History of Wolverhampton, Bilston and District Trades Union Council 1865-1990

Chapter 4


The end of the war saw Britain in a near revolutionary ferment. The war ended not in an orderly way, but with disintegration. Beginning with the Russian Revolution in 1917, Germany’s allies collapsed one by one, and the war ended with revolution in Germany itself. The French armies, in which there had been large scale mutinies in 1917, were again disintegrating at the end of the war and the fleet was also in revolt. In the British armies there were also mutinies during the war and others after the war when demobilisation was too slow.

At home, Lloyd George hastened to call the Khaki election in which the candidates of the coalition swept the field. The Labour Party gained 21 per cent of the vote. In Wolverhampton the results were:

East: G.R.Thome (Independent Liberal) 7660   Rev. J.A.Shaw (Coalition Labour) 7138

West: A.F.Bird (Coalition Unionist) 13329      A.G.Walkden (Labour) 10158

Bilston: Brig-Gen T.E. Hickman (Coalition Unionist) 10343   Col. J.Kynaston (Labour) 6744

In industry, employers were the ‘hard-faced men who had done well out of the war’, but workers were determined not only to win back concessions made during the war, but also to make substantial advances.

The miners began 1919 with demands for a 30 per cent increase in pay, a 6-hour day and nationalisation of the mines. In June 300,000 cotton workers were on strike. Also in June occurred some of the most serious riots ever seen in Bilston and Wolverhampton. From the confused reports in the Wolverhampton Chronicle it is difficult to ascertain the real causes of these riots, but an important element was hostility between aggrieved ex-servicemen and the police. In July there were police strikes. In September the railway employers attempted to cut wages which would have put the lowest grades back to 40/- a week. A whirlwind campaign mobilising the trade unions, (particularly the Triple Alliance of miners, railway and transport workers), the Co-operative movement and public opinion resulted in a complete victory within a week. 1919 ended with sensational Labour victories n the local elections which in Wolverhampton gave three gains for Labour and two for the Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors Federation, which played an important part in Wolverhampton politics for several years.

In the early months of 1920 the DDSSF was active demanding better pensions and premises for a club for ex-servicemen.

The May Day demonstration organised by the Trades Council brought all the working class demands together. With two platforms and several thousands present, resolutions were passed demanding reductions in the cost of living, a national housing scheme, continuing rent restriction, immediate self-government for Ireland, work at trade union rates for all unemployed, and justice for discharged servicemen.

Another widespread campaign of 1920 was to stop the wars of intervention against the Soviet Republics. This campaign culminated in the refusal of dockers to load a shipful of armaments for Poland. Wolver­hampton Trades Council passed unanimously a motion congratulating the dockers for refusing to load the Jolly George.

Up to this point there had been a post-war ‘replacement’ boom, but by the middle of the 1920 it was coming to an end. In July, the cost of living peaked at 152 per cent higher than in 1914. In October, unemployment in Wolverhampton was 1,543, and in November a recently formed Emergency Unemployed Committee was pressing the Minister of Labour to declare Wolverhampton a ‘distressed area’. In January 1921 unemployment was so bad that Labour councillors were urging the town council to seek aid from the Prince of Wales National Relief Fund. But by now, national unemployment was so bad and the organised activity of the unemployed so widespread and fierce that riots, the storming of offices of Boards of Guardians, occupation of workhouses and menacing daily demonstrations were occurring throughout the country. In March a deputation from the local Labour party and Trades Council interviewed the Guardians who claimed that they were already doing all they could and their primary duty was to see that nobody starved! The unemployed were now holding very large meetings at the Market Place. At one such meeting in April 1921 a deputation was sent to the council and ‘a large crowd around the town hall was reluctantly persuaded to disperse until the deputation was finished.’

The results were meagre. It was agreed that the town council and the Guardians should work more closely together and some small projects for levelling land in the borough were agreed. From this meeting we learn of the first Communist to be active in Wolverhampton. James Stewart, the Birmingham Communist Party organiser was arrested at this meeting. He was charged under the recently passed Emergency Powers Act with ‘using words likely to cause disaffection among the civilian population’ and was sentenced to one month’s hard labour.

The Trades Council’s May Day demonstration again attracted crowds of ‘several thousands’ (Wolverhampton Chronicle figures) with three platforms. Unemployment in Wolverhampton at this time was a staggering 13,000 with another 17,600 on short-time. When one adds to this the countless thousands of low paid who were working on virtual starvation wages one gets a measure of poverty and distress at this time. Nor was this the worst, unemployment was to peak in July at 18,000.

The government was still pressing its post-war plans for better relations between employers and workers. In July the Trades Council heard a report of a recent conference held in Wolverhampton of the National Alliance of Employers and Employed. One delegate (Morris) objected to the trade union lambs lying down with the employer lions and thought the most conspicuous present alliance was that of the government and employers to take advantage of the slump and worsen wages and conditions. The matter was referred to the executive. Between the militant unemployed leaders and the more moderate Trades Council there was some friction. At one meeting George Williams brought before the Council a motion passed by the Unemployment Committee charging that he (Williams) ‘was no longer a champion of the bottom dog, but a henchman of the capitalist class.’ The Trades Council took Williams’ side and gave him a vote of confidence.

During the summer of 1921 the issue of unemployment benefit became a major cause for concern. An Act of 1918 had given relatively generous ‘donation’ scales of weekly unemployment benefit of 29/- for men and 25/-for women to both civilians and ex-service personnel. The civilian benefit expired in 1919 and the ex-service one in March 1921. Normal unemployment benefit was then available at 20/- for men and 16/ for women. But in June these scales were reduced to 15/- and 12/-. Moreover, when the national insurance funds were exhausted, benefits stopped until the next November. This forced the unemployed back onto the Poor Law. In theory, the Guardians had no power to grant out-relief and families had no other option but to enter the Workhouse. In practice, Guardians did pay out-relief at varying scales depending on the influence and number of Labour Guardians. But such relief came from local rates and vast differences arose between boroughs where unemployment was low and others with mass unemployment. In Wolverhampton mass meetings of the unemployed continued with deputations to the Guardians and town council. The campaign culminated with Poplarism where Poplar Guardians, led by George Lansbury, paid higher scales to its unemployed and campaigned for equalisation of the rates throughout London and eventually refused to pay its precepts to the LCC and for the police. The councillors were prosecuted and they marched to jail with red flags flying. The government capitulated almost immediately and raised benefit to 25/- for a man and wife, with child allowances from 6/- to 4/-.

At the end of 1921 unemployment in Wolverhampton stood at 11,000 with 3,000 on short time.

In 1922 unemployment continued to dominate Trades Council proceedings, but international issues were again being raised. The two came together with a resolution from Wolverhampton East Labour Party demanding support for Dr. Nansen’s request for immediate and adequate famine relief for Russia and also protests at the savage sentence of six months imprisonment for Albert Inkpin (national secretary of the Communist Party) and against all others in jail under the Defence of the Realm Act or the Emergency Powers Act. This, they considered, was part of a general attack on the working class. They also recorded disgust that these political prisoners were treated as common criminals. Such attacks on the leaders of the Unemployed Workers Movement who were largely Communists were widespread throughout the country at that time, partic­ularly in Birmingham. The treatment of James Stewart in Wolverhampton was an example of this.

At the May Day Trades Council demonstration, which was smaller that year and omitted the parade through the town, the following resolution was passed:

This demonstration believes that the restoration of universal peace and prosperity depends on the solidarity of all workers throughout the world and reaffirms its faith in the great international labour movement. It condemns the actions of financiers and militarists in preventing the development of friendship among nations.

In introducing the resolution Walkden said that our own government had spent £300m on military adventures and now French financiers were preventing peace. This referred, of course, to continuing hostility to the Russians. At the end of the meeting a collection was taken, half of which went for Famine Relief in Russia and half for the Wolverhampton Children’s Boot Fund.

But unemployment continued to dominate working class activity. In April the Wolverhampton Board of Guardians cut 5/- a week from their scale of relief. A battle ensued to get this rescinded, but motions to this effect in both May and June by the Labour Guardians failed by 14 votes to 15.

In September, Bushbury parish council proposed to buy stone and hire a private yard for the 60 to 70 unemployed of the parish to break stone. One councillor claimed that he knew of men who had been out of work for two years or more who would be glad of a chance to earn a livelihood by breaking stone. A government inspector gave advice to the Wolverhampton Guardians. They must ‘weed out the scallywags from the genuine fellows’. He did not go so far as to suggest that they open the Stoneyard, but he did suggest that they buy timber and make the doubtful ones chop and saw wood for their relief. ‘They would then see whether a man wanted work or not.’ At the end of the year unemployment was still more than 10,000 in Wolverhampton.

