Today in London’s radical history, 1912: Great East/West End tailors strike 1912 ends in victory

London’s long history of tailoring work goes back centuries. By the 19th century clothes production expanded, as the capital’s population rocketed, and the increasing middle classes and workers created a mass market for new clothes. Working for low pay, often for long hours and in dismal conditions, London’s tailors also had a long history of getting together to fight for improvements in their working lives.

London had a long history of local production of garments for the capital’s inhabitants, usually focussed in small workshops. The West End, particularly Mayfair, (at its most famous, focused on Savile Row) became the centre for the high end of the tailoring trade: good quality clobber for the well to do, providing for the governing classes, the rich, and the growing middle classes as they achieved status, power and influence.

But the East End had a parallel tailoring trade. East London was well known for its secondhand trade in clothes since the 16th century at least, often through its rag markets. The eastern fringes of the city had built up a clothing and textile industry, notably in silk weaving; it relied on its proximity of the City and wealth districts, closeness to the centres of power and people who wanted fancy clothes. More and more this evolved into making clothes for those who wanted new clothes fast (of varying qualities). Silk production gradually gave way to tailoring workshops.

In the early 19th century, this end of the trade expanded into the cheap production of new clothes. The Industrial revolution had led to growth in factory tailoring, the production of cheap cloth and reduced production costs. East End tailoring had also always taken lots of subbed work from the West End: this increased as demand for new clothes rocketed. As the 19th century went on, gradual prosperity among the middle and emerging working classes led to a greater demand for consumer goods, including clothes. New clothes were a mark of having made something of yourself.

Separations and divisions among trade were multiple – between skilled and semi-skilled, English and foreign workers, male and female, factory worker and home/workshop hand worker… A complex web of prejudices and demarcations was aggravated by a growth in new technology, and older craft, male apprenticeship-based traditions built over centuries had been substantially challenged… The trade remained also wildly affected by trends and by seasonal demand.

Organising in the tailoring trade was as old as the trade. From the middle ages journeymen tailors had tilted at the control the masters of their guilds; in the eighteenth century, London’s tailors were such a trouble to their employers they were nick-named ‘the tailors’ republic’. Battles between workers and bosses almost always centred around long hours and low wages that afflicted the trade. Splits and tensions between groups of workers frustrated attempts to unite the journeymen; the most concerted effort at building a strong tailors union in the capital, contributing to the creation of the Owenite Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, ended in a disastrous strike in 1834 that caused the general union’s collapse.

Later in the century the trade revived, but gradually became divided between a self-selecting, highly skilled craft, high end, taking on few apprentices but recruiting from outside the capital, and the larger, lower paid, workshop or factory-based tailors, poorly treated and often precarious.

Separation between workers in the East End and the West End was further complicated by the large-scale Jewish migration into the area around Whitechapel and Stepney in the late nineteenth century.

In 1881 the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, and the wave of anti-semitic pogroms that followed it, forced thousands of Russian Jews to  introduced a new era in Jewish migration. The first wave of Jewish immigrants to Britain came after the May Laws of 1882, restricting Jewish trades and settlement. It was followed by a second wave 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Moscow. Most landed in Britain having lost most of their possessions, or been robbed on the way, charged extortionate amounts to travel etc; they usually disembarked in St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping or Tilbury, and so gravitated to the poor parts of the East End. Between 1880 and 1905 Whitechapel and part of Spitalfields were transformed into a Jewish zone. Brick Lane became the main street of what was truly a ghetto, around old Montague Street, Chicksand Street, Booth Street, and Hanbury Street. By 1901 many streets around Brick Lane were 100 per cent Jewish, and in the western part of Spitalfields Jews also came to dominate life: in Wentworth Street, 48 out of 85 shops were Jewish run by the 1890s.

Overwhelmingly the majority of the Jewish workers were engaged in the tailoring and clothing trades, always an important industry in this part of the East End. Tailoring had long been associated with the Jewish diaspora. Partly this evolved from practicality – for long persecuted communities having to up and move often when facing violent attacks, this was a trade needing few tools and small space to operate but universally needed. Christian laws across Europe also banned Jews from many trades, forcing them to congregate in work like tailoring that was not proscribed. Another factor was orthodox religious tenets in judaism, which set out that observant Jews had to buy certain clothes from co-religionists.
A migrant workforce needing to survive moving into an area with a tradition of low-paid manufacture quickly led to a widespread Jewish presence in the East End tailoring trade.

But whether the masters were English or ‘aliens’ hours were long, working conditions bad and pay low; the seasonal nature of demand for new clothes also meant weeks or months when trade was slack and work was scarce. Jewish migrants escaped persecution in their homelands only to find themselves exploited in the sweatshop conditions of London’s textile industry. Like the silkweavers before them, East London’s tailors struggled to survive, workers often having to hang out, ‘on call’ waiting for someone to offer them work. Both the social nature of this process and the quiet small scale organisation of the trade combined with crap conditions to create discontent and political radicalism.

Among Jews in Eastern Europe there was a long and powerful tradition of political radicalism and trade unionism, which art the time of the migrations was evolving into a strong socialist movement.

A powerful Yiddish speaking working class movement would also develop among the East European Jewish immigrants in London’s East End. This created Jewish Socialist groupings and unions in the mid 1870s, and brought contact and alliances among the early English socialists, themselves inspired by continental migrants.

Organisation was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the bakers. A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.

As ever, this migrant community aroused racism and xenophobia from the existing settled and ‘native’ residents. In the East End, Jewish communities were the targets vicious ‘anti-alien’ campaigns (like Flemings and Irish before them, and Bengalis and others after) – orchestrated usually by nationalists of rightwing stripe, but often supported by elements of the working class, and usually a substantial proportion of the local trade union movement. ‘Alien’ cultures raking over our area, threatening our way of life, taking our jobs… Some trade unionists and even socialists  justified anti-semitism by labelling Jewish workers as scabs, who would undercut existing wages and work for less because they were desperate. On occasions such accusations could even be borne out, since some migrants would by skint enough to work for less, scab during disputes, and/or feel that solidarity with trade unionists who were attacking them and calling for their expulsion from the country was not rally an ideal they could afford to subscribe to. In any case scabbing was hardly limited to migrant workers…

Jewish trade unionists and socialists were keen to build bridges with the ‘native’ movements, and besides trying to build organisation and unionisation among the Jewish workers, encouraged support for other workers’ strikes and refusal to strike-break. But they faced not only hostility from English unionists, but also from the Jewish religious establishment and many religious Jews, opposed to co-operation as they feared it would lead to ‘assimilation’ and the loss of Jewish identity, and also feared and hated leftwing ideas. Tensions between different Jewish migrant groups also hampered their work. Though there was a constant effort to build tailoring trade unions, for example, tens of such unions were launched, but split, collapsed, or failed to gain ground. Short term success was often followed by frustration and having to rebuild. The largest tailoring union, the Associated Society of Tailors, dominated by craft traditions and based in Manchester had a habit of the executive settling strikes over the heads of the members actually on strike without consulting them; this caused further splits and divisions. While many of the union organisers were socialists and anarchists, with wider visions of how workers’ organising and strikes could build towards a social revolution, the most successful activity came from battling for pragmatic and immediate demands.

A large-scale tailors strike in 1889, partly inspired by the historic Dock Strike, and organised largely through the efforts of socialists and anarchists from the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, saw a highpoint, with 6000 tailors on strike in the East End. This eventually forced he master tailors to raise wages, reduce hours and improve conditions across the area, though the concessions (which were historic) were gradually eroded by connivery of the employers over the succeeding months.

The emergence of the anarchist Arbeter Fraint group around Rudolf Rocker, several of whom were working tailors, helped cement links between Jewish and English workers. The group were centrally involved in many tailors’ strikes, including a 3-week mass strike of June 1906, which emerged from a growing militancy, sparked by a masters lockout, leading to mass walkouts and sympathy strikes. Rocker was a central inspiration and propagandist, and the strike won mass support. But the workers were driven gradually back to work by increasing hardship, and though it was settled with concessions on hours and abolition of piece work, masters also forced concessions, and union membership suffered.

By 1911-12, a general improvement in conditions of trade and employment was seeing Britain come out of a recession that had dominated the early part of the 1900s, when prices rose and wages fell in real terms. After 1910, the re-emergence of growth partly resulted in an increase in trade union action. There was also a rise in syndicalist ideas, partly under influence of the French CGT, and from the US from the de-Leonists/IWW. The theory of the General Strike as the method of workers taking over society gained some currency on the UK.
But syndicalism also proved attractive as a way of organising more immediate struggles, and also expressed trade unionists’ widespread disillusion with the business as usual union models and habits of compromise of union leaders. Syndicalism had influence in the East End – a Jewish Syndicalist Tailors Union was founded in 1908, and also developed among the Jewish anarchists.

Through 1911 a wave of strikes swept the UK – dockers, transport workers, miners, seamen struck for higher wages and better conditions, many winning improved deals. The struggle spread to many factory workers, among them people who had never unionised or gone on strike before (for instance the Bermondsey women workers who erupted in August 1911).

In 1912, the strike wave spread to London’s tailors. In April that year, 1500 tailors in the capital’s West End put in a demand for an increase in wages and better working conditions. Some were mainly members of the London Society of Tailors and Tailoresses, who backed their claim. Others, members of the larger Amalgamated Society of Tailors (and Tailoresses) West End branch, received no backing from their union. The West End master tailors rejected the workers’ demands with little consideration, resulting in an immediate strike call.

Unfinished garments in tailors workroom, due to tailors strike, Conduit Street, London, 7th May 1912.

In the East End, Rudolf Rocker saw an opportunity for Jewish tailors to not only show that Jewish workers could stand by their ‘native’ counterparts, but to fight for improvements in their own situation. The Arbeter Fraint published an editorial proposing the strike be extended to East London; following this a mass meeting of 8000 tailors, called by Rocker and Philip Kaplan secretary of the London Ladies tailors’ Union, met in the Mile End Assembly Hall, and voted for a general tailors’ strike. Two days later, over 13000 East End tailors were on strike; most of them not members of a union. “English, Jewish, Italian, French and Czech men’s tailors and mantle-makers in the bespoke, readymade, high quality and slop sectors of the industry had, for the first time, taken joint action in an attempt to increase wages and improve conditions in an industry renowned for its low pay and unhygienic workshops.” (Anne J. Kershen)

By this point in May, London dockers were also on strike, as the Port of London Authority had already reneged on its agreements after the dockers’ strike the year before. The striking tailors took in striking dockers’ children, and joint dockers and tailors strike meetings were held on Mile End Waste and at Tower Hill.

After three weeks on strike, the West end tailors and strikers in the men’s civil and military tailoring trades reached agreements with employers; leaving the East End tailors fighting alone, facing the decision as to whether they could also win…

Here’s Rudolf Rocker’s account of the 1912 strike:

“By 1912 we felt that the Jewish labour movement in England, and especially in the East  End of London, was strong enough to challenge the detested sweating system. The opportunity was provided by a strike of tailors in the West End of London in April 1912. It was called by the London Society of Tailors, and was soon actively supported by the members of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors. though the leaders of the Amalgamated were against the strike. It did not take them long however to realise that their members would do nothing against the strike.

There were about 1,500 tailors on strike, all highly-skilled craftsmen, doing the very best class of West End work. These tailors of the West End were an international crowd, Englishmen, Germans, French, Italians, Czech, and a few Jews. It was a completely different kind of work from the mass-produced sub divisional sweatshop tailoring of the East End Jewish workers. It soon became clear that strike-breaking work was being done in small East End tailoring workshops. There were so many of these that it was impossible to know of them all and to control them. The Jewish trades unions had never been able to accumulate enough funds to call a general strike. Their members didn’t earn enough to pay contributions large enough for strike pay. There was also a big mass of unorganised workers, some of whom were strike-breaking. We felt we must do something to remove the stigma of strike-breaking from the Jewish workers. lf the West End strike collapsed, the Jewish workers would be blamed for it. The entire British trade union movement would become hostile to the Jews. As it was, the English workers distrusted the Jewish immigrants, because of the sweatshop system, which they rightly saw as a danger to working class conditions. They couldn’t go into the reasons which had created the sweatshops. And it wouldn’t have altered the facts if they did.

It was therefore a point of honour with us to rouse the Jewish workers to abolish the sweatshops. It was even more Important morally than economically.

Our comrades in the Jewish trades unions brought up the question of the general strike in all of them. On 10th May I published a call in the Arbeter Fraint explaining to the workers what was at stake.

Our efforts got things moving. Over eight thousand Jewish workers packed the Assembly Hall for a meeting called by the United Jewish tailoring trades unions, which adopted the decision to strike. More than three thousand others stood outside, because the hall couldn’t hold more, waiting to hear what was decided. There was feverish excitement, and a real determination to act.

Kaplan opened the meeting. He was followed by MacDonald, the Secretary of the London Society of tailors and Chairman of the London Trades Council. The I spoke. I repeated more or less what I had already said in my call to the Jewish workers in the Arbeter Fraint. There was so much tension in the hall that no other speakers could get a hearing. The workers wanted a decision. When the vote was taken not one hand was lifted against the strike.

The strike was on. Eight thousand workers were out the first day. Another five thousand came out the day after. A small minority remained at work, but they were so few that it made little difference.   .           .

There was a strike committee of fifty members, representing all the tailoring trades unions in the East End. There were three sub-committees – finance, to raise funds for carrying on the strike; negotiations, to discuss agreements with employers prepare to accept the workers’ conditions, and one which set up the local strike committees, which were controlled by a committee of seven, to which Kaplan and I belonged.

We decided to issue the Arbeter Fraint for the duration of the strike as a four-page daily, to keep the workers informed of the progress of the strike.

Most of the strikers were not organised trade union members. Our problem was how they could get strike pay. Even the best organised trade unions in the strike, like the Mantle Makers, had no funds to meet anything like the call that was made on them. The other trades unions outside the tailoring industry had no funds with which to help. But the spirit of the workers was wonderful.

Except for the employers, who were interested parties, the whole East End was on the side of the strikers. The better-paid workers who had some savings refused to take strike pay. They even contributed to the strike fund. It didn’t swell our treasury very much. I was the Chairman of the Finance Committee, so I knew. We needed a lot of money to help the families of those strikers who were absolutely destitute. We opened canteens on the premises of all the trade unions in the East End. We were not able to provide much more than tea and bread and cheese.  But sometimes we also gave hot meals.

The Jewish Bakers Union supplied bread, and the cigarette makers provided cigarettes. All the Jewish trades unions put a levy on their members for the strike fund. Many who were not workers themselves and had no contact with the labour movement sent us money. The Yiddish theatre gave several performances to benefit the strikers. As a result we were ale to pay the strikers a few shillings during the first weeks.

The strike had started in sympathy with the West End tailoring workers. Now we had to draw up our own strike demands. What we wanted was to sweep away the whole sweating system. So our first demand was a normal working day. We asked for the abolition of overtime higher wages and above all, no more small workshops where decent hygienic conditions were impossible, and closed union workshops in all the rest. Without trade union labour there could be no guarantee that the better working conditions we obtained would last.

The employers association was as little prepared for the strike as the workers were. The Masters’ Association had about 300 members, which was only a fraction of the many hundreds who had small tailoring workshops in the East End. But the Masters’ Association had the backing of the big city firms for whom its members worked. The city firms had decided not to give any of their work to master tailors who accepted the workers’ conditions.

It was no secret that we had no funds. The Masters’ Association was therefore sure that we could not hold out more than a couple of weeks, and that sheer hunger would drive the workers back, ready to agree to anything. They had in answer to the strike retaliated with a three weeks’ lock-out. They had no doubt at all that before the end of the three weeks the workers would come begging to let them return.

The spokesman of the Master Tailors’ Association, a man named Samson, tried to create feeling against he strikers by alleging in statements to the English press that they had no real grievances, and were being used as tools in a pot by foreign anarchists to disrupt the industry. He produced false wage-sheets according to which the workers were earning anything between six pounds and ten pounds a week. Reading the reports he put out one got the impression that the infamous sweatshops of the East End were a paradise.

But the workers who slaved in those sweatshops knew what they were really like, and they were determined to stay out on strike whatever happened, in order to win better conditions. All our agitation would have been useless if the workers had not themselves stood firm. People often say the masses don’t know their own mind; this time they did. Attempts were made to play on the natural fears of the womenfolk, for who the strike meant literally no bread in the house. But the women too of the Jewish East End stood firm. There were big mass meetings of women at which they proclaimed their determination to stand by their menfolk in the strike until the end.

It so happened that the big London Dock Strike was on at the same time.

The common struggle brought Jewish and non-Jewish workers together. Joint strike meetings were held, and the same speakers spoke at huge joint demonstrations on Tower Hill and on Mile End Waste.

I was busy attending all the meetings of the strike committee, acting as Chairman of the Finance Committee and editing the daily Arbeter Fraint. I worked on the paper from six in the morning till eleven. I addressed three or four strike meetings every day. I never go finished before two in he morning. Luckily I had a robust constitution. I wasn’t the only one who worked these hours. We were all at our posts day and night.

Three weeks after the strike started he workers and the employers in the West End reached a settlement. The result was that the East End workers employed in men’s tailoring, including uniforms, also went back to work, their employers having agreed to their most important demands – shorter hours, no piecework, better sanitary conditions and the employment of union labour only.

The strike in the women’s garment industry continued. This was the branch of the industry in which the East End Jews, masters and workers, were overwhelmingly engaged. Both sides were suffering badly. The master tailors had lost their season’s trade and were getting worried. The workers had no funds left, and were going hungry. The Masters’ Association decided to meet the men’s representatives, and said they would agree to shorter hours and higher wages, but not to closed union shops.

The strike committee called a meeting of the strikers in the Pavilion Theatre. It started at midnight, after the performance was over. The place was packed. Crowds who couldn’t get in stood outside waiting to hear the decision. Kaplan, as Chairman of the strike committee, opened the meeting. The strikers listened to him silently. There was no interruption, no opposition, no applause. A murmur ran round the building when I stood up as the first speaker. I saw those pale, pinched, hungry faces, those thousands of people who had come together at midnight to decide what to do about this strike for which they had sacrificed so much. I felt that I dare not conceal anything from them. I must tell them the whole truth. I explained the position to them. I said that if they held out a few more days I was sure they would win. lf they decided to go back now the masters would make them feel that they had lost. “But the decision,” I said,  “rests with you. I am not going to tell you what to do. You must decide for yourselves.” There was an outburst of applause, and from all sides came the cry: “The strike goes on!”

When the Chairman took the vote, not one single hand was raised against the decision to continuo the strike.

The Masters’ Association met the following morning. Samson insisted that they must hold out. But the great majority had had enough. They withdrew from the Association, leaving only a few members to continue the opposition to the workers’ demands. Negotiations started the same afternoon. We were astonished to find that Samson was one or the first who came to ask the trade union to let him reopen his workshop. Our answer was that we could not deal with him until we had settled with all the other master tailors. He had been the leader of the opposition to our demands and would therefore have to wait to the last. Even after he had signed the agreement nobody wanted to go to work for him.

I had played a leading part of course in the organisation and conduct of the strike, but legends began to grow around me as though I had been the sole organiser and architect of the victory. People ascribed to me things I had never done and had never even heard of. There were many others who had done as much as I did. But the popular mind and tongue insisted that I had done more, that I had done most of it. It was terribly exaggerated, it was fanstastic. It was most embarrassing. I couldn’t put my foot out in the street without becoming the object of a demonstration. One day as I was walking along a narrow Whitechapel street with Milly, an old Jew with a white beard stopped me outside his house, and said: ‘”May God bless You! You helped my children in their need. You are not a Jew, but you are a man!” This old man lived in a completely different world from mine. But the memory of the gratitude that shone in his eyes has remained with me all these years.

The London dock strike was still dragging on. A great many dockers families were suffering real want. The Jewish workers who had just won their own strike felt they must do something to help their fellow workers.

The Arbeter Fraint took it up; we started a campaign. We called a conference of the Jewish trades unions. A committee was set up, and our comrades Ploshansky and Sabelinsky were elected secretary and treasurer. It was decided to ask Jewish families in the East End to take some or the dockers’ children into their homes. Offers poured in. Unfortunately we couldn’t accept them all. Members of the committee always went first to see the house and too often the family couldn’t feed its own children properly. When we found a suitable home, Milly would go to the docks area with one or two other women to fetch the children. They were in a terribly undernourished state, barefoot, In rags. We placed over 500 dockers’ children in East End Jewish homes. Shopkeepers gave us shoes and clothing for them. Trade union leaders and social workers in the docks area spoke publicly of the kindness shown by the East End Jews. The docker parents used to come to the Jewish homes in Whitechapel and Stepney to see their children. It did a great deal to strengthen the friendship between Jewish and non-Jewish workers.”

Anne J Kershen identifies this strike as qualitatively different to many previous tailors’ strikes, achieving victory and inspiring a rapid increase in union membership in the various tailors’ societies. A number of factors had on this occasion combined to tilt the scales in favour of the workers, including the gradual assimilation and Anglicisation of Jewish workers which was breaking down prejudice and separation, a growing integration in various (previously quite separate) branches of the trade; the fact that it took place in May, always the busy season, when masters were most desperate for workers. The dedicated leadership of Rocker, Kaplan and the Arbeter Fraint group had also been crucial.

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The introduction to this post describing the London tailoring trade is a brief and very simplistic account; if you are interested in reading more on this, Anne J. Kershen’s ‘Uniting The Tailors’ is a brilliant write-up of tailoring and trade unionism in London and Leeds.

Rudolf Rockers account of the 1912 strike is taken from his autobiography, ‘The London Years’.

William J. Fishman’s East End Jewish Radicals is also a mesmerising read on this period.

All this week in London radical history, 1926: fighting in Southwark during the General Strike

The 1926 General Strike in Southwark

In May 1926, the leaders of the Trades Union Congress called a General Strike. Nearly 2 million workers all over the country joined the strike, in support of a million miners, locked out by mine-owners for refusing to accept wage cuts of up to 25 per cent, after the ending of the Government’s coal subsidy. The General Council of the TUC didn’t want to call the Strike: they were pushed into it for fear of workers taking action themselves without them…

Nine days later, afraid of the losing control of the situation, in the face of massive working class solidarity, the TUC General Council called the Strike off. Since then the General Strike has entered into the mythology of the working class and the left in Britain.

This text describes some of the events of the General Strike in the then Metropolitan Boroughs of Bermondsey, Camberwell and Southwark, now united into the London Borough of Southwark.

Scenes of clashes between strikers and police at the Elephant and Castle and surrounding areas were immortalised in photographs taken at the time, and the Thames seemed to many as a barricade between the plutocrats of the City of London and the insurgent working class south of the river.

The General Strike was of course a massive defeat for the working class. The TUC General Council capitulated; many of the strikers were forced to accept lower wages add conditions: the miners in whose support the Strike was called were eventually starved into submission.

This text was originally published by Southwark Trades Council: unsurprisingly then it concentrates mostly on the activities of local Trades Councils and unions. It describes some of the main events & the atmosphere reasonably well. 

The TUC leaders sold out the Strike, but despite their anger, support for the miners and resentment towards the TUC, neither the Councils of Action, the Trades Councils, the militant left, nor the insurgent workers they claimed to represent, significantly broke out of the official structures, to either broaden the Strike while it was on or to continue it after it had been called off.

Party-obsessed lefties like Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein in their “Marxism & the Trade Union Struggle” have argued for nearly 80 years that what was lacking was a strong centralised Communist Party to direct the struggle. The Communist Party of Great Britain that existed in 1926 was small and weak, for many reasons, including its own rightwing idealogy, the complex history of British communism, the social & economic conditions of the time, and state repression immediately before 1926. But clearly no party however strong or centralised is a substitute for a working class organising for itself. When the union leaders called the strike off, millions of workers, after an initial upsurge, obeyed, whatever their feelings. Workers told not to strike or to go back to work even before the Strike ended, did as they were told. And the CPGB in fact made little attempt to challenge the TUC running of events in fact calling for “All power to the General Council.” There’s an an analysis of some of the reasons for the failure of the Strike here

… and here’s a roundup of events in London during the Strike

1000s of working people fought the cops and scabs for nine days, all over the country. But only by breaking out of TUC control and extending the struggle on their own behalf could the outcome have been any different.

NINE DAYS IN MAY

the national scene

On May 1st 1926 the main industrial dispute in the country was the battle between the miners and the coal-owners, and it was this battle which was to lead to the calling of the General Strike. This dispute was the focus of the power struggle between the owners and the workers. In the coal industry the owners had, for over a year prior to May 1926, been attempting to force reductions in wages and increases in hours worked. On July 31st 1925 the Tory government was forced, in return for industrial peace, to offer a nine month subsidy to the coal industry, a condition of which was the withdrawal by the coal-owners of notices of wage reductions. This subsidy ran out in April 1926 and immediately the coal-owners posted lock-out notices in the face of the total refusal by the miners to accept any reduction in wages or increase in hours worked: “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day.”

By this time the masses of the workers were calling for a General Strike in support of the miners’ struggle, which they saw as their own. They forced this view on the General Council of the TUC, who proposed “coordinated action” – and this proposal was endorsed on May lst at Farringdon Hall by a conference of Trade Union Executives representing 4 million workers. The leaders of the Trades Union Congress were still intent on negotiating with the Government. The government, however, broke off negotiations on the morning of May 3rd on account of the action taken by the printers of the Daily Mail ~ who refused to print the editorial which attacked the steps taken by the Trade Unions. The leaders of the TUC were left with no alternative but to call a General Strike to begin on May 4th.

OVERWHELMING SUPPORT FOR THE STRIKE

That day-saw a response to the call which surprised everyone. All transport ground to a halt, no papers appeared, manufacturing industries stopped, workers who were not called out by their unions came out independently (Note 1), and many who were not even in a union joined the strike.

Of the two sides, the Government was definitely the better prepared. Since the previous year they had been working to ensure that they would be the victors in any protracted industrial struggle. In September 1925 they formed the ‘Organisation for Maintenance of Supplies’ (OMS) composed of upstanding members of the middle class, run by retired army officers. Its function was to collect lists of volunteers who would be willing to run the country in the event of a General Strike. On May lst the Government declared a State of Emergency, which suspended civil liberties and allowed them greater freedom to arrest and imprison so-called ‘dissidents’.

WORKERS ORGANISE COUNCILS OF ACTION

On the other hand, the organisation of the TUC was totally inadequate for the requirements of a General Strike, which could only mean that they thought, or indeed hoped, that the strike would be lost very quickly. At a local level, however, the Trades Councils responded by organising in an impromptu but efficient fashion. They formed themselves into Councils of Action and altogether there were 131 of these throughout the country.

The various functions taken over by the Councils of Action included: control of traffic, picketing factories that were on strike to ensure that the “volunteers” didn’t get in, picketing factories not on strike in an attempt to persuade the workers to join the stoppage, distribution of food and information, and alleviation of cases of great distress. In many places the Councils of Action became the only authority, the nearest thing to local control and autonomy in the history of modern Britain. And they had the support of the vast majority of workers in most cases. Their main headache was the constant need to convince workers who hadn’t yet officially been called out to go back to work.

This spontaneous development of the Councils of Action worried the Government more than anything else, and it was these organisations that were subjected to the toughest repression by the police. The possession of a newsletter produced by a Council of Action became a crime that could lead to two or three months hard labour – whilst the rather tame organ of the TUC, ‘The British Worker’, which urged the strikers to go for walks in the country, was allowed to continue printing after an initial five hour stoppage.

…AND THEN THE BETRAYAL

After days of secret negotiations with the Government, the TUC informed Baldwin, the Tory Prime Minister, that the strike was off, and the news was broadcast at 1 pm on May 12th. The news shattered the strikers and the Councils of Action, who saw the strike gaining in strength every day and the probability of success with it.

It seems it was precisely this strength that intimidated some members of the TUC General Council such as J.Thomas, who said he “dreaded” that the strike would “get out of the hands of responsible executives”.

When the strikers discovered that the settlement had not included any guarantees about reinstatement they initially decided to stay out, and on May 13th there were actually more workers on strike than on any other day. But the end had come and the workers were left to barter with their individual employers over the terms of their return, with the result that many people didn’t get their job back and many others had to “eat dirt” in order to do so.

Only the miners were left on strike, remaining out until November when they were finally starved into submission and forced to accept the owners’ terms.

Fighting at the Elephant & Castle during the Strike

The strike: south of the river

In 1926 the borough of Southwark was very different to the one that we know now. In the area presently covered by Southwark there were the three Metropolitan Boroughs of Southwark, Bermondsey and Camberwell.

The major industries in the three boroughs then were the docks, transport services, engineering works and printing. The workers in these industries were well organised, as shown by the example of Hoe & Co. Hoe and Company Ltd, were a printing press manufacturers in Borough Road, Southwark. They employed 900 men, and the printing engineering workers were amongst the best organised and the most militant in South London. There were three large engineering firms near the Elephant: Hoe’s, Waygood-Otis, and Durants.

In early January 1926, the 900 employees at Hoe’s began an ‘unofficial’ 10 week strike to protest the hiring of non-union workers, and to demand a £1 per week pay increase. The employers threatened a national lockout in the engineering sector involving 500,000 men. (South London Press, March 26 1926) And the workers marched to the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street to protest against the threatened lockout.

During the General Strike the workers were militant in their picketing of the firm. Stan Hutchins reports that only 20 apprentices remained at work and that they later contributed to a 100 per cent turn out.

TOUGH CONDITIONS FOR THE JOBLESS

Unemployment in the three boroughs around the national average of 12 per cent. The situation of the unemployed was hard. In 1926 unemployment benefit was about 15 shillings per week for a single man. This rate applied for 26 weeks only, after which unemployed received Poor Law Relief administered by the Board of Guardians for the Borough. After this was exhausted many of the unemployed in Southwark were sent to Labour Camps at Hollesey Bay and Belmont in Surrey, where they were forced to work under overseers.

A statement in the House of Commons (reported in the South London Observer, Wednesday March 24th, 1926) disclosed that one man in seven, and one woman in three were refused benefit at the Labour Exchange, and left to starve or apply for Poor Law Relief. The unemployed also had to sign on every day of the week.

The National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWCM) was very active in the area in organising unemployed workers before and during May 1926. Membership was very high in Southwark and meetings were held outside the Labour Exchange, where speakers would address the people waiting to collect their money. Many members of the organised unemployed were sent to prison during the period 1925-6 because of their political activities.

SOUTHWARK AND CAMBERWELL IN CONTRAST

There were, however, noticeable differences between the three boroughs, especially in the question of social conditions and political organisation, being dominated by different political parties.

Southwark was the smallest of the three, and it also had the worst and most densely populated housing of any metropolitan borough. Its population density was 160 people to the acre, compared with 77 for Bermondsey and a very low 59 for Camberwell. The conditions in one part of Southwark are described in ‘The Book of Walworth’ published in 1925: “It is in the blocks especially in and adjacent to the New Kent Road that we have the greatest concentration of population. Here in streets that are little more than gulleys when their narrow width is compared with the great height of the buildings, live hundreds of people with no outlook in front except the gulley, and none in the rear except a still narrower gully into which at one time inconsiderate tenants threw their rubbish to everyone’s inconvenience.”

On the other hand the borough of Camberwell, with its coat of arms emblazoned with the motto “All’s well”, could, in its official guide book of 1926, proudly boast of the quality of life that its inhabitants enjoyed, with magnificent green spaces, fine educational institutions and other attractions offered to people wishing to move into the area. The handbook states that the council had purchased land for housing up to the tune of £300,000 and mentioned in particular a new estate of 7 houses and 174 flats that were occupied by “the more thrifty and respectable members of the class for whom they were intended” and that at a rent of 10 shillings to ll shillings per week, the estate was more than self supporting with the account showing a “substantial surplus” after paying loans and interest etc.

BERMONDSEY’S LABOUR COUNCIL

Bermondsey Borough Council was distinguished not only from the other two but also from the vast majority of the metropolitan boroughs by the fact that it had a Labour controlled council. lt was also distinguished by its policies, many of which ran counter to the London County Council, with which it was having a continual running battle.

One particular fight was highlighted in the October 1925 edition of the Bermondsey Labour Magazine. The council had applied for permission to build a housing project covering four acres; the LCC first tried to block it by withholding permission until it was almost too late, but then gave permission for the same amount of dwellings to be built in an area of one and a half acres, ordering the council to sell the rest of the land. Some facts about the health of the people show the way that the Bermondsey administration was changing the quality of life in the borough. During the three years from 1921, while the Independent Labour Party (ILP) had been in the majority, the average death rate dropped by 30 per cent and the infantile death rate dropped from 16 deaths per thousand to 76, whilst the death of mothers in became the lowest of all London boroughs.

HOW THE THREE COUNCILS RESPONDED TO THE STRIKE

Obviously the political and economic structure of the boroughs colored their response to the General Strike, and it is noticeable that the three boroughs had very contrasting attitudes during that period.

Southwark Council’s response was rather limited, not in intensity but certainly in its democratic base. The mayor was the subject of a special meeting called on May 19th “to consider the action of the Lord Mayor Alderman J.R.Want”, who’d called off all the council meetings, taking power into his own hands, and had sent threatening letters to all local authority workers warning them not to strike. A motion regretting this action as “thereby depriving the elected councillors of their right to share in the government of the borough” was defeated & an amendment expressing “entire confidence in the Lord Mayor” was passed by 49 votes to 14.

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.

Of the three boroughs it is not surprising that Bermondsey showed the closest cooperation between Council and strikers. As soon as the strike was announced, “the Borough Council, being Labour, formed an emergency sub-committee which was in close touch with the Council of Action and both the Town Halls [ie Rotherhithe and Bermondsey] were passed over to the Trades Council during the strike, which were used for strike meetings and strike committees.”

In fact, the Council in effect suspended itself and delegated all its powers to this Emergency Committee, which consisted entirely of Labour members.

A comparison of the minutes of the London councils just before and after the strike shows very clearly how they responded to the situation.

Various local authorities passed motions and then circulated them to other local authorities to be endorsed. Of the many, two reflect their contrasting nature. Hackney requested all other Councils to join them in urging the Prime Minister to ensure that after the strike the local authorities would be able to discriminate against the strikers in favour of blacklegs. Southwark and Camberwell both agreed to endorse that Motion. However, the motion from Bethnal Green condemning the action of the government in breaking off negotiations with the TUC on May 2nd was consigned to the waste paper bin; whereas Bermondsey’s Emergency Committee seems to have passed a resolution in support of the Bethnal Green Trades Council motion. The Government had to appoint a retired Army Captain as its Food and Fuel Agent in Bermondsey, because cooperation was not forthcoming from the Council.

TRADES COUNCILS WERE AT THE HUB OF ACTION

At the outset of the General Strike responsibility for the coordination of the strike in the locality fell to the lot of the Trades Councils, which were in the main very unprepared. Bert Edwards writes about Southwark that: “It’s hard to say how the Trades Councils became the centre of things. The only thing you can say is that the publicity had indicated that the Trades Council would be ‘the centre … We had no machinery set up … we didn’t have a typewriter or a duplicator.” There had been a lot of general debate throughout the country about the possibility of a strike and this of course had been a subject of discussion in the Trades Councils. However the actual declaration of the strike on May 3rd caught everyone on the hop. “On the first day of the strike I went around to the Trades Council offices – and I saw to my amazement that there was quite a crowd of people wanting advice. Nobody knew what they had to do.” However, “there was immediate response to the appeal that the Trades Council turn itself into a Council of Action. The Council of Action formed sub-committees dealing with press and propaganda, a contact committee for keeping in touch with the TUC, a finance committee and an enquiries committee.”

We have very little information on how Camberwell Trades Council organised themselves. There is however 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.”

In Bermondsey, where the great majority of the population of the Borough were behind the strike, the cooperation between the Borough Council and the Trades Council was much closer than in the other two boroughs. The Trades Council formed a Council of Action which was given the use of the two Town Halls which were put to use every day as meeting rooms, committee rooms and for giving out strike pay. Each afternoon meetings of strikers’ wives were held, and each evening there were mass meetings of strikers, “always packed to suffocation, with hundreds, sometimes thousands, unable to get in.” The Council of Action “sat continuously from day to day and endeavoured to coordinate all local efforts for forwarding the strike.” It also had the use of the local Labour Party offices and their stocks of paper, typewriters and office equipment.

GETTING OUT THE NEWS

The production of news-sheets was a very important part of the work of the Councils of Action. All national newspapers had ceased publication on the first day of the strike, although some managed to produce limited editions with scab labour. These were not widely distributed and of course were in opposition to the strike. The Government also produced a news-sheet, ‘The British Gazette’, under the editorship of Winston Churchill but this was naturally very hostile to the strike and carried only very biased or false information. The local papers in South London were also opposed to the strike. The ‘South London Press’ (SLP) was the most widely distributed paper in the Southwark area. When it was unable to produce a full issue it came out with a single sheet ‘Strike Bulletin’.

On May 7th its front page, announced: “We offer no apology for issuing this week the South London Press at half its normal size. The fact is, we are under a double obligation – firstly to our readers to give them as full a statement as possible in the circumstances which led to the country being plunged into a deplorable strike and unwarrantably involving this journal in the dispute, second to our Advertisers …”

The paper constantly referred to pickets as “hooligans”, “gangs of ruffians” etc. On May 7th it reported that “A great deal of trouble was caused by women who, shouting hysterically, flung themselves into the fray”. Headlines on May 14th announced “How Rowdyism was overcome by Police and Specials”, followed by praise of the cheerful way in which the uniformed forces restored order with their three-foot riot-sticks.

A scab car overturned at Blackfriars

The issue of Friday 21st carries an article on “The SLP in strike time – how it met the great blow against Liberty and Freedom”. The report states that by the night of Wednesday 5th all composing and mechanical staff of SLP were out “most of them unwillingly”. The following week the SLP was without linotype operators except one lion apprentice and two compositor apprentices. All nine members of the machine and stereotyping staff were on strike. So the directors and four of their sons, together with ‘volunteers’, produced the paper and distributed it by using disguised vans.

The only other form of communication was the BBC radio service, but this was entirely under the control of the Government.

There were a number of publications produced by the Councils of Action with varying degrees of success. This was because the Government tried to suppress the strikers’ news-sheets and prison sentences were handed out to those producing, selling or even possessing such publications.

In Camberwell at least two publications were brought out. The South London Observer of Saturday May 15th reports that a man was convicted of selling the ‘Peckham Labour Bulletin’ which was produced in Central Buildings, High Street, Peckham, by Ernest Baldwin (Secretary and Agent for the Peckham Labour Party) and James McLean. 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.

Southwark Council of Action also produced a news sheet but this was done with some difficulty. To start with they had no duplicator or typewriter, but Tommy Strudwick, a member of the Council Of Action from the National Union of Railwaymen managed to provide this equipment. It was hidden away in a recess in one of his room but after only a few issues the police raided his house and found it. He was arrested and sentenced to two months’ hard labour for spreading disaffection. Strudwick was also involved with two other publications, called ‘Juice’ and ‘The Young Striker’.

Bermondsey Council of Action was much better prepared than the other two. They not only had the stocks of paper, typewriters and office equipment belonging to the Labour Party, but also those belonging to the Borough Council. They produced a daily news-sheet, 6000 copies of which were distributed from seven official points. Much of the information for the Bulletin was collected by Dr. Alfred Salter, the Labour MP for Bermondsey. He spent much of his time during the strike collecting “every scrap of authentic news available in the House of Commons and from the TUC head office, and reported it in detail to the nightly meetings in the Bermondsey Town hall” or phone it in for the news-sheet in the afternoon. According to Fenner Brockway of the ILP Bermondsey was probably the best informed centre in the whole country during the nine days of the strike.”

STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE OF THE SOUTHWARK AREA

The three Boroughs were strategically very significant during the General Strike. Bermondsey included the Surrey Commercial Docks. Camberwell was important because it housed Tillings Bus Co., one of the largest in London, (1200 people worked here, making it one of the biggest local employers) and many of the main roads from the south coast passed through the borough. Southwark’s significance lay in the Elephant and Castle, which was the meeting of six major roads which were used by many bus routes and by lorries coming in from the docks and the south.

The police were often evident at the Elephant chasing the people away, by riding at them swinging their long truncheons – but the crowd would reform. According to Stan Hutchins there were stewards from the Council of Action, distinguished by red arm bands, who tried to ensure that only traffic with permits from the TUC were allowed through, but many blacklegging volunteers would try to force their way through, and this led to several occasions of violence and even some instances of death. The Sunday Worker on May 9th reported that a volunteer driver who panicked when the crowd tried to stop him, knocked down a motor cyclist and drove onto the pavement, killing two people. On another occasion a bus driven by a blackleg and escorted by police and special constables was stopped by the strikers, emptied of its passengers, and set on fire.

Another bus met this fate in St. George’s Road (just north of the Elephant & Castle) where a No.12 on its way to Dulwich was seized and burned. All in all, the bus service, even with the help of the many volunteers (including students from Guys Hospital and Dulwich College who were recorded as heartily laying into strikers, shouting: “Up College!”) was very limited. [3]

By May 5th it was reported that forty-seven General Omnibus vehicles had been immobilised and, according to a TUC intelligence report, Lord Ashfield, Chairman of the General Omnibus Company, was resisting Government pressure to get More buses on the road. He was only willing to allow the oldest type out because of the danger from volunteer drivers and pickets.

The trams were in the main kept off the roads, but there was an attempt to bring them out of Camberwell Depot on Wednesday May 5th. This was possible once local electricity generating stations had been brought into use with the help of naval ratings. However a large group of strikers and their wives had gathered outside the depot and even the very large numbers of police and OMS could not stop them from smashing the tram windows and pushing it back. 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.) [4]

Buses were also stoned in Camberwell on the Saturday night (8th May).

There was also rioting in Tower Bridge Road, in fact there seems to have been fighting here several times. 89 people were hurt in one police baton charge here.

No vehicle could proceed far without a permit issued by the Councils of Action. Main roads were barricaded and cars which did not have authorisation turned back. If a driver attempted to defy the strikers, his car would soon be lying on its side. Bermondsey Labour MP Dr Salter (a staunch supporter of the strike) only just missed this experience. He was driving down the Old Kent Road without the usual Council of Action symbol on his windscreen: strikers on the kerb threw stones which broke the car’s windows and, as it slowed down, they rushed into the road yelling “Throw ’em over.” However they apologised when they recognised Salter (a popular figure locally) The car was speeded on with the cry of “Good old Alf!” [5]

POLICE AND SPECIALS ATTACK WITH BATONS

This wasn’t the only incident reported in Camberwell. Charlie Le Grande, a striker from Stockwell who received his strike pay from the Camberwell Bus Depot talks about the huge public meetings held at the triangle near the Eaton Arms and at Peckham Rye. [6] Another 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.

It wasn’t only on the streets that the strikers were subjected to attacks from the police. On the 6th May police invaded the Bricklayers Arms, a pub on the Old Kent Road used as a meeting place by the National Union of Railwaymen members working from the Bricklayers’ Arms Depot (an important centre of picketing), and arrested strikers. On May 7th the police raided another pub nearby, the Queen’s Head, and it was reported to the House of Commons by Dr. Haden-Guest, Labour MP for Southwark, that police had attacked people in the pub and had later chased and attacked women and children in the street. [7]

Another important area of activity during the strike was the Surrey Dock. Two thousand men were employed here, and yet only seven dockers turned up for work on the first day of the strike. Lock gate staff continued to work normally, and electric and hydraulic power was kept going by one foreman, but there were no tugs operating. and three ships with food stuffs were held up with no-one to unload them.

As a bonus – the Transport and General Workers Union reported a response of “wonderful solidarity” from the Port of London Authority clerical and supervisory staff in the Surrey Dock – their first-ever strike. The gates of the dock were effectively closed by a very strong mass picket stationed there from the beginning of the strike. The need to open the docks soon became acute as food began to get short in London, but it seemed an impossible task for the Government, given the large pickets at the Surrey Dock.

“Eighty men taken to the riverside to unload foodstuffs on May 7th refused to move without protection from a large and hostile crowd, the police protection was so long in arriving that when it had arrived the eighty men were found to be missing and the cargo was still awaiting their attention”. Later on, a party of Naval ratings were put into Surrey Dock, followed by volunteers brought in from Westminster by boat, who spent the weekend unloading food stuffs to be taken further up river on barges.

STUDENTS AS BLACKLEG LABOUR

Tooley Street, which saw heavy picketing every day, was also the scene of solid resistance to the police and blacklegs and on Thursday May 6th there was a police baton charge that led to thirty-two arrests. Here too the government were determined to open Hays Wharf and ferried in blackleg labour, mainly undergraduates from Oxford and Cambridge.

As a group, students were some of the most active blacklegs. On Thursday May 6th the South London Press reported that many students from Guys Hospital had signed on as special constables “being involved with a strong sense of patriotic duty”. On Saturday May 29th the South London Observer reported that the Governors of Guys Hospital had from the secretary of the TGWU branch at Lower Road, Rotherhithe, a protest against the blacklegging by students and a statement that the branch would no longer contribute to the hospital’s funds.

Hays Wharf

The South London Press of May 14th reported that “Oxford undergraduates, numbering 250, together with 400 other volunteers, are unloading foodstuff from ships at Hays Wharf Ltd., Tooley St. The manager of Hays Wharf said: The undergraduates are receiving the usual pay of dockers. They moved between 1500 and 2000 tons per day. Normal output at the wharves is 5000 tons a day’.”

THE END OF THE STRIKE – UNCONDITIONAL SELL-OUT

Mass support for the strike was growing in the three boroughs throughout the time it lasted. Bermondsey reported to the Labour Research Department that on May 12th there was no sign of weakening whatever. The workers were more solid the last day than on the first. The spirit of the workers, both men and women, could not have been better. When the “sell-out” was announced “there was a feeling of complete shock and disappointment in Southwark. The Labour Party passed a message through the Council of Action to the TUC urging them to continue the strike.. Then everything collapsed, it collapsed as suddenly as it started. The Council of Action went back to the original small organisation. The employers said on account of the stoppage, they couldn’t take everyone back.”

There were many cases of victimisation and attempts by employers to break the strength of the unions. On May 14th the South London Press reported that Tillings Ltd., the privately owned bus company which employed 1200 men on 400 buses (many of who has struck) had posted the following notice at their depots. “Men should realise 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 the agreement. Every man should fully understand these conditions before restarting.”

At Hoe’s engineering works, the employers refused to take the men back as a group “because they were no longer employees”, but agreed to take them back if they applied individually, at their former rate of payment and for their former jobs. Hoe’s said “They are being taken on as vacancies are available.”

The Labour Exchanges received instructions that those who withdrew their labour were disqualified from benefit on the ground that they left their employment without just cause. Sections of the workers were luckier and/or stronger – for instance, the dockers and railwaymen held out for agreements against victimisation. The dockers at Surrey Dock maintained their pickets until May 15th when Ernest Bevin came to an agreement with the employers.

Within a week of the ending of the strike, only the miners were still left out. They remained out until November when the employers finally starved them into submission and forced them to accept their conditions of less pay for longer hours. Bermondsey Council however continued to support the miners families even after the ending of the General Strike and all in all they contributed £7000 to the mining village of Blaina in Wales.

NOTES

1) Strikers were initially called out on strike in waves, so that not all workers were out straight away. Large numbers of people wanted to join the strike but were ordered by the TUC & the unions to continue working, the idea being they would join later if the strike dragged on – the TUC General Council of course hoped (and made sure) this would never happen.

2: Hoes employed 900 men; their printing engineering workers were amongst the best organised and the most militant in South London.

They had struck in the 1922 engineers lockout; from then until the General Strike workers here were said to be in “open revolt”. In 1925 Amalgamated Engineering Union members here began an overtime ban in a campaign for higher wages; as a result in January 1926 some were sacked and replaced by non-union labour. This led to both shifts starting 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) Hoe’s 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.

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.

3: A large number of posh scabs volunteered from Dulwich College. Sons of whores, literally, since 17th century actor Edward Alleyn founded the College with help from the profits off his brothel in Bankside. Shame the suffragettes failed to burn it down in 1913, eh?

4: Note on Camberwell Green: Rumours spread by the South London Press that women pickets stopped trams by putting kids in front of the vehicles seem to be just typical SLP rightwing proper gander?

Trams were also attacked in other areas: in Old Kent Road, near the Dun Cow pub, a tram was overturned by crowds. The passengers were pulled off and scab drivers assaulted. In Walworth Road, crowds blocked tramlines with railings: bricks and bottles were chucked at police when they cleared the lines.

5: Salter, a convinced Independent Labour Party pacifist, did not like this violence, but according to Fenner Brockway he “recognised that it was only incidental to the real significance of the struggle. He was thrilled by the sacrificial solidarity of the workers. “Something happened,” he wrote, “that had never happened in the world before. Millions of men and women deliberately risked their livelihood, their future, their all, to win a living wage for their miner comrades.” Not a man or woman in Bermondsey expected to gain a penny, yet “eagerly, joyfully, unflinchingly,” they came out. “I felt humbled and overwhelmed when I saw what was happening. A transformation of character seemed to be taking place. Small men suddenly became great, mean men became generous, cowardly men became heroes. Self‑regarding thoughts were brushed aside, and ‘our brothers of the mines’ filled every heart. The strike was the most Christlike act on a grand scale since Calvary. I can never pay high enough tribute to the Bermondsey folk amongst whom I moved during those never‑to‑be‑forgotten nine days. The working people of this district are capable of the mightiest acts of effort and heroism if only their best instincts can be touched and roused.” “

6: Mass meetings were also held at Peckham Winter Gardens. Several thousand strikers, families and supporters met there for a social gathering organised by Peckham Labour Party on the evening of Sunday May 9th.

7: Queen’s head Pub, Southwark: 2 lorries full of cops ordered drinkers out of the pub & beat them up, when strikers ran in here after ‘allegedly’ roughing up a special constable at the Power Station…

8) W F Watson: A leading activist in the militant shop stewards movement during World War 1. In 1918-19 he was at the heart of the syndicalist London Workers Committee, an attempt to co-ordinate workers committees in different industries, along the lines of the Clyde Workers Comittee. He wrote a column in Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Dreadnought, which served as an unofficial organ for the Workers Committees 1917-19. Watson was jailed for sedition (for a speech encouraging soldiers not to fight against the Russian Revolution) after the LWC office was raided in March 1919, but on his release it emerged he had given information to Special Branch in return for cash – though he claimed he’d fed them useless info and used the money for righteous causes. The arguments this scandal caused led to the LWC’s collapse. Watson had dropped out of politics shortly after. He was widely distrusted but must have been a capable organiser, & not entirely suspect, if as Stanley Hutchins says he was allowed to carry on working in the Council of Action’s office.

For more information on Watson and the London Workers Committee, see Barbara Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst.

9) Archbishop’s Speech: On May 7, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement suggesting the dispute should be settled by negotiation, “in a spirit of co-operation and fellowship” – effectively a return to the pre-Strike status quo, ie end the Strike, continue the mining subsidy, and the mine-owners to withdraw their wage-cuts. In the event the Government ignored the speech, feeling they had the upper hand anyway (and just to make sure the speech had no influence they leaned heavily on the BBC not to publicise it).

Barclay & Perkins Brewery: only 2 workers on strike according to the South London Press: others enrolled as specials.

This text was originally published as part of a pamphlet by Union Place Community Resource Centre/ Southwark Trades Council, 1976.

Republished 2005 with new pictures and a new foreword by Past Tense

 

Today in London history, 1987: Michael Delaney killed by scab TNT truck, Wapping.

The 1986-7 Wapping Dispute claimed many jobs – and Michael Delaney’s life.

Traditionally newspaper printers on Fleet Street newspapers were well-organised, with a long history of militancy and support for other workers (dating back to the 1926 General Strike and beyond). Not a history calculated to endear them to their bosses…

In 1986 Rupert Murdoch’s News International, producers of the Sun, Times, News of the World etc, in a well-prepared move, provoked a printers strike by demanding drastic changes in working conditions and promptly moved production from Fleet Street to a fortified plant in Wapping, sacking 500 printers & introducing new technology – all with the carefully laid plan to break the printers’ power over the presses.

Cue a year-long battle, fought out on the streets of Wapping, with daily mass pickets, blockades and attempts to stop the lorries leaving with papers, and battles with police round Wapping & the Highway, as well as mass sabotage, solidarity actions and occasional arson against News International, their papers (and the scab TNT lorries carrying them) all round the country…

A high-tech plant was built in Wapping, the union-busting plan disguised with false claims that a new title, The London Post, would be printed there. Secret deals were then drawn up to bus in electricians from outside London to run the machinery; members of the EEPTU (electricians) union were quite happy to shit on the printers and line their own pockets doing this work.

News International blue collar staff were issued with an ultimatum – work to new inferior contracts or face the sack. Then journalists were offered £2,000 to cross picket lines and work behind the razor wire and security cameras that surrounded the new East London headquarters.

When this provoked strike action and mass sackings among printers, Murdoch hired the transport company TNT to deliver his titles direct to retailers, breaking up the nationwide distribution system shared by other publications and doing away with many more jobs.

Picketing repeatedly erupted into riots, barricades were built several times (on occasions holding up paper delivery for hours). Spoof versions of the Sun and an independent satirical Wapping Times paper were brought out by strikers and their supporters.  The printers were well supported, especially locally, with police tactics  – such as towing locals’ cars away to allow lorries movement, raiding local pubs and blocking people off from their homes – alienating residents. Many of who were never big fans of the Met; alot had trade union backgrounds, and general anger at LDDC/Council-sponsored yuppification in the area was held to be linked to the dispute. TNT vans and distribution points became targets for strikers and their supporters.

The leaderships of the then-existing two printers unions, Sogat and the NGA, constantly tried to control and limit the struggle, especially when it (necessarily) turned violent – union officials went to the lengths of identifying and grassing up rioters.

Have a read of issues of Picket, the unofficial bulletin of the Wapping strikers.

Eventually despite widespread support and mass action, the print unions gave up the fight, leaving sacked workers high & dry and encouraging similar moves by other newspapers. The printers were the latest in a long line of workers with strong traditions of solidarity & standing up for themselves to be battered by the capitalist class in the ‘80s.

The dispute would also claim the life of one local teenager.

On the evening of 10 January 1987, 19-year old Michael Delaney was on his way home after drinking with friends to celebrate his birthday of the previous week.

At the junction of Butcher Row and Commercial Road in Stepney, one of the preferred routes for Murdoch’s delivery boys, the lads spotted a TNT lorry used by News International to distribute papers during the bitter Wapping dispute that had been going on for a year.

There was a red light at the junction and Michael Delaney tried to remonstrate with the lorry driver, Delaney got close enough to slap the door but, as the lorry moved off, he was dragged underneath and crushed by the wheels.

The lorry did not stop again until it reached the Heston Services on the M4. Michael’s body was left lying in the road, until an ambulance took him to the London Hospital, where he died in the early hours of 11 January. Meanwhile his companions had been taken off to Leman Street Police station.

At Delaney’s inquest in Snaresbrook, Essex, in April 1987, the driver, Robert Higgins, was not called to give evidence, but was seen by Michael’s distraught family during the lunch break, laughing and drinking in a nearby pub – in the company of one Inspector Pickard of Leman Street Police Station. Was there collusion with police to prevent any evidence coming out that would lead to a prosecution of the driver – embarrassing for News International?

The inquest coroner advised the jury to return a verdict of accidental death. Instead, they decided it was a case of unlawful killing. Afterwards, the director of public prosecutions ruled against launching a prosecution on the grounds of insufficient evidence. A year later the inquest verdict itself was quashed in the high court. (The first the family heard about this was on the TV news).

As then Wapping resident Mike Jempson (who knew Michael from his youth), later pointed out, (in the run up to the Leveson Inquiry into tabloid phone hacking):

“Given what is now known about the unhealthily close relationships between News International and the Metropolitan Police over the years, the whole sad saga deserves a full investigation.

Sir Paul Stephenson, who resigned as head of the Met under a cloud last summer, told the Home Affairs Select Committee that almost 25% of the Met’s public affairs unit had previously worked for Murdoch papers. Former Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, who resigned after allegations of impropriety, became a columnist for The Times, and a former News of the World editor Neil Wallis was hired by the Met as a communications consultant, at a time when questions were being asked about the full extent of phone hacking by his old paper.

Another of Stephenson’s colleagues, Assistant Commissioner John Yates, also resigned over the phone hacking scandal in July 2011. All three senior officers are still under investigation, along with about three dozen Murdoch employees, police officers and civil servants arrested as part of police investigations into aspects of the hacking scandal.

These sensational facts may never merit attention in Murdoch’s Sun but they deserve to be recalled at the Leveson Inquiry. Will Michael Delaney’s fate get a mention? Perhaps those scandalised by the cover-up over his death will ensure that Murdoch never forgets the young man who died so The Sun could hit the streets.

The big question still to be answered is whether law officers and Murdoch’s News International conspired to avoid a prosecution that might have revealed how and why Michael Delaney died.”

Heartbreakingly for Michael’s family – we will probably never know.

Policing of the Wapping dispute became a day to day issue – with 100s of police drafted in to bash pickets and defend Fortress Wapping. But policing was also going on behind the scenes – Special Branch were keeping a keen eye on those organising picketing, and their Special Demonstration Squad department – consisting of undercover officers infiltrating protest can campaign groups – were there on the picket line, pretending to support the dispute. At least one SDS spycop – Bob Lambert – regularly attended Wapping demos. Now well known as having acted as an agent provocateur in animal rights groups and initiated the plot to fire bomb Debenhams stores in July 1987. Wonder if he also acted an agent provocateur down Wapping too?

Check out the Special Branch files revelations on their surveillance of the Wapping strike

In memory of Michael Delaney

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An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online

 

 

 

 

Today in London’s striking herstory, 1908: Corruganza boxmakers win a strike against wage reductions.

In August 1908, 44 young women box makers went on strike. They were part of a 1,500-strong workforce from the Corruganza Box Making works, off Garratt Lane, Summerstown, South London, and they had never struck in their lives before.

Below we reprint Bronwen Griffiths’ account of this strike, originally published in the South London Record, journal of S. London History Workshop.

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The Corruganza company made cardboard boxes of all types for shops and industry and the women concerned worked in a department dealing with tube rolling, cutting and glueing. The cause of the strike was simple. Mr Stevenson, the manager, had ordered a reduction in the wages paid for piece work. In some cases he wanted to cut the pay back to half the previous rate.

Miss Mary Williams, the forewoman, refused to accept the new wages even though she herself had not been affected by the reductions.

“I asked him for a revised price list to put before the hands” she said, “and he gave me the prices on a piece of paper and said ‘If they don’t like it they can clear out’. I told the girls and they struck there and then. I and two of the others were supposed to be the ring-leaders and we got the sack.” (Wandsworth Borough News Aug. 1908).

The strike got considerable public support as well as the backing of the National Federation of Women Workers, which had been formed only two years earlier. Mary MacArthur, Secretary of the Federation, came to address the workers on the picket lines and provided them with strike pay. Within two weeks this had been increased to 5 shillings a week because people like the writer John Galsworthy had sent in sums of £5 and more.

Much of the argument between managers and workers centred around the issue of what was a reasonable piece work rate. The young women were prepared to accept a reduction on one type of the work but, according to Miss Williams, “He (Mr Stevenson) reduced plain work and they could not agree to that, especially as the girls had already lost on the first reduction. Taking all the year round and taking busy times with slack times, our wages do not average 12s. per week. We are supposed to work 91/2 hours a day.”

When we are busy, we work those hours and earn perhaps 17s. a week but for the rest of the year we don’t do nearly so much, and are lucky to get 10s. a week. Under the new conditions, I don’t suppose we could earn more than 10s. a week at the best of times, and our average would certainly be a lot lower than that”.

Another of the strikers was more emphatic. “He won’t give us a blooming chance to live. We used to earn from 15s. to 17s. per week and now we shall get from 6s. to 9s. per week. That is not enough to keep one, let alone a family on”. (Wandsworth Borough News Aug. 1908).

This was at a time when average wages for box making were from 10-15s. a week, with a pound a week being the highest wage. However, according to the ‘Women’s Industrial News’ (1912) ‘workers hardly ever get a full week’s work’.

Nor was the work easy. Polly, who was quoted in ‘The Woman Worker’ of August 21st described how she was exhausted by working on one of the large, heavy rolling machines: “Don’t yer all know that I often gits knocked up with pain in the stommick and ‘ave ter lie in bed all day through ‘andling it? They don’t remember that when they’re reducing their rites and slinging nimes abart”.

Mr Stevenson was adamant however that the women were idle and had ‘tyrannised’ his factory.

“For the past 15 years” he told the ‘Borough News reporter covering the strike “there has been no reduction in wages in the works. More than one attempt has been made to reduce the wages to a proper basis and in proportion to the small amount which the firm receives for the goods. The girls have always objected to any reduction and the managers have always given way to them. That is not my habit and 1 do not intend to start now”.

He continued: “I wanted to put little girls on the machines some time since, but they refused”. (‘They’ referring to the older women). “In fact, they have ruled the place and tyrannised for over 10 years and I don’t intend to stand it. Under the new arrangement the girh will be able to earn from 15s. to 25s. per week and that 1 consider a fair wage for girls”.

The ‘Boro’ News’ reporter toured the factory, claiming that the women could earn between 17s. and 26s. a week at the new prices. These young women were novices. The strikers were very indignant with what they alleged to be ‘mis-statements’ in the paper. “What do ‘e say in yer piper! That we could earn free paand a week at the gime. Lummy, we should just ‘alf like to have a go at it. Fifteen bob is not so bad, and a quid is a lot, but free paand!! So ‘elp me, it’s a bit fick, I don’t fink! “

Although the ‘Boro’ News’ reported Mr Stevenson as saying that no additional women would go out on strike ‘The Times’ of August 14th wrote:

“Peaceful picketing was carried on during yesterday, and one result of this is that seven girls, who were taken on yesterday morning, have signified their intention of not going in this morning”.

The strikers, together with the Federation of Women Workers, arranged a demonstration at Trafalgar Square on Saturday August 22nd. The women came from Earlsfield Station carrying banners with the words ‘Box Makers At Bay’. They marched in a downpour from Waterloo Station via the Embankment to Trafalgar Square where they were met by a crowd of between-five and seven hundred supporters. Mary MacArthur opened the proceedings and the crowd heard speeches from the women themselves, from Frank Smith of the London County Council and from Victor Grayson MP.

The ‘Woman Worker’ of August 28th gives the following account of the demonstration:

“When we got to Waterloo it was raining. My word, it did rain. We marched three a line over Waterloo Bridge and along the Embankment. The rain soaked through and through us. It got into your bones, so to speak” as Polly said.

“And the mud. It was slush up to our ankles, but we felt real gay all the same.

‘Ye waited for a bit under the archway, till all at one it cleared. Polly started to sing, ‘If you can’t do no good, don’t do no harm’.

(This was the women’s strike song).

We were all still singing when we marched into the Square, and all at once the sun started shining, and the big crowd started cheering.

“Miss MacArthur told the people all about the goings-on at the Corruganza works. Then she asked Alice -to speak up and tell the people all about everything. Alice is what they call a fine girl. She’s the big dark one what does the heavy work. Her as Mr Stevenson calls the ‘Battersea Bruiser’. She told ’em how we had been cut down so as we couldn’t earn nothing, and how she stood up to Mr Stevenson and the Galloping Major (what Miss MacArthur says is a commissionaire) and how she got the sack. Then Polly up and spoke. She told the folk how heavy the work was, and what hard times we had been having before the prices were cut down. Then it was Annie’s turn. She has always kept respectable, has Annie, though she has had an awful struggle.

“Annie told them as how she had lost her mother before she was a year old, and her father when she was seven. ‘I have always kept strite up to now” Annie said. ‘Gawd ‘elping me, I will still’.

“All the speeches were fine. Miss Margaret Bondfield and Mr Frank Smith spoke up for us grand, and Mr Victor Grayson, who looked a very young boy to be a member of Parlyment, was spiffin’.

“When the speaking came to an end the crowd flung no end of money up to us. Not only pennies, but crowns and half-sovereigns too.”

Support continued to pour in after the demonstration in the form of money and letters. A group of box-makers from Manchester wrote to the ‘Woman Worker’ saying: ‘We know how hard it is to make a living wage, and we realise that it is our battle the girls are fighting as well as theirs. So we made a collection amongst us, because we think it is our duty to help one another as much as lies in our power’.

On September 3rd the dispute was settled by the Board of Trade. The firm agreed to reinstate all the strikers and the piece work rates were to remain as before, except in the case of tube rolling for incandescent mantle boxes where the rate was to be reduced. Mary Williams, the fore-woman, decided not to return but was sent £10 by a well-wisher to help her until she found another position. The Women’s Suffrage League Paper saw the victory as an important step for women. ‘The amount of sympathy and help given to the strikers by the public shows that, thanks to the Suffrage agitation, fair play towards women has now made decided progress’.

Later in September, however, ‘The Times’ reported Mr Stevenson as saying that the strikers had agreed to accept the reductions as originally proposed and that ‘the strike was entirely without justification. The charge of ‘sweating’ which was really too absurd to need refutation, disposes of itself’.

Miss Sophy Safliger, who represented the strikers at the conciliation proceedings replied immediately to Mr Stevenson’s letter of the 17th September: ‘The reductions agreed to at the conciliation proceedings were only in respect of one class of work, and had already been agreed to by the girls before the strike took place. In the interests of the girls and their helpers, a statement that the strike was entirely without justification cannot be allowed to pass. It is not to be supposed that work-girls, most of whom had worked many years with the firm and were entirely dependent upon their own earnings, with no organisation or funds behind them, would be likely to throw up their work and risk hunger for an imaginary grievance’.

In fact, the ‘Woman Worker’ had already reported on the 11th September Mr Stevenson’s attempts to hide the facts behind the strike. ‘It seemed that at the first meeting the negotiations had not progressed at all, and a fierce resumption of the war had appeared probable. But on the second day a great discovery was made. The strike was an accident – a carelessness. Mr.Stevenson had been misunderstood by the girls, by Miss Williams, by Miss MacArthur, by the Press-men, the Board of Trade – everybody. Reductions? Bless you, he had intended one only: a little one. applying merely small percentage of work, and not seriously affecting wages … It was agreed at last that a settlement should be accepted in good faith and Miss MacArthur reminded the girls that they were organised now and therefore no longer helpless, no longer likely to be agreed upon’.

At the same time as the strike, the Women’s Industrial Council, as reported by ‘The Women’s Industrial News’ of September 1908, was investigating the box-making industry reporting that ‘fifteen or sixteen years ago the wages of. the women employed were, comparatively speaking, good, and the average wage throughout the trade, including that of learners, was, at a guess 15s. If it had been possible to form a strong trade union the same rates might perhaps prevail today. But some employers lowered prices by introducing a great many young learners, who often received for the first few weeks, or even months, nothing at all and only a very small wage afterwards’.

By 1910, ‘The Women’s Industrial News’ was able to report that it is particularly pleasing ‘those who saw at the time of the Council’s enquiry the growing underpayment in this trade, to find it included among the first four in which Trade boards are being instituted; and to learn that the women, stimulated by the hope which these Boards offer them, are joining a trade union by hundreds’. These Boards were set up to regulate wages.

The Corruganza box-makers strike, starting from personal hardship, had now become history and part of a larger struggle. It is an important landmark in working class women’s history.

SOURCES

Clapham Observer Aug 1908
The Times Aug-Sep 1908
Tooting & Balham Gazette Aug-Sep 1908
Wandsworth Borough News Aug-Oct 1908 .
Women’s Freedom League Papers 1908
Women’s Industrial News 1908-1912
Woman Worker Aug-Sep 1908
Women in British Trade Unions 1974-1976. Norbert Soldon. Publ. Gill & Macmillan, 1978.

 Typist’s Postscript:

About ten years later there was another strike at the Corruganza factory; after a popular forewoman was replaced by a strict disciplinarian, who cracked down on what some of the workers thought to be a relatively free and easy work regime, the new gaffer was assaulted by a number of the workers who then walked out on strike. As far as I can work out they were all sacked and not taken back. 

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London striking history, 1965: Foyles bookshop strikers go back to work

In May 1965, the staff of Foyle’s went on strike for a month to demand payment of a living wage and the recognition of their right to join a union, and reinstatement of a dismissed employee and improvement in wages.

As a result of talks which took place between the parties, agreement was reached on a number of points and work was resumed on 25th May. Subsequently, however, there was disagreement over wage negotiations and this resulted in a further strike.

Below we reprint an interview we found with the Foyle’s worker whose sacking sparked the strike.

Sebastian Harding – How did you begin at Foyles?

Marius Webb – I was born in London. My father was English, from Battersea, and he was working for Battersea Council when war broke out. My mother had come to the United Kingdom from New Zealand via Australia. After the war, they decided that London was appalling and they should get out, so they came to Australia. But I left when I was twenty-one and came back by ship to Europe.

My first experience of London was the grim reality of staying with my aunt and uncle in Balham. One day, I saw an advertisement in the paper for a job at Foyles that paid £10 a week. During my University year I had a part in establishing a small bookshop in Melbourne called ‘The Paperback’ and I had also studied English at University so had a good knowledge of literature. I passed the interview and was told I could begin work on the following Monday.

I remember the first week at Foyles very well. The policy was that all new staff went directly into the mailroom. You sat around this enormous table and opened all the mail that came in. Someone would come up from transport area with a huge sack full of mail and dump it on the table. There were a couple of stout old ladies who managed the room and they would sort the mail out. Christina (Christina Foyle, owner of the Foyles business from 1963) was an avid stamp collector and, equipped with a paper knife, you had to open the invoices in a particular way so that the stamp was saved.

Bucket loads of money orders was what came in most most frequently. Talk about having a cash cow! We were at the fag end of the British Empire and people all over the world were members of the Foyles book club. They would send off monthly for a new book sent with a money order. Foyles also ran a book club which did reprints of famous books from the twenties and thirties. This was a considerable part of their business and so the mailing room was quite an operation.
It was good for someone new because you could speak to the people opening mail on either side of you. The mail room was the fulcrum of the whole place with approximately twenty people working there at one time.

Sebastian Harding – Can you describe Charing Cross Rd in the sixties?

Marius Webb – I loved it. I had come from Melbourne which was a recently planned city where every road was straight but London still had that ancient air. I loved Charing Cross Rd because it had such a distinct character. Everything south of Tottenham Court Rd station was just full of little bookshops and music shops, and I guess most of that has gone now. It had so much character and interest. Some of the smaller bookshops were unique and, of course, there was the proximity of the theatre where you could get in for nine pence in the Gods. London felt like a really creative force.

Sebastian Harding – Many have fond memories of the eccentricities of Foyles, did that affect working there?

Marius Webb – They did not trust staff with money so there were a number of queuing systems. The customer would queue up first to a till where a staff member gave them a note of the cost of their book. The customer would take a written piece of paper over to the till where they paid. This was incredibly naïve as it meant staff could steal quite easily and many of my colleagues did.

For instance, if their friend came in wanting to buy a book they would write down one shilling for a book worth a pound. Their friend would take it to the cash till, pay the shilling and then come back to their friend who would stamp their receipt and no one would be any the wiser!

I remember people would go up to the Art department, help themselves to a few books and then go down and sell them to the second hand department. Took them ages to work that one out! Many staff knew about regular shoplifters but there was an attitude of, “Oh that’s too bad.” I remember I once saw an old lady behind a stack. When I came round to see what was going on I saw she was sweeping a whole heap of books into a suitcase!

Sebastian Harding – Do you remember the interior of the store?

Marius Webb – None of the rooms in the building were large because it had been cobbled together from a group of buildings that had once served a whole series of other purposes. The ground floor had much higher ceilings and the ‘New Releases’ area of the store felt like a Victorian salon with cornices from an earlier life. I remember the windows were quite splendid which meant they were great for displaying books.

Sebastian Harding – Can you remember the people who ran the store?

Marius Webb – Christina Foyle’s husband, Ronald Batty, was the manager and he was quite formidable. I did not realise at first that he was married to her but he was a hands-on military sort of chap. He would sweep in and out, ordering the old ladies around and calling people out from the mail table and giving them orders to go to one of the departments. He was the General Manager, the Human Resources Manager, Chief Personnel Officer. Everything went through him as far as staff were concerned. There was an Australian called Mr Green who was in charge of new releases. He was very fancy but ultimately quite sad – he was gay and had obviously come to London to get away from Australia – very efficient but not very strong-willed.

Sebastian Harding – What began the chain of events that led to your dismissal and the strike?

Marius Webb – In my second week working at the store, I was assigned to the ground floor ‘New Releases.’ It was a terrific area to be in. I got to know authors like Len Deighton (writer of The Ipcress File), who would come in to see how their books were selling. One of the things that struck me from the outset were some of the more Victorian ways of the organisation. I remember arriving for my shift, running up the marble stairs and there would be two or three old ladies on their knees scrubbing the stairs by hand with rags. Coming from Australia, I was just appalled but that was actually quite typical of the London of those days –  the remnant of the old working class being kept in their place.

The other thing that I remember was having a surprise at the end of the second week when we got paid. We were paid nine pounds ten whereas the advertisement I had answered said quite clearly £10 a week. Dropping ten shillings does not sound like much, but when you are only getting paid ten pounds it is quite a lot. It did immediately make me question what sort of employer advertises a wage and then does not pay it. I was used to Australia where we had minimum wage and an eight hour day – these were things we accepted as normal.

As time passed, the style of management at Foyles became abundantly clear. The first thing that happened was an incident with a fellow from Sweden with whom I had worked with in the mail room. He had his own small art bookshop and had come to London to better his English and make some contacts. In the second or third week, I ran into him and he was wearing a dust coat and pushing a trolley and told me he had been put in the transport department, after originally applying to work in the Art Department.

I said “That doesn’t sound right. Go and talk to Mr Batty as it sounds like some sort of mistake.” Later that day, I saw him again and he had just been sacked. He explained the situation to Mr Batty and he was told: “Well you’re working in the Mail department and if you don’t like it you’re sacked.” I thought“Crikey! This is very strange.” This was a guy who wanted to make connections between Foyles and his own successful bookstore in Sweden, and there there was a good possibility it would have been beneficial to both parties. That chap’s dismissal was one of quite a few sackings that happened over my first month of working there, most workers did not have any comeback and it just became endemic.

I was getting increasingly concerned at the number of people getting dismissed and I mentioned it to my uncle. He was a draughtsman and the draughtsman’s union was one of the toughest. He told me I needed to speak to the Shop Workers’ Union (USDAW) which I had no knowledge of.

I met one of the organisers and he said, “You are entitled to this amount but they can still pay you what they like.” He told me to be careful that my employers did not hear I had been speaking to the union, as previous Foyles employees had lost their jobs as a result of this. He told me I could join up, but to have any influence I would need a lot of people to join.

A number of us became friends and every so often we would go to the Pillars of Hercules for drinks after work. One evening, I brought the subject up and we all agreed that the way we were being treated was not up to scratch and that we should  join the union together. There were about three or four of us at the start and we agreed to keep mum, but before long we had about twenty.

We needed to have union meetings and I was appointed to lead them even though I had not a clue how to run a meeting, and it was after one of these that I was ratted. One fellow who was a bit of a goody-goody and quite close to Mrs Foyle had been invited to a meeting. He was generally pro-management and, of course, he passed on the word to Mr Batty. Not long after that, I was called into Mr Batty’s office and told I had not been satisfactory and I had been late for work.

I rang the union and this guy told me to get my arse up to the offices real quick. They had an offset printer and we created some very simple leaflets and posters. We got down to Foyles the following morning so we could give out these leaflets to people as they arrived for work.

All the people coming into work were all my friends, so even if they were not members of the union, when they found out what had happened they decided to join the strike. The twenty people who were already part of the union joined me outside immediately and it was not long before we had fifty to sixty people. The union cranked out more leaflets and we were soon handing them out to every customer trying to enter the building. This had a devastating effect on business because 50% of customers said,“Oh in that case, I’m not coming in,” and this escalated very quickly. Then, because we had the placards in the street, someone phoned the newspapers and within an hour or two the Evening Standard had us on the front page.

The story was even reported in Australia and my auntie kept all the clippings from the local newspapers because she thought it was fantastic. For the first few days, there was a huge amount of media attention because Foyles was a well known institution so it was a good hook to hang the story on and the strike was led by young people. There was a lot of unexpected support from the customers, the authors and the publishers.

Sebastian Harding – What was the outcome?

Marius Webb – The strike actually lasted for just three days. At first the shop’s owners ignored it and tried to solve it themselves. At the end of the second day, Christina Foyle walked around the shop and apparently offered people £5 to stay and work the following day, but some people were so offended by this they came out to join the strike just to spite her. By the third day, the management realised they were in deep trouble because they saw from the tills what was happening.

They immediately convened a Foyles conference with the union, as well as further talks about the rates of pay and the conditions that people were working under. We were all quite pleased and back at work by the end of the third day, and I was put into a new department.

After four or five days, it became transparent that nothing had changed. They refused to change anything and so we had a meeting with the unions where they let us know they were not getting very far with their own negotiations. We decided that we needed to go on strike again and this second strike ended up lasting for six weeks. We had no idea it would last this long! This was about 50% of the workforce, around 100 people. The fact we stayed outside the shop, continually leafleting meant that eventually they had to resolve the issue. It was not hugely satisfactory, but we did get pay rises and a bit of respite from the continual sackings.

I remember there was one worker in the transport department who was a real cockney. He started out against the strike, then joined the union and by the time I left he wanted to be the union boss!

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London fashion history, 1768: hatters strike for a wage rise

“This day the hatters struck, and refused to work till their wages are raised…”
(Annual Register, 9th May 1768)

This is an interesting snapshot, exposing a glimpse of a struggle; little is then heard of the hatters strike. We know it went on for at least five weeks though, as on 21st June, John Dyer, hatmaker of Southwark, swore that ‘on Thursday last, a gang of Hatters, to the number of thirty, came to his house in the Maze in the Parish of St Olave’s, Southwark, about one o’clock at noon, in a riotous manner, and insisting this informant turn off the men he then at work, which he refused; and, upon such refusal, the gang of Hatters threatened to pull his house down and take this Informant thereout. And this informant saith they would have begun to execute such threats if it had not been for one Mr Phillips who accidentally was at this Informant’s house and did prevail on them to omit it. And this Informant saith there was one Thomas Fitzhugh present aiding and assisting among ye said mob, and came and asked this Informant, and came and asked this Informant whether he would turn off his men which refused; and upon that the said Fitzhugh declared, if he would not, ”damn them who would not have you out(meaning this Informant) and the house down.’ Thomas Fitzhugh was later charged with a breach of the peace and a misdemeanour at the Surrey Sessions, and bailed to appear on 21st July… there is no other record of what happened to him… or of the outcome of the strike. Did they win a wage rise?

The hatmakers appeared to have used the common tactic, where work was organised in small workshops, of marching from workshop to workshop to ensure the workers were paid the going rate, or the rate they were trying to win… This generally involved some intimidation of the masters, and on occasion, any of the workers who were working at less than the rate…

Interestingly,  this is a very early use of the term ‘strike’ by a non-sailors to mean a work stoppage… since the origin of the term is said to have come from the sailors’ strike of the same year, 1768, when they showed their refusal to work by ‘striking’ the sails (cutting the ropes to drop them to the deck).

Hatters are mentioned in reports of the Wilkite riots of 1768-71, as being prominent among Wilkes’ supporters. 1768 was a year of turbulent political rioting, in support of Wilkes’ vague program of reform and liberty, and protests and strikes by numerous groups of London workers… these two intertwined and merged, and sometimes diverged… The trades disputes inspired others, spreading like a wildfire…

On the same day as the hatters struck,  9th May, there were demonstrations by a ‘body of watermen’, complaining of their working conditions to the Lord Mayor, and a protest, probably pro-Wilkes, both at the Mansion House, in the City. The next day. 10th May, was to be even more uproarious, with the Massacre of St George’s Fields, on the hatters’ door step, and across town in Limehouse, Dingley’s sawmill pulled down by angry out of work sawyers.

The Annual Register entry doesn’t specify the location of the hatters’ dispute, but given the later reports about intimidation, it was almost certainly based in Southwark or Bermondsey, London’s main areas of hatmaking for centuries. Hats were manufactured ‘to a greater extent in London than anywhere else’… at least 50 years after the 1768 strike, there were 3500 hatters, pretty much localised to Southwark.

From at least the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the Parish of St Olave’s, Bermondsey, was once the centre of hat-making in London and was called the “Hatters’ Paradise.” There were many hatters, or felt-makers, who had premises on Bermondsey Street; they had, at least in the 1590s, a willingness to riot in defence of each other.

In 1770, there was a strike of journeymen hat-dyers in Southwark, again accused of forming a mob to enforce wage rates: ‘at all shops they came to they obliged the men to strike in order to have their wages raised’.

Around 1800, the ‘Maze’, Tooley Street, the northern end of Bermondsey Street, and other streets in the  immediate vicinity, formed the grand centre of the hat-manufacture in London; but in the following decades, the hatmaking scene shifted farther westward. By the 1840s this meant the hat-making trade was mostly concentrated between Borough High Street and Blackfriars Road (though some hatters remained in Bermondsey). Note the name Hatfields, a street west of Blackfriars Road where many hat manufacturing companies were based in the 19th century. It forms the boundary between Southwark and Lambeth.

Being a fashion trade, subject to extreme variations in demand, hat makers could be busy or idle depending on the season, which made it difficult to earn a consistent living. Changes in fashion could mean new hat styles, which could mean having to quickly learn new skills, working with new materials, new techniques… Very much like the Spitalfields silkweavers at this time, and later the East End tailoring trades, haymaking was very much dependent on its proximity to the well-to-do customers in the City and Westminster.

A lot of workers were “out workers”, collecting materials from a ‘master’, carrying out the work at home, and then delivering the finished goods for payment.

The job was unpleasant and dangerous. An important chemical during the shaping of the hats was dilute sulphuric acid, a highly poisonous substance – hence the saying ‘as mad as a hatter’.

Hatters had been active in wage disputes in Southwark in 1763 – a Hatters Society organizing hatters had possibly formed in 1759, later existing as the union of silk hatters.

In 1777, master hatmakers complained to the House of Commons that the journeymen of the trade had entered into a combination, which they called a Congress, passed bylaws, prevented the hiring of apprentices, and threatened strikes to raise wages.

This union exercised what was described as a ‘despotic power’ in the trade in the 1840s; it was involved in inter-trade political organising, and sent money in support of a hatters’ strike in Lancashire in 1840.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London striking history, 1834: huge London tailors strike begins

As we’ve seen in previous posts, the tailors working in London had a long tradition of organisation and struggle in their own interests.

The ‘Knights of the Needle’ had, by the 1820s, an organisation that could be fairly described as ‘all but a military system’. But it was weak due to its division into two classes, called Flints and Dungs – “the Flints have upwards of thirty houses of call, and the Dungs about nine or ten; the Flints work by day, the Dungs by day or piece. Great animosity formerly existed between them, the Dungs generally working for less wages, but of late years there has not been much difference in the wages… and at some of the latest strikes both parties have usually made common cause.” (Francis Place)

In 1824 Place, himself a tailor of long-standing, estimated a proportion of one ‘Dung’ to three ‘Flints’; but the ‘Dungs’ ‘work a great many hours, and their families assist them.’ The upsurge in tailors’ union activity, after the repeal of the Combination Acts, led to the founding of a Grand National Union of Tailors in November 1832. It was a general union, containing skilled & unskilled tailors and tailoresses. It affiliated to Robert Owen’s Grand National Consolidated Trade Union.

By the early 1830s the tide of the cheap and ready-made trade could be held back no longer. In 1834 the ‘Knights’ were finally degraded only after a tremendous conflict, when 20,000 were said to be on strike under the slogan of ‘equalisation’. But the 1834 strike was unsuccessful, which led to the collapse of the Union and reductions in wages.

The following account is a (slightly edited) article derived from the reports of Abel Hall, a spy sent into the Tailors union by John Stafford, Chief Clerk and magistrate at Bow Street Police Station. Stafford had a long history of controlling spies targeting radicals – he had been the man behind sending John Castle to infiltrate the Spenceans planning the Spa Fields demonstration/revolt, and handling George Edwards, who had orchestrated and blown the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820. Abel Hall had been a radical around the Cato Street Conspiracy, but was either always a spy or turned informer under questioning, becoming another of Stafford’s stooges spying on the radical milieu in the 1820s, at the Rotunda, as well as on the National Union of the Working Classes, and into the 1830s.
Just as in the 1830s, trade unionists were targeted by intelligence gatherers on behalf of the authorities, using the same methods as political groups – often by the same officers – more recent spycops of the Special Demonstration Squad and National Public Order Intelligence Unit have also targeted trade unionists were targeted using the same methods. [for instance, Mark Jenner, Peter Francis and Carlo Neri among others, all spied on trade unionists and left and campaigning groups].

For space reasons we have not included all the authors’ notes, but they can be read in the original article,  here

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THE LONDON TAILORS’ STRIKE OF 1834 AND THE COLLAPSE OF THE GRAND NATIONAL CONSOLIDATED TRADES’ UNION:
A POLICE SPY’S REPORT

by T. M. Parssinen and I. J. Prothero

The tailoring trade was typical of London industry in being unmechanised, organised mainly in small businesses, and characterised by homework. By the end of the eighteenth century there were a number of large employers in the West End producing high-quality, bespoke garments, but even these tended not to have a permanent labour force. Loss of working time was consequently a problem for tailors, both in waiting for work and travelling to get it, and in the seasonal character of the trade, with twice as much work from April to June as from August to October. Even in a prosperous year, a tailor could be out of work for five months. To meet these problems some public houses early in the eighteenth century became “houses of call”, where tailors who wanted work registered their names and waited, and masters applied when they needed men.

The demand for labour in the brisk period of the year kept up earnings and tailors were able to afford benefit clubs. These and the houses of call developed into trade unions. The seasonal nature of the work strengthened the unions’ position and put a premium on unified action. The societies could, and did, make high wage demands in April and then collect funds from their members for relief payments to be made during the later period of under-employment. Unemployment relief was very unusual among London trades, who on the whole tended to rely on “tramping” [wandering the country in search of work, relying on local tailors’ meeting places, often in known pubs], and is a measure of the tailors’ strength. Moreover, many of the top employers, in Westminster, were favourable to the men’s organisation, and granted requests for wage rises to keep a monopoly of the best men.

The shortage of labour created by the wars with France from 1793 further raised the tailors’ wages, to a peak in 1813 of 36/- per week for six twelve-hour days. They enforced the twelve-hour day to share out work. And so by the end of the wars the tailors were in a very strong position, with about twenty-five houses of call that had monopolies of the best workmen; for if any man was complained about three times by masters, he was excluded from the house. But each wartime rise was gained in the face of growing opposition from some masters, especially small ones, and so from the 1790’s the tailors’ organisation grew more secret and military, controlled by the “Town”, the powerful secret executive of five. The tailors had the strongest of all the London combinations, and it took the masters thirty years to break it down.

However, troubles developed even during this prosperity. The men’s insistence on a high standard of work and the heavy fines led to exclusion and bitterness, and the appearance from 1793 of an important number of excluded men, called “dungs” as opposed to the superior “flints”. The former were less skilled, often worked at lower rates and so undercut flints, and above all were often paid by the piece instead of by the day. Under piece-work it was harder to control the rate of work, and the result was often over-work, with the consequent shortage of work for others. The dungs developed some organisation of their own, and the demand for labour during the wars prevented this schism from being too serious, but this changed with the depression at the end of the wars. Thereafter all organisation among the dungs collapsed and they undercut the flints. The latter maintained the 1813 day-rate, but employment and therefore actual earnings were declining.

A more serious threat that developed during the war was the rapid increase in the number of units of production to meet the growing demand. This mainly took the form of small “chambermasters” working at home, but some new large businesses arose as a result of government contracts, and towards the end of the war they began to employ cheaper female labour, a practice long prevented by the men and bitterly resented now. These capitalist developments continued after the war, to the detriment of the men. Firms with contracts for government, army and police work employed cheap female and child labour. By the early 1820’s much of the trade was in the hands of “slop-shops”and “show-shops”, selling inferior and, in the case of the former, readymade articles. If they employed labour directly, it was cheap labour; and as the owners were often not tailors, they employed foremen, who sometimes ruled in a tyrannical way. But usually they did not have large premises and so gave orders to small masters, and because they could place orders they enforced competitive tendering.

The small masters or “sweaters” had to undercut one another. Many of them were chambermasters, working at home and employing no-one but their families. Many others employed women and children, paying them from 3/- to 8/- per week, often for a working day from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. And many others acted as middlemen and gave work to journeymen to be done at their own homes at low rates. Homework meant losing more time in travel and bearing the cost of firing for irons, candlelight and sewing trimmings, which in a proper workshop were borne by the employer. Such workmen might earn 3/6d to 4/- in a day, but sometimes 2/- or even 1/- for fourteen to sixteen hours’ labour. They were forced to use their wives’ and children’s labour to help them. Low earnings led workmen to compensate by overwork, which even further increased the competition. These journeymen and chambermasters lived in a state of unrelieved poverty, in which long periods without work alternated with periods of intensive work night and day.

The cheaper, ready-to-wear sector grew rapidly in relation to the bespoke side, and the flints inevitably suffered from competition and loss of work. Periods of unemployment reduced earnings, and even though the old day-rate of 6d per hour remained, this was in fact often only 5d through various devices. The depression of 1826 severely drained the flints’ unemployment funds. A strike in 1827 against female labour was beaten, the first that the tailors had lost in at least sixty years. The power of the flints was broken in the late 1820’s by schism, a further drain on funds, and the growth of show-shops, slop-shops and sweaters. Another unsuccessful strike in 1830 emphasised their loss of power.

In the early 1830’s the tailors’ weakness and the need for regrouping were obvious. Their chance seemed to come with the economic recovery of 1833. Efforts at union began at least as early as September, and in November the Grand Lodge of Operative Tailors of London was founded. The problems of the trade and the remedies were clear enough. Because of the weakness created by the hostility between flints and dungs, and even among the flints themselves, because of preference given to more senior members in obtaining work, all tailors must be united in one unexclusive association. Uniformity was impossible when there was so much home work, and so all work would have to be done on employers’ premises. This would also prevent poor women from doing work cheaply at their homes. Because some tailors had no work while others were working excessively, hours must be limited in order to share work and reduce unemployment. Piece-work led to overwork and lack of uniformity, so should be abolished. Distress should be reduced by raising the day-rate. These were the aims of the new union.

The reduction of hours would mean that earnings would actually be reduced for the top men, those paid at the full rate and working a full twelve-hour day. But the aim of the union was equalisation, and the need to end the great fluctuations in employment seemed far more important than possible maximum earnings. To outsiders, the insistence on day-work instead of piece-work seemed to mean that men would be paid the same however hard they worked. But in most of the old trades there was a well-established traditional rate of work, a “stint” that was well understood, and there was a stigma attached to slacking. The London tailors had their “Log”, the amount of work a skilled man could manage, so day-work did not mean a slower pace but the avoidance of over-work. Some older and inferior workmen would not be able to keep up with the Log, and the union accepted that they should be paid at a lower day-rate provided that a union committee gave its approval in each case.

The events of 1834 mark an important stage in the history and decline of the trade, and it must be emphasised that the character, objectives and actions of the union are wholly explicable in terms of the tailors’ experiences and past history, and need not be attributed to outside influences.

The significance of the strike was far wider than the tailoring trade. The tailors had been instrumental in organising the Consolidated Trades’ Union, which they had conceived as an agency for inter-union aid. Tailors’ delegates had attended the London Co-operative and Trade Union Congress in October 1833. The London Grand Lodge of Tailors called the meeting of delegates from town and country that met from 13 to 19 February and founded the Consolidated Union. Of the thirty delegates, five were London tailors, and one of them, MacDonald, was in the chair. The tailors’ committee submitted preliminary propositions, resolutions based on them, and regulations for the union, all of which were unanimously adopted. The tailor John Browne was made grand secretary of the new union. The bulk of the union’s membership came from London, and the two largest member-groups were the London tailors and cordwainers [shoemakers – another group of workers with a long tradition of fighting their bosses, and often known like tailors, for radical politics]. Tailors like George Petrie were active missionaries for the union, and of the twenty-eight towns that had lodges, eight had lodges of tailors and six of cordwainers.

The Consolidated Union must be related to several factors. First, 1834 was a year of economic recovery, when the position of labour was stronger and hopes of wage-rises were well-founded. Efforts to raise wages in good times were typical of the older artisan trades, from whom its membership was largely drawn. Second, joint action and help among such trades was traditional enough. Third, such action was always increased when a large or spectacular dispute arose and evoked widespread feelings of solidarity; in this case the Derby silk-weavers’ dispute, with the resultant enthusiasm and relief committees, provided an emotional focus for the union. Fourth, ideas of general union were particularly widespread in the early 1830s; and there were examples in the National Association for the Protection of Labour of 1830, and the Operative Builders’ Union of 1833, both of which had a federal structure that the GNCTU copied. Fifth, many of the leaders of the union came from the London United Trades’ Association, a group of producers’ co-operatives in which the tailors had been involved. This contribution helped strengthen the idea of co-operative production. Sixth, the union’s main support in London came from those declining and militant trades of tailors, shoemakers and silk-weavers. The four chief aims of the union are not surprising: mutual support over strikes; benefit payments (sick and superannuation); employment of out-of work members; and co-operative production during strikes.

The union grew rapidly after February. At the end of March the sentence on the six Dorchester labourers threatened the whole trade union movement; but its result was to reinforce trade-union solidarity,

Large demonstration in Islington to call for quashing of sentence on transported Dorchester labourers, April 1834

strengthen the Consolidated Union, and bring it radical support. At the head was the five-member Executive, clearly a copy of the “Town” of the London tailors. Below this were to be the District Committees composed of delegates from all the trades in an area belonging to the union. But in fact only two were formed, at London and Birmingham. Yet from the start the Executive was in a weak position, with the union still immature and the opposition strong from both the public and the employers. The Executive proved unequal to their task, even failed to keep records properly, and virtually abdicated leadership of the whole union to the London District Central Committee. This Committee, with sixty-three delegates from twenty-one trades, including builders’ representatives, was the active body. It organised the great demonstration on 21 April against the Dorchester labourers’ conviction, with help even from country delegates. The Committee was much more familiar and acceptable to the London trades than was the Executive.

The Executive, as well as others, felt a great respect for Robert Owen, a man who had given years and a fortune to efforts to end poverty, had devoted himself to industrial reorganisation in 1833, and in 1834 had supported the GNCTU and come out against the Dorchester labourers’ conviction. By March Browne was in correspondence with him. Owen’s “Institution of the Industrious Classes” in Charlotte Street was always available for use by trade unionists. His lectures were always well-attended, and he identified himself with industrial movements in the North. Moreover, a certain William Neal, an Owenite, helped Browne with letters, accounts, and circulars of the tailors’ union. At the tailors’ request, Neal drew up the documents for the February Congress, with the proviso that they should be approved by Owen, and thereafter wrote the initiation ceremony, general laws, petitions and letters of the Consolidated Union. The various addresses of the Executive suggest Owenite influence in their general tone, plans to open a general bank for the working classes, abolish money and replace great employers by Boards of Labour and Committees of Industry, and their offer to negotiate with the governments of Europe and America in order to establish a terrestrial paradise.

A further characteristic of the Consolidated and other unions was their reliance on Owenite periodicals, the fate of the earlier co-operative movement as well. Late in 1833 the tailors were encouraged and supported by the Man, run by the Owenites Lee and Petrie, and Crisis, originally owned by Owen and now edited by his associate James Smith. To these was added the Pioneer, edited by the Owenite James Morrison, which became the official organ of the Consolidated Union. Morrison and Smith strongly supported the trade-union movement of 1833-34, especially the moves to general union. They were especially aroused by Derby into hostility to employers and government, and advocacy of very far-reaching social changes, in which trade unions were to be the instruments. These “syndicalist” opinions steadily divided them from Owen, and this growing antipathy has been emphasised by most historians who have written about the Consolidated Union.

Robert Owen

While Morrison and Smith propounded an increasingly violent theory of class conflict, and sought to turn the union into the instrument whereby the “producers” would win a general strike against the “non-producers”, Owen refused to abandon his strategy of class reconciliation and non-violence. Yet at the same time, Morrison and Smith’s theories also tended to divide them from trade-union opinion. Few historians have emphasised this even more fundamental split between the Owenite spokesmen and the rank-and-file members. However penetrating the social analyses of Smith and Morrison, however acute their suggestions and blueprints for total social reorganisation, for most trade unionists they were as irrelevant as the utterances of the Executive. While a few leaders saw the union as an agency of social transformation, the ordinary members saw it as a way to broaden their financial base, and thus strengthen their position in individual strikes to improve wages and working conditions.

When the tailors went out on strike they expected, and were promised, financial support from the London Central Committee of the union. They themselves had been among the heaviest contributors to the Derby men.1 Instead they received denunciations from their supposed champions, who saw the tailors’ strike as an irresponsible deviation from their far-reaching plans for the union. Owen specifically advised against using the union as a support for local strikes:
“The attention of the unionists ought now to be withdrawn from all their little petty proceedings about strikes for wages, or, in plain English, at what weekly sum in money, continually varying in value, they shall sell themselves, their birthright, and their happiness, and the birthright and happiness of their posterity, to their masters and the non-producers”.

Smith and Morrison claimed that even if the tailors won, it would only make clothes more expensive and so improve their position unjustly at the expense of their brother unionists. They had in fact totally misunderstood the objectives of the strike, and persisted in seeing it solely as an attempt at higher wages, not realising that the claims resulted from clear understanding of developments in the trade and were really meant to bring about industrial reform. This very comprehensive attempt to remove the distress and abuses of the trade was regarded by Smith as destructive, while Morrison called it “unsocial”. Both condemned “partial strikes”, and Morrison did not believe that the tailors could win. He saw the only solution in a general strike. Even the Executive condemned individual strikes, claiming erroneously that “this association has not been formed to contend with the master producers of wealth and knowledge for some paltry advance in the artificial money-price in exchange for their labour, health, liberty, natural enjoyment, and life”.

In great contrast was the unequivocal support given the tailors by the leading radical periodicals, the True Sun and the Poor Man’s Guardian. They saw trade unions as organisations to defend the poor, and possible bases of support for radicalism. As such, they accepted them as they were, unlike Smith and Morrison, who wished to change them in accordance with their social theories. The real press champions of trade unionism in 1834 were the daily evening True Sun and Sunday Weekly True Sun, not the Crisis or Pioneer.

Abel Hall had ceased sending regular reports to John Stafford in October 1833, when political agitation waned. But in February 1834 Stafford asked him to resume his duties. Acting on these instructions, Hall joined the tailors’ union at No 2 Branch Lodge. The initiation ceremony of the tailors’ union combined ritual forms similar to those used by freemasons with elements of economic analysis and propaganda. The total strength of the London tailors’ union was variously estimated at 9-13,000. By May there were thirty-one lodges, most of which were located in the West End, where the better-paid men worked in bespoke shops. The branch lodges met every Thursday. Each had a president, vice-president, secretary and delegate. The last attended the weekly meeting of the Grand Committee and reported the proceedings to his branch lodge. Every Wednesday was the general meeting of all members, in Grand Lodge. Every Monday was a special meeting of the Grand Lodge for the initiation of new members.

Hall sent several reports in March. Further help for the striking Derby silk-weavers was agreed on, and £200 was sent to help them begin co-operative production. Meanwhile the efforts to strengthen the tailors’ organisation did not progress well. Hall reported: “Our Funds are very ‘Low’ and many are dissatisfied by the calls for so much subscription.” The tailors’ committee took the lead in encouraging the London Central Committee to call a public meeting on 24 March at Owen’s Institution about the Dorchester labourers. The main speakers were Owen and radicals like the parson Arthur Wade, the journalist William Carpenter, John Savage, and also some unionists like Duffey, James Morrison, and the coopers’ leader, Abraham. Twelve thousand packed in and agreed to send a petition to both Houses of Parliament, requesting a select committee of inquiry into the Consolidated Trades’ Union, and an address to the King, praying for mercy for the six Dorchester labourers. Some speakers, including Morrison and Abraham, called for simultaneous meetings, a general strike, and the convening of an anti-parliament. However, nothing came of these plans, and the tailors began to plan their own strike.

In spite of the weakness of the union and the depletion of their funds, the tailors hastily drafted a list of demands for presentation to their masters in April, the beginning of the brisk period in the trade. While Hall claims that the tailors had the full support of the London Central Committee for their strike such a categorical promise seems unlikely. When the strike began, the Consolidated Union was slow to help, while the cordwainers complained bitterly that it had been decided that they would strike first, and the tailors had pre-empted them. During the first two weeks of April the tailors, like unionists in other London trades, were still engaged in raising relief funds for the Derby strikers and petitioning the King on behalf of the Dorchester labourers, as well as planning their own strike. By the end of the month, the rank-and-file were clearly anxious for the strike to begin, whilst the leaders were trying to restrain them.

The London Central Committee seems to have agreed to support the tailors when the strike began with a fund raised by loans from other trade unionists in the Metropolis. In addition, the tailors tried to strengthen themselves during the strike by co-operative production of garments for sale by the union itself. This was a familiar tactic among the London trades, as the sale of goods lessened the drain on funds. But in the early 1830’s the tailors had also found that cooperative production was a partial solution to the problem of unemployment. There had been several tailors’ co-operative societies in these years that employed some of their members, and two had flourished as contributors to Robert Owen’s National Equitable Labour Exchange.

On 25 April, the tailors’ union issued a circular to all masters which set forth their demands. The True Sun of 4 June stated that 1,000 men were able to return to work when their employers agreed to the men’s demands, and that another 1,000 left London to seek work in the country. But most master tailors were adamant. On 29 April, they met at Willis’ Rooms, where they voted to reject the unionists’ demands and to recruit strike-breakers. At the tailors’ houses of call, the strikers were obliged to attend regular “call times” at intervals from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. This was to prevent any men from doing work secretly, as absentees were fined for non-attendance.

Once the strike began, the tailors were denounced by the entire press, with the exception of a few radical journals. The tailors’ action was inevitably seen as part of a general combination, and their leading part in the founding of the Consolidated Trades’ Union underscored this charge. The tailors were accused of tyranny and violence towards non-members and non-strikers, and of seeking equal wages for all, regardless of individual skill. It was alleged that their demands, if conceded, would raise the price of clothing enormously. The Times was particularly hostile to unions in general, and to the tailors especially. It rejoiced in the defeat of the Derby men, and supported the master tailors, urging them to defeat the strike by importing German workers. Brougham, the Lord Chancellor, also castigated unionists at the outset of the tailors’ strike. Rowland Detrosier, the London radical, responded to the tailors’ enemies, and the union issued “An Appeal to the Public on Behalf of the Journeymen Tailors of the Metropolis”, published in the True Sun of 12 May, which attempted to answer its opponents’ charges.

By the end of the first week of the strike, the tailors had acquired premises. They soon opened business there to sell directly to the public, and by the next week several hundred tailors were said to be employed in co-operative production. However, according to some newspaper reports, strike pay on 4 May for the second week was only 7/6d or 8/- instead of 10/-, which produced dissatisfaction. Some tailors went back to work in the City, although the West End remained solid. Perhaps because of this shortage of funds, on 5 May the Executive of the Consolidated Union ordered a levy of l/6d on all of its members to support the striking tailors. This was not, however, well supported.

Meanwhile Hall’s branch lodge moved from the Roebuck to the larger White Magpie, where the delegate was now Freestone instead of Taylor. By the end of the second week of May, the tailors were very much on the defensive. At a meeting of the union at Owen’s Institution they passed resolutions which were meant to answer the continuing attacks on them in the press. The tailors denied that the price of clothes would be much affected if their demands were met, and they were at pains to stress that the 6/- day-rate was only meant to apply to fully competent men; aged and inferior workmen would receive less. Contrary to the strikers’ expectations there was no pay at all for the third week of the strike, beginning 12 May. On Tuesday 13 May Hall’s branch lodge split, with one group, including Hall, joining a branch lodge at the Bell in Smithfield while the other group stayed at the Magpie.

The striking tailors agreed to negotiate with the masters beginning 14 May, presumably because of the weak and deteriorating condition of the union. A stumbling-block was that the masters preferred piecework and felt that under day-work they would not get a satisfactory rate of work. The union attempted to counter this in a circular issued on 16 May, in which they asserted that the union would enforce a fixed rate of work. Meanwhile these negotiations dragged on. The tailors continued to hope for financial support, but received only a pittance from the Central Committee. By 20 May, about a thousand tailors had seceded from the union and gone back to work on the masters’ terms. To add to their miseries, the tailors discovered that their funds had been embezzled, and their co-operative workshop robbed. By the end of the third week of May, the tailors apparently reached an agreement in their negotiations with the masters to return to work on the old terms on Monday 26 May. However, the Masters’ Committee seized the opportunity to crush the tailors’ union. On 27 May they met and voted by 532 to 8 to refuse to re-employ the men until they had signed the “document”, abjuring trade-union membership forever. This was unacceptable to many men. No doubt recourse to the document prolonged the strike, and introduced a new element into it. The document alarmed other trades, for it portended an assault on trade unionism generally. Hence the meetings of the London Central Committee at the Rotunda, beginning on 26 May, and a furious denunciation of the document by the Executive, printed in the Weekly True Sun on 25 May: “Let no man or woman from one end of the Kingdom to the other, sign this document.” In this new crisis, the idea of the general strike reappeared.

From the last week of May to 2 June, the tailors who remained on strike waited and hoped for relief from the Consolidated Union. On 2 June the Central Committee recommended that all trade union members in work contribute one day’s wages per week, and that all tailors in work contribute 1/- per day to the strikers. But this was not widely honoured, and the financial situation of the union continued to deteriorate. By 4 June only 5,000 of the original 9,000 tailors still remained out on strike. At a meeting on 9 June of all the London trades, Owen and the Executive of the Consolidated Union tried to rally support for the tailors, whose strike was now critical in the face of the militant anti-unionism taking hold among the masters in other trades. But this was too little, too late. Most of the original strikers had gone back to work, and those who remained out denounced their leaders for having mismanaged the strike. The strike dragged on, with minimal support from the Consolidated Union. On 22 June, the final blow was struck when the London Builders’ Union refused to assist the tailors, no doubt because the builders were preparing for their own coming struggle. The tailors responded by seceding from the Consolidated Union.

The tailors’ failure and their subsequent withdrawal from the Consolidated Trades’ Union gave it its “mortal wound”. The Operative Cordwainers, the second largest member union, angry with both the tailors and the Executive, withdrew at the end of June to conduct their own unsuccessful strike. The final demise of trade unionism in London came in August and September with the defeat of the builders and the break-up of their union. Although the Consolidated Union lingered on until August 1835, it was no more than a relic. Its power and its promise had been shattered by the tailors’ strike. As the union collapsed, Smith reflected that the tailors’ strike “proved to possess a more dissolving, decomposing virtue than any other chemical ingredient of which the Union is composed”.

After the 1834 strike, the tailoring trade continued to decline, with the spread of piecework, sweating, homework and cheap labour. The tailors played very little part in the trade-union activity of the rest of the decade, though they did play a leading part in Chartism. Some houses of call remained in the West End, and the “honourable” men there earned twice as much as the sweated men. In 1843-44 a final attempt was made to rally the tailors into union, based on the old houses of call. As in 1834 the aims were uniformity of rates, equalisation, and the end of homework. But its impact was limited, and 1843 marked the beginning of a rapid decline in the position of the honourable men in the West End. Though they remained somewhat better off than those further east, all were sinking to the appalling condition revealed by Mayhew and others in 1849-50.

William Cuffay

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One tailor involved in the 1834 tailors’ strike, who was sacked in the aftermath, was William Cuffay, descendant of African slaves, who had been born in St Kitts in the West Indies. Cuffay went on to become an active and leading London Chartist, heavily involved in the preparation for the great Chartist demonstration in April 1848, and then in the plans for an armed uprising that followed. Arrested at a late stage in these plots (again, due to penetration by spies acting for the police), Cuffay was transported to Australia for ‘levying war on the queen’.

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Abel Hall’s reports to his spymaster concerning the 1834 strike follow, reproduced as written, including Hall’s grammatical and spelling errors.

As Prothero and Parssinen comment “The present document is important and very unusual in consisting of a commentary on events at the rank-and-file level. It includes forty three of ninety-one pages of reports made in 1834 by a single police spy that are filed in the Public Record Office, Home Office papers, eighty-one of them in 64/15, six in 52/24, and four in 64/19. The HO 64/15 reports are not only on the tailors but include reports on various radical organisations. From the reports on the tailors we have selected only some which pertain to the strike, and especially to the relationship between the tailors and the Consolidated Trades’ Union. All these but two are from 64/15. The reports are not filed in chronological order, and many are undated, but most can be placed on the basis of internal evidence and the day of the week, which is almost always noted. The author is never given.

