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

Chapter 5


The Causes of the General Strike

The General Strike had its roots in the crisis of the coal industry which had been contracting since the last quarter of the nineteenth century with the substitution of oil for coal, particularly for ships. In addition there had been a savagery in the relationship of coalmasters to miners which had made nationalisation of the coal industry an early demand of the mining unions. Demand expanded during the war, but the mines were taken into government control in 1916. As we have seen the Miners Federation sought a new deal after the war and was fobbed off with the setting up of the Sankey Commission. The first part of its report provided for higher wages and a 7-hour day with promise of six hours when the industry could afford it. With this the miners called off any action. The second half of the report, issued later, was unanimous for public control of the industry, but the members differed widely as to how this should be done. In August 1920 with wage negotiations deadlocked, the miners invoked the Triple Alliance, but differences between the unions prevented joint action being taken. However, the government took the opportunity to pass the Emergency Powers Act to maintain essential supplies in an emergency.

By this time the slump was beginning to bite and the government returned the mines to private ownership in March 1921. The owners immediately demanded massive cuts in wages of up to £2 a week and announced that all contracts of service were at an end. When the miners refused to accept these terms they were locked out and the stoppage of 1921 began in April. The leaders of the Triple Alliance called off their support when the miners refused a formula that might have cut wages no more than the cost of living. This day lives on as Black Friday. After 10 weeks the miners still rejected the employers’ terms, but on July 1st the lock-out ended with the men accepting most of the employers’ demands, but the government gave a £10million subsidy to cushion the effects of the wage reductions. There was strong support for the miners throughout the country, as workers knew that if the largest and best organised section of workers was defeated, the wages of all would come down. It was this feeling of solidarity that dominated everything that followed and led eventually to a General Strike in support of the wages and conditions of miners.

The return to the gold standard in 1925 with an overvalued pound hit the coal industry particularly hard at a time when the Dawes Plan was bringing competition from German coal. Again the mine owners demanded wage reductions and a return to district wage bargaining instead of national agreements. This time the railway and transport workers declared that they would embargo the movement of coal if a lock-out occurred. This brought an immediate announcement from Baldwin, the prime minister, that there would be a nine months subsidy for the coal industry while a Royal Commission considered the position. The owners then withdrew their notices. This was Red Friday!

But the government, particularly Churchill, was only buying time to prepare for a struggle, and an elaborate Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies was set up, while the unions did nothing.

The Samuel Commission was very different from the Sankey Commission. On the latter there had been an equal number of employers and miners. The Samuel Commission which reported in March 1926 had no workers on it and was packed with representatives of capital. Its main proposal was a cut in wages and it rejected nationalisation. The miners rejected the Commission’s findings and appealed to the TUC which by now had been committed to support the miners. From then until May 3rd. when the General Strike began the TUC and Labour Party leaders made desperate efforts to avert a General Strike which they did not believe in and which they had no intention of supporting. From now on, it was the rank and file who took over.

The General Strike in Wolverhampton

There are no surviving trade union sources for the strike in the Black Country, and so Emile Burns’ collected reports in his ‘The General Strike, May 1926’: ‘Trades Councils in Action’ provide much of our information for this area.

From Burns’ report for Wolverhampton we learn that no preparations had been made, and a Special Executive Committee of the Trades and Labour Council met only on the first day of the strike (3rd of May) when an Emergency Committee of three men was appointed to sit continuously with full powers to co-ordinate the activities of the unions involved. The first wave of workers called out consisted of 3,500 transport workers, and an unspecified number of members of the Typographical Association, NATSOPE, ETU, some AEU and Allied Trades and Building Workers.

The Emergency Committee consisted of representatives of each affected union. It first met the next day, Tuesday 4th of May, and was faced with the question of interpreting the general circular sent by the TUC while waiting for instructions from the individual unions to cease work. The Committee was divided in its opinions as to its function, some thinking that it had the power to call all men out. The majority view, however, was that the job of the local Emergency Committee was to carry out the wishes of the TUC and obtain concerted action locally on that basis. But this presented problems, since different unions were sending different instructions to their branches, this being most evident in the building trades. The Central Emergency Committee met every afternoon in the Labour Rooms. A separate strike committee was formed of the railway groups (there were important railway shops in Wolverhampton) which met daily at North Road Club, with a sub-Emergency Committee meeting in the Labour Rooms consisting of four Trades Council representatives, a representative of each of the building trades and the North Road joint committee.

To overcome the lack of reliable information, lines of communication were established south to Birmingham, north to Manchester and beyond, and west through Shrewsbury to North Wales. Volunteer dispatch riders were appointed to act for the TUC in every town between Dudley and Oswestry, receiving reports each day from each strike committee, sending out official information from the TUC, supplying them with speakers where necessary and forwarding information to London to the General Council.

A local bulletin of 500 each issue was published for six days from the 5th of May. Open-air meetings were arranged every day at the Market Place, with a good supply of local speakers assisted by the miners from Cannock. There were national speakers at the weekend. A meeting on Sunday, 9th of May, packed the Theatre Royal with 2,500 people with an overflow meeting of 1,100 at the Co op Hall. Even with these two halls packed, thousands were unable to obtain admission.

As in the rest of the West Midlands, there were differences of opinion as to whether car workers were included under transport and therefore among those called on to strike. In Wolverhampton this matter was settled when the Vehicle Builders received definite instructions to withdraw their labour. The other unions involved then acted on the principle laid down by the TUC, that where one section of labour was called out in a given factory then all should strike. Thus the important car industry was closed down.

All building workers, except those engaged on housing, hospitals or sanitation, were ordered to strike. This caused dissatisfaction in Wolverhampton where the whole of the industry was determined to stand by the miners’. The Strike Committee therefore had the greatest, difficulty in keeping within the TUC instructions and on Saturday, 8 May, a meeting of building workers instructed local officials to send a telegram demanding the withdrawal of all building trade workers.

The town’s power supply from the Commercial Road power station received a great deal of attention. The TUC requested that local arrangements be made to supply houses, hospitals, bakeries, etc., but the management refused to negotiate with a deputation and instructions were eventually received to withdraw all men from the power station.

From figures provided by the manager of the labour exchange on Monday, 10 May, it is estimated that 35,000 workers took part in the General Strike in Wolverhampton.

In the TUC library there are reports from Wolverhampton and Walsall and also a report of Ellen Wilkinson and J.F.Horrabin of their tour through the Midlands. The latter report gives valuable testimony of the position in Wolverhampton towards the end of the strike. It states that there was a ready and unanimous response to the call in every occupation. Public opinion was strongly in favour of the strikers. Not a tram or bus was running. Some attempts had been made by the local Council and Chief Constable to intimidate tramway and busmen, without success. Three Midland Red buses had tried to run, but were withdrawn by inducements. The typographical men had been persuaded to go back by the editor of the local paper, Express & Star. Police and strikers were on good terms. F was supplied by road and there were no shortages. In Wolverhampton, Wilkinson and Horrabin had addressed two open-air meetings on the Market Patch of 6,000 each. The figures they give for the indoor Sunday meetings are 4,900 at the Royal Theatre and 2,000 at the Co-op Hall. In the area between the Black Country and the Cannock coalfield they had addressed an open-air meeting of 2,000 at New Invention. In I3ilston 1,500 had listened in Oatmeal Square. Their general observation was that they had been immensely struck by the complete stoppage and the peacefulness of the workers in every town through which they had passed. The response was ‘magnificent’ everywhere.

The Home Office report for 6 May stated that in Wolverhampton journalists were on strike in sympathy with the printers. The Express & Star was publishing a foolscap sheet with volunteers. About 2,500 men had come out at the Sunbeam works. McManus was expected to hold a Communist meeting in the town on Saturday, but the police would not allow him to speak. There had been some interference with working railwaymen who were being given police protection.

On 5 May there was a report from the Engineering Employers’ Federation stating that AEU members in Birmingham and Coventry were out. The Home Office report for 7 May stated that in Wolverhampton more engineers were out and that 400 police specials had been enrolled, with more coming forward. The electrical workers might come out, but in that case the power station would be run by volunteers.

Turning to the local press, the Express & Star ran a badly produced, duplicated 1d sheet on 4, 5 and 6 May. The first reported hopefully that arrangements were being made for charabancs and buses to be run in certain districts under police protection and that it was hoped to run a skeleton GWR train service from Wolverhampton to Birmingham. A Communist meeting of about 800 had assembled at the Market Place and had been immediately dispersed by the police. The bulletin reported pickets at the garage of C.F. James in Sweetman Street and a stopping of one of his charabancs in Stafford Street, police arriving in time to prevent a disturbance.

By Friday, 7 May the Express & Star was producing a two-page printed sheet with more local news. Wolverhampton tramways were still firm. The Star Engineering works at Bushbury and Frederick Street were closed although only 50 per cent of the men were trade unionists. The Sunbeam, Moorfield Road works were at a standstill. Guy Motors had 500 to 600 men out and 200 men in. At A.J.Stevens (AJS) 50 to 60 AEU members were out, but the firm was carrying on.

On Saturday, 8 May, the Express & Star printed four pages. An advertisement from Beattie’s, the large department store in the town, showed that they at least had prepared for the General Strike.

It stated that the strike had been threatening for months and that the store had ample stocks to meet all demands for three months. In Wolver­hampton, the paper reported the continued total absence of trams and buses, but otherwise the town was normal. Bushbury parish church had given over its Institute to the strikers (mainly railwaymen) and these men had decided to march in a body to church on Sunday. AEU men had stopped work at Clyno, but this car firm was carrying on. A short service of prayer for industrial peace was being said at St.Peter’s church in the town centre every day at 12.30pm. The Grand Theatre would be closed the following week because the company, which was to have produced ‘The Jazz Marriage’, had ‘transport difficulties’. In Willenhall most factories were on a three-day week because of shortage of fuel.

On Monday, 10 May, another four-page issue of the Express & Star appeared. There had been no peace moves over the weekend and the position remained the same. Many Black Country works were still managing to keep open. At Harper Sons and Beans three works with 2,500 men had to be closed at Dudley, Tipton and Smethwick because finished cars could not be dispatched; 3,700 men had signed on at Dudley Labour Exchange since the strike began. Joseph Ball, a miner of Cross Street, Dudley, was given one month’s hard labour for allegedly assaulting two police officers and committing an offence against the Emergency Powers Act. He incited a rowdy shouting, ‘Come on lads, let’s have a go! We’re not frightened of you!’ The crowd rushed the police who drew their staves. Several women said, ‘Cheer up, lad!’ when sentence was passed. Sunbeam and Star were still at a standstill. At A.J.Stevens it was said, ‘there is a sort of ebb and flow at our works, but we are still able to carry on. About 800 are on duty and 600 still on strike.’ Two hundred men were on strike at Henry Meadows, leaving 38 at work. This issue of the Express & Star found space for a remarkable Red scare story: a Paris paper had published a letter from its German correspondent stating that the General Strike in Britain had been planned in secret many months before in Moscow.

On the last day of the strike, the Express & Star reported the Wolver­hampton situation little changed. Strikers were still coming out-for instance, 129 at EEC, and other works were closing ‘because of lack of transport’. At Bilston lorries leaving goods stations still had to have police guards.

The Express & Star voiced the opinions of the employers and much of its reportage was mendacious or misleading. An example is the paper’s report of 10 May that at Guy Motors a secret ballot in the presence of two trade union officials had given a 75 per cent vote in favour of a return to work. This issue also reported that at Bayliss, Jones and Bayliss the men were returning to work. The next day the paper reported that 87 men had reported for work at Guy’s while between 500 and 600 men were ‘affected’ by the strike and 250 had been ‘outside’ (picketing) when the firm opened. Guy, the managing director, admitted that the meeting at which the ballot had been taken was ‘not largely attended’ due to the fact that pickets had told workers that no meeting was being held. Guy was a particularly active employer in attempting to break the strike. Even this amended version of the Guy story is likely to be only an approximation to the truth and the facts of the so-called ‘return the work’ at Bayliss, Jones and Bayliss are now never likely to be known. Another clear example of misleading reporting was an item in the 12 May issue headed How men were going back to work before the good news came’. Here the whole country was scoured for news of men returning to work before the end of the strike, but all that could be found was such items as ‘Birmingham-12- minute train service to Dudley’ or ‘Stoke-on-Trent-A number of tramway and omnibus employees have returned, but the response is extremely limited.’ Nevertheless, the press is cowardly as well as venal; while the capitalist system is under attack the endless direct strictures on workers are suspended. But when profits and property are once more secure editors again thunder against the wickedness and criminality of striking workers. This was so in 1842 when Chartists controlled the Black Country in the general strike of August that year, and so it was with the Express & Star in 1926. The 12 May editorial spoke only of ‘unbounded relief’ at the ending of the strike. But the following day it was, ‘The Law Victorious’ and, ‘Did the TUC ever consider the legality of their action?… It can hardly be imagined in any way a victory for the unions…. The forces of law have triumphed as they always will in Britain.’ Much more of this sort was to follow in the days and weeks ahead.

The General Strike of 1926 is the most important event in the history of the trade union movement in Britain. Employers had wanted and provoked the strike in order to curb the power of the trades unions and to bring all wages down. The right-wing Labour leaders feared the strike, had tried to avoid it and wanted it brought to an end at the earliest possible moment before it got ‘out of hand’. To hundreds of thousands of workers, however, the strike came as a revelation. It showed with the starkest clarity that society only existed through the labour of working people. During the strike Trades Councils exercised powers of decision and control normally carried out by employers and police. Thus the strike taught lessons of democracy and workers’ control. It was also a magnificent example of workers’ solidarity and comradeship, contrasting with the selfishness of capitalism. Above all, in a society of mass poverty, deprivation and high unemployment a successful conclusion to the strike held the promise of fundamental changes in society. Most strikers realised therefore, however dimly, that the project on which they were engaged was of great signif­icance. Hence the Nine Days had an atmosphere of gaiety, solidarity, determination, militancy, and mass participation which is rarely captured by strike reporting. Some observers, however, did begin to catch this atmosphere.

Ellen Wilkinson wrote graphically in Lansbury’s Labour Weekly of 22 May of her experiences in the Midlands:

We got to Coventry that night to find the town in the hands of the local Soviet. We spoke to one of the biggest open-air crowds I have ever seen. The engineers were very disgruntled at not being called out…. Wolverhampton, not on our list, demanded a meeting and in one hour we got a large crowd to listen despite pouring rain. They and Walsall were in the same position as Coventry….’

Much of this mass participation went unrecorded, but it is quite certain that almost every urban area saw meetings and demonstrations, perhaps larger than these places had ever seen before and certainly larger than anything since the Reform Bill or Chartist times in the nineteenth century. Immediately before the strike, there had been the mass demonstrations of May Day. The following weekend again saw massive meetings. Then there were the demonstrations of the weekend following. Throughout the strike, the hunger for news and desire for mass communication was such that enormous meetings could be held during the day. Often these were Communist meetings which the police promptly broke up. The solidarity of the strike made mass picketing possible and overwhelming public sympathy was manifest at crucial moments.

In view of the particular efforts that were made to break the strike at what was considered to be its weakest point, namely transport, this atmosphere of solidarity might be illustrated by detailing the determined efforts made in Wolverhampton to get buses back on the road. On Monday, 10 May, it was decided to attempt to run ten buses manned by volunteers. At 6.30pm when the attempt was to be made, a crowd, estimated by the Express & Star at 1,000, assembled at the Cleveland Street depot. Police, including mounted specials, cleared a way for the volunteers and it seems that some of the buses got away. At 9.00pm the crowds ‘still numbered several hundreds’. At 7.50am the next day, the first bus, manned by three men in plain clothes and one uniformed policeman, set out. It was later claimed that ten buses were running. All that day ‘strikers in Queen Square thronged the pavements as densely as if waiting for a royal procession’. On Wednesday, the Express & Star returned to the events of the previous day. ‘The first day of the volunteer bus service will be long remembered,’ it reported. The story went on to tell of huge crowds in Princes Square during Tuesday night and photographs confirmed the enormous numbers who protested against this attempt to break the strike. The transport workers of Wolverhampton remained firm until the end.

In Bilston, too, masses of workers demonstrated, although we only have the reports of the Express & Star to go by. ‘Bilston tramway and railway workers gathered in fairly large numbers on Monday 10th when attempts were made to remove supplies from the railway depot to various factories. A number of volunteer lorry drivers, including several undergraduates in plus fours evidently enjoyed the experience. There was no attempt at molestation’.

In the great pre-strike May Day demonstration the festive mood was shared by Wolverhampton’s communists but this did not prevent- arrests taking place. Albert Darke and John James Foster were charged with having worn service uniform ‘in such a way as to bring it into contempt’. Darke wore RAF uniform with a red band. On the shoulders he wore red badges. Foster was in the uniform of a line regiment and he was similarly decorated. The case was heard after the strike had ended. Inspector Churchward gave evidence that on 1 May the Labour Party was holding a demonstration from St. James’ Square. As the procession moved off Darke joined it with a placard reading ‘Don’t shoot’. At 7.45 the same evening, at a Communist Party meeting, Darke was similarly attired and Foster carried a red flag. The two communists were defended by Randle Evans, a noted Labour Party progressive solicitor, who submitted that his clients were wearing uniform in the course of a bona fide military representation forming part of a tableau. They were not there to bring contempt upon the uniform. The Chairman of the bench of magistrates (consisting of W.H.Pritchard, Sir Charles Marston and Alderman P.Frost) said that the court could not tolerate that H.M uniforms should be used in a contemptuous manner. Albert Darke was fined £6 and given time to pay, and Foster was fined £1.

As in other parts of the country, the first reaction of some to the call-off of the strike was a feeling of elation, for they supposed they must have won. But disillusion was swift and was followed by the struggle for a return to work. In Wolverhampton the Emergency Committee met on the afternoon of the 12th and had posters displayed in front of the Labour Rooms advising men not to return to work until instructions to that effect came from the unions. This caution was well justified. The railways, Guy Motors, the ECC and Midland Red buses were requiring men to ‘sign documents which would take away the whole of the rights which their fathers and forefathers had fought so dearly for, and it is quite evident that the employers of this country were prepared to use this crisis as a method of breaking down trade union bargaining’. Some employers would take men back ‘only as work became available’. Apart from the railways, it is not known to what extent victimisation occurred in the Black Country.

In evaluating the strike, Postgate, Wilkinson and Horrabin classified areas into four classes. Class I was towns where response was near to 100 per cent. Class II was where the strike was wholly effective but with weaknesses in some sections. Class Ill was towns with serious weaknesses. Class IV towns where the strike broke down. Of Midland towns, Birmingham, Kidderminster, Lichfield, Stafford, Stoke, Worcester and Wolverhampton were in Class I. In Class II were Coventry, Shrewsbury, Smethwick, Stourbridge, Walsall and Wednesbury. No Midland towns were in the other two classes. The Wolverhampton emergency committee summed up the strike as follows: ‘… the trade union movement is indeed to be congratulated upon the splendid stand made on behalf of their more unfortunate brethren, the miners, and with very little exception, the whole of the workers stood solid and were prepared to fight to the bitter end, so that when the news came through on Wednesday May 12th, that the strike was over, it came as a shock, as the situation then looked as though it would last indefinitely.’

On Sunday, 19 May, Wolverhampton Trades Council held a meeting at the Market Place. The Wolverhampton Chronicle informs us that there was a crowd of 300, ‘but this increased after the first half hour’. Allport, the chairman of the Trades Council, said they met, ‘to offer thanks for the solidarity of the working class’. Dan Davies, the local election agent of the Labour Party, said that ‘if the strike had lasted another week we would have entered another era of the struggle’. This latter statement is highly significant. The day before the strike ended the TUC had called out the second wave of workers, all the engineering and shipbuilding workers not already affected. This call was just beginning to take effect in the Black Country. The solidarity of the strike from start to finish suggests that this unique chapter in working-class history would have ended very differently had the strike continued.

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