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 Hardy 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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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
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London retail history, 1918: West End hairdressers go on strike

In December 1918 a hairdressers strike broke out in London’s West End: the largest ever hairdressers strike in Britain…

Below we reprint an account by Philip Hoffman, an official of the Shop Assistants Union, from his autobiography, ‘They Also Serve’.

At this time the London hairdressing trade was divided into 3 zones – the City, the West End, and the Suburbs. Hairdressers in the three zones faced very different pay and conditions. In the City, hours were much shorter, tips were larger, and trade brisker than in the Suburbs, but fixed wages were very low; some City hairdressers were on a basic wage of as little as 15 shillings a week. In the West End, hairdressing was considered more upmarket and ‘gents’ and ‘ladies’ were served in the same establishments. There, hours were longer than in the City, but tips were even higher. Hairdressers in the Suburbs worked the longest hours.

Many hairdressers existed on a scanty basic wage, which they could supplement with tips and by selling extras, such as various lotions, face towels, shampoos, (and presumably contraceptives!), usually on commission from the salon. To encourage sales the commission rate to assistants were often quite high.

‘Ladies’ hairdressers generally commanded a higher wage, due to the greater skill and technique involved; ‘ladies hands’ were more likely to have a pride in their craft…

City hairdressers were mostly overseen by the City Hairdressers Guild, which in the manner of the Guilds contained both masters and workers, and tried to resolve disputes and pay issues internally. Low basic wages meant that there was a lot of pressure for a decent minimum wage… In 1917, after much negotiation, a basic minimum of 28 shillings a week for over 21-year olds was agreed… Which was still notably lower, for instance, than the 35 shillings a week Glasgow hairdressers shortly obtained. [Glasgow hairdressers had won improvements in their minimum wage scale from 28s. to 30s. during July, 1915. followed by Edinburgh a month later, and further wage rises had been won in 1917.]

Towards the end of 1917 widespread negotiations were opened in the West End salons. The result was the following Charter, to which more than 20 firms signed up:

Hours – 48 maximum.
Wages at 21 years:
Manicurist (Ladies’) 25S. and 10 per cent. on all takings. Gents’ Hands 35s. and 12 and a half per cent. (chiropody 2d. in is. extra).
General Hands (that is those who do some work in Ladies’ Saloon as well as Gents’) 45s. and commission.
Ladies’ Hands 60s. and commission.
Charge Hands 50s. and commission.
General Conditions-Mealtimes as in Shops Act (which did not apply to hairdressers) and one week’s holiday with full pay.

However a short successful strike was necessary before this agreement was agreed to by Faulkners Saloons, who ran salons in several London railway stations. In June, Harrods Stores, with more than 71 hairdressing employees, signed up to an extended charter, including:

Chiropody-60s. and 10 per cent. on takings.
Postiche Dresser – 60s. and 5 per cent. on takings.

By this time the City Guild agreed to a minimum of 32 shillings. and increased commission from eight and a half to twelve and a half per cent. There were now, in July 1918, eighty-two firms under agreement with the Union, including two large stores, Harrods and Selfridges.

The Shop Steward question was causing difficulty. One firm sacks the Steward as soon as appointed. All staff is withdrawn and an advertisement is put in the trade journal, and the firm falls into line. Another proves more obstinate, but as the staff puts on sandwich-boards and parades in front of the premises, in three days the firm gives way.

The question of assistants waiting on clients at their homes or places of business arises for settlement. This and other matters compelled the drafting of definite duties for Shop Stewards, one of whom was appointed in every saloon. A Code of Working Rules for Shop Stewards was displayed. Here is the code summarised as briefly as possible

“1. All assistants must be members of the Union.

2. The Steward is the recognised intermediary between staff and employer; his duty is to adjust all disputes; when not able to do this they must be reported to the branch committee whose decision is final. Examples are :

(a) Disputes between employers and employees.

(b) Bad time-keeping.

(c) Arrears in subs.

(d) Unprofessional conduct.

(e) Non-Unionists.

Every member is expected to perform his duty to employer, during business hours, and to his colleagues at all times.”

Naturally, after securing so much for so many, the assistants began to tackle a comprehensive charter. A crowded meeting at the International Hall, Cafe Monico, Piccadilly Circus, in January, 1918, confirmed and amplified what was presented to them. Actually they tried to do a very ambitious thing: to draft a charter for all London. The ambitious part of the scheme was to try and get the employers to agree. Indeed, to get the hairdresser employers of London to agree with one another, let alone with those they employed, was proved well-nigh impossible. It is to their credit they tried it. They saw that if, with the ever-increasing development of women’s hairdressing, they were to win control over working conditions, London could not be treated in zones. London must be treated as a unit and the occupation catered for on the basis of class of trade, graded by prices charged. The difficulty of reaching coherence between employers in the matter of charges, was in great part the cause of their inability to work together. The margins were very narrow. As long as anyone with a £10 note could open a barbers shop and charge anything they liked for shaving and haircutting, it was extremely difficult to get a firm foundation, as difficult as it was to get a decent living ! Work it out, on the basis of four shaves per hour at tuppence per shave, with a continuous stream of clients waiting their turn, for 48 hours of the week, you will have gathered in 32 shillings., out of which sum must be paid rent, rates, taxes, light, heat, towels, and so on.

The profession had a weekly paper, The Hairdressers’ Journal, which had quite impartially given reports of the assistants’ activities, so that the meeting which confirmed the draft charter was fully reported, and it became a matter for general, if heated, discussion in the trade. There were three employers’ associations catering for hairdressers: The London Suburban Master Hairdressers’ Association, the City Guild, and the Incorporated Guild of Wigmakers, Hairdressers and Perfumers. The last body was precluded by its charter from dealing with wage negotiations. Nevertheless, its secretary took the initiative and convened a meeting of all London employers at the Cafe Monico early in 1918. But the meeting was apparently not a happy one, for the journal thus commented : “As the meeting developed, the conversation lapsed into the haggling, quibbling and hair-splitting that one expects to meet with over a committee table.”

Eventually a joint committee of the employers’ associations met the assistants and hammered away at the subject, quite unavailingly… The talks went on for nearly twelve months. The employers wanted a 56-hour week, rates only for efficient workers, commission only after wages had been earned, zonal rates and no overtime pay, fines for being late. They could not agree to an all-London rate as the City stuck out against it. However, though at that time nothing was agreed, the talks and ventilation of the subject prepared the way for the agreement which was reached after the great strike, the largest which has ever occurred in the hairdressing trade in this country, the story of which is now due for the telling.

By this time so strong were the hairdressers that they raised between them £1500 to open a club called “The Hairdressers’ Rendezvous” in Archer Street, Piccadilly Circus. All their activities became centred there whilst it lasted. There was a very good restaurant business done, as well as a flourishing bar and wine cellar, a reading-room, billiard saloon, and several meeting rooms.

On December 5th, 1918, a large meeting held at the Rendezvous decided unanimously to make an application to every saloon where the staff were members of the Union, for a 10s. increase to date from December 16th. The date was fixed because of the known procrastinating habits of the employers. The application was sent in to forty-four firms. By the time the strike was over, after seven weeks of exciting struggle, forty-six employers, including Bond Street firms like Hills, Trufitts, and Douglas, as well as Penhaligon of St. James’s Street, had agreed to the 10s. increase, four employers had come to special arrangements, leaving twenty firms covered by the close of the strike terms… Why did the strike have to occur ? Because the firms round Piccadilly Circus hated the Shop-Steward movement and were determined once more, as they put it, “to be masters in their own saloons” – and also, of course, because few could see further than their respective noses.

Only the West End of London and the City were concerned in the strike, the huge suburban areas were untouched, being as yet unorganised. The replies which came to hand by December 16th asked for a month to consider the matter, to which, at first, there was an inclination to agree. But it became abundantly clear that the interval was to be used to take steps to smash the Union. A general meeting agreed, if on the following Saturday the 10s. was not conceded, staffs would cease work; Shop Stewards would constitute the strike Committee and where 10s. was conceded it be paid into a dispute fund to aid strikers. This sum was not only cheerfully paid by those at work, but was subsequently increased to 20s.

Those on strike numbered 270 and remained about that figure to the end, for the situation was continually changing. As some firms gave way and their staffs went back, other firms did not give way and their staffs came out. Then there were the blacklegs. As fast as they brought them in we brought them out. They were waited for at the railway stations and at their homes and some violence was done. There were police court cases, quite a number of them, and one striker got a month in the second division. But as Victor Hugo puts it in Les Miserables, “there are depths below the depths, infamies which are too infamous for the infamous to touch.”  That bottom was reached when the half-dozen blacklegs working at Shipwright’s Saloon threatened to strike when one of the strikers, the only renegade there was, attended to work at that saloon where he was not employed before the stoppage.

It was a very popular strike. It was fair game for the reporters who were let loose on it, for hairdressers do not advertise and we furnished them with a continuous crop of stories. The Daily Mail called it “The Polite Strike. “This strike is not a method of barberism,” said the Star, “The Obliging Strikers” said the Daily Express. Most Papers carried cartoons usually about long beards and “Get yer ‘air cut.” The interest to the public was helped along by the turn and turn about, for the masters became assistants, the assistants became masters.

The masters donned aprons, grasped razors, perched combs in their hair and went to work at Shipwright’s Saloon, the largest gents’ saloon in the West End. The assistants got wind of it and arranged accordingly. Pickets massed outside, even as did customers. And such customers! The unshorn and unshaven of London were gathered there; from highways and hedges they were garnered and given money for shaves and haircuts and a solatium for any loss they would incur. Shipwright’s catered for the elite-generals, judges, Cabinet Ministers. That morning instead of the Upper Ten they got the lower eleven: men whose beards, where not patriarchal, were like wire, and the hair of the head, where it had not become matted, fell in waves even as a woman’s.

The assistants opened the Rendezvous as a saloon. The four billiard tables were taken down, the marble-topped tables from the restaurant upstairs were arranged down the centre of the basement, and the mirrors used in the academies were propped up on them in two rows. High-power electric lights were installed and an electric fan. Thirty chairs were arranged in front of the mirrors and lounges were set against the walls. Several of the upstairs rooms were converted into Ladies’ Saloons and one part of the basement was curtained off for the twelve manicurists. Magically, it seemed out of nowhere, appeared piles of towels, lotions, perfumes, oils, and all the mysterious and indispensable appurtenances of hairdressing which proclaim to all and sundry that you have been to the barbers. From morn to night in relays boys jerked huge cans of boiling hot water up and down the service lifts.

One of the Pressmen had lyrically written in his paper “Visit the Bevy of Beauties in the Barbers’ Hall” – and visit they did, all the hoi polloi. Fashionable London had got a new sensation. A Striking Shave by Striking Shavers! Visitors included Peers of the Realm, Generals, Service Officers, jockeys, Doctors of Science, Ambassadors and at least one Prime Minister – W. Hughes of Australia. All thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Stars of stage, screen and music-hall patronised the Ladies’ Saloons. No charges were made, because that would have brought them under the London County Council regulations, but a large trunk was placed open on a table by the entrance and patrons were asked to give what they liked. And they did like!

The first week’s takings in the Treasure Trunk were £273, 7s. 6d., and remained a steady £30 a day until the close.

A film of the Saloon in full working order was made and exhibited all over the country. Shipwright’s Saloon closed on Saturdays for the half-day. Franks, the next largest, closed on Thursdays, so the employers decided to transfer themselves to Franks on the Saturday afternoon, but so close was it picketed that the employers could not get through – there was only one entrance and that up some stairs. As a precautionary measure a series of itinerant musicians were sent in relays up the stairs to do a turn at the door of the saloon. It was a great joy when one burnt-cork minstrel, entering into the spirit of the thing, sang for half-an-hour on end ” Where is my wandering boy to night,” with banjo accompaniment.

All this time correspondence as well as conversations were going on to try and find a way out. But one could never pin the employers down. If an offer was secured from their representatives, as likely as not it would be repudiated by their rank and file.

Under the Wages (Temporary Regulation) Act, 1918, the Minister of Labour had the power to fix a prescribed rate, or a substituted rate for the prescribed rate, where there was a dispute. We invoked (the first body ever so to do) the help of the Minister under that Act. This made the other side sit up. We met together on January 31st, when they offered us 45s. as a minimum for gents’ hands, as a basis of agreement to operate from return to work. On that resumption-of-work question we split. They asserted that some of the men were bad workmen, did not take enough money or were guilty of unprofessional conduct.

On February 7th terms were arranged as follows: Work to be resumed immediately; as a temporary arrangement commission to be raised to 15 per cent., and a committee to be appointed to go into the whole of working conditions which when agreed to shall be operated from March 1st ; the application under the Wages Act to be withdrawn. The terms as finally agreed in May, after meeting three times a week with what had by this time become the London Federation of Master Hairdressers, was as follows:

Gents’ Hands 45s.
Chiropody 2d. in is. extra.
Managers 45s. and overriding commission.
General Hands 52s. 6d.
Ladies’ Hands 70s.
Lady Assistants :
Plain Saloon Hands 30s.
General Saloon Hands 40s.
Commission 12 and a half per cent. on attendance charges after wages have been earned, 171 per cent. on employers’ own preparations, 10 per cent. on general sales, 21 per cent. on proprietary articles.
Manicurists 25s. and 15 per cent. on all takings.
Knotters 30s.
Experienced knotters 40s.
Counter Hands 37s. 6d.

Notes.-For an assistant who mixes, prepares and executes own hair orders, commission be paid over rates. Women taking men’s places and doing exactly the same work as men, to receive not less than the minimum rates laid down for men.

Shop Stewards – An. official spokesman shall act in any shop with four assistants when any difference arises, which if not settled either side can bring to the notice of his Association.’ No collection of contributions shall interfere with business.

[Hoffman’s later memories of the strikers wax lyrical here]…

Conjuring from out the faded years that struggle of the London hairdressers, there appears upon my mind as vividly as upon the silent screen a picture of those glorious but turbulent days. It is not right that what was then done to achieve freedom and justice among us should live only in the shadowing memories of those who played a modest if fruitful part. Their story has a right to live and to be a leading light to all who come after. There were splendid men inspiring that struggle, men of Britain as well as from various countries of Europe. They must have been more than ordinary to perform all they did, to organise as they did, and to achieve what they did. It would be invidious indeed to single out any one of them for special mention. Indeed, it would be nearly impossible to do so, for once started there would hardly be an end. There were so many who gave all their experience, their ability, their enthusiasm, and sacrifice for the common cause. Yet I cannot refrain from recalling that splendid character, their chairman, C. S. Fildew. He was tall and slim with a slight moustache, and in conversation spoke like the line English gentleman he was. A gents’ hand at Carter’s in Fleet Street, under his skilled and nimble fingers sat the leading lights of bar and bench as well as innumerable Pressmen. They all respected him. It was largely due to him that we had such a good press, and the movement went forward on that inspiratory note. I wish I could be sure that time and their sacrifices had swept away that obscurantism of hairdressing employers which obstructed their onward march.

No Hairdressing Trade Board was set up. The movement, full of such splendid promise, gradually receded all over the country. The full aspirations of those formative years will some day be realised. The masters alone will not bring it about. The urge of artistry amongst hairdressing employees must, if it is to succeed, come from the workers themselves. There is no other way. If, therefore, this record of what was striven for and what was done helps in a small way to encourage those who are working to so useful an end, it will not have been written in vain. The industry, it is true, is small in numbers, the craft is a small one. It is because it is so small that it can become so great.

Following the London strike, in June 1918 the hairdressers of Greenock obtained a settlement which gave to male and female assistants of four years’ experience 63s., or alternatively at their option 50s. with 15 per cent. on gross takings.

