Class War in May 1926: Nine days that shook the UK

The General Strike began 80 years ago today, the most tumultous labour dispute in Britain's history. Barrie Clement assesses its legacy, while Katherine Nicholls talks to those who lived through it
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The General Strike in 1926 was arguably the most momentous event of the 20th century in peacetime Britain.

The nine days of industrial action brought key industries to a standstill, affecting virtually every inhabitant of Britain. It caused panic among the ruling classes who mobilised soldiers to defend themselves.

Armoured cars were seen in Oxford Street with machine guns primed and ready. A number of army battalions were brought back from overseas to quell a possible armed conflict.

Today, as the labour movement commemorates the 80th anniversary of the strike, it still stands as the most militant action taken by British trade unionists.

Professor Keith Laybourn of Huddersfield University, described the conflict as unique. He said there had been "days of action" since 1926 in which union leaders have called for expressions of solidarity with a particular group of workers, but nothing like the events of 80 years ago.

Greg Neale, founding editor of BBC History magazine, said that, after the strike, unions were on the defensive for nearly two decades, before they re-emerged as a political force during and after the Second World War. " We are now so far from the world of the 1920s. Few people now believe that a confrontation on such a scale between organised labour and government is conceivable."

The Trades Union Congress, which led the strike and to which most unions belonged, was dominated by moderates who opposed any idea of a revolution. However, some senior ministers in the government were convinced there was a real prospect of bloody revolt. The strike took place just nine years after the Russian revolution.

There was comparatively little violence. The only casualties were the result of accidents.

The strike had its origins in the coal industry where mine owners were faced with disappearing markets, declining productivity and plummeting profits.

Fundamentally, there were too many miners and too many pits - many of them uneconomic.

The spark that lit the fuse was the announcement by pit bosses that they intended to cut miners' pay and lengthen their working hours.

The Conservatives under Stanley Baldwin intervened, providing a nine-month subsidy to maintain colliers' wages and establishing a Royal Commission to investigate the industry.

When the report was presented in March 1926, it recommended the financial support should be withdrawn and pitmen's wages should be cut. Coal owners immediately announced pay would be reduced by between 10 per cent and 25 per cent.

A special TUC conference met on 29 April, 1926 and announced a General Strike - industrial action across most parts of industry - would begin on 3 May "in defence of miners' wages and hours".

Frantic efforts were made to reach an agreement. The talks failed after workers at the Daily Mail refused to print an editorial condemning the strike. When Mr Baldwin heard of the refusal, he called off talks with the TUC, arguing that the freedom of the press was under attack.

The TUC decided to limit the stoppages to key workers such as railwaymen, transport staff, printers, dockers and iron and steel workers. But led, by Herbert Smith and Arthur Cook, the miners were in the vanguard under the banner "not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day".

The strike was well supported and the mood generally peaceful. In Portsmouth, police played football against strikers but, in mining areas, tensions were high.

On 7 May, senior TUC figures, met Sir Herbert Samuel and drew up a formula to end the conflict. The proposals were rejected by the Miners' Federation.

Five days later, TUC leaders said they would call off the strike provided the commission's recommendations were implemented and ministers guaranteed there would be no victimisation of strikers.

In the event the TUC abandoned the strike anyway. Miners continued to resist but many were literally starved back to work. By November most had given up. Many were victimised and some remained out of work for years.

Iris Thomas aged 88, from Mid Glamorgan

Iris was eight years old during the General Strike.

"I remember the large processions and everybody waving red flags and people chanting names. The processions were really big, with a few hundred people each time. The protests were pretty frequent and dramatic. I was aware of a lot of militancy in the air. Everyone was either Labour or Communist.

"The strike put stress and strain on everyone. But the shopkeepers were marvellous. People got food on credit because they couldn't afford to pay. No one could. There was certainly good community spirit in south Wales - people supported one another.

"What I particularly remember are the long queues of people waiting to be means-tested by the parish relief officer. The worst thing about the strike was the means-testing. It was dreadfully difficult to get any money at all ... [people] were forced to divulge all personal details.

"It was pretty awful for people in this area. My mother, who had struggled incredibly hard, was utterly humiliated by having to give these details. I also remember people having to walk miles to try to find work ... A lot of the men spent their spare time in the workman's hall in the library. They spent their time reading books, learning about the Marxist philosophy.

"My mother was a widow. She started washing and cleaning for anyone and everyone because it was all we could do. A woman on her own had nothing. Without a man behind them they barely existed.

"The strike did affect me - it affects your attitude towards all of life. I was very influenced by what I saw. I wanted to stand up and fight for the possibility of women to have their own lives."

Jack Jones aged 92, from Camberwell

Jack Jones was 13 years old when his brothers and father went on strike. He later became general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, a position he held for nine years.

"I was still at school but I used to run between the men delivering messages for the local strike authority, so it felt like I was striking too. I still remember it vividly. The strike taught me that people stand together, suffer together and win together. It was one of the most important lessons I ever learnt. We were strong trade unionists anyway but the strike strengthened feelings. On the one side, there was a feeling of exaltation, a sense that we all stood together. On the other, there were sacrifices, we had to do without things.

"The strike lasted nine days, but it wasn't easy to walk back into a job afterwards. Many people were victimised in different parts of the country.Wherever the workers were in a weak spot, they suffered.

"My brothers worked in the railways and factory and my father was a dock worker. He worked on the docks for more than 40 years. About five years after the General Strike I became an official of the union. I wanted to continue the battle.

"I was very proud when I was elected because I had the support of the membership. There is nothing greater than having the respect of fellow workers. I sought to improve wages and working standards and to build up a strong union throughout the country."

Phillipa Jenkins aged 102, from Dinas, Wales

Phillipa Jenkins was 22 years old and working as a teacher at the time of the General Strike.

"My most vivid memories are of marches and open-air meetings. I remember being scared when the 'blacklegs' [strike-breakers]were set upon.

"I was teaching locally, so my salary was OK. I was one of the lucky ones. But my whole family was heavily connected with mining - my father and grandfather worked in Dinas pit . My grandfather was killed underground.People were very kind and rallied round. Shopkeepers worked hard to help people and there were soup kitchens set up. The local chapel helped too and people formed jazz bands and held carnivals to kept up morale.

"The miners were in such a sorry state: hungry and bedraggled - and uncaring mine owners living in posh houses set up a lot of resentment. I believe the General Strike taught me that there are harsh times in life and things can get out of control. I supported the strike. The coal owners wanted to cut the wages. A lot of people were left without jobs.

"People who had taken part in the strike were victimised and lived in poverty. Suicides were prevalent. Surrendering was very humiliating, but the people of Rhondda never forgot the struggle and the roots of socialism were born.

"People resented authority but respected fair play and wanted to change things for their children. Ultimately the trade union movement was stronger for it."

Joe Smith aged 95, from Co Durham

Mr Smith, who now lives in Clydach Vale, Mid Glamorgan, turned 15 in the midst of the General Strike. He had been working in the mines less than two months when the strike was called.

"I started working in the mines on 2 January 1926. I came out for the strike at the beginning of March and was out for nine months. I lived in a colliery, so the strike affected my childhood and my working life. The colliery was everything; it was the only future there was in Co Durham.

"Before the strike I received £1 a week. After, the wages were cut to 18 shillings. I was paying off arrears of rent for the whole period I was on strike. People today have no idea of poverty like I knew it.

"I was able to go straight back to work but my father was kept out of work for three years because he was a member of the lodge committee and therefore seen as an agitator.

"I wasn't happy about the strike at all. It affected us a lot. I used to go with my father to the colliery tip, searching for coal to keep the kitchen fire going. At times it was very cold.But our attitude never changed. It was to fight and fight and fight again. I remember the motto, 'Not an hour off the day, or a penny off the pay'.

"I had no interest in politics at the time, but later I joined the lodge committee and was compensation secretary for the Cumbria colliery for 21 years."