Hannah Mitchell, Socialist and Suffragette

Hannah Mitchell was a self-educated Socialist and suffragette, originally from Derbyshire. In her later years she served on Manchester City Council. Her autobiography, The Hard Way Up, is now seen as a classic account of life by a working class woman.

Hannah Mitchell was born Hannah Webster in 1871, one of six children raised on a remote farm in Alport Dale, Derbyshire. She had just two weeks of formal schooling in her whole life. Her father taught to her to read and she became passionately fond of books, even doing her brothers’ chores in return for being allowed to read the books they brought home from school. Her love of books lasted a lifetime. Hannah was often brutally treated by her mother and finally left home aged just 14, unable to bear it any longer. Many years later she recalled this event in her autobiography The Hard Way Up:

“I tramped over the hill, hardly conscious of the distance, blinded by tears and full of grief at leaving my father and uncle, and the two younger children who were both vey fond of me. I knew now that I must rely on myself. I knew also that I was ill-equipped for the battle of life, uneducated, untrained, what should I find myself capable of doing among more fortunate youth? These were bitter reflections and did not tend to soften my feelings towards my mother, although I felt a faint sense of relief in the knowledge that I was free from her scolding tongue and violent temper. But somewhere on the moorland road I left my childhood behind.”

Hannah was taken in by her brother Will and his wife, finding employment as a maid in a schoolmaster’s house and later as a dressmaker’s assistant, first locally and then in Bolton, where she made evening frocks. All the time she worked hard to improve her handwriting and her reading, making full use of the local library.

Along with her co-workers she attended a public address by the novelist Menie Muriel Dowie as part of a campaign for shorter working hours for shopworkers. It was common then for the women to work six days a week.

Hannah also began reading The Clarion, the Socialist newspaper launched by Robert Blatchford in Manchester in December 1891, and attending Socialist meetings in Bolton where one night she heard a woman speaker.

She was Katherine St John Conway, a:

“slight girlish figure in a black frock with a Medici collar, and her hair swept back from her forehead; she looked as if she belonged to some religious order. Though not much older in years than myself, this girl was already a highly educated, well-trained personality. Perhaps at first I paid more attention to the speaker than her speech, but heard enough to send me away with an inspiration which later sent me out to the street corners with the same message.”

Hannah’s Socialist convictions remained with her the rest of her life. She began courting a fellow Socialist, Gibbon Mitchell, attending meetings of the Labour Church with him, and they married two years later. She wrote:

“Married life as lived by my brothers, sisters and friends, held no great attraction for me, but I wanted a home of my own. Perhaps If I had really understood my own nature, as I came to do later, I should not have married, for I soon realised that married life as men understand it, calls for a degree of self-abnegation which was impossible for me. Probably I should have hesitated, even then, but for the newer ideas which were being propunded by the Socialists. Men and women were talking of marriage as a comradeship, rather than a state where the women was subservent to, and dependent on, the man.”

The couple had just one child at Hannah’s insistence, after a difficult birth. “I soon came to realise that although birth control may not be a perfect solution to social problems, it is the first and the simplest way at present for women to obtain some measure of freedom” she later wrote.

Hannah and her husband spent three years living in a village near Burton-on-Trent where they were active in the Independent Labour Party, attending meetings and putting up speakers, and also in the Clarion movement, helping out the Clarion newspaper’s delivery van when it toured their area.

In 1900 the couple moved to Ashton-under-Lyne where Hannah and Gibbon were active in the ILP and in the Labour Church where Hannah became the lecture Secretary, organising the weekly lectures and putting up the speakers:

“…the Labour Church attracted a type of Socialist who was not satisfied with the stark materialism of the Marxist school, desiring wamth and colour in human lives; not just bread, but bread and roses, too….We had enough imagination to visualize the greater possibility for beauty and culture in a more justly ordered state.”

Hannnah herself gave her first public speech when the Clarion Van came to Bolton and then began to speak at outdoor public meetings and at the Labour Church. To her surprise she was soon in demand as a speaker.

In May 1904 she was elected as a Poor Law Guardian to the board in Ashton-under-Lyne. At the same time she became increasingly involved in the campaign for votes for women that had been started by fellow ILP members Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in October 1903. Hannah visited their home in Nelson Street and spoke at many meetings around Lancashire. In October 1905 she was amongst the crowd that greeted Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney on their release from Strangeways prison after their arrest during a meeting in the Free Trade Hall. Hannah now committed herself body and soul to the cause of women’s suffrage:

“It seems to me now, looking back, that all my previous life had been a preparation for this geat experience. While indirectly it caused me much sorrow, it brought me many contacts which have immeasurably enriched my life. Through the suffrage movement I have come to know many notable women who honoured me by their friendship and encouragment. Chief amongst these was that fine and gracious woman, Charlotte Despard, who, I am proud to remember, to the end of her long life, always called me her dear friend…”

During the campaign for the 1906 General Election she interrupted a January 9th meeting addressed by Winston Churchill in St John’s School, Deansgate (Churchill was then a Liberal). She wrote of the incident:

“I rose and and displayed my little banner, calling out; “Will the Liberal government give the vote to women?” At once the meeting broke into uproar, shouting “throw her out!” along with less decent suggestions. My banner was snatched from me, and clutching hands tried to pull me over the seat, but I was young then, and strong, and pushing my assailants away. I mounted the seat, held up my second banner, and repeated the question. The chairman seemed unable to do anything, except to make wild gestures of rage… so Mr Churchill himself took a hand. Appealing for order he said “Let the lady come to the platform and tell us what what she wants”. My immediate attackers gave way at once, but I was subjected to so much rough handling on the way, that I must have looked a sorry sight when I reached the platform. The chairman, who seemed entirely to have lost his self-control, seized me roughly by the arm and lierally shook me, until Mr Churchill interposed, saying he would deal with me myself. With his usual forcefulness he induced the meeting to give order and invited to state my case. In spite of my agitation I did so, saying briefly that we wanted the promise of a government measure granting the vote to women, “as it is” or “may be” granted to men.”

A recording of Hannah Mitchell an account of her interruption of Churchill’s meeting can be listened to on the Working Class Movement Library website, here.

Hannah Mitchell and Alice Milne also interrupted a meeting addressed by Lloyd George at Hale. They were kept in the hall until the meeting was over and had to walk seven miles home as the last train had gone.

In the summer of 1906 Hannah was arrested and sent to prison after interrupting a Liberal Party rally at Belle Vue at which John Burns and Winston Churchill were the speakers. However she was released early, much to her annoyance, after her husband paid her fine. The agitation continued and the outdoor meetings became rougher and more dangererous as men tried to attack the women speakers.

In the autumn of 1906 Hannah paid her first visit to London, speaking in a number of parks and taking part in a raid on the lobby of the House of Commons. She went up to Huddersfield to campaign during a by-election and thereafter went on to Oldham, around the North East and elsewhere. During the campaign to elect the independent Socialist Victor Grayson as an MP for Colne Valley, Hannah collapsed with exhaustion and suffered a nervous breakdown. It took her a long time to recover. She was deeply hurt by the fact that the Pankhursts did not show any interest in her illness, not even a letter of sympathy. By contrast Mrs Despard came to visit her, saw Hannah’s doctor and sent money to help with extra food.

There was a split in the WSPU in the autumn of 1907 after Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst abolished its democratic structures. A group of about seventy women, including Teresa Billington-Greig, Charlotte Despard and Elizabeth How-Martyn, left the WSPU and established the Women’s Freedom League. Hannah joined as soon as she was well enough and worked for a short time for the WFL in Scotland in Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s constituency.

The Mitchells now moved from Ashton to Manchester and joined the local ILP branch. Hannah was soon in demand again as a speaker. In 1914 she attended the Coming of Age conference in Bradford, marking 25 years of the ILP’s existence. Within months Europe was engulfed in a savage war with lasted four years and killed millions.

Despite the popular pro-war jingoism Hannah remained true to her Socialist beliefs and opposed the conflict. She became active in the No Conscription Fellowship and Women’s International League. Her son decided that he could not fight, applied to the Conscientious Objectors Tribunal, and to Hannah’s great relief, was granted exemption.

In 1924 Hannah was elected for Labour to Manchester City Council and remained a member until 1935. She was an active member and particularly enjoyed being on the Libraries Committee because of her love of reading. She was also on the Baths Committee which established public wash houses in working class areas “…a real public service greatly appreciated by women.” After leaving the Council she became a magistrate. She had been working on her autobiography for many years but it was not accepted for publication during her lifetime. After Hannah’s death it was found amongst her papers and finally published in 1968 under the title The Hard Way Up by Faber & Faber, with an introduction by her grandson Geoffrey Mitchell, who had edited the manuscript. It is now considered a classic account of a working class woman’s personal and political emancipation.

Article by Michael Herbert

William Murphy in Manchester, August 1868

The Anti-Catholic lectures given by William Murphy in the late 1860s often stirred up communal tensions and even rioting in the Midlands and the north of England. When he came to Manchester he was detained and prevented from speaking by the authorities.

In the last week of August 1868 William Murphy’s supporters placarded Manchester announcing that he would be giving a week of lectures in the Assembly Rooms, Cooke Street, Hulme, starting on Monday 31st August The chosen rooms could hold an audience of 500 and were near – possible deliberately so – to a Catholic chapel and two Catholic schools. Alarmed local magistrates hurriedly met and decided that the lectures should not be allowed to go ahead for fear of disorder. The following afternoon, as Murphy arrived at Victoria Station from Bolton, he was met by the Chief Constable Captain Palin and taken in a cab to the detective office, where it transpired that he carried a loaded revolver and a knuckle-duster. He was bailed to appear in court the next day.

Meanwhile, unaware that Murphy had been stopped, a large crowd gathered in Cooke Street and also in Rutland Street outside St Wilfrid’s. According to the Manchester Guardian ,“it was plain from the composition of the crowd that all the elements of disorder were present.” Eventually the police cleared Cooke Street and everything was quiet by 10pm.

In court William Murphy was charged with attempting to create a breach of the peace. He defended himself, asserting that “in free England I have as much right to speak as Mr Ernest Jones, or any other man”. A number of witnesses gave evidence of the potential for disorder if the lectures went ahead, including Captain Palin, William Kelly, a mantle manufacturer who lived near the Assembly Rooms, and William Waller, the headteacher of a Church of England school. One of Murphy’s fellow lecturers, a Mr Flannagan, gave evidence that he himself had addressed a crowd of 2,000 on Sunday afternoon in Chorlton Road, and an even larger crowd in the evening, without any trouble. At the end of the hearing the magistrates ordered that Murphy should enter sureties of several hundred pounds to keep the peace for three months and that he be kept in Belle Vue Gaol until the money was paid into the court. Thus Murphy was sent to the very jail where the Fenians Deasy and Kelly had briefly been imprisoned the previous autumn.

No doubt the town authorities congratulated themselves on having dealt so easily with Murphy but he was not finished yet. From his prison cell he announced that he intended to offer himself to the electors of Manchester in the forthcoming general election campaign and his supporters placarded his election address around the town. Murphy promised that if elected he would “devote the whole of his energies to the support and extension of our national religion” and declared that “my life has been endangered, and my liberty is now taken from me, because I will not yield to the brute force gathered together by the devices of Maynooth priests trained with English money to sow sedition broadcast in the land”

Further placards announced that a meeting of “Protestants and Orangemen” would take place on Saturday 5th September at Chorlton Road. By four o’clock over four thousand people had gathered to listen to the speeches. Several fights broke out in front of the platform and then a column of several dozen Irishmen pushed to the front of the crowd and flung a shower of stones at the chair (a Mr Latham) and the speakers. After being taken by surprise Murphy’s supporters rallied and drove the Irishmen up the road. The police arrived and made thirty arrests. Murphy himself arrived by cab at 5.30pm and made speech in which he said that his motto was “William, Prince of Orange”. The first bill he would introduce would be that the working classes must have more wages and after that his next bill would be that nunneries must be inspected. At the end of his speech Murphy was born away on the shoulders of his supporters.

There was more trouble the following afternoon when a group of Irishmen gathered in Stevenson Square and then proceeded by separate routes to the Chorlton Road pitch where they set about the Murphyites with cudgels. Once again the police were summoned and made further arrests. Thereafter nothing more was heard of Murphy’s election ambitions. The events of the week prove, however, that Murphy was more than just an itinerant trouble-maker, that he appealed to a section of the Protestant working-class in Manchester who were sufficiently well organised for his supporters to be able to placard the town overnight and quickly raise sizeable sums for his sureties.

Murphy returned to Manchester on 15th February 1869 for a meeting of Orangemen at the Free Trade Hall. The advertised speakers included Mr Johnston, MP for Belfast, and a number of other leading Orangemen but they did not appear. Murphy made an appearance on the platform wearing an Orange sash. The meeting was chaired by Booth Mason from Ashton-under-Lyne, Deputy Grandmaster of the Orange Association in England. Ashton has been the scene of a serious riot between Protestant/Orange and Catholic communities in May 1868.

In the course of his speech William Murphy attacked Gladstone for wishing to disestablish the Church of Ireland and break up the British Empire. At the end of the meeting an Orange air was played and old women waved umbrellas and handkerchiefs decorated with pictures of King Billy.

The following month in Tynemouth several hundred Irish attacked the hall where Murphy was due to speak, firing shots into the building before being beaten back by the police.

Murphy’s nemesis came in the spring of 1871 when he began a series of lectures in the Cumbria town of Whitehaven. On Sunday 20th April several hundred Irish miners from the nearby town of Cleator Moor arrived by train, entered the hall, found Murphy on his own and viciously beat him until the police arrived and rescued him. Some of his attackers were sent to jail for 12 months while Murphy eventually succumbed to his injuries in March 1872. There was disorder – including bricks being thrown – even at his funeral in Birmingham.

Article by Michael Herbert

Fascism and anti-fascism in 1930s Manchester

The following article on Fascist leader Oswald Mosley’s humiliation by anti-fascists at Belle Vue is reproduced by kind permission of Manchester University’s Centre for Jewish Studies, and is by Michael Wolf of the anti-fascist periodical Searchlight. The introduction to the article is based on an article by Yaakov Wise, also on the CJS website.

One of Manchester’s most unpleasant claims to fame is its connections to Sir Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists and supporter of Hitler and Mussolini. Mosley Street in Manchester city centre is named after his family – although not after Oswald Mosley himself. Early meetings of BUF were held in Hyndman Hall on Liverpool Street in Salford and rallies held at Queen’s Park in Harpurhey.

In 1933 a BUF meeting at the Free Trade Hall descended into rioting between fascists and anti-fascist communists and was broken up by police. The BUF also had its northern headquarters – inaugurated in a ceremony performed by Mosley flanked by two columns of blackshirts – at 17 Northumberland Street, Higher Broughton, Salford, in a house called Thornleigh.

Despite strong opposition from Manchester’s left-wing and Jewish communities, the BUF grew in 1933 and 1934, opening eighteen branches in Manchester and surrounding areas, including in Stretford, Altrincham, Ashton-under-Lyne, Hulme, Rusholme, Withington, Blackley, Oldham, Bolton, Bury and Rochdale. At one time the BUF even considered moving its HQ to Greater Manchester, after the Daily Mail and Lord Rothermere withdrew their support for the organisation in 1934. Jock Houston, one of Mosley’s violent and racist officers in London, was slated for a move to Manchester but was instead sent to Wales after objections from Greater Manchester Police.

Their presence was recalled by a Jewish member of the Young Communist League, Maurice Levine, who later fought in Spain and wrote in his autobiography “From Cheetham to Cordova: A Manchester man of the Thirties:”

“A favourite café of theirs was Walter’s on Great Ducie Street near Victoria Station, and they would walk through Strangeways along Bury New Road to Northumberland Street to provoke the Jewish population – they would often be scuffles with the inhabitants of Strangeways, who were very sensitive to the menace of fascism in their midst.”

The Jewish Chronicle of 27th October 1939 reported the activities of fascists around Manchester, including chalking slogans such as ‘Christians awake! Don’t be slaughtered for Jewish finance’ in Fallowfield. A BUF member was also fined 20 shillings by city magistrates for chalking fascist slogans on a wall at Boggart Hole Clough in Blackley. “A representative of the Manchester Parks Department said that chalking had caused them a great deal of trouble, as they had to be ‘ever-lastingly cleaning walls,” the paper recorded.

The BUF also prepared for the general election of 1940 – never held due to WW2 – by preparing a man called Dick Bellamy as a parliamentary candidate for Blackley. The BUF had also been declared illegal in 1937, but one of the staff from Mosley’s Higher Broughton office still stood as a candidate in the Middleton & Prestwich by-election (breaking the convention that in wartime a deceased’s party successor stands unopposed) in 1940, winning 418 votes against the Conservatives’ 32,036. MI5 files on Mosley record him being tracked in Manchester, including during a secret meeting in 1940 in a curtained-off booth in a restaurant called the Victoria Grill. But the day after the by-election Mosley and other BUF leaders were arrested in London and the party collapsed.

‘Bye Bye Blackshirt: Oswald Mosley defeated at Belle Vue
By Michael Wolf

After the notorious brutality of the fascist meeting earlier in 1934 Mosley thought he would have a repeat performance in Manchester. To combat this threat an anti-fascist co-ordinating committee was created to counter the fascist thugs. A dynamic campaign of leafleting, fly-posting and public meetings were organised to mobilise the opposition. Deputations were organised representing the broadest possible democratic coalition to demand the banning of the fascist meeting. In the face of all the protests the meeting was allowed, and to add insult to injury the Chief Constable banned all marches, a decision clearly taken to make anti-fascist mobilisation more difficult.

However, the anti-fascists were determined that there would be no repeat of fascist violence and intimidation. Saturday 29th September the opposition mobilised. Three marches from Openshaw, Miles Platting, and Cheetham marched to meet the hundreds already waiting to meet them at Ardwick Green to form a united demonstration of over 3,000 who would march along Hyde road to join the protest meeting outside Belle Vue. The contingent from Cheetham comprised in the main young working class Jewish activists from the Challenge Club, the Youth Front Against War & Fascism and the Young Communist League formed the backbone of the group that was to rout the fascists later in the day. When the marchers arrived at Belle Vue they were greeted by the hundreds already assembled for the protest meeting. The marchers however had not come to listen to speeches. They had come to stop Mosley.

At the agreed time they left the meeting, crossed the road and in orderly fashion queued up to pay their entrance fee for Belle Vue. Once inside the amusement park scouting parties tried to find the fascists. They had no success, as these examples of the “master race” were hiding in the halls hired for them.

Mosley was to speak from The Gallery which was protected by the lake, his supporters were to assemble on the open air dance floor which was in front of the lake. Even so the fascist leader did not feel safe and in addition to the gang of thugs he called his bodyguard, there were wooden barriers and the police. In case this was not enough searchlights were available to be directed against the anti-fascists and fire engines with water cannon at the ready. The scene was set.

500 blackshirts marched from a hall under The Gallery and formed up military style. Mosley, aping Mussolini stepped forward to the microphone to speak. He was greeted by a wall of sound that completely drowned his speech. “Down with fascism”, “Down with the blackshirt thugs!”, “The rats the rats clear out the rats!”, “One two three four five we want Mosley, dead or alive!”. Anti fascist songs, the Red Flag, and the Internationale. The sound never stopped for over an hour. In spite of the powerful amplifiers turned up to maximum Mosley could not be heard.

To quote The Manchester Guardian, “Sitting in the midst of Sir Oswald’s personal bodyguard within three yards of where he was speaking one barely able to catch two consecutive sentences.”

Mosley tried all the theatrical tricks he knew to try and make an impression but without any effective sound he appeared like a demented marionette. Defeat stared him in the face and he knew it, as did his audience which slunk away as soon as the police bodyguard was removed. The humiliation of the fascists was complete. The only sound they could now here was the singing of ‘bye bye blackshirt’ to the tune ‘bye ’bye blackbird’, a popular song of the time.

With the fascists defeated and demoralised, the protesters raised their banners and posters high and proudly rejoined the meeting outside Belle Vue.

Mosley’s humiliation was complete, what was supposed to have been his most important meeting since Olympia was in fact the first of a series of defeats he was to suffer in Manchester.

The General Strike in Manchester, May 1926

The General Strike was the most significant British labour dispute of the twentieth century. It was a massive solidarity action called by the Trades Union Congress in support of the miners, who were striking against cuts in pay and longer hours. It began on 3 May 1926 and was called off on 12 May by the TUC with no guarantees from the Tory government of fair treatment for the miners and no guarantees against victimisation of returning strikers. The miners’ strike lasted until the end of 1926 and ended in bitter defeat.

Background

The mining companies had been placed under government control during the First World War. The Miners’ Federation of Great Britain pressed for complete nationalisation and called a national strike in February 1919. It was delayed after the Coalition government led by Lloyd George promised a Royal Commission to look at the future of the industry.
In June 1919 the majority of Sankey Commission members recommended that the mines should be nationalised but, having bought a breathing space, the government now reneged on its agreement and handed the mines back to the owners on 31 March 1921. The miners were locked out the following day by the coal owners after refusing to accept worse employment conditions. The railway and transport union promised to take action in their support on 15 April but called it off at the last minute. This betrayal became known “Black Friday”. After three months on strike the miners were forced back on the employers’ terms.

In 1924 A J Cook was elected secretary of the MFGB. A charismatic speaker, he toured the coalfields, addressing large meetings of miners and their families and revitalised the union after the defeat of 1921.

Faced with a declining economic outlook in June 1925 the employers’ organisation – the Mining Association – gave notice of its intention to reduce wages and increase hours on 31 July.

On 10 July the General Council of the TUC met the Executive of the MFGB and offered its support. On 25 July the Council proposed an embargo on the movement of coal should the miners be locked out. Meetings between the government, the miners, the owners and the TUC failed to reach an agreement. On 30 July a Special Conference of Trade Union Executives agreed to support the transport ban and also empowered the General Council to offer financial support.

At 4pm on 31 July the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin announced to the House of Commons that the government would subsidise the miners until 1 May 1926 and also set up another Royal Commission under Lord Samuel to report on the future of the industry. Once again the government was buying time

It is clear that the government expected a strike to take place eventually and used the breathing space to devise and implement ways of maintaining supplies and transport in the event of industrial action, setting up 150 haulage committees to co-ordinate privately owned fleets of lorries and placing local authorities on alert to maintain essential services. In addition to the government’s own extensive preparations other bodies, such as the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, led by Lord Harding and Admiral Jellicoe, enrolled volunteers. They claimed to be “non-political” and acting for “the good of the community”. By May 1926 they had registered 100,000 volunteers.

By contrast the TUC made no plans for a general strike, seemingly believing that a settlement would be reached, only establishing a Ways & Means Committee on 27 April 1926, just days before the strike happened.

The Samuel Commission published its report in March 1926. It recognised that the industry needed to be reorganised, but rejected the suggestion of nationalisation. The report also recommended that the Government subsidy should be withdrawn and miners’ wages should be reduced.

On 30 April the coal owners locked out the miners.

On Saturday 1 May the TUC held a special conference of union executives which pledged support to the miners . That same day May Day marches were held throughout Britain amidst growing excitement and a conviction that a strike was now inevitable.

“Surely the most momentous May-Day in our history…I heard tonight that the Hyde Park demonstration was the largest and best even our oldest folk could remember…..Reports show that everywhere yesterday’s demonstrations were the biggest ever known. The workers seem ready”. Fenner Brockway, “Diary of the General Strike”, Socialist Review, June 1926.

The Strike in Manchester

Saturday 1 May

It rained, of course. Undeterred thousands paraded on the annual May Day march from Ardwick Green to Belle Vue under “dripping banners “ and “rain sodden umbrellas” as the Manchester Guardian reported.

“Men and women in gleaming mackintoshes and wearing the red and yellow favours of the Labour party; delegates from trade unions following in dignity behind their banners; Communists with broad ribbons across their shoulders – a splash of colour in the drab train”….The banners of the trade unions were varied by those of other groups, ranging from a sober ‘Stand by the Miners’ to the appeal of the Communists – ‘Don’t Shoot the Workers’.”

After the procession a meeting chaired by the MP JE Sutton (a former miner and MP for Clayton) took place in the Great Hall at Belle Vue. In the midst of the speeches another MP, Joe Compton, announced that “the trade unions of the country have decided to call a general strike”. After a moments hush the audience broke into cheers.

“The Communists waved their red streamers and hats were thrown into the air. Thereafter every reference from the platform to ‘the coming fight’ and every appeal to ‘stand by the miners’ was received with cheers and applause. The solidarity of the meeting was incontestable”
(Manchester Guardian)

The meeting finished by unanimously agreeing a resolution in support of the miners which ended “He who is not for the miners is against the working class.”

Monday 3 May

As the midnight deadline approached the railway workers, tramwaymen, carters, dockers, power enginemen and foremen, printers, iron and steel workers, vehicle builders and builders all announced their intention to strike work. The Electrical Trades Union, which had its headquarters in Manchester, issued an instruction to its branches to take joint action “along with any other section of men who have ceased work on transport, printing, engineering and steel production”.

Mr Mattinson, general manager of the Manchester trams, announced that strenuous efforts would be made to maintain “ as good a service as possible” and that plans were being made to use taxi-cabs and charabancs on routes from Albert Square.

Councillor Mellor, Secretary of the Manchester & Salford Trades & Labour Council, gave assurances that every effort would be made to co-operate with local authorities in ensuring the safety of food supplies and other essential services. The trade unions set up a central committee to run the strike covering the whole of the North West. The Secretary was JA Webb from the Transport & General Workers Union, whose members would be crucial to the success of the strike.

The police were making their preparations too, of course. According to testimony given to WH Crook, author of The General Strike, published in 1931, preparations for the strike had included the need to keep transport moving from the very first day of the strike. The police had drawn up route maps of the roads that would be used and these had been circulated to police constables in March. Mobile squads of police were to be held ready for instant deployment in threatened areas. It was announced publicly that the Chief Constable Sir Robert Peacock would review the force of special constables set up in Manchester during the war with the purpose of discovering the present strength of this force. Volunteers for this force were also being enrolled at the training school at London Road fire station. Manchester City Council announced that it was setting up a Manchester Area Emergency Committee and enrolling volunteers at public buildings.

The Manchester Evening News told its readers to “Keep Cool and Carry On.”

“The security of the Constitution having been threatened the duty of every right-minded citizen lies plain before him. The Englishmen who never will be slaves to kings or conquerors will never be slaves to a class. The people who have invented the right to rule themselves will not submit to the rule of any minority of workers who may seek to usurp the powers of government. The government must govern.”

Three trains left Manchester for London at midnight from London Road, Central and Victoria railways stations, though with few passengers on board since there was no certainty that they would reach the capital as they had to change drivers en route. Shortly after midnight pickets took up their positions outside the stations. Railway company officials were uncertain what level of service would be provided. All would depend on whether railway workers would be loyal to their union and obey the strike call.

More than 5,000 Manchester tramwaymen held a mass meeting at midnight in the Co-operative Hall, Downing Street at which there was solid vote in favour of striking. The power for the trams was cut off at 2am.

Tuesday 4 May

Not a single tram ran. There were no local trains and only one train to London from London Road at 9.30am via Sheffield and Nottingham and one each way between Central Station and Derby.

With no public transport there was enormous traffic on the road into Manchester city centre from the suburbs, as the middle classes turned to their cars. Taxis charged 6d a ride. The docks were at a standstill, though food and other essentials were being moved.

By the early afternoon it was claimed some 12,000 volunteers had been enrolled at the Free Trade Hall for various services, including one aviator.

Stella Davies, then a member of Gorton Labour party, vividly recalled the first day of the strike in her book North Country Bred, published in 1963.

“The mill chimneys ceased to smoke and the wheels ceased to turn, Over Gorton, Openshaw, Clayton, Newton Heath and Collyhurst the air grew clearer: the hills which ring the east of Manchester could be seen with an unusual sharpness across the intervening river valleys. The pavement and even the roads were crowded with pedestrians and the drivers of private cars offered lifts with surprising generosity.”

A Manchester news-sheet reported that “city girls” were wearing red ribbons at tram and bus stops, indicating that they would like a lift.

At the Socialist Hall on Margaret Street, Openshaw, the District Committee of the Communist Party was meeting in permanent session, whilst speakers addressed the crowds outside. Dick Stoker, a party member with a car, had just arrived back from London with copies of the CP emergency bulletin The Workers Daily when the police arrived and arrested him. He was later sentenced to two months in prison for “having committed an act likely to cause disaffection”. Quick-thinking members of the Young Communist League hid some of the bulletins under a pile of coke and later distributed them locally.

Wednesday 5 May

Public transport was largely at a standstill. A half-hourly service was achieved on the line to Radcliffe, one of the volunteers being a vicar.

Stella Davies visited her local station with other members of the Labour Party Women’s Section, taking tea and sandwiches.

“The pickets were steady men responsible who, as the occasional train drew into the station, regarded with interest and much amusement the efforts of the amateurs to bring the engine to stop at the right place and not over-shoot the platform. ‘Now you know’, they said to one discomforted youth, who had taken the train right through the station, ‘any fool can start a train. When you’ve learned to stop it where you want, you can join the union.’”

The strike reached the nation’s breakfast table after the decision of the TUC to call out the printers and shut down national and local newspapers.

The Manchester Guardian commented

“The decision of the Trades Union Congress to call out the printers and to silence the press seems to us a singularly misguided policy, and we cannot believe that it will be maintained. To put the press out of action gives a most dangerous power to the Government, which by its control of broadcasting will enjoy a complete monopoly in its distribution of news and views. Is this desired by the Trades Union Congress and the miners?”

The work force of the Manchester Guardian actually appealed to the TUC for an exemption from the strike but this was turned down.

The Government now produced its own newspaper the British Gazette, whilst the TUC used the presses of the Daily Herald to produce the British Worker which first appeared on 3 May.

Most newspapers attempted to producer some form of publication. The Manchester Guardian appeared a two sides of typescript on 3 May and on following days as a single printed news-sheet. The Manchester Evening Chronicle managed a daily typewritten sheet and also displayed news in the huge windows of its Withy Grove offices.

The public was also able to get news from the intriguingly named “Mutagraph” which the Manchester Evening Chronicle described as the latest and most fascinating of publicity devices… used at once to give vital news to large Manchester crowds thirsty for first-hand news of the nation’s new ordeal”. Fenner Brockway watched the device in action during his time in Manchester, “In Piccadilly a large crowd – mostly strikers – watched a Daily Dispatch news bulletin thrown up on a huge sky sign. Again a capitalist monopoly of news”.

It was reported that there were many empty seats for a show at the Manchester Hippodrome.

Thursday 6 May

A four page news-sheet entitled the Manchester Emergency Echo was published by EH Lumby at Central Press in Chorlton on Medlock, much of the content being lifted from the anti-strike Daily Mail which was now being published abroad and flown into Britain. The content included the following advice

“Don’t pay attention to wild stories of disorders, rioting, outrages and the like. Evil tongues are deliberately inventing these to scare you. …. Don’t criticise the Government . They are doing their best to deal with a different situation and will do better with your support and help…Don’t go denouncing the strikers in violent terms. Many of them are patriotic Britons led into a desperately foolish course by reckless leaders…Above all, don’t get scared.”

Friday 7 May

Ellen Wilkinson and JJ Horrabin, who were reporting back to the TUC on the position in parts of the country, declared that in Manchester “the position is absolutely solid”. They urged, however, that a strike newspaper be produced in Manchester.

Saturday 8 May

Fenner Brockway arrived in Manchester to edit a Manchester edition of the British Worker.

JA Webb reported in optimistic terms to the TUC. “The response to the TUC has been splendid…The feeling among members of the various sections is splendid and no instance of friction with police authorities has been reported.”

Sunday 9 May

The Lord Mayor of Manchester announced that food supplies were being maintained satisfactorily. A man was arrested by the police for allegedly attempting to interfere with a lorry-load of flour from Sutcliffe’s Mill, Hulme. He was later jailed.

There was a large rally in support of the strike in Platt Fields. Stella Davies described it as a “large orderly crowd and the presence of many women and children with sandwiches and bottles of milk made it seem almost like a picnic….the speakers exhorted the strikes to keep quiet, stay at home and offer no provocation”.

A report on the meeting sent to the TUC estimated that there were at least 20,00 people present. Two brass bands made up of striking tramway workers led the procession into the park. The speakers, who included Mary Quaile and Rhys Davies, addressed the crowd from three platforms. There were also meetings in Gorton and Blackley.

Interestingly the Manchester Guardian reported that the size of the meeting as “several hundred” strikers.

Monday 10 May

The North West Strike Committee informed the TUC that they had received authoritative information that 2000 beds, blankets and pillows had been sent into the Salford Docks in readiness for strike-breaking volunteers.

The Electricians Union threatened to stop electric power if attempts were made to run trams in Manchester.

The first edition of the Manchester edition of the British Worker appeared in a run of 50,000. It was printed by the Co-operative Publishing Company after the Co-operative Printing Society has refused to print it.

The front page declared

“The General Council does not challenge the Constitution. It is not seeking to substitute unconstitutional government. Nor is it desirous of undermining our Parliamentary institutions. The sole aim of the Council is to secure for the miners a decent standard of life. The Council is engaged in an industrial dispute. There is no constitutional crisis.”

The paper reported that there was wonderful solidarity everywhere and that the workers’ response had exceed all expectations.

“They have manifested their determination and unity to the whole world. They have resolved that the attempt of the mineowners to starve three million men, women and children into submission shall not succeed. All essential industries and all the transport services have been brought to standstill. The Trades Union Congress General Council is not making war on the people. It is anxious that ordinary member of the public shall not be penalised for the unpatriotic conduct of the mineowners and the Government.”

Tuesday 11 May

The print-run of the Manchester British Worker rose to 100,000.

Workers at the only flour-mill still working in Manchester now joined the strike. Three men were prosecuted in the Manchester Police Court for allegedly inciting a crowd to set fire to a railway company motor-lorry in Piccadilly, which had been taking foodstuff from London Road station to Victoria. The lorry had been partly destroyed. Peter Tilley, John Marshall and John Marsland were sentenced to three months imprisonment with hard labour.

The Manchester Guardian in an editorial entitled “Is it an Industrial Strike?” called upon Manchester’s striking tramwaymen to return to work.

This call appears to have been part of a co-ordinated attempt to get the trams running for the Tramways Committee now threatened to sack strikers if they did not return to work by noon the following day. Getting the trams back on the streets would be a psychological blow against the morale and unity of the strike.

The TUC called out all members of the shipbuilding and engineering unions. The police escorted 500 volunteers to Salford Docks to unload foodstuffs.

Wednesday 12 May

Only 29 tramwaymen obeyed the call to return to work. The other 5,000 mustered at their depots at noon and marched into the city centre. The procession from Hyde Road depot was a half-mile long, led by the tramway band and miners carrying lamps.

Even as the procession set off the General Strike was coming to an end. The government had refused to negotiate with the TUC. Instead there had been meetings between the TUC and Sir Herbert Samuel. On the basis of a meaningless memorandum the TUC went to Downing Street and called off the strike, even though the memorandum had been rejected by the miners leaders. It was no less than a complete surrender. They had failed even to ask for guarantees of no victimisation of strikers when they returned to work.

Stella Davies later wrote about how the news was heard in Manchester.

“In the course of the afternoon while I was on my round of the picket stations, the news came through. The end of the strike had been announced as an ‘unconditional surrender’. The pickets could not at first believe it. They would wait until they heard from their headquarters before they left their post and I left them, still picketing, to rush home and sit before the wireless. No comfortable words came from the BBC The official governmental line was that the Samuel Memorandum was not binding upon them, being merely a recommendation, its terms were not, in the event, put into operation.”

Fenner Brockway wrote in his diary of the strike

“Everyone was confident that the Government had climbed down….Then the fuller reports became to come by wire….When they showed that the terms were only an arrangement with Sir Herbert Samuel and that the miners lock-out was to continue one simply could not believe one’s eyes”

Thursday 13 May

The Manchester Guardian accurately summed up the situation.

“The effects on British labour will be profound. The history of 1921 has repeated itself. The support of other unions has been withdrawn, The Government has committed itself to little or nothing. The mineowners are committed to nothing.”

The strike continued in many areas as employer attempted to victimise returning strikers. In Manchester 25,000 railway workers stayed out and marched in protest and the dock workers stayed out in their support

Friday 14 May

It was a “day of humiliation”, according to Fenner Brockway, “The TUC has ordered them back, their own Executives have ordered them back. There is no hope of concerted resistance, so they are going back, disappointed, disillusioned, yet still heeling the exaltation of the remarkable solidarity of these days.”

JA Webb reported to the TUC that many employers were trying to impose worsened terms and conditions on returning workers. “ Many men have been informed that their engagements will only be temporary and that the regularity of employment that they have enjoyed in the past has now been withdrawn”.

John Forshaw, a Communist, was arrested by the police for having copies of “The Great Betrayal”, a leaflet put out by the Communist party attacking the TUC’s decision. He was sentenced to one month imprisonment. He was kept in a cold cell and, though diabetic, refused a doctor. He contracted pneumonia whilst in prison and died a few days after being released.

Aftermath

The miners carried on fighting but were forced back by poverty and starvation by the end of November. Some miners were out of work for many years. The miners’ union did not stage another national strike until 1972, nearly 50 years later.

Sources and Further Reading

The General Strike archive at the Working Class Movement Library includes books, pamphlets, newspapers, the British Worker, strike papers, photographs and other items.

Fenner Brockway, “A Diary of the Great Strike”, Socialist Review, June 1926

Wilfrid Morris Crook, The General Strike (1931)

Stella Davies, North Country Bred (1963)

Edmund and Ruth Frow, Nine Days in May, New Manchester Review,, 12, 23/4/1976

Edmund and Ruth Frow, The Communist Party in Manchester (nd)

R H Haigh et al, The Guardian Book of the General strike (1988)

Merseyside and the General Strike

TUC archive on the General Strike

Article by Michael Herbert

Hugh Delargy

Hugh Delargy was born in 1908 and, after going to an elementary school, won a scholarship to study in Paris and Rome. During the Depression he worked as a labourer and insurance agent. He was elected as a Labour Councillor in Manchester in 1937 and remained on the Council until 1946. He was an active supporter of the Connolly Club (later the Connolly association) in its early years, speaking in May 1939 at the James Connolly commemoration organised by the Club in London and writing in the August issue of Irish Freedom on National Unity. He was also active in Manchester in both the Irish Prisoners National Aid Society for whom he raised £50 and the Anti-Partition League in Manchester who published his pamphlet, The Last Quarrel.
During the Second World War he served in the Royal Artillery, reaching the rank of Captain.

The Friends of Ireland

Hugh Delargy was elected as a Labour MP for Miles Platting in July 1945, inheriting the seat from JR Clynes For the first time the Labour party had an outright majority in the House of Commons and there were hopes that the new government would act on the Irish question. In December 1945 Delargy established the Friends of Ireland, a group of about 50 Labour MPs, and became its first secretary. Henry McGhee, son of the dock workers leader, took over as secretary in April 1946

The new group said that its primary contacts would be with the Irish TUC and Irish Labour parties, both north and south. In January 1946 Delargy spoke at a rally in Belfast while other MPs from the Friends of Ireland group visited the north and south of Ireland. On his return Delargy was welcomed by a social at Chorlton-on-Medlock Town Hall , organised by Eddie Lenehan and others, at which the entertainment was provided by Tommy Collins and his Ceilidhe band, MacSwiney pipers, Billy Kelly’s troupe of dancers, Kathleen O’Reilly and Margaret Cox.

Following their visit the Friends of Ireland called for an end to partition and said that the Six County government of Basil Brook was completely out of step with the Labour government in Britain and that the unity of North and South could only be achieved by Labour governments in both parts of Ireland. In March Delargy spoke in Dublin at the Mansion House and attacked partition. The group also lobbied the Home Secretary Chuter Ede over the 60 or so Irish prisoners still in jail but he initially refused to reconsider their sentences . Eventually the Home Office made some concessions and the last two prisoners were released from Parkhurst in December 1948.

In 1948 the Irish Free State (established by the treaty of 1921) repealed the 1937 External Relations Act, taking Ireland out of the Commonwealth and declaring it to be a Republic on Easter Monday 1949 (though of course a 26-county Republic). The Labour government responded by passing the Government of Ireland Act , which declared that no change in the status of Northern Ireland could be made without the consent of the government of Northern Ireland. It also decreed that Irish citizens living in Britain would not be treated as foreigners.

In April 1949 the King George VI sent the following message to the President Of Ireland, Sean O’Kelly.

“I send you my sincere good wishes on this day, being well aware of the neighbourly links which hold the people of the Republic of Ireland in close association with my subjects of the United Kingdom. I hold in most grateful memory the services and sacrifices of the men and women of your country who rendered gallant assistance to our cause in the recent war and who made a notable contribution to our victories. I pray that every blessing may be with you today and in the future.” (Signed) GEORGE R.

The Friends naturally opposed the Act but attempts to raise it at the Labour party conference in 1949 were blocked. Labour’s majority was reduced to a handful in the 1950 general election and the Friends group seems to have dissolved with little to show for five years of activity. Partition was still firmly in place, indeed it had strengthened by the Labour government.

The Anti-Partition League

Delargy was initially close to, if not a member of, the Connolly Association but after several years in parliament he moved his support to the Anti-Partition League. This was established by two Irish nationalist MPs in Northern Ireland – Eddie McAteer and Malachy O’Conlon – in November 1945 to bring together Irish nationalists to campaign for a United Ireland. As well as in Ireland, branches were also established in Britain.

The League held a big rally in Manchester in February 1947, a dance in September and a campaign in the autumn during which the nationalist MP Eddie McAteer spoke in Manchester. The Manchester area committee included J E Lyons (chair), Alderman B MacManus (vice-chair) and Mrs S Ogden (treasurer). There was also a branch of the League in Rusholme, where the committee included T Watters, J Garvin, E Lenehan and T Wicksteed. The Central Executive of the League met in Manchester on 11th October. Other branches were formed in Moss Side where the chairman was George Spain, and St Patrick’s, where the dean of St Patrick’s church was elected chair and Hugh Delargy addressed the new branch.

Delargy was elected National Chair at the APL conference in Manchester in June 1948. The conference dinner was provided by the Irish Press, the newspaper founded by Eamon De Valera. That same year De Valera embarked on a campaign of speeches on the partition issue in Britain. In October 1947 he was the guest of Celtic at the annual clash with Rangers and spoke in St Andrew’s Hall.

In November he came to Manchester to attend the annual Manchester Martyrs commemoration, during which he unveiled a tablet in Moston cemetery to the memory of Seamus Barrett, a veteran Manchester Fenian of the1930s, and then went on to addressed a rally at Belle Vue attended by six thousand people who, according to the press, gave him a rapturous welcome. He told his audience that “if you want to be on good terms with your neighbour don’t start by encamping in his garden.” Hugh Delargy also spoke and provoked a great cheer when he described Ireland as “a nation which has suffered more in the cause of justice and freedom than any other nation and heaven.”