In October another strike occurred, this time in Glasgow. Here negotiations for a 10s. increase had gone on for months and produced an offer to increase their rate from 45s. to 50s. Out came 174 men and women and stayed out with razors and scissors shut for two weeks, when a settlement was reached on the following basis: Rate 55s., with no commission until 70s. has been taken, when it is to be one penny in the shilling until gos., and thereafter fourpence in the shilling.

An agreement with employers in Aberdeen was closely followed by one in Manchester with the Hairdressers’ Federation. They obtained 45s. and commission, etc., with Trade Union membership a condition of employment. Then in August, 1920, an application to the Waldorf Saloons, who had nine branches in Manchester, for a 70S. minimum caused a strike. The employer referred the matter to the Manchester Hairdressers’ Federation. The Federation rejected the claim giving as reason that a Trade Board is to be set up for the industry… The Manchester Press supported the strikers and issued lively posters on their behalf. Newsboys entered into the spirit of the affair ; they went into such saloons as remained open, with the help of friends and relations to have manicures. A settlement was reached after three weeks, the commission payable on earnings being increased to 40 per cent; and that is a substantial percentage.

The lack of agreement on charges continued thirty years later. In March 1948, within 100 yards of Piccadilly Circus, the following prices were charged at different shops for shaving: 4d., 6d., 9d., 1s., 1s. 6d. This is the basic difficulty in the hairdressing profession: the margins are insufficient. The organised assistants, when threshing out their difficulties, knew this quite well. They were prepared to face realities much more soberly and with more foresight than the owners of saloons. There were those amongst the employers who knew what ought to be done, and said so and tried to get it done, but the bulk were unresponsive.

NB: Hoffman’s ‘They Also Serve’ contains many more interesting tales of unionising of shop assistants and other retail workers in the early 20th century. Hoffman himself became a typical quietist union bigwig, and later a Labour MP, keener to negotiate and send members back to work rather than see their struggles develop autonomously, sometimes ordering workers back to work against their own inclinations pending negotiations with employers… this may be why he incurred the wrath of a striker during the hairdressers strike:
“But a high spot of adventure came when a member, at the close of a meeting off Regent Street, suddenly drew a knife and made at me, and if it had not been for Alex Lyon, hairdresser at the National Reform Club, who threw himself at him and so diverted the blow, I might have been severely injured. As the gentleman of the knife insisted on following me, three of the members determined to escort me home, and in the crowded tube train I tried vainly to look indifferent while I was shouted at and bespattered with such epithets as ” Traitor ! ” “Labour Fakir! ” “Robber of the Workers!…”

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

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Today in London transport history: Workers on DLR go on two day strike, 2015

 On 3rd November 2015, workers on Docklands Light Railways (DLR) in London began a 48-hour strike, the first strike at the DLR to fully shut down its rail services since its inception in 1987. The strike began at 03:58 a.m., ending exactly two days later.

The work stoppage was called by the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, with members voting 92 percent ballot in favour. The union had an ongoing dispute is with the current DLR franchise owner, KeolisAmey Docklands (KAD), who inherited the franchise from Serco in December 2014. Their winning of the tender had been based on proposals of further cost-cutting, which Serco had themselves already prided themselves on.

RMT members on the DLR were furious at the way that KeolisAmey were trying to force through “some of the worst working practices and conditions associated with the operations of the most cheapskate and anti-union companies in the transport sector.”

KAD was making use of lower-paid contract workers to partly run the DLR lines, in order to undermine existing working conditions. Keolis is a global corporation running transportation networks in cities across the world.

The strike disrupted the whole DLR network from Lewisham to Poplar to Canary Wharf.

In the UK, Keolis owns 35 percent of Govia, which operates the Govia Thameslink Railway, Southern, Southeastern and London Midland franchises and has a 45 percent shareholding in First TransPennine Express—delivering one-in-three rail journeys in the UK. Amey is one of the UK’s leading public service providers.

Keolis has a history of slashing costs by sub-tendering jobs to its own contractors. In Boston, in the United States, for example, Keolis won a contract for commuter rail services by promising cost savings over the then-current operator. The current operator was a joint venture of which Keolis is a member.

The history of the DLR is one of a series of franchises run by various contractors with the collaboration of the trade unions, the RMT in particular.

The DLR is theoretically a subsidiary of TfL. Although TfL is one commercial body, workers employed by it are divided by a myriad of subsidiaries and sub-contractors. All trade unions at TfL are “stakeholders” and in this way share in the exploitation of their own members. Since its beginnings, the DLR always employed a multi-tiered workforce on different terms and conditions. KAD is entitled as per franchise agreement to employ contract workers on different terms and conditions than those currently employed. The franchise agreement is well known to all stakeholders, including the trade unions.

Ironically, the DLR was designed and built to avoid strikes, overseen by Thatcherite minsters determined to crush organised workers on public transport, as well as planning the massive regeneration of the London docklands area, and wanting it to be a shiny new ‘forward-looking’ (individualist paradise…) At the beginning in ran only on working days in working hours – locals who lived in the area it were quick to suss that it wasn’t designed for the likes of them that lived there (and that the whole regeneration project including the DLR was intended to replace and remove them…)

The DLR was initially constructed for £77 million: the Department of Transport had to be convinced to contribute half by Michael Heseltine, Environment Secretary, who had put up the other half with the idea that it would assist with the Docklands regeneration. Derided as a “toy town” railway to nowhere, the DLR was subsequently repeatedly upgraded as Canary Wharf emerged and required much greater capacity.

Nicholas Ridley, the arch-Thatcherite Transport Secretary, had a great influence on its creation. Designed and built entirely by the private sector in order to keep it out of the hands of Ken Livingstone’s left-wing Greater London Council, engineers and planners who worked on the DLR recall being told that making the trains driverless, and thus invulnerable to union disruption, was an essential requirement. That worked well then.

One consultant who worked on the project recalls that powering the DLR via overhead cables was ruled out by the Thatcher government, who told him with some disgust that: “This must not look like a bloody tram! Trams come from socialist countries. We are not a socialist country!”

Disputes on the Line continue… In April 2018 another planned four day strike  of RMT members over the “fundamental issues” of workplace justice, fairness and the outsourcing of key functions was suspended pending further talks…

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London strike history, 1739: Chips on their shoulders, Deptford shipwrights strike

“On Friday afternoon a meeting of a very alarming nature took place at Deptford amongst the Shipwrights; we are given to understand it arose about their perquisites of chips…”

Deptford Dockyard was an important naval dockyard and base at Deptford on the River Thames, in what is now the London Borough of Lewisham, operated by the Royal Navy from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. It built and maintained warships for 350 years. Over the centuries, as Britain’s Imperial expansion, based heavily on its naval seapower, demanded more and more ships, and the royal dockyards like Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham and Portsmouth were often busy, and grew larger and larger, employing more and more workers.

Until the 19th century, ships were largely built of wood, and shipwrights, skilled carpenters, were the backbone of Dockyard organisation. During peacetime in the 18th century it was estimated that 14 shipwrights were needed for every 1,000 tons of shipping in the Navy. There were 2581 shipwrights in the Royal Dockyards in 1804, excluding apprentices. Another 5,100 shipwrights were employed in Private English Dockyards.

“The tools of a working shipwright were those of the carpenter. In general, however, they were much heavier, as he worked in oak rather than soft wood and with large timbers. He used an adze, a long handled tool much like a gardeners hoe. The transverse axe-like blade was used for trimming timber. To fasten timbers and planks, wood treenails were used. These were made from “clear” oak and could be up to 36” long and 2” in diameter. The auger was used to bore holes into which the treenails were driven, and the shipwright had the choice of some ten sizes ranging from 2” down to ½”. A mall, basically a large hammer with a flat face and a long conical taper on the other was used for driving the treenails. Shipwrights also used two-man cross-cut saws as well as a single handsaw. Good sawing saved much labour with the adze. Other tools used were heavy axes and hatchets for hewing, and hacksaws and cold chisels to cut bolts to length. Iron nails of all sorts and sizes as well as spikes were available. Nails were used in particular to fasten the deck planks.”

Corruption and thieving were rife in the dockyards and remained so for many centuries; both in the administration, contracts etc (ie corruption of the well-to-do who ran the yards), and at a day to day level by the workers. Wages for ordinary shipwrights were low, though food and lodging allowances were often provided. For master shipwrights there were many supplements to the basic shilling a day.

Wages could fluctuate wildly, depending on many factors; and the men didn’t always get paid on time. Early in the reign of king Charles I, England was at war with Spain and France and, as the wars dragged on and the government coffers ran dry, the dockyards fell into chaos, and workers were not paid. The unpaid men stripped the ships and storehouses of anything they could cat or sell or burn for fuel. Accusations and rumour flew about, fed by envy and backbiting. The dominance of the Pett family, who were in control in all the Kentish yards, made one workman witness scared to speak out “for fear of being undone by the kindred”. In 1634 Phineas Pett was accused of inefficiency and dishonesty. The charges were dismissed at a hearing before the King and Prince of Wales but it was said that Pett was on his knees throughout the long trial. That same year the storekeeper at Deptford was charged with selling off the stores: he had not been paid for more than 14 years!

Over the centuries, the custom grew up of allowing the workmen to take home broken or useless pieces of wood, too small or irregular for shipbuilding, in theory to burn for fuel. This ‘perquisite’ of the job (or ‘perk’) was a part of their wage – in effect a way of paying the workers less in hard cash. These bits of wood were known as chips, giving an indication of the kind of size that was meant – originally pretty small, anything that could be carried over one arm. Over time, cheekiness, expectations and general resentment towards the bosses caused the offcuts being taken home to grow in size. By the 18th century the chips could be up to six feet in length, and the shipwrights had become brazen about their perks – often they would carry planks home on their shoulders, which was explicitly forbidden and considered theft. (Carrying ‘chips’ on your shoulder became a symbol of open defiance of the authorities… supposedly the origin of the term ‘chip on your shoulder’).

Canny shipwrights were having it away with ever larger pieces of wood, much of it far from broken… “Chips” were of obvious value for burning, when coal was scarce and expensive in Southern England. They were also used for building purposes: some old houses in dockyard towns can be observed to have an unusual, even suspicious, number of short boards used in their construction..!

By 1634 workmen were cutting up timber to make chips, carrying great bundles of them out three times a day, and even building huts to store their plunder. The right to chips was inevitably pushed to its limits, particularly when wages were low. Shipwrights took to sawing down full planks into ‘chips’ just below the maximum length – all when they were supposed to be working; and of nicking the seasoned wood, leaving green wood for the actual shipbuilding. The right was said to be cost the Royal Dockyards as much as £93,000 per year in 1726.

A lighter (a small transport vessel) was seized at Deptford containing 9,000 stolen wooden nails each about 18 inches long. The strong notion of customary rights was clearly expressed when the offender maintained that these were a lawful perk.

Not surprisingly, the shipyard bosses tried to restrict the taking of chips. They tried to replace the customary right with cash – paying the men an extra penny a day instead of chips. However the wrights simply took the penny and kept on carrying off the chips!
A regulation of 1753 specified that no more “chips” could be taken than could be carried under one arm. This provoked a strike at Chatham. Later, through precedent, this rule was resolved to specify “a load carried on one shoulder”.

The Navy Board was always ready to pay informers who would grass up thieving workers, but when two Deptford labourers asked for 150 guineas in return for information, they were told £25 was enough.

It wasn’t just wood that was being lifted. The list of abuses at the docks catalogued in 1729 included drawing lots for sail canvas which could be cut up and made into breeches. An informer said he had known 300 yards of canvas at a time to be taken by the master sail-maker. Bundles of “chips” could also conveniently be used to disguise the nicking of other materials; as could suspiciously baggy clothing. The Navy Board issued the following hilarious dress code regarding pilfering: “You are to suffer no person to pass out of the dock gates with great coats, large trousers , or any other dress that can conceal stores of any kind. No person is to be suffered to work in Great Coats at any time over any account. No trousers are to be used by the labourers employed in the Storehouse and if any persist in such a custom he will be discharged the yard.”

Women bringing meals into the yard for the workers in baskets, or allowed in to shipyards to collect chips for burning (much as rejected coal was gathered in mining areas) were often caught removing valuable items along with the “Chips” or more substantial bits of wood… This led to riots in Portsmouth in 1771 when the women were banned from entering the yard, having previously been allowed to collect offcuts on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

In a sudden search at all the dockyards that year, Deptford and Woolwich came out worst and the back doors of officers’ houses, which opened directly onto the dockyard, allowing for wholesale plundering of materials, were ordered to be bricked up.

Attempts to restrict or remove the right to take home chips provoked resistance, often in the form of strikes. In 1739, naval Dockyard workers at Deptford, Woolwich, and Chatham work in protest at the navy’s attempt to reduce night and tide work, the amounts of “chips” they could take as part of their wage, & over only being paid twice a year, often months in arrears. The navy backed down.

In October 1758, Deptford shipyard workers struck again, to prevent their ‘perquisites’ being removed. In 1764, marines were employed in the yard to dilute the skilled workforce; marines were also sent in in 1768, to break another strike over the threat to the shipwrights’ freebies; the wrights fought them off, however, and the Navy Board was forced to capitulate to the strikers.

A gallows & whipping post was erected to enforce the law against theft and rebellion – they were torn to pieces by the workforce.

In 1786, the conflict again provoked a strike, which seems to have begun on the 20th of October: “On Friday afternoon a meeting of a very alarming nature took place at Deptford amongst the Shipwrights; we are given to understand it arose about their perquisites of chips. About four o’clock they were got to such a pitch of desperation, that the whole town was in the utmost consternation imaginable, and it seemed as if the whole place was struck with one general panic. But happy for the security of his Majesty’s subjects, an officer dispatched a messenger for a party of the guards, which fortunately arrived at Deptford at six o’clock, which secured the peace for the moment, but were soon found insufficient, and a second express was instantly dispatched for an additional supply, these were found not capable of keeping the peace; at eleven o’clock all the troops from the Savoy that could be spared arrived, which, happy for the town of Deptford, secured the place and restored peace.” (Report from 25th October 1786)

There came a point at which the authorities decided that, whatever the unrest it might provoke, the perk had to be finally brought under control. This was achieved at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when in July 1801, in the middle of a series of large-scale shipwrights’ strikes at Deptford, the perquisite was replaced by ‘chip money’ of 6d a day for shipwrights and half that for labourers.

NB: The struggles over ‘chips’ were far from unique to Britain – 17th century naval administrators in Venice fought to prevent local shipbuilders making off with offcuts called ‘stelle’, and similarly eighteenth century French shipwrights in Toulon jealously guarded their ‘droits de copeaux’.

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Today in London military history, 1890: mutiny in the Grenadier Guards (and a strike of Metropolitan Police)

The First Regiment of Foot Guards, (later known as the Grenadier Guards) was founded in 1656. In July 1890, the Second Battalion of the Guards ‘refused duty’ at Wellington Barracks in London – refusing to attend parade.

The protest originated in the determination of their new commander, Colonel Makgill-Crichton Maitland, to ‘bring the outfit to the peak of military excellence’, despite his apparent inexperience at ‘commanding men’. In early July 1890, he ordered the battalion to move from Wellington Barracks to Pirbright to demonstrate training drill to militia and volunteers, Due to lack of communication, some or the soldiers didn’t find out about the proposed move until shortly before the move, when they came off guard duty or returned from weekend leave.

This seems to have compounded an atmosphere of already existing resentment, as Maitland was said to have been ordering excessive drills and parades in full kit: “it has been ascertained that for some time past, indeed ever since Colonel Maitland was appointed the the command of the battalion, the men had been complaining of the excessive drills. The Guards’ irritation reached a climax on Sunday night, when an order was issued that a kit inspection in heavy marching order was to take place next morning”.

Angry with Maitland’s apparent contempt for them, many of the battalion failed to appear when the bugle sounded ‘fall in’ at 8.30 am on the Monday morning.

“The men determined to bring their grievances before the military authorities by not turning out on parade, and when the bugle sounded only a handful of men responded to the call Colonel Maitland, the commandant, finding that the men remained in their quarters, proceeded to their rooms, and, it is alleged, was ‘disrespectfully received’ “.

Other officers talked the dissenters into turning out, though many were said to be improperly dressed, “some in full marching order, and others m tunics and fatigue dress. Colonel Maitland addressed the men, and asked them what their grievance was, and each company appointed a delegate to explain that they complained that the regiment had that day had double guard duty, namely, at St. James’s Palace and at the levee, and that a number of the men had only just come off guard.

They also thought that it was hard to do all these duties and then parade to assist in the drill of volunteer officers. The fact of a heavy marching order full kit drill coming upon all this hard duty, when the men considered it excessive, was the cause of their refusing to answer the parade call.”

That they appeared at all may well have saved them from a charge of mutiny. But they were confined to barracks, and the Yorkshire Regiment was sent to London to relieve them.

“On Tuesday Colonel Smith consulted with the Duke of Cambridge and Lord Wolseley, who examined the battalion’s order books to see what duty had been done, and in the afternoon the order confining them to the barracks was rescinded. Colonel Smith, who was himself formerly a colonel in the Grenadiers, addressed the men of the discontented battalion, telling them that they were released from confinement in barracks, and that another regiment (the Yorkshire) had been ordered from the provinces to assist them in the hard work of guard mounting and other duties. He particularly pointed out that the regiment was coming, not for the purpose of putting down any contemplated disturbance, but simply to assist the men of the household brigade in their many duties.”

The Yorkshire regiment started from Portsmouth at 9 o clock in the evening, reaching the Wellington Barracks early on Wednesday morning. They have since shared the duties with the Grenadiers who appear satisfied now that their grievance has been ventilated, and tranquillity is ‘now entirely restored.”

There was an element of discontent about the process of the Guards’ replacement however:

“There was some confusion at Portsmouth, owing to the hurried departure of the troops. The Yorkshire Regiment were ordered to leave by the War Office, but the General commanding at Portsmouth ordered the Enniskillen Fusiliers to start for London, as the Yorkshire Regiment was away at musketry practice. The Enniskillen Fusiliers were actually in the tram, when a telegram countermanding their departure came from London. The Enniskillen returned to their quarters, and two hours later the Yorkshire Regiment started for London. The above is the official account of the substitution of the Yorkshires for the Enniskillens, but it is rumoured that when the latter were waiting in the train they sang “God Save Ireland ” and cheered the Grenadiers, and that the general in command at Portsmouth immediately sent them back to the barracks.”

“The authorities were naturally very reticent about the matter… At first the rumours were discredited, and Mr L Stanhope, in the House of Commons, denied that there had been any insubordination among the guardsmen. He, however, had been misinformed, and the public soon learnt that a very serious breach of discipline had occurred in the Second battalion of the Grenadier Guards.”

A Court of Inquiry was held, from July 9th to July 15th. As a result, six long-serving privates were ordered to be court-martialled. At the court-martial on July 26th, the six were sentenced to two years in military prison, to be then dismissed from the army with ‘ignominy’.

“26th July: On Monday, the Second Battalion of the Grenadier Guards was paraded at Wellington Barracks before proceeding on foreign service to Bermuda, where they have been ordered as a punishment for their recent insubordination, the Commander-in-Chief addressing the men in forcible language, in regard to the disgrace which had fallen on the regiment. Colonel Maitland, the former commanding officer of the Battalion, will, said Mr. Stanhope in the House of Commons, be placed on half-pay ; while the Adjutant, who has resigned, will be replaced by another officer. After the ceremony of inspection was over, the very heavy sentences passed on the men of longest service in each company, who, since the instigators of the virtual mutiny cannot be traced, were assumed to be the ringleaders, were read out. Four were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour, one of these to be, in addition, dismissed with ignominy, and a fifth to eighteen months’ hard labour. The sentence on the sixth was reserved, but it is understood that he will also receive eighteen months’ hard labour.”

A petition signed by 50,000 Londoners, however, ensured only one was actually dismissed, the rest returning to the battalion after only four months imprisonment.

The rest of the regiment were sent away abroad, to Bermuda, considered a severe punishment (they were initially ordered to be stationed there for two years, but in fact returned to London a year later). Colonel Maitland, however, was replaced, and shortly after retired from the army (though it sounds in fact more like he was pushed).

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There was speculation at the time that the spirit of trade unionism abroad in London had influenced the rebellious episode in the Guards. The previous years had seen the upsurge of workers fighting to improve pay and working conditions, sparked by the East End matchwomen’s strike in 1888 and followed by the 1889 Dockers strike, which inspired a wave of disputes around London.

Interestingly, on the same day as the Guards mutiny, there was a sharp and brief strike among the Metropolitan Police, beginning in London’s Bow Street, which sparked rioting in the West End for two nights. Its unclear whether there was any co-ordination between the discontented among police and soldiers (though both were inspired by specific grievances, it isn’t impossible) – though the Life Guards were brought in to subdue the rioters seeking to take advantage of the police strike.

On the 12th July 1890, the Illustrated London News carried the following report on the police strike:-

“A portion of the Metropolitan Police, demanding increased rates of pay and pension, has of late been giving some trouble to the authorities in command, not only by improper meetings for the purposes of agitation and denunciation, which cannot be tolerated in a force under a kind of military discipline, but also by scandalous acts of insubordination and refusal to obey the orders for their daily service.

This misconduct was carried so far by some of the constables of the E Division, whose headquarters are at Bow-street Police-Office, as to threaten a strike on Monday evening, July 7, which they expected would become general all over London.

Much alarm was felt among the shopkeepers and other inhabitants of the West Central district, lest the streets should be left unprotected that night.

RESOLUTE ACTION

But the resolute action of the new Chief Commissioner of Police, Colonel Sir Edward Bradford, and of the Chief Constable, Colonel Mansell, supported by the fidelity of the Superintendents, Inspectors, and Sergeants, with the prompt dismissal of thirty-nine young constables, earlier in-the day, for acts of wilful disobedience on Saturday night, had a salutary effect.

A DISGRACEFUL SCENE

What took place, however, in Bow-street, between nine o’clock and midnight, was sufficiently disgraceful to all concerned in the agitation, being a scene of outrageous riot, probably got up by gangs of common London roughs, but encouraged by the attitude of the dismissed constables and of those pretending to sympathise with them.

The street was repeatedly cleared by parties of mounted police, under the orders of the Chief Constable, but the mob again reassembled; mud, cabbage-stumps, and other dirty missiles were flung at Superintendent Fisher and the police on duty; and some windows of different shops and houses were broken.

THE LIFE GUARDS JOIN IN

It happened, fortunately, that the Prince of Wales, going to the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, had been provided with an escort of thirty or forty troopers of the 2nd Life Guards, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Dundonald.

A message asking the aid of their presence was at once complied with, and the appearance of those splendid cavalry soldiers, quietly riding up and down, put an end to the disturbance within less than half an hour.

INSUBORDINATE CONSTABLES

In the meantime, within the precincts of the police-office, the Superintendent and Inspectors had some difficulty in getting the insubordinate constables, though in a decided minority, to parade for the regular night duty; but they prevailed so far as to defeat the attempted “strike,” and the patrol service was not interrupted in any part of London.

Much damage was done by the rioters to the plate-glass windows of several large establishments in Bow-street, and a baker’s shop was all but wrecked.

In the police-court, next day, two or three men were fined, and one constable sentenced to fourteen days’ imprisonment, for acts of violence on this occasion.”

On the 13th July 1890, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper published a long and breathtaking article that treated the readers to what seems like a minute by minute account of the week’s events an unrest:-

THE POLICE REVOLT – SERIOUS RIOTING

“A remarkable scene occurred on Saturday night at Bow-street police station. It would seem that when the 10 o’clock men were paraded for duty, the order.”Right turn” was given, preliminary to the men marching out of the station, but not a single man obeyed the order; in fact they absolutely refused to go on duty.

The inspector in charge was at once spoken to by the officer, and he interrogated the men as to the breach of discipline, and was informed that the men’s refusal to go on duty was in consequence of one of the delegates being summarily removed to an outside station, and that they acted thus to expose their disapproval of what they characterised as one of their number being “marked.”

The inspector-in-charge parleyed with the men, and after some delay eventually succeeded in persuading the men to resume duty, and he promised in the meantime to do all that he could for them by means of pen and paper.

The men thereupon left the station and took up their duties as usual.

THE CHIEF COMMISSIONER

The Chief commissioner was immediately apprised of the affair, and he at once called a number of officers together and held a long consultation.

The situation in the yard when the men first refused to move, an officer who was present states, was to him apparently incomprehensible at this time, and he proceeded to interview the men individually and inquire what was the matter.

The windows of the section house overlooking the quadrangle are stated to have had their proportion of inmates who had assembled to witness the scene, which, although spontaneous in appearance, had undoubtedly been pre-arranged.

The men at the windows are said to have broken the stillness with cheers for the undaunted determination of their comrades on the parade ground, and one man on parade, said to have been a reserve man, acknowledged this encouragement by shouting “Three cheers for 134, that’s what the matter.” This remark led to an outburst of enthusiasm amongst those men who thronged the windows of the library, single men’s quarters, and other rooms overlooking the quadrangle.

Nearly fifty men were on Sunday suspended.

That evening constables were called in from three outlying divisions to make up the night contingent at Bow-street.

The Assistant Commissioner of Police, Mr. Howard, and other officers were present, it being feared that some disturbance would occur. There was much animation in the neighbourhood, as constables in plain clothes assembled and hooted those who had been brought from the suburbs, but beyond this there was not much disorder.

RIOTING IN BOW STREET

The threatened strike of the Metropolitan police on Monday did not take place; but on Monday night Bow-street was the scene of tumult, and it was found necessary to summon a detachment of the Life Guards to clear the street and prevent violence.

In the morning Sir E. Bradford [The Metropolitan Police Commissioner] had about 40 constables who were guilty of insubordination on the previous night brought before him, and they were summarily dismissed.

When the men assembled at the police-station for night duty, a few who were insubordinate were suspended, but the bulk of them went on duty, and, with drafts from other divisions, all the streets were furnished with the usual patrols.

The police at all the other police divisions went on duty, and in most cases without demur.

A STRANGE SIGHT FOR LONDONERS

Seldom have Londoners seen so strange a sight as that presented in Bow-street on Monday night.

Early in the evening a number of suspended and dismissed constables assembled in the thoroughfare, together with friends and sympathisers, and effectually blocked the traffic.

Nearly 5,000 persons were assembled.

THE LIFE GUARDS

The shouting, groaning, and hooting were so appalling that the authorities sent for the assistance of the military, and about half-past 10, two troops of the 2nd Life Guards appeared on the scene.

They kept a constant patrol with the mounted police.

PROJECTILES THROWN

Just before the arrival of the 2nd Life Guards a small bag of flour was thrown from a balcony at the inspector of the mounted police, whom it whitened from head to foot.

A little later a pitcher of water was tossed from the upper windows of Bow-street police station itself and fell over the mounted men.

Still later at intervals three large pieces of crockery were thrown out into the street by the men of the E division, who, it was stated, were confined to quarters until the mob could be dispersed.

A big flower-pot was also thrown from an upper window or the roof of an adjoining building near the corner of Long-acre.

Fortunately no one was injured by these projectiles.

The constables in plain clothes mingled among the mob, and though taking little part in the rushes that were made, yet at the same time they joined in the shouting and cheering.

A number of bottles were also thrown at the men on duty, and at least in one case this was not done by any so-called “civilian.”

CHEERS AND GROANS

Ultimately, when the Life Guards rode up they were saluted with cheers and groans.

“Don’t help the blacklegs,”  “Stick to your comrades, the people,” and similar cries were uttered.

At first the troopers rode slowly up and down, riding from Long-acre down Bow-street as far as Russell-street, when they made right-about-turn.

THE MOUNTED POLICE GO IN

On their appearance the mounted police made more determined efforts to break up the crowds, which, despite the drenching rain, maintained their ground, yelling, cheering, groaning; and, led by their inspectors, the men rode upon the pavement, cuffing and striking at the mob, many of whom resisted desperately.

The horses’ reins were frequently seized, and the animals thrust back, whilst others in the crowd struck with sticks at them.

In one or more instances knives were seen to glisten, and attempts were made to cut the reins.

Gradually, however, the mass of the people were forced out of Bow-street towards the Strand and Long-acre.

ROUGHS CLUNG ON

The troopers, about 11pm, acted more energetically, and, massing together, they moved up and down Bow-street, clearing everybody off the roadway.

Numbers of roughs, however, still clung to the pavement, and these the mounted police quickly endeavoured to disperse.

The crowd was thinner, but the people only appeared to become more violent.

THE MOUNTED POLICE BLOCKED

Numbers of cabs and carriages, which were passing to and from the theatres, were used by the mob in making temporary stands, for the vehicles were turned about, and the charges of the mounted policemen were blocked.

It was noticed that the constables kept closely together, and in the few instances when three or four became separated from their comrades they got severely handled.

Handfuls of mud, pieces of wood, baskets. and bottles were again hurled at the constables.

About 11.20pm, the mob began tearing down the iron gratings from off Messrs. Merryweather and Co.’s windows, and these they threw into the roadway at the mounted men.

The mob broke the plate-glass in several windows and also tore down wooden shutters and hoarding to get missiles to use against the police.

B DIVISION TAKE UP THEIR BEATS

Step by step, however, they were driven back, and the men of the B division, who could be induced to go on duty, moved out to take up their beats in parties of 10 and 20.

PEOPLE KNOCKED DOWN

In one of the many charges, just at the entrance to the police-court, a number of people were knocked down, and two men were seriously injured by the horses treading on them.

During a rush at the corner of the theatre another man was knocked down and hurt by the constables.

Three persons were so seriously injured by the mounted men that they had to be taken in cabs to Charing-cross; hospital, where their wounds were dressed.

At midnight there was still a number of rough characters hanging about, yelling and throwing missiles.

MORE LIFE GUARDS BROUGHT IN

As a measure of precaution, further drafts of Life Guards were brought from Knightsbridge.

They arrived on the scene about 12.10am.

A public-house in the vicinity, which was closed early in the evening owing to the excitement, was partially wrecked by the mob.

Despite the steady rain, the crowd continued at 12.30am to be of comparatively large proportions, and the hooting and shouting were maintained with almost unabated vigour.

NO EXAGGERATION

It has been said that the accounts of Monday’s scenes are exaggerated, but those people so confident in their denial of anything unusual would have thought differently had they seen the mounted police charge; had they been witnesses of the military charge, which scattered the sightseers like hail; the cavalry dashing not alone along Bow-street, but clean over the pavements-and straight through the narrow tunnel that guards the opera house.

These good people, many miles away from the disaffected highway, will not recognise what it means to be “scattered like hail.”

A COUNTESS DOWAGER ATTACKED

During the disturbance near Covent Garden theatre on Monday night, the brougham of Countess Dowager Shrewsbury was stopped by a crowd of roughs, who pulled open the doors, threatened the coachman, and cried “Drag her out; get the diamonds.”

Fortunately, Lady Shrewsbury was taking home from the opera to his hotel Mr. Webb, of New York, who struck back energetically the assailants on both sides, throwing down three of them in succession almost under the horses’ feet.

In the scuffle, before the police could come up, one door of the brougham was wrenched from its hinges, but was pushed into the carriage by a policeman, and the coachman, whipping up his horses, made his way safely from the crowd.

OTHER VEHICLES ATTACKED

A similar attack, though less formidable, was made upon the carriage of Lady Hothfield on Tuesday night.

Several vehicles on their way to the opera were stopped for a time.

One, containing Mrs. Field, of New York, was surrounded by a crowd of women, who threatened and brandished sticks at the occupants.

Another occupied by Mr. Claud Have was also surrounded, but the driver put his spirited horses to a gallop and, knocking down several of the crowd, got through.

TUESDAY’S TUMULT

From an early hour on Tuesday morning, until a late hour at night, Bow-street was the scene of great disorder.

This was owing, however, to the action of men entirely outside the force, many of them pronounced rowdies, who looked  upon the whole business as a gigantic joke.

Several of these were during the afternoon arrested and kept in safe custody for the rest of the night.

POLICEMEN INVOLVED

Although there was this element in the crowd, the disaffected police were still strongly represented, and it was clear that, despite the failure to bring off a general strike on Monday night, as had been arranged, the men who had been made the victims of the movement were inclined to keep up the struggle.

This was made manifest at the meetings held by them and their supporters who are still employed in the force, at one and four o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, at a public-house in Long-acre.

At the first meeting it was resolved that the dismissed men (about 40) bad been unjustly treated in being singled out from the 94 men who had refused to go on duty.

The resolution also called upon every member of the Metropolitan Police force to sign a petition praying for the reinstatement of their late comrades.

OTHER DIVISIONS SUSPENDED

It was reported that the E division was not the only one that had been subjected to severe measures, members of the Y and other divisions having been suspended for refusing to go on duty.

This question was discussed at greater length at the meeting at four o’clock, but the meeting broke up without any decision being arrived at.

In the course of the debate, one speaker created some amusement by stating “that with all due respect to the mob he thought that on Monday night they had done them (the police) more harm than good.”

A MAN ARRESTED

At four o’clock some half-dozen men of the reserve arrested in Bow-street a man employed in Covent-garden market whose friends declared that he had done nothing to provoke a breach of the peace.

There was immediately a great rush in the direction of the prisoner, and the mob, who pressed the police very hard, so that they could neither move one way or the other, began to yell and groan, shouting at the same time, “Let him go! Let him alone!”

The police, however, stuck to their man, and tried to push their way towards the police-station.

At last the police, finding they were making no headway, drew their truncheons.

The constables appeared determined to clear the way to the station, and the crowd gave in.

A LULL UNTIL SIX

There was a lull until nearly six o’clock, and, in the meantime, a visit was paid to the station by Colonel Monsell.

Various batches of constables left the station for duty between four and six o’clock, passing through a gang of hooting people.

At six o’clock three plain-clothes constables, who had come from outer divisional stations, arrested a young fellow outside the Globe hotel.

As they were bringing their prisoner to the station they were followed by a howling mob, and one of the constables, when he left the station again, was followed by a crowd.

THE POLICE ATTACKED

Nothing daunted, the constable and two other plain-clothes men walked down the street and turned a corner leading into Covent-garden.

“Let’s get them into the market!” shouted the mob.

The constables turned to bay, and a mêlée ensued.

The policemen, who were kicked and struck whenever the opportunity offered, fought desperately.

At this juncture a number of men in uniform appeared on the scene, and three prisoners were dragged to the station, the police having their staves drawn ready for use in case of any further interference.

DOUBLE THE MONDAY NIGHT MOB

As night drew on, the attendance of persons, orderly and disorderly, vastly increased, until it was quite double that which assembled outside the station on Monday night.

But if they anticipated any such serious scenes as those which took place on that occasion they were disappointed.

The people were allowed to circulate pretty freely up to nine o’clock, but at that time it was evident that the police meant absolutely to clear Bow-street.

Accordingly with advances by the men on foot in line, and charges by the mounted officers, the throng was gradually driven into the three outlets which converge at the base of Bow-street.

A REMARKABLE SPECTACLE

At this Stage of the proceedings Wellington-street presented a remarkable spectacle.

The roadways and footpaths were simply blocked with people, and how the mounted police forced a path through them is a matter for wonder.

But crowds are very elastic, and a man on prancing horse, careering along a footpath, generally manages to find a way for himself and his animal.

This summary method of dispersal was taken tolerably well by the crowd; though every charge the  police made was resented by hoots, groans, and hisses; and in some cases by attempts to pull the officers off their horses.

No real resistance, however, was attempted.

If it had been, seeing the vast preponderance of the people in the streets over the policemen, the consequences would have been very serious.

A MARCH ON BOW STREET

There was, indeed, one organised attempt to break through the police line.

After the first dispersal, the crowd, having been driven down Wellington-street nearly to the Strand by the mounted men, re-formed in procession, and marched up towards Bow-street in fours, cheering as they went and being loudly cheered in return by their fellows on the footways.

But their front was not strong enough, and being met by a strong double line of police, after a short and desperate struggle they were turned off in the direction of Covent-garden, and Bow-street was saved from the incursion.

There was no attempt on the part of the police to use their truncheons, but they certainly assisted the progress of the obstructionists in a somewhat violent manner by pushing them along in the way they did not want to go.

CABS AND CARRIAGES ATTACKED

About this time – that is, from half-past eight to nine – a good many cabs and carriages were coming down Bow-street from the opera, and they were rather roughly handled.

One four-wheeled cab was turned over, and the doors of a number of carriages were opened.

A curious fact was that in the midst of the crowd, a costermonger with a barrow of strawberries was placidly pursuing his business, and doing a good trade, until he, too, came under the notice of the police, and was moved on.

It should be noted that the coachmen in charge of the carriages behaved with considerable self-possession and restraint, except in one instance, when the driver of a carriage, the door of which had been forced open, whipped at the people surrounding him, and nearly got himself dragged off his box.

A mounted officer, whilst sitting quietly on his horse and facing the crowd, was struck full in the face by a bottle. The wounded policeman was taken into Bow-street, and the doctor reports that he must be invalided for sometime to come.

THE SITUATION IMPROVED

At 10 o’clock the situation became materially improved.

Bow-street was absolutely clear, and while traffic from the north end was allowed to pass through into Russell-street, nothing was permitted to go through the police lines at the south end. Russell-street, as far as Drury-lane, was practically clear, and the only thoroughfares left open were Wellington-street and the west end of Russell-street as far as Covent-garden.

WINDOW BREAKING AND STAMPEDES

Here window breaking was the fashionable amusement, varied with occasional and apparently inexplicable stampedes.

People coming out of the theatres were scattered in all directions.

Under the portico of the Lyceum there was a disturbance which prevented carriages driving up.

The police, evidently entirely new to the district, sauntered about in couples, afraid to or not caring to interfere too much.

Things quieted of their own accord.

The people – both rough and orderly – wended their way home and, by midnight, tolerable quietness reigned.

WEDNESDAY’S SCENES

On Wednesday night, for several hours, Bow-street was the scene of considerable disturbance, owing to the action of the crowd of onlookers.

The crowd, composed chiefly of the “young-rough” element, however, generally contented itself with perambulating the neighbourhood of Bow-street, Drury-lane, and Catherine-street, where the people were kept moving by the efforts of strong detachments of police.

Some 250 men of the P, B, L, M, and K divisions were held in reserve at the Bow-street station, but their services, like those of a squadron of mounted police kept in the station yard, were happily not called into requisition, although there were frequent scuffles and outbursts of hooting.

By half-past eleven o’clock Bow-street was quite clear.

THE PRINCE OF WALES INTERCEDED

No intimation had been received by the authorities with respect to the status of the men and the reception of their petition, but a rumour was circulated (says the Daily News) to the effect that the Prince of Wales, who was an interested spectator of the scene in Bow-street on Monday and Tuesday night, had interceded with the Home Office in the interests of the men.”

Despite the British Government’s insisting that it would not be held hostage by the police demands, within a few weeks of the unrest Parliament passed the Police Pensions Bill, which ushered in a full pension scheme for all police officers. Conditions would remain a bone of contention however, which would lead 28 years later to the much larger national police strikes of 1918-19, at a time of much greater danger for the UK ruling classes…

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London transport history, 1891: The first London bus strike starts.

A history of the first strike by London transport workers in 1891, which was over pay and conditions and largely successful. The article also contains some information about developments in bus workers’ unions around the same period.

The first person to try and organise the London tram and bus workers into a union, was a young barrister called Thomas Sutherst.

He managed, with considerable help from the London Trades Council to organise between two and three thousand tram workers, into The London County Tramway & Omnibus Employees union founded in 1889.

London had some 8-9,000 bus and tram workers in 1891, the three main London Tram and Bus companies running services in the Capital were the London Road Car Company, Tillings and the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), the later the LGOC was by far the largest .

However, the LGOC was a notoriously bad employer, with employees sacked for “The slightest cause of complaint” crews were even expected to contribute to a fund to cover accidents, repairs and fines levied for any misdemeanours.

London bus and tram drivers wages in 1891 were 7 shillings a day and conductor 4 shillings 6 pence, this was comparatively low compared to other manual workers. They also worked long hours, between fourteen to sixteen hours a day with as little as ten minutes for lunch.

However, it was the introduction of new ticket machines that sparked the first ever London bus and tram strike in July 1891. The issue being the ability of the conductors to keep a percentage of the fares to subsidise their meagre earnings.

Two mass meetings were called by the union, both starting after midnight, to enable crews to meet their shift obligations.

Over 3,000 bus and tram workers attended the first mass meeting at Fulham Town Hall in first week of June 1891 and a second meeting the following day at the Great Assembly Hall, Mile End Road.

The Trade Unionist magazine of 6th June 1891 reported the Fulham Town Hall meeting and included the following remarks

“Great excitement prevailed during the whole meeting and speakers were frequently interrupted with snatches of song, Brakes and private buses conveyed the men to their different districts of London in broad daylight”.

The London County Tramway & Omnibus Employees, union demands included:

  • 12 hour day
  • One clear day off every fortnight
  • A weeks notice of dismissal
  • Abolition of stoppages for accidentals
  • Daily wage of 8 shillings a day for drivers, 6 shillings for conductors and 5 shillings for horse keepers & washers

When their demands were not met, the first London bus and tram strike commenced at midnight on Sunday 7th June 1891.

The strike seemed to have secure generally high level of support from the public, media and the vast majority of bus and trams crews answered the strike call. Some men remained at work, but their efforts to take the buses and trams out were frustrated by the “angry mobs” of strikers.

The strike soon spread to bus crews in other companies, the London Road Car Company, who came out on strike in sympathy and demanding the 12 hour day.

London’s other bus and tram company Tillings, was unaffected by strike and continued to run a normal service, having agreed to the unions terms earlier.

One area of surprising support for the strikers came from the “entrepreneurs” who organised “Pirate buses”, far from undermining the strike, they actually maintained the strike by paying large donations to the strikers to keep the strike going, thereby pocketing large profits, while providing only a limited service.

On the second day of the strike the bus and tram unions President, Thomas Sutherst met the LGOC and LRRC directors to discuss the strikers demands, they agreed a 12 hour day but no significant movement on pay.

The London bus and tram workers continued the strike for the rest of the week finally securing the following agreement.

  • 12 hour day
  • Drivers 6 shillings 6 pence a day (after one year)
  • Conductors 5 shillings a day (after one year)
  • Horse keepers and washers 5 shillings 6 pence

As well as Thomas Sutherst, George Shipton Secretary of the London Trades Council “worked day and night addressing meetings and organising pickets” collected nearly £1,000 for the strikers

The “Great Bus strike” was called off on Saturday 13th June 1891, after one week on strike, final agreement was reached on the 18th June 1891, however the return to work had not gone smoothly, some activists had been victimised and despite Sutherst assertion at Fulham Town hall that their would be no resumption of work until every union member reinstated, this failed to materialise and despite the efforts of even the Lord Mayor.

While the strike was not totally effective in secure all its demands, importantly the union had won the right to a 12 hour day as well as putting down a marker for future generations of bus and tram workers.

After the strike had concluded The London Trades Council agreed to pay £10 towards Fred Hammill costs while he organised the busmen’s union in the Capital.

One interesting aspect of the strike was the attempt by a group of strikers to establish a London Co-operative Omnibus company to rival the private enterprise giants.

They even purchased an omnibus to the front they attached a broom symbolising how they were determined to sweep the LGOC and LRCC away.

Thomas Sutherst the unions President called for the “municipilisation” by the Council and arguing that the council should buy the whole tram lines and rolling stock, as had happened in Huddersfield (The first municipal tram system opened in January 1883)

The demise of Sutherst, London County Tramway & Omnibus Employee union was the result of the general, onslaught by the employees after the original flame of “New Unionism” that had spilt out the London Dock Strike of 1899. But “in its short life it was a useful one and it was responsible for considerable improvement in working conditions of bus and tram crews”

Later a Bus, Tram, Motor Workers Union merged with the London Cab Drivers Union (the later established in 1894) to form the London & Provincial Union of Licenced Vehicle Workers (LPU) established in 1913 but also known as the “Red Button Union” because of the colour of their union badge. The L PU was strongly influenced by syndicalism, and distinguished itself from the start as a highly political union, supporting nationalisation of transport and opposing world war, while supporting the Russian revolution of 1917. The LPU was prominent in the August 1911 London strike wave that hit the capital as well as the 1915 Tram strike.

While the union was now dominated by tram workers it maintained a separate London cab owners section under the leadership of branch secretary Blundy .

The LPU’s Journal was entitled the “Licensed Vehicle Trades Record”, edited by George Sanders and produced fortnightly and cost 1d.

The other union to have membership amongst London Tram workers was the Manchester based Amalgamated Association of Tramway & Vehicle Workers (AAT) established in 1889.

The AAT tram union (which had members in West London at Chiswick, Hanwell and Fulwell) secured a larger base in London when it merged with the small London Tramways Employees Association in 1910. The AAT was known as the “Blue Button Union” again because of the colour of its union badge.

See the article by John Grigg on the April 1909 Fullwell Tram strike led by Jack Burns

In late 1919 early 1920 The LPU (109,425 members) and AAT (56,979 members) merged in to form the United Vehicle Workers.

The United Vehicle Workers union became part of the Transport & General Workers Union on its establishment on January 1st 1922.

This article was taken from the Hayes People’s History website and can be found here

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE 1926 GENERAL STRIKE: EVENTS IN LONDON

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

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

GUIDE TO ORGANISATIONS & ACRONYMS

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

NORTH LONDON

ST PANCRAS

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

ISLINGTON

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

FINCHLEY

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

HENDON

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

TOTTENHAM and WOOD GREEN

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

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

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

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

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

ENFIELD

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

WEALDSTONE

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

STOKE NEWINGTON

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

BARNET

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

WEST LONDON

WILLESDEN

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

HAMMERSMITH

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

FULHAM

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

PUTNEY

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

FELTHAM

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

EALING

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

HANWELL

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

PADDINGTON

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

CHISWICK

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

SOUTHALL

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

FULWELL

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

NEASDEN

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

EAST LONDON

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

HACKNEY

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

BETHNAL GREEN

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

SHOREDITCH

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

STEPNEY

The Communist Party dominated the Council of Action here…

POPLAR

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

BOW AND BROMLEY

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

EAST HAM

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

WEST HAM

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

ILFORD

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

LEYTON

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

WALTHAMSTOW

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

DAGENHAM

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

BARKING

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

SOUTH LONDON

DEPTFORD/NEW CROSS

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

LEWISHAM

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

GREENWICH

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

WOOLWICH

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

WANDSWORTH

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

BATTERSEA

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

LAMBETH

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

BERMONDSEY

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

CAMBERWELL

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

SOUTHWARK

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

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

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

CROYDON

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

WIMBLEDON

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

MITCHAM

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

KINGSTON

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

PENGE

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

SIDCUP

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

CENTRAL LONDON

WESTMINSTER

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

MARYLEBONE

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

FINSBURY

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

Sources and stuff we read:

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

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