For 1922 there is a Trades Council year book. Pride of place was given to the activity on unemployment in co-operation with the local Unemployed Workers Committee. The Trades Council had also sent delegates to a Workers’ Education Association conference in Wolverhampton ‘against proposals to further limit the education of children of the workers.’ Protests had been made against proposals to amend the 1913 Trades Union Act (which had reversed the Osborne Judgement of 1909 banning trade unions from contributing to political funds). A resolution made ‘most emphatic protest’ at an attempt to abolish direct representation of labour in parliament. The Trades Council also gave its ‘utmost possible support’ to the only daily Labour newspaper — The Daily Herald — and had called a joint meeting with the Labour Party to discuss steps to increase its circulation. On local matters, the Trades Council had supported the Mayor’s appeal for the War Memorial Scheme.

Congratulations had also been sent to Councillor T.Frost on becoming the first Labour mayor of Wolverhampton.

The Trades Council was now becoming involved in one of the most significant attempts of the immediate post-war years to reorganise and strengthen the trade union movement. This movement had started in Birmingham where its Trades Council convened a conference to discuss a scheme for One Big Union. This had been a dream of the movement since the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union had been formed by Robert Owen in 1834. The recommendation was that all existing unions should merge into one national organisation with sections for each industrial group all under the control of a National General Council. Locally, each group would have a measure of local autonomy with district or area councils. The local councils would, of course, be the Trades Council who would thus become a general staff for the whole labour movement of a town or area. The scheme was recommended for discussion at the next TUC. It had little chance of being accepted there, the unions being too jealous of their autonomy. This had been shown in the post-war amalgamations, notably of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the building trades, where important sectional interests had refused to merge. Such proposals can be seen as the last fling of the Syndicalism of the period from 1910 or as the first result of the efforts of Communists and left-wingers to transform the trade unions into socialist organisations and seduce them from the TUC into the Red International of Trade Unions recently set up by the Comintern. However, had such a trade union reorganisation taken place the course of the General Strike of 1926 would have been very different.

1922 is also a good point to review the strength of the Trades Council following nearly two years of unemployment in which national trade union membership had fallen from over 6m in 1919 to just over 4m in 1922. Wolverhampton Trades Council income was £181 and 74 organisations were affiliated to it in 1922. This compares with the position at the end of 1917 when income was £171 and affiliated organisations 58. The Trades Council therefore seems to have survived the immediate post-war struggles well.

By 1920, the personnel leading the Trades Council had changed. The president was Councillor A.A.Beach, the vice-president Councillor R.H.Allport, the treasurer C.W.Hill and the secretary H.Barrett.

1923 was still dominated by unemployment. As a result of this, political organisation in the town was growing and the Independent Labour Party, rather surprisingly was reaching its peak. Surprising because, after the reorganisation of the Labour Party in 1918 allowing individual membership and branches, it was expected that the ILP would merge into the Labour

Party and its more militant wing join the newly formed Communist Party. This did happen to a considerable extent, but the ILP remained and prospered for the next few years.

A new militant to the town was W.J.Brown secretary of a civil service union who replaced A.G.Walkden as prospective parliamentary Labour candidate for Wolverhampton West. One of his first actions was to address the Trades Council and he agreed with the National Unemployed Workers Movement that there should be a one day strike in support of the unemployed.

In April the Trades Council affiliated to the International Labour Office. This led to criticism of the League of Nations which one delegate said was a farce. Councillor Emma Sproson said that she strongly objected to associating with the League of Capitalists. But Councillor Dideridge said that the ILO was affiliated to the League of Nations Union which did not necessarily support the League of Nations. The affiliation was carried.

In November there was one Labour gain at the local elections and in December there was a general election at which W.J. Brown polled almost 16,000 and lost by only 241 votes. This election bought ‘into office but not into power’ the first, short lived, minority Labour government. At the end of the year unemployment in Wolverhampton was 7,800.

For 1924 there is another Trades Council year book and activity for the year is best reviewed through the secretary’s report. Affiliation had been continued to the National Federation of Trades Councils and the Railway Nationalisation society. Moral and financial support had been given to the Workers’ Education Association and to the more militant Central Labour College which specialised in Marxist education. The Trades Council had addressed a request to the Prime Minister that the first labour government sponsor a ‘quiet demonstration of international working class solidarity’ by authorising a two minute silence at midday on the 1st of May ‘to remember the gallant dead in all lands.’ A No More War demonstration had been held in the town and had passed a resolution that:

This mass meeting of citizens sends fraternal greetings to the similar gatherings now being held throughout the world; expresses abhorrence of War and Militarism, and calls upon the government to pursue a policy of international Co­operation through a strengthened and all-inclusive League of Nations, the settlement of disputes by conciliation and arbitration, and the creation of conditions which will make possible the convocation of an International Conference to reduce armaments by mutual agreement as a first step to Universal Disarmament.