Scattered through the Home Office papers in various series, mainly 40, 52 and 64, is a large number of reports for the years 1830-33, forming a continuous series, in the same handwriting and with the same style and type of content. They mostly deal with the National Union of Working Classes, and are a major source for anyone studying that body. They contain a great deal of information, and indicate that the informant was known to and trusted by many of the leading radicals, and was a member of the committee. The reports are perceptive and accurate, and the spy is not an agent provocateur.

Usually the reports are unsigned, and when the name was given it has been erased. There were several spies in the NUWC, including Samuel Dean, Clements and the notorious Popay, who was exposed in 1833. It is often assumed that some of these reports are by Popay. But they cannot all be, as it is known that Popay was not employed at the time of the earlier reports, being appointed a policeman on 3 September 1831. The theory that the reports are not all by the same person is only compatible with the fact that they are in the same handwriting by regarding them not as the originals but as copies all made by the same clerk in the Bow Street Police Station. But this is only speculation, and it is much simpler to accept that they are originals in the informer’s hand, especially as on the back they often bear the name of the recipient, John Stafford, Chief Clerk at the Bow Street office. There is no evidence at all that any of the reports are by Popay, and it was never so alleged at the Select Committee investigation of his case.

There is other evidence to suggest that the reports are all by the same person. All through there is a special familiarity with radical groups in East London. Several times the informant indicates that he is closely acquainted with men, like Thomas Preston, who were members of Arthur Thistlewood’s group. Twice he recalls details of the Cato Street conspiracy, and in one report he says he first got to know Stafford at the time of that affair.3 One of the earliest reports is endorsed on the back “Information of Abel Hall 1£ per week”. In another report the informant says that his name is advertised in the Poor Man’s Guardian with Preston and others to attend a meeting in Islington; the names in the Guardian are Preston and Hall.1

Abel Hall is mentioned several times in reports of informers in Thistlewood’s conspiracy. He was present in the loft at Cato Street the night they assembled, but managed to escape as the soldiers and magistrates closed in. He was soon arrested, along with fourteen others. Stafford interviewed him, and found him disposed to tell all he knew. But Hall was not needed for the trial of Thistlewood and four others, as the prosecution had the testimony of Robert Adams, another conspirator who had a change of heart and was willing to testify against his erstwhile fellow plotters. Hall swore a deposition, outlining his activities on 8 May 1820.2 He, Thomas Preston and three others were later released, and Hall managed to retain the confidence of the London ultra-radicals. He apparently sent regular reports to Stafford throughout the 1820’s, but only a few of these were passed on to the Home Office and survive. Similarly not all his reports in the 1830’s were passed on.

There are reports on the Consolidated Union in 64/15 from two informers. One of these is known to be G. M. Ball, of the Gardeners’ Lodge. The other, from whose reports this document is drawn, is the same as the NUWC spy. The handwriting is the same. He reports on the same groups as before, including the NUWC. He is familiar with Thomas Preston; he is a tailor, as was Hall; and, in one of the reports not included in the document, the informant explains the tailors’ modified initiation procedure. In giving an example of the oath, he uses initials which are probably his own: “The Words ‘In the presence of Almighty God I A— H— Taylor do promise to keep &c’ is substituted as I have before stated.” And so we are confident as to the accuracy of the document, as Abel Hall was a trustworthy reporter.”

I

“Since I last wrote having been desired to attend to the “Trades Union” I found ‘from Neesom who is a Taylor and very active among them as well as from several others who belong to it that in the Taylors Lodges who are the most numerous they are very particular in who they admit in consequence of having discovered that Policemen in disguise and others who are known to be Spies have tried to be “Initiated” into their Lodges and they will not now admit anyone who is not recommended by two “Brothers” who become so after they have been initiated and who know the party to be only of the Trade he professes. [The irony of this note in a report itself written by an informer is both sad and telling.] The Trades Unions have been established for some Months both in London and the Country and have much increased in both by nearly all Trades joining them. There are Carpenters, Bricklayers, Painters, Coopers, Cabinet Makers, Taylors and others in great numbers whose object is to raise a fund to support all Trades who belong to them in a Strike for Wages, to oppose all tyrannical Masters who are insolent to or resist any of their Workmens commands, to form themselves in their separate trade into bodies who will also form their own plans as to not Working for any Master who employs any other but Union Men and to oppose all systems of tyranny. For this purpose they have established Lodges similar to Free Masons and are sworn to maintain their Rights. The Rotunda in Black Friars Road is the principle or Grand Lodge and there also the Delegates from all parts of London and the Country meet.

Monday evening last was and is Weekly the night for Taylors being initiated and I having been much persuaded by Neesom and Dove who proposed me went there w[h]ere there was during the evening at least three thousand Taylors met. On going in there are two persons sitting who take down the name of the person to be admitted and the two who propose him and he is then ordered into a Room adjoining the large theatre which is very closely kept out of view either to wait while others are being made or until about 100 is assembled to be made. 130 was in the number I was among and previous to entering you are given a piece of string to tie your Hat to the upper button hole of your Coat and you are to Blind your eyes with a Handkerchief. At three loud knocks at a door inside which is answered without A Question is asked who it is who is wishing to interrupt our Great Lodge and the Answer is given that 130 good Men and who are without wish to enter to be made Members of their Grand Lodge and we are led Blindfold into the large Theatre where after order is obtained by loud knockings on the Floor the President either reads or rehearses several passages from the Psalms the Creed and the Gospels, all of which are selected as bearing on the Equality of Man and his right to oppose tyranny. Several Verses of a Union Song is then sang by the Brothers previously present and we are addressed as strangers for us to say whether we are willing to solemnly swear on our oaths to keep the Unions Secrets and to maintain them at the risk our lives to which we answer yes, and after a long address is spoken as to the Slavery Working Men have for years endured by the tyranny of Governments of all ages and the Masters employing Workmen by their combining to extract from them and their families their labour and bread we are ordered to kneel down to place our right hand on our naked left breast and our left on a stool before us on which is part of a leaf of the bible, but which we do not see. At this moment by a given motion of the President (which he after we are sworn shows us) all the Brothers present about 1500 loudly clap their hands and stamp their right foot once which is very loud indeed. We are then ordered to untie our handkerchiefs which discovers the Gas nearly extinguished. The President and Vicepresident behind him standing on a table with White Surplices on and Red Sashes round them and each has a Bible in his hand. Just before them is a Black Ground Transparency well light and on which is painted the perfect Skeleton of a Man. The President then takes a Sword in his hand the point of which he directs your attention first to the Skull and then to the heart the Arms, Legs and Body and in a short address goes to prove that when a Man is in work and in full vigour he soon becomes a skeleton by being tyrannized over by his Governors and Masters who employ him who rob him of substance – themselves to live in luxury on his Vitals. Over the head or Skull is inscribed Beware of your latter end, to which he directs your attention by stating that such end will soon by yours if you do not by Uniting prevent it and that if you after you are sworn do anything to injure the Union or be a Traitor to it Death will surely be your reward. There are also 8 Brothers who have naked Swords in their hands and wear red Sashes and several others who carry large Wooden Axes and Battle Axes and who surround this Skeleton and the President with his Sword and Vice with his go round to each person saying and at the same time putting the edge to your neck and taking your left hand in his what are you, the answer is a Taylor, he then says you are willing to swear to protect the Unions to the risk of your life to which you answer I will. The right hand being still on your left breast you then return your left hand to the Paper and being again darkened by the Officers or Tilers who stand close to hear you the President order each to repeat after him the Oath, which is I most solemnly swear that to my life’s end I will protect and act upon and with the Laws and Brothers of the Trades Unions in any what that I will never reveal their Laws or secrets to any one, that I will never write or cause to be written or printed any of their proceedings or secrets, but will do all I can to discover any one who does and to assist in all my power every act they do So help my God. This being done we rise and are told we are now Brothers, that our Monthly Subscriptions would be One Shilling and that as the Union at Derby had been requested by the Masters to sign a Paper to return to their work on grounds derogatory to their principles and had nobly refused it was intended to further assist them by each member giving SI/- as well as getting what they could from non Members. I should state that on entrance to be initiated we pay Seven-pence. We were then told that to know any Member the Universal Sign was by placing the Right hand thumb and finger to the top on the left side of your waistcoat and carry it from thence across the body to the right thigh and if it was not answered by the same signal on the reverse side the Party so asked was no member. That every trade had its own signs to enter their lodges and that ours was on our approaching the door at which the first Tiler stood with a drawn Sword you are to use the right hand Sign and say slowly to him A. On getting to the second you use the same sign and say Z. You then are admitted to the Lodge where an open Bible is laid on the Table on which you are to place your right hand open from thence to your left breast and making an obesiance to the President and Vice you take your seat. He stated also that near 10,000 were already Members of our Union the Grand Lodge of which would meet on Wednesday night at Eight O’Clock and that Branch Lodges were held at most of the Houses of Call at the West End of Town and at the Sun in London in London Wall, the Kings Head in St. Pauls Chain, the Ship in Lime St. and at the Three Lords in the Minories for the City who all corresponded and acted with the Grand Lodge and after two more Union verses of a Song was sung to the tune of God save the King and the President had said The Grace of our Lord &c he stated that the Lodge was dissolved and we separated at Twelve O’Clock.

On Wednesday evening at 8 O’Clock I again attended and having passed the above signs entered the large theatre which at that time had about 1200 Taylors in it. The Floor was not in anyway decorated as above, but there was a table at which the Secretary to deliver Cards and receive Monies for them and Subscriptions. About | past Eight the President who is a Taylor named Woodford, the Vice and Brown the Warden of the Lodge having we proceeded to business the first of which was to place Woodford on the table with his Surplice and Sash has had al the Vice and to read the Minutes of the last Meeting which was done by Gutheridge who has acted as Secretary for sometime, but has resigned and from which it appears that a dispute having arisen sometime ago between him – Gutheridge, Duffey and Petrie it was referred to the General Committee who met on Friday night last to decide what steps to recommend. The Committee of all Trades are chosen from the body of the Union in their own Lodges and meet privately. Ours met on that night at the Blue Posts a house of call for Taylors in Brewer St. Golden Square and there decided that as Duffey had made charges against Gutheridge he should be suspended for three Months, but in Six weeks if he made an Apology he should be reinstated. Duffey, Gutherie and Petrie are the same persons who caused much confusion in the National Union, and this decision caused a very great confusion all the night by each of their partys proposing and reproposing Resolutions condemning each, so much so that no business was done, but I find that on Monday next Six Delegates from our trade upwards of Nine Thousand of whom belong to us are to go through England to Initiate members and Concentrate our Union and that other trades are doing the same. I find also that at several Shops at the West End the Men have struck to their Masters who would either “insult or not agree to our Union Plans” to regulate the work and the Men have thrown themselves on the Protection of the Union who have received them. The Confusion existed up to one O’Clock when the Lodge was dissolved, to meet again next Monday and Wednesday nights. I tried to get a copy of our Private Laws and the Laws of the Trades Unions generally, but the Secretary had none by him they being all sold and as I do not wish to be seen too forward I did not Press my wanting it, but will get them and send them as soon as possible. During the night 2812 Taylors met here and we separated at half past One. Thursday Feby. 27th. 1834.

II

On Wednesday evening I attended the Grand Lodge of the Taylor Trades Union at the Rotunda, at which about 1200 Taylors met. After the usual ceremony of opening the Lodge had been gone through George [sic; John] Brown the Grand Secretary read the minutes of the last Meeting which were confirmed. He then stated that as Lord Melbourne had not written an Answer to the Deputation who waited on him on last Sunday as he had promised to do he had been ordered to write his Lordship to know what the King had done as to the Six Convicts and that he had that day received a letter from Lord Howick which he read and which stated that his Majesty had not yet given any orders on the subject, at which a great deal of disapprobation was expressed, but he stated that the Central Committee of all the trades Unions was then sitting to determine on what we should next do in their case and that that would be made known to us at our Branch Lodges. Six of our Committee attended with Brown and stated that the Central Committee of all the Trades in London had agreed that our trade should from being the largest in number Strike First and that their Funds should assist us if we wanted them. The Plan is that as at this time of year our trade is mostly called into action we should strike about the middle of this Month – April of which notice is to be given to all the Branch Lodges. That all our Work is to be day work, that no man is to work more than 10 Hours p r day for which he is to be paid 8d pr hour, that from the first Monday in April to the last Saturday in July he is to be at his work from 7 in the Morning to 6 in the evening and the remaining 8 Months in the year from 8 to 5 leaving 1 hour for refreshment and not to work in any shop unless well ventilated and comfortable to his health. That no Master be allowed to pick his Men, but to go through the book which is to be one throughout the trade as the names stand1 and no Apprentice to be bound before he is 13 years of Age nor remain so after 18, and this is to extend 4 Miles from Covent Garden Market. The Bye Laws which he read are the same in substance and are in a stage of printing for us. As soon as I can get them I will send them. A Deputation from the Cordwainers waited on us to know what we meant to do as to the Six Convicts and they were told as I above state as to the Central Committee Sitting. Bills were Posted at the Rotunda as to the Second Meeting of the Unions to take place to day in Charlotte S* Rathbone Place on the Six Convicts, but from what we were requested by Brown and from what I learnt from him I shall attend my Branch Lodge – the Roebuck in Aldgate to night and Report to morrow. We are also requested to attend a Brothers Funeral on Sunday next at two O’Clock and to assemble in Finsbury Square. A letter from Bradford in Yorkshire was read wishing us to send a Delegate there to initiate which was referred to the Committee and this being the only business the Lodge was closed about Eleven O’Clock.- Thursday April 3rd 1833 [sic; 1834]

III

On Wednesday evening I attended the Grand Lodge of the Taylors Trades Union at the Rotunda, at which about 1200 Taylors attended and a great deal of anxiety prevailed as to when we should strike. The Lodge having been opened in the usual form about Nine O’Clock Brown the Head Secretary read the Minutes of the last Meeting which were confirmed and a letter which was that day brought to him by a special Delegate from Derby stating that their funds would be quite exhausted this week and that it would be impossible to hold out any longer unless they were further assisted as the Masters were assisted by the Government. The Central Committee had sent him back with £30 and we as well as all the Trades were particularly requested to pay our Derby Levy and to enter into Subscriptions at our Branch Lodges to assist and keep them up as on this their Strike would depend a great deal the fate of the Union. He stated also that the Committee had sent a Delegate with £30 to the Wives and Families of the Six Convicts and had also determined that a Levy of 2d should be immediately made on every Brother throughout all the Unions to place them above the taunts of a Tyrannical Government and that that sum would be quite sufficient. He also stated that the Central Committee of Trades were still deliberating what to do as to Petitioning the King or to get the Men back and all the Petitions left at Branch Lodges of all the Trades for signatures or anywhere else is ordered to be sent to the Hercules Pillars Lincolns Inn Fields by Saturday night as the Central Committee were to determine on Monday what the Unions should do. He read the new Articles 34 in numbers which are to be submitted to the Branch Lodges for inspection or amendments and stated that all the Branch Lodges were to send in the names addresses &c of all their Men by the 14th of April and again of their numbers and how many of the Lodges were houses of Call by the 22nd in order that they may be able to regulate when to Strike. The Articles are nearly the same as I stated of the Bye Laws. A good deal of disappointment and dissatisfaction manifested itself among the Brothers at the delay of the Committee as to the Strike and several expressed themselves largely on this, but they were told by Brown and some of the Committee that we were not yet in a fit state to Strike both for want of Funds and numbers for many had joined who had not paid either their Levy or Subscriptions, at this a desultory conversation and some confusion took place of no particular importance amid which Fisher the President closed the Lodge and we separated about half past Eleven.- Thursday April 10th 1834

Last night was our last at the Rotunda our initiations will be in future at the Union – Union S* Whitechapel, The Blue Po[s]ts Brewer S* Golden Square and the White Hart Windmill S* Haymarket.-

Tuesday Morning [22 April] Sir/ I was yesterday a good deal among the Taylors at the Branch Lodges in the City. The Kings head S* Pauls Church Yard, Bulls Head Jewin Crescent, Sun Londons Wall and the Ship in Lime Street. I found a great many about at these places and they all still seem very sanguine as to the Strike and wish it soon, but as yet from the causes I stated last week The Committee have not decided. Last night the Grand Initiation took place at the Peacock Houghton S* Clare Market at which I attended when 103 were sworn as Brothers. Nothing new was stated nor will the Committees proceedings by known till Wednesday or Thursday. I shall attend to it and report.-

V

Friday Morning [25 April] Sir/1 last night attended the Roebuck and found the Central-Committee have decided that a Special summons should be issued to all the Branch Lodges of the Trades Unions to meet to night, That every trade is to pay as a loan either 2s/6d or as much as he can afford, to be repaid to him again. I being a small Master shall take the lowest rate, and as we are to meet to night I shall not be able to see you. I send this by Brand and will thank you to send me as usual by him. The additional expence is 3s/-. They talk of a Strike on Monday and as I shall attend to night I will report by him to morrow – morning Mr [name cut out]

VI

On Friday evening I attended my Branch Lodge at the Roebuck – Duke S* Aldgate. As I have daily sent notes to Mr [name purposely obscured = Brand] stating that no positive determination was yet come to as to our strike, but when it did I would Report truly. On my attending at the same place on Thursday night, I found that no particular business would be done that night, but that the whole trade were especially summoned for Friday night, to hear the decision of the Committee. On my going there I found the greatest assemblage of Brothers I have ever seen there. Previous to Taylor the Delegate coming Campbell the landlord stated that as it was expected by the Committee that Government would object to Public Houses being either Lodges or Houses of Call1 as well as the Masters it was intended to take Large Buildings, Chapels or upper Parts of Houses for the Men to work in when we strike. About half past Nine Taylor came and stated that the Committee had decided that we should strike this Morning — that every man who had work to finish should go and do so at his shop, but not take another job either cut out or basted up unless on the principle of the Master agreeing to pay the Wages and abide by the Rules and Laws of the Union as to time and Comforts which I have before stated. That every Branch Lodge should meet again at Eight O’Clock on Sunday evening to hear how they got on. That every man should be employed by the General fund two days in the week at 6s/- p r day, and if not so employed liberty to do what work he could get on his own account and be allowed 10s/- pr week, but not to work for any Master struck against. That any Brother may work for another as he can afford to pay him. That all Brothers do pay to their Branch Lodges the most money they can afford as a Loan to be repaid to them in order to assist the funds, by the Work done by those unemployed. That as it was thought Equal Rights for all was our Motto no man would object to do all he could by assisting in this Loan and that no brother do enter his Lodge without giving his Christian [name] surname and place of Residence and his Card payed up to the end of March. He also stated having brought the proof sheet with him that the whole of the General and Bye Laws were in a last stage of being printed and would soon be ready for our use by purchasing and he hoped by Sunday. During the evening I went with a Brother named George Stokes downstairs and in the passage was a Soldier of the First Battalion of the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards with his Side Arms on. He came with a Porter and another the first of which is employed two doors from Howards Coffee House in Dukes Place. Stokes shew him his Card when he said I know that well I Glory and so does our Regiment in your proceedings on Monday. If we had been called out we should all have Grounded our Arms. He has a broad Scotch accent and was tipsy. I shall attend to morrow night and Report on Monday.- Saturday April 26th 1834

VII

25, Little Queen-street, April 25, 1834 SIR – By direction of the Friendly Society of Operative Tailors, I have to acquaint you, that in order to stay the ruinous effects which a destructive commercial competition has so long been inflicting upon them, they have resolved to introduce certain new Regulations of Labour into the Trade, which Regulations they intend should commence from Monday next; and I beg herewith to enclose you a copy of them.

As the demands there specified are of so reasonable a nature; and as, moreover, they are unquestionably calculated for the ultimate benefit of employers, as well as employed, the Society confidently hope that you will accede to them, and that henceforward a mutual confidence may be sustained between masters and men, and that their interests may be no longer separated, and opposed to each other.

It only remains for me to add, that your workmen, members of this Society, will cease to be employed by you, should you decline to act upon the new regulations; and further, I think it right to apprize you that, in that case, they will no longer consider it necessary to support your interest; but will immediately enter into the arrangements prepared by the Society for the employment of such Members for the benefit of the Society.

I am, sir, your most obedient humble servant,

JOHN BROWNE. Secretary to the Grand Lodge of Operative Tailors

REGULATION

No Brother shall be allowed to work more than ten hours per day from the third Monday in the month of April to the last Saturday in the month of July; nor more than eight hours per day the remaining eight months of the year; and for such labour the remuneration shall be 6s. per day for the ten hours labour, which is to be performed between the hours of seven o’clock in the morning, and six o’clock in the evening; and 5s. per day for the eight hours labour, to be performed between the hours of eight o’clock in the morning, and five o’clock in the evening, out of which time, in either case, he shall leave his employer’s premises one hour for refreshment. Nor shall any Brother work for an employer any where but on his (the employer’s) premises, which shall be healthy and convenient, or on any other terms than by the day or hour. And no Brother shall be allowed to solicit employment, or to work for less than the regular wages within four miles of Co vent Garden.

VIII

On Tuesday evening I attended my Branch Lodge N° 2 at the Roebuck in Duke S* Aldgate (I have attended there at the Regular Call-times since Monday Morning) and on going found that an order had been sent from the Committee that a special Meeting was to be held there at Six O’Clock but it was again determined that the Lodge Room was not sufficient for all of us and we again adjourned to the White Magpie. The Lodge was opened there about Eight and was filled to nearly suffocation and a long complaint was made by one party against the Secretary – Haynes — his own party supporting him, the result of which was that he wished if any complaint against him existed (none particular was stated) he would wish it to be sent to the Grand Committee and he would abide by their decision. A great deal of confusion and nearly rioting took place throughout this and it was at length agreed as he wished. From all I see or hear of the Complaint against him is that a party exists who wish their friend in his place and say of him that he neglects to mark those who do not answer to their names at call time. About Nine O’Clock Taylor the Delegate from the Committee came with his Report and read it. It was short and in substance stated that the Committee had heard of nearly 100 Masters who had ordered from different Lodges Men on our principles. That a Suggestion had been made a few days ago to the Central Committee of Trades Unions as to every Branch Lodge of all the Trades being made Taylors Clubs to be attended on their Lodge Meetings by one Delegate or more to act as Taylors taking orders and that they all have Clothes from no other persons but us thus keeping us as well employed as possible they subscribing according to what Garments they want, with this being sent to us we buy the Materials – make the Articles and after employing our men at our Wages we strike for the Profits to go to a Consolidated Fund for our support and for the support of any other trade that should strike. This the Central Committee have agreed to and it is to be made a law this week in all the Unions, they say that if our Masters hold out “this will defeat them for ever.” that Mr Detrosier has agreed to lecture at the Rotunda to night on the principles of Unions Gratuitiously for our benefit that one penny each is to be taken for admission, that none but Taylors be admitted and that all the Lodges – Taylors do meet at their Lodges at 7 O’Clock and go from thence to the Rotunda to be there at 8 in procession as near as possible. That as the plan of having Clubs was to be resorted to those men who had not been able to pay up their Loan of 4s/6d need not do so until they had work and then at 6d pr day, that already 1000 thousand [sic] Coal Whippers had stated that to be first they were ready anytime to give us an order for as many Jackets, that if any Master or deputy call at any Branch Lodge to compromise in any way not to answer them, but refer them to a Committee always sitting at the Albion in King S* High Holborn. This being the substance of his Report a Desultory conversation of no importance took place and the Lodge closed to attend to night to hear Rowland Detrosier at the Rotunda and the business of Grand Lodge about 12 O’Clock. Wednesday April 29*h [sic; 30th] 1834

IX

On Wednesday evening I attended at the Rotunda where the Grand Lodge of Taylors was held and at which as I stated yesterday Rowland Detrosier was to lecture on the Principles of Union. About 8 O’Clock the Large Theatre was very full and in about half past Hundreds of Taylors was seen coming from all parts of London in branches but not in procession. Detrosier came about this time and there was not less than 3000 – Taylors present, indeed the place was so full you could not without much pressure obtain a place. The Lodge was then opened in the usual form and he began a Lecture verbally on first the Principles of Union which he took from the reign of Edward the 3rd, and in which he went to prove that from that time it had been the Maxim of Kings first Princes next, Aristocrated Noblemen next, Religion next, Navy and Army next and thus led to Middle men called Masters who all formed one Aristocratic Body to live on the labour which was the Property of the Working Man. His lecture was a very clever illustration (in his way) of producing the most determined hatred towards Masters and in which he justified us in our strike and implored us to keep steady in our plans and we were sure to succeed in obtaining that which was our just rights. He then made a severe attack on the Times Newspaper for having in its leading Article in its Tuesdays Publication on us and designated the Writer as the most willing Prostitute to Power that ever existed. He then made a most furious attack on the Lord Chancellor for his speech as to trades Unions and stated that he had by the Union of the People been raised to his present situation and that since he had been in power had proved himself the most determined Profligate in Principle ever yet known. He strongly impressed on us not to put the least confidence in any professor of Principles, but to look to ourselves. He was listened to with very great attention and is to give Lectures weekly throughout the whole Trades Unions.- Thursday May 1st 1834.-

X

Friday Morning.-

[2 May] Sir/1 was yesterday among a great many Taylors and visited the Bulls Head in Jewin Crescent, I there found that “Nothing New” had been stated after I left the Rotunda. I went last night to the Roebuck to attend my call and all I could learn from Hayes the Secretary was, that the Committee were busy in collecting the different – Reports of the Newspapers as to our Strike in order to contradict them in the True Sun next Week. We are ordered to attend to night and Sunday night at the Roebuck to hear the Delegates Report from Committee, and thus we stand at Present. I shall attend and if anything occurs will Report it. I send this by Brand and will be thankful if you will send the money by him. Not that I immediately want it this morning, but I shall not be able to call on you this evening. I have paid since last Friday 4s/6d as a Loan to the Union and with Pamphlets, Entrance Monies and Subscriptions my charge this week is 8s/-.

XI

To THE GRAND National Consolidated Trades Union: Whereas our Brothers, the United Operative Tailors of the Metropolis, being forced into their present position by the many grevious attacks and encroachments of the Masters, and we being fully aware of the great danger and inconvenience of large masses of Men remaining in Idleness,
We do therefore require that all and every of the members of the Consolidated Trades Union, do forthwith contribute the sum of one Shilling and Sixpence as Levy, in three payments, for the purpose of giving employment to the members of the above Trade. The first payment to be made on or before the 9th day of May; the second payment to be made on or before the 16th of May; and the third payment on or before the 22nd of May, 1834: and further it is desired that all Secretary’s will see the said money transmitted to Mr. E. C. Douglas,1 213, High Holborn.

May 5th , 1834

By Order of the Executive Council

XII

Saturday 12 0’Clock [10 May] Sir/I have been from Nine to this moment at the Magpie, and have had to keep with many who are walking about. I find that No Money has been sent by the Committee except that last night Sixpenny Tickets were given by Freestone by order of the Committee to each Man for refreshments, and Hayes the Secretary has gone to the Committee for the Money. They are all still waiting and expect his arrival, but there is no certainty when they May get it.- Mr. Stafford.

