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History of the First World War in 100 moments

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The munitions workers who made the British government tremble

It was a struggle within a struggle, in which industrial unrest was brought  to heel only by the direst threats. Chris Blackhurst on a forgotten strike

Stuck on the end of the Furness peninsula in Cumbria, with sea on three sides and the Lake District fells to the north, Barrow-in-Furness is an isolated place. These days, it is known as the UK centre for nuclear submarine-building. I grew up there and can vouch that, in truth, not much occurs in Barrow – at least not the sort of thing that would capture national attention and provoke alarm at Westminster. That is also how the locals like it: a hard-working corner of England set amid great beauty.

But between 1914 and 1918, Barrow occupied a position of enormous importance. Its vast shipyards and engineering works were a major supplier of ships and munitions for the war effort. The booming town saw a massive influx of workers from the rest of Britain. In 1910, the main Vickers ship and armaments factories employed 10,000; by 1918, that total was up to 30,000.

There was nowhere for the migrants and their families to live. All the houses and lodgings were full to bursting; special trains were laid on to bring in workers from neighbouring towns. Barrow was a scene of bustling, non-stop activity.

Three hundred miles to the south, in London, at the outbreak of hostilities, the Labour Party and national union leaders abandoned their opposition to war. All planned industrial actions were called off, including a building strike in the capital. The working class was needed to go into overdrive and fuel the huge push now under way.

But the drive came at a price. Living standards fell, as demand for military supplies soared. Rampant inflation added to the workers’ misery.

Discontent grew, and while the union bosses were tied to the government in barring strikes this did not stop a new breed of local union official, the shop steward, from gathering members together and leading them out.

In Barrow dissatisfaction was bubbling. Since it first arrived in 1897, Vickers had never established a smooth relationship with the workforce. That simmering discord was fuelled by the arrival of more militant workers from Clydeside and Sheffield. “Vickers needed the extra engineers to deal with the increased demand, but unknowingly allowed a Trojan Horse into its midst,” argues Bryn Trescatheric, a local historian.

The Vickers works was made subject to special government measures, introduced to redouble productivity. Employees were expected to work longer hours and tribunals were established to discipline those who were late, or deemed to be slacking. Munitions production came under the Defence of the Realm Act, which meant that punishment could be severe.

Four socialist leaders in Barrow were imprisoned for their views. They were “absolutists”, who would not contemplate any war work at all. Among them was Bram Longstaffe, who later went on to lead the Labour Party in Barrow and to become mayor.

The shipyard and neighbouring engineering plant were known as the “Funk Hole” because so many people there were regarded as shirking from fighting. To be fair, they had no choice: Vickers workers were banned from volunteering and then from being called up, because their jobs were deemed to be vital and therefore protected. The authorities even went so far as to prohibit recruitment rallies from being held in Barrow.

As the war progressed and the calls for increased output became louder, so the workers’ unhappiness grew. The breaking-point came on 26 June 1916, when 5,500 Barrow munitions workers went out on strike. By then there were 100 shop stewards in the Vickers works, and they had stoked arguments over what was called the “dilution of labour” – unskilled men and women operating machines; a job that hitherto had always been done by skilled, specialist workers.

The unofficial strike lasted a week. The workers returned to their benches on 2 July. But not before a Councillor Ellison – who was also chairman  of the town’s Watch Committee (the forerunner of the modern police authority) – had made himself unpopular by ordering the “Special Police” into Barrow to quell any  disturbances.

Ellison was joined in his opposition to the strikers by Charles Duncan, Barrow’s Labour MP. Duncan was a senior figure in the Labour movement. He was from the North-east, had worked in an ordnance factory in Newcastle, and was a member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. He was also the first president of the Workers’ Union, which later merged into the Transport and General Workers’ Union. He was  regarded as being in favour of the war. His nickname was the “Angel of Death” because he toured the country urging men to join up, and encouraging those who remained to do their duty to assist the troops.

With so many “red” Clydesiders in Barrow, (Glasgow had been the scene of another, earlier strike by munitions workers in 1915), vocal shop stewards, and ever-increasing industrial and social pressures, another walkout was inevitable. It duly came on 21 March 1917, when the Barrow munitions workforce protested against the management’s refusal to honour the “premium bonus scheme” (they were paid a bonus for finishing a job in an allocated time) and against the arrest of shop stewards in Manchester and Sheffield. Questions were raised in the Commons. MPs wanted to know why the Ministry of Munitions was not doing more to help women workers in Barrow who had lost their jobs because the men had gone on strike. One MP asked of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Munitions: “Is the Honourable Member aware that many of these women, at the direct invitation of the Ministry, have come from as far as Belfast, and from other parts of Ireland, and that they are no more responsible for what has now happened than if there had been a breakdown of machinery; and are the women going to be stranded and neither the employers nor the Ministry accept responsibility for them?”

The Parliamentary Secretary refused to assist, saying they were now employed by Vickers. “We should be creating a very serious precedent indeed if the government, whenever a certain number of workpeople were thrown out of employment as a result of the action of another body of workpeople, were  to relieve them of their distress.” To which the MP responded: “I would like to ask whether these are the same women who the honourable Member himself said the other day had saved England during this crisis?”

On 4 April, the government announced that it would take action under the Defence of the Realm Act, unless work was resumed. Strikers were threatened with fines of £5 a day; strike leaders, with penal servitude for life.

That strike ended. But then, from 19 May to 24 May, the munitions workers went on strike again – and, again, it was the premium bonus scheme that lay behind the dispute. As in other places where there had been strikes, the government established a local Industrial Unrest Commission to see what could be done to improve the lot of the workers. The commission did not examine the causes of the strikes but it did look at what improvements could be made. In Barrow, this meant the go-ahead for new housing estates to provide much-needed accommodation. And that was the end of that particular chapter – now barely remembered in the town – in Barrow’s history.

Yet while the munitions strikes identified Barrow as a potential militant hot-bed, they were as nothing compared with what occurred after the war, from 1918 to 1926, when the shipyard and engineering works were hit by a slump in orders. Barrow then suffered what Trescatheric describes as “unrest on an epic scale”.

But, in contrast to the earlier disputes, nobody could then be accused of shirking their national duty.

Tomorrow: America joins the conflict

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar