This article was first published in the September 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
September 2011 saw the hundredth anniversary of a series of little known school strikes that occurred across Britain during a year of unprecedented industrial militancy. Schools around the country emptied as pupils refused to obey teachers, organised massed truancies or downed their books and pencils and took to the high streets with banners and slogans.
The trouble began in imitation of a wave of trade union action that had erupted that summer in Southampton, and widened to places such as Hull and Liverpool where there was a general strike. The school strikes soon spread to 62 towns around Britain – from Dunbar to Peterborough and from Ancoats to Colchester.
All the major cities, including Hull, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester, had to close schools, and in London and the suburbs there were spontaneous strikes at Enfield, Islington, Hoxton, Fulham, East Ham and Deptford.
The strike in Hull started on 12 September at St Mary’s Roman Catholic school, where 12 of the older boys decided to walk out during morning lessons. By the afternoon the whole school had emptied, and the crowd at the gates was denouncing “too much work” and shouting “blackleg” at laggards still in class.
The Hull Daily News reported on 13 September that “for weeks there has been a feeling of anxiety… first the sailors and dockers; then the millers, cement workers, timber workers, railway men, news boys, factory girls and now the school-boys”.
The strike soon spread to schools nearby which, so the local Hull Daily News reported, made local tradesmen “anxious about the whereabouts of their errand boys”. Indeed, most of these children had to go to work after school to help feed their families. A lone policeman riding through the poor dock area of Hull made at least one attempt to cow the crowd into submission when he charged at them on his bicycle. The crowd dispersed, only to reappear a few minutes later.
Much of the worst of the trouble was in the Welsh town of Llanelli where, on 5 September, a deputy head master punished a schoolboy for handing round a piece of paper in class calling on his colleagues to strike. The Llanelli Mercury reported on 7 September that the “strike epidemic has infected the rising generation [who] in order to be ‘in the fashion’ [have] decided upon a ‘down tool’ policy”. The schoolchildren marched through the town “singing and booing”. They also formed committees, painted banners, organised mass meetings and picketed and attacked ‘scabs’ who entered the school gates.
While teachers, middle-class parents and respectable citizens were appalled by these actions, some recognised that working-class children were not merely copying their unionised parents, but were using organised working-class militancy to articulate the deepening rift, not only between young and old, but also between middle-class authority (the teachers) and working-class demands (the schoolchildren).
The politicisation of schoolchildren had begun as early as 1889. Then banners were emblazoned with “NO CANE” and other libertarian slogans that rattled the authorities. In Bethnal Green the schoolboy ringleaders were even seen to carry red flags and wear “scarlet liberty caps”.
The Educational News of October/November 1889 declared: “Schoolboy strikers… are simply rebels. Obedience is the first rule of school life… School strikes are therefore not merely acts of disobedience, but a reversal of the primary purpose of schools. They are on a par with a strike in the army or navy… They are manifestations of a serious deterioration in the moral fibre of the rising generation… They will prove dangerous centres of moral contamination.”
In 1889 the disputes were about liberty and individualism; by 1911 they had changed to reflect the economic and social conflicts of the poor. A localised minor offence might, given the militant atmosphere, spark a walk out. In Manchester, for instance, the punishment of a pupil forced long-held resentments into the open. On 9 September, the Northern Daily Telegraph reported that, “the young disputants desiring to extend the fight… appointed pickets who, labelled with papers pinned to their caps bearing the word ‘picket’ marched in a body to the Holland Street municipal school… to induce… a sympathetic strike… teachers prevented the pickets from entering [but] the strikers… had assumed quite a militant attitude, having on the way secured sticks which they brandished fiercely, but an even more terrifying display was made by others who were the possessors of toy pistols”. A suggestion that a troop of local boy scouts might deal with the problem went unheeded.
The strike spread locally by word of mouth, across the country courtesy of the press and even, in London, through flying pickets (moving from Shoreditch to Islington). In Swansea, the pickets locked the school gates; in Edgehill near Liverpool, the strikers smashed the glass in the lamp posts as they marched; in Montrose, the schoolboys demanded shorter hours, potato-lifting holidays, no strap, and free pencils and rubbers; at Darlington, the main demands were for attendance payments and an extra half day holiday.
On the whole, school strikes were peaceful and a ‘bit of a giggle’, but sometimes a school picket might end with some window-breaking (as happened in Dundee where a greater degree of rioting occurred) and bullying of ‘loyal scholars’.
The strikes inevitably petered out. Most of them ended when an irate mother, worried enough about her husband on strike, ‘arrested’ her offspring and marched him back to classes, as Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Illustrated News revealed on 13 September in a humorous article about the disturbances. Although girls were not, as a general rule, involved, the papers in Hull clearly show pictures of girls next to their brothers.
They may have walked out for a giggle but, once the strikers returned to school, they were often punished severely. Some boys were lined up to be beaten in front of the whole school, while others were publicly birched or sent to the workhouse. Reprisals were greatly out of proportion to the crime and were clearly meant to intimidate the ‘truant class’ of the very poor, who watched and might sympathise with the victims.
After a strike in London, two children, aged six and eight, were hauled before the magistrates at Bermondsey charged with “wandering about without a guardian”. There was, however, a more sinister message being sent here: working-class parents might take the ‘revenge’ punishments as a covert signal regarding their own demands in the future.
Strikes at school may have been swiftly suppressed and soon forgotten but, as the authorities feared, collective action left an indelible memory, a trace that would be one first step in many people’s political education.
Clive Bloom is the author of Restless Revolutionaries: A History of Britain’s Fight for A Republic (The History Press, 2010).