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…

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Advertisements

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’.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

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).

####################################################################

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…

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

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

 

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

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.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

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

THE 1926 GENERAL STRIKE: EVENTS IN LONDON

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

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

GUIDE TO ORGANISATIONS & ACRONYMS

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

NORTH LONDON

ST PANCRAS

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

ISLINGTON

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

FINCHLEY

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

HENDON

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

TOTTENHAM and WOOD GREEN

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

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

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

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

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

ENFIELD

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

WEALDSTONE

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

STOKE NEWINGTON

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

BARNET

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

WEST LONDON

WILLESDEN

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

HAMMERSMITH

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

FULHAM

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

PUTNEY

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

FELTHAM

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

EALING

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

HANWELL

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

PADDINGTON

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

CHISWICK

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

SOUTHALL

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

FULWELL

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

NEASDEN

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

EAST LONDON

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

HACKNEY

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

BETHNAL GREEN

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

SHOREDITCH

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

STEPNEY

The Communist Party dominated the Council of Action here…

POPLAR

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

BOW AND BROMLEY

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

EAST HAM

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

WEST HAM

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

ILFORD

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

LEYTON

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

WALTHAMSTOW

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

DAGENHAM

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

BARKING

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

SOUTH LONDON

DEPTFORD/NEW CROSS

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

LEWISHAM

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

GREENWICH

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

WOOLWICH

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

WANDSWORTH

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

BATTERSEA

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

LAMBETH

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

BERMONDSEY

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

CAMBERWELL

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

SOUTHWARK

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

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

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

CROYDON

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

WIMBLEDON

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

MITCHAM

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

KINGSTON

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

PENGE

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

SIDCUP

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

CENTRAL LONDON

WESTMINSTER

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

MARYLEBONE

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

FINSBURY

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

Sources and stuff we read:

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

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

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

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

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

1926: A BRIEF OVERVIEW

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

MYTH AND REALITY IN THE NINE DAYS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The text of the Mass Strike can be found online here

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

 

Today in pamphleteering history: William Benbow’s Grand National Holiday and Congress of the Productive Classes published, 1832

William Benbow was a radical pamphleteer, publisher, propagandist and bookseller, who in the 1830s ran a radical bookshop at 205 Fleet Street, in London. An activist of the National Union of the Working Classes; he later became a leading physical force Chartist. Both the NUWC and the Chartist movement became quickly divided between those who thought protest, petition and mass pressure for political reform would gain working men the vote, and those who felt the rich and powerful would always defeat peaceful campaigning, and only ‘physical force’ – mass strike, uprising and revolt – could do the job.

Benbow was probably not the first to think up the idea of a ‘general strike’, but in his classic pamphlet of 1832, The Grand National Holiday of the Productive Classes, he proposed that the producers of the wealth, being exploited by an idle and rich minority, should cease to work en masse, for a month. This would be enough to kickstart the process of depriving the rich of the fruits of the labour of the working classes, who would elect a congress to begin the process of re-ordering society in their own interests. The way Benbow writes about the Holiday, as a sacred and glorious festival, designed to usher in happiness and prosperity for all, carries echoes of the biblical Jubilee, when work was banned, debts were abolished and prisoners freed… Benbow was also a non-conformist preacher, but the Jubilee had transcended religious imagery in the early nineteenth century, as ultra-radicals like Thomas Spence and Robert Wedderburn revived the idea as a vehicle of almost millenarian communist significance. But mass stoppages of work were also part of a long tradition in working class culture. Benbow’s genius was to invest the theory of the strike with a cataclysmic and transformative aura.

It was at the Rotunda, the leading radical centre of the day, in Blackfriars Road, Southwark, that Benbow first publicly advocated his theory of the Grand National Holiday. Benbow argued that a month long General Strike would lead to an armed uprising and a change in the political system to the gain of working people. Benbow used the term “holiday” (holy day) because it would be a period “most sacred, for it is to be consecrated to promote the happiness and liberty”. Benbow argued that during this one month holiday the working class would have the opportunity “to legislate for all mankind; the constitution drawn up… that would place every human being on the same footing. Equal rights, equal enjoyments, equal toil, equal respect, equal share of production.”

Not only was no work to be done, but workers should make all effort to cripple the state and the financial system. Supporters of the Sacred Month should withdraw any savings they had in banks or other institutions. They were also required to abstain from all taxable articles such as drink and tobacco. Benbow’s proposals included addressing practical problems of how the mass of striking workers were to support themselves; first of all living on their saving (admittedly meagre), but then taking over parish funds and extorting money and goods from the rich to survive. but that He also suggested local committees should be set up to administer food distribution and keep order: these local committees would be the basis of elections to a national Convention – a working class government in effect.

Below, we reprint the text of Benbow’s 1832 pamphlet:

GRAND NATIONAL HOLIDAY, AND CONGRESS OF THE PRODUCTIVE CLASSES.

“Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl…
Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth; and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and they do not resist you.” JAMES,c.v.

BY WILLIAM BENBOW.
LONDON:

PRINTED AND PUBLISHED BY THE AUTHOR, 205, FLEET STREET. SOLD BY WATSON, 33, WINDMILL STREET, AND ALL BOOKSELLERS.

DEDICATION TO THE PRODUCTIVE CLASSES.

PLUNDERED FELLOW-SUFFERERS!

I lay before you a plan of freedom – adopt it, and you rid the world of inequality, misery, and crime. A martyr in your cause, I am become the prophet of your salvation.

A plan of happiness is pointed out and dedicated to you. With it I devote to you my life and body, my soul and blood.

WILLIAM BENBOW.

Commercial Coffee House, 205, Fleet-street.

INTRODUCTORY ADDRESS.

Her princes in the midst thereof are like wolves ravening the prey, to shed blood, and to destroy souls, to get dishonest gain.
The possessors of the land have used oppression, and exercised robbery and have vexed the poor and needy.
EZEKIEL.

LIFE, when good for any thing, consists of ease, gaiety, pleasure, and consequently of happiness. All men enjoy life but do not enjoy it equally. The enjoyment of some is so very limited, that it does not deserve the name of enjoyment; that of others is without bounds, for they have the means of procuring fully ease, gaiety, and pleasure. Thus happiness is circumscribed, and is becoming every day more and more so, that is, the numbers who are deprived of it are hourly increasing. Now, who are they who do enjoy; does their enjoyment proceed from their own merits; are they laborious,-do they work for the happiness they possess? We shall see. Let nothing but truth, glaring stark-naked truth, be stated.

The only class of persons in society, as it is now constituted, who enjoy any considerable portion of ease, pleasure, and happiness, are those who do the least towards producing any thing good or necessary for the community at large. They are few in number, a fraction, as it were, of society, and yet they have become possessed of a most monstrous power, namely, the power of turning to their own advantage all the good things of life, without creating themselves the smallest particle of any one of those good things. How, in the name of wonder, have they obtained this monstrous power! It must have been either by an involuntary and unnatural consent, or by what seems nearest to the truth by the most stupid ignorance on the part of the people. Of course this monstrous power held by the few is exercised with an iron hand, and necessarily begets indescribable wretchedness and misery among the great mass of society in every part of the kingdom. And this fraction of society, to which has been foolishly conceded, or which has impudently and unnaturally usurped, the preposterous right to exercise a monstrous power over almost every man, is as one to five hundred when compared to the people who produce all the good things seen in the world. Notwithstanding the one, the unit, the mere cypher, has all the wealth, all the power in the state, and consequently prescribes the way and details the manner, after which he pleases the 499 should live in the world. The 499 who create the state, who are its instruments upon all occasions, without whom it can not go on for a single second, who dig deep, rise early, and watch late, by whose sweat and toil the whole face of nature is beautified – rendered pleasant to the sight, and useful to existence; – the 499 who do all this are reduced to less than nothing in the estimation of the unit who does no one thing, unless consuming may be called doing something. The one – the unit or cypher – consumes, luxuriates, revels, wastes: in the winter fur and down warm him: in the summer he cools himself in the marble bath or in the shady bower: the seasons are his – their flowers, fruits, and living creatures are his – the 499 are his purveyors, they procure him every thing; and more to be pitied and worse treated than the jackal, they are not left even the offals. Not content with every thing – marrow and bone – if the bone be of any use: not content with their own peculiar titles, this consuming portion of society call themselves the people

They are the people of substance, the people of character, the people of condition the people of honor! so they say; but perhaps another definition of what they are would make them more easily recognised. They are the jugglers of society, the pick-pockets, the plunderers, the pitiless Burkers – in fine they are all Bishops! They exist on disease and blood: crime and infamy are the breath of their nostrils. The 499 bleed for them, die of disease for them; by hard and cruel treatment they are hurried into crime and infamy, if crime and infamy can justly be imputed to beings who make an occasional effort to obtain a portion of the heaps they produce.

The people are formed out of our proportion of 499: they are in number as 499 is to 1. By saying what the people do, we explain what they are. By saying what they can and ought to do, we explain what they can and ought to be.

For many years the people have done nothing for themselves. They have not even existed, for they have not enjoyed life. Their existence has been enjoyed by others; they have been, as far as regards themselves, non-entities. They have had neither ease, gaiety, nor pleasure; they have not lived ; for a state of continual toil, privation, and sickness can never be called life. What working man can say he lives? Unless he says he lives when he is pining away piecemeal producing with an empty stomach and weary limbs what goes to make others live. The existence of the working man is a negative. He is alive to production, misery, and slavery- dead to enjoyment and happiness. He produces and is miserable: others enjoy and are happy. The people then, since we call the mass the people, are the drudges of society ; they do every thing and enjoy nothing. The people are nothing for themselves, and everything for the few.

If they are the source of all wealth- that wealth is not for them: if they are all-powerful, their power is used for the benefit of others: – they protect and support those who grow fat on the sweat of their brow! They fight too yea, they fight – but for what? for religion, for honour, for the caprice of kings and ministers!

When they fight for themselves, then will they be a people, then will they live, then will they have ease, gaiety, pleasure and happiness; but never, until they do light for themselves! When the people fight their own battle – when they are active in resistance to the greater part of existing institutions – when they have a proper opinion of themselves; that is, when they are convinced of their own power and worth, they will then enjoy the advantages a people ought to enjoy. They will be every thing they were not before: they will be no longer abused, maltreated, and lessened in their own estimation. they will be no longer robbed of the fruits of their toil: no longer oppressed and goaded to despair, their lives will be no longer a burden too heavy to he borne. The few- the grasping, the blood-sucking few – will be no longer able to do all this. The few- the idle, dronish few – will be forced to work as well as others, and every man’s share of the good things of life will be in proportion to his production of them. When the people are resolved and prepared upon all points to fight their own battle, the rapacity of the landlord, the inhumanity of the king’s tax gatherer and of the bishop’s tithe proctor will disappear. And if there should happen to be any poor and infirm persons to be provided for, they will not be entrusted to hospital-governors and poor-house keepers, who live in splendour on the parish allowances or charitable donations made solely for the exclusive advantage the poor and infirm, who may justly be considered, and ought to be treated as the martyrs of labour.

How is it that the people have never existed- that is, have not enjoyed ease, gaiety, pleasure, or happiness? How is it that they have been the instruments of the few, procuring them a superabundance of ease, gaiety, pleasure, and happiness? How is it that they have always been the productive party, and never the consuming party? The lion makes the jackall hunt and provide for him, because the lion is stronger; but, in the case of the people, the position is reversed, for the weaker party have hitherto forced the stronger party to hunt and provide for them. How has this most monstrous state of things been established and kept up? Simply thus: by keeping the people in ignorance- by hoodwinking them with the bonds of superstition and prejudice.

Ignorance is the source of all the misery of the many. On account of their ignorance they have been oppressed,- plundered,- ground down to the earth, and degraded like beasts of burden. It is ignorance that makes us incessantly toil, not for ourselves, but for others: it is ignorance that makes us fight, and lavish our blood and lives to secure to the few the power of still keeping us their tools; it is ignorance that prevents us from knowing ourselves and without a clear knowledge of ourselves we must ever remain the tools of others- the slaves of the consuming party. In every age of the world the people, for want of knowledge of their own worth and power have been the unpaid, unrecompensed tools of kings, nobles, and priests. Yet at no time, in no country, among no people has there existed so much degradation, oppression, and misery, as exists at this moment in this wretched country. Ignorance has reduced England to distraction, and unfortunate Ireland to phrensied madness.

There is no greater folly than to expect that people will do that which they are ignorant of. To fulfil a duty or to obey a law, we must understand it. Our lawgivers have kept us in ignorance, for if we had knowledge we would not obey laws framed for our own destruction. Our lords and masters are doing every thing that our ignorance may continue, in order that they may continue, like the lawyers of old, “to load us with burdens too grievous to be borne, which they will not, touch with one of their fingers.” Since our lords and masters have very good reasons for keeping us in ignorance, we have still stronger ones for getting knowledge. By keeping us in ignorance they enjoy: by getting ourselves knowledge we shall enjoy, and cease to suffer. The knowledge we want is very easily acquired: it is not that taught in schools or books, or at least in very few books. The knowledge we want is a knowledge of ourselves: a  knowledge of our own power, of our immense might, and of the right we have to employ in action that immense power. We cannot have this knowledge without having an opposite kind of knowledge:- namely, the knowledge of the numerical and real weakness of our enemies, though they have been so long enabled to oppress us and drain us to the last drop of our heart’s blood. The people of Paris had this knowledge when they revolted against tyranny, and trampled it for a moment under their feet: the people of Paris will give a still stronger example of the sort of knowledge we want, when they declare that kingship and privilege are incompatible with popular liberty: in fine, when they shall strike for a republic- and this example way be expected shortly. The men of Grenoble the other day gave a proof of this knowledge when they refused to pay unjust taxes, burned the tax-gatherers’ houses and books, and forced the government to come to a compromise. In short, the knowledge we want is to be fully convinced of the weakness and villainy of our enemies, and to be resolved to use the means we have of destroying them.

The interest of the people has been the same in every age of the world; and yet, extraordinary as it may appear, they have never understood it. If the people had understood their true interests, could any power or accident reduce them to the state they are now in? What that state is we all, alas, know: it is, beyond all contradiction, a state of privation, bordering on starvation, – a state of misery and degradation. Inattention, and the most culpable and dishonourable indifference on their part, have produced their own ruin, and consequently that of the countries they inhabit. Look to the people of this kingdom – look to this country: are they far off from ruin? If you, O people, do not rouse yourselves, you will leave to posterity a nation of the most miserable slaves.

The remedy? the remedy? you all exclaim. You have it within your own reach; but since it seems you cannot see it, you shall have it named to you, and pointed out to you so palpably, that if you do not make use of it, the brand and curse of slavery will stick to you during your wretched lives, and your children and children’s children will curse you as traitors, who have sold yourselves, and them, whom you had no right to sell. Now the remedy that is to better your condition, and to snatch you from final and everlasting ruin, is placed within yourselves. It is simply – UNITY OF THOUGHT AND ACTION. – Think together, act together, and you will remove mountains- mountains of injustice, oppression, misery and want. How do you suppose you were brought to your present condition? By never thinking or acting- by being ignorant of yourselves. The bulls in the fable, whilst united, defied the strength of the lion; he sowed jealousy and disunion among them, and they became his prey. Our enemies, by their unity of thought and action- numerically and physically weak as they are- have succeeded in making us their prey. A small portion of mankind, by adopting plan and method, by putting their heads together, have been able to do as they pleased with the greater portion. The smaller portion, by their unanimity, have made the greater portion toil for them: by unity of thought and action, the smaller party have become lords and masters, the greater party slaves.

Lords and masters! They are united; and therefore they may be whatever else they please; they have become, by their unity, lords and masters; and they are, without impunity, the possessors of all power, pomp, greatness, wealth, vanity, lewdness, beastiality, cruelty:- they are a living catalogue of all the vices and crimes that human nature has been forced to be the source of. A want of unity of thought and action on our parts has been the cause of this unnatural state of things. Our indifference and disunion have enabled our horrid enemies to cover the earth with thousands of Sodoms and Gomorrahs.

Of all the follies human nature can be guilty of, there is no one greater than to expect that others will do for us what we ought to do for ourselves. If others do not feel as we do – if they have no cause to feel as we do – if they are not oppressed, robbed, plundered, degraded – how can they enter into our feelings who are so! To expect aid from Tories, Whigs, Liberals – to expect aid from the middling classes, or from any other class than those who suffer, (from the working classes), is sheer madness!

Are liberty and equal rights worth enjoying: are ease, gaiety, pleasure, and happiness worth possessing? Is the satisfaction of seeing ourselves on the same footing with all men – of beholding no longer such a distinction as that between peer and peasant – of no longer seeing ourselves trampled on by the horses and carriages of persons of a different order- of seeing every man either on horseback or on foot, – is such satisfaction worth nothing? What more glorious, more consolatory, more honourable to man than equality! Equality, O people and friends, is grand and beautiful: we may have it; but let us he united!

Virtue- where is it to be found? Among the people! Who have died- who have been martyrs for their principles- the people! Who have been hanged, who have suffered at the stake for their country, and for the good of humanity – the people! From Wat Tyler down to Emmet and Thistlewood, the martyrs of truth have always been found among the people. Their martyrdom would not have been in vain, had we supported them: they relied upon us- they gave us an example- they held forth a torch-light they sounded a tocsin- their heartstrings wrung it; but we, O shame, have been deaf to it! We have had hearts of steel- we have been worse than the deaf adder for we have heard the music of liberty, and have not listened to it!

It is almost superfluous to say, that the horrid and merciless tyrants, whom we have allowed to lord it over us, have no feeling in common with us. The whole study of their lives is to keep us in a state of ignorance, that we may not be sensible of our own degradation and of their weakness. To expect good at their hands, to hope that they will break one link of the chain with which they bind us, to dream that they will ever look with pity upon us, is the vainest of all dreams. But enough; they have fattened upon the sweat of our body; they are determined to continue to do so; it is our business to prevent it, to put a stop to it. We are the people, our business is with the people, and to transact it properly, we must take it into our own hands. The people are called upon to work for themselves! We lay down the plan of operation; we despair of all safety, we despair of liberty, we despair of equality, we despair of seeing ease, gaiety, pleasure, and happiness becoming the possessions of the people, unless they co-operate with us. We chalk down to them a plan; woe to them if they do not follow in its traces!

THE HOLIDAY.

A holiday signifies a holy day, and ours is to be of holy days the most holy. It is to be most holy, most sacred, for it is to be consecrated to promote- to create rather- the happiness and liberty of mankind. Our holy day is established to establish plenty, to abolish want, to render all men equal! In our holy day we shall legislate for all mankind; the constitution drawn up during our holiday, shall place every human being on the same footing. Equal rights, equal liberties, equal enjoyments, equal toil, equal respect, equal share of production: this is the object of our holy day – of our sacred day, – of our festival!

When a grand national holiday, festival, or feast is proposed, let none of our readers imagine that the proposal is new. It was an established custom among the Hebrews, the most ancient of people, to have holidays or festivals, not only religious feasts, but political ones. Their feasts were generally held to perpetuate the memory of God’s mighty works; to  allow the people frequent seasons for instruction in the laws,- to grant them time of rest, pleasure, and renovation of acquaintance with their brethren. The Sabbath was a weekly festival, not because they supposed that God reposed from his labour on that day, – but immemorial of their deliverance from Egypt;- out of the house of bondage, and of their feeding on manna in the wilderness. The true meaning of feeding on manna is, that the productions of the soil were equally divided among the people. They fed upon manna- that is they were fed in abundance. During the various festivals, no servile work was done, and servants and masters knew no distinction. Every seventh year, which was called the year of Release, a continued festival was held among the Hebrews. Mark, a holiday for a whole year! How happy a people must be, how rich in provisions, to be able to cease from manual labour, and to cultivate their minds during the space of a whole year! We English must be in a pretty state, if in the midst of civilisation and abundance, we cannot enjoy a month’s holiday, and cease from labour during the short space of four weeks! But to return, – the year of release was a continued- unceasing festival; it was a season of instruction; it was a relief to poor debtors. The land lay untilled; the spontaneous produce was the property of the poor, the fatherless, and the widow; every debt was forgiven, and every bond-servant dismissed free, if he pleased, loaded with a variety of presents from his master. There was another holiday or feast deserving of mention;- it was called the jubilee. No servile work was done on it: the land lay untilled what grew of itself belonged to the poor and needy; whatever debts the Hebrews owed to one another, were wholly remitted; hired, as well as bond servants, obtained their liberty; the holding of lands was changed, so that as the jubilee approached, the Hebrew lands bore the less price. By this means landed possession was not confined to particular families, and the sinful hastening to be rich was discouraged.

We have now shewn that the holding of festivals is consecrated by divine authority; it only remains for us to show the necessity that there is for the people of this country holding one; and then to proceed to its details and object.

The grounds and necessity of our having a month’s Holiday, arise from the circumstances in which we are placed. We are oppressed, in the fullest sense of the word; we have been deprived of every thing; we have no property, no wealth, and our labour is of no use to us, since what it produces goes into the hands of others. We have tried every thing but our own efforts; we have told our governors, over and over again, of our wants and misery; we thought them good and wise, and generous; we have for ages trusted to their promises, and we find ourselves, at this present day, after so many centuries of forbearance, instead of having our condition bettered, convinced that our total ruin is at hand. Our Lords and Masters have proposed no plan that we can adopt; they contradict themselves, even upon what they name the source of our misery. One says one thing, another says another thing. One scoundrel, one sacrilegious blasphemous scoundrel, says “that over-production is the cause of our wretchedness.” Over production, indeed! when we half-starving producers cannot, with all our toil, obtain any thing like a sufficiency of produce. It is the first time, that in any age or country, save our own, abundance was adduced as a cause of want. Good God! where is this abundance? Abundance of food! ask the labourer and mechanic where they find it. Their emaciated frame is the best answer. Abundance of clothing! the nakedness, the shivering, the asthmas, the colds, and rheumatisms of the people, are proofs of the abundance of clothing! Our Lords and Masters tell us, we produce too much; very well then, we shall cease from producing for one month, and thus put into practice the theory of our Lords and Masters.

Over-population, our Lords and Masters say, is another cause of our misery. They mean by this, that the resources of the country are inadequate to its population. We must prove the contrary, and during a holiday take a census of the people, and a measurement of the land, and see upon calculation, whether it be not an unequal distribution, and a bad management of the land, that make our Lords and Masters say, that there are too many of us. Here are two strong grounds for our Holiday; for a CONGRESS of the working classes.

The greatest Captain of the age has acknowledged, that there was partial distress; Londonderry has said, that ‘ignorant impatience’ was the cause of our misery; the sapient Robert Peel has asserted, that ‘our wants proceeded from our not knowing what we wanted.’ Very good during our festival, we shall endeavour to put an end to partial distress; to get rid of our ignorant impatience, and to learn what it is we do want. And these are three other motives for holding a Congress of the working classes.

When Governments disagree; when they have a national right or interest to settle; a boundary to establish; to put an end to a war, or to prevent it; or when they combine to enslave, in order to be able to plunder the whole world, they hold a Congress. They send their wise men, their cunning men, to discuss, plan, and concoct what they call a treaty, and so, at least for a time, settle their differences. In this mode of proceeding there is something that we must imitate. In our National Holiday, which is to be held during one calendar month, throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, we must all unite in discovering the source of our misery, and the best way of destroying it. Afterwards we choose, appoint, and send to the place of Congress, a certain number of wise and cunning men, whom we shall have made fully acquainted with our circumstances; and they, before the Holiday be expired, shall discuss and concert a plan, whereby, if it is possible, the privation, wretchedness and slavery, of the great mass of us, may be diminished, if not completely annihilated.

We affirm that the state of society in this country is such, that as long as it continues, heart-rending inequality must continue, producing wretchedness, crime and slavery;- plunging not a few, but the immense majority of the people into those abject circumstances. Our respect and love towards the human race in general, and more especially towards the working classes to whom we belong body and soul, has induced us to reflect and consider, and thus to discover what we think will bring about the object we aim at; namely, the happiness of the many. Our lords and masters, by their unity of thought and action, by their consultations, deliberations, discussions, holidays, and congresses, have up to this time succeeded in bringing about the happiness of the few. Can this be denied? We shall then by our consultations, deliberation-, discussions, holiday and congress, endeavour to establish the happiness of the immense majority of the human race, of that far largest portion called the working classes. What the few have done for themselves cannot the many do for themselves? unquestionably. Behold, O people and fellow labourers the way!

Before a month’s holiday can take place, universal preparations must be made for it. lt should not take place neither in seed-time nor in harvest-time. Every man must prepare for it, and assist his neighbour in preparing for it. The preparations must begin long before the time which shall be hereafter appointed, in order that every one may be ready, and that the festival be not partial but universal.

Committees of management of the working classes must be forthwith formed in every city, town, village, and parish throughout the united kingdom. These committees must make themselves fully acquainted with the plan, and be determined to use the extremest activity and perseverance to put it into execution as speedily and effectually as possible. They must call frequent meetings, and shew the necessity and object of the holiday. They must use every effort to prevent intemperance of every sort and recommend the strictest sobriety and economy. The working classes cannot lay in provisions for a month; this is not wanted, but every man must do his best to be provided with food for the first week of the holiday. Provisions for the remaining three weeks can be easily procured. As for wearing apparel, since the holiday will take place in the summer, there can be no great difficulty in being provided with sufficient covering for one month. If the committees do their duty, and earnestly explain the nature and necessity of the holiday, they will induce all lovers of equal rights, to make every sacrifice of momentary inconvenience in order to obtain permanent convenience and comfort.

We suppose that the people are able to provide provisions and funds for one week; during this week they will be enabled to enquire into the funds of their respective cities, towns, villages and parishes, and to adopt means of having those funds, originally destined for their benefit, now applied to that purpose. The committee of management shall be required to direct the people in adopting the best measures that shall be deemed necessary. The people must be made aware of their own folly, in having allowed themselves to have been deceived by the Parish parsons, and Select Vestries, and they must cease permitting others to vote away their own money. The people, so soon as they shall see themselves in want of provisions or funds, must have immediate recourse to vestry meetings, which have power to grant, in despite of Overseers and Justices, such relief as may be wanted. There is nothing to prevent any six or ten persons from calling a vestry meeting as often as may be deemed requisite, and the registers, books, and other parish documents must be consulted, and will give sufficient evidence, that there is wherewithal to support the people during the holiday. Let it be constantly borne in mind, that the united voice of the people will be duly attended to, and that an equal division of funds and provisions will be allowed them by the parish authorities, when their object is known. The committee, which may also be looked upon as the commissary department, must likewise watch over the good order of its district, establish regularity, and punish all attempts at disorder. The people having a grand object in view, the slightest points in their character must be grand. About to renovate Europe, the people must appear renovated.

In the earlier periods of our history, monarchs, princes, and rulers of minor titles, had recourse to voluntary loans. At first the people raised these loans voluntarily, for they thought by so doing, they would enable their chiefs to protect them. It was soon seen, however, that the voluntary loans were converted to the sole advantage of the chiefs, and their more immediate partisans, consequently the people began to grow slack in contributing them. By means of the voluntary loans, the chiefs or governors became powerful enough to exact involuntary loans, and the method of raising them was taxation, and other sorts of exaction. Hence, though sovereignty was at first supported by voluntary loans, as soon as it was discovered to be a self-interested institution, it was obliged to levy involuntary loans, that is, taxes. Now there is a species of sovereignty- we mean the sovereignty of the people- that has not as yet been supported, and it is for its support that we claim at this moment, during the festival that is to establish it, voluntary loans. When we talk of establishing the sovereignty of the people, we talk of establishing the grandeur, the happiness and liberty of the people. Nothing can be more deserving of praise and support. We have hitherto contributed to the sovereignty of particular families, that is to their grandeur, happiness and liberty; and their liberty must be called uncontrolled licence- tyranny.

Now, since we have so long tried the sovereignty of particular families, let us try the sovereignty of the grand family- the human race. That species of sovereignty can never become tyranny. We call then upon every man to add his mite to this voluntary loan, and particularly the rich, who are always so generous in keeping up the splendour of ancient race. The antiquity of the human race they will not allow to be sullied by modern degradation. If they show pity and support towards the descendants of a Stuart, a Bourbon, or a Guelf, they will surely show more towards the descendants of Adam.

“The cattle upon a thousand hills are the Lord’s.” When the people’s voice, which Lord Brougham proclaims to be the voice of God, and surely we need no higher legal authority, calls for its own, demands the cattle of the thousand hills, who dares withhold the cattle of the thousand hills? During our holiday the people may have need of this cattle: let them order it to the slaughter-house, and their herdsmen and drovers will obey them. There may be some persons, who having been so long a time the keepers of the Lord’s cattle, will be inclined to keep it still longer. However, we are of opinion, that when solicited they will render “unto the Lord that which is the Lord’s.” But there are other keepers of the people’s cattle, whose unbounded liberality and strict probity are known to the whole world. These keepers may be classed under the denominations of Dukes, Marquesses, Earls, Lords, Barons, Baronets, Esquires, Justices, and Parsons, and they will all freely contribute to our glorious holiday. Some of them, according to the extent of the Lord’s flocks, will send us a hundred sheep, others twenty oxen; loads of corn, vegetables and fruit will be sent to each committee appointed by the Lord’s voice, which, when distributed among the people, will enable them during the CONGRESS to legislate at their case, without any fear of want tormenting any part of them.

Should there, however, be a few who may refuse to render up the Lord’s cattle, the number of the greatly generous will infinitly counter-balance them. To the NEWCASTLES, who think every thing their own, we will oppose the BURDETTS, who think all they possess, the Lord’s or people’s. What a faithful keeper of the Lord’s cattle we shall find in Sir FRANCIS! The relief we shall obtain from him when we wait upon him at Belper, Burton, and in Leicestershire, will be a proof of his generosity and probity. The following is the way Sir FRANCIS and all such honest keepers are to be waited on, and our wants and wishes made known to them. Although we name Sir FRANCIS, we do not give him any real preference over the Westminsters, the Russells, the Lansdowries, the Althorpes, &c. Let him, however, be supposed the keeper, that for form sake we are to wait upon. The Committee will depute 20 persons to wait upon Sir FRANCIS, and state to him respectfully, but energetically, their business. Suppose, but it is the most improbable of all suppositions, that Sir FRANCIS should not be inclined to pay full attention to the application. Then the Committee will send 100 persons, with the same request, urging it still more respectfully and energetically; and should there still be indifference on the part of Sir FRANCIS, the Committee shall send 1000 persons and so on, increasing in proportion, until the Lord’s cattle be forthcoming. The persons sent by the Committee, shall allow no one to disturb the peace of the people. Upon all visits from the committee, the person visited must be seen in person by the Committee: not being at home is no excuse. Sir FRANCIS may be at Belper, Burton, or in Leicestershire; the Committee of those districts will find him at one or either of them, and solicit ‘England’s glory’ for support, which be will freely grant, as he is very rich, and very willing to establish the sovereignty, happiness, and liberty of the people.

Here be it observed, that the above mode of proceeding is not limited to any part of the country, or to any one Sir FRANCIS. All the Sir FRANCISES, all the reformers are to be applied to, and the people will have no longer any reason to suspect reformers’ consistency. The reformers of the united kingdom will hold out an open hand to support us during our festival. O’Connell will abandon the collection made for him; indeed that collection is virtually destined for our Irish brethren during the holiday. Until they are tried no one can imagine the number of great men ready to promote equal rights, equal justice, and equal laws all throughout the kingdom.

When all the details of the above plan are put into execution, the committee of each parish and district, shall select its wise men to be sent to the NATIONAL CONGRESS. A parish or district having a population of 8,000, shall send two wise and cunning men to Congress, a population of 15,000 four, a population of 25,000 eight, and London fifty wise and cunning men. The advice of the different committees is to be taken as to the most convenient place for conference. It should be a central position, and the mansion of some great liberal lord, with its out houses and appurtenances. The only difficulty of choice will be to fix upon a central one, for they are all sufficiently vast to afford lodging to the members of the Congress, their lands will afford nourishment, and their parks a beautiful place for meeting.

It may be relied upon, that the possessor of the mansion honoured by the people’s choice, will make those splendid preparations for the representatives of the sovereignty of the people, that are usually made for the reception of a common sovereign.

The object of the Congress; that is what it will have to do. To reform society, for “from the crown of our head to the sole of our foot there is no soundness in us.” We must cut out the rottenness in order to become sound. Let us see what is rotten. Every man that does not work is rotten; he must be made work in order to cure his unsoundness. Not only is society rotten; but the land, property, and capital is rotting. There is not only something, but a great deal rotten in the state of England. Every thing, men, property, and money, must be put into a state of circulation. As the blood by stagnation putrifies, as it is impoverished by too much agitation, so society by too much idleness on the one hand, and too much toil on the other has become rotten. Every portion must be made work, and then the work will become so light, that it will not be considered work, but wholesome exercise. Can any thing be more humane than the main object of our glorious holiday, namely, to obtain for all at the least expense to all, the largest sum of happiness for all.

We think that the necessity of a GRAND NATIONAL HOLIDAY has been fully impressed upon the mind of every man who may have read us. We have etched out the plan; not detailed and matured it, for it will take a longer time and deeper reflection before we can pronounce our plan complete. We expect the assistance of others, and we invite them, without putting us to unnecessary expence, to communicate to us their hints. We have explained in a few words our object; it will be seen that never was there an object, an aim so sublime, so full of humanity. We will not revert, now that we are forced to a conclusion, to the necessity of a holiday, but we must repeat ourselves respecting the plan.

We are sure that there is no one who will not be ready to join heart and hand in our festival, provided he can be persuaded of the possibility of holding it. If we had not been convinced of the possibility of holding it, we should never have mentioned it. All we require is that our holiday folk should be prepared for one week; we engage ourselves to provide for all their wants during the last three weeks of the festival. We have shown in what way the people should have recourse to vestry meetings, and what power they had over all parish authorities. We have shown that the parish authorities are entirely dependent on the people, and that without the consent of the people they can raise no rate, nor dispose of any fund already accumulated. We have shewn that the people had a right to examine the parish accounts, and become cognisant of the funds held by the parish authorities, and that the people could dispose of those funds as they thought proper. If, then, there are funds in hand, the people will apply them to their own support during the holiday; if it should happen that there are not funds, the people must vote a supply, for the people must be convinced of one thing, namely, that it is they alone who have a right of levying parish contributions. Some few persons may not like the idea of having recourse to parish allowance for their support even during the short period of three weeks, but these over-delicate individuals must reflect that they are becoming a momentaryburden to their parish, in order to rid it of increasing  and everlasting burdens. We think we have said enough to prove, that by vestry meetings alone the people would be fully able to support themselves during the holiday. Let the people only reflect on the sums that the parish authorities have from time immemorial levied upon the people, without the concurrence of the people, and then they will have no longer any scruples, but will, if the occasion require it, have recourse to the same method for raising funds for the benefit of the many, that the few have always had for the benefit of the few. We are too honest, too conscientious, too delicate, consequently the few who are neither honest, conscientious nor delicate dupe us. We must avoid all squeamishness; we are not only working for ourselves but for the human race and its posterity. We beg of the people to throw off all false delicacy. They must boldly lay hands upon that which is their own.

We call our reader’s attention to what we have said about “the cattle upon the thousand hills.” They are the Lord’s, that is the people’s; and when the people want them, the guardians who have kept them so long, will deliver them unto the people. We repeat, and we do so expressly that the people may be the more convinced of what we assert, that Sir FRANCIS BURDETT, and all such liberal men, will come forward in shoals to support us. There is nothing enthusiastic or ideal in this assertion. Let us reflect upon it. MR. COKE, of Norfolk, is a very rich man, and a very liberal man. Now we ask, what does a liberal man amass wealth for, if not in order to be able to support liberal principles. MR. COKE’S heart will beat with joy when he finds such an occasion for his liberality, as we are going to give him. We see him already ringing for his check-book, and ordering droves of his oxen, and waggon-loads of his wheat to be sent to us holiday folks. We hear him I wearing at his servants, damning their laziness, when the demands of the people are to be satisfied. And in every county a COKE is to be found; in Middlesex you will find a BYNG, in Bedfordshire a WHITBREAD. It would be too long to mention names, but you have only to look over the list of the majority in the House of Commons on the Reform Bill, and the list of the minority in the House of Lords on the same Bill, and then you will see, at a glance, the number of liberal men who are keeping their riches for your advantage. Only think of the immense sums that these liberal men spend at elections, in order to legislate for you, and consequently do you good! Now can you be persuaded, that they will not liberally resist you when you are fighting your own battle. Be assured they will; not only will they send you funds and provisions, but you will find them simple volunteers in your ranks. HENRY BROUGHAM, Lord Chancellor, will, if you accept of him, volunteer his services as one of your Deputies to CONGRESS. These great men, O people, are waiting for you; as soon as they can rely upon you, you may rely upon them. All they want to declare themselves for you, is your support. Let them have it.

We intended to give a list of the principal subjects to be discussed and settled during our CONGRESS. The Public shall have this list in a Periodical, advertised on the last page.

FINIS.

Printed by W. Benbow, 205, Fleet Street.

THE TRIBUNE OF THE PEOPLE,
A MONTHLY PERIODICAL,

To be first Published on the 21st of January.

Price Two Pence.

This PERIODICAL will be purely Political; it will “speak daggers but use none.”- It will advise the separation of the people from the Aristocracy; each portion of society must shift for itself, until plain dealing is established. The Tribune of the people is the Advocate of the people. The people shall be no longer duped.

PUBLISHED BY BENBOW,
205, FLEET STREET.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Postscript: The Grand National Holiday in action

The Chartists took the idea of the ‘Grand National Holiday’, although some preferred to called it the ‘Sacred Month’. After the first flush of enthusiasm of mass meetings and petitioning had given way to disillusion as Parliament rejected the first Chartist petition in July 1839, rioting had occurred across various parts of the country in response to the Commons vote, and a number of Chartist leaders were arrested and jailed – including Benbow. He had been spreading the idea of the Grand National holiday again, and it had been widely discussed in Chartist circles around the country. Workers in Wales, the north of England and the midlands were especially agitated, and many were prepared to take extra-ordinary steps.

August 12th 1839 was agreed as the date when the ‘Sacred Month’ would begin. The Chartist Convention of summer 1839 adopted it as policy. But Chartism was not a homogenous movement; although united around some demands, tactics and even ultimate ends were often hotly debated. If some were openly planning insurrection, stockpiling pikes, staves and other weaponry, many more moderate elements shied away from violence, whether because they felt it was wrong in itself, or because they believed it would draw state repression and end in mass arrest and jailings. In the event the repression came anyway.

The Chartist movement aroused great fear, among the middle classes, in particular, and some among the authorities… The government had already begun to crack down on Chartism before the Grand National Holiday could get going, arresting 100s of activists including leading speakers, agitators and lecturers, and charging them with sedition. William Benbow himself was nicked on August 4th, and spent eight months in prison awaiting trial. These arrests not only weakened the strike by taking crucial figures out of the picture, but the trials and supporting prisoners became an alternative focus, and the Convention in fact voted to suspend the Sacred Month just before it was to begin and replace if with a three day General Strike starting on 12th August

To some extent the Sacred Month, did begin, in that workers in a number of areas stayed away from work. On 12th August 1839 in many, mainly northern areas, the pubs were shut. The weekly Chartist newspaper The Northern Star for the 17th and 24th August 1839 reported meetings across the north, in which it gave accounts of large turnouts comprising a majority of the working population of particular areas, which then proceeded to march to surrounding locations to pull others out in support of the Sacred Month – flying pickets, in fact, often a useful tactic in large-scale strikes. A number of factories were closed down.

Even in areas where the strike did not take hold there was at least symbolic support. For instance, in London, on 12th August, Chartists held a mass meeting on Kennington Common.

The response to the strike call was, however, in reality very patchy, and there is no clear picture of how many workers stayed away from work. Despite huge Chartist rallies, which seemed to reflect mass support for Chartism in some areas (eg Kersal Moor), in 1838, there is some uncertainty about Chartism’s real support. In some Lancashire towns with large working class populations, Chartist support seemed to be dropping off, not building. On 4th August in the run-up to the start of the Sacred Month, Chartists were called on to attend church en masse: but numbers who in fact turned up were disappointing (150 at Manchester, 1500 at Stockport, 2-3000 at Bolton and 4000 at Blackburn.) On the 12th, Chartists paraded through the main cotton-producing towns, but in some places work continued as normal – for instance in Oldham and Rochdale. In Oldham, a meeting of factory workers agreed that the National Holiday was unnecessary and the Charter could only be achieved by peaceful means.

In some areas the strike lasted several days, though not the whole month. In most places, within a week, the movement had collapsed.

In essence, “without working class unanimity it could have no hope of success.” (Donald Read)

It seems that in many areas there was a division between factory operatives and handloom weavers who worked out of their own homes. The latter formed a more solid support for Chartism, and its more radical elements; factory operatives were possibly more likely to back away from more extreme Chartist measures. This could have been influenced by the clear link between poverty and economic hardship and preparedness to support or initiate ‘physical force’ measures. In areas or trades his by depression and resulting lack of work, increased desperation led to wider willingness to enlist in revolts, plots and the ‘Holiday’; where trade was more prosperous or at least reviving, support for radical measures fell away. (So in Oldham, where, as mentioned above, support for the Sacred Month was scant, trade in the textile mills had recently picked up.) The handloom weavers, whose work was being replaced by factories, were being driven to the edge and were correspondingly more up for a sharper, deeper change…

But more fundamental problems of planning also undermined the attempt to put the Sacred Month into practice. Benbow’s suggestion, that revolutionary local councils should organise the expropriation of the rich to provide for people deprived of wages when they struck, proved difficult, with an organised police force, now properly up and running, soldiers deployed around the country, and a government in reality more prepared for violence than the workers were. Mass expropriation sounds attractive when you’re starving and angry, but logistically, it was quite a step to take. It was not to be attempted, which may well have doomed the Grand National Holiday from the start.

Few workers had any savings, and if some had small plots of land to feed themselves, many had nothing. Without a mass will to seize the means of production from the start, a simple economic stoppage was up against it from the start.

By September, the Chartists were themselves discussing the strike’s failure, and some were admitting they had not been adequately prepared. According to Bury Chartist Dr Fletcher, “It must be admitted that they had been attempting something which they had not either the strength or the wisdom to enable them to effect.” Fletcher, for one, did not give up on the idea of force to achieve Chartist ends, though he felt that it could be more effectively achieved if control of any future ‘physical’ action lay with local groups, not with a National Convention which had proved itself wobbly in the face of the crucial moment. Fletcher also identified a factor other theorists of the General Strike would later re-iterate: “if the working classes would fight, they must begin themselves, and the convention must not be the father of the act, but the child of it.” A centrally declared national strike is much less likely to succeed than an organic movement built towards the centre from the grassroots (See the appendix below on Rosa Luxemburg and the Mass Strike.)

So in the end, the Grand National Holiday, the Sacred Month, fizzled out. Many of the Chartists still at large began instead to plan insurrections, based locally. Armed revolt did break out in Newport, South Wales, in November 1839, and plots were also barely forestalled by the authorities in Yorkshire.

Though the Grand National Holiday failed to overthrow british capitalism in its infancy, the idea remained strong among the international working class. The theory of the General strike, as a method of overthrowing class society and introducing a more just and egalitarian economic and social order, was revived, most powerfully by the French syndicalists in the late 19th century. Some socialist historians have asserted that French radical workers were introduced to the idea by English workmen during meetings of the First International in the 1860s. So perhaps old Chartists influenced by William Benbow, or recalling 1839, passed this idea of to a new generation who picked it up and ran with it…

More on William Benbow’s life

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Appendix: Rosa Luxembourg and the Mass Strike

It’s not our intention here to go into detailed theoretical proposals for how a possible future General Strike might pan out differently. But one classic communist text we have read we did find useful. Initially it was interesting to us when looking at the British General Strike of 1926, and relating theories of a General Strike as a method of initiating possible social revolution. But it also can be helpful when looking at 1839.

Rosa Luxemburg, in her book, The Mass Strike (1905), made some critiques of how anarchists, syndicalists, and trade unionists of her time all saw the General Strike. She suggested that the idea of the anarchists and syndicalists of a political general strike pre-arranged with a political aim to overthrow capitalism was unlikely to succeed, but posited instead (based on an analysis of the 1905 Russian Revolution) that a mass strike, evolving more organically out of people’s immediate economic struggles in daily life, meshing together, constituted a new phase in the class struggle, not an abstract and artificial moment plucked from the air, but a historical development, emerging from below, not being imposed or ordained by any higher authority, or even she suggests by an external political radical structure like a socialist party.

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

Theorists of the General Strike thus far had almost exclusively conceived of it as a road to revolution. Sixty years after the Chartist Grand National Holiday, the French syndicalists, organised in the CGT union confederation, developed theories in which the General Strike was central. They saw it as the supreme weapon for the workers to overthrow capitalism and take control of society in their own interests. One of the CGT’s founders and leading theorists, Fernand Pelloutier, wrote about the General Strike. Two examples showing how he and other revolutionary syndicalists saw this future strike:
“ … Every one of them (the strikers) will remain in their neighbourhoods and will take possession, first, of the small workshops and the bakeries, then of the bigger workshops, and finally, but only after the victory, of the large industrial plants….”
“ … Because the general strike is a revolution which is everywhere and nowhere, because it takes possession of the instruments of production in each neighbourhood, in each street, in each building, so to speak, there can be no establishment of an “Insurrectionary Government” or a “dictatorship of the proletariat”; no focal point of the whole uprising or a centre of resistance; instead, the free association of each group of bakers, in each bakery, of each group of locksmiths, in each locksmith’s shop: in a word, free production….”

The syndicalist line on the General Strike was very much to the fore when The Mass Strike was written. It attempts to dismiss the prevailing ideas of the potential of such a struggle : “It is just as impossible to ‘propagate’ the mass strike as an abstract means of struggle as it is to propagate the ‘revolution.’ ‘Revolution’ like ‘mass strike’ signifies nothing but an external form of the class struggle, which can have sense and meaning only in connection with definite political situations.”
You can’t create either by going round calling for it, in other words; it will emerge as and when needed and according to the conditions of the moment. It is not ONE predictable fixed open and close struggle, but an inter-connected web of movements events, themselves caused by local or specific economic conditions, though led and expressed by people with a political idea of the movement, at least as Luxemburg saw it.
Another nice quote: “It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena.”
Rosa saw it as not a method but THE form itself of workers struggle… A rallying idea of a period of class war lasting years or decades… It cannot be called at will by any organization even The Party! She goes further and almost says that it cannot be directed from above or outside, though she does say elsewhere that the socialists have to provide political leadership.
She does contrast the mass fighting strikes with one off ‘demonstration’ strikes – what the TUC or Unison calls today ‘days of action’ in other words.
Related to this, she says the successful mass strike arising in the way described above would not/must not be limited to the organized workers: “If the mass strike, or rather, mass strikes, and the mass struggle are to be successful they must become a real people’s movement, that is, the widest sections of the proletariat must be drawn into the fight.” The union structures must recognise the common interest of unionised and non-unionised workers, in other words (to their surprise many strike committees learnt this lesson in practice in 1926, as unorganised workers flocked to the struggle in thousands).

She suggests minority movements are pipe dreams; “a strategy of class struggle … which is based upon the idea of the finely stage-managed march out of the small, well-trained part of the proletariat is foredoomed to be a miserable fiasco.” Even though the Socialists are the leadership of the working class, she suggests, they can’t force things through on their own… (past tense would question that the working class needs an external leadership, here we do differ from auntie Rosa).
Later on she talks about trade unions getting to the point where preservation of the organisation, its structure etc, becomes end in itself, or at least more important than taking risks, entering into all out struggles, or even any at all! Also how daily struggles over small issues often lead people to lose sight of wider class antagonism or larger connections… Interestingly she points out that TU bureaucracies become obsessed with the positive, membership numbers etc, and limited to their own union’s gains, ignoring negative developments, hostile to critics who point out the limitations to their activities. And how the development of professional bureaucracies increase the chance of divorce of officials etc from daily struggles… Nothing sharp-eyed folk have not also pointed out over the last hundred years, but she was among the first to diagnose it. (She also says the same ossification processes are dangers the Revolutionary Party needs to beware of… showing foresights to the developments of the communist parties and other left splinters over the following decades).

Rosa Luxembourg’s assertion that a successful general strike would have to arise organically, meshing together from below rather than being ‘called’ by any committee or confederation, is possibly a more realistic guess at how a successful strike movement might threaten to overthrow capitalist social relations than some other theories. In the case of 1839, some Chartists were attempting to crowbar a General Strike into existence, in conditions that may have doomed it from the start. Interestingly, viewed through her prism, the plug strikes of 1842 in the north of England probably had more ‘revolutionary potential’, arising from the immediate need of the workers involved, as they did, rather than the somewhat forced Grand National Holiday. However, it is also interesting to compare Benbow’s idea of local committees of working class activists taking on ordering food distribution and keeping order, with both the councils of action in the 1926 General Strike (and similar structures thrown up elsewhere, like the 1956 workers councils in the Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination, or in embryonic form in some places in the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent in Britain). Benbow was early to spot how such structures would be necessary in a time of ‘dual power’, where capitalist state still exists but workers are powerful enough to begin to supersede it.

Though Rosa Luxemburg disagreed with Fernand Pelloutier, her vision, like that of Benbow, also suggests a revolution that is ‘everywhere and nowhere’, part of a tangled period of change and dual power… a future that remains open and in our hands…

The text of the Mass Strike can be found online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1906/mass-strike/

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London transport history: women tube workers return to work after equal pay strike, 1918

It’s generally well-known that during World War I, thousands of jobs normally done by men were taken over by women, as hundreds of thousands of men left to fight in the trenches and at sea (whether voluntarily, or increasingly as the war dragged on, against their will). The mass enlistment of women into work and supporting the war effort is generally also credited with the British government finally agreeing to ‘grant’ (some) women the vote in 1918, in supposed gratitude to the part women had played during the war.

Less well-known is a large-scale strike in August 1918, that began in West London and spread around a number of other cities and towns – women workers, doing jobs usually restricted to men, striking to obtain equal pay for equal work. On top of the labour shortage, the war brought new jobs as part of the war effort – for example in munitions factories. The high demand for weapons led to munitions factories becoming the largest single employer of women during 1918. There was initial resistance by employers and male workers to hiring women for what was seen as ‘men’s work’, but the introduction of conscription, in 1916, made the need for women workers urgent. The government began coordinating the employment of women through campaigns and recruitment drives.

Thus women were soon working in areas of work that had previously been reserved for men, for example as railway guards, ticket collectors, bus and tram conductors, postal workers, police, firefighters and as bank ‘tellers’ or clerks. Some women also worked heavy or precision machinery in engineering, led cart horses on farms, and worked in the civil service and factories. However, they received lower wages for doing the same work, and thus began some of the earliest demands for equal pay.

Women’s employment rates increased during WWI, from 23.6% of the working age population  in 1914 to between 37.7% and 46.7% in 1918. It is difficult to get exact estimates because domestic workers were excluded from these figures and many women moved from domestic service into the jobs created due to the war effort. The employment of married women increased sharply – accounting for nearly 40% of all women workers by 1918.

But because women were paid less than men, male workers suspected that bosses would continue to employ women in these jobs when the men returned from the war. (in fact this didn’t happen; usually the women were sacked to make way for the returning soldiers, though in some cases women remained working alongside men but at lower wage rates.) A series of unofficial strikes by men did take place, protesting at the ‘dilution’ of the workforce by women, and responding to what they saw as a threat of wages generally being reduced. However, these actions “simply exaggerated the manpower shortage, and had the unexpected effect of forcing up piecework rates for the women.” Other male workers took the slightly less chauvinistic approach of persuading the women workers to join trade unions, in a bid to prevent them being used as pawns in wage-lowering.

However, even before the end of the war, many women refused to accept lower pay for what in most cases was the same work as had been done previously by men. Public transport was an area where women were employed in large numbers.

“By February 1915, 21% of the men employed in London’s bus and tram services had joined the armed forces and only 3.5 percentage points of the shortfall had been made up. By late 1915 it was quite obvious that women would be needed to keep London’s transport infrastructure working. The first female bus conductor was taken on by Tilling’s (one of the smaller of the main bus operators) on their No 37 route in late 1915. The London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), the main bus provider in the capital, lagged a bit behind but eventually took on bus female bus conductors in February 1916.”

By the end of the war, the London General Omnibus Company alone was employing over 3,500 women, and thousands more were employed by the other bus and tram operators in London as well as on the tubes.

“As with most expansions of women’s work during the war, this change was greeted with much publicity around women doing their bit and how they could do ‘man’s work’. By mid-1918, the number of women employed on buses across the country had increased from 300 to 4,500 (on trams it was even greater: from 1,300 to nearly 22,000). It was estimated that 90% of conductors on trams and buses were women. Generally, men were retained as drivers and doing some of the heavier (and dirtier) engineering roles. The conducting role was said to be beneficial to the health of those women who did it.”

Although strikes were nominally illegal, the latter half of the war did see a rise in stoppages. Public transport was no exception. There had been a large bus strike in 1917, sparked when the London General Omnibus Company refused to recognise the Vehicle Workers Union. It lasted a few days, and was mostly solid. Out of a total of 1900 buses, only 20 were running on May 13th! The day after, it was reported that “The situation in the London bus strike today has undergone very little change. There was a repetition this morning of yesterday’s scenes as thousands of workers proceeded to business. Trams and tubes absorbed much possible the extra traffic thrown upon them.”
Services were resumed on May 15 pending negotiations – after discussion the strike was ended on the 18th. The strike was part of a huge wave of strikes in 1917, building as prices raises and wage constraints during the war hit hard, as knuckling under ‘to support the war effort’ began to crumble under disillusion with the war aims, horror at the casualties – and the surge of hope inspired by the February Russian Revolution…

Both management and the unions had consistently opposed conceding the principle of equal pay for what was obviously equal work.

“A large majority of women tram and bus conductresses joined unions by 1918. Many had been practically compelled by men members to join the union. The understanding was that they should be employed on exactly the same terms as men whilst their employment must terminate by the end of the war. In some cases women were employed on short shifts, but this policy was opposed by the Union. It was feared that any relief of this kind would not only give employers an excuse for deductions from wages, but add to men’s hours of work. It might even have the undesirable effect of encouraging women’s employment in the future. Women drivers who were entirely composed of commercial private employees formed a comparatively small section of members, probably less than 1/8th.

The larger number of women drivers involved for auxiliary war service were not encouraged by the government to join Trade Unions. Women tram and bus conductors who were well organised for a start, had little difficulty in obtaining men’s minimum rates of wages, but the question of war advances was a matter of constant dispute. The important National Award for February 1918 which men received an aggregate advance of 20/- a week on pre-war rates, laid down that, “Where agreements or awards already exist providing the same rates to be paid to women as to men, such agreements or awards are to hold good and an increase to be paid accordingly.” In the absence of such agreements, women were to receive only an advance of 4/- on the current rates. The London Women Bus Conductresses were at once accorded the full bonus and a subsequent decision of the committee of production by which they were refused, a further advance of 51- met with such a determined resistance that the decision was reversed. All women were however by no means so successful Outside London the women’s claim had been prejudiced for the most part by the terms of previous awards by which they received not more than about two thirds of men’s war advances. In London, however, their claim was undeniable and here they secured the full sum of 20/-, bringing up their earnings to 63/- a week. In the following July a fresh appeal was made to arbitration, and men were granted a further advance of 5/- a week. But this time the women were left out. The award met with an unexpected storm of indignation. London women bus conductresses were not accustomed to such treatment. They had, moreover, begun to taste power. A protest meeting was held at once and they announced their intention to take drastic action unless their claim received attention. It did not receive attention.”

Their claim for equal pay ignored, women workers on London buses and trams went on strike in August 1918 to demand the same increase in pay (war bonus) as men. The strike spread to other towns in the South East and to the London Underground. This was the first equal pay strike in the UK which was initiated, led and ultimately won by women.

The immediate cause of the trouble was that whereas the award of the Committee on Production gave a war bonus of five shillings to the men it declined a similar concession to the women employees.

On August 16th, 1918, a meeting of women at Willesden bus garage decided, without consulting or even informing either the management or the trade union leaders, to strike the following day. The next morning Willesden stopped work; they were immediately joined by women at Hackney, Holloway, Archway and Acton bus depots or garages, and thereafter the strike spread like wildfire. By the evening thousands of women had stopped work. The demand was initially for a 5 shillings War bonus, a demand which became upgraded, as the dispute escalated, to a call for equal pay for women workers, or as the strikers put it ‘Same work – same money’. « One conductress thus explained the situation, “When we were taken on by the Company they promised to give us whatever rise the men had. We are doing just as much work as the men who realise the justice of our case and are supporting our strike.”

It was reported that : “Male employees who are opposed to the women’s claim base their opposition to the fact that many conductresses are the wives of soldiers and are receiving separation allowances, whereas the men have families to support. No intimation of their intentions was given and many early morning workers found themselves unable to get to business. The inconvenience increased during the day. People in the Hayes and Hillingdon districts who desired to get to Uxbridge or Southall to do their Saturday shopping were faced with the alternative of walking or going without provisions. There was no question of buying locally for many of the villages are rationed for meat, butter etc at town shops and were therefore in an awkward position.”

Many of the men conductors and drivers who had heard nothing about the plan, as it had been more or less secretly organised by the women. The strike continued to spread. By August 23rd, women bus and tram workers at Hastings, Bath, Bristol, South Wales, Brighton, Folkestone, Southend, Weston-super-Mare and Birmingham had joined in, about 18,000 women out of the 27,000 employed in the industry had stopped work.

Back in London, many women working on the tubes – supported by some men – had also stopped work, on the same issue. The transport strikers had a series of mass meetings at the Ring, Blackfriars, where 4,000 women, many of them with children, well supplied with sandwiches and lemonade, made a day out of it.

“Sir George Asquith, the chief industrial commissioner, had held a number of conferences with the parties engaged in the dispute with the hope of arranging a settlement, but it was not until Wednesday night that an arrangement was reached.   A conference under the auspices of the National Transport Workers Federation was held in the morning and a resolution was passed committing the unions affiliated to the organisation of “Immediate appropriate and determined action” to enforce national adoption of equal pay for equal labour to women and men. The unions represented at the conference were the Amalgamated Association of Tramway and Vehicle Workers London and the Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers, National Union of Vehicle Workers, National Union of General Workers and Dock, Wharf and Riverside General Labourers Union.

The terms of the resolution adopted by the conference were sent to Sir George Asquith, chief industrial commissioner, and in the afternoon delegates from the conference were received by him. After discussion lasting four hours the following official announcement was made, “The three Unions concerned with representatives of the National Transport Workers Federation met with Sir George Asquith today and after lengthy conference decided to recommend to the Executive Committee the following terms.

Resumption of work pending reference to the Committee on Production of interpretation of their awards, namely whether under Clause 14 of the Award of July 9 the Committee be understood to nullify any agreement or undertaking and in particular any such undertaking as is alluded to in Clause 4 of the Award of March 8 and on the claim that equal total payments be made to women as to men for equal work in the tramway and omnibus, undertakings who were parties to the Award of March 8 and July 9 and that any present changes of payments are to date from the beginning of the first full pay day following July 9 and that any future changes of payments should take place jointly with those of the men. The Hearing will take place on Monday next at 2.30 and the Awards will be issued as speedily as possible.”

The public were surprised and not a little inconvenienced, but its sympathies were in the main on the side of the women. Even The Times admitted the strength of the women’s case which lay precisely in this – That their work was as well done as any man could do it and that everyone could see that it was. The Committee of Production by which body the award had been given was obliged to yield to the storm and to re-consider its decision and the women won their case. Such was the victory of the women tram drivers that Mary McArthur, the Leader of the Women’s Union declared the award to be the absolute vindication of the principle for which we are contending.”

The bus and tram strike was eventually settled on August 25th, after a tumultuous meeting at the Ring, and despite a vocal element opposing calling a halt to the struggle. However, the women working on the underground stayed out until August 28th. The women received the extra 5s War bonus, but the principle of equal pay was not in fact conceded. The details of organisation of this important struggle are obscure; indeed it is rather surprising that this strike, which must be one of the largest ever engaged in by women for their own demands, has not attracted more attention from historians of the labour movement.

London had even seen its first strike for equal pay by women working on the trams and buses – legislation wouldn’t arrive until the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

Parts of this post were taken and slightly edited from Don’t be a Soldier! by Ken Weller.

And Hayes People’s History

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Follow past tense on twitter

This week in rebel history: Bermondsey’s women workers launch massive strike wave, 1911

“One stifling August morning, while the [transport workers’] strike was at its height, the women workers in a large confectionery factory, in the middle of Bermondsey, in the ‘black patch of London’, suddenly left work. As they went through the streets, shouting and singing, other women left their factories and workshops and came pouring out to join them . . . The women were underpaid and overcrowded . . . Yet they were oddly light-hearted, too. Many of them, dressed in all their finery, defied the phenomenal temperature with feather boas and fur tippets, as though their strike were some holiday of the soul, long overdue.” (George Dangerfield)

“The tropical heat and sunshine of that summer seemed to evoke new hopes and new desires in a class of workers usually only too well described as ‘cheap and docile’ . . . Most of them regarded the conditions of their lives as in the main perfectly inevitable, came out on strike to ask only 6d. or 1s. more wages and a quarter of an hour for tea, and could not formulate any more ambitious demands.” (Barbara Hutchins)

In August 1911, a wave of strikes in the southeast London borough of Bermondsey among 1000s of strikers, almost all women or girls, closed many of the numerous local factories and won huge improvements in their pay and conditions. They were initiated by around 15,000 women and girls employed in local jam, biscuit, confectionery and similar food-processing factories, tin-boxmaking, glue and other manufactures. The strikes began as a series of spontaneous demonstrations, among mostly non-union labour, calling for improved wages and conditions, but the intervention of National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) trade-union organiser Mary Macarthur helped to unify and give focus to the demands. The factory women’s action ended successfully with wage increases and improvements in working conditions.

The Bermondsey strikes took place during a year of militant upsurge in workers struggles to improve their lives throughout the country, with massive transport strikes the most visible aspect of an eruption of disputes across many industries. Workers in already heavily unionised workplaces, highly organised, were prominent. Many among them were expressing frustration with the existing union structures, and interest was growing in newer ideas and ways of organising, like syndicalism. Discussion and debate of socialist, communist, anarchist ideas increased. In response to the industrial unrest, troops were sent in to Liverpool and South Wales to intimidate and repress strikes beginning to coalesce into revolt; the government feared the new militancy. And although the peak of 1911 failed to match up to their fears and the dreams of some militants, the next few years would continue to see a rising tide of strikes, as well as political and social unrest.

The August 1911 Bermondsey strikes broke out in the midst of this ferment, but seemed even then to be very different to many of the other events of that year. Most of the local women workers were previously un-unionised, or had even been somewhat hostile to union recruitment; though fair numbers of male trade unionists had almost certainly not helped by regarding many of the workplaces women worked in as unreliable and women in general as not worth organising (a view expressed by gasworkers union leader and Labour MP Will Thorne, who said women ‘do not make good trade unionists’.) The eruption of strikes among the woman workers of Bermondsey took even local male union activists by surprise.

Bermondsey

The Bermondsey area spreads for over three miles along the south bank of the Thames, facing the City of London. The Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey, set up in 1900, included Rotherhithe, so that in the early twentieth century the borough stretched from London Bridge on the western side, bordering Southwark, to the Surrey Docks complex in the east, and as far south as the Old Kent Road. Bermondsey’s river frontage was the basis for its industry. Riverside docks and wharves created the primary source of employment for male workers in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, although railway and construction work also provided heavy labouring jobs. River transport for bulky raw materials fed Bermondsey’s semi-processing industries, such as leather tanneries and sawmills, and particularly the manufacture and distribution of food products, which explain Bermondsey’s title at the time of ‘London’s larder’. Tooley Street was the centre of this trade, with the Hay’s Wharf Company, the leading dockside distributor, responsible for handling a wide variety of foodstuffs including tea, and, after the introduction of refrigeration, which the Company helped to pioneer, an international trade in dairy produce and meat from the 1860s.

By the end of the nineteenth century, with the establishment of large-scale jam, biscuit and confectionery manufacturing and of ancillary packaging firms, such as those for tin-box making, food processing dominated Bermondsey’s industry, overtaking older industries such as leather tanning, and providing a major source of employment for women in the area. The Peek Frean biscuit company, for example, had existed in Bermondsey since 1859, but jam factories were not set up by major firms like Hartley’s and Lipton until the turn of the century. For male workers, major projects carried out around the turn of the century (which included the world’s first electric underground rail system, running from the City to Stockwell via London Bridge, and the construction of Tower Bridge in 1894 and of the Rotherhithe Tunnel in 1908) meant continuing opportunities for casual labouring jobs. With industrialization and the expansion of the transport system, the population of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe surged from around 65,000 in 1850 to about 126,000 in 1911.” (Ursula de la Mare, Necessity and Rage: the Factory Women’s Strikes in Bermondsey, 1911)

Bermondsey was well known for its particular poverty – 1,500 people lived in local workhouses. 40% of London’s population lived in dire poverty but in the dock areas it climbed to above 80%.

If this poverty was common to many other working class neighbourhoods, Bermondsey was marked by many individual characteristics which gave it a particular character. Its geography left it somewhat isolated and insular, and helped the growth of a cohesive community. Many people living locally were also born in South London, overwhelmingly so around the time of the strikes, helping to create a largely homogenous culture, predominantly working class. This contributed to the strength of industrial struggles; this was also partly a product of the domination of a few industries: the docks, and transport from them, and food manufacturing; workplaces people lived cheek by jowl with, their shared experiences linking both home and work life.

Local poverty was a consequence in part of the nature of employment there: dockers, for instance, the largest group of workers locally, depended on a system of daily and weekly hiring for subsistence wages; in 1892 the weekly pay for London dockworkers averaged between thirteen and seventeen shillings, and it remained at a low level into the 1900s.

Other trades among local male residents also dominated by low-paid or casual jobs, unskilled or semi-skilled, subject to seasonal variations and the vagaries of trade. Women’s work often topped up low wages of the male ’breadwinner’. “Female labour, as a consequence, became a source of supplementary earnings for family incomes, ‘a kind of reserve market . . . when the husband comes on bad time’. Booth identified the development of occupations for women outside the home with the pressures on male employment in Bermondsey, such as the increasing casualisation of dock work. This resulted, he said, in ‘a great extension of employment for women in the making and packing of jam . . . chiefly low-class work at low pay . . . largely seasonal in character’. He referred specifically to the Bermondsey and Southwark riverside as areas with family economies of male dock-workers and women engaged in jam factories and similar trades, or outwork. Statistical evidence indicates that in 1911 women in the jam, confectionery and biscuit-making trades were ten per cent of the female labour force in Bermondsey, with a larger proportion, twenty-four per cent, engaged in outwork such as sackmaking and furpulling.” (de la Mare)

Women workers were far from passive victims of poverty. Working in the jam and pickle factories might be badly paid, but was an improvement on some of the filthy, exhausting and degrading traditional jobs the area had provided, like fur-pulling, sackmaking and wood-chopping. And factory work did give the women a measure of independence from their menfolk, as well as a sociable and collective spirit (which manifested sometimes in ways disapproved of as immoral: the 1900 Bermondsey parish magazine, predictably censorious, reported attempts to reform ‘wild factory girls . . . half-drunk, and yelling the lowest music hall songs, and dancing like wild creatures’. Young women working in factories were often targets of moral reform campaigns: because they were working outside the traditional ‘place’ for women, because the pay they received could also even partly liberate them and allow them to party… among other reasons…)

However, work in the local factories was still badly paid, and the work was often seasonal, irregular… The women ere also often subjected to fines and deductions for ‘expenses’ by the managers. Hours were long, conditions tough, and facilities for the workers basic.

Prelude: the transport strike of 1911

The Bermondsey strike movement was influenced by the transport workers’ walkout during the previous month, part of a national transport strike. In the capital this included an all-London walk-out of the dockers, plus the Carmen (cart-drivers), including the men at the Surrey docks.

“In London the dockers’ union had been attempting, since 1909, to increase the hourly rate of pay of men employed by the Port of London Authority and reduce their hours. In 1910, the matter was again raised with the PLA by the Bermondsey and Rotherhithe Trades Council, without result. J.A. Fox, branch secretary of the dockers’ union, complained in January 1911 that “a number [of men] work 84 hours per week for less than the dockers’ tanner and nearly all get considerably below the rate paid by private employers.” By summer the men’s patience was exhausted and on 4th July 300 grain trimmers as the Surrey Commercial Docks struck for a minimum wages of 8 pence per hour. These men were members of the Labour Protection League, and, on the advice of their leaders, resumed work pending a Port of London Authority decision on their demands. When the PLA finally agreed to negotiation in the face of a strike threat, the Shipping Federation, representing private firms, was unwilling to join the discussion and the newly formed National Transport Workers Federation, led by Ben Tillett and representing the dock labourers, refused to negotiate unless they were present.

The National Federation of Transport Workers (NFTW) called a mass meeting of all riverside workers at Southwark Park on Sunday, 22 July, which was addressed by leaders of the watermen and lightermen and the carmen’s union, by Harry Gosling, representing the NFTW, and Arthur Harris of the South London Labour League. The purpose of the meeting was to unite all the different grades of dock worker under a common banner and to refuse any settlement which failed to include any worker the association represented. According to press reports this statement was greeted warmly by the meeting.

On Monday, 24 July, the Shipping Federation finally joined the conference but the coal porters and Carmen announced a demand that the private employers should recognize their union and decided to strike until their grievances were settled. The conference took place behind closed doors and little or no information leaked out of any progress towards meeting the men’s demands. The men. Impatient and frustrated by the length of the discussions and the absence of any news, agreed to stand together instead of awaiting arbitration, and 20,000 dockers and Carmen struck at the beginning of August.

Meanwhile, although the NFTW reached agreement with the PLA, the agreement fell short of the initial demands. However, it did represent a distinct improvement of between 4 and 5 shillings per week in wages. Agreement had not been reached with those employed by the Shipping Federation who were demanding an increase from 7 pence to 8 pence per hour, nor the question of lunch breaks which were left to arbitration. Harry Gosling said that every section of the workforce must be settled or members of the NFTW must be ready to come out on strike.

In the face of a strike threat at Surrey Docks, one of the private wharves, Stanton’s Wharf, conceded to the pay increase demanded and also agreed to pay the lunch break. Another firm, Mark Brown’s Wharf, agreed to the increased hourly rate but refused to pay the lunch break. The men at Stanton’s Wharf refused to return to work until the other striking dockers’ claims were met. Strike action spread rapidly. The coal porters were joined by other porters, dockers, lightermen and watermen. While some were striking for the extra penny per hour, others were striking for union recognition by private firms or a 10-hour day. On Thursday, 3 August 1000 men employed in the grain and Canadian produce departments at Surrey Docks came out in support of the payment for the dinner…” (Brockway, Bermondsey Story)

The Women Take a Stand

Local Independent Labour Party activist Dr Alfred Salter had Salter had been busy organising relief for the transport workers’ families; when the employers gave way, he returned home assuming that the struggle was over.

“The next morning he had a shock. Without any organisation, without any lead, thousands of workers employed in Bermondsey, men women and girls, came out on strike. They had tabled no demands, they could not even voice their grievances, few of them belonged to a trade union, they knew nothing of how to run a strike; they just knew that the conditions of their existence were intolerable, and they would no longer put up with them without protest.” (Fenner Brockway, Bermondsey Story)

Though there was no formal organisational link between the striking transport workers and the women factory workers who now took inspiration from their victory, family and community connections were strong. The connection between the dockers and women employed in the preserves and jam manufacturing industries was identified by Charles Booth. The work was seasonal and employers took advantage of a large pool of unskilled women workers, often the wives of casual labourers, who were willing to accept low wages for part-time work to help family finances during times of a husband’s unemployment.

As a consequence of these low wages and poor conditions, Pink’s jam factory, which was nick-named, because of its working conditions, “The Bastille”, became a target of the Labour Protection League which had attempted to unionise it in 1897 with the aim of increasing the minimum wage from four and a half pence to sixpence per hour for a 56-hour week. The employers were hostile to such moves and sacked employees who were union activists. As a consequence, the trade union were unable to get a foothold in such firms.

But a failure of trade unionism to take hold had never meant a lack of solidarity. In 1889, during the huge London dock strike, the South London dockers had received support from workers employed in industries totally unconnected with their own, and particularly from women employed in firms like Peak Freans and Spratts, both biscuit manufacturers. A large number of the women workers joined the striking dockers march through local streets. The similarities in the support given by this element of the South London workforce to the striking dockers in 1889 and 1911 is such that it must be considered to be rooted in links of kinship or neighbourhood.

In August 1911, the food processing industry of South London was virtually devoid of any trades union membership, despite having the nation’s largest concentration of manufacturers. Eight thousand workers, mainly women, were employed in jam manufacture and the turnover of its factories represented 40 per cent of the national production. It enjoyed a similar market share of biscuit production and was also the main centre of he manufacture of sugar confectionary, chocolate, soups and pickles.

In the summer of 1911, there was a handful of union activists in a few factories and some intimidation of workers through demonstration outside factory gates, but their influence was very limited, and the scale of the spontaneous protest which began on 12 August 1911 far eclipsed any trade union activity. There was no union call for action, indeed few of the workers were unionised at all, but on Monday, 14 August, 14,000 women suddenly came out on strike and nearly all the large factories were obliged to close. According to Mary MacArthur of the National Federation of Women Workers, the cause of the revolt was low pay. The average weekly wage for grown girls and women in South London was 7 to 9 shillings, while thousands of girls under 16 earned only 3 shillings per week.

The Daily Chronicle reported ‘strike fever’ spreading through the Bermondsey factories. Mary Agnes Hamilton, in the more literary style of her biography of Mary Macarthur, notes the oppressive heat, then describes how the ‘brittle nerves’ of the factory women, who had been supporting their striking menfolk, ‘suddenly gave way’ and they burst into action, suggesting the unrestrained nature of the women’s protest.

In a press report on the beginning of the strikes, the women were described as being ‘in the highest spirits’: They went laughing and singing through Bermondsey, shouting ‘Are we downhearted?’ and answering the question by a shrill chorus of ‘No!’. It was noticeable that many of them had put on their ‘Sunday best’. In spite of the great heat, hundreds of them wore fur boas and tippets – the sign of self-respect.

Women working at Benjamin Edgington, tentmakers, joined by some female employees from Pearce Duff, custard makers, marched down Tooley Street ‘singing the strike marseillaise, ‘‘Fall in and follow me!’’ ’ Women from Pink’s jam factory were in the forefront of the strikes, parading the streets of Bermondsey with a banner inscribed, ‘We are not white slaves, but Pink’s slaves’.

Besides the women from the three firms mentioned above, employees of over fifteen other firms came out on strike, including from Peek Frean biscuits and Hartley’s jam factories. A striker at Shuttleworth’s chocolate factory told a Southwark and Bermondsey Recorder journalist, ‘We are striking for more pay, mister, and we won’t go in till we get it’.

On such low wages as they had been earning, there was no chance of workers having savings to help them through the strike. Having no union, there was no strike pay. For those on strike, outdoor relief (the dole) was routinely refused, and pawn shops shut their doors. Some local charities supplied aid, such as Christ Church, Bermondsey, which provided breakfasts for strikers. But local support networks helped sustain the strikers when the first flush of enthusiasm had passed…

The I.L.P

The striking women turned for help to the newly formed Bermondsey Independent Labour Party, headed by three doctors who ran a local medical practice, and their wives. “The Bermondsey ILP had been formed in May 1908 by disenchanted Progressives like Alfred Salter, a local GP, and his wife, Ada, both of whom had been active in local politics. There were fifteen other founding members including both the other doctors at Salter’s practice, and their wives, one of whom was Eveline Lowe, who would later become the first woman chair of the London County Council. Other members were Joe Craigie of the railwaymen’s trade union, Arthur Gillian, who later founded the chemical workers union, and Charlie Ammon (later Lord Ammon) of the postal workers’ union. Most of the early members were drawn from the chapels and missions of Bermondsey, and they penetrated into every local organisation which allowed opportunities for discussion – brotherhoods, young men’s classes, adult education classes, and debating societies. The branch’s membership came to include a Church of England clergyman, a Congregationalist minister, a Baptist pastor and five Methodist local preachers. By early 1911, the Bermondsey ILP had purchased the former working men’s institute in Fort Road as its headquarters and the foundation stone was barely unveiled when the transport strike broke out.

… The ILP became the organisational centre for many of the wide range of industrial disputes which took place between July and September 1911. It also organised food relief on a large scale, distributing 8000 loaves of bread in two days and ensuring that single male strikers received a loaf of bread and families received groceries to the value of 5 shillings per week.” (Brockway)

The strikers at one factory after another sent deputations to the ILP headquarters to ask for leadership and help. Alfred Salter spent every moment he could among them. Meeting a deputation of railwaymen from the Bricklayers Arms and Willow Walk depots, he found that the maximum wage of the goodsmen was 20 shillings a week and of the yardsmen 18 shillings. “They were not members of the Associated Society of Railway Servants, which tended to cold-shoulder the lowest-paid workers, and they asked Salter to lead them. He agreed to do so, but insisted that their first step should be to enroll in the union, and within a few hours practically every worker at the two depots was in the ASRS with headquarters at the Fort Road Institute to accommodate them.