In 1949 the Manchester branch of the League called on the Irish to withdraw support from municipal candidates in protest at the Government of Ireland Act introduced by the Labour party. Hugh Delargy resigned from the League at the end of the year when the organisation decided to oppose Labour parliamentary candidates. The League stood four candidates in the 1950 general election in Bootle, Coatbridge, Greenock and Gorbals, (attracting between 2% and 5% of the vote) and a single candidate in the 1951 general election in Bootle, who attracted 1,370 votes, some 2.7% of the vote. The results spelt out that whatever their private political views, the question of partition alone was never going to be of sufficient urgency to attract a mass vote by Irish people in Britain. By the end of the 1950s the League was in terminal decline and in 1962 changed its name to the United Ireland Association. Its organiser Tadgh Feehan took a job in the Irish Embassy.

Hugh Delargy’s seat of Miles Platting was abolished under boundary changes in 1950. He was then elected for Thurrock which he represented until his death in 1976. There is a tablet in his memory in St Mary Roman Catholic cemetery in Kensal Green, London.

O n 5 December 1974 he made the following speech in the House of Commons, a few days after the Birmingham bombings

You will be relieved to hear, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I do not propose to speak for more than a few minutes. The Secretary of State will be equally relieved to hear that I have no solution whatever to offer of the Ulster problem. In fact, I had no intention of speaking in the debate or even of listening to it until about lunchtime today. I consider that at this moment speeches made about Northern Ireland—my speeches, certainly —are a complete waste of time. Then why, if I think so, am I speaking now?
I am speaking now because this morning, through the post, I received a pamphlet which no other hon. Member has received. It is a pamphlet about Ulster’s problems called, “The Ulster Quarrel”, price one old penny—from which it may be deduced that it is not a modern pamphlet. In fact, it was written 36 years ago very hurriedly, to coincide with a meeting called in the Manchester Free Trade Hall at which the principal speaker was a young man called Erskine Childers, who died recently as President of the Republic of Ireland.
On reading the pamphlet, I was surprised to see how much of it was up to date. It touched on social problems, which I regret to say have not been mentioned today, which have been the cause of all the horrors and unrest of the last five years. The pamphlet was written with English people in mind. The author was of the opinion that there was some conspiracy of silence about what was going on in the North of Ireland.
When I heard the mistaken speech today of my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr Dalyell), in which he said that a TV and news black-out would assist in solving the Irish problem, I could only reflect that 50 years of silence has helped to create it. We were never allowed to debate Northern Ireland in this House. When we asked questions about injustice, evictions, discrimination and the rest, we were always told that they had nothing to do with us, that they were internal matters which came under the jurisdiction of Stormont.
…… We were told that it was the affair of Stormont and not of this House, in spite of the fact that the Government of Ireland Act said quite specifically that ultimately the responsibility for Northern Ireland rested here. Therefore, the two main parties in this House have a great deal to answer for. They have great guilt on their shoulders for what is happening.
I said that the pamphlet was, in a sense, up to date. We read again from the pamphlet about entry without warrant, detention for any unlimited period, and internment without trial. It was all going on then under the Special Powers Act with the help of the B Specials and the armed police. There was not much difference from what is taking place now.
I can give some of the reasons for the unrest in Northern Ireland. I have quotations here. I said that this was an old pamphlet from men who are now long dead. However, I shall give only three short quotations from three Prime Ministers of Northern Ireland. I start with Lord Craigavon and with his famous slogan Ours is a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people. I cannot remember one Unionist saying anything to the contrary. Then his successor, Mr Andrews—I believe he was his immediate successor—said when he was Minister of Labour that he had heard a rumour that of the 31 porters at Stormont—porters; God help us—28 were Catholics. He also said: I have investigated this matter and have found that there are 30 Protestants and only one Catholic, and he is there only temporarily. We all remember the third Prime Minister I shall quote, Sir Basil Brooke, later Lord Brookeborough. He said: Many in this audience employ Catholics, but I would not have one about my place. A year later, when he had had opportunity to reflect upon it and when he had read what the newspaper editorials had said about that statement, he said: When I made that declaration I did so after careful consideration. What I said was justified. I recommend people not to employ Roman Catholics. I do not wish to resurrect old bones. The whole point of my speech is that what we are debating now we should have been debating years and years ago, because the same conditions applied then as apply now.
I should like to tell hon. Members, in another way, how these same conditions apply. The pamphlet from which I have quoted was written 36 years ago and was a great success. There were only 5,000 copies of the first printing because it had to be printed in a hurry for the meeting about which I spoke. The first printing sold out in two days. But there was never a second printing, because several hours after the meeting in the Manchester Free Trade Hall, in the early hours of the morning a mysterious explosion occurred, which killed a man on his way to work at the market. After a little while it was established that this explosion had been caused by a bomb set by an organisation of which most people in England then had never heard—the IRA.
Other explosions occurred, and other people were killed by bombs set by the IRA. The IRA did not simply kill all those innocent people. The IRA killed hope and the good will of men who were trying to seek a peaceful solution to the problems. The IRA killed the efforts that men of good will were making to enlist the sympathy of the people of England, from whom the truth was being withheld by Parliament and the Press.
The immense harm which the IRA did then it has multiplied since. No one condemns the IRA more strongly than I do. I have been talking about a pamphlet. I may as well tell the House now, of course, that I wrote it. I was a brash young man in those days. I imagined that I could change people’s opinions. I know better now. No one takes the slightest notice of anything I say. I have no need to be reminded of that. When one has been a Member of the House for 30 years, always in the obscurity of the back benches, one has no need to be reminded that one is of no significance. Nevertheless, it is still one’s duty to say what one thinks, and I am saying that now.
I have no solutions to offer. I felt that Sunningdale was a solution. I am still grateful to any pay homage to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr Whitelaw) and all those associated with him who negotiated that agreement.
…..The Sunningdale Agreement was accepted by the Labour Party when it came to power, and we all rejoiced. Although I have always been in favour of a united Ireland, I think that there is something in what was said by the hon. and learned Member for Blackpool, North (Mr Mis-Campbell). If by dropping this talk of an Irish dimension we can get peace in Northern Ireland, I might even go that far. Anything for peace, to save lives.
But Sunningdale was scrapped, largely because of a strike which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr Fitt) said in the best speech of the debate so far, had nothing whatever to do with industrial conditions but was a political strike. The Government did not know how to handle that strike. They should have known how to handle it, and they could have handled it.
….I am sorry that I have spoken for longer than I had intended. I am not very optimistic about the Convention—not after Sunningdale—and I have never been optimistic about Northern Ireland. When my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr Dalyell) said that he originally thought that British troops were going to Northern Ireland as part of a fire brigade operation lasting three or four months I could not help recalling that I told the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr Callaghan) that the troops would probably be there for several years. I also said then that there should be a separate Minister for Northern Ireland and I was sneered at. Now we have four.
Suppose there is a strike after the Convention. What will the Government do then? Will they be blackmailed once again? We have a right to be told. We have a right—and this has been asked from both sides of the House—to know what is the minimum the Government expect to achieve before the Convention meets. The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr Gilmour) mentioned the possibility of violent organisations which are not proscribed being called in for consultation. The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr Dunlop) tackled me over the action of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr Whitelaw) in consulting the IRA. Are the Government planning to consult these non-proscribed organisations? I am frightened about this, because the last words which were spoken in our 17-hour debate which ended last Friday morning concerned the refusal of the Home Secretary to proscribe in his terrorist Bill the UDA, the UFF and the Red Hand Commandos. Those organisations should have been included and I was in favour of pressing the point in a Division. If there had been one I would have voted for the third time that night against my Government, and I would have done it with a glad heart, because I knew that I was right.
I have always considered my speeches on this subject to be a waste of time. I have no solution to offer, but I should like an answer to my questions. I apologise to the House for having wasted its time.

Article by Michael Herbert

The Irish Self Determination League in Manchester

The Irish Self Determination league was a national organisation set up to rally support in Britain amongst the Irish population for the struggle for Irish independence between 1919 and 1921.

In December 1918 the nationalist party Sinn Fein won a majority of the seats in Ireland in the General Election (73 out of 105). They now implemented their policy of achieving separation from Britain by refusing to go to the Westminster parliament and on 21 January 1919 they met in Dublin and declared an Irish Republic. The British government refused to recognize and attempted to crush the new state with military force. The new government fought back with its own armed forces, the IRA.