XIII

Wednesday Morning [14 May] Sir/ I attended my Branch Lodge the Magpie last night and found there had been a Meeting of the Taylors at Owens Institution that day and that a Deputation from the Committee was to meet us there at Nine O’Clock, but up to Eleven no one came and though there was a great many waiting for their Money None came. Freestone kept us in suspense until that time and a great deal of discontent was manifested by the people waiting. We were at Length ordered to meet at the Bell in the Pig Market Smithfield at Nine this Morning, and the Hand and Shears-Cloth Fair. No Report was made, but it is expected the Committee will send one to us to morrow. Thus I cannot yet say how we stand, but will do so as soon as I can.

XIV

Thursday Morning.- [15 May] Sir/1 attended at the Bell in Smithfield yesterday Morning at Nine and found that the only Report known from Committee was that every thing was going on well, This did not give any satisfaction and after a long discussion among about 300 Men we deputed Barnsley and Brown to go to Committee to know more and I with several others was walking the Streets all day waiting their Return. I could not get away from them & about Nine last night they returned and stated that all they could learn was that we were still going on well and that the Committee had no doubt but that we should obtain our Strike by Saturday Week, and impressed on us all to particularly attend our Branch Lodges to night to hear their full Report and what has taken place between them and the Masters at their Meeting Yesterday. We then agreed that those Men who had been drawn from the Magpie should join the Bell this Morning and as soon as possible move as a Branch Lodge in a Body to either the White Horse Cripplegate or the White Swan Coleman Street being more Central for the City. We are I assure you in a deplorable state. The only money sent yesterday was that the Secretaries of each Lodge was ordered to give each Man on the funds a ticket by which he could get Sixpennyworth of refreshment at the Bar and Sixpence in Money and the Men expect the same to day, but there is no certainty in that. I must therefore Report to morrow.-

XV

The Committee of Operative Tailors,
25, LITTLE QUEEN STREET, HOLBORN,
Having received requests from various Masters, for a more explicit statement as to what security they would have, that a proper amount of Labour would be performed in the 10 hours, if they were to accede to us; we beg to say that it never was contemplated by us that an idle and inefficient Man should have this rate of wages, and for which purpose we had a regulation which we intended to have submitted to them, the Masters, for their concurrence, but being denied that friendly intercourse which we think should always exist between Master and Man, and in obedience to the above requests, we are now, or at any other time ready to shew a Statement of what Labour we were willing to perform in the 10 hours, to the whole of the Masters as a body or to any individual Master, that may think proper to demand the same, and for which purpose the Committee sit daily at 25, Little Queen-street, Holborn. SIGNED ON BEHALF OF THE COMMITTEE,
Stevenson, A. O’Connell, J. Elliott, May 16, 1834 R. Pryer.

XVI

Friday Morning [16 May] Sir/I attended at the Bell yesterday the whole of the 8 Call Times and was about with many of the Men all day expecting the Delegate to come with the Committee’s Report. He came at 5 O’Clock and stated that the Committee had been sitting all day on the Masters Proposals and was likely to continue so until late last night and that as he had to go to the different Trades Lodges to gather Money he could not attend last night but would come this Morning about Nine. I shall attend and either send you to day or bring what I have with me this evening.-

XVII

Tuesday Morning [20 May] Sir/I should have wrote you yesterday as to our funds and proceedings, but waited and am still without any real information on them. Up to Saturday night One O’Clock though numbers were waiting, No Money was sent and not until 10 on Sunday Morning with a promise that all would be paid on Monday Morning. The Men at the Bell in Smithfield received 3s/6d each — those at the Magpie ls/6d. I have attended since I saw you to my Lodge and up to the last night 11 O’Clock No Money came, but at 4 in the Afternoon Fawne the Delegate came with an order from Committee that each Lodge was to depute three Men to meet at the Rotunda this Morning at Nine to meet a deputation from Committee to hear and know what was to be done with the Men. It is not certain when we shall see them to day but I shall attend to it and send again to morrow. A great many I find has seceded from us and I have no doubt many more will.1 We are I assure you in a very dissatisfied state and until we are in some way settled I cannot send you a Report. Many Projects have been started among us but Nothing is as yet settled.

XVIII

The True Sun of last night has a long Article on our Trade and up to half past Eleven last night No Money was sent to the Lodge I belong, though it was promised at 5 O’Clock and many was waiting. They at last decided to meet again this Morning. As to the Men going to work to Morrow Morning, from all I can learn No real decision has as yet been come to. I expect to hear more to night.- Sunday May 25th 1834.

XIX

Sunday Morning [25 May] Sir/ I had just returned from attending the Bell when I received your Note. At that place as I have before stated a great deal of confusion existed and a Report had been made as to Browne’s resigning and absconding, but it is not true that he has Absconded. He has resigned in consequence of the Investigation Committee having found that he is deficient in the funds he has received and a further investigation is now proceeding in as to it, but from all I can learn No one knows the deficiency. It is said by some that £400. which was to be sent to Derby passed through his hands and has not been accounted for, but that has not been proved yet. He still says it has and it is still under investigation. As to the Robbery and Scramble for the Money the latter is not true. It is true that the Establishment was Robbed on Sunday last of 13 Coats (made) and Goods to the amount of £70. as well, and though the Committee applied to Hatton Garden they have not succeed [sic] in by their Officiers. In obtaining who did Rob the place, but from all I can learn two Men of the Committee named Walford and Stevenson are the only persons Suspected. As to the General Meeting; No such thing was intended last Night, but we are all ordered to attend our Lodges to Night at half past Seven. As to the Men going to work on Monday, it is not true that they have agreed to do so, but many have done so on the principle of 6d pr Hour and it still remains to be decided to night, What is to be done. I shall attend and Report to morrow.-

XX

Monday Morning. Sir/ I attended the Bell yesterday and found that about two O’Clock yesterday the Men received 3s/6d each with a promise of more to day. We met again last night and from all that I can find The Men generally are going back to their Shops at the Old day work system 6d the Hour very fast without the allowance of time, but it is expected that to morrow they will be ordered to Strike again for the time 10 Hours. All this depends on a Meeting of Delegates of all the Trades who are to meet at the Rotunda either to day or to morrow “to consult on our case”. Browne is still at his house N° 25 Great Queen S* and is to be met with at anytime. He says the Finance Committee are the Thieves and he is ready to meet them at any time to prove his Balance Sheet correct. This is still pending and as I shall attend to it I will Report.- Monday May 26th 1834

XXI

During Monday I attended my Branch Lodge, but found Nothing new occurred except that a great many Men had gone to work and a great many seceeded from us. We waited until \ past Nine for our Delegate to Report the Proceedings of the Rotunda Committee when he came and Reported to us that they had broke up in consequence of not agreeing to the plans which the Masters have proposed as to the Men signing a Document not to belong to any Union, and that the other Grand Committee had ordered that at each Lodge on Tuesday night the Lodges were to send One Man each to still form another Investigation Committee. No further Monies came that day as promised, but more was promised on tuesday and I learnt from the Delegate and Secretary that though they last week as well as the others in Committee waited on many trades to get money the whole collected was £70 which was divided among the 31 Lodges. On Tuesday I again attended when Nothing new occurred until evening except that very few attended their Calls and it was well known that a great many had gone to work on the Old System and a great many had signed the document. About Nine the Delegate came from Committee and the Lodge was opened when instead of about 180 there was but 42 present. He had no Money and stated that the Committee had expected some from other trades but it had not come and they had not one farthing even to pay themselves at present, but they expected some to day. He stated also that the Delegates had no Report to make as yet as to Brownes Accounts, but were still sitting and that Browne had tendered his Resignation to the Executive, but it was not received at present until his Accounts were presented by the Investigation Committee and they had appointed – Douglas in his place. That Browne himself was to be examined by Committee to day which he has agreed to and that we were requested to attend a special Lodge to night. He brought a Resolution with him for us to pass which had been passed at a General Meeting of all the Trades of Steel, Iron, farriers, Engineers and others who are in London which had that day sent a Deputation to our Committee stating that they were determined to support us if we kept up the Strike by Striking themselves. There is in their Union about 8400 in Town and the Country who include all the above branches (they have a Lodge at the Bell) and there is but 8 of those Trades in London who are not in Union. They say particularly an Engineer named Reynolds that if we are firm (he is one of the Principles) They shall Strike and in one week or two they will stop “All the Commerce and Trade in London and all the Bloody Towns in the Country for they can see that the Masters and the Government are determined to put down the Rights and Liberties of the People.” We passed the Resolution which was also read in other Lodges and agreed to meet in Lodge again to night.- Wednesday May 28th 1834.

XXII

During Wednesday I attended the Bell in Smithfield and the Sun in London Wall – two Branch Lodges where I found that Nothing had occurred more than fresh Reports of many more of the Men leaving us and going to work on the old system and of many signing the Masters Bond who had gone to work. About 8 in the evening our Delegate came to the Bell where not more than 20 met. He stated that he had no Report from Committee as they had heard of many of the Men having gone to Work they were still sitting on what was to be done and he expected they would be so all the week. He brought No Money, but thought he should be able to do so by Saturday. The Committee requests that all the names and residences of the Men who keep out be sent them in order to know our number by Saturday Morning. The Finance and Investigating Committees are still sitting examining Brownes Books and Papers and he is with them and from all I can find there is several who think he has been Guilty of some Embezzlement and several do not. It is expected they will sit until Saturday at least.- Thursday May 29th 1834

XXII

During Thursday and up to Five O’Clock on Friday evening I attended my Branch Lodge the Bell in Smithfield and several other Lodges – The White Magpie Skinner S* Bishopsgate – The Sun in London Wall – the Pauls Head Pauls S* Finsbury and The Three Tuns Smithfield, at all of which Places I found that a great many Men had gone to Work on the Old System of Working many of whom had signed the Masters Bond and others had got work where no Bond was necessary and have seceeded from us not having been able to get the Promised Money. I find this is the case also at the West end of Town. About the above time The Delagate came from the Committee to the Bell and stated that the disposal of the Funds expected to be received from other Trades to morrow (Saturday) was taken out of our Committees Hands and are to be placed in the Hands of the Executive, or the whole of the Trade Union Committee and that it was fully expected by to morrow night that each Man who still stood out would get the whole Money due to him. He stated also that the Executive had heard the Masters of all the Trades were to hold a Meeting at the London Tavern on Saturday evening that is those Masters who employ Men belonging to the Union “and as many more as they could persuade” to join them in forming a Union for the purpose of not employing any Unionist who would not sign a Bond to seceede from it – and a Security for his not doing so again. They the Executive have therefore ordered a Meeting of all the Delegates and Secretaries of all the Trades on Monday next to determine whether there shall be a General Strike of all the Trades in Union immediately, or what else is to be done, and on their decision depends whether we hold out any Longer.- Friday May 30*h 1834

XXIV

During Saturday and Sunday I attended My Branch Lodge – the Bell in Smithfield. All day on Saturday the Men were waiting for Money from the Committee, but none came. On Sunday Morning at Nine Griffin the Delegate came and stated that all he could get for them was 45 shillings and that he did not (with all the other Delegates from other Lodges) get until near Three O’Clock on Sunday Morning. This was not enough to pay the Landlord for what Beer and Bread and Cheese Knight the Secretary had been answerable for during the week for the Men and Griffin borrowed 8s/2d from the Lodge of Smiths held there. Thus the Men got no money at all, but were promised that as the Delegates of all the Trades were to meet to day at 2 O’Clock at the Rotunda they would have Money either to night or to morrow night. In the evening I was with Griffin Delegate of the Bell. Travers of the Sun London Wall Campion of the Pauls Head Finsbury and Freestone of the White Magpie Skinner Street all Delegates and from them I find that at their Lodges the Men are very dissatisfied at not getting their Money and are determined to day to leave and get Work where they can. They say also that they have no doubt but that the Delegates at their Meeting to day will decide that we must give way to the Masters, but it is not likely their decision will be known until Lodge night to morrow (Tuesday) night. Monday June 2nd 1834

XXV

During Monday I attended My Branch Lodge the Bell in Smithfield and we expected our Delegate Griffin to come to inform us as to the decision of the Trades Delegates, He came about half past Ten last night and stated that at present the Delegates deliberations was in our favour, but they had adjourned to this day and we were to have their Report through All the Branch Lodges to night. I shall attend and Report to morrow.- Tuesday June 3rd 1834

XXVI

On Tuesday evening I attended My Branch Lodge the Bell in Smithfield. (It was Lodge night with all the Lodges in our trade throughout London.) There were present 86 Men to hear the Delegates Report. About half past Nine he Griffin came and stated That the Committee of the Trades Delegates who had met at the Rotunda had decided that rather than we should fail in our Strike for want of funds Every Member of their Trades in the Union who are in Work should give One Days Wages pr week to support us which they calculate would be at least £6000 pr week, and that each Taylor at Work on Honourable terms should pay 1/- p r day to the Funds out of his Wages all of which monies shall be paid to the Executive Council for them to distribute to our Committee for the Men Weekly who still stand out and this they promise to do for Twelve Months. They also examined the Books of Browne the Secretary, the Finance and other Committees of our Trade [met] and passed a Resolution which is in the True Sun of last night which states that there is no truth in the Report so much circulated of Embezzlement of the Funds and that all the books and Papers have been proved to be correct. Our Committee instead of sending their Report to the Lodges last night have ordered a Meeting to be held of all our Trade who are out to day at two O’Clock at Owens Bazaar in Charlotte S* Fitzroy Square to hear the Report and sent a special order through the Lodges last night for our attendance and that No one would be admitted without the New Pass Words. To the first Tiler, “Yet.” To the second- “Firm.” I shall attend and Report to Morrow – Wednesday June 4th 1834

XXVII

On Wednesday at two O’Clock I attended a Meeting of Journeymen Taylors at Owens Bazaar N° 14 Charlotte S* Fitzroy Square. Called by the Taylors Committee to Report the Proceedings of the Delegates of All the Trades in Union in London who met at the Rotunda on Monday and Tuesday last to consider what was to be done in our case. By the above time about 3000 Men met and soon after the Committee with Browne our late Secretary having arrived – Jenkins was called to the Chair. He stated that at the Delegates Meeting on Monday all the other Trades in Union by their Delegates had agreed to propose to their Trades that in order to keep up our Funds and defeat the Masters Bond (knowing as they did that the Masters of all Trades were forming a Union to make all their Men sign a Bond similar to ours and which was to take place on the 10th of June) they proposed that All the other Trades in Union should give One days Wages support Weekly to us. This was for our decision as to accepting the offer to keep us out which was agreed to unanimously by us and they are to Report to our Com mittee on Saturday how such Proposition will be received by the Lodges of their Trades during this Week. A long and confused conversation took place by several of the Committee speaking on this subject some of whom thought it was useless to stand out any longer depending on such promises as this and one – Newby proposed that a special Lodge Meeting be called that night to know the opinions of the Men through the Lodges as to their seceeding at once or waiting the Delegates Report on Saturday, but Stevenson proposed a Resolution of the Committee That No Secession or difference do at present be allowed to exist in the Lodges, but that we do wait the Issue of Saturday, and if not favourable to us we should withdraw from the Consolidated Union – keep our Lodges still and do the best we could as a Body of ourselves and this was carried Unanimously. Another Resolution That we give no concession to Masters from our Original Bond was put and carried also. Another that the Men do still keep attendance on their Lodges particularly this Week, to still keep firm in order that if we fall We will fall Nobly. This was also carried and after a good deal of confusion by the disagreement of the Speakers in their opinions A Vote of thanks was voted to the Chairman and we separated at Five O’Clock. From what I found among the Men there and at several of the Lodges I have attended, Vety Great dissatisfaction and no great expectations exists as to our keeping out after next Saturday. A great many present will not wait longer than that time and many not till then. We have been so bouyed up with promises that it is no longer believed we can exist in longer keeping out. We have and still are decreasing fast in Number by Men going to work daily and from all I can see we cannot keep out but a few days longer having No Funds and scarcely any of the Promised Funds of the other Trades to support us. Browne tried to Vindicate the “Calumny” so much heaped on him, but was not allowed to speak much. He is not now charged with Embezzlement, but with being the cause of our Striking prematurely and saying he had the Sanction of the Consolidated Trades Unions in doing so whereas it had been proved he had not, for this he is much hated and blamed for our failure if we do fail. Thursday June 5th 1834

XXVIII

Since I wrote on Thursday last I have continued to attend to the proceedings of our Strike and should have wrote before, but as I then stated we were to wait until Saturday night or Sunday Morning to know what decision the other trades had come to as to their Delegates plan at the Rotunda Meeting, and what Monies was sent from them for our support. Our Committee (Taylors) sat nearly all day on Saturday and up to near 12 on Saturday night they had received No positive decision as to our being supported and all the Money received was £152. This they sent by the Delegates to their Lodges and which amounted to 2s/- each Man1 with a promise that they would have more on Sunday Morning and that each Lodge was to meet on that Morning at Nine O’Clock. They did meet and about Ten they each received Sixpence. At this the Greatest dissatisfaction prevailed and in all the Lodges the Men declared they would wait no longer and get work w[h]ere they could under any circumstances. They were also told that a General Meeting of the Trade would take place on Monday Morning at Owens Institution in Charlotte S* at 8 O’Clock, but in the evening this Meeting was put off to join the One at 5 O’Clock of all the Trades at the same place as Advertised by order of the Executive in Placards and in the Trades official Gazette which I sent on Friday. During Monday I visited with others many of the Lodges of our Trade and found in all of them that a great many of their Men had left in disgust and had gone to work. About Five O’Clock I attended at Charlotte S4 where about 2000 Members of different Trades met among whom was several Women (the smallest Meeting I have ever seen there and still less of Taylors.) About Six Goldspink one of the late National Union Committee was called to the Chair and Mr Owen read Six Resolutions the Executive had framed for the Meeting the substance of which was that as the Masters of all the Trades had determined to do away with Unions by not employing Men who would not sign their Bond the Unions seeing the distressed state Men with Families were in should pity those who did so and that a Meeting of Delegates of all Trades throuhout the Kingdom should be held in London on the Blank Day of Blank Month to deliberate how to supercede the Signing such Bond. Owen in a long speech proposed these and George Petrie who has just returned from the Country seconded them. Petrie has been several weeks in all parts of the Country Initiating Taylors (I stated when he went) and I find from him that “the Spirit of Union in the Country is very strong, but their Funds are very weak.” A Great deal of confusion existed in the Meeting by several Taylors charging the Executive with Misleading them and long before the Meeting broke up many left in disgust. Savage, Neesom, Stevenson, Lane and others addressed the Meeting on the necessity of still keeping in Union and all I could learn from our Committee was that they are to sit to day to settle what we can now do and as this is Lodge night through all our Trade in London they expect to decide and Report to all the Lodges. From this and from all I see daily I am certain that our Strike may now be called lost and those who propagated and have had the Management of it are blamed, Marked and will never again be depended on on this or any other occasion. Tuesday June 10th 1834

XXIX

On Tuesday evening I attended and was appointed Vice President of my Lodge of Taylors — the Bell in Smithfield. As I stated yesterday all the Lodges were summoned to meet, and in continuance of my Report yesterday as to the secessions of our Men instead of 182 who were Members of this Lodge 21 only attended. About Nine O’Clock Griffin our Delegate came from Committee and all he had to state was that they the Committee had ordered all the Lodges to decide two Motions. The first was “Whether The Taylors should secede from the Consolidated Union and form a Union of themselves,” and the second was whether we should still keep out until next Saturday and wait to see what the Trades would do for us. Both these were carried, but still the Men present were determined not to trust them any longer. Thus we remain depending on the Decision of Committee and from all I can see I shall not have to Report until after Saturday. I however shall attend and amid the confusion we are in I doubt not, but before this week ends our Strike will end.- Wednesday June ll«i 1833 [sic; 1834]

XXX

On Tuesday evening I attended my Lodge of Taylors at the Bell in Smithfield. In my Report yesterday I stated that Our Committee was to Report to our Lodges the Decision of the Executive as to supporting us in our Strike. Up to Ten O’Clock No one came, but at that time Brindley the Delegate of the Sun in London – Wall, Griffin the Delegate and Knight our Secretary came and stated to us that our Committees had not received that support from the Consolidated Union as they expected and advised that the City Lodges should form themselves into Districts of 100 each so as to be prepared to form 1000 to be at the command of the Committee to divide them either to Work in the City or the West end of Town. There was but 18 present and those amid the dissatisfied manner as to not being better supported created great confusion and the consideration of those propositions were adjourned to Thursday Night. Griffin our Delegate who was Foreman to Mr Stafford – the corner of long lane in Smithfield has now left our Strike and gone to work for Mr Solomans in the same Lane and proposed myself to be the Delegate of the Bell and recommended us all to go to work under any circumstances. I expect to have to attend Committee as his motion was agreed to as to me and when I do so I shall then be able to give a more faithful Report of our Proceedings than from the confused manner we are in than I have done.- Wednesday June 17th [sic; 18th] 1834

XXXI

In my Report on Saturday I stated that on Monday I would Report as to the Proceedings of the Union, but I have not since I stated in my Report last week received a Note from Griffin that I then stated I expected. I have not been able to see him to converse with him until last night and I find from him that the Whole Builders Union through their Secretary Wilcox had decided up to One O’Clock on Sunday Morning that they had No Funds to support our Trades Strike (Taylors) and that their Committee had decided that we had better get work in the best way we could. At several other Lodges of our Trade I find this is acted upon and not having One Farthing sent to them from the Executive last Saturday night many of the men at the Lodges are so exasperated that they are determined to revenge themselves on the Committee Men. As to our Trade Committee Griffin our Delegate says he has totally left them and instead of myself put Staples in his place, and that we are to know their as well as the intentions of the Union or Executive to night – Lodge Night. Tuesday June 24th 1834

XXXII

From all I have seen or heard since I wrote on Thursday as to the Consolidated Union and particularly as to our trade (Taylors) I do not see that I have any thing of any importance to state of it. We (Taylors) as I then stated had withdrawn from the Union and our Committee are still trying to form a Union of our own trade, but as yet Nothing has been positively done. There are now a few Men who remain at the Lodges we used to meet at in Union which are considered Houses of Call, but from all I can learn very few calls for Men come to those Houses and I account for it by knowing that five out of every six who struck have got work wherever they could under any circumstances and are determined not to join any Union again. Thus, though my Reports have lately part through illness been not so frequent as usual I am certain that what I now state is the truth and that as I first stated The Union would fall. New projects are in agitation in many places and opinions in the old Members of the Union, but from all I can see and I beg to again repeat it I do not at present see anything of importance to Report.

 

Today in London entertainment history, 1907: striking performers & artistes launch the ‘Music Hall War’

The ‘Music Hall War’ of 1907 saw music hall employees, stage artistes and London theatre proprietors walk out on strike against changes in conditions imposed by music hall and theatre proprietors. The strike was sparked by changes to pay, the scrapping of perks, and an increase in working hours, and a dispute about increased matinée performances.

The strike officially began on 22 January 1907 at the Holborn Empire in London. It lasted for two weeks, winning support from popular entertainers of the day including Marie Dainton, Marie Lloyd, Arthur Roberts, Joe Elvin and Gus Elen, all of whom took an  active part in picketing outside both London and provincial theatres.

The strikes ended two weeks later and resulted in a rise in pay and better working conditions for both stage workers and artistes.

Music hall entertainment evolved in the London taverns and coffee houses of 18th century, where performers were hired to sing whilst the audience socialised. By the 1830s many publicans set aside specific rooms for punters to play music or sing together; some of these groups met to rehearse during the week, then put on a Saturday evening show at the end of the working week. Sometimes such gatherings were known as a ‘free and easy’. These meetings became popular and increased in number to two or three times a week. Gradually ‘music halls’ grew out of these back rooms, and theatres were purpose-built to house the growing popularity of Music hall entertainment. The audiences consisted of mainly working class people; the performers overwhelmingly arose from the same class. While the old ‘free and easy’ groups had initially been generally male, and this was reflected in early audiences, impresario Charles Morton actively invited women into his music hall, believing that they had a “civilising influence on the men”. The surge in popularity further attracted female performers and by the 1860s, it had become common place for women to appear on the music hall stage.

By 1875 there were 375 music halls in London, and a further 384 in the rest of England. As the number of venues increased and their popularity rocketed, other avenues for profit-making opened up – for instance, Music-hall proprietors enlisted a catering workforce who would supply food and alcohol to the punters. To capitalise on the increasing public demand, some entertainers frequently appeared at several halls each night, especially in London, where travel between halls was relatively quick and easy. As a result, leading performers became popular, not only in London, but in the English provinces.

Music halls adopted a design based on contemporary theatres – which included fixed seating in the stalls. These improvements proved expensive and managers had to abide by the strict safety regulations which were introduced for theatres in the late 19th century. The mounting overheads, including building costs and the performers fees, music hall proprietors were forced to sell shares to raise cash – many formed syndicates with wealthy investors.

In 1898 Oswald Stoll had become the Managing Director of Moss Empires, a theatre chain led by Edward Moss. Moss Empires had bought up many of the English music halls and came to dominate the business. Stoll became notorious among his employees for implementing a strict working atmosphere. He paid them a little wage and erected signs backstage prohibiting performers and stagehands from using coarse language.

By the start of the 1900s music hall artistes had been in several unofficial disputes with theatre managers over the poor working conditions, low pay, lack of perks, and a dramatic increase in the number of matinée performances. By 1903 audience numbers had fallen, in part due to the banning of alcohol in auditoriums and the introduction of the more popular variety show format, favoured by Stoll.

Until the turn of the century, most music hall entertainers had enjoyed relatively flexible working arrangements with music hall owners. By the Edwardian era, however, terms and conditions were increasingly formal, preventing entertainers from working at other local theatres, for example.

The Variety Artistes Federation had been founded in 2006, and quickly amassed a membership of nearly 4,000 performers. In the same year the Federation initiated a brief strike on behalf of its members.
This was not the first attempt to organise a trade union for music hall performers: in 1873, a short-lived Music Hall Protection Society had been founded, and in 1884, the Music Hall Artists Association had briefly existed, founded in response to managers’ imposition of a maximum salary and wage reductions. In the latter case the association had lapsed after management’s offensive was broken, partly by divisions among managers, some of whom broken agreed wage levels to hire music hall stars.

In the late 1890s a 5000-strong Music Hall Artistes Railway Association had also campaigned to secure cheaper rail travel for artistes from the railway companies. This Association had united with the Grand Order of Water Rats and several other smaller music-hall friendly societies in 1906 to form the Variety Artistes Federation.

The 1907 dispute began when in addition to the single matinée (afternoon) performance included in most performers’ contracts, music hall owners began to demand additional shows – adding up to four matinées a week to the workload, in some cases, for no extra pay. A memorandum distributed by the VAF on its founding summed up the artistes’ resentment of this practice:

“Notwithstanding the vast increase in the popularity of music entertainments (due, sin some measure, your memorialist submit, to the work of the artists themselves), and the great addition to the number of variety theatres, the position of the artist has suffered great deterioration.

Whereas a few years ago artists were called upon to give only six or seven performances per week, they are now required under the two-houses-per-night system to play twice that number (and in some cases, unfortunately, matinees in addition), but except in a very few instances they have had to give these twelve, thirteen, fourteen or fifteen performances for the same salary they received for six or seven hithertoo. To these altered conditions they have submitted in the interests of the proprietors; but now the provisions of the barring clause are being so rigourously enforced as to inflict a great additional hardship and heavy financial loss on artists who are out or work by preventing them from accepting contracts when engagements are offered.”

(For the issues caused by the barring clause see the strikers’ demands, below).

In December 1906, Walter Gibbons, proprietor of a chain of music halls, attempted to transfer the entire staff working at the Brixton Hippodrome to the Brixton Empress and vice versa, in response to a licensing dispute with the London County Council. Resenting this diktat, the VAF picketed both theatres; Gibbons tried to beat this by hiring non-VAF artists. A fortnight of chaos followed. Although Gibbon eventually backed down, the VAF decided now was the time to escalate the dispute across a number of venues.

A mass meeting of VAF artists, members of the Amalgamated Musicians Union and the National Association of Theatrical Employees at the Surrey Theatre on 20th January 1907 agreed demands and launched a strike.

On 21 January, workers at the Holborn Empire joined the strike action, and theatrical workers at other venues followed suit and initiated widespread strikes across London. The strike eventually spread to 22 London variety theatres, involving some 2,000 of the Variety Artistes Federation’s membership on picket lines at one time or another.

Picket lines were organised into shifts outside theatres by workers and artistes. The news reached provincial theatres and managers attempted to convince their artistes to sign a contract promising never to join a trade union.

The disputes were funded by the few more famous and wealthy performers, including Marie Lloyd, Arthur Roberts, Gus Elen – as well as by the Edwardian labour movement. Labour leaders including Ben Tillett and Keir Hardie spoke out in support of the strike.

Lloyd frequently performed on picket lines for free and took part in fundraising – playing a well-publicised benefit gig, dubbed ‘A Night With the Stars’, at the Scala Theatre on February 11th. Generally she donated her entire fee to the strike fund. Lloyd explained her support for the strike: “We the stars can dictate our own terms. We are fighting not for ourselves, but for the poorer members of the profession, earning thirty shillings to £3 a week. For this they have to do double turns, and now matinées have been added as well. These poor things have been compelled to submit to unfair terms of employment, and I mean to back up the federation in whatever steps are taken.”

The strikers’ set out their list of demands, as follows:

  1. That at all halls working two shows a night, all matinees shall be paid for at the rate of one-twelfth salary for each matinee. In one-show-a-night halls, all matinees over one per week to be paid for at the rate of one seventh salary.
  2. That no artiste or artistes shall be transferred from one hall to another without his, her, or their consent.
  3. That “time” shall not be varied after Monday in each week without the artistes consent.
  4. That all disputes shell be referred to a Board of Arbitration, such board to consist of two nominees of ________________ the undersigned, and two nominees of the Variety Artistes Federation Executive Committee, and an independent chairman, to be nominated by the above four nominees.
  5. That a “barring clause” of one mile and three months in London, and five miles and five months in the provinces, be adopted.
  6. No commission to be stopped where artistes are booked direct.
  7. No bias or prejudice to be shown to any artiste who has taken part in this movement.
  8. This agreement to refer to all existing and future contracts, and to become operative on _____________ 1907.
  9. That the V.A.F. form of contract be adopted as soon as supplied.

The causes and grievances lying behind these demands were legion:

  1. That at all halls working two shows a night, all matinees shall be paid for at the rate of one-twelfth salary for each matinee. In one-show-a-night halls, all matinees over one per week to be paid for at the rate of one seventh salary.

In the years leading up to the strike a number of music hall managers, in a bid to increase their revenues, had decided to stage two performances every evening instead of one. The first typically beginning around 6:45 and the second at around 9:00PM. As the overall lengths of these performances had to be shortened to fit two shows into one evening admission prices were reduced, but doubling up on attendances led to greatly increased receipts overall. When this system was implemented the majority of performers were told that they would have to give two performances per evening instead of one, but without any increase in salary. Of course, the length of their individual turns was reduced but with earlier start and later finish times they were made to remain in the theatre much longer. Thus the artistes were expected to contribute more to each evenings performances without any corresponding increase in payment. Even so, most accepted this with minimal complaint. However, the unfairness did not end there.

In the music halls at that time it was customary for performers who were engaged for a full week of evening performances to give one afternoon matinee performance free. When the performers were engaged for twice the number of evening performances, even without their salaries being increased, they were expected to give twice the number of free matinee performances as well, ie. two per week instead of one. This further increased the burden placed upon them with still no increase in payment. Some managers went even further, writing into contracts “matinees as required”, and at holiday periods performers might be expected to give matinee performances daily – for no pay.

This demand by the V.A.F. therefore was for nothing more than a return to the original status quo. Where performers were contracted to perform one show a night they would give one matinee free as before, and additional ones would be paid pro rata. Where they were contracted for two shows a night, each matinee would be paid at what amounted to half their nightly salary, so for two matinees they would be paid one evenings salary which effectively amounted to the same thing.

  1. That no artiste or artistes shall be transferred from one hall to another without his, her, or their consent.

Music Hall artistes were generally contracted to the manager rather than the hall, and as many managers controlled more than one hall they would expect to shift their performers around as and when they saw fit. If a performer was transferred to another hall in the same locality that might present little hardship, but a performer might just as easily be moved to a hall across London or somewhere in the provinces. This might make it impossible for that performer to fulfill other engagements he or she may have entered into with another manager (and which he/she could easily have kept whilst working at the original location), thus leading to a loss in earnings. Furthermore, artistes could be transferred to halls in different parts of the country from week to week thus accumulating considerable travelling expenses for which they were not compensated.

This clause therefore sought to protect the artistes from these types of hardships by ensuring that they would only be transferred to other venues by mutual agreement.

  1. That “time” shall not be varied after Monday in each week without the artistes consent.

Managers would sometimes manipulate the timing of certain acts to force out artistes whose services were no longer required. For example, a particular performer may have two concurrent engagements for twenty minute ‘turns’ at different halls, timed to appear on stage at one venue at say 8:00PM and the other at say 10:00PM. If the manager of one hall decided he no longer required that act he could not dismiss it without paying up the remainder of the contract. So instead he would deliberately change the timing of that turn so that it clashed with the artistes other commitment. This would force the artiste to be the one to break the contract since he/she could not be in two places at once, and the manager would not then be liable to pay compensation.

This clause in the V.A.F.’s demands was intended to give some measure of protection to artistes against this form of constructive dismissal. It was hardly unreasonable to ask that artistes be informed on Monday at what hours they were required to perform for the remainder of that week, and would afford them some measure of security to accept other bookings.

  1. That all disputes shell be referred to a Board of Arbitration, such board to consist of two nominees of {space for signatory} the undersigned, and two nominees of the Variety Artistes Federation Executive Committee, and an independent chairman, to be nominated by the above four nominees.

In all disputes between managers and artistes the managers themselves had always been the sole arbiters. The artistes had had little choice in most cases other than to bow to the managers will, however unfair that may sometimes have been.

The purpose of this clause therefore, was to ensure that future disputes would be settled fairly, according to the facts.

  1. That a “barring clause” of one mile and three months in London, and five miles and five months in the provinces, be adopted.

It was common practice for music hall performers contracts to include a clause barring them from performing at another hall within a certain distance to the one at which they were contracting to appear. This was not unreasonable since engagements were usually arranged in advance. If an artiste was then to appear at another nearby hall before actually commencing a given engagement the local populace would already have seen his or her act. This reduced the novelty of that artiste’s performance and lessened his/her drawing power, potentially reducing attendances at the second hall.

What was unfair about this restriction however was that it commonly took no account of time, but simply came in to effect from the moment the contract was signed. Some engagements might be arranged a whole year or more in advance however, and it was unfair to prevent an artiste from earning a living within a particular area for so long a period of time. Furthermore, an artiste may have signed a number of such future engagements, thus adding to the areas in which he/she is barred from appearing in the short term.

The purpose of this clause was simply to limit the time and distance over which this barring clause applied in an effort to be fair to both parties. Since halls were more numerous in London, and the population more densely packed so that they drew their patrons from a smaller area, the restriction was less here than in the provinces.

  1. No commission to be stopped where artistes are booked direct.

Oftentimes, artistes would be booked through a theatrical agent, in which case the agent would be paid a commission consisting of a percentage of their salary. This commission was recompense to the agent for their time and effort in finding work for the artiste. When no agent was involved however, it was common practice for the theatre managers to stop the customary agents commission (5%) from the artistes salary which they would then keep instead!

This clause then was intended to end a practice which was unique to the music halls and which the artistes considered to be little less than extortion.

  1. No bias or prejudice to be shown to any artiste who has taken part in this movement.

This clause was simply to protect any performers who had taken leading roles in the strike from reprisals by the managers.

  1. This agreement to refer to all existing and future contracts, and to become operative on {space for date} 1907.

This clause was to the date, when agreed, from which the these new terms and conditions were to come into effect.

  1. That the V.A.F. form of contract be adopted as soon as supplied.

The V.A.F. were to supply the managers with a new form of contract document encompassing these terms and conditions which the managers were then to use for future contracts.

The strike was not limited to the artistes alone. The orchestra musicians also took part, their main grievance being with their low pay. They asked for a minimum salary and payment for matinees based on one full evenings salary for one show a night houses, and half an evenings salary for two show a night houses.

The National Association of Theatrical (Stage) Employees, which represented the music-hall stage hands, also joined in the strike. In some ways their members had most to strike about. They had been particularly hard hit in those houses which had changed to two shows a night. Two shows meant a longer evening, more scene and lighting adjustments etc. All of which meant more work for everyone from the dressers and make-up artists to the scene changers and lighting men. Poorly paid already, they had been expected to work even harder for the same money. Their demands were simple, just a decent living wage – fair pay for honest work.

Some music-hall managers either recognised the justice of the strikers claims or felt the pressure and quickly came to terms. Others resisted more strongly, attempting to keep the halls open by bringing former performers out of retirement and booking unknowns. The striking artistes picketed these halls distributing leaflets declaring ‘Music Hall War!’; the managers responded distributing leaflets of their own defending their position. But by and large the public supported the strikers, especially when they had such popular favourites as Marie Lloyd and Marie Dainton on their side.

When the music hall owners responded by engaging lesser known acts and bringing others out of retirement, the union picketed theatres. On one occasion, Lloyd recognised one of those trying to enter and shouted, “Let her through girls, she’ll close the music-hall faster than we can.”

The strike lasted for almost two weeks.

Gradually the managers were worn down and forced to come to the negotiating table to settle the dispute with fairer pay and better conditions.

In due course, the dispute was referred to arbitration – the suggestion apparently coming from the author Somerset Maugham – and Sir George Askwith, conciliation officer at the Board of Trade, was appointed to try to find a resolution. A ruling was agreed, and on February 12th theatres re-opened as the strike was settled.

After 23 formal meetings and numerous less formal ones, the resulting settlement produced a national code, a model contract and a procedure for settling disputes. In effect, the performers won more money, plus a guaranteed minimum wage and maximum working week for musicians.

Askwith conducted a hearing taking evidence from the Music Hall owners and representatives of the Unions. However, although his February ‘Interim Award’ ended the strike, it took months for the final award to be settled. In June 1907, the first Askwith Award – a 32 page document – was published, attempting to clarify the appropriate “rules, regulations and rates that are applicable to variety theatres in Great Britain and Ireland.” The Award guaranteed musicians in London 30/- per week as minimum pay although drummers only received 28/-.

But it was only 12 years later in 1919 that many of the contracts agreed were actually made mandatory across the music halls a a whole.

Although the strike ended well, the music hall owners exacted small revenges on Marie Lloyd. For instance, five years later, when the first music hall royal command performance for the music hall was held, vengeful managers excluded the greatest star of the music halls from their line-up.

Grievances and disputes in the music halls continued, however, as this extract from the 1907 Trades Union Congress Annual Report reveals:

  • Mr. J. O’Gorman (Variety Artistes Federation) took the opportunity of thanking the Trade Unionists for the help they gave the members of his society during the late strike, especially Mr Isaac Mitchell. He went on to explain the growing evil of the matinee custom, which compelled variety artistes to give a lot of extra performances for nothing. They went to arbitration, and they got an award: but he was sorry to say that, with one exception, the music-hall proprietors were trying to evade it. He hoped the Trades Unionists of the country would continue to support them if they were driven further.

But over time conditions did improve. The music hall artistes had shown that they now had a voice, and the V.A.F. would continue the fight to protect the rights of its members for many years to come. It began its own regular weekly publication, “The Performer”, which was founded by ‘Uncle Fred’ who had been a journalist before becoming a renowned ventriloquist. It would remain the main association for members of the Music Hall and Variety profession until 1957 when it amalgamated with British Actors Equity (formed 1930).

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London striking history, 1988: 5500 Lambeth Council workers strike against cuts

On January 18th 1988, 5,500 Lambeth Council workers, members of NALGO, went on a one-day strike against cuts in Lambeth. [NALGO, the National Association of Local Government Officers, the local authority workers’ trade union, merged to form part of Unison in 1993.]

Here we reprint an account by one of them, written some years after the event. An interesting snapshot of life working for ‘loony left’ Lambeth Council in 1987. [Topical note: Spot the cameo by John Bercow, now the speaker of the House of Commons, then a tory Lambeth Councillor…]

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Lambeth Council 1987/1988: Eggs, Chips and Strikes
Neil Transpontine

I moved to Brixton in early 1987, and started working for Lambeth Council in the libraries. The pay wasn’t great but as I was squatting on Tulse Hill Estate (Greenleaf Close) I wasn’t paying any rent so money wasn’t a problem. The Council itself admitted that there were at least 1200 squatters in Council properties in this period (South London Press,15/2/88 – henceforth referred to as the SLP), so I certainly wasn’t alone.

It was a time of crisis in the local state, with the Conservative central government setting strict limits of what Councils could spend. One group of Lambeth Labour Councillors (led by Ted Knight) had already been disqualified from office for attempting to defy this. Their successors, led by Linda Bellos, were in the contradictory position of publicly decrying the cuts while implementing them.

The atmosphere at work was marked by almost total disengagement from the employers, something I was made aware of in my first week. Like most library workers I joined NALGO, the main union for ‘white collar workers’, who were then enforcing a ‘work to rule’. This involved people refusing to cover for vacant posts by working for more than two hours on a service point. So if a library assistant was asked to work a shift on the front desk for longer or without the usual number of colleagues on duty, they would refuse to work it and the library would have to close.  ‘Absenteeism’ was rife, so it was common for the usual number of staff not to be on duty – as a result, closures were quite frequent.

There was also some solidarity action going on in support of the historic strike at Rupert Murdoch’s News International (publishers of the Sun and the Times). This was then in full swing following the management relocating production from Fleet Street to Wapping in order to break the power of printworkers. I had been down to some of the regular mass pickets of the Wapping plant, sometimes featuring violent clashes and police charges. In the library, workers refused to handle News International papers – normally all the papers would be put out for people to read.  I went to my first union branch meeting at Brixton Town Hall in February where there was a speaker from Wapping. It was informally agreed that the boycott would continue though no vote was taken in an attempt to avoid legal action by Murdoch’s lawyers.

In terms of the Council, matters reached a head late in 1987 when the national Government announced the following year’s funding for local authorities. For Lambeth, a spending limit of £152m was set for 1988/89, compared with £210m in the previous year. The Council responded by planning cuts and putting forward controversial plans for a compulsory redeployment scheme. This was to involve cutting jobs by freezing recruitment when posts became vacant and then moving people from other jobs to cover them. Basically people would have been forced to change jobs within the Council and made redundant if they refused.

At a NALGO mass meeting just before Christmas (17/12/87) around 400 people agreed to stage a one day strike to coincide with the Council’s budget setting in the New Year. The union meeting was held at the Brixton Academy, the first time I had been in the place where over the next few years I was to see Public Enemy, Sonic Youth and Fatboy Slim, to name but a few.

On January 18th 1988 the Council’s Policy and Resources Committee met to vote through a package of cuts. The NALGO strike went ahead despite Council Leader Linda Bellos writing to workers telling us the strike was a waste of time since the Council had no choice but to make cuts; the deputy Tory group leader (Cllr.  John Bercow) called for us to be sacked: ‘In the current financial crisis these people should be deemed to have dismissed themselves if they strike’ (‘Sack the strikers’, South London Press 15.1.88).  Yes – that John Bercow, later MP and at the time of writing the Speaker of the House of Commons.

Despite these threats and entreaties, ‘Nearly all 5,500 NALGO members stayed away from work’ (SLP 19.1.88); many Council services were closed. A few of us from the libraries drove to one of the outlying branches that was still open (Herne Hill), walked in and persuaded enough people to walk out to close it down. [Typist’s note: this is the Herne Hill Carnegie Library, later occupied against closure in 2016]

In the evening there was a picket of the Council meeting in the Town Hall. We blocked the entrance and delayed some of the Councillors getting into the meeting (despite being ordered not to by union officers), then we moved into the public gallery where we did our best to disrupt the meeting. The Evening Standard reported our efforts with the memorable headline “Egg and Chips fly in £40m cuts Scramble” (19.1.1988): ‘Town hall chief officers feared that the demonstration could get so noisy and chaotic that they took the unprecedented step of issuing placards to members to enable them to carry on the debate in sign language. The placards carried such phrases as ‘I move the amendment’ and ‘I second it’… there were angry scenes after the policy and resources committee meeting at the town hall in Brixton when protestors scuffled with Labour members who had voted in favour of the cuts… Sheaves of agenda papers, eggs and a bag of chips were thrown from the first floor public gallery which overlooks the chamber. Then the town hall fire alarm was let off an the building had to be abandoned’.

By the end of the week, one group of workers – the 70 Lambeth motor mechanics – were on all out strike in a cuts related dispute. Mechanics at the Shakespeare Road depot refused to cover for a vacant cleaner post and were sent home without pay. An indefinite strike was called there and at the Kennington Lane depot.

The strikers, who were members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union picketed the Town Hall and Housing Office on the 21st January 1988, and many NALGO members refused to cross the picket lines. Union officers persuaded the strikers to call off these pickets in return for a promise of support which never really came to much. Pickets of the depots continued though, and when I went down I saw them successfully turn away Post Office vans, BP tankers and other vehicles. There was a still a widespread sense amongst workers that you didn’t cross a picket line. Lambeth Labour bosses responded by using private garages to repair dustcarts and other vehicles during the strike – a move denounced by strikers as amounting to ‘Rupert Murdoch’ tactics (SLP 16/2/1988).

The strike continued for several weeks until most of its demands had been at least partially met – including filling the cleaners post and paying the mechanics extra ‘flexibility payments’ for doing any work outside of their job descriptions. Pressure on the Council had been increased when 30 people with disabilities staged an occupation of the social services HQ. Their transport had been affected by the strike but rather than attack the strikers they demanded that the Council should settle with the dispute.

Short term occupations of Council buildings were a feature of this period. On January 29th, Brixton squatters occupied the office of the Council leader, Linda Bellos. The police arrived to chuck people out, though unfortunately for Bellos she was standing behind the door and took the full force when police pushed it open. A couple of weeks later, it was the turn of Council gardeners to occupy her office following the announcement of 80 planned redundancies.

There were further disputes through 1988 involving different groups of Lambeth Council workers. 100 housing workers had their pay stopped when they refused to operate the new Housing Computer System because of concerns about its implications for staffing and pay. Then in the summer, Environmental Health workers went on strike for several weeks after they had turned up at work to find that management had reorganised their office without talking to them first. In August 1988 a NALGO branch meeting narrowly agreed (by about 140 to 120 votes) to an all out indefinite strike to demand a guarantee from the Council that there would be no compulsory redundancies or redeployment. By this time I was a shop steward and was part of the strike committee set up to build support for the strike. In the event when it went ahead from 5th September it only lasted for a few days and only a minority of workers took part.

Another one day strike by 2,000 NALGO members in October 1988 was in opposition to the government’s plans to transfer the management of Council estates to Housing Action Trusts. Two Brixton housing estates, Loughborough and Angell Town, were scheduled to be in the first wave of this initiative and there was anger and opposition from tenants who saw only higher rents behind the government’s rhetoric of freedom from local authority control. When civil servants turned up to promote the plans on the Loughborough Estate they were heckled and booed by 200 tenants (SLP 30.9.88). There were also big meetings on other estates, including on Tulse Hill Estate.

Lambeth gardeners occupy Council offices

While all this was going on, there were other significant strikes in South London and across the country – making a mockery of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s triumphalist claim in January that the nation was cured of ‘the British Disease’ of striking.

In the health service the concern was low pay and the threat of cuts.  1988 started with people occupying a disused ward at St James Hospital in Wandsworth, protesting against cuts and threats to close London’s largest general hospital (SLP 3.1.88). On February 3rd there was a national day of action by health workers. A march called by London hospital strike committees was blocked by police in Whitehall with four arrests. Later we blocked the traffic on Westminster Bridge. Two weeks later there was a further day of action in London in which 12,000 hospital workers took part. The day ended up with several hundred marching to the town hall in Brixton for a rally. Another day of action on 14th March saw London bus crews, dockers, miners and others taking unofficial action in support of NHS workers. Some of us from Lambeth marched to join the pickets outside the Maudsley Hospital and Kings. Nurses at the Maudsley went on indefinite strike in September – a very rare move for nurses.

Brixton DHSS staff were also among the most militant in London. There had been a long all out strike there in 1980 after two workers were sacked for union activities. Some of the Brixton militants were involved later in the 1980s with Workhouse, a national rank and file group for civil servants in the Civil and Public Servants Association union (I went to a benefit disco for them at the Asian Community Action Group on Brixton Road).  [They’d also supported/taken part in the 1987-88 civil servants strike]. In August 1988 Brixton dole workers walked out on strike with other London offices against a threat to move jobs out of London. Ultimately the Brixton office was to close, making way for the famous Cool Tan squat on Coldharbour Lane in the 1990s. South London postal workers were also active in the national post strike in September 1988, with workers at the Streatham sorting office staging their own strike later in the month after two workers were suspended (SLP 30.9.88).

Further afield there was a major national ferry strike at the end of January 1988, as seafarers walked out in support of colleagues sacked for striking at the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company. The National Union of Seamen called off the strike in February when the courts ruled it illegal, but workers for P&O Ferries remained on strike in their own dispute over jobs and pay cuts for over a year. A P&O striker came to a NALGO meeting in August 1988 and that summer there were collections for them outside Brixton tube station.

Another front was a kind of culture war around sexual politics, with conservative forces pushing anti-gay and abortion politics. The movement against the anti-gay ‘Clause 27’ (later known as ‘Section 28’) was in full swing -.a clause of the Local Government Bill that banned Councils from ‘promoting’ homosexuality. On 9th January 1988 there was arrests on a big demonstration which saw people blockading the entrance to Downing Street and sitting down in Whitehall (I recall somebody trying to set alight to a union jack on the cenotaph – it was made of some kind of flameproof plastic!) and clashing with mounted police in the park next to the Imperial War Museum. In the same period there were also demonstrations against the Alton Bill, which sought to reduce the time limit for abortions. A Lambeth Against Alton group met regularly at the Town Hall from October 1987.

The movement against the poll tax was also in its early days. While not due to be introduced in England until 1990, planning had started to implement it – and to resist it. At the 1988 Lambeth Country Show in Brockwell Park people queued up to have their photos taken with their head in the ‘poll tax refuser’ stocks.

A few of us put out several editions of a bulletin ‘Lambeth Worker’ , with news about what was going on across the Council, as well as stickers. Publication of the bulletin was eased by the fact that one of us worked in Union Place Community Resource Centre, a Council-funded design and  print shop run by a workers co-operative. All kinds of radical literature came out of there, some of it printed semi-commercially, some of it on the side by the staff. Union Place was on Vassall Road next to the Union Tavern at the junction with Camberwell New Road.  It had survived an attempted fascist arson attack for which a local National Front activist (and Southwark Council dust cart driver) was jailed in 1980, but ultimately succumbed to cuts – the building has been replaced by housing.

In ‘Lambeth Worker’ we argued for unifying the different struggles: ‘Some people say that there’s no point in fighting because the Council hasn’t got any money, but they’re wrong. Nurses are in a similar situation, employed by almost bankrupt health authorities, yet they realise that by taking national action they can force the government to cough up more money. If we link up our struggle with other people acing cuts such as Council workers in other boroughs and health workers, we can all benefit from forcing the state into retreat’ (Lambeth Worker, no. 1, 1988). [Check out Lambeth Worker, no 1, here and a later issue here

The reality within Lambeth was that groups of workers tended to be picked off one by one. The unions divided the workforce, with office workers mainly in NALGO, and manual workers split between NUPE, AEU, GMB and UCATT. But even within NALGO workers in different sections found themselves isolated. Many Union officers were embroiled in the internecine warfare within the Labour Party, making deals with the various factions cooked up in The Social Club, a cheap bar in the Town Hall, and other smoky rooms. The endless calls for one day strikes became increasingly routinised, with little serious effort to mobilise for action. Many workers ignored them and waited for the promised final catastrophe that never arrived. Instead of the big bang of mass redeployment or redundancies, the outcome was the slow lingering death of Council services from a thousand cuts, continuing in Lambeth and many other places for years to come.

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Much more could be written on this period in Lambeth… some of it is vaguely in preparation…

If you liked this post… check out the author’s excellent blog transpontine

Today in London anti-war history, 1919: Strike of conscientious objectors in Wandsworth Prison gets them released

Wandsworth Prison, in South London, was built in 1851. During World War 1, it had been divided into two institutions, one a civil prison housing conscientious objectors, and the other a military wing for the detention of army defaulters from the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand armies. Each of these prisons had its own Governor and administration. In theory they were quite separate, but in fact the military section overflowed into a part of the civil prison. Sometimes the two factions of alleged delinquents came into contact. This was stopped when the conchies, appalled at the brutal treatment meted out to the soldiers, made protest demonstrations. This reached a climax when R.M. Fox and others raised a vigorous protest when a youth was chased naked along a corridor by prison guards armed with ticks with which they proceeded to beat the young soldier. But the windows of the civil cells overlooked by the military parade ground, and from there much abuse was hurled at the guards, and much incitement to revolt aimed at the soldiers.

The stirring of unrest among the Conscientious objectors in Wandsworth began in the early months of 1918. In February, Conscientious objectors refused to wash military uniforms as part of their prison work. They would not wear them: was it considered they should wash them? The Governor conceded the point.

By June 1918, the noise created in the establishment of deathly silence was such that it upset the subservient faction of the inmates, and harassed the warders. That month a work and discipline strike was planned, but it was betrayed beforehand by one of the conchies who did not believe in making a disturbance.

The nine ringleaders of the alleged plot were brought before the Visiting Magistrates and sentenced to forty-two days No 1 punishment. That meant seven weeks in solitary confinement with three days on and three days off bread and water, in unheated basement cells with no furniture, except bedboard, stool and sanitary bucket. Among the nine were Guy Aldred, Frederick Sellars, Ralph Morris and R.M. Fox.