The railway dispute was a mere fragment of the strikes which swept over Bermondsey. The Institute was besieged by men and women who had left their jobs. Salter, Charlie Ammon and other members of the ILP worked late into the night, advising, organising, negotiating, but the task proved too much for them. Fortunately, as news of the Bermondsey revolt reached the headquarters of the unions, national leaders descended on the Institute and established offices there. The majority of the strikers were women and girls, and Mary MacArthur and Marion Phillips, of the National Federation of Women Workers, (NFWW) were quickly on the scene.”

The NFWW had come to international attention by leading the 1910 women chain makers’ strike, raising £4,000 from supporters. Their policy when approaching the Bermondsey strikes was that all strikers, union members or not, would receive support. Lack of funds never deterred the Federation. An appeal for the Bermondsey strikers raised £500 in one week and a donation of six barrels of herrings!

Victory

“From early morning till late at night meetings were continually in progress,” one report records. “In the grounds at the back of the Institute huge gatherings of railwaymen and other workers were held daily. Inside, one room would be occupied by a committee preparing a new wages list to submit to an employer; in another room workers were busy tabulating grievances so that they could the better present their case to the masters; whilst elsewhere girls were being shown how they could organise into local branches of the Womens’ Trade Union League.” Salter got the minister of a neighbouring chapel, the Rev. Kaye Dunne, to place his premises at the disposal of the strikers as a bread-distributing centre.” (Brockway)

At nearly every workplace important concessions were won. Wages were increased by amounts varying between 3 shillings to 9 shillings a week, in many factories piecework was abolished, and everywhere the strikers were enrolled in the trade unions. Reading today a summary of the concessions gained, one gets some idea of the wretched conditions which existed. The list of victories included a cocoa firm where a wage of 4 shillings 7 pence a week was won for girls of 14, increasing to 12 shillings 4 pence a week at 18. At a tin box works a minimum wage of 10 shillings a week was secured for women workers. At a metallic capsule manufacturers, piece workers obtained halfpence per 1000 more on ‘coloured work’.

Apart from three firms, the remainder of the factories which largely employed women conceded pay increases within a week. Deadlock continued at Peak Frean, biscuit manufacturers of Drummond Road, Bermondsey, who employed 3000 women. The firm, hit by a strike of over two thirds of its workforce, was also picketed by the carmen and unable to receive or make deliveries of its products. In the event, the firm closed down, locking out its workforce, and acrimonious threats were made both by employees and the Labour Federation League, the latter threatening to stage a national boycott of Peak Frean biscuits. The manager at Peak Frean declared: “I don’t know of a single business that is working in the district… It is what one might call a reign of terror”.

Meetings, reinforced with picket lines, were then called by the union organisers, and the workforce urged not to return to work unless wage increases were agreed. Peek Frean employees assembled daily at Rotherhithe Town Hall.

The boss at Pinks blamed the strikes on intimidation because his “workers were well contented” but had been “called out by the mob”.

“Further concessions were announced on Thursday, 17 August at Steel’s hammer and nail manufacturers, the wages of girls under 16 were increased from 7 shillings 8 pence to 9 shillings per week and a minimum wage for older girls of 12 shillings. At Cavendish, bottle washers, the rates increased from 9 shillings and sixpence to a minimum of 12 shillings. By the end of that week, Mary MacArthur had secured concessions from eighteen of the twenty firms whose workers she represented. The rise if the women’s wages amounted to between a shilling and 4 shillings per week. What made these strikes different, according to Mary MacArthur’s biographer, Mary Agnes Hamilton, was that

“the story of the Bermondsey women seems almost to have been isolated – with its mingling elements of unreason and necessity and gaiety and rage – the various spirits of the whole unrest… very soon the streets were filled with women… It was then, when they were all out that they discovered what they had come out for… they wanted an increase.” (Brockway)

Higher wages were also won for the staff at the local Lipton’s jam factory.

“As well as the women workers employed in the food manufacturing trades, men and women strikers employed in packing case manufacture who had been on strike for three weeks received increases ranging from 2 shillings to 4 shillings per week for unskilled and 4 shillings eightpence to six shillings for skilled workmen such as sawyers and boxmakers. Similar across-the-board increases were awarded by other trades like bottle washers and tin box makers. In the latter, where the industry was also consolidated in Southwark and Bermondsey, the strikers achieved a valuable concession that the tin box industry would be considered for inclusion under the terms of the Trades Board Act. The smaller firms welcomed the prospect of regularising wage levels which prevented competition by the undercutting of prices through lowered wages. The strikers were represented in their demands by C.J. Hammond, the president of the Bermondsey ILP, from the Fort Road strike HQ. From the same key area of operation… Eveline Lowe championed the cause of workers at the Idris soft drinks factory.

The widening militancy of the inhabitants of South London spread to Wolseley Street, Bermondsey and Leroy Street, Southwark, where the residents announced a rent strike until the transport strike was over. On 12 August, dissatisfaction among tramway men at New Cross with their conditions of labour culminated in a well-attended meeting that proposed increases in pay and improved conditions such as increased holidays and overtime rates.” (Brockway)

The government was worried enough about public order in the area to order the army station soldiers in a camp in Southwark Park. Its worth remembering in these same weeks, a much more scary situation was developing in Liverpool, with striking transport workers paralysing the city, and something like the beginnings of a revolutionary commune almost coming together, with navy gunboats sent to restore control. The working class was getting way too uppity generally, and the ruling elite were becoming very nervous.

“Publicity for the women’s strikes was also gained through the NFWW’s organisation of public meetings and marches, building on the impetus of the strikers’ own early demonstrations. Marion Phillipps, working out of the Fort Road Institute, planned daily processions, the strikers armed with collecting boxes. A strike rally held on 14 August, at which the speakers included Ben Tillett and Mary Macarthur, was reported to have attracted an audience of 10,000, the women marching (‘most of them hatless’) with banners flying, although another newspaper report spoke of weary-looking women, many carrying babies. The women were quoted as being determined ‘to have a bit of their own back’. A further meeting on 19 August marked the strikers’ victory. The cumulative effect of the press campaigns, relief work at the Institute, and open-air demonstrations had aroused support for the strikers from areas outside the borough, ‘infected by the Bermondsey spirit’.

The NFWW’s mobilisation of support for unionism as part of their campaign was more problematic, although this was a primary aim. Affiliation to a union was seen by Mary Macarthur as a powerful negotiating tool with employers; she considered that union membership strengthened strikers’ bargaining power. At the 19 August victory rally, she announced the establishment of twenty unions in Bermondsey, converting the borough, she said, from Charles Booth’s ‘black patch of London’ to a centre for women’s trade unionism. But it was only a partial conversion. Peek Frean granted wage rises, but refused to recognise the union.

Similarly, Southwell’s, a large-scale jam maker at Dockhead, agreed after face-to-face meetings with the strikers to increase pay for their female employees, but declined to give union recognition. This refusal was, however, not contested by the NFWW officials involved. Perhaps there was an unspoken awareness on their part of the paramount importance of material benefits, rather than union solidarity, for the strikers.” (de la Mare)

Virtually all the strikes in Bermondsey and across neighbouring parts of South London were over by 8 September 1911. The eventual outcome of the Bermondsey women’s strikes was success in obtaining wage rises from most of the employers involved. Dr Salter said that women in nineteen factories had returned to work with increased wages and better conditions, with no improvement in only three cases.

The NFWW, in its annual report for 1911, gave a detailed account of the wage rises ‘obtained by the Federation’ in Bermondsey. They presented standardised rates for all the trades involved, apart from those for jam factory workers, where they reported the figure for Pink’s, presumably because it denoted a benchmark amount for jam factory employees in general.

The following pay scale for workers in jam, biscuit and confectionery factories are listed in the NFWW report:

Pink’s jam factory: wage increase from 9/- to 11/- a week. [Other jam factories included Hartley’s, Lipton and Southwell.]

‘Biscuit-makers: 1/- rise all round for time workers’ [including Peek Frean].

‘Cocoa-makers’ [e.g. Shuttleworth’s]: improved wages for all workers.

A graded scale to be introduced, with a minimum wage for girls aged 14 of 4s 7d, rising annually to 12s 4d. at age eighteen; pieceworkers on day work to receive a rise of 3d. an hour; piece rates to be increased.

The most extraordinary feature of the industrial unrest in South London was its widespread character and the extent it permeated factories and workshops quite untouched by any previous industrial action. The unrest also spread to groups of workers as diverse as post office employees, dock policemen and even to public house barmen. All were clamouring for an improvement in their wages and conditions of labour. A report of the end of the strike in a local newspaper noted, “the barmen, realising the advantages of co-operation and combination as a means of compelling a recognition of their labour decided to form a union.”

While union leaders, churchmen and journalists were conscious of a peculiar feature of the strikes, describing the participants as being “infected with what may be called the ‘strike spirit’, and out for reasons they cannot define,” the Revd. J. Ewing, the pastor of Rye Lane Baptist Chapel, was clear in his mind that the strikers’ determination to improve their pay and conditions sprang from a realisation of a socialist solidarity among them. Dr Salter took the view that the strikers would have been crushed but for the spirit of solidarity, mutual help and sacrifice. “What was remarkable,” he said, “was that the strikes were without organisation or funds and that it was the employers who sought a settlement.”

The winning of victory after victory brought jubilation at the Fort Road Institute, the Independent Labour Party’s base locally, and HQ of so many of the strikes. Mary MacArthur, addressing a triumphant crowd, suggested that the biggest lesson of the strikes was not the small concessions gained on pay and other issues, but the larger picture of the nature of the society the workers of Bermondsey lived under : that they “were beginning to ask themselves why they should accept their conditions of living when before it seemed quite natural to them to lead unhealthy, stunted lives.”

The NFWW distributed 4,000 cards in one week, when the strike ended 8,000 women had joined the union. A general union, open to unskilled women workers, it had a low subscription rate and no strike fund. As the employers would not take the women’s union or its women members seriously, its only weapon was to strike.

However, though the TUC made much of the women’s action, and subsequent historians have placed the Bermondsey events squarely either within the context of the militancy of 1910-14 or the rise of women’s trade unionism, it could equally be pointed out that it was immediate need that led the women to strike, and they accepted the help of the National Federation of Women workers through expediency. Although local membership of unions among women workers increased dramatically in the wake of the strike, much of the organising was short-lived. It was the winning of immediate aims that was crucial, and large-scale membership of unions gradually dropped off again.

Ursula de la Mare comments on the specific female element on the struggle, which marked it out from usual methods of organising during strikes: “The boisterousness and disorganisation of the initial Bermondsey demonstrations correspond to Eleanor Gordon’s identification of specific female characteristics in workplace resistance at the time – spontaneity, lack of restraint, an element of street theatre – which, she argues, differentiated women’s militancy from more formal male trade unionism.”

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Follow past tense on twitter