s energy would be focused on the protests. But under the pressure, PROP itself began to fragment internally. Divisions opened up over tactics, and the group in effect split into separate organisations. But both carried on doing good work for several years, supporting struggles, helping prisoners legally and on release, publicising brutality and resistance…

Much more on the formation of PROP can be read in Mike Fitzgerald, Prisoners in Revolt.

John Barker’s Bending the Bars good firsthand account of one of the May 1972 sit-down strikes in Brixton Prison, as well as being a cracking good read from start to finish.

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Today in London anti-fascist history, 1963: Oswald Mosley’s Victoria HQ captured by 62 Group supporters.

The first half of the 1950s was a quiet time for antifascists in the UK. The postwar threat of fascist revival in the form of Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, had been battered off the streets largely by the Jewish 43 Group, which had physically broken up Mosleyite meetings, attacking and dispersed fascists wherever they found them.

Britain’s prewar fascist leader Mosley had not only failed to make his much vaunted comeback but had slunk off abroad, humiliated. With little to oppose, the antifascist movement faded away.
Throughout the 50s, Mosley remained in exile abroad while a small group of die-hard loyalists, led by Raven Thompson, Alf Flockhart and Jeffrey Hamm, kept his organisation alive. The most militant of the anti-fascist organisations, the 43 Group, was dissolved in 1950 and the set piece street battles between fascists and anti-fascists soon seemed to belong to a bygone era.

But in the mid-1950s the fascists began to rebuild their organisations, gaining support around the 1958 race riots, and by the early 1960s Britain was in the midst of a fascist revival.

Most of their activities were centred in London, and it was here that saw the most effective anti-fascist. London was also the place where most of Britain’s Jews lived and the anti-fascist opposition came in its most militant form from a section of the Jewish community who formed the 1962 Committee, (usually known as the 62 Group).

While similar to the 43 Group in some ways, there were some marked differences. Britain in the 1960s was a different place to Britain at the end of the Second World War, and so the composition of the new group was different. As with the earlier organisation, the left and the Jewish community remained leading players in the wider anti-fascist movement; but the left’s influence in the Jewish community was beginning to wane. International events and demographic shifts were changing the nature of London’s Jewish community in particular Thus the 62 Group was not dominated by the left in the same way that the 43 Group had been. Although some of those who set up the 62 Group had been involved in the 43 Group, a new generation was also becoming involved.

In 1962, 62 Group member and supporters had already infiltrated Oswald Mosley’s organisation, and had inside knowledge of its membership and plans for action. In May, a decision was taken to invade the fascist HQ, to disrupt and demoralise Mosley’s set-up. The raid took place on May 12th, 1962.

Gerry Gable, later editor of anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight, takes up the story:

“In Hackney, which had been a focal point of fascist and anti-fascism activity in the 1930s and postwar, people were getting together to prepare to resist the gathering storm. And it became my job to bring people from all sorts of backgrounds to cleanse the streets of the enemy. I was chief steward of the North and East London Anti-Fascist Committee, a multiracial group that included members from most of the political parties, including even some Young Tories from Stepney (now Tower Hamlets). Lots of us were workmates – I was a sparks in the building trade as were some of my black mates. We would police building sites where racists were at work and clear them off the sites. Fascists had even been allowed to attend trade union meetings wearing their badges; we went along and tossed them out. A new activist anti-fascist group, The 62 Group, was formed after Jordan’s National Socialist Movement rally in Trafalgar Square in 1962, but some of us could not, or would not, join as it was solely a Jewish organisation, although it fought alongside the left and one of its greatest allies was the Movement for Colonial Freedom. Although I qualified as Jewish because my mother was Jewish, my dad was a non-practising Anglican and I decided not to join. Nevertheless, the Leadership of the Group invited me to become one of its two Intelligence Officers, although I insisted on selecting my own team of people to engage in “special operations”. When Mosley announced a march starting from the forecourt of Charing Cross station, it was decided to head him off by seizing his HQ in Victoria. The plan was to gain entry to the building by means of two attack groups. The first consisted of a couple of our toughest infiltrators in the Union Movement. They were blonde, blue eyed and had documentation and party badges that got them inside. Then, while one of them engaged the security guards, the other opened the front door and let in another six or seven tough guys, who locked the door behind them. The timing was perfect and we knew the back door had a rotten frame. I was leading the second group with Tony Hall [Trade unionist, anti-racist and radical cartoonist] and an ex-boxer called Billy Collins. One kick with my work boots and the door caved in, and our section of about seven people rushed through. Bad luck: Mosley was not present. But most of his senior officers were, such as Bob Rowe, a big lump of an ex-copper from Yorkshire, and Keith Gibson, a vicious animal, plus half a dozen or more of their security squad. The idea was not to steal anything, as via our infiltrators we already had copies of their membership files and other important documents: the task was to destroy everything that made their HQ work. It was very bloody. Rowe, who had a reputation as a hard man, leapt down the stairs feet first into one of our guys, but two more overwhelmed him. One of our guys went down to the basement where they kept their banners and drums and destroyed the lot. Then Gibson picked up a long sharp sliver of broken glass and came at Billy, thrusting it towards him. Billy had been a great young contender for a future championship, but during the Suez Crisis had been shot in the gut by a trigger-happy British soldier and his boxing days were over. He saw red – he had a Jewish wife and child – and he just disregarded the broken glass and battered Gibson, screaming: “you would kill my family”. Before three of us pulled Billy off, Gibson had suffered a broken nose and cheek bone, several broken ribs and very sore testicles. After the battle, we tied the fascists up and dumped them in a small room near the back door. Then one of our guys got overenthusiastic and threw a typewriter through the front window into a street crowded with people. Some of our men went out the way they had come in, into the main road, and the rest headed for the back door. One had a fire extinguisher of the type that London buses used to carry, and as Rowe tried to stop our team escaping, it was triggered and the door was shut on them. At the back of the building was a long narrow mews. I ran one way with about three people and Tony Hall and Billy ran the other way. When they spotted a police car passing the top of the road, they started pushing on doors. After a couple of attempts, one opened and Tony and Billy walked in to be greeted by a vicar who asked them whether they were the musical entertainment for their garden party. Tony sat himself down at the piano with Billy turning his music and played for the guests for the next four hours. The police looked in, saw the vicar and heard the music, and left. A handful of our team were caught on the street and were sent to stand trial at the Old Bailey. The trial took place in July 1963 at the same time as that of Stephen Ward, the society osteopath in the Profumo Affair, who was charged with living off immoral earnings. As our lads were being led to the court they encountered Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, there to give evidence in the Ward trial. The women asked the lads what they were up for, and when they heard it was for attacking Mosley’s HQ, they each received a kiss and wishes of good luck. Thousands of pounds had been raised for their defence and it was clear that the judge was no Mosley admirer. One of the police officers told the court he had entered the building and found Gibson and the other Mosleyites coughing and spluttering, with one of them saying “we have been gassed”. The judge asked the officer what he had said in response. Referring to his notebook, he replied: “I said it was just like Auschwitz”. Although they were found guilty, nobody was jailed. The big lad who had got the front door opened received a very small fine after the court heard that both his parents had been murdered in Budapest by the Hungarian Arrow Cross murder squads towards the end of the war.”

A fascist march planned for later on in the day of the seizure if the headquarters had to be abandoned.

There’s a couple of press reports on the trial of those anti-fascist raiders who were caught here and here

And there’s much more on the 62 Group here.

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Today in radical history, 1972: Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners launched, North London.

Early 1972 saw a wave of prison protests across the UK: some 50 collective demonstrations took place inside between January and May. Any public information about two-thirds of these was censored by the Prison Department. The press ignored or were unaware of the protests.

The protests arose from the absolute desperation of many UK prison inmates, faced with appalling conditions inside most prisons at the time. The vast majority of English prisons had been built in Victorian times. Conditions were basically prehistoric. Prison wings were filthy, cold and overcrowded. Some cons were locked up for virtually the whole day in many nicks, often two or three to a cramped cell; others worked long hours for token wages. Education facilities were thin on the ground; the idea of rehabilitation was a joke. Censorship of letters and restrictions on visits was routine; bullying and everyday violence from screws (who were often members of a rightwing group) was constant. ‘Ghosting’ – sudden moves without warning to another nick miles away – was a regular hazard, and a good kicking and a spell in chokey (isolation) the usual response to any complaint. Vicious violence from screws, generally backed up by institutional repression, provoked angry and sometimes riotous resistance, but little had changed inside for 50 years.

In the midst of the prison protests of early 1972, the first prisoners’ rights group in the UK, Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners, was publicly launched, on 11th May. The ‘union for old lags’ as it was sneeringly called in some quarters, did finally attract national media attention. Journalists gathered at the launch, held at the Prince Arthur pub, opposite North London’s Pentonville Prison, where Dick Pooley outlined PROP’s demands and programme.

PROP’s founders were mostly ex-prisoners. Pooley, recognised as one of Britain’s top safe-crackers, had spent half his life (over 20 years) in penal institutions of one kind or another (he was in fact then on parole at the end of a 10-year sentence). Ted Ward, PROP’s London organiser, had served various sentences, including a two-year stretch for breaking IN to Dartmoor Prison to help with an escape attempt; he had also spent many years in community grassroots organising in Islington, including the local Claimants Union. PROP Press officer Douglas Curtis had served time for petty theft and fraud. Mike Fitzgerald, the only one who had not done time, was a Cambridge Student. He also mentions another founder as a woman called Pauline, (but does not give her surname), another ex-inmate and community activist.

PROP was to some extent born from an alliance of ex-cons and some academic supporters, in particular sociologists. Many prisoners by necessity developed a class-based critique of the criminal justice system/prison system; inevitable, really, if you looked around you at the society you lived in, and their own daily experience of its nasty end. Their link-up to some of the sociological ‘school of deviancy’ helped to create a sharp critique of both crime and punishment.

In response to the degrading, dehumanising conditions prevailing inside UK prisons, PROP announced that it had been formed to ‘preserve, protect and to extend the rights of prisoners and ex-prisoners and to assist in their rehabilitation and re-integration into society, so as to bring about a reduction in crime.’

The organisation’s Statement of Intent continued:

‘For this purpose application has been made to the Charity Commission for the registration of a charitable trust to raise funds and assist PROPL in its efforts to:

  • Campaign for a Prisoner’s Charter of Rights;
    • Secure the right of unimpeded access to Britain’s penal establishment’s by Press and Public;
  • Bring about an end to the mis-application of the spirit and original intent of the Official Secrets Act;
  • Take action to bring about the eventual abolition of all prisons and the substitution of alternative methods of dealing with offenders;
  • Establish local hostels, job placement schemes and educational projects to be run along non-institutionalised lines by local committees with Associate Members’ support;
  • Provide legal assistance for members in court proceedings, internal disciplinary processes, parole applications and any other matters pertaining to the general welfare;
  • Establish and maintain contact an cooperation with the Trade Union movement;
  • Negotiate with the Home Office on behalf of prisoners;
  • Liaise with other penal reform bodies in Great Britain and all other countries of the world where such bodies exist.’

The Charter also set out 26 demands, dealing with the main grievances of prisoners:

‘PROP calls upon the Crown, Parliament, Her Majesty’s Government, the Home Secretary and the Prison Department to accede to these deamnds and to initiate such legislation and issue such directives as may be necessary to secure the early establishment and effective implementation of the following rights of prisoners:

The Right to membership of PROP and the right to communicate with, consult and receive visits from, representatives of PROP;

The Right to conduct elections within penal institutions on behalf of PROP with a view to the appointment of local representatives of that body and the election of delegates to its national committees;

The Right to stand for election as a local representative of PROP and once elected to participate in the decision-making process, to attend all policy and staff meetings within the prison and to act as a spokesman for his or her members in all matters relating to their pay, work and living conditions, leisure pursuits and general welfare;

The Right to canvass and vote for local and national PROP representatives;

The Right to vote in national and local government elections;

The Right to trade union membership and the right to have their pay and conditions determined by negotiations between the home Office and the prisoner’s elected representatives;

The Right to institute legal proceedings of any kind, including actions against servants of the Crown, without first securing the consent of the Home Office;

The Right to contact legal advisers in confidence without interference, intervention or censorship by the penal authorities;

The Right to be legally represented and to call defence witnesses in internal disciplinary proceedings to which the press should have free access;

The Right to parole, provided certain well-established and widely-known criteria are met. This Right to be supplements by the Right to receive expert and independent assistance in the preparation of parole applications, to be present and/or legally represented at the hearing of applications, to have access to all reports considered by the Board from whatever source and the opportunity to refute allegations of misconduct or unsuitability, the Right to a reasoned judgement on the Board’s decision and the Right of appeal to the High Court against that decision;

The Right to communicate freely with the Press and public;

The right to consult with a legal adviser before being subject to any judicial proceedings, including hearing by Magistrates of applications by the police for remands in custody;

The Right to be allocated to penal institutions within his home region;

The Right to adequate and humane visiting facilities within all penal institutions, including the ability to exercise their conjugal rights;

The Right to send and receive as many letters as the prisoner requires without censorship;

The Right to embark upon educational or vocational training courses at the commencement of any custodial sentence, including the Right to sit examinations and to be given adequate and appropriate facilities;

The Right to demand an independent inspection of prison conditions including hygiene, food, working conditions, living accommodation and the provision of adequate leisure facilities;

The Right to adequate exercise periods and the provision of recreational facilities;

The Right to consult an independent medical adviser;

The Right to enter into marriage;

The Right to attend funerals of all near relatives;

The Right to own and sell the products of their leisure-time activities, including hobbies, fine arts and writing;

The Right to receive toilet articles for personal use as gifts from relatives, friends and organisations;

The Right to adequate preparation for discharge, including:

  • Programmes of pre-release courses devised in conjunction with prisoners and their families to assist them with problems of Housing, Employment, Education, Marriage Counselling and Child Care related to their special needs.
  • The right to home leave to be extended to all prisoners.
  • The right of allocation to an open prison and followed by the right of allocation to the pre-release hostel scheme.
  • The right to a fully-franked insurance card on discharge and the supplementary rights thereby to full state benefits.
  • An equal right with all other applicants to employment in state concerns whether they run by central or local authority.

The Right to have all criminal records destroyed within five years of discharge irrespective of the sentence last served.”

PROP’s membership was designed to be two-tier: full membership for prisoners and ex-prisoners; associate membership for supporters who had never been inside. Full members (who would not have to pay membership fees) could stand for election to posts and make use of the organisation’s services; associate members had to pay fees for themselves AND a full member, and were expected to act in supportive roles.
This set-up was designed to prevent PROP being dominated by middle class liberals and ensure that prisoners’ own interests remained at the centre of PROP.

Despite the initial splash of publicity, PROP’s first attempts to establish themselves as a representative body for prisoners that the prison/state authorities would take seriously were not auspicious. Home Secretary Reginald Maudling failed to respond to PROP’s letter to him, informing him of the group’s formation, and suggesting a meeting. But although press coverage was mainly jeering, the publicity did help get the message of the new union’s existence into prisons in its first flush of existence. But on top of this, visitors to most of the major prison in England and Wales were and leaflets announcing PROP’s formation and inviting membership and contact from cons over the few days following the launch, and although many of these were confiscated or barred, visitors carried the news in word of mouth. Sympathetic lawyers, probation officers and other ‘official’ visitors also helped carry the word into nicks. Within a week of the launch, enough mail was coming out of prisons to show that the initial campaign to raise awareness had at least been moderately successful.

A letter smuggled out from Brixton Prison indicates the kind of response PROP received from inmates:

“Dear Mr Pooley,

Sorry that this isn’t nick paper. It’s Saturday night and this note has to go tomorrow so I’ve got to make do with the back of a book.

Speaking for myself and my fellow inmates, we welcome and applaud the efforts you and those connected with your organisation are making on behalf of convicted prisoners everywhere. We here at Brixton will be out again Wednesday evening, we know only too well that we got to keep the ball rolling, as unconvicted prisoners there’s little that can be done against us by the screws, so I think we here all agree that it’s easier for us unconvicted to keep on coming out without fearing reprisals from the screws.

A lot of us here, have had a taste of brutality as convicted men, the result of us trying to stand up for our own rights. I was in Wandsworth in 1970, 1971, spending a solid four months down chokey, on medicine, walking abut like a zombie. All this has to stop. This is why we all here, and I think I speak for cons unconvicted and convicted, welcome and once again applaud what you’re attempting to bring about…

We’re after association, better food, etc… We want the right to live like human beings and not be treated as the scum the ruling authority seem determined to brand us. Also we want the right to take educational courses in the nick. (In most nicks this is impossible.)

A lot of chaps want to be in touch.

Sincerely ….