In February 1919 Sinn Fein leaders Arthur Griffith, Eoin MacNeill and others addressed a huge and enthusiastic meeting at St. George’s Hall, Liverpool. Following this a conference was held in Manchester at which it was resolved to form the Irish Self Determination League. This was launched on 19th October at a meeting at the Free Trade Hall advertised as starting at 2.30pm, though the hall was full long before that time. At short notice the Palladium Picture House was engaged to cope with the overflow but that in turn was soon filled to capacity and so an impromptu meeting was held in the narrow street between the Free Trade Hall and the Theatre Royal. The Manchester Guardian estimated that some seven thousand people in all had attended the three meetings.

Arthur Griffith MP, S O’Mahoney MP and Sean Milroy (director of Sinn Fein’s operations) received a standing ovation on entering the Free Trade Hall. Griffith said that alone among European nations which answered to the requirements of the principle of self-determination, Ireland was still enslaved. English publicists and politicians had said that the Irish question was insoluble. “The only question in Ireland was whether they could get the burglar out of the house.” England, they countered, could solve the Irish question in five minutes by withdrawing her armed forces and permitting the Irish people the same right which Russia permitted Poland, the right to govern herself. Griffith recounted a recent incident.

“On Thursday last in Dublin, Lord Birkenhead arrived to create a favourable atmosphere for the reconciling of the Irish people and on the night of his arrival we in the Sinn Fein headquarters were served with another notice bidding us to consider ourselves suppressed. They have been telling us for the last three years we have been suppressed. They are adjuring us or assuring us that we cannot be other than suppressed. We have come to take these orders for suppression with a certain thankfulness to have bureaucracy which, for all its malignity and stupidity, seems still to have a sense of humour. Imagine, then, the people who profess to be setting up a committee to reconcile the Irish people using the morning of the visit of the angel of peace Lord Birkenhead to announce to the world and to us that we are suppressed. Well, we refused to be suppressed and we went on with the business we had arranged for the day. Some hours after we had transacted our business 800 soldiers, with many tanks, a number of machine guns and Lewis guns and 200 Dublin policemen, armed with automatic revolvers, came and surrounded the Lord Mayor’s residence. They remained there seven hours when they learned that the Convention they had come to suppress had already met and carried out its business”.

Sean Milroy said that the Irish Republic existed and would continue to exist when Lord French, Mr Ian Macpherson, Lord Birkenhead and the ‘other Empire muddlers’ had passed into oblivion. “There is a new Ireland to-day”, he insisted, “an Ireland which would never be content again to hang on to the hopes of what English politicians would do for her”. The meeting then enthusiastically passed a resolution demanding for Ireland the complete rights of self-determination, the withdrawal of the army of occupation, the reinstatement of Irish newspapers and the release of all political prisoners.

The ISDL quickly gathered momentum and by February 1920 the organisation was able to sell out the Royal Albert Hall for a major meeting, at which the speakers included Art O’Brien, Charlotte Despard, Arthur Griffith, Eoin MacNeill and P J Kelly (President of the ISDL). Kelly called for the release of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Thomas Kelly, who was being held in Wormwood Scrubs along with over sixty other prisoners who had been deported and jailed in England. In June there was march and rally in Trafalgar Square and a Tory MP protested to the Home Secretary in the Commons about the fact that the flag of the Irish Republic had been carried through the streets of London “under police protection”.

A year after its launch the ISDL had over 200 branches across Britain. It also had its own newspaper the Irish Exile, first published in March 1921 by the London district of ISDL but after November 1921 published by the Central Executive of the League. The last issue appeared in June 1922.

Manchester was a major centre, claiming 7,465 members out of a national membership of nearly 39,000. Among those active in Manchester was Hugh Lee, a councillor in Collyhurst elected as a Liberal in 1919. Lee was from Cavan and came to Manchester at the age of 14 to be apprenticed to his cousin in the grocery trade, later opening his own shop on Rochdale Road. His shift from supporting the Liberal Party to support for the ISDL indicates the rapid political transformation taking place in the Irish community in this period (Lee subsequently became a Councillor for Blackley in the 1930s and 40s, his single shop prospered and became a chain, and he was Lord Mayor between 1945-46).

The ISDL planned a weekend of events for 27th and 28th November 1920 in Manchester, including a national conference on Saturday at the Coal Exchange on Saturday, a march on Sunday morning from Bexley Square to St. Patrick’s church to commemorate the Manchester Martyrs, and a rally on Sunday afternoon at the King’s Hall, Belle Vue to which leading Sinn Fein figures such as Arthur Griffith had been invited.

The ISDL leadership held a meeting with the Chief Constable Sir Robert Peacock on the Friday, at which the police tried to get the meetings called off, but the Irish stood fast and insisted on their right to free speech. The following day the Home Secretary banned the conference, procession and rally from being held in Manchester, citing as an excuse the fear of grave disorder while simultaneously in Dublin police arrested Arthur Griffith and Eoin MacNeill. The Chief Constable sent copies of the order to George Clancy, chair of the Manchester District Committee of the ISDL.

The National Executive of the ISDL, chaired by P J Kelly from Liverpool, met in emergency session in Manchester and announced their intention to proceed with their plans. The Executive attacked the decision of the Home Secretary, stating that “This is evidently the forerunner of the arrest of the leaders in Great Britain.” (The leaders had good grounds to suspect the government might act against them, for in March 1920 Charles Diamond, the editor of the Catholic Herald, had been sent to prison for six months, convicted at the Old Bailey of inciting murder by writing an editorial entitled “Killing No Murder.)

The ISDL evaded the restrictions by moving the site of the conference from Manchester to Salford, where it was held in the Hibernian Hall, Chapel Street. Three hundred delegates attended, representing 234 branches. In his opening remarks P J Kelly said recent events would not deter them. “They have banned our conference and proclaimed our procession and meetings and arrested two of the leaders who were to have been present to address and advise us. These events do not disturb us. We simply go on, calmly, firmly and resolutely performing our allotted task in the glorious work of rebuilding the Irish nation”

He welcomed the recent Labour party policy of “self-determination” and hoped that they mean it. ISDL General Secretary Sean MacRaith reported that 200 new branches had been established in the last six months. A resolution to allow English Catholics to become members of the League as well as those of Irish birth and descent was rejected. The Sunday morning procession was called off by the organisers when it became clear that the police would not permit it to go ahead.

Permission to use public halls was regularly refused for ISDL meetings and the matter was raised on Manchester City Council by Councillor Hugh Lee. After a stormy debate the motion in favour of allowing the use of halls was carried 45 to 15. The Irish National Aid committee worked in conjunction with the ISDL sending large sums to the White Cross and Republican Prisoners Dependents Fund in Dublin. The civil war in Ireland which broke out in the wake of the Treaty quickly reduced the membership of the ISDL and by July 1922 it was practically defunct in Manchester. A remnant of the organization survived and eventually merged into the Connolly Association.

Article by Michael Herbert

The Manchester Martyrs

The Manchester Martyrs were three innocent Irishmen hanged in public outside the New Bailey prison in Salford on 23 November 1867. They had been convicted of murdering a police sergeant, killed in the course of a successful raid on Hyde Road, Manchester to free two leading Fenians.

The story of the Manchester Martyrs begins with the founding of the Fenian movement, which encompassed two separate but deeply entwined organisations; the Fenian Brotherhood – founded in New York on 17th March 1858 by John O’Mahon; and the Irish Republican Brotherhood – founded in Dublin by James Stephens, Thomas Luby and others who had taken part in the 1848 Rising.

The Fenians took their name from the Fianna, ancient warriors of Irish myth and legend, and their aim was the establishment of an independent Irish Republic, free from British rule, to be established by an armed uprising. The Fenian Brotherhood was a mass movement which men joined by oaths pledging allegiance to the future Irish Republic, while the IRB was a select and secret organisation which survived until 1922 when it was destroyed by the Irish Civil War.

The Fenians’ bedrock of support was in the United States, where hundreds of thousands of Irish people had emigrated in the wake of the Famine, and where in addition many Irish men served in the Union (and a few in the Confederate) armies of the American Civil War – often in Irish regiments – giving those who survived the bloody conflict valuable military experience. In 1866, for instance, the Fenians made a number of raids across the border into Canada.. They also built up their organisation in Ireland and in Britain. The Royal Irish Constabulary had several detectives permanently based in Lancashire in order to monitor Fenian activities, which they did principally through the traditional device of recruiting informers. RIC detective McHale, based in Liverpool, supported the view that the Fenians had a wide base in England.

“I find the great majority of Irish labourers in this town, London, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle, as well as those residing in towns of less note through this country, if not actually enrolled members of the brotherhood, are strongly impressed with the spirit of Fenianism, and there is another class of Irish resident in this country, who are in comfortable and easy circumstances…and who have the strongest sympathy with the movement & altho’ not enrolled members would, I am quite certain, give active cooperation if it so happened that there was a rising, or any attempt at rebellion in Ireland. There also numerous young Irishmen…who are Fenians. Many of them joined volunteer corps in order to acquire a knowledge of drill and military movements, for the express purpose of using in the Fenian cause…..”

Some arms shipments were made through Liverpool and by 1865 everything seemed in place for a successful rising in Ireland. Tens of thousands had taken the Fenian oath while Irish regiments in the British army had been infiltrated. At this critical juncture the Fenian leadership hesitated and delayed whilst the British government was alerted to the danger and struck first in September 1865, arresting a number of the most prominent leaders in Ireland, such as O’Leary, Luby and O’Donovan Rossa. They all received long sentences. Early in 1866 the government finally realised the extent of Fenian subversion in the army and rushed through a suspension of Habeas Corpus in one day on 17th February, enabling them to arrest thousands and imprison them without trial. The army court-martialled many soldiers, transporting some to Australia in the last convict shipment ever sent there, reaching Western Australia in 1868. Fenian organisation was fatally weakened and by the time the rising finally took place on 5th March 1867 it was easily defeated, despite some initial successes.

After the failure of the rising the Fenians sent two leading figures in the movement to Britain to rally and reorganise their followers . One was Colonel Thomas Kelly from Galway, who had replaced James Stephens as head of the IRB. Kelly had served in an Ohio regiment during the American Civil War, and had been responsible for rescuing Stephens from Richmond Jail, Dublin in November 1865. The other was Captain Timothy Deasy from Clonakilty, County Cork, who had also served in the American Civil War

Both men were arrested in Manchester on 11th September. This was a major coup for the authorities but Edward O’Meagher Condon, another Irish-American civil war veteran who was in charge of re-organising the Fenians in the north of England, immediately set plans in motion to free the two men, procuring arms from Birmingham and organising a party of men to effect a rescue. The two men were being held at Bellevue gaol on Hyde Road and conveyed to and from court in a horse-drawn police-van.

On 18th September Condon’s raiding party attacked the van on its way out of Manchester as it neared a railway bridge on Hyde Road, shooting the off-horse and sending the police escort packing. Then they began to break open the van in the course of which a man named Peter Rice accidentally shot dead Charles Brett, the policeman inside the van. The raiders got Kelly and Deasy out of the van and, despite strenuous efforts by the authorities to recapture them, the Fenian movement successfully smuggled them back to the United States.

The Manchester police arrested some of the rescuers at the scene and dragged in dozens of other Irishmen in the following days as the constabulary ransacked the Irish quarters, enraged by the death of their colleague. The government was equally dismayed. Home Secretary Gathorne-Hardy wrote in his diary, “This at Manchester! What are we coming to…. The Times is as the public will be ready for strong measures. England will never endure that such an event should happen unpunished.” The legal hearings in Manchester began on 27th September. Amongst the lawyers defending the Irishmen was William Prowting Roberts, who lived in Pendleton and had been an active Chartist in the 1840s, when he had even been imprisoned for a time. Roberts had been one of the speakers at the Free Trade Hall meeting on St. Patrick’s Day, 1848.

Twenty eight Irishmen appeared before the stipendiary magistrate and the number eventually rose to fifty. The court was ringed by troops, some of whom actually sat next to the magistrate on the bench. All the prisoners were in shackles and the magistrate refused to order their removal, despite protests from the lawyers. Roberts did his best, gaining the release of some prisoners, but the authorities merely filled the gaps in the ranks with newly arrested men. He was also heckled from the court gallery, which was filled with Manchester’s well-to-do come to watch the spectacle. “How dreadful it is to have to address such a spirit that reigns against these men”, he told the court, “ it paralyses the tongue”. The intimidation even continued outside the court. One evening a mob turned up outside Roberts’ hotel and he had to escape by the back entrance. The Times even devoted an editorial to attacking him, “……the prejudice which Mr. Roberts deprecates is not, we suspect, local as much as national, being no other than a prejudice against organised conspiracies for the defiance of the law and the murder of its authorised agents”. Ernest Jones was another barrister for the men. He had qualified as barrister in 1844 and then joined the Chartist movement, becoming editor of the Northern Star, and also served a term of imprisonment.

The special commission which tried the prisoners started sitting at the Assize Courts in Manchester on 28th October, presided over by Justice Blackburn with the Attorney General Sir Thomas Karslake leading for the prosection. W P Roberts and the other defence lawyers petitioned in an attempt to get the trial moved to London but this was rejected. Manchester was filled with police and troops during the five days of the proceedings. Twenty-six Irishmen were tried, with five of them being found guilty of murder, seven of riot and assault while the remainder were convicted of lesser offences.

The sentence of death on Edward O’Meagher Condon was commuted because of his American citizenship. Another condemned man Thomas Maguire, a Royal Marine home on leave who had been swept up by the police in their raids, was given a free pardon after the press reporters at the trial got together and petitioned the Home Secretary, declaring their belief in his innocence. It was plain that he had played no part in the raid or the death of the policemen, having only just come back to Manchester after ten years away. And yet many witnesses had sworn on oath that Maguire had been a participant. What reliance could now be placed on the evidence given against the other three men?

There was a vociferous campaign for clemency for the three condemned men by Irish and English radicals. On 18th November a deputation went to the Home Office to present a memorial from a meeting held at Clerkenwell Green the previous day. The Home Secretary Gathorne Hardy refused to see them so the men forced their way into the Home Office and held an impromptu “indignation” meeting before leaving just in time to avoid the police. In Manchester a number of citizens met at the Trevelyan Hotel in Corporation Street and drew up a petition which asked the queen to exercise her prerogative of mercy “…..on the ground that the British government can always afford to exercise clemency even to its worst and most misguided prisoners, although not sentenced for a political crime, but solely for the high crime or murder, may be regarded in a sense as political criminals…..” Like all others this petition was turned down. Queen Victoria wrote in a letter to Sir Stafford Northcote at this time that the Irish “are really shocking, abominable people – not like any other civilised nation.”

The campaign for clemency failed and the sentences were carried out in public on 23rd November outside the New Bailey prison on Bridge Street where Allen, Larkin and O’Brien were hanged at day break on a platform built on the walls. Below them was a large, jeering crowd and hundreds of police and the army, ready to prevent any possible rescue attempt. Few Irish attended, having been told by their priests to go to Mass and pray for the souls of the condemned.

After the execution the bodies of the three men were swiftly buried in quicklime in the prison grounds. Frederick Engels wrote to Karl Marx predicting that “yesterday morning the Tories, by the hand of Mr Calcraft, accomplished the final act of separation between England and Ireland. The only thing that the Fenians still lacked were martyrs. They have been provided by Derby and G Hardy. Only the execution of the three has made the liberation of Kelly and Deasy the heroic deed which will now be sung to every Irish babe in the cradle in Ireland, England and America”.

In Ireland tens of thousands paraded in mock funeral processions in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and many other towns, with participants and spectators dressed in mourning and wearing green ribbons and rosettes and other items. Newspapers remarked upon the large numbers of young women who marched in contingents in the parades, something new in Irish political life. Many of the women wept as they walked and in Cork an eyewitness described the women “keening” when the procession reached St Jerome’s cemetery, “the occasion of the gathering rendered this wild cry of sorrow sadly impressive and moving.” As the processions gathered momentum across the country across the country the Lord Lieutenant issued a proclamation banning all future ceremonies under the Party Processions and Party Emblems Act.

Annual commemorations of the executions became part of Nationalist political life, with marches in many Irish towns every November, often in the dramatic form of a torchlight procession.

Many years later Edward O’Meagher Condon returned to Manchester to a hero’s welcome. On 26th September 1909 he crossed the Atlantic from the United States and was received in triumph when he arrived at Exchange Station in Manchester, accompanied by the MP John Dillon and John O’Callaghan, secretary of the United Irish League of America. The party made their way to the Grand Hotel on Aytoun Street, accompanied by a large crowd and the Michael Davitt and Thomas Davis branches of the UIL in Manchester in a torchlit procession. The following day Condon visited the various scenes associated with the events of 1867 and in the evening there was a great meeting at the Free Trade Hall to welcome both him and those who had accompanied him on the visit. Condon was pictured in the papers seated alongside O’Callaghan, F L Crilly (Secretary of the United Irish League of Great Britain) and Stephen Gwynne (MP for Galway).

A veteran Manchester Fenian, Seamus Barrett, formed a Manchester Martyrs Memorial Committee at the beginning of the twentieth century which put up the monument in Moston Catholic cemetery, unveiled by James Stephens, the former Fenian leader. Thereafter an annual commemoration was held, involving a parade from Bexley Square, Salford to St. Patrick’s Church on Livesey Street, where Mass was said. Afterwards the parade, led by an Irish pipe band, would proceed to the Shamrock Hall on Rochdale Road or to Moston cemetery. In 1974 the march was cancelled, following the Birmingham pub bombings, and the memorial was extensively vandalised and defaced. In recent years it has been restored.

Article by Michael Herbert