[Guy Aldred (1886-1963) was a long-time anarchist-communist. Born in Clerkenwell, London, he first became a boy-preacher, then a freethinker and secularist speaker, rapidly progressing to socialist politics. An eccentric individual all his life, he adopted an anarchist and anti-parliamentarian stance before WW1, but for decades was famous for standing in elections, as a tactic for spreading propaganda. A noted public speaker, he saw himself very much in the tradition of nineteenth century freethinkers and radical publishers like Richard Carlile. During WW1 he refused to submit to conscription, and was imprisoned in labour camps and various prisons several times, but continued his anti-war campaigning inside and outside jail. After the war he moved to Glasgow, and lived there for the rest of his life, continuing to issue anarchist propaganda.
Richard Fox, known as Dick, was a founder and leading member of the North London Herald League, one of the main groups in London to oppose WW1 from a socialist perspective. The NLHL was formed initially as part of a nation-wide support and distribution network for the leading leftwing paper, the Daily Herald. It united socialists, anarchists and communists of varying ideological backgrounds, and organised constant anti-war propaganda and public meetings throughout the conflict. Its members were also involved in every conceivable theatre of struggle – resisting conscription, helping to smuggle draft-dodgers out of the country, strikes, and much more. Before the war Fox had been an engineer and a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain; from 1913 he was a member of the syndicalist union, the Industrial Workers of the World’s British section, and had edited its paper Industrial Worker. He was arrested in 1916, forced to go before a Tribunal when he refused to obey orders, and went to prison.
Fox was released in 1919, and became a writer and journalist. He eventually moved to Dublin where he died in 1969.]

When the nine had been on bread and water for three days, the Governor sent for them and told them he was transferring them to Brixton Prison…

Brixton at this time held remand prisoners, convicted men on short sentences (as it does today) as well as political detainees and some conscientious objectors. At this time, several IRA men (1918 being the early days of the Irish War of independence) were held there; they were not subject to the usual rules of silence or locked in their cells. Another inmate was Tchitcherin, a Russian socialist soon to be appointed the Soviet representative in Britain. When the Wandsworth rebels were transferred to Brixton Prison, they made it clear to the Governor there that they would do no ‘punitive work’, but agreed to work in the kitchens so long as they were allowed to speak and had minimal supervision. To save face, the Chief Warder made an agreement to deliver the required allotment of mailbags in each man’s cell each day, though Aldred and the others made it clear they would not sew them… A blind eye was turned. The nine also managed to force some concessions regarding the conditions in which they received visits.

Working in the kitchen, exempted from the silence rule, the nine held political discussions; RM Fox recalls Aldred standing behind a table, making some political point, illustrating it by prodding the air vigorously with a bread knife! They also held clandestine study sessions, and Aldred wrote and smuggled out articles for The Spur (via sympathetic prison warders?!?)

While the men were in Brixton (in August 1917), the sentences on Aldred, Frederick Sellar and Ralph Morris ended, but instead of being released, they were transferred to Blackdown Barracks, given orders, which they were bound to refuse, and court-martialled again. As a result they received further sen­tences of two years hard labour.

The first of these prisoners to return to Wandsworth from Brixton, on September 4th 1918, was Guy Aldred, with another two years added to his (two-year) sentence. He had openly stated at his court-martial note here and in the columns of his paper The Spur that he would neither work nor take orders while subject to this illegal imprisonment. He later maintained, not in self-defence, but as a matter of fact, that he was not the leader, but there is no doubt that his attitude would stir up the latent unrest, which had not been entirely inactive while he was away.

As the trouble got worse, sometime in October the Governor gathered the twenty most obstreperous men into his office and offered a truce. All punishments wiped out, several concessions granted, if the men would co-operate in running the prison properly. Aldred was among the twenty. It is not recorded who was their spokesman, but the reaction was unanimous. Their liberty was not up for bargaining. They were not objecting to the conditions of imprisonment but to the fact of imprisonment. So the peace bid failed.

The Governor retaliated by confining the worst offenders, including Aldred, to their cells, canceling all visits, all letters and library books. Cell ‘furniture’ (bedboard and stool) were removed during the day.

By this time the men were on strike. The demands were for the release of the locked-up men, the resumption of letters, visitors and books, and one hour (increased to two hours, on second thoughts) of free talking every day. These demands seem to have been met, with the exception of the release of the locked-up men. They, it was said, would stay permanently under lock and key.

R.M. Fox returned to Brixton at that time. He had been kept in Brixton till the expiry of his two-year sentence, then on November 10th, the eve of the Armistice, he was released and taken back to the headquarters of his Army unit – which he was deemed to have joined – stationed at Mill Hill military barracks, not to be dismissed from the Army, as prescribed in the Regulations, but to face his fourth court-martial.

The guard room at Mill Hill Barracks was packed with very drunk soldiers. They had been celebrating victory over the Germans and smashing up the West End. Now they were confined to barracks, and they were celebrating. They sang the old war-time songs beloved of all soldiers: ‘Take me back to Dear old Blighty’, ‘If the sergeant drinks your rum, never mind!’, and the parody on a hymn, ‘Wash me in the water that you washed your dirty daughter, and I shall be whiter that the whitewash in your wall.’

A few days later Fox faced his fourth court martial. Fox was an engineer by trade, an author by profession, and a socialist by conviction. He had delivered many an anti-war speech at open-air meetings before hostile audiences. He took this opportunity to harangue the officers of the court, since they had probably never listened to an open-air meeting:

“Gentlemen, you think you are trying me. You are in error. It is you who are on trial. The havoc you have wrought in the past years is there to condemn you. It is not German militarism, nor English militarism, which is responsible for this. It is Militarism, without qualification, and the militarists are only the agents for the capitalists who coin money out of blood. I stand as spokesmen for that rising body of men and women who are about to condemn you. The war was a war of greed and plunder. Profiteers have plundered the people unmercifully since the war began…Thousands of honest poor people have been murdered and maimed to swell the moneybags of the vultures who made the war …. Thousands of working men, sick to death of the horror, greed and hypocrisy of their present rulers are taking control of the world into their own hands….”

He could have saved his breath. The sentence of the court was automatic, as the members of the court were automatons, programmed to a War Office response. Two years’ Hard Labour. A few days later Fox and five others were taken by an escort of ten soldiers to Wandsworth Prison.

The sergeant in charge halted his men outside a West End tearoom and proposed that they all meet again therein two hours’ time. Fox looked up some friends and had tea and a chat. At the end of two hours, more or less, the prisoners had all assembled. Presently the sergeant arrived, but no escort. In some alarm the sergeant asked the prisoners to help find them. So, after an organised search of nearby pubs they were all together, the escort very merry, and some very unsteady. When they arrived at the gates of Wandsworth they were really being escorted by the prisoners.

Wandsworth, according to Fox, was like a cold damp scullery. ‘My heart sank when I saw the grim entrance to Wandsworth again, and heard the key grate once more in the lock. A little band of pacifist women, led by Clara Cole, greeted us at the prison gate, where they were tireless in their demonstrations.’

[Clara Gilbert Cole (1868-1956) was a suffragist before World War 1. During the war she became an ardent pacifist, founding a League against War and Conscription. She was jailed for six months in 1916 with Rosa Hobhouse for distributing thousands of anti-war leaflets in Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. Later she was associated with Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation, another of the main London anti-war groups. Becoming involved in the post-war unemployed movement, she was nicked again in 1922 on an unemployed action in Camberwell, South London. She gravitated towards anarchism, with which she identified until her death.

Another of those women was Lady Clare Anneseley.  [Lady Clare Annesley (1893-1980), pacifist and socialist, was daughter of the 5th Earl Annesley, but became a member of the Independent Labour Party. When the war broke out she was heavily involved in the No Conscription Fellowship. She later stood as a Labour Party candidate in the 1920s and ‘30s. But she became interested in the Social Credit movement in the early 1930s, and its possible that she also flirted with fascism at this time…? I cannot be sure of this however.]

Both were active in keeping a constant vigil outside Wandsworth, carrying placards in support of the C.O. s inside, and laying themselves open to much public abuse. Both Clara Cole and Lady Clare Annesley were associated with Guy Aldred in his opposition to the Second War, though in a quieter role. During the First War they also organised concerts of popular songs and music outside the walls of Wandsworth. Inmates were forbidden to listen. Seven men who gathered under a landing window to listen to one such Christmas Eve concert were seen, and promptly sentenced to one day on bread and water to see them over the Christmas celebrations.

Fox found that the prison was completely out of hand. Now that the Armistice was signed, long pent‑up feelings demanded an outlet. One body of prisoners, who were known as the ‘All‑Out Strikers’, had declared that they intended to disregard all prison rules. Those men were in permanent lock‑up. They kept up a constant din all day, rattling their mugs along the doors of their cells and shouting abuse at the warders. Guy Aldred probably took part in this uproar, though it was quite out of character. He would rather have been reading or writing, or speaking. The din told on his nerves, and he was not the only sufferer. Only about a third of the C.O.s were in revolt. The others just wanted to finish their time and get out. They complained to the Governor that they could not read the extra book the concession had granted them, because of the din. The old lags – according to Fox there were still some in the prison – did not know what to make of it all. Jail had never been like this.

In the evenings the locked‑up men held concerts, with songs and recitations echoing through the spy‑holes, and Guy Aldred had his chance: he lectured. On at least one occasion the warders tried to drown his words by rattling on trays. On December 4th the Governor ordered the ‘All-Out Strikers’ to be taken down to the basement cells. R.M. Fox was not among them at that time: he was with them a few weeks later, so we can use his description:

“Those basement cells were appalling. They were half underground dungeons. Not only were they gloomy, but everything in them was coated with an unbelievable filth. Grimy cobwebs hung in the corners, the dirt of years was plastered on the small barred window through which I could just seethe feet of men on exercise at ground level. Even the can of drinking water was festooned with dirt and grime. It was as if I had been thrust in among old forgotten lumber to die…

The “All‑Out Strikers” occupied similar basement cells. Nearly opposite my cell was a Scottish lad, Jack Hodgson, who had been down in this horrible dungeon for months. He was not allowed out for exercise for he refused to obey the prison rules. He was nothing but a bag of bones, with a pale, hollow cheeked face, and an indomitable spirit. I heard his thin treble voice singing revolutionary songs far into the night. His voice cut across the brooding silence of that terrible time.”

The furniture consisted of a bed‑board, three blankets, a backless stool, a fixed table‑bench, and a sanitary bucket, sometimes left for two days unemptied. Twice a week a convict barber came around and as each man in turn sat on his stool drew a torturously blunt old ‘cut-throat’ razor over his face. There were no washing facilities and no exercise. There was no heating – and this was mid-winter. The light should have been supplied from the gas jet, which shone through a frosted glass panel from the corridor. This was not lit on the first night, and as a protest the men smashed the glass panels, an action for which they were awarded one day on bread and water. The broken panels made a good opening for speaking to each other, and by that means the prisoners agreed to reject the punishment by throwing the bread back into the corridor. The light was then restored, but withdrawn again when the unwisdom of giving desperate men access to a gaslight was realised. Thereafter the ‘Basement Men’ spent their days in gloom and their nights in darkness for many weeks.

As a protest against the treatment of the Basement Men, the other conchies on strike decided to hold a meeting in the exercise yard on a Sunday, when most of the warders were off duty. It was arranged that four men, Beacham, Knight, Spiller and Fox would speak in turn from a parapet: others would follow as each was dragged off. So, instead of marching round in the prescribed manner, they gathered in a group round the speakers. There was no interference, and the meeting proceeded. There were only two warders on yard duty, and they probably felt the situation was beyond them, especially as these were not ordinary convicts, and the warders themselves were not quite immune from the radical tendencies that were gathering strength outside. From that meeting a Prisoners’ Committee of five members was elected. This reported to the prisoners in the exercise yard. A proposal of cell-furniture smashing was rejected, and a policy of ‘massive deputation’ was adopted. If a grievance was not dealt with to their satisfaction, they would march to the centre of the prison and squat there till agreement was reached between them and the Governor.

Next morning fifty men made application to see the Governor. He accepted only five. The Chairman of the Visiting Magistrates was present. The magistrates had arrived to hear charges against the basement strikers. Fox read out a resolution passed at the meeting condemning the incarceration of the Basement Men, and demanding their release. The Governor said those complaints had no personal bearing on the men making the complaints, and were therefore invalid. He would run the prison as he thought fit. Fox was permitted to speak to the magistrates, and did so with the satisfactory result that they took no action on the charges made, and so no further punishments were handed out.

Concerts were held in the evenings, both above ground and at basement level. The men above recited or sang from their windows, standing on their stools. Fox describes one such entertainment in which there were twenty items of song and recitation, ending with the ‘Red Flag’. Prisoners from an opposite wing climbed on their stools to listen and applaud. So did the soldiers, some of whom joined in the singing of rebel songs. And so did the inhabitants of the nearby houses. They did not applaud or join in, but they listened, leaning on their elbows on the window sills.

The basement men held lectures. The most popular were delivered by Guy Aldred. Speaking through the still unrepaired corridor window, with his bed-board to act as sounding-board, he delivered on different occasions lectures on Karl Marx, Michael Bakunin, Jesus, Womens’ Freedom, the Revolutionary Tradition in English Literature and Richard Carlile. On several occasions off-duty warders gathered at the foot of the stairs to listen.

Wandsworth COs also produced an underground journal, the ‘Old Lags Hansard’. According to inmate Harold Blake, “this periodical was written by hand in block characters on sheets of toilet paper, and sewn together with thread; and on account of the labour involved, only one copy of each issue was published. However, it went the rounds passing from hand to hand, and finally when it had fulfilled its purpose, it was contrived that it should fall into the hands of Mr Walker, the Chief Warder. The vastly amusing part about the whole business was that the last page always con­tained the announcement ‘Look out for the next number, to be published on date x, and in spite of all the efforts of the authorities to trace its origin, we were not disappointed. Once indeed it was a day late, as they made the declared date a search day; but the editor presented his apologies in his editorial to the effect that he was a day late in publishing ‘owing to an official raid on our offices.’ [i.e. his cell!]

COs interned in several work camps and prisons circulated such samizdat journals.

News seeped into Wandsworth that a ‘Hunger-strike policy’ was being advocated in several other prisons. It was proposed that this should start with a wholesale refusal of work or eating on New Years Day. R.M. Fox was one of those who disagreed with the hunger-strike policy. There were those who were opposed to the whole campaign of objection. One such, named Leonard J. Simms, acquiring a plentiful supply of coarse brown toilet paper, wrote and circulated an attack on the ‘Basement Oligarchy’, whose influence and noise kept the prison in a state of uproar. The Chief Warder did not help in the direction of calm and order when he jeered at several of the acquiescent men, calling them cowards who were prepared to accept all the concessions gained by the strikers, but were not prepared to participate in their protests. This led to a spate of cell smashing. One person, being particularly incensed at this accusation, reacted so violently that he was put into a straitjacket.

There had been hunger strikes for varying periods from the beginning of December. There is no way of knowing how many fell in with the Prisoners’ Committee resolution to fast on New Years Day, but fourteen of those who did continued the strike, declaring that it would be maintained till they were released, which they were, on January 7th.

Amongst them were Aldred and Thomas Ellison. [Thomas Ellison had been called up to the 7th London Regiment on April 27th, 1916 and on June 9th was charged at Sutton Mandeville Camp near Salisbury with refusing to put on military clothing. At his court-martial on June 14th, he refused to call witnesses, instead making a speech that was reported in The Spur. He was sentenced to six months’ hard labour, later reduced to 112 days, and sent to Winchester prison on June 19th. In early November Ellison was ordered to Wakefield work camp. On December 27th a letter ordered him to report to the London Regiment. He was arrested in Crewe and taken to Sutton Mandeville, then to Dartmouth (the 7th having moved to South Devon), where he was court-martialled on January 17th and sentenced to two years. He was taken to Exeter Prison on the 26th, spending five months there before his release (in June 1919?).]

However, the releases on January 7th didn’t end the strikes, as not all the strikers got out.

Five who resumed the hunger strike after a break were not included in the release, nor were the non-strikers, that is, those who were non-Participants in the All-Out Strike Campaign. These were men incensed at the jeers of the Chief Warder. Some of them were forcibly fed.

The releases of January 7th were also not final. It was in terms of the Cat and Mouse Act. They were out on licence for twenty-eight days, due to report back on the 6th of February.

The London Star, giving a description of the upheaval in Wandsworth, made it a matter for fun and ridicule at the expense of the C.O.s, implying that they were having as great time at the expense of the taxpayer – having a very happy time altogether. Thomas Henry Ellison replied… in the inaccurate and insulting screed in the columns of The Spur for February 1919: “The article gave no indication of the stern aspect of prison life as known to those who have served from two to three years imprisonment with hard labour – the most rigorous punishment known to English law. It is true that there is a humorous side to prison life. If there were not, most of us would have been transferred to an asylum long before now. Nevertheless there is a tragic side, which the Star did not touch upon. It did not give the number of C.O.s who have been driven insane. It did not tell of the hours of silent torture in which they braved the world, braved it unfalteringly, with soul undaunted by the invective of the Prussianised press, and its lovely bride and supporter, the misled mob.”

Aldred’s physical condition was poor, as must have been expected… The Daily Herald had expressed concern over Aldred’s health the previous August when he had face his fourth court-martial: “We are informed that Aldred’s state of health is such that another term of imprisonment would be highly dangerous; but, indeed, this endless torture would break the health of the strongest man… We call upon the Labour Movement to do something about these outrages.” Now the paper returned to the subject, and the Daily News, West London Observer, and Forward [a news-sheet produced by the Independent Labour Party] also mentioned Guy Aldred’s temporary release, and the effect the long dungeon confinement had had. The editor of the Merthyr Pioneer [a South Wales socialist paper, again run by the ILP.] declared that the sufferings imposed on Aldred and his fellows were not mob violence, but legal crimes. The Glasgow Anarchists in a manifesto demanding the release of all C.O.s, concluded: “The condition of Guy Aldred is one of mental relapse. An active mental worker, a journalist by profession, the bare prison wall with its blank suggestion is fast bringing about in him a serious condition of mind.”

The ferment had not abated in Wandsworth during Aldred’s absence. It had perhaps got even worse. The non-strikers had taken to disobedience. They laughed and talked in the mornings as they were marched to the work shed, and they sang on the way back at 4pm. If any one of them was reprimanded for talking at work they all burst into song. It was not just defiance and protest. Those men were being subjected without a break to a double term of what was considered the harshest sentence allowed by British law. Some of the laughter, coming from half-empty stomachs and torn nerves, was the release of hysteria.

On February 17th, 1919, some of the military prisoners confined on the civil side of the prison attacked their warders. The Prison Report issued later stated: “There can be no doubt that the conduct of the disorderly section of the Conscientious Objectors and their direct incitements to their fellow-prisoners to set the prison authorities at defiance, was one of the main causes of this outbreak.”

Now it was the warders turn to hold a meeting. They reached the conclusion that their lives were in danger, and petitioned the Home Office for support and protection. The result was that the Governor and the Chief Warder (the one who loved to provoke inoffensive prisoners) were each given a month’s leave of absence. The Governor’s place was taken by a Major Blake, who was a noted disciplinarian. He has served in several penal institutions, including Borstal, as a time when the rod was used more frequently than the psychiatrist. The cowardly conchies gave him a rough ride, and a month later an enquiry was held into his conduct. He had overlooked the fact that conchies were more articulate, less over-awed by authority, skilled in exposures, and righteously indignant. The common criminal or Borstal Boy was beaten before he started, by his self-estimation of subservience and fear.

The enquiry into the Major’s misconduct was held in Wandsworth Prison on 15th, 19th and 22nd March 1919. The Report was issued as a White paper on May 7th, and was available to the public at two-pence a copy. Among other interesting observations, it said:

“By this time (the arrival of the major) all attempts to enforce discipline in the prison among the disorderly section of the Conscientious Objectors had been abandoned.

While the promoters of the disorder in the prison belonged exclusively to the prisoners classed as conscientious objectors, it is right to point out that there is a considerable number of conscientious objectors who have from the first refused to take part in the disturbance, and have used their utmost effort to prevent it.

The truth is that the prisoners in Wandsworth Prison classed as conscientious objectors belong to schools of thought which are widely separated. They may be divided into three classes: the first consisting of those who have a sincere objection to any form of military service, the second those who falsely pretend to hold religious views in order to escape from its perils, and the third composed of men who profess anarchical doctrines, who deny the validity of the law and the right of the State to trench upon individual freedom. It was to the last class that the disorder in the prison was mainly due.”

When he first arrived at the prison entrance, the major was led by the new Chief Warder into the main hall. There they encountered a ‘gang of men’ drawn up and singing and making an awful noise such as the major had never heard in any prison of his experience. The Major called out ‘Silence!’ Somebody shouted out ‘Get your hair cut!’ (a popular catch-phrase at the time). Somebody else made an offensive and disgusting noise with his mouth and voices from the back called ‘Who is this bloody swine?’ and ‘Listen to the bloody swine!’

The Major said at the enquiry that the most impertinent person in the crowd of prisoners was a man who said nothing, but kept up an aggravating grinning and giggling. This was blatant dumb insolence. He ordered the warders to take that man to the basement and ‘Iron him if necessary.’ So the poor fellow was dragged to the basement and fastened into the cruel figure-of-eight irons, which were not normally used in those enlightened times.

This was the first man to be punished by the Major, and the sad thing is that this was Ralph Frederick Harris, who, the previous June, had humbly petitioned the Home Office to protect him from the outrageous conchies. Now his deliverer had arrived, perhaps at last in reply to his petition – and not before time, for things had worsened. Doubtless the Home Secretary had mentioned the petition and its author. What the Major crassly mistook for grins and giggles were knowing smiles of welcome. But understanding did not shine from the Major’s face. He thought the fellow a fool.

The tour of inspection proceeded to the workshop. About 450 men were sitting quietly getting on with their work. About 100 of them were conscientious objectors. ‘I was nor particularly interested in the conscientious objectors,’ said the Major at the Enquiry. The officer in charge had just said “all correct, Sir’, when through the opposite door burst a gang of men singing The Red Flag. The flabbergasted Major had never seen anything like it in his life. Recalcitrant old lag, yes, obstreperous borstal boys, certainly, but never a revolutionary tableau complete with vocal chorus in his own prison. He was outraged.

He ordered the warders to drive the mutinous swine back to their cells. He thought the leader was the notorious Guy Aldred, and called him a Bolshevik, with a few adjectival garnishes. Guy was, at that time, holding meetings not far from Wandsworth… [on Clapham Common]. The conchie favoured with the Major’s abuse was R.M. Fox.

‘It is right’, read the Enquiry Report, ‘to observe in connection with the last named man (that is, Guy Aldred), that he had been previously convicted and sentenced to a term of imprisonment for seditious libel, and in connection with a paper which propagates anarchical doctrines.’

The Enquiry also considered complaints of physical ill treatment made by the prisoners. In one case, the doctor was reported as saying to a man-handled convict that it ‘served him right’. The best the report could offer in the ay of whitewash was that the reason the major had transgressed on all counts was that he had failed to exercise reasonable restraint in his judgments.

The rowdy songsters were hustled back to their cells that first day, but some must have escaped the net, for that evening the Prisoner’ Committee held a meeting in a secluded corner of the Prison. Victor Beacham was speaker and chairman.

[North London Herald League (NLHL) member and speaker Victor Beacham, a glass blower, had been an anarchist and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World before the War, as well as being one of the earliest members of the NLHL. Like Fox he was jailed after taking an ‘absolutist’ position – refusing to co-operate in any way with the war effort. After the War, Beacham joined the Communist Party and became a trade union official in the Painters’ Union. He left the CP in 1929 and joined the Labour Party. He died in 1961, aged 72.]

They considered tactics to defeat the Major. Next morning at exercise it was discovered that all those who had taken part in the secret meeting had been confined to their cells indefinitely.

Leonard S. Simons, the man who had published the toilet paper manifesto denouncing the ‘Basement Oligarchy’, demanded that action should be taken on behalf of the locked-in comrades. A warder of the new regime seized him and dragged him inside. Fox called for an immediate return to the cells as protest. Two men stepped out of the silent parading circle and joined him. The rest did not hear.

Next morning the three of them were marched, one at a time, into the Governor’s office. Fox was first. The Governor banged the table and roared that Fox was guilty of mutiny, and that he had a good mind to order him a flogging. But he changed the good mind to a better one and ordered two days bread and water instead. The other two were awarded the same.

Everything was taken out of Fox’s cell – bedboard, blankets, stool and table – and he was left standing in an echoing emptiness. Next morning he was given a tin mug of water and a hunk of bread. He heard through the whispered information of the landing cleaner that the other two were handing back their bread, so he did likewise. He did the same the next morning, but on the third morning he fell ravenously on the prison breakfast, and was told, when he had finished, that his friends along the landing had decided to continue their fast. Fox then resumed his fast. If he had not broken it, he may have been released after three more days, under the Cat and Mouse Act, as his companions were, along with nine others who had been on a prolonged hunger strike.

The Major’s response to Fox’s resumption of the strike was to have him taken down to the basement, which Fox described as damp, dark, filthy, and crawling with insects. Evidently he had a mattress, for he says the insects crawled over it. After four days Fox and others on hunger strike were taken into the exercise yard, supported by warders and marched around. A few were barely able to stand, but were dragged along.

Then they were forced into what a jolly warder called a ‘Feeding Queue’. He also expressed the hope that they all had their life insurances fully paid up. At the head of the queue was a barber’s chair. Into this each man was placed in turn, his arms held behind him by two warders. Into his mouth a wooden gag was forced – the same gag for everybody. This gag had a hole in the middle through which was passed a tube, all the way into the stomach. Fox, in his autobiographical work Smoky Crusade wrote:

‘I had all the sensations of suffocation. Every choking breath I took drew the rubber tube further in. I felt it right down in the pit of my stomach. A funnel, as if for oil, was put over the tube and liquid food poured in. I choked again when the tube was withdrawn, and staggered, dazed and sick, back to my cell.

‘Each morning we had a roll-call of hunger-strikers from cell to cell, and we heard, day by day, the voices we knew growing fainter and fainter.’

On the eleventh day it was whispered that the conduct of the new Governor was to be the subject of a Home Office Enquiry, to be held in the prison.

Colonel Wedgewood had raised the matter of the inhuman treatment of C.O.s in Wandsworth in the House of Commons. [Colonel Wedgewood: a longtime Liberal MP, (grandson of the ceramics pioneer Josiah Wedgewood), who, though he volunteered to serve in WW1, supported the rights of conscientious objectors and raised questions in Parliament complaining about their ill-treatment. In 1919 he defected to the Labour Party, becoming a minister in the first Labour government. Apart from the COs, he was well-known for supporting unpopular causes, including the treatment of refugees, including some political exiles, and Indian independence.]

The Major had only been on a temporary assignment to Wandsworth, and probably left there after the Enquiry. He did not leave the Prison Service though, for in 1926 he was the subject of another Enquiry. He had revealed to the press the personal confidences of a condemned murderer.

The hunger strikers gave up their strike after the Enquiry. Guy Aldred arrived back in Wandsworth in the middle of the proceedings. He commenced his strike, as he had said he would, and determined to continue it indefinitely. But the authorities had had enough of hunger strikes, and of Guy Aldred. After four days they released him. Fox had to wait a few more weeks, but on April 19th he was also set free.

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More information can be found in Smokey Crusade, RM Fox’s autobiography; Don’t Be a Soldier, The Radical Antiwar Movement in North London 19141919, by Ken Weller; ‘Come Dungeons Dark’, The Life and Times of Guy Aldred, Glasgow Anarchist, by John Taylor Caldwell, (from which this text is lifted.)
See also this on Clara Cole

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An entry in the
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