PROP’s response to this letter indicates the problem of communication between inmates and those on the outside, a question that would plague the organisation in its attempts to organise in support of protest inside. ‘We here at Brixton will be out again Wednesday’ was taken to mean on the Wednesday after the letter was received, and PROP demonstrated outside Brixton on May 24th 1972, the Wednesday after the letter arrived – to coincide with a demo inside that had in fact taken place on the 17th. The smuggled letter had been delayed in its passage out, causing confusion. PROP’s demo was in the event small, but the lack of a corresponding sit-down inside (as they claimed was happening) dented their credibility (with the enthusiastic help of the Home Office and the press).

But the prison protests that had helped give birth to PROP were blossoming elsewhere…

(This story will be continued on May 13th)

A good write-up on PROP can be found in Mike Fitzgerald, Prisoners in Revolt (from which this post was taken).

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Today in London radical history, 1768: 2000 Thames watermen picket Royal Exchange & mansion house, 1768, over a decline in trade.

Ah, ’68, year of tumult, hope and rebellion.

No, not 1968 – 1768.

In London, in 1768, a number of movements came together, grew together, striking fear into the authorities, taking control of the streets. One dispute or flashpoint would influence another, spreading like wildfire… The authorities would attempt to repress some elements, but were afraid to move against other movements.

On the political level 1768 was a year of mass agitation and crowd violence in support of John Wilkes, a populist journalist, a rake of dubious morals, a scandal-mongering writer and agitator, who championed reform of the political system, but won support from both the City of London merchant elite and the ‘Mobility’, the swelling, insurgent and always altering London mob. Wilkes had already been jailed and banished in the early 1760s, for challenging the establishment by libeling the king; in 1768 he stood for election to Parliament for Middlesex, the huge (and consistently politically progressive) constituency north and west of London. Middlesex merged into London: huge crowds flocked there to support him, believing he had their interests at heart. The establishment fear of the potential that Wilkes and his supporters led to a crackdown on the crowds, including soldiers shooting and killing pro-Wilkes demonstrators.

This sparked riots at the hustings, and assaults on Wilkes’ pro-government opponents, which spread to general attacks on the rich and those who refused to light their windows in support of Wilkes. Pro-Wilkes marches became pitched battles, Wilkes was imprisoned…

But Wilkes’ pro-reform and incendiary speeches got him barred from entering the house of Commons, even when elected (he was to be ruled ineligible several times, but re-elected each time).

1768 was also a year of starvation: “the price of bread had doubled. The price of meat had increased by a third. Crowds forced street-vendors to sell vegetables at reasonable prices. The Whitechapel butchers ‘suffered prodigiously’. Elsewhere, butchers ‘were oblig’d to secrete their meat’. Corn-factors were attacked and their wagons stopped. The corn-dealers hid their plate, boarded up their coffee-houses, and closed the Stock Exchange…”

As rising food prices sparked protests, and food riots, a wave of disputes swept London, especially in the East End, over wages, over working conditions and how work was regulated and controlled. Trade after trade erupted into stoppage and demonstration. “The sailors and the glass-grinders petitioned, shoemakers held mass meetings and the bargemen stopped work. The leaders of the tailors were imprisoned for ‘Irritating their Brethren to Insurrection, abusing their Masters, and refusing to work at the stated prices.’”

The political and economic turbulence mingled and sometimes merged; many of the workers in the London trades supported Wilkes, and marched for him… Though in reality, he was only ever mainly interested in the promotion of himself, and his image as the outrageous critic of the monarchy and government, darling of the mob, and would always balk at encouraging violence. [He would end his days as comfortably, and respectable, having served as MP, alderman, Sherriff and Lord Mayor of London, (where he admittedly did work to improve legal protection for prisoners, servants and workers) and taken up arms to command soldiers to shoot down the people who had once been his constituency, the mob attacking the Bank of England during the 1780 Gordon Riots. It’s not just the ‘reactionary populists’ we need to beware of…]

To add to the fears of the ruling classes in 1768, there was unrest and rumours of sedition in the army: “Soldiery may become a political Reverbatory Furnace”… If a regime loses the army, revolt can become revolution. But in the end widespread flogging and repression in the ranks kept soldiers from mainly joining the swirling maelstrom….

The most dangerous disputes from the point of view of the authorities were the wage disputes and battles over mechanisation among the Spitalfields Silkweavers, and the work stoppage by the coal-heavers on the London docks. The silkweavers had been rebelling against wage cuts and increased use of machine looms for nearly a decade, but it was rising to fever pitch, with wage-cutting masters facing sabotage of their looms, intimidation of workers agreeing to low pay, and the formation of clubs of ‘cutters’ branching out into extortion of employers. It would climax the following year with gunfire and the army occupation of Spitalfields.

The coalheavers’ dispute was even more violent. Unloading and moving coal was dirty, backbreaking, and utterly vital for the city to function; wages were low and the trade was organised by magistrates linked to the powerful city merchants. A wage dispute in spring 1768 led to serious violence between strikers and scabs, with pitched battles, arson, murder and hangings. The strike spread to the sailors on ships in the London docks, and became even fiercer.

The disorder and atmosphere of general combination and collective action spread. At any one time throughout the year, but especially between April and July, there seem to have been a cross-hatching of diverse, if often overlapping, crowds, roaming the City, attempting to bargain with employers, impose of negotiate new wages or conditions, as well as bashing opponents of Wilkes. No doubt there was an element of opportunist looting, agro and turbulence mixed in as well. And why not?

Many of the numerous London trades got in on the action.

On the 9th May 1768, “a numerous body of watermen assembled before the mansion House, and laid their complaint before the lord mayor, who advised them, to appoint proper persons to draw up a petition to Parliament, which his lordship promised he would present; upon which they gave him three huzzas and went quietly home. The same night a mob of another kind assembled before the Mansion-house, carrying a gallows with a boot hanging to it, and a red cap; but on some of the ringleaders being secured by the peace-officers, the rest dispersed.” (Gentlemen’s Magazine, 1768)

The watermen were partly cabbies of the day, rowing people up and down the Thames, and across from London and Westminster to the south bank of the river. London’s lack of bridges and rolling marshy landscape to the south and east were perfect for access by boat and the Thames was the main thoroughfare for all kinds of traffic. When there was just London Bridge spanning the Thames, their monopoly on people getting around on/over the water made them powerful. In the 16th century, the Watermen’s Company, was set up, with power to

to set tariffs and reduce accidents, and with jurisdiction over all watermen plying between Windsor (in Berkshire) and Gravesend (in Kent). The Act allowed the London mayor and aldermen to yearly choose eight of the “best sort” of watermen to be company rulers, and to make and enforce regulations: this obviously created a hierarchy with links to the City powers.

Watermen now had to serve a seven-year apprenticeship in order to gain an encyclopaedic knowledge of the complex water currents and tides on the Thames. Watermen freeman were also ordered to pay quarterage – paid quarterly contributions. This was a constant source of grievance and dispute with company rulers who were frequently accused of taking bribes to “free” apprentice watermen.

As in many of the London guilds and companies, the watermen experienced an internal struggle between the company elite and the grassroots over working conditions, and representation, who controlled the trade and set the rules. This had forced the introduction of a form of indirect democracy in 1642, seeing the watermen at the 55 “leading towns and stairs” empowered to each year choose representatives, who would in turn propose candidates to become company rulers. This form of government survived, with vicissitudes, until a new Act of Parliament in 1827 restored an oligarchical rule within the company.

Through these struggles, in a kind of proto-trade union movement, Thames watermen developed tactics that both promoted the trade and encouraged collective organisation, notably the use of petitions or “petitions of grievances”. They won important concessions above and beyond the immediate trade: pointedly, in 1644, they were exempted from land service—the use of watermen in land armies—as a direct result of their pressure (the flip side of this was their tendency to be persuaded or forced into naval service, because of their skills on the water).

Their ability to get together and bargain collectively became legendary, and influenced the way they dealt with authority.

The 1768 protest should be seen in a context of a changing river and altering city. More bridges were gradually being built across the river; more non-company watermen were active, and this was all having an effect on the rate watermen were able to command. This was only to get worse in the following century, as more bridges were built, railways and road transport mushroomed, and steam power revolutionised water travel. The watermen’s hold over Thames trips was soon broken.

It is also worth noting that while famous for their collective defence of their trade in their own interests, the watermen also had a general reputation for patriotism… Not so dissimilar from the black cab drivers of our own era… ? Not sure which newspaper the 1760s watermen mostly read though.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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The 1926 General Strike: What happened in London? An incomplete roundup

THE 1926 GENERAL STRIKE: EVENTS IN LONDON

Following on from yesterday’s post on the 1926 General Strike – here’s another. Some events, local organisation and conditions, in London, during the nine days… Nothing like complete; lots of research has been done on some boroughs; others there’s very little info. Any other info on local action in any part of the capital would be appreciated.

The strength of the Strike varied greatly in London. Working class areas, mainly in the inner boroughs, and industrial areas, especially round the Docks in East and South East London, were mostly solid. Further out and in middle class areas things were obviously very different.
All in all it’s fair to say there was no great breakdown in authority, although there was fierce fighting in certain areas.
At the start of the Strike the tubes were shut down, trains were going nowhere, trams and buses were virtually non-existent and the streets were blocked with cars. Car drivers (mostly middle class) trying to get to work were often stopped by crowds and forced to walk or told to go home!
(Many people were jailed during and after the strike for intimidation of scab drivers and attacks on buses and private cars.)
On May 5th however the London Omnibus Company had 86 buses going, driven by middle class volunteers (they had none out the day before).
The Ministry of Health issued guidelines to ban local Boards of Guardians, who were in charge of giving relief (dole) to the poor and needy, from giving anything to strikers; this was aimed at Labour-dominated boards like Poplar in the East End. This must have had an effect at the end of the Strike, making it harder for people to stay out.
By Thursday 6th, trams and buses were starting to run more frequently in some areas. But this was not achieved without resistance: 47 buses were damaged by crowds by the 7th of May. By the end of this week the TUC General Council had started to panic; not only was it trying to negotiate with the Government in secret, but it was stamping down on the limited autonomy of the Councils of Action, trying to prevent them from issuing permits to travel, ordering them instead to pass it to the National Transport Committee in London.
The Government’s move to break the strikers’ stranglehold on the Docks on May 8th was crucial: food supplies in London were running low, there was said to be only 2 days supply of flour and bread in the capital. They laid their plans with care: troops and armoured cars had been gathered in Hyde Park. At 4am, 20 armoured cars left to escort 150 lorries to the Docks. Volunteers had been ferried into the Docks by ship to beat picket lines. The lorries were loaded by these posh scabs while Grenadier Guards took charge of the Docks. Pickets watched but could do little in the face of overwhelming numbers of soldiers. The lorries were then escorted west. This show of strength seems to have overawed the East End strikers: by the next day convoys of food were running freely in and out of the Docks with little resistance.
According to some reports in many areas there was an air of resignation by the 10th, many people clearly believing they wouldn’t win this one. This needs investigating and obviously things varied greatly.
By Tuesday 11th tubes were being reopened by scab labour – Bakerloo, City and South London (now Northern Line) running to most stations.
When the General Council announced the ending of the Strike, not only were the ‘second wave’ starting to come out, but other workers not called out had started to strike… The GC’s lying bullshit about a settlement being imminent for the miners led to many Strike Committees initially claiming victory. When the scale of the surrender became clear there was widespread anger and disbelief. It is widely quoted that there more workers on strike on the 14th May, after the end of the Strike, than the 13th. However, it has to be said that the numbers are not so significant next to the fact that strikers could not see how to take the struggle further, and within days most had given up. There has to be some consciousness of what direction to go in, a desire to take things onward. In the face of government control of the streets through use of troops, and a union stranglehold on activity, the desire and direction weren’t there.
Many workers did not go straight back to work: for two main reasons. Firstly some angrily tried to carry on the Strike. Secondly, some were told not to return by their unions until terms had been agreed for a return with their employers – for many workers this meant accepting worse conditions, no strike agreements, lower pay and working with scabs who had shat on them. Many firms took advantage of the defeat of the Strike to screw more out of their wage slaves, refuse to hire militants, etc. Quite a few Strike activists were not rehired and blacklisted, in London as elsewhere.
The following accounts mostly relate to London Boroughs as they existed in 1926. Many have now been amalgamated into larger Boroughs.
Bear in mind this is patchy and inadequate – a start towards a detailed account of the capital in the Nine Days. Most of these notes are compiled from the reports of local Trades Councils and Councils of Action to the TUC. So they emphasise the local union involvement and activities of the Trades Councils. To some extent they play up the strength of the strike, and focus mostly on the workers in the unions.
Also clear are the attempts of the Strike Committees to “maintain order” ie control the Strike, prevent working class crowds from controlling the streets, restrict the extension of events. More oral histories, accounts of involvement on the ground are needed… Some accounts are longer than others, but this is a work in progress: we are adding more information to this about different areas as we manage to research it, or someone sends us material.
Maybe collective research could be done and this account could be turned into a full-blown account of the Strike in London.

GUIDE TO ORGANISATIONS & ACRONYMS

OMS – The Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies: the government backed organization designed to break the strike.
NUR – National Union of Railwaymen
RCA – Not sure.
URS – Union of Railway Signalmen
ETU – Electrical Trades Union
AEU- Amalgamated Engineering Union
ILP – Independent Labour Party.
TGWU – Transport & General Workers Union.
ASIE & F – Not sure
UPM – Not sure.
ASWM – Amalgamated Society of Woodcutting Machinists.
AEC – Associated Equipment Company, built buses, lorries & motorbikes.
LNW – London & North London Railway.

NORTH LONDON

ST PANCRAS

(then a Borough including Camden, Kentish Town. Although Camden Town seems to have had a separate Strike Committee)
St Pancras had a very militant strike committee, dominated by the Communist Party, operating however from the Labour Party HQ at 67 Camden Road. It issued a vocal and provocative Strike Bulletin. Their HQ was raided on 10 May, the police seized a typewriter and roneo duplicator, to prevent the bulletin being issued. The Secretary, J. Smith was nicked. The raid was alleged to be caused by a report in the Bulletin about an “incident in Harmood St”.
Later St Pancras Strike Committee officials were expelled from the TUC over items in the Strike Bulletin; the TUC had ordered bulletins should not contain anything but central publicity but the Strike Committee issued other statements and news.
St Pancras set up a Workers Defence Corps… to maintain ‘order’. The area was solid to the end of the Strike.
In Camden Town, on the night of Saturday May 8th, there was fighting between cops and pickets. Then on the 9th, strikers attacked a bus, so cops charged them, hospitalising 40 strikers. Again on May 12th, there was a confrontation here, 2 people were nicked for “interfering with traffic.”
Railwaymen and other workers were mostly solid at Kings Cross and Euston stations. An attempt at Euston to run a train ended with the “volunteer-run train run into the catch-points near Camden.” At Kings Cross everyone, including the women cleaners (previously unionised) joined the strike. Here, too, the attempt to get trains driven by middle class blacklegs backfired: “two of the OMSers took charge of a train. They failed to open the draincocks before starting the locomotive and the cylinder heads blew out.” There was further incompetence: “a heavy engine has fallen into the pit of the turntable…”

ISLINGTON

The area had a militant CP-dominated Strike Committee, reflecting the area’s long radical and left tradition, and strong workers movement. Islington Trades Council was based at 295 Upper Street.
According to the Islington daily strike bulletin no 7 (12 May) everything was favourable there still, the position unchanged. Mass meetings were held in Finsbury Park, and at the Finsbury Park Empire.
At Gillespie Road School, the children had Sir John Simon’s attack on the Strike read to them instead of the usual scripture lesson!
The Holloway Tram Depot, in Pemberton Gardens, had a very militant and active workforce in the General Strike. They had their own strike bulletin, Live Rail.
Workers at Welsbach Gas Mantle Manufacturers In Kings Cross were ordered by the firm to work for the OMS to break the strike, or be sacked…

FINCHLEY

On 8 May, four trams were taken out of the depot by scab volunteers from the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, several specials manning each one.
City gentleman scabs also volunteered to shovel coal to keep the Mill Hill Gas Works going.

HENDON

The Hendon Joint Strike Committee issued strike bulletins…
One or two trams were taken out on the 7th, though not without resistance: four tramwaymen and two railworkers were arrested in the process.

TOTTENHAM and WOOD GREEN

Some social differences between Tottenham and Wood Green:
Tottenham and Edmonton were highly industrialised communities that had greater unemployment, factory workers and trade unionists than Wood Green. It was where east-enders came in the mid-nineteenth century with the coming of the railways to the eastern half of the ancient parish of Tottenham. Industrialisation and rapid population growth led to antagonism with the agricultural community in the west of the parish. The latter was still dominated by a small group of gentry who resented the new working classes in the area and the increased rates for paving, lighting, sewage and schools as well as the threat of universal suffrage. They pushed for an act of Parliament that allowed Wood Green to gain independence as a local authority.
Monday 3rd May: plans of both sides put into action
Union headquarters: Wood Green and Tottenham Trades Councils set up emergency committees which were to be in nearly permanent session at their headquarters in Stuart Crescent, Wood Green and no 7, Bruce Grove, Tottenham.
A crowded meeting of railwaymen at Bourne Hall unanimously endorsed the strike proposals. A meeting at Wood Green Bus Depot of London General Omnibus Company employees also voted unanimously in favour of strike action.
“The response of local unionists … was probably … amongst the best in the country. All ceased work … and few went back before the strike was over.”
‘The response of the rank and file unionists in Tottenham and Wood Green was magnificent.’ – Avery
Government action:
All government powers were transferred to 10 civil commissioners each in charge of a region. Each region was sub-divided into districts.
Hornsey administrative area included: Tottenham, Wood Green, Edmonton, Southgate, Enfield, Barnet and Finchley.
Alderman A. Bath was its chairman. He received complete co-operation from all the councils except Tottenham and Edmonton which had Labour Party majorities. Bath attacked these two councils through the local papers.
Each district had a volunteer service committee to organise distribution of food and fuel supplies, keep transport going and to recruit special constables.
They recruited over 12,000 volunteers (largely young and middle class) and over 1,000 special constables for the district, though recruitment was far less in Tottenham and Edmonton than elsewhere. Also at no time was there a real shortage of foodstuffs.
The volunteers ran the Finchley electricity works and unloaded 300 tons of butter at London Docks at risk of attack from the dockers.
Members of local conservative and constitutional clubs met and declared, as at Edmonton,“Everyone that is loyal to the king must give their support to the government”. Patriotism and loyalty was also declared on the side of the strikers.
Wood Green Council met and endorsed a policy of support for the government and volunteer services committee and ordered council employees to carry out emergency regulations.
Tottenham council was the only one not to cooperate with the recruitment of special constables by not distributing adverts for it, though they agreed to maintain food and coal supplies.
To avoid trouble on the streets the council ordered parks to be made freely available for meetings and organised games. They rejected a proposal to use council lorries and drivers to provide public transport.
The officer in charge of the local police division, angry that the council refused to publicise the recruitment of special constables, used his emergency powers to order the council to close down its various street repair works. The council dismissed the 100 council workers involved in this work and forced them on to the dole.
As the strike got uner way, on Tuesday 4th May, the main public transport services were shut down:
The London and North Eastern Railway closed completely;
The London General Omnibus’s busmen and tramwaymen went all out on strike without exception.
Two small companies continued to partially operate:
The Admiral Service – 30 buses – Winchmore Hill to Charing Cross via Wood Green.
Redburn’s – running from Enfield Highway to the City via Tottenham.
The roads were gridlocked; a car journey to the West End from Palmers Green took 3 hours. Pedestrian casualty rates soared. At least one man injured from falling from overcrowded bus. Some lorries were accused of taking advantage; charging sixpence for a ride from Palmers Green to Wood Green.
60 wiremen and mainmen working for the North Metropolitan Electricity Supply Company (‘the Northmet’) which supplied the district struck. White-collar employees and volunteers kept supply going but a gradual breakdown was feared by the company. At Tottenham and District Gas Company, some men were instructed to strike on the Wednesday but they didn’t force a complete closure so as not to inflict too much hardship on the community.
The Coal delivery men all struck. On Tuesday 4th, pickets from Percy Whellock Limited (one of the largest North London coal merchants) at Wood Green had to watch their managing director and company secretary loading lorries with coal for emergency deliveries to a Tottenham factory. Alderman Bath then sent volunteers. They could only manage 50% of the usual output. Production at local factories was severely effected.
Printing unions called out their men during Tuesday and Wednesday. The large printing firm of Millington’s at Tottenham Hale closed down.
Road Hauliers: Tottenham Depot of Carter Paterson dismissed all its workers on Monday 3rd May before they could strike.
Furniture makers: Management of Harris Lebus of Tottenham, employing 1,400, closed their factory on Tuesday 4th following a walkout that evening.
Rubber factor firm, Warre, kept working despite walkout of union members.
Lamp bulb manufacturers, Ediswan’s, also kept factories in production despite strike by the union members.
Gestetner’s, the duplicating machine makers, locked out all its 700 workers after the few unionists walked out.
Sweet manufacturers, Barratt’s and Maynard’s in Wood Green, carried on working though the few engineers struck. Workers were mainly young and non-unionised women.
Screw manufacturers, Davis and Timins were unaffected.
JAP engineering works (600 workers) tried to stay open but shortage of materials plus the absence of key men on strike forced them to strike on the Friday.
Many other smaller firms were forced to close or chose to do so.
Construction work on all building sites also stopped.
Milk and bread roundsmen were ordered by their unions to carry on working.
How many struck? Estimated numbers from the statistics of the local board of guardians and the labour exchange:
First week: 8,654 new applications were granted for assistance in Tottenham – nearly all from the wives of strikers – and 1,542 in Wood Green. Tottenham Labour Exchange reported 2,000 people who, though willing to work, had been dismissed by their firms.
Alderman Bath distributed leaflets against the strikers.
Only one printed leaflet was issued from Unionists appealing for donations to the miner’s relief fund and a call from a Labour Party candidate appealing for restraint and to avoid violence especially with their dealings with blacklegs. He said “Don’t give the military, who are now all over London, the smallest ground for saying you are breaking the peace and must be put down by force”.
All public speeches of local labour leaders appealed for moderation. At the first of the daily meetings at Sterling House at Wood Green, instructions were given to all men to stay away from their places of work unless they were on official picket duty. At Tottenham Green every night Robert Morrison spoke at meetings of strikers with estimated attendances in excess of 2,000 people, reviewing the days events in Parliament and asking for the preservation of order.
Most trouble was connected with the strike breaking buses and trams and the majority of arrests were of busmen and tramwaymen.
Tuesday 4th: Redburn’s buses ran all day along Tottenham High Road to the City.
In the evening demonstrations in Stoke Newington and Tottenham made the bus company decide to withdraw the service to protect the safety of drivers and conductors.
Wednesday 5th: A restricted service started – running from Enfield to Edmonton. When Admiral buses reached Camden Town they were stoned, windows being broken and one driver cutting his head. Admiral single-deck buses stopped and ordered to unload passengers and return to depot by strikers.
Thursday: The Admiral service was withdrawn.
Friday: Admiral service running between Wood Green and Southgate only.
Friday 7th: LGOC buses and trams started to run again driven by one returning tram driver and volunteers in their plus-fours.
Two tram workers were charged at Tottenham court under the emergency regulations with removing switches from a junction box in the Hertford Road to stop volunteers operating trams between Tramway Avenue and Stamford Hill. Evidence was based on identification from a distance. The Tottenham bench rejected witness evidence that they were at a strike meeting at the time. They were sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour.
Tottenham magistrates were made up of conservatives active in local politics. The chair was Sir William Prescott, the last of the Tottenham landed gentry and former Tory MP for North Tottenham. Together they proved vindictive towards trivial offenders. “A man who rode his bicycle slowly in front on an omnibus in Wood Green High Road, and shouted over his shoulder to the passengers, ‘You dirty lot of dogs’, was sentenced by Prescott to a month’s hard labour.”
Wood Green police complained that as a result of this “there was constant turmoil in Wood Green High Road with increased hostility directed at strike-breaking buses”.
Prison sentences were given for “committing an offence likely to cause disaffection among the civilian population by impeding measures taken to obtain the means of transit or locomotion”.
A man standing on the edge of the crowd at a political meeting in Wood Green High Road had been told to “move along” by a special constable. The reply had been “**** you, I am not going”.
Likewise another man was sentenced for ‘an offence likely to cause disaffection’. After hearing a group of ‘young ladies’ admiring some middle class volunteer bus drivers say, “Thank goodness we have got some Englishmen left”, he replied, “Don’t call them ******* Englishmen. They’re ******* monkeys.”
Meanwhile a scab bus driver was merely fined £2 for “driving while drunk and driving in a dangerous manner in Tottenham High Road” having zigzagged down Tottenham High Road just avoiding a collision with another bus. Redburn’s, whose bus it was, paid the fine for him.
It was easier for alderman Bath to get volunteers to drive buses by recruiting car drivers and so keep them running than it was for the trains. ‘Throughout the general strike (and for a time afterwards) the local railway lines were completely closed save for the morning of Wednesday 5 May. That morning a retired engine driver joined ten drivers belonging to the NUR and one fireman to run a skeleton service through Wood Green to Enfield. However, the LNER decided to withdraw the service in the afternoon in view of the hostility of the strikers’.

News: Neither the TUC’s British Worker, or the British Gazette, was on sale in Tottenham or Wood Green though some copies were brought back from London by individuals and circulated. The main source of news was from BBC broadcasts which suppressed news the government did not want broadcast. Radios were sold out from shops. Wood Green Library displayed a copy of news bulletins within minutes of their being broadcast.
In the newspaper room of the library “people swarmed in to hear the papers read aloud by those who reached them first”. The local Weekly Heralds were issued with two extra editions. Their own printers were out on strike and picketed so they were produced on the press of a small local printer whose identity was kept secret. “The type was set by another local printer with the assistance of those members of the staff who were members of the National Union of Journalists. The NUJ at the start of the strike told its members to carry on working but not to do the jobs of other newspaper workers.” And after protests from journalists the NUJ agreed to allow them to do what work they wanted so long as it didn’t threaten other journalists out on strike.
“The local Heralds were strongly anti-strike in their editorials”. The owner was Mr Crusha. “His premises had to be continuously guarded by the police because of fear of reprisals”, and when distributed to newsagents they had to have a police escort to ensure delivery. Edmonton council decided not to place any adverts in his papers and opted not to cooperate with his reporters in response to Mr Crusha’s ‘scathing denunciation of the Edmonton Labour Councillors.
“The strike-breaking editions Crusha brought out achieved national publicity by the references to them, and the use made of them, in BBC news bulletins.”
The Tottenham Trade’s Council Strike Emergency Committee published the daily Tottenham Strike Bulletin with an issue for each of the ten days of the strike.
“The three directors of George Etherington and Son Limited of Seven Sisters Road (a printing firm whose employees had gone on strike) printed and distributed on each day of the crisis the Tottenham, Edmonton and North London Leader. This contained four pages and was strongly pro-labour in content.”
The Young Communist League produced the occasional ‘Young Striker’. None have knowingly survived; most seem to have been seized by the police and destroyed and editor, a Tottenham man, arrested.

Hardship among the strikers: “No striker was entitled to draw unemployment pay from the labour exchanges, so any striker’s family in need … had to turn to the Edmonton Union Board of Guardians whose district also include Hornsey, Southgate, Edmonton, Enfield, Cheshunt and Waltham.” In the “Edmonton Union district the number of families in receipt of assistance the week before the strike had been 7,400, most of them apparently living in Tottenham and Edmonton. At the end of the first week of the strike the number had risen by an extra 21,450 families to a total of just under 29,000. Of the increase over 40% (8,654) were Tottenham families, and another 1,542 families came from Wood Green.
At the start of the strike there was an emergency meeting of the board of guardians to decide scales of relief.” The board was made of nominees from the local authorities and reflected political biases. After angry exchanges they rejected a request from the local trades councils to be allowed to address the board on anomalies in the way relief had been dispensed in the past. The board then read to it a circular from the ministry of health stating that it was illegal to give relief to strikers. Labour members argued that strikers had received assistance in the past and it wasn’t considered illegal before. They were over-ruled.
Families of strikers in need were allowed nothing for the husband, 6s for the wife if the husband was in receipt of strike pay or 12s if he was not, with 5s for the first child of school age and 4s for every subsequent child. Local committees were authorised to make a partial contribution towards a strikers rent at their own discretion. For non-strikers workless because of the strike there was a guaranteed rent contribution.
At the next meeting Labour members complained “many people, and not only strikers’ families, had been refused help unless they first sold certain possessions including pianos.”
During the strike the cost of food soared in Tottenham and Wood Green caused, stated the local Heralds, by increased charges by road hauliers and profiteering by shopkeepers.

Collapse of the strike:The Wood Green & Southgate Trades Council reported the position on May 5th to be “one of solidarity. Entertainments committee formed and other means adopted to get the men out of the streets.” They reported that there was still a “position of solidarity” on May 7th.
“Such news as came over the radio and through emergency editions of newspapers was rightly believed to give a distorted picture of what was happening in the rest of the country, and local people had only their own experiences on which to base their conclusions.”
The TUC were worried because the drain on union funds was making itself felt and they were worried that the government would implement “its well-published plans to arrest and imprison trade union and Labour Party officials on a vast scale throughout the nation.”
On Wednesday 12th May, it was announced there would be a BBC broadcast at 1.20pm. There was great excitement amongst the strikers who believed the announcement marked a victory for the miners. Rumours had started circulating during the morning; large crowds gathered in Tottenham and Wood Green High Roads.
At Tottenham a crowd of strikers gathered outside the Trades Hall in Bruce Grove. There were so many that they completely blocked the street as far as the High Road, waiting to hear the details of the expected agreement. They too had no doubt that they had assisted in achieving a great victory. In the words of the Tottenham Strike Bulletin no. 10: “We did not expect victory so soon. General jubilation was felt. Enthusiasm was rampant. In fact it would be no exaggeration to say that hysterical delight prevailed all round.”
However, as the Tottenham Strike Bulletin recorded: “Immediately the news became general, the employers in nearly every industry looked upon it as proof that the TUC had surrendered unconditionally, and they immediately proceeded to wholesale victimisation.”
The Herald noted in the afternoon, “the increased numbers … of what might be described as the middle-class type of local resident women-folk” and “many employers putting up notices outside their premises announcing reductions in staff and stating that former employees holding union office would not be taken back. As a result the strike dragged on for another two to three days in Tottenham and Wood Green with the unions demanding, but seldom getting, assurances of no victimisation.”
“The railway, bus and tram companies all announced that they would take the opportunity to get rid of ‘dissident elements’. A number of local firms such as Millington’s at Tottenham Hale made it a condition of employment that their workmen should be non-unionists. Crusha, the proprietor of the local Heralds imposed new conditions of work when his printers returned which they found unacceptable. Consequently they walked out again to continue their strike … But within a few days the men trickled back to work at the factories and depots; all that is save for those who could not get taken back.”

Although union membership fell nationally, Tottenham council insisted after the strike that all its employees joined trade unions. “Locally in Tottenham and Wood Green there was a new spirit of bitterness in local politics. The pre-strike attitude, that the interests of the community as a whole required a non-partisan approach to the major problems of local life disappeared, apparently for good.”– D. Avery

ENFIELD

Enfield Trades Council and Labour Party formed a Council of Action. Two committees were set up to co-ordinate the activities of the Trade Unions and other bodies within the area; also to keep in touch with neighbouring Trades Councils or Councils of Action. One met at the Labour Party HQ at 66 Silver St, Enfield, the other at Herewood House, in continuous session all day. Open air meetings were held all over the area.
All workers were reported to be out solid.
Redburns Motor, a small private bus company, based in Enfield, was not unionized and it continued to operate its fleet during the Strike. The routes through Tottenham, Stoke Newington and Kingsland were subject to most hostility. Despite police escorts being provided, Redburns was forced to suspend services for two days. When services restarted on 6th May, the buses had to endure stones and other items being thrown at them, which occasionally resulted in broken windows.
Wednesday 5th May: At Brimsdown Power Station, the union members walked out.
2,000 people blocked the pathways of the Hertford Road to Tramway Avenue Depot in Ponders End. “Four trams left the garage in a line, driven by officials from the terminus. They stopped at the top of the avenue for one hour. The trams were restarted and left with a police escort. There was no trouble due to the presence of mounted police and a number of Specials.”
At the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF), Enfield Lock, there was a walk-out at midday by 800 men. (Not all the unions went on strike).
The AEU men from Ediswans lightbulb works and the other factories attended a meeting in the market place, addressed by Mr J.McGrath, secretary of the Workers Union.
The Co-operative Hall was chosen as the headquarters of the strikers.
Thursday, 6th May: Of 1,200 men, only 300 men of the RSAF’s workforce were not on strike.
Midday saw the fitters and brassmakers of Ediswans come out. That evening street lighting was reduced in Enfield.
The local press records a strikers meeting taking place at the corner of Nag’s Head Road, Ponders End.
The council also resolved to entertain people during the strike, to keep them off the streets. Local bands were to be asked to play in Pymmes Park. Football and cricket matches and dancing were to be arranged.
Another resolution passed declared that no goods would be accepted for delivery, where the labour involved replaced men called out.
On the Hertford Road, Enfield Highway, a strike driver of the London General Omnibus Company, Philip H.L.Ashley, threw stones through the window of a Redburn’s bus. He broke two of the windows.
Two trains ran between Enfield Town and Liverpool Street station, from 8am-6.45pm. Several hundred city workers travelled to work by this route.
Saturday, May 8th: During the evening, there was an open-air meeting of the Enfield Trades Council and the Labour Party at the Fountain, Enfield Town.
Sunday May 9th: A notice appeared at the RSAF factory from the MP Colonel Applin. It stated that their support of the TUC action was illegal, and they were in danger of forfeiting their pension rights. However, if they returned to work by Wednesday there would be no penalties or loss of rights. This resulted in a meeting in the evening at the Assembly Hall, Ordanance Road.
Monday May 10th: There were pickets outside the RSAF factory. No member of the Engineers Union went in – all the other unions did.
In Southgate, the local council in association with the government’s Volunteer Service Committee began delivery of the British Gazette to local agents. This service averaged about 6,000 copies a day.
At 5pm outside the council offices Mr S.H. Brown leaned over the fence and tore down a government notice. He was arrested by a Special Constable, but escaped. Brown fled but was caught down Bowes Road, with the help of another Special. He was charged with destroying a government notice (his response was: “I thought it was all rot.”)
He was fined forty shillings, or 28 days in prison.
Over in Enfield the Cable Works had to be closed down after the employees came out on strike.
Shortly after midnight the Y sub-division of the Enfield Town Special Constables received their mobilisation orders (later that day the TUC called out the ‘second line’). On Wednesday Y sub-division published its request for men aged between 20 and 45: “Preferably those with a knowledge of drill … Volunteers are
especially required for transport purposes so that squads of Specials may be conveyed quickly from point to point in lorries or motorcars.”
Thursday May 13th saw the return of Enfield Cable Works employees. The union employees stayed out until they received orders to return.
The five men involved in the sabotage of the Tramway Avenue, Hertford Road on May 5th were tried under the Emergency Powers Act. They were fined forty shillings each.
In Edmonton, 22 men employed on Road Maintenance, returned to work.
In Parliament, Colonel Applin, was informed that no action would be taken against the men employed by the RSAF, Enfield Lock (the TUC had decided to call off the strike on the Wednesday).
Friday May 14th: A tram manned by volunteers ran in Enfield, as the union drivers and conductors refusing to accept that the strike was over. Independent buses ran on the Green Lanes route.
Saturday May 15th: The last 4 strikers employed by Edmonton Council, reported for work.

WEALDSTONE

Wealdstone Joint Strike Committee, from their HQ at the local Co-operative Hall, sent greetings on behalf of the NUR, RCA, URS, ETU, AEU, Transport Workers, Building Labourers Federation, Printers, National Society of painters, to the Secretary of the TUC, to congratulate them on “the able way in which you are conducting the present situation…”
They must have been terminal optimists though, as, when the strike was called off, they felt, despite the confusion as to what was going on, they stated that “whatever the condition, it means that justice has triumphed.”

STOKE NEWINGTON

A mass meeting of several thousand strikers was held in the Alexandra Theatre, Stoke Newington, on Sunday May 9th: hundreds were turned away.

BARNET

On 2 May before the strike, the Barnet & District Trades Council, based at 5 York Terrace, Mays Lane, passed a resolution supporting the TUC calling a general strike…

WEST LONDON

WILLESDEN

Willesden: The Strike Committee formed a 200-strong ‘Maintenance of Order Corps’, seemingly to prevent things getting out of their control. There was no fighting here.

HAMMERSMITH

On 6th May, the TUC HQ sent a panicked letter after receiving reports of a “bad riot at Hammersmith outside OMS HQ. it is said stones were thrown and police used batons.” It seems “buses were stopped near the station, and various parts removed by the strikers. When some of the buses returned at 8.30 pm some of the occupants began to jeer at the crowd some of which became angry and boarded some buses roughly handling the drivers and conductors one of whom was badly injured” (shame). “Local fascists began to throw stones from a building near by. Later the police made a charge using their batons, and arrested forty three people only one of which was a trade unionist and he was released owing to a mistake being made.”
On May 7th, buses were wrecked, as strikers fought a pitched battle with cops and fascists. 47 people were nicked.
A mass meeting of several thousand strikers was held in the Blue Hall, Hammersmith, on Sunday May 9th.

FULHAM

Fulham Trades Council was said to be “functioning very satisfactorily” on May 12th… Their premises (possibly in Dawes Road) were raided by the police the night before, all members present at the meeting had their names taken, none were nicked though.
A deputation of shop stewards from the Power Station (South of Townmead Road) went to Fulham’s Emergency Committee and asked to turn off the power to 54 firms doing non-essential work: Fulham Borough Council refused; four days later the Power Station workers came out on strike. But volunteers and naval ratings kept the power station going. However,“Brothers Stirling and Calfe, of the Electrical Trades Union, employed by Fulham Electricity Undertaking, have been arrested this morning” (May 8th) so there was maybe trouble over this.

PUTNEY

Two buses were stopped on the bridge on May 6th and sabotaged… this led to “fights between local ruffs (?) and fascists, otherwise quiet. No trade unionists took part in fights.” Yeah right. Fascists were strong in the Putney area in the 1920s and ‘30s.

FELTHAM

Feltham Repair Depot: Workers here were heavily involved in the Strike (as they had been in the shop stewards movement in the previous decade). They organised very active pickets here, and produced a strike bulletin, the Feltham Tatler.
The Feltham National Union of Railwaymen (from their HQ at the Railway Tavern, Bedfont Lane) reported on May 6th that the position was “simply splendid, all members of all branches full of spirits. We have also had splendid reports from surrounding districts.
Meetings for women and open meetings have been arranged, also concerts and games. The response of the few ‘nons’ [meaning non-union members] here on Monday was great… Nothing whatever moved from Feltham. 17 reported for duty on Tuesday out of 650 employed. …”

EALING

An attempt to run trains out of the Ealing Common Depot was defeated when pickets blocked the lines.
Ealing Joint Strike Committee reported in their Daily Bulletin on May 8th: “The RCA position is very strong, all members standing ‘four square’. More ‘nons’ (non-union members) are joining up and all steps are being taken to get more members out. The Strike Committee is issuing a special appeal to women in this district, also they look to you to see that your wife and friends get on.
The NUR position is grand. All members still in fighting form. There are still a few ‘nons’ but these are being got in.
The T&GWU have inquired if they shall recognize OMS permits of delivery of coal. Instructions have been given in this matter… The report from the Building Trades is to the effect that their members are responding splendidly to the call…
Members are reminded of the mass demonstration to be held on Ealing Common tomorrow 8th may, at 3.00pm. A contingent will leave here at 2.30pm…
… issuing this daily report we would urge all members not be stampeded into panic by the provocative utterances of the Home Secretary. The inference contained in his broadcast appeal for special constables on Wednesday evening to the effect that the Trade Union movement were violating law and order is quite unjustifiable… The strikers are standing firm and they intend to conduct themselves in a quiet and orderly manner.”

HANWELL

Hanwell Council of Action operated from the Viaduct Inn.
They reported the position solid on May 8th. However on 7th several lorries of police and special constables and OMS’ers had taken 80 buses out of Hanwell to the Chiswick garage. “Slight trouble was experienced with some onlookers, a number of buses getting their windows smashed. Every effort was made to prevent any violent demonstration, but the trouble was mainly caused by outsiders.” Of course it was. It always is! Three people were arrested over stonings, some people beaten up by police. The AEC factory (possibly a bus works?), off Windmill Lane (north of the canal), built by London General Omnibus, saw a big stoppage in the Strike.

PADDINGTON

The Borough Labour Party were involved in area’s Central Strike Committee. The situation was reported to be solid and quiet on May 6th.
A large demo to Wormwood Scrubs open space on May 6th was rammed en route by a LNW railway van, which knocked down a striker and injured his legs. The van turned out to be filled with members of the British Fascisti (hiding under a tarpaulin) plus loads of barbed wire. Angry demonstrators kicked off, but were brought under control by Labour stewards! (So the fash were not lynched sadly).
Goods other than food turned out to be being moved from Paddington Station, some of it labeled food… as a result the Committee stopped all work and doubled the pickets to block everything. Blacklegs were also moving coal and coke from the local gas works.
Mass picketing stopped the single pirate bus company operating here by the 6th.
Huge mass meetings were held daily throughout the Borough.
On 8 May, Strikers were baton charged by cops. Then on Sunday 9th, 62 strikers were nicked after mounted police charges.
There were still no buses running by the 10th, and all picketing was said to be successful still. Another mass demo to the Scrubs was held on the 10th.

CHISWICK

Chiswick Trades Council formed a Council of Action. They reported on May 7th: “Council have received very satisfactory reports from delegates from councils, strike committees, picket captains, nearly all factories, works in this area have closed down. The non-union men and in some shops women have supported the unions solid. Everywhere splendid order is being maintained so far no trouble has arisen with police etc. mass meetings are being held locally.”
However soldiers worked side by side with scab drivers to get buses out, from May 5th.

SOUTHALL

Southall & District Council of Action operated from the Southall Labour Hall… On 9th May they reported: “The response has been wonderful. Morale of workers splendid. Railwaymen solid to a man. All other trades obeying instructions of council, and everything working to plan. Crowded meetings. Mass demonstrations. Men more determined as time goes on.”
Trams were overturned at Southall according to Syd Bidwell (later Labour MP for Southall)

FULWELL

There was trouble in Fulwell, near Hounslow: “Lively scenes at Fulwell Tram Depot were witnessed at the Fulwell tram depot between 7 and 8 o’ clock on Thursday (May 6th 1926) evening, when a crowd of about one thousand people gathered, and some of the volunteer drivers, who were sent down by the Ministry of Transport, and who took trams out, were pelted with eggs.
A number of women were among the crowd and some of these were amongst the noisiest. On the whole, however the temper of the crowd was fairly good humoured, and no serious disturbances occurred, but it is understood, that one arrest on a minor charge was made.”
(Surrey Comet, Saturday May 8 – Strike edition one page)

NEASDEN

Neasden Power Station was a crucial provider of power generation for the London underground, and so the government put some effort into keeping it running. Tube electricians were working, sleeping and eating here – facilities were provided the power station and the electricity substations to ensure their smooth operation. Food had been stockpiled in advance.
Because the scab volunteers were not skilled to the same level as the men that they replaced an Ambulance Officer was arranged to be on duty at all times at Neasden power station. Special constables were also present, and were also on duty at each substation.

EAST LONDON

The East End was very solid throughout the General Strike. It was described as “a great silent city, even quieter and more peaceful than on a Sunday.” This was unsurprising, as East London was overwhelmingly working class in character, with a long history of unionisation and radicalism. But unions encouraged passivity, which sapped the local initiative. The British Worker’s advice to East Londoners was Keep Calm… Keep Cool… Don’t Congregate: most workers following this advice, it resulted in what they celebrated as ‘An Easy Time For Police… no traffic whatever to attend to, no crowds to move on….’ When surely they should have been stretched from pillar to post.

HACKNEY

Hackney Council of Action was formed by the Trades Council together with local union and Labour Party officials, in March 1926, as the period for ending the government subsidy to the mines drew near.
When the strike was declared the Hackney Council of Action took over a local boxing hall, the Manor Hall in Kenmure Road, as their headquarters. Throughout the duration of the strike the Council of Action was in continuous session organising the strike locally. Reports were arriving all the time from various parts of the borough and the place took on the character of a nerve centre. Not everyone was called out on strike at once and there were others. such as local tradesmen who were exempted by the TUC. These tradesmen had to present themselves to the Council of Action, give their reasons for wanting to carry on their business, and if the Council were satisfied they were given a permit and a sticker to be put on their vans. It stated “BY PERMISSION OF THE TUC” and the strikers had great satisfaction sticking these on.
Public meetings were held all over the borough, particularly around the Mare Street area and Kingsland Road, and in Victoria Park (though by Saturday May 8th, the military were occupying the Park, closing it off to the public).
Police Intimidation was always a problem for the strikers and it was in Kingsland Road that this manifested itself in an untypical but frightening confrontation on Wednesday 5th May. One eye witness recalls: “The whole area was a seething mass of frightened but nevertheless belligerent people. The roads and pavement were jammed, horse vans, lorries and ‘black’ transport were being manhandled; police were there in force and I suppose that for a time things could have been described as desperate. The crucial point came when a fresh force of police arrived on the outskirts, I heard an officer call out, ‘Charge the bastards. Use everything you’ve got’. And they did. I saw men, women and even youngsters knocked over and out like ninepins. Shades of Peterloo. If they had been armed, apart from their truncheons and boots, Kingsland Rd would have gone down in history as an even greater massacre.”
The police carried out baton charges in other parts of Hackney on the same day and the St. John’s Ambulance set up a casualty station in Kingsland Rd a day or so afterwards.
Mare Street Tram Depot, now Clapton Bus Garage: The men had all joined the strike on the first day along with other transport workers and the depot was empty. Even the canteen staff had gone home and all that was left was the picket line outside. Suddenly, under military escort, along came a crowd of ‘patriotic volunteers’ to start up a tram service. The picket line was not big enough to stop them entering the depot but by the time this was done, word had reached the Council of Action round the corner in Kenmure Road. Within minutes the area outside was packed with strikers. Their attitude was that the ‘blacklegs’ may have got in but they were not going to let them out! All day the crowd stayed outside and not a tram moved. As evening approached, the poor unfortunates trapped in the tram depot realised that their stomachs were complaining. None of them had brought food in with them and the canteen staff were not working so they just had to stay hungry. A few attempts to escape were made but were unsuccessful and about midnight, the Manor Hall received a visit from the local police superintendent He asked in the most polite way for the Council of Action to assist him in getting the ‘blacklegs’ out. The reply was less polite. During the early hours of Thursday morning, a few did escape from the depot but were chased all the way down Mare Street, past Well Street to the Triangle where they were finally caught. At this spot stood a horse trough full of water, so that it was a number of very bedraggled and hungry ‘blacklegs’ who made their way home that day. No further attempts were made to take any trams out from that particular depot!
Strikebreaking was enthusiastically encouraged by Hackney Borough Council. Right from the start they issued a notice calling for volunteers to man essential services. An office was opened in the public library opposite the Town Hall where strikebreakers could sign on and this was kept open from 9 am to 8 pm. The Council at that time was comprised of 100% Municipal Reformers (Tories and Liberals who stood together on an anti socialist ticket). The Council met on the Thursday and set up a special sub committee to discharge any emergency functions that were needed. A squad of Special Constables were established for the protection of municipal buildings, one of these was the Mayor’s son who was ‘just down from Oxford’ and was on duty at the Town Hall.
The Hackney Gazette, the local newspaper, did not appear in its usual format as the printers had joined the strike. Instead the editor brought out a single sheet; which makes interesting reading, especially the bulletin brought out on the second Monday of the strike (10th May). With a headline MILITARY ARRIVE AT HACKNEY, it went on to state that “Victoria Park has been closed to the public. In the early hours of Saturday morning, residents in the locality were disturbed by the rumble of heavy motor lorries and afterwards found that military tents had been pitched near the bandstand . . . We understand that detachments of the East Lancashire Fusiliers, a Guards Regiment and the Middlesex Regiment have encamped in the park . . . another body of Regulars is stationed in the vicinity of the Marshes at Hackney Wick.”
Whether this was meant to frighten the strikers or not is not clear but it certainly had no effect on the numbers out on strike in the borough. Despite scares and rumours about people drifting back to work, the number of people on strike in the second week was more than had come out at the beginning on the 3rd May. All the large factories in the borough had pickets outside them Bergers Paint Factory in Hackney Wick, Polikoff Ltd., (a clothing firm at Well Street) and Zinkens Furniture manufacturers in Mare Street were three of the largest. All the public utilities were either closed or being run rather badly by amateurs. The Hackney Gazette once again reported that three boys of the Clove Club (the Hackney Downs School ‘Old Boys’) were driving a train between Liverpool Street and Chingford and that one of the volunteers at the Council’s Dust Destructor was a parson who was busy shovelling refuse into the hoppers. That probably explains the Council ending their meeting on the Thursday with the Lords Prayer!
The end of the Strike came suddenly on Wednesday, 12th May, with most strikers in a buoyant and confident mood. When the news came through to the Strike HQ, the first reaction was one of disbelief. Notices were put up advising strikers not to pay any attention to what they called ‘BBC Bluff’ but when the official notice of a return to work was given to them during the afternoon, reaction was that the strike must have been successful. The Hackney Gazette reported that ‘It was publicly alleged that the miners were going back to work without any reduction of wages. There were shouts of ‘We’ve won!’ and cheers, while a section of the crowd began to sing “The Red Flag”.
However, as soon as the truth filtered through to them the reaction according to one participant was “bloody murder”. Julius Jacobs who was active in Hackney during the General Strike remembers that ‘The Bastards’ was the most favourable epithet applied to the General Council of the TUC. “Everybody’s face dropped a mile because they had all been so enthusiastic. It was really working and victory seemed to be absolutely on the plate.”
However, the strikers were still in a militant mood unlike their leaders. That evening, a huge march took place. Several thousands of strikers took part in a march from the Manor Hall in Kenmure Road down Mare Street and Well Street to Hackney Wick and Homerton ending up in a mass meeting outside the Hackney Electricity Works at the end of Millfields Road. A drum and fife band accompanied the marchers and it was led by two men with a large banner. Before the arrival of the marchers, police were rushed up to the Works in a lorry which was driven at great speed through the crowd by one of the Special Constables and as the gates were opened for it, a number of soldiers in field uniform and wearing steel helmets were seen inside. The march was so long that after having a mass meeting by the head of the marchers, the speakers had to go to the back of the march which stretched for about a third of a mile and hold another one.
The return to work was orderly and in most cases without incident. A certain amount of victimisation of militants took place but no more than anywhere else.

BETHNAL GREEN

Bethnal Green was a Labour-controlled borough. However the Council of Action was said to be Communist Party-dominated. The Town Hall Labour rooms here were used as the Strike Committee’s HQ in the Strike. The Council of Action set up a Women’s Food Protection Committee to check prices of food stuffs and help those in need. A crowded mass meeting was held in the Town Hall on the evening of Sunday 9th – 100s couldn’t even get in.
The Council of Action received reports that the electricity supply was being used for manufacturing, against agreements they’d reached – they threatened to turn the supply off if this didn’t stop.
On 10th May, the Committee reported: “The position in Bethnal Green is still firm and we are making arrangements for the social side of the strike. There have been no disturbances, and enthusiastic mass meetings have been held. Picketing is proceeding smoothly.”
A Bethnal Green Works bulletin was circulated locally on May 10th by the Council of Action.

SHOREDITCH

The Borough council was Labour controlled, and the Town Hall Labour rooms were used as the Strike HQ.
The police visited the Trades Council office on the 10th, after the power in the borough was turned off completely following disputes over what the juice was being used for.
At some point the secretary of Shoreditch Labour Party was arrested, not sure when or what for.

STEPNEY

The Communist Party dominated the Council of Action here…

POPLAR

A borough controlled by left wing Labour Party councillors, including left bigwig George Lansbury. The strike committee, which met at the Town Hall, was said to be Communist Party dominated (but there was a closer relation between Labour and the CP here than elsewhere). The Poplar Strike Committee bulletin was known as ‘Lansbury’s Bulletin’
On 4 May, strikers battled police in streets. Vehicles were set alight and thrown in the river. There was more fighting the next day (special constables attacked and wrecked three local pubs), and on the 6th, and 7th.
Government posters calling for volunteers were defaced en masse locally…
There was a food shortage in Poplar by May 11th – ironically convoys of lorries were carrying it out of the nearby docks to the West End. Maybe a little less peace and a bit of steaming in would have fed the locals.
The docks were totally solid, from the start; there was intense picketing here. From the start submarines and lighters were moored in the Docks; apart from having troops on hand, the subs supplied electricity for refrigeration of food stored there. There seems to have been an organized attempt to try to shut this supply to the big refining plant, where carcasses were stored, by the strikers, but it must have failed. The Docks remained inactive till May 8th, when the stranglehold was broken by troops protecting scabs, who unloaded food into convoys which was then driven to the West End.
On several days especially 4 May, crowds of strikers blocked the Blackwall Tunnel: cars were stopped, smashed and burned. The police baton charged crowds here on May 4 and beat up strikers, casualties were taken to Poplar Hospital.
By the 11th, the Poplar Strike Committee was starting to get a bit narked with the TUC General Council: “There has been a noticeable increase in road traffic, much of this is not connected to transport or food… Govt propaganda has been increased in the last few hours through posters and other subversive methods… Intensified efforts have been made to get essential port servants to work under police protection.
The above factors are tending to make the rank and file affected by the strike question the correctness of the TUC publications. Local efforts to dispel these doubts are limited.
This Council therefore respectfully submits that the time has arrived when a general tightening of the Strike machinery should be put into effect by calling out all workers, essential or otherwise.”
On May 12th, the workers here remained solid. Later in the day 500 dockers meeting outside Poplar Town Hall were attacked by cops who drove through crowds in a van, then jumped out batoning people. Later the cops raided the NUR HQ in Poplar High St, beating up everyone found inside, including the Mayor of Poplar, who was there playing billiards (although hilariously, the British Worker changed this fact in their report to say that he had been “in a meeting of his committee”!)

BOW AND BROMLEY

The Bow & Bromley Strike Bulletin (issued on May 6th) indicates the attitude of left labour leaders: George Lansbury wrote: “Don’t quarrel with the police. We can and will win without disorder of any kind. Policemen are of our flesh and bone of our bones, and we will co-operate with them to keep the peace.”
Could this have had an effect on the lack of attempts to prevent the convoys of food leaving the East End docks nearby? Only mass resistance to this, probably violent, could have stopped them, and this would have had a significant effect on the course of the Strike in London, which only had 48 hours worth of flour and bread at the time.
The Bow District Railways and Transport Strike Committee reported on May 6th: “All railwaymen of Bow solid as a rock. This committee is sitting at 141 Bow road in conjunction with the Transport workers. We are in continual session, day and night….”

EAST HAM

5th May: “The combined meeting of workers of East Ham stands solid.”
However naval ratings were running the East Ham Power Station.

WEST HAM

The West Ham Trades Council and Borough Labour Party formed a strike committee at their office at 11 Pretoria Road, Canning Town; a Council of Action later ran from the ILP Hut, Cumberland Road, Plaistow. The Committee was said to be Communist Party dominated.
They reported much confusion on May 4th among municipal employees (eg dustmen), and gas and electricity workers, as to whether they should strike or not; all thanks to the General Council’s ludicrous battle plan.
In Canning Town, on May 4th, there was fighting between strikers and police, after crowds stopped cars and smashed their engines.
At Canning Town Bridge, on May 5th, strikers pulled drivers off trams, leading to a pitched battle with the cops. 2-300 strikers fought police at the corner of Barking Road and Liverpool Road, after coppers baton charged a crowd.
The position on 10th May was reckoned “stronger than ever.” Local Port of London clerks were being targetted by the Government to get them to return to work in the Docks, under police protection.
A mass meeting of several thousand strikers was held in the Canning Town Public Hall, on Sunday May 9th.

ILFORD

Ilford was more residential than industrial.
Ilford Trades Council formed a Joint Strike Committee, based at the local Labour Hall, Ilford Hill. Local unions had their own strike committees, as elsewhere, the Ilford Committee left it to them to sort out picketing. They also ‘took charge’ (which seems to have meant co-opting them into committees) of some local members of unions whose bureaucracy refused to issue any advice or guidelines as to what to do (eg the AEU)
A local Strike Bulletin was issued by people not connected to the trade unions.
The Strike was said to be “All Solid” on May 5th here; it was reported still solid by May 10th, with no trams or buses at all running, and one or two odd trains per day. “Everything quiet and orderly, and there has not been the slightest disturbance”

LEYTON

Leyton Trades Council set up a General Strike Committee, at their offices at Grove House, 452, High Rd, Leyton.
The Trades Council reported “a very pleasant relationship with the police”. Get a room, really.

WALTHAMSTOW

Walthamstow Trades Council set up an Emergency Committee, at their office/meeting hall, at 342 Hoe St, E17. On May 6th they reported:
“The position here is as solid as a rock, have had difficulty in keeping men at work on essential Health services. Non-unionists are flocking to our side every hour… The electricity works running under our jurisdiction, great number of factories have had juice for power purposes cut off… In the main all are remaining calm and violence is exceptionally noticeable for its absence, we are using every endeavour to maintain peace…” Possibly a bit optimistic though, this last, since Walthamstow saw lively scenes at some point, with Winston Churchill’s coach reportedly being overturned on Walthamstow High Street.
On 10th “all men not essential are out with the strikers.” But the fact that many men were not getting their strike pay was causing “grave unrest” by the 11th.
Mass meetings were held at William Morris Hall, Somers Road, and outside St Johns Church, Brookscroft Road
The May 12th Walthamstow Official Strike Bulletin reported
“Messrs Baird & Tatlocks had their ‘juice’ cut off, as their output does not come within the description of essential services… It was reported that local cinemas were again using the screen for the spreading of strike ‘news’ (I guess this means anti-strike news. typist). An undertaking has now been given that the Gazette will be cut off entirely if it contains strike items. Careful watch is being kept, and if any attempt is made to get behind the agreement, the ‘juice’ will again be cut off.
STOP PRESS NEWS. THERE IS NO TRUTH IN THE RUMOUR THAT THE STRIKE IS OVER.”
But it was.

DAGENHAM

Local union and Labour party branches, some unemployed, and mens and women’s co-operative guilds, set up a Council of Action on May 3rd (there had been no Trades Council here previously). It was based, or at least the secretary was based, at 6 Arnold Road), and went into continuous session during the strike. The CoA set its functions out as: to maintain order and discipline among the local workers, to watch local Trade movements to maintain contact by means of our established cycle and motor cycle with the neighbouring Barking Labour Party, and to establish a local distress fund…
On May 8th they reported to the TUC: “All solid. Local non-union firms all out and all joining unions… No distribution, everybody orderly. Meetings held on (?Lution) Institute grounds every evening… Vigorous boycott of all trades increasing…” The meeting also demanded the calling out of all union workers, in defiance it would seem of the GC line…
Many employees of non-unionised firms came out here: 500 new recruits joined unions in the first week of the strike. Local traders who increased prices were boycotted by workers.

BARKING

A letter (dating from probably 8th May) from Barking Labour Party/Trades Council, with the NUR and other organisations attached (based it seems at Railway Hotel, Barking) to the TUC General Council, reported that the strike there was “as solid as ever. Space being greatly indulged in and the most uniformed order is established. Public sympathy is with the strikers, well organized meetings, full houses, excellent speaking… the workers will fight to the end… Barking Labour Party are supervising the distribution of meals etc, and [forcing?] the local authorities to the utmost and are also organizing pastimes and meetings of every description…
No notice is being taken of any notices issued other than the TUC GC.
… The railways refused to accept pay as it is being ‘made up’ by blacklegs.
March with bands being organised for Sunday. Services at the church.”
On 10th May they reported to the GC that a local “unofficial strike committee now disbanded.” It is unclear what this was – a rival strike committee?It could be sign that there was dissent, or Trades Council repression of some form of self-organisation… But this is speculation.
On 11th the Barking Central Strike Committee wrote that the “situation is exceptionally splendid, all trades answered the call 100%.
The general workers not yet called out, are eagerly awaiting the call. Industrial side thoroughly organised, all is peaceful. Social committee set up…”
Barking Trades Council reported to the TUC that “the only difficulty being experienced in that district is all the efforts of the Strike Committee are required to keep the electrical workers at their duties until the General Council informs them that they may join the strike.”

SOUTH LONDON

DEPTFORD/NEW CROSS

No 435 New Cross Road (the Labour Party rooms) was the Deptford & Greenwich Strike Committee HQ. The Deptford official Strike Bulletin was published from here; the Council of Action sat in continuous session.
They reported to the TUC that: “May 4th: “All tram and busmen are solid.
Stones Engineering Works – all out.
Francis Tinworks – all out.
All dockworkers are out solid.
Grahams Engineering Works (non-federated) – all out.
There are a few firms who have not come out but we are concentrating on them immediately.
We are arranging mass meeting in this district.
Pickets have been posted at all these works.”
May 5th: “The latest position is as follows:
Braby’s Galvanised Iron Works – all out.
Scotts’s Tin Works – all out.
Royal Victoria Yard (government victualling yard) – all out for the first time in history.
Elliots Engineering Works – all out.
Port of London Clerks have been reported out but I have not been able to get this confirmed up to now…”
On 7 May, the old bottle factory, Deptford Church Street, was the scene of heavy picketing; pickets fought with the cops. Deptford power station was run throughout the Strike with help from the armed forces. Along with workers who continued at work, they stayed on site all the time. Apart from this every works in Deptford was out in the Strike.
On 8 May, Strikers battled the old bill in Deptford Broadway, which was ‘rendered impassable by a dense crowd’ according to the Kentish Mercury.
New Cross: During the strike most local works were solid on strike, but the importation of middle class strikebreakers led to clashes at the tram depot (now the bus garage) Volunteers including British Fascisti attempted to take out trams from the tram depot on May 7th… it was blocked off by pickets who had jammed tramlines with metal rods forced into tracks. 1000s blocked the road, leading to hard fighting with the police. A full blown riot followed.
On 9 May, fighting erupted between police NS strikers leaving a mass strike meeting at the New Cross Empire, (on the corner of Watson Street and New Cross Road) That night armoured vehicles drove around New Cross. Several mass meetings of strikers were held at the New Cross Empire music hall.

LEWISHAM

Mass open air meetings were held here in the Strike. But many middle class strikebreakers were recruited from the better off parts of the Borough. Confusion was rife here as to who was to strike and when: at a government factory here, workers struck and went back 3 times in 9 days, although more research is needed to find out if they were ordered back by the Trades Council.
The Chairman of the Board of guardians was said to have told men applying for relief to sign on as Special Constables to help break the strike.
On Downham Estate, Downham, building workers on the new estate being constructed struck on first day of General Strike but were ordered back to work by the TUC.
On Thursday 13th, some busmen went back to work when the Strike was called off, but there was total confusion… strikers and scabs working side by side, which led to anger of busmen, who marched on the bus garage to sort out terms. Their way was blocked by cops, a tram came along, they broke the police line and fought a great running battle in the streets. Some local strikers allegedly thought that the real fight might start now, with the TUC out of the way.

GREENWICH

There was a big battle in Blackwall Lane after strikers marched on the Medway Oil and Storage Company where 200,000 gallons of petrol and kerosene were stored. They stoned the twenty-five policemen sent out to dispose them, were baton charged and fought back for twenty minutes. Two men were nicked, and given five months with hard labour. The newspaper report says that they planned to fire the fuel, this seems unlikely, but you never know.
At ‘Charlton Pier’, during the General Strike there was at least one day of fighting here, as a strike-breaking convoy and police were attacked by strikers.
I’m not sure if this is the same incident as a report of a crowd of women in Charlton pelting supply transports with rotten vegetables, and a crowd of blokes trying to set fire to oil storage tanks, but being driven off.
Two men in Charlton were given a six months prison sentence for trying to stop a bus in Charlton.

WOOLWICH

Woolwich Trades Council met at the Labour Institute, Beresford Street. There was a very long and strong left working class tradition locally, especially in Woolwich Arsenal and the Dockyard.
On 5th May, pretty much everyone was out on strike: both the Dockyard and the Arsenal were described as “like an industrial mausoleum. No sound of a hammer breaks the stillness… not a wheel is turning.”
But on the 7th, Workers Union members were scabbing at the Silver’s Rubber manufacturers, making tennis balls. This works was supplied with ”Black Juice” (electricity produced by scab labour). The local Workers Union official had told the men to stay at work.
All ETU men were out.
Workers at Woolwich Arsenal were all out, bar foremen, but their week’s pay in hand from the week before was being withheld by bosses… They were told that if they got their money they would be let go. Huge mass meetings were being held. Feeling locally was so strong, the Woolwich librarian was attacked after he gave two special constables a lift in his car.
On 10 May it was reported that “Everything is going strong in Woolwich. In spite of the pin-pricking policy of the Arsenal authorities the men are remaining firm… No trams buses or trains are running… 750 men and women have joined the TGWU since last Thursday from the united Glass Bottle Works Charlton.”
Woolwich T&GWU reported on May 10th: “At a mass meeting comprised of members of the above unions [TGWU, NUR, RCA,], a resolution was put and unanimously carried that – Owing to the most unwarrantable attacks made upon our members in various parts of the surrounding districts by police, based upon authoritative facts, which has resulted in injuries and arrests. These attacks have happened without provocation….”
“Workers at one big glass works” according to the British Worker, “gave a percentage of their last week’s wages towards the strike funds 410 joined the union… and threw in their lot with the strike…”
Confusion over the GC’s instructions caused endless problems day to day here – at the big Siemens works, electricians came out, but other workers didn’t. Eventually power shortage closed the factory down anyway. At Johnson & Philips, the convenor called the workers out three times, then they were ordered back three times. There were heavy battles outside this factory between pickets and scabs – the scabs lost apparently!
In the Woolwich Arsenal, and Dockyard there were a number of demotions and sackings after the General Strike. A dispute over demotions of strikers on the Woolwich Ferry (shut throughout the strike) lasted several days after the official end of the Strike.
In Plumstead, on Monday 10th, strikers were attacked by cops all over the area; they raided two strikers’ houses, batoning the occupants.
In Eltham (then part of the Borough of Woolwich), the Council of Action reported on May 10th: “satisfaction in this district. With the exception of Kidbrooke RAF Depot, excellent. Everything is running well. We are gradually getting our organization on good working order.
Kidbrooke: Picket has included about 60 women. Great effect. Air force officers up at 6am getting blacks (scabs) in by lorry. Several ceased work.
Women organising and forming a section of this council.
Propaganda: British Worker selling like hot cakes. Chalking squads, meetings, lectures, and concerts being arranged.”
Woolwich as a borough is interesting, as it had been Labour-controlled since 1919; but the Labour mayor saw the strike as a threat to public order, and feared the subversive potential of the Communist Party (some hope -ed!) So the Council organised concerts, plays and other events with the deliberate aim of keeping people occupied and away from confrontation. How much this desire to prevent trouble led to the huge effort in other areas to put on social events, can be deduced from this explicit example.
Woolwich always had a large barracks for troops – during the strike they were confined to barracks, apparently there was a fear that they might strike too…

WANDSWORTH

In Wandsworth, trades council secretary Archie Latta called together a Council of Action for Friday, April 30. 48,000 copies of The Wandsworth Strike Bulletin were distributed by the end of the strike. Wandsworth had a corps of motor and pedal cycle dispatch riders operating for the Council of Action, and the trades council report – confirmed by Plebs’ League survey of responses to the strike call ~ says the Borough was ‘100 per cent’ solid during the strike. The Trades Council also encouraged a rent strike.
St Faith’s Mission Hall in ‘Warple Way’, was a centre for organising picketing (This may have been near the old Warple Rd, which was where Swandon Way is now, next to the old Gas works).
Wandsworth was one of the solidest strike areas in all of London.
There was trouble every day of the strike. Crowds were attacked by cops & special constables every day at buildings where specials signed on for duty. On May 7th a crowd demolished a wall for missiles; the next day a picket line was baton charged.

BATTERSEA

On Monday, May 3, the day the strike was announced, Battersea Trades Council formed its Council of Action, after local trades unionists returned to Battersea from the Mayday march to Hyde Park. Local Communist-Labour MP Saklatvala had called on the troops camped out in the park to join with the workers – he was to be jailed days later for sedition. The CP dominated the Council of Action here.
Crowds of marching pickets set off on the first day of the strike to Morgan’s, then Carson’s paint factory, ending up after a tour through the borough at Nine Elms. The Council of Action later endorsed the marching picket. Unsuccessful attempts by strike-breaking ‘volunteers to start a tram service led to clashes between newly recruited police specials and pickets on Friday, May 7, at the Clapham tram depot. And on Saturday, May 8, the left wing Councillor Andrews, a member of the Council of Action, was arrested after addressing a meeting at the Prince’s Head, Falcon Road. When the Council of Action tried to organise a meeting there the following day, the police banned it.
On May 8th cops baton charged strikers in Battersea. Crowds were involved in street actions every day of the Strike.
A message sent early on Sunday to the Council of Action from F. Reeves, secretary of the Nine Elms joint workers’ committee based at the Clapham Trades Union and Social Club, 374 Wandsworth Road (the building still stands), referred to Friday’s clash with the specials: “My committee last night strongly complained of undue batoning by irresponsible youths called specials, and in view of the seriousness of the position requests me to urge you to take immediate steps to set up a Workers Defence Corps.”
A ‘Special Picket Corps’ was set up, its duties included strengthening any ineffective pickets, providing bona fides for those engaged on officially endorsed work, preventing attempts to create disturbances, and stewarding meetings. That evening Battersea town hall was packed to hear South Wales miners’ leader Noah Ablett. He was afterwards arrested for saying he was happy repeat Saklatvala’s remarks about the army.
The Council of Action also co-ordinated the work of the trade unions in the district, provided rooms and halls where members of the various unions could sign on and receive strike pay, also where members from other districts could sign. They formed a picket committee who organised pickets and supplied them badges. They ran meetings every day in the Town Hall (Grand Hall) and gave concerts to the strikers and their wives and children free. These were arranged by the social committee (St John’s Hall, York Rd, – was taken over as a social and organising centre for local strikers and their families.).Their propaganda committee published a bulletin of information (2,500 copies a day) as to the progress of the strike in other districts, and was responsible for supplying the British Worker. They had other committees who advised men and women as to the best method of obtaining relief, to collect reports from other districts and the TUC.
Trouble was reported in Falcon Lane Goods Yard on May 11th when pickets were chased by police specials. That day, the Council of Action wrote to transport workers in Unity Hall on Falcon Grove, asking pickets to report to St Faith’s Mission Hall, Warple Way, Wandsworth, to be deployed nearby. A surviving memo to Wandsworth reads: “We have been informed that the British Petrol Co. Wandsworth are working in full swing. Also at Messrs. Bagg, Ryecroft Road, Streatham, all trades are at work. Will you kindly have the matter investigated so that necessary action can be taken.”
Pickets were out in force at Garton’s Saccharum Works, where the owners had threatened to sack anyone who did not turn up for work by midday on Wednesday. No-one turned up by midday!
Near the end of the strike, probably on Tuesday, May 11, special constables battered trade unionists in strike committee rooms at Nine Elms’ – most likely these were in a building which still stands, close to Nine Elms cold store, near to Vauxhall railway station.
Nine Elms Goods Yard had a very militant workforce: there had been many mass meetings held in a dispute shortly before the General Strike.
On May 9th cops attacked strikers in Battersea. There was more trouble on May 12 after news of the end of the strike.
At Price’s Candle Factory, York Road, possibly the largest employer in the area for many years, all workers were out.
The news of the strike’s ending reached Battersea ‘like a thunderclap’. (According to CP member and later pioneering trotskyist Harry Wicks) Council of Action chair Jack Clancy had reported to the TUC ‘all factories of note idle’ and ‘the general spirit prevailing is magnificent’, the Council of Action dispatched him to TUC headquarters in Ecclestone Square to check on the rumours. Addressing a packed town hall with the grim truth, Clancy was confronted with angry booing and jeering. Wicks says Clancy was ‘shattered’ by the incident. The Communist Party members handed out leaflets encouraging a continuation of the Strike – Alf Loughton, later a trades council delegate and later still a mayor of Wandsworth was arrested while carrying such leaflets – but Wicks believes the Communist Party attempt to steer the strike came too late and after too much muddled analysis in the run-up to the conflict. In any case with the exception of the railworkers, who stayed out because of attempt at massive victimisation by the employers, there was a relatively orderly return to work. The Council of Action continued in form for a period, but unlike other boroughs, it could not simply return to being a trades council, because it was composed of two halves, one acceptable to the Labour Party and TUC, the other not.

LAMBETH

Lambeth Trades Council, based at New Morris Hall, 79 Bedford Road, SW4, turned itself into a Council of Action. It organised different committees – the Communication Committee had 300 vehicles for organising, carrying messages etc, They produced the ‘Lambeth Worker’ strike bulletin, which was raided by the cops. There was fighting in the street in Lambeth on 8th May.
In Vauxhall people built barricades on the south side of the Bridge… police fought strikers in the streets, chasing them through back streets near the Embankment, where women rained down bottles on the cops’ heads! Groups of strikers gathered outside pubs. Author Graham Greene, then a student, was a special on Vauxhall Bridge: later in life he thought better of it, and said he should have been on the other side.
Kennington Park was used as a rallying point for strikers.
The Trades Council held a “very successful demo” on May 9th in Brixton’s Brockwell Park, 20,000 attended. They were planning another for the following Sunday, and wrote to the TUC General Council asking what speaker could they send down! (the GC had other ideas of course).
Brixton was said to be very quiet during the Strike. There was a recruiting centre for special constables here, many were sent to other areas where there was more trouble, eg Camberwell. Brixton and Streatham were said by the South London press to have a full bus service running by Tuesday 11th. Lambeth Council of Action were a bit belatedly organising a Joint Transport Committee meeting on the 11th to try and put a stop to this. In
Brockwell Park strikers played several games of cricket – though not with the police! No fucking Plymouth-style football-with-the-enemy here.
There was fighting in Clapham High Street on the evening of Friday 7th, when a number of lorries occupied by strikers and sympathisers tried to block traffic. Foot and mounted police charged and cleared the street.

BERMONDSEY

Bermondsey Borough Council was left Labour-controlled. It passed a resolution in support of the Bethnal Green Trades Council motion attacking the Government for cutting off negotiations with the TUC on May 2nd.
There was a riot in Tower Bridge Road, not sure on what day: 89 people were hurt in police baton charges. There seems to have been fighting here several times.
A bonfire of copies of the government’s anti-strike newspaper, the British Gazette, was reported in Rotherhithe on May 6th.
A mass meeting of several thousand strikers was held in Rotherhithe Town Hall, on Sunday May 9th.

CAMBERWELL

Camberwell was a large borough, including Peckham. Camberwell Borough Council fully supported the Government against the strikers, it was cooperative with the Emergency Powers Act and its functionaries, and it appointed the Treasurer and Town Clerk as the officers in charge of food and fuel.
Camberwell Trades Council organized the Strike locally. A letter to the TUC from G.W.Silverside, General Secretary of the Dulwich Divisional Labour Party in which he explains that at a meeting on May 3rd it was decided to collect money and distribute literature. Also “the question of the possibility of duplication arose” and Mr. Silverside explained that he had been in touch with the “Secretary of the Camberwell Trades Council who informs me that there are three duplicators available and that they are prepared to duplicate anything that may be necessary.”
According to a post-Strike Report by the Trades Council:
“only a fortnight before the strike, [we] obtained a roneo duplicator and a typewriter. When the possibility of a strike loomed up we made three tentative preparations for this eventuality, viz:
(a) We enquired for an office, which we might take for a month as a minimum.
(b) (b) We obtained a lien on a hall where we might have a large meeting and would run no danger of the hall being cancelled by opponents.
(c) We made arrangements for a Committee meeting to be called the day after the general Strike began, if it did so begin. On May Day we thought the importance of demonstrating was sufficient to warrant us paying for a band, banner bearers etc, and for us to give a lead in having a good turn out. This we had organized and we secured a fine response from Camberwell workers. Whilst on route to Hyde Park came the news of the General Strike declaration – truly a fitting send off, thus demonstrating to the rich loafers in the West End out power and solidarity.”
The Strike Committee organised effective picketing of workplaces. Tramwaymen and busmen, who made up 3000 of the 8000 workers affiliated to the trades Council, were solid, as were roadmen of the Borough Council also came out, (bar one depot where men were reported working.) Reports which came to the Strike office as to the need for pickets were transmitted to the Strike Committee concerned at once by an organised messenger network.
The Trades Council concluded that: “we were not ready. We quickly improvised machinery… Everything had to be found on the spur of the moment, and we rose to the occasion fairly well I our own estimation., considering the difficulties of lack of our own premises, voluntary workers, and having to set up, equip and run an office after the Strike had commenced.”
In the Borough of Camberwell as it was then, two strike bulletins were produced, the Camberwell Strike Bulletin and the Peckham Labour Bulletin – both from Central Buildings, High Street, Peckham.The South London Observer of Saturday May 15th reports that a man was convicted of selling the Peckham Labour Bulletin. The paragraph headed “French workers refuse to blackleg” was thought by the court to be provocative. Police Inspector Hider in his evidence stated that it would cause “a certain feeling among certain people”. Inspector Hider also saw copies of the Camberwell Strike Bulletin also produced at Central Buildings on a duplicator by Eddy Jope, who denied any connection with the Peckham Labour Bulletin.
Trams were not running, till the local electricity generating station was reopened by naval ratings.
On May 5th, commercial vehicles were stopped & trashed here by strikers. The trams were in the main kept off the roads. Altogether there were 12 attempts by OMS (government organised volunteers, mostly middle class) recruits supported by police and special constables to run trams from Camberwell Depot to New Scotland Yard – resulting in crowds of pickets and supporters attacking scab trams, smashing their windows and pushing them back inside, preventing them from running.
The British Worker, the daily paper put out during the Strike by the TUC, reported: “BANNED TRAMS SCENE: An unsuccessful attempt was made shortly after four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon to run LCC tramcars from the Camberwell depot.
Earlier in the day two lorries with higher officials of the tramways Department and OMS recruits arrived at the Depot, where a strong force of police had been posted.
A large crowd, including tramwaymen, their wives and sympathisers, collected, and when the first car came out of the Depot gates in Camberwell Green there was a hostile demonstration.
Some arrests were made. Following this incident the cars were driven back in to the Depot to the accompaniment of loud cheers.” (British Worker, 5th May 1926.)
Newspaper reports that “Women pickets stopped them by putting kids in front of the vehicles” seem to be rightwing propaganda spread at the time (by the South London Press, which was resolutely opposed to the Strike) – there is no evidence for it!
Buses were also stoned in Camberwell on Saturday night (8th May). There were huge public meetings at Camberwell Green, as well as at Peckham Rye and at the triangle near the Eaton Arms, Peckham. An eye-witness account describes the police activity during a public meeting at Camberwell Green as terrifying. He was ten years old at the time. He had been taken by his father and was standing on the edge of the meeting only to see waves of police with drawn truncheons marching on the people, who broke and ran after repeated baton charges.
Camberwell Borough Guardians took a hard line during and after Strike – issued ‘Not Genuinely Seeking Work’ forms to stop strikers getting any relief.
Many scab ‘volunteers’ working to defeat the strike were posh students, including a large no. from ultra-posh Dulwich College.
Mass meetings of strikers held on Peckham Rye, and at Peckham Winter Gardens, where a mass open air meeting of several thousand strikers, families and supporters occurred at a social gathering held by Peckham Labour Party on the evening of Sunday May 9th.
Tillings Bus Co., Peckham was a big employer in the area: 1200 people worked here on the private buses. Large numbers of police specials were stationed to ensure these buses were never stopped from running. Many Tillings workers were out in Strike: after the end of the strike, Tillings took advantage of the defeat to shut out unions, issuing a notice at the depot: “Men should realize that there is no agreement in existence, the union having broken this. They should also understand plainly that we do not propose to make further agreement with the existing union, as this is the third occasion on which they have broken thee agreement. Every man should fully understand these conditions before restarting.”
After the TUC sellout, there was confusion in the area. Crowds of workers gathered at the Tram Depot, not knowing what to do. many wanted to continue the Strike and the TUC General Council were widely denounced. Each worker had to sign a form on future conditions of service, hours and wages. Some never got their jobs back at all.
At the end of the Strike Camberwell Trades Council sent £10 to the Miners from the funds collected during the Strike, continued that support as the miners fought on alone after the TUC sellout.
The Communist Party, strong locally, produced a daily bulletin, the Camberwell Worker, for the first week at least.

SOUTHWARK

124 Walworth Road, the local Labour Party HQ, was the local General Strike centre. Many workers were out on strike here, the area had a long radical workers tradition.
There were fierce battles with the police in the streets of Southwark all through the nine days of the Strike.
“The young people would wait on the roofs of the tenements along New Kent Rd in an opportunity to rain stones and bottles on the heads of the specials and strikebreakers in their protected vehicles below. The police would respond with waves of violence: there were ugly scenes day esp. around Bricklayers Arms where dockers and railwaymen gathered. A bus was stopped, emptied of passengers, turned over and burned in the face of the police and the specials. There were barriers everywhere and the Trades Council had control over vehicles passing through Southwark.. The atmosphere was magnetic, men and women and children determined to stand united. It was a family affair.”
Also in the Old Kent Road: according to anarcho-syndicalist Wilf McCartney, during the Strike the ‘Imperial Fascisti’, an early British Fascist group, organised a strikebreaking force, which despite regular army protection was routed here by dockers with hammers and catering workers (of whom McCartney, a longtime cook and organiser in the catering trade, was presumably one!) with carving knives! the fascist scabs took to their heels and legged it on spotting this ‘strikeforce’! (Apparently even the squaddies were pissing thmselves!)
The Bricklayers Arms railway depot was a centre of organising, solidly picketed throughout.
In St George’s Road, on May 5th, a No.12 Tillings strike breaking omnibus to Peckham was seized, burnt out and towed away.
Crowds battled the police daily at the Elephant & Castle; a scab-driven bus crashed here on 6th May, killing a man. There were also battles at Heygate Street, New Kent Road, Walworth Road, (where crowds blocked trams with railings on the lines: bricks and bottles were chucked at police when they cleared the lines), and Old Kent Road, where near the Dun Cow pub, a tram was overturned by crowds… passengers were pulled off and scab drivers assaulted.
But these street gatherings at Walworth Road, Heygate St,and Elephant & Castle, to prevent scab vehicle movements, also served as a place to swap general chat and exchange info, organise, sometimes even becoming something like a street carnival.
There was also occasional sabotage of scab vans and buses.
Tommy Strudwick, NUR member of Council of Action was arrested for ‘spreading disaffection’ with hidden duplicator in his Swan Street room which produced strike bulletins.
Hays Wharf, a local dock, was solid against scabbing in the General Strike, but posh students unloaded here.
At Barclay & Perkins Brewery, Bankside, only two workers were on strike (according to the lying rightwing toe rag South London Press); others were enrolled as special constables!

There was mass picketing in Tooley Street every day, and this led to fighting on Thursday 6th May: 32 people were arrested after a baton charge.
R. Hoe and Company Ltd, a printing press manufacturers in Borough Road, employed 900 men, and the printing engineering workers were amongst the best organised and the most militant in South London.
Solidly out in the 1922 engineers lockout; from then until the General Strike men here were said to be in “open revolt”. In 1925 AEU members here began an overtime ban in a campaign for higher wages. In early January 1926 some were sacked and replaced by non-union labour. As a result both shifts started a stay-in-strike. Hoe’s then locked out all 900 workers, who began an ‘unofficial’ 10 week strike to protest the hiring of non-union workers, and to demand a £1 per week pay increase.. Hoe’s went to the Employers Federation, who threatened a national lockout in the engineering involving 500,000 men, unless the Hoe’s men went back to work. (South London Press, March 26 1926) And the workers marched to the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street to protest against the threatened lockout. But the AEU ordered a return to work, saying the men had been morally right but technically wrong. Bah!
During the General Strike Hoe’s workers struck straight away, though not called out by the AEU, and were militant in their picketing of the firm. Stan Hutchins reports: “At Hoe’s twenty apprentices having remained at work had the Southwark Council of Action organise a special meeting during a dinner hour. which successfully appealed to them and to which also hesitant lads from Waygood Otis had been invited to attend, achieving a 100 per cent turnout.”
After the end of the General Strike, Hoe’s workers were forced to re-apply individually for their jobs. The firm considered they had sacked themselves.
At the Queens Head Pub, Southwark, two lorries full of cops ordered drinkers out of the pub and beat them up, when strikers ran in here after roughing up a special at Power Station…

More detailed accounts of the Strike in Southwark, Camberwell and Bermondsey can be read in Nine Days In May.

CROYDON

According to the British Worker, in Croydon, “Ruskin House, the local Labour Party’s headquarters, is the scene of great activity. Trade unions are regularly reporting there, and everybody is in fine fettle.” The Strike Committee set up a Workers Defence Corps; otherwise the main local activity seems t have been organising “concerts of the highest quality… a cricket team… acrobatic performances…”
A local bulletin, the Croydon Worker, was produced. The Trades Council organised a procession on Sunday May 9th, from Ruskin House to Duppas Hill.

WIMBLEDON

Wimbledon was a largely middle class area, the strike didn’t bite as much here as elsewhere in South London. However, strikers that were out remained solid. The local Labour Party did get involved, organising out of the Labour Hall, at 105 Merton Road.
Women carriage cleaners at Wimbledon Park railway depot were all out.
Lots of support work and fundraising was done for the locked out miners, after the end of the General Strike.

MITCHAM

Mitcham Council of Action reported to the TUC: “The situation here is quiet and orderly… Branches affected by the dispute and the men are solid. The unions affected here are as follows: T&GWU: busworkers, and general transport; Altogether Builders, Labourers, and Constructional Workers Society, General Workers Union.
Messrs Pascalla, chocolate workers are picketed for transport purposes and no goods are entering or leaving their premises.
The Council of Action are holding meetings all over the district..
Police are sympathetic. The sergeant gave us a shilling for a single copy of the British Worker.” (!!!) “We are very pleased with the situation generally especially when we remember the crusty old tories who reside in this district. They are forgetting their Toryism however.”

KINGSTON

Kingston & District Trades Council issued a “Victory Bulletin” during the Strike from The Hut, Dawson Road. On Sunday 9th a demo was held in Kingston described as “the finest that has ever been held” there. It marched from Fairfield to the Market Place. Mr Penny, local MP, enrolled as a Special Constable.
According to May 11th Bulletin the following workers were out:
AEU metal workers all ceased work at KLG (?).
All transport workers were out solid.
ASIE & F (any idea what this is?): all solid.
RCA, Plasterers, Municipal & General Workers, UPM (?), Sheet metal workers, CPA, ASWM, all out.
ETU: all out but scabs working Municipal undertaking.
NUR: one signalman had gone back at Surbiton.
Malden branch solid, bar one porter who went back.
All men and women from Kollys Directories and Knapp Drewett & Sons (printers) out.

PENGE

A Penge & Beckenham Joint Strike Committee ran from the Trades & Labour Club, Royston Rd, Penge. They held mass meetings.

SIDCUP

On 8 May, 11 strikers were hurt here in fighting with cops.

CENTRAL LONDON

WESTMINSTER

Westminster Council of Action ran from 12 Berwick Street, SW1. A local strike sheet was issued, the Westminster Worker.
When the strike ended, they reported that large numbers of men especially in the printing trade, when they applied to go back to work, were being faced with crap conditions – tear up the union card, reduced wages etc; if they refused they would not be rehired.
The small National Fascisti group, which obviously thought the General Strike was a big commie plot, issued a daily newssheet during the 9 days, which they mainly distributed in the West End. The Fascists volunteered to act as strikebreakers.
Hyde Park was taken over by the government as the food depot for London during the Strike.
No 32 Ecclestone Square, Belgravia, was HQ of the TUC. Ironically it was a former home of Winston Churchill, who worked tirelessly to defeat the Strike… though not as effectively as the TUC General Council! Crowds gathered outside every day throughout the Strike, and there was a constant flow of messengers coming and going from Strike Committees.
Wellington Barracks was the organising centre of the troops used in London during the Strike.
Carmelite Street, off Fleet Street, was part of the old heartland of newspaper printing. Late at night on 2 May, on the eve of the General Strike, Daily Mail printers refused to print the paper’s front page editorial attack on trade unions. They downed tools; this led the government to break off negotiations with the TUC, sparking the outbreak of the Strike.
Left labour paper the Daily Herald also had its offices here. The TUC had agreed for their daily British Worker to be printed here as a strike sheet. One day, a crowd gathered here to await copies. Suddenly cops charged the crowd, emerging from the half-built Daily Mail building opposite. They raided the Herald building, seized copies of the British Worker, and stopped the machinery. This led to a stand off…but the British Worker was so unsubversive the regulations to suppress seditious papers didn’t apply! They were allowed to carry on.
The London Society of Compositors refused to go back till 16 May, 3 days after the Strike was called off.
There was also a failed arson attack on the Times, in Printing House Square, (near Blackfriars Station) on the afternoon of Wednesday 5th, and an attempt by pickets that night to seize bundles of the ultra-establishment paper as it was being loaded onto cars. The Times was kept going by members of posh London clubs, aristos, MPs, the like.

MARYLEBONE

The Emergency Committee of the Marylebone Trades Council, at 53 Church Street, issued daily bulletins. Mass meetings of strikers were held in the Dance hall in Lisson Grove. Also women organized through the local Women’s Co-operative Guild, 153 Earl Street. Free concerts were held for strikers/families at the Dance hall.
An outdoor mass meeting was held on Sunday 9th, a large crowd gathering in Church Street. An alarm was raised when a car full of Special constables forced its way through the crowd…
Marylebone Station was deserted throughout the strike.

FINSBURY

Finsbury Trades Council, based at 295 Goswell Road, was involved in setting up the Council of Action. A strike committee was in continuous session. Two local NUR branches met continuously at Friends Meeting House. The Council of Action held hourly propaganda meetings in the early days, well attended by strikers & their families…
They reported 1900 men of the Carriers section of the T&GWU had signed on with them on May 4th. “The temper of the public is very good, many are keenly following the lead of this council, and no opposition is met with anywhere.”
Finsbury Strike Committee officials were disaffiliated by the TUC over items in the Finsbury Strike Bulletin; the TUC had ordered bulletins should not contain anything but central Publicity Committee-issued items. Frost, Secretary to the Trades Council, was arrested under the Emergency Powers Act over comments about troop movements in the Strike Bulletin.
At Smithfield Meat market, volunteers opened the Market here on 10th May, having to be protected by many police: Smithfield had a long militant union tradition.
Farringdon Street Goods Depot, which normally handled several thousand tons of meat and merchandise, was paralysed throughout.

Sources and stuff we read:

• The British Worker, official strike paper of the TUC General Council.
• Reports from Councils of Action, Trades Councils and other union bodies to the TUC, during the Strike.
There’s useful stuff online here
• Local Strike Bulletins: too many to list.
• Dave Russell, Southwark Trades Council, A Short history.
A History of Battersea & Wandsworth Trades Councils.
• Barry Burke, Rebels With a Cause, The History of Hackney Trades Council.
• The South London Press, sarf London’s finest scab paper, still the absolute pits 92 years on.
• Keith Laybourn, The General Strike, Day By Day.
• Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein, Marxism & The Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926. Good account of the failings of the TUC and the CPGB, though authors were obviously keen to replace them as the vanguard party.
• Christopher Farman, The General Strike. Concentrates more on the TUC-Govt negotiations and a general overview. Not very radical but well written accounts of some of the behind the scenes events.
Nine Days in May: The General Strike in Southwark, also published by Past Tense, which gives longer accounts of the events in the then London boroughs of Southwark, Camberwell and Bermondsey.
• On Woolwich and Greenwich
• Syndicalist Tom Brown on 1926
• On the rivalry between West Ham & Millwall, as it relates to 1926: 
• Wilf McCartney, Dare to Be a Daniel, (published by the Kate Sharpley Library). An account of organising in the catering trade in pre-WW1 London, with an epilogue which mentions the anecdote about the routing of Imperial Fascisti scabs in the Old Kent Road.
The General Strike in Tottenham and Wood Green, lecture paper, David Avery, 1969.
The London Borough of Enfield during the 1926 General Strike, G. Hunt.
Plus lots of other research picked up from many sources to long to list.

More research is needed. If anyone fancies looking into events and organisation of the Strike in their area, and sending it in to us, we will try to compile a more detailed round up, and publish it/put it up online.

Today in radical history: the 1926 General Strike begins… But why was it defeated?

Everywhere, and Nowhere: The General Strike: Myth and Fact

“[the General Strike]… is a revolution that is Everywhere, and Nowhere…” (Fernand Pelloutier).

1926: A BRIEF OVERVIEW

In May 1926, two million workers joined the only General Strike Britain has ever really seen (not counting more recent one-day stoppages – do they count?). It lasted nine days, before being called off by the people who had called it – the General Council of the Trades Union Congress.
The TUC leadership had unwillingly called the Strike, in support of a million miners who had been locked out of the pits until they accepted drastic wage cuts. The General Council had been forced into action by the overwhelming class feeling of the members of the unions, who both strongly supported the miners and believed a General Strike to be in their own interests in the face of an economic assault from the bosses and the government.
The Strike was in most cases rock solid: increasing numbers of workers were walking out, and towards its end it was spreading into other industries not officially on strike. But the government was very well prepared, having planned in advance – ensuring the amassing of coal stocks to make sure the miners could be defeated and industry could keep going, recruiting volunteer strike-breakers ahead of time, and setting up networks to organise nationally and locally.
On the ground, the strike was organised in each town or borough by Trades councils, local committees of trade union branches, some of which formed local Councils of Action to specifically co-ordinate activity, picketing etc. Through mass picketing, and refusal to cross picket lines, in many areas the Strike Committees gained total control of transport (trams, tubes etc in London), and shut down many industries. In some places they were issuing permits to travel or open to bosses. Local Strike Bulletins, and a national daily paper, the British Worker, attempted to keep information flowing to strikers and supporters. Although unions attempted to maintain order, there were regular clashes with the police, who were busy trying to protect scabs attempting to run public transport and break the strike in other industries…
But, afraid of the possibilities of workers escaping their control, and class warfare overflowing their very limited aims, the TUC bureaucrats tried hard to avoid the Strike, attempted to hamstring strikers on the ground from any autonomous action, negotiated throughout with the government and finally called the strike off, claiming they’d gained concessions, even though none had been won.
Although 100,000 more workers came out on the day following the ending of the Strike than had previously been called out, very quickly most workers returned to work, facing worsening pay and conditions from employers made bold by the defeat – and leaving the miners to fight alone for six months until they were forced to give in and accept wage reductions.
This sellout did leave a powerful legacy of bitterness. At the time, and ever since, the TUC leadership have been blamed for betraying the General Strike, and the miners.

MYTH AND REALITY IN THE NINE DAYS

Since 1926 the events of the General Strike have become part of the mythological catechism of the working class movement. The events of the nine days have been held up as an example to illustrate many lessons we are supposed to learn.
The following discusses some of the myths – and some of the realities. We’re thinking, maybe some of the lessons we need to learn are slightly different to the ones the orthodox left traditions have maintained over the last 87 years…

First of all, the myth of 1926 as a great climax of the class struggle.
1926 was not the climax of industrial militancy, but actually a last ditch action, the end of the wave of militancy that had begun during World War 1 and escalated in the immediate post-War years. 1919 and 1920 had both seen stronger strike waves and more dangerous moments of crisis for the ruling classes. In 1919 the government had in fact told TUC leaders that strikes had them at their mercy, but had correctly guessed that TUC leaders would back down as they weren’t prepared to take power. It was never their aim.
Strikes had been declining in number and effect since 1920; despite grandiose statements of alliance by the unions, the wave of industrial militancy was in many ways faltering. There’s no doubt that the fact that over two million people were prepared to go on indefinite strike in support of the miners was a magnificent display of solidarity and fellow feeling; and that many clearly saw that standing by one group of workers was fighting in defence of all. But it was always a defensive strike; in contrast with some of the syndicalist struggles before World War 1, or even some of the events of 1919, it had little sense that it could break its bounds and expand.

The General Council sold out the strike.
This is hardly disputable. It should have been hardly surprising though – the same union leaders had been doing the same for years, (and particularly in the potentially far more dangerous years of 1919 and 1920) – stitching up workers and capitulating to employers. The TUC leaders were more afraid of the workers than of the boss class, they said so, to quote J.R. Clynes of the General and Municipal Workers Union: “I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I fear is our own.” The bureaucrats inevitably became divorced from the day to day struggles of their members, and became closer to the boss class they dealt with.
During the Strike, the TUC did try to shut down autonomy, preventing mass meetings, banning local strike propaganda, and restricting the issuing of permits…
Was the lack of TUC preparedness, their refusal to plan for the strike, a deliberate tactic? Or just dithering and indecision? The TUC General Council (GC)’s strategy seemed to be based on nothing apart from a determination not to let strikers run things themselves.
Their other masterplan consisted of a ludicrous decision to divide workers into a front line (transport workers, printers, dockers, builders, iron and steel & chemical workers), to come out on strike immediately on May 3rd, and a reserve, to be called out later (including engineers, and shipyard workers). This left workers in many areas very isolated, where the ‘front line’ were in a minority.
In many area workers ignored this directive, or tried to: many walked out on their own initiative; some were persuaded back to work by the Trades Councils, or their own unions. As the TUC’s daily strike paper, the British Worker put it: “the biggest trouble is to keep men in [ie at work] who are not involved.”
Also the GC’s instructions were very confusing, so many workers, for instance municipal employees, were left not knowing if they were to strike or not. Most notoriously, workers at one Lewisham factory walked out three times, and were ordered to go back by their union, three times, in nine days. Power workers were supposed to supply light but not power – practically impossible; as a result, where electric workers came out completely, they were sent back to work. This issue was still undecided at the end of the strike. Many electricians walked out or cut off all power on their own bat. Postal, telegraph and telephone workers were never called out, which left communications intact – a crucial mistake.
If all workers had been called out, it would have had a bigger impact; also workers not called out were in practice supporting scab labour, ie using buses, electrics, etc., or told to keep working when members of other unions in the same workplace were on strike – which was demoralising and divisive. Great bitterness arose after the strike because of this issue. For example, at Woolwich Arsenal, there were many workers in several unions doing different jobs – some ordered out, some ordered to remain. Despite strong feelings locally, and calls for everyone to strike regardless, many wouldn’t come out without official union backing. When those still working struck they were told to go back by the GC; when the strike ended those who had remained at work (many reluctantly but under union orders) were given preferential treatment, and this fractious legacy lasted for years.
Unions did issue strike pay to all strikers – obviously this was useful and necessary, but as with all official strikes, this did keep them under union control. Which was bound to have had an influence on people’s thinking, when strikers wanted to carry on after the TUC backed down.
The idea of the Strike Committees issuing permits for transport of food, coal etc, was actually made powerful by the strength of mass picketing, keeping trams, trains, etc from running. Where government control broke down (for example in the North East of England) employers forced to go cap in hand to Councils of Action. But refusal to prevent movement of all materials was another quietist decision made by the General Council; it meant challenging the state control of food; which the GC was unwilling to do. In fact they offered to co-operate with the government over food distribution, but the government refused, recognising they had the upper hand.

Trades Councils and local unions as local brakes on action.
Although many trade unionists, and union branches, fumed at the General Council’s betrayal, the hard reality is that it was the union structures at ground level that ensured the defeat of the General Strike.
The vast majority of Strike Committees made no attempt to exceed the TUC’s directives, even those who were in theory more radical politically than others, (eg the ones controlled by the Communist Party). Some of the latter did exceed TUC guidelines and several Trades Councils were later expelled.
The Strike Committees mostly emphasised the TUC line: strikers should stay away from picket lines, stay off the street – go to church, do your garden etc. Wear your war medals on demos, don’t get involved in trouble. Passivity was the watchword: many unions made frantic attempts to organise anything to keep people from getting involved: concerts, sports, etc. Many workers bought into this, co-operating with police, not acting against scabs, going to church, concerts etc, – and staying off the streets.
Certainly some of the Strike Committees made their obsession with controlling strikers and keeping the peace clear: many strike bulletins and letters to the TUC talk about keeping order as paramount, and dismiss, slander or disassociate themselves from those taking part in street battles, stopping cars, attacking scab trams and other direct actions. Or they stress the ‘problem’ of keeping at work those not ‘yet’ called out: “Our difficulty to keep others at work… main headache keeping in workers not called out…” etc. Many spent much energy, trying to control the workers fighting with the cops or trying to take matters into their own hands. Many strike committees, (for example, Wandsworth, and Willesden) set up some kind of picket defence corps, ostensibly to defend strikers against police violence, but as much it seems to prevent any trouble, or autonomous activity, as to shore up the picket lines or defend them against the cops. Recruitment into defence Corps was used to divert people away from confrontations with police.
Trades Councils had never been very radical in most cases. Many had been overtly hostile, or at best frosty, towards the grassroots shop stewards movement in World War 1. Although some of this movement had subsequently had some involvement in Trades Councils, ideologically, most Trades Councils were in practice identical with local Labour Party branches: they distrusted outbreaks of independent thinking by rank and file workers. In practice, many Labour and union activists felt themselves entitled to organise things for the workers, seeing themselves as an elite with the nouse and experience to take charge. Far from seeing a General Strike as an opening to revolution, or social change in any fundamental way, they did however in many cases strongly believe in solidarity, and were prepared to risk much in support of the miners.
When the strike was called off, many Councils of Action did feel the miners had been betrayed and the strike should continue: in practice, few did carry on. For many, integrated into the structures of the TUC, and the complex strictures of union practice, it’s possible they simply could not conceive of a mass wildcat continuation of the struggle.
If the TUC General Council put themselves at the head of the Strike in order to defeat it NATIONALLY, it may not be fair to say Trades Councils put themselves at the head of it locally with the same view – to prevent workers taking things into their own hands. But in practice, their adherence to the TUC’s line guaranteed the Strike’s defeat.

Many workers took autonomous action.
Despite the General Council’s line, and the tight control that trades councils attempted to impose, thousands of workers DID take collective action on their own initiative.
In fact it was unofficial action that sparked the outbreak of the strike, when Daily Mail printers downed tools in protest at an anti-Union editorial; their union leader tried to get them to go back, though later he denied this (the myth at work: he didn’t want to be seen as one of those sellout TUC bastards?) They had jumped the gun, leaving the General Council in the lurch, as they DIDN’T want the strike, but the government DID, so it broke off negotiations.)
The Strike saw a mass of autonomous actions: street fighting, blocking and trashing trams, buses, harrassing middle class drivers in their cars, stoning the police from rooftops; in the north of England especially streets were barricaded, there were arson attempts; miners even derailed the Flying Scotsman Edinburgh to London train (though they had only intended to knock out the local coal train!)
To some extent this activity was increasing as the strike went on. As well as wrecking buses and trams (smashing engines and motors, and burning vehicles, there were incidents of scab-bashing. For instance, on Wednesday 12 May, the last day of the strike, a strikebreaker called James Vanden Bergh, an undergraduate at Cambridge, was found in the cab of his Central London Railway (now the underground’s Central Line) train with head injuries. He had no memory of the attack, and police were treating it as foul play: this was the first reported violence on the tubes.
But in fact, there was a low level of violence compared to other mass strikes (eg the Liverpool general strike of 1911). The Army was called in very little, and used mainly for dramatic effect by the government. The Workers Defence Corps did more to prevent workers violence than to stop pickets getting nicked or bashed.Unionised workers and non-unionised workers in the Strike.
Large numbers of non-union workers, dismissed by many TUC and union bigwigs before Strike, came out on strike, got involved in the autonomous actions, picketing etc, and many joined unions during the nine days. This on one hand elated some Trades Councils, but it scared the GC. There was a certain snobbery about workers not already unionised, and a dismissal of those involved in streetfighting: the GC line, followed by many trades councils, was all trouble was caused by non-unionists – though this is unproveable in many cases, it’s certainly untrue in others, in that union members were arrested for involvement in fighting.

Could it have turned out differently?
What if the Strike had lasted longer? Could it have done? Was it getting more solid or weaker? The government had managed to force food supplies through, eg in London, through the docks; did this show there was no chance of success? Or merely that Strike Committees were unwilling to use any means necessary to win the strike.
There was a lie put about by the TUC General Council that the strike was crumbling at the end – but there is no evidence of this; the opposite in fact. They were bullshitting to cover the fact that they were afraid of rank and file autonomy, although in reality it was minimal.
To some extent a counter-myth has grown up, of the middle classes and posh students actively enlisted to scab, to defeat the Strike and defend the status quo. In daily reality this wound more people up than the idea of the suffering of the miners – there was open class hatred for posh scabs, and to a lesser extent for anyone trying to break the strike, eg by trying to drive to work.
But most volunteers were useless – a small minority could do anything, most being idle and untrained for owt. Their impact has probably been over-hyped, partly by the government, partly by the strata of the upper and middle classes involved. They were only successful in certain areas, not at all in parts of north, very limited even in London, and caused a number of accidents and disasters when put to work on trains, buses and trams.
As the strike went on, with autonomous actions increasing: would all out class war have resulted if it had gone on?
Although thousands of workers came out when they were not authorised to, although some Councils of Action and Strike Bulletins broke the TUC rules, although many stayed out longer after the Strike was called off, the fact is that in the end, most workers didn’t break out of the union structures, the structures that ensured their defeat. In reality, given the General Council’s back-pedalling and then betrayal, and the tight control of local union branches, open escalation of the Strike controlled from below was the only way it could have gone forward. Some workers were said to have thought the real fight would start now, with the TUC out of the way; if so not enough, or they didn’t or weren’t able to act on it. But conditions were in fact loaded against them.
British Syndicalist Tom Brown later suggested that a major tactical advantage could have been gained by the striking workers occupying their workplaces, rather than abandoning them to the OMS and posh scabs. Possibly this is true, but the stay-in-strike he championed was never suggested at the time; the idea was developed only later – admittedly often successfully…
The TUC kept emphasising the industrial nature of dispute… that the Strike was not aimed at overthrowing the government… but in reality the only direction to go in WAS towards challenging the state, in an all out attempt to (at the very least) impose working class interests on the ruling class. A mass strike NOT prepared to do this was bound to fail, in the face of the government’s preparations and determination not to bend.

The role of the Communist Party
The Communist Party of Great Britain was involved in the Strike, and in the day to day running of some Councils of Action. But the party was weak, small; it had been weakened by the arrests and jailings of many members in the previous year. The CP spent most of time before and during calling on the TUC to lead. The CPGB’s idealogy was tightly controlled from Moscow, and its line on the General Strike was “All power to the General Council of the TUC” – in the circumstances, a sick joke. Centralising power in the hands of the GC was precisely the opposite of ‘All power to the Workers”. The CP made no attempt to challenge the GC’s control, there were no attacks on passive picketing, no discussion of Councils of Action obeying the GC, or of who was running them, and no criticism of the daft two-wave policy. The few CP-controlled Trades Councils and Strike Committees did sometimes push weakly for escalation but barely, and in little more than words.
Although its always fun crying “traitor” at the TUC leaders, many who bitterly attacked them, remained fixated on the same union structures, the idea of capturing the leadership of the unions for the left etc. This is as valid today, as then, many of the left groupings still spend vast amounts of time manoevering within Broad Lefts etc in the unions… “Union leadership would be ok if it was the right kind of leadership” – ie us. But the Left union leaders in 1926 were as useless as the right were treacherous, left leaders were among ones claiming a victory afterwards, in blatant defiance of the facts… and left controlled unions still attempt to control and hamper the autonomous activity of people struggling on the ground. The Communist Party later became critical of left Union leaders, though they had helped them to power! The daily practice of much of today’s union structures is one way that class anger and resistance is controlled, diverted, channeled – this is not to attack all union members or even branch reps, convenors etc; it’s a structural problem that draws militant activists in and gradually neuters them in the guise of enabling them to achieve their political aims.
It has been suggested that the Strike Committees or Councils of Action could have provided an alternative structure take over the state, or institute dual power or whatever. Some trotskyist critics of the GC have expressed the view that Councils of Action should have taken more power locally, over union branches and been more centralised bodies DIRECTING strike activity. Since most Strike Committees just didn’t want to do this, this is pie in the sky. A Communist International report later suggested the Councils were embryonic soviets… this is simply not born out by reality.

After the Deluge
While national and local union structures may have ensured the defeat of the Strike, the result was a disaster for the trade union movement. It led to a vengeful employers offensive, wages being driven down, blacklisting of many militants.; the government brought in savage anti-union laws. Workers also left unions in droves, partly with the legacy of betrayal and bitterness, but also because hamstrung unions couldn’t do much for them. After the strike there was a tendency for bosses and unions to avoid confrontation and for employers to maintain wage rates. Industrial collaboration improved considerably in the years after 1926. Sir Alfred Mond – head of ICI – organised a joint committee of union leaders and employers, for “improving efficiency of British industry and for reducing unemployment”. TUC policies were steered towards negotiation and co-operation with bosses.

Was the General Strike a disaster which should have been avoided?
As with the 1984-85 miners strike, the government in 1926 saw in advance that a clash of some kind with the union movement (most likely over the mining subsidy) was inevitable, and could in fact be necessary, and desirable, as a way to clobber the organised working class. On this basis, they laid their plans carefully, and made sure that if and when the clash came they would win.
The government climbdown of 1925, allowing the Coal subsidy to continue, for another few months, was merely a ruse to buy time to marshall its forces… (much as Thatcher backed down from confronting the NUM in the early ‘80s, waiting till the time was right…) The stocks of coal it was thus able to build up, left it in a stronger position. The Government also pre-planned scab labour and food distribution, after previous scares with strikes. Forming the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies in advance of the Strike, it recruited strikebreakers ahead of time, and worked out ways of breaking union control over transport particularly.
The GC and the unions, in contrast, were not ready, although with some clear thinking this could have easily have been different. Unlike the state, the TUC leadership wanted to avoid the strike, and did little to ready themselves, in the hope it wouldn’t happen. While workers on the ground and some local officials pressed for a strike to support the miners, they neither realised that the government was better prepared, nor were able to overcome the contradictions within the labour movement.
Many on the left, including ourselves, obsess on the myth of May 1926 as some kind of potential revolutionary situation, thwarted by union leaders holding back class struggle. But in reality it wasn’t: few at the TIME saw it as more than an (admittedly huge) industrial dispute, limited to support for the miners. It’s possible that it was doomed to failure, given the conditions prevalent at the time. For a general strike to have contained ‘revolutionary potential’ depended on the willingness, confidence and numbers of working class people prepared to go beyond the trade union structures, ideology and tactics, when it became necessary. Whatever bitterness and anger at the selling out of the miners may have existed (and it was widespread), there was no critical mass of people able to translate it into maintaining or extending the Strike.

Postscript:
It’s not our intention here to go into detailed theoretical proposals for how a possible future General Strike might pan out differently. But one classic communist text we have read we did find useful, and in some ways relevant to the events of 1926.
Rosa Luxemburg, in her book, The Mass Strike (1905), made some critiques of how anarchists, syndicalists, and trade unionists all saw the General Strike. She suggested that the idea of the anarchists and syndicalists of a political general strike pre-arranged with a political aim to overthrow capitalism was unlikely to succeed, but posited instead (based on an analysis of the 1905 Russian Revolution) that a mass strike, evolving more organically out of people’s immediate economic struggles in daily life, meshing together, constituted a new phase in the class struggle, not an abstract and artificial moment plucked from the air, but a historical development, emerging from below, not being imposed or ordained by any higher authority, or even she suggests by an external political radical structure like a socialist party.

Part of Luxemburg’s intent in writing The Mass Strike, it is true, was to discredit the existing theories of the General Strike as put forward mainly by anarchists and syndicalists, trends of radical thinking that she and other marxists were struggling to liquidate from the working class movement, as they saw it. But she was also engaged in a parallel battle against those within the Marxist camp who were attempting to steer it towards a reformist position, away from the idea of a revolutionary transformation of capitalism; as well as being critical of trade unionists mainly concerned with purely day to day economic gains at the expense of the bigger picture.

Theorists of the General Strike thus far had almost exclusively conceived of it as a road to revolution. I’m not sure if William Benbow was the first to think up the idea of a general strike, but in his classic pamphlet of 1832, The Grand National Holiday of the Productive Classes, which he proposed that the producers of the wealth, being exploited by an idle and rich minority, should cease to work en masse, for a month, and elect a congress to begin the process of re-ordering society in their own interests. Benbow was a radical pamphleteer and bookseller, an activist of the National Union of the Working Classes; he later became a leading physical force Chartist, and spread his idea of the ‘Grand National Holiday’. The Chartists took the idea, and renamed it the Sacred Month, and plans to introduce it and overthrow capitalism were well under way in 1839, but were repressed by the government.
Sixty years later the French syndicalists, organised in the CGT union confederation, developed theories in which the General Strike was central. They saw it as the supreme weapon for the workers to overthrow capitalism and take control of society in their own interests. One of the CGT’s founders and leading theorists, Fernand Pelloutier, wrote about the General Strike. Two examples showing how he and other revolutionary syndicalists saw this future strike:
“ … Every one of them (the strikers) will remain in their neighbourhoods and will take possession, first, of the small workshops and the bakeries, then of the bigger workshops, and finally, but only after the victory, of the large industrial plants….”
“ … Because the general strike is a revolution which is everywhere and nowhere, because it takes possession of the instruments of production in each neighborhood, in each street, in each building, so to speak, there can be no establishment of an “Insurrectionary Government” or a “dictatorship of the proletariat”; no focal point of the whole uprising or a center of resistance; instead, the free association of each group of bakers, in each bakery, of each group of locksmiths, in each locksmith’s shop: in a word, free production….”

The syndicalist line on the General Strike was very much to the fore when Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike was written. It attempts to dismiss the prevailing ideas of the potential of such a struggle : “It is just as impossible to ‘propagate’ the mass strike as an abstract means of struggle as it is to propagate the ‘revolution.’ ‘Revolution’ like ‘mass strike’ signifies nothing but an external form of the class struggle, which can have sense and meaning only in connection with definite political situations.”
You can’t create either by going round calling for it, in other words; it will emerge as and when needed and according to the conditions of the moment. It is not ONE predictable fixed open and close struggle, but an inter-connected web of movements events, themselves caused by local or specific economic conditions, though led and expressed by people with a political idea of the movement, at least as Luxemburg saw it.
Another nice quote: “It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena.”
Rosa saw it as not a method but THE form itself of workers struggle… A rallying idea of a period of class war lasting years or decades… It cannot be called at will by any organisation even The Party! She goes further and almost says that it cannot be directed from above or outside, though she does say elsewhere that the socialists have to provide political leadership.
She does contrast the mass fighting strikes with one off ‘demonstration’ strikes – what the TUC or Unison calls today in other words.
Related to this, she says the successful mass strike arising in the way described above would not/must not be limited to the organised workers: “If the mass strike, or rather, mass strikes, and the mass struggle are to be successful they must become a real people’s movement, that is, the widest sections of the proletariat must be drawn into the fight.” The union structures must recognise the common interest of unionised and non-unionised workers, in other words (to their surprise many strike committees learnt this lesson in practice in 1926, as unorganised workers flocked to the struggle in thousands).
She suggests minority movements are pipe dreams: “a strategy of class struggle … which is based upon the idea of the finely stage-managed march out of the small, well-trained part of the proletariat is foredoomed to be a miserable fiasco.” Even though the Socialists are the leadership of the working class, she suggests, they can’t force things through on their own… (past tense would question that the working class needs an external leadership, here we do differ from auntie Rosa).
Later on she talks about trade unions getting to the point where preservation of the organization, its structure etc, becomes end in itself, or at least more important than taking risks, entering into all out struggles, or even any at all! Also how daily struggles over small issues often lead people to lose sight of wider class antagonism or larger connections… Interestingly she points out that TU bureaucracies become obsessed with the positive, membership numbers etc, and limited to their own union’s gains, ignoring negative developments, hostile to critics who point out the limitations to their activities. And how the development of professional bureaucracies increase the chance of divorce of officials etc from daily struggles… Nothing sharp-eyed folk have not also pointed out over the last hundred years, but she was among the first to diagnose it. (She also says the same ossification processes are dangers the Revolutionary Party needs to beware of… showing foresights to the developments of the communist parties and other left splinters over the following decades).
Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas are interesting.. Without going into it too deeply, her assertion that a successful general strike would have to arise organically, meshing together from below rather than being ‘called’ by any committee or confederation, looks more realistic… though Rosa would probably have dissed Fernand Pelloutier, her vision also suggests a revolution that is ‘everywhere and nowhere’, part of a tangled period of change and dual power… a future that remains open and in our hands…

The text of the Mass Strike can be found online here

Tomorrow, we will mostly be posting –  an incomplete roundup of class struggle in London during the General Strike…