The coming to office of a Labour government had raised high hopes of the recognition of Soviet Russia and trade with it, leading to permanent peace in the world. The Trades Council had therefore initiated a campaign ‘to support the Labour government to do its utmost with regard to the Anglo-Russian treaties’ and was asking all trade union branches to support this.

Another interesting resolution had raised the question of Voluntary Factory Inspectors who would be drawn from the trade unions and work in conjunction with the Factory Inspectors of the district. Another resolution had been passed requesting the extension of Workmen’s fares from 7.30am to 8.00am.

The May Day celebrations of 1924 had resumed the march through the town and the next year there was promised tableaux for various districts with a prize for the winner. Above all, the work for the unemployed had continued. The widening and straightening of rural roads had been advocated to give work and ‘save funds at present expended in unproductive out-of-work pay.’ Also an amendment was urged to a recent Warrant which placed on widows of disabled ex-servicemen the onus for providing proof that their death had been wholly due to wartime service.

Income for 1924 was down to £161 from 75 affiliated organisations. Labour town councillors had increased to 11 with the same number of Guardians and six magistrates. R.H.Allport was president and C.W.Hill and H.Barrett still treasurer and secretary.

By 1925 the Labour government had come and gone. It was defeated by the defection of the Liberals when Ramsay MacDonald procrastinated over prosecuting John Campbell the Communist editor for sedition over the printing of a ‘Don’t Shoot’ appeal to soldiers. The Tories had produced the forged Zinoviev letter and the Labour Party was routed even though its percentage of the poll rose from 30 per cent to 34 per cent. W.J.Brown almost won again in Wolverhampton West losing this time by 800 votes, and for the first time a Labour candidate stood in Wolverhampton East. Nothing had changed, unemployment and working class militancy were as high as ever, but the Liberals had lost nearly all their seats and these had been taken over by the Conservatives. In November 1924 Labour won two more seats bringing their total of councillors to 13. The May Day demonstration was larger than ever. The tableaux displayed were of an ‘excellent character.’ these combined with the trade union banners ‘auger well for the future.’ The best tableau was judged to be that of the Wolverhampton ILP ‘Peace with all Nations.’

In June there was a protest demonstration organised by the Trades Council against unemployment. The next month there was a meeting organised by the unemployed in the Market Place on a Tuesday afternoon protesting at the refusal of the Guardians to meet a Trades Council deputation regarding severer conditions for the granting of relief. Don Davies, the local Labour agent, said that between October and May the Labour Exchange Committee had turned away nearly 2,500 applicants for relief, the majority of whom were still unemployed; on the grounds that they could not prove that they had been actively seeking work by visiting the factories of the town. Councillor Hartshorne said that the Guardians had reduced the amounts of relief since the pressure of the unemployed had decreased and relief was now only about one quarter of what it had been twelve months before. In September another unemployed man committed suicide and was found in the canal. He had told his wife he was going out and would not come back until he had found a job.

The annual report for 1925 stated that interest had been taken in interna­tional affairs, including support for Chinese and Indian workers struggling against sweated conditions. Also resolutions had been approved on housing, direct labour, fair wages and steel houses. Protests had been made on the arrest of the 12 Communists (a prelude to the General Strike) and the refusal of the government to allow Saklatvala, the Communist MP, to attend the Inter-Parliamentary Union Congress in the USA; also the dismissal of ex-Constable Bates from the local police force. Support both moral and financial had been given to the mining crisis, the unemployed and Bulgarian relief.

But a considerable amount of time had been spent by the Trades Council in quite original efforts to follow up the re-organisation of trades unions first considered at the Birmingham conferences in 1922 which at least had the result of the setting up of the National Federation of Trades Councils. A scheme of grouping trade unions into the six sections of Production, Construction, Transportation, Distribution, Education and Extraction had been approved locally at a conference attended by 100 delegates who pledged themselves to give support to the scheme. The dates of conferences for each of the groupings had been arranged. Executive committee members would be visiting local Trades Councils to explain the scheme and attempt to gain their approval for a Midlands conference on the subject. Who knows what progress might have been made along these lines in subsequent years? But 1926 brought the General Strike, and nothing was ever the same again.

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