As acts of futility go, the task that a magistrate named Stuart Deacon was asked to perform on 13 August 1911 takes some beating. Deacon was charged with reading the riot act to a vast crowd of strikers that had descended on the area around St George’s Hall in central Liverpool. His words were, in effect, the authorities’ last-minute bid to persuade the demonstrators to disperse and return to their homes peacefully.
The crowd, however, was in no mood to listen – perhaps 80,000 of them had taken to the streets in support of what was being described as the “Great Transport Workers’ Strike”. What followed was one of the most violent episodes in the history of British industrial relations.
No sooner had Deacon addressed his restive audience than fighting broke out between police and the protesters. As members of the Warwickshire Regiment stood by waiting for the order to go into action, mounted police waded into the crowd. By the end of the day, hundreds required treatment for their injuries.
Two days later, things got even worse. When protesters threw bricks at vans carrying strikers to prison, soldiers guarding the convoy opened fire, killing two men. It was a bloody end to a strike that truly shocked the nation. Yet it was far from an anomaly.
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Grinding to a halt
Today, World War I dominates histories of the early 20th century. Yet before Britain was pitched into that calamity it experienced a period of unprecedented strike action, as workers up and down the country agitated for better pay and working conditions by downing tools and walking out. Such was the scale of the industrial action that this period from 1911–14 is known as the Great Unrest.
The numbers speak for themselves. In 1909, 2.7 million working days were lost to strikes; by 1912, that number had skyrocketed to 41 million. There were an eye-watering 3,000 strikes between 1911 and 1914. With the wheels of industry grinding to a halt again and again, The Times went as far to label the miners’ strike of 1912, “The greatest catastrophe that has threatened the country since the Spanish Armada.”
Few industries were unaffected by the action. In January 1914, Londoners shivered as coal porters walked out in search of increased pay. The previous month, a strike of Leeds corporation workmen had plunged the city into darkness. The Times reported how, at one school in Deptford, pupils “organised a demonstration outside the school, and amused the neighbourhood by shouting ‘We are on strike’.”
When, in 1911, a national railway strike forced significant concessions out of the government, home secretary Winston Churchill lamented: “The men have beaten us. We cannot keep the trains running. There is nothing we can do. We are done!”
The authorities weren’t “done”, of course. But they were certainly wrong-footed. The establishment may not have seen it coming, but the Great Unrest was a storm a long time in the brewing.
The turn of the 20th century was a time of enormous volatility for the British economy
The turn of the 20th century was a time of enormous volatility for the British economy. As inflation rose, and wages failed to keep pace, thousands of workers found themselves plunged into severe poverty. And so they turned to the trade union movement to secure fair pay from what they saw as grasping employers.
Over the past half century, Britain’s trade unions had been transformed from a network of small organisations to huge, sophisticated entities with the resources to lobby companies, run PR campaigns and pursue their grievances in the courts.
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By the late Victorian era, this added professionalism had secured the trade union movement a series of high-profile victories, none more celebrated than the matchworkers’ strike of 1888, when a group of young women employed at the Bryant & May factory in east London secured better working conditions.
Such successes made the movement a powerful player in Britain’s political firmament. And one way to exert this power was via the ballot box. The general election of 1906 saw the Labour Party (then known as the Labour Representation Committee) increase their number of seats in Westminster from two to 29, with their MPs essentially viewed as the trade union movement’s representatives in parliament. It was a landmark moment in the history of industrial relations, but one that came with expectations – expectations that these MPs would deliver results for Britain’s workforce.
By the end of first decade of the 20th century, some in the labour movement were beginning to conclude that the Labour MPs weren’t delivering. Men like the leading trade unionist Tom Mann were increasingly attracted by syndicalism, an ideology that cleaved to the belief that better pay and conditions for the masses was best achieved by workforce organisation rather than parliamentary politics.
The extraordinary spike in strike action from 1911–14 is testament to how persuasive the syndicalists were. The increasing force that the authorities exerted against the strikers is testament to how rattled the establishment was by Mann’s ideology.
In his book The Strange Death of Liberal England, the historian George Dangerfield wrote that the working class of this period “took a revolutionary course and might have reached a revolutionary conclusion”. With the dread spectre of regime change casting a long shadow and Conservative MPs talking of the need to deploy martial law to defeat “socialist trade unionism”, the authorities’ response took a more punitive turn. Gunboats were moored in the Mersey as the Liverpool transport workers’ strike of 1911 played out, two men were shot dead by soldiers in Llanelli during a railway workers’ strike, and Tom Mann was charged with inciting mutiny among soldiers and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.
This article was first published in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
Spencer is production editor of BBC History Magazine