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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada