Free Trade Hall Meeting 13 October 1905: the beginning of the militant campaign for Votes for Women

The Women’s Social and Political Union was formed by women members of the Independent Labour Party on 10 October 1903 to campaign for women’s suffrage. Two years later the organisation hit the headlines when two of its leading members, Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst, were arrested after disrupting a meeting in the Free Trade Hall. It was the beginning of the militant campaign for Votes for Women.

The Pankhurst name was already known in Manchester before the militant campaign for Votes for Women, started in October 1905, made Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst household names.

Richard Pankhurst (1834-1898) was a barrister in Manchester and active member of the Liberal Party, who worked tirelessly in support of many progressive causes such as parliamentary reform, republicanism, Home Rule for Ireland, secular education and women’s suffrage. In 1879 he married Emmeline Goulden, twenty years his junior, and they had five children. In 1883 he stood unsuccessfully for parliament in a by-election in Manchester. Recalling her father, his daughter Sylvia wrote

“Without, he breasted the storm and stress of political turmoil: at home he poured forth for us a wealth of enthusiastic affection, in the precious hours torn for us from the fabric of his vast activity, revealing to us in a fascinating and never-ending variety of the brilliant facets of his thought and knowledge. His struggle was the background of our lives, and his influence, enduring long after his death was their strongest determining factor.”

Living for a time in London in Russell Square, their house was a meeting point for radicals of all persuasions: Socialist, Fabians, Freethinkers, Anarchists, Communards. There were endless meetings and musical evenings. In 1889 the Pankhursts, along with other prominent campaigners, formed the Women’s Franchise League which campaigned not just on suffrage but on the rights of women in areas such as custody of children and divorce. The secretary was Ursula Bright.

Returning to Manchester, where they lived in Victoria Park, the family often attended the meetings of the Ancoats Brotherhood organised by Charles Rowley on music, art and science. Dr Pankhurst himself gave a series of lectures on citizenship. Disillusioned with the Liberal party both Richard and Emmeline joined the Independent Labour Party, formed in 1893. Its leading figures, such as Carolyn Martyn, Enid Stacey, Pete Curran, Tom Mann, Bruce Glasier, Katherine St John Conway and Keir Hardie, were frequent visitors to the Victoria Park house when lecturing in Manchester.

In December 1894 Emmeline took her first step onto the political stage when she was elected to the Chorlton Board of Guardians for the Openshaw district. During that winter there was high unemployment in Manchester. A Relief Committee was established with Dr Pankhurst as Secretary and another local socialist, Dr Martin, as Treasurer, whilst Emmeline went every day to collect food from the markets for the daily distribution of food from the offices on Deansgate. They were soon feeding 2,000 people each day.

In 1895 Richard stood for the ILP in the Gorton constituency in the general election but he was unsuccessful, despite working very hard on the campaign. The following year both Richard and Emmeline took part in a battle for the rights of Socialists to speak in the open air on Sundays at Boggart Hole Clough. From 1892 the North Manchester Fabian Society, and on its formation the ILP, had been holding outdoor meetings without hindrance as the Clough was private property. Things changed, however, after Manchester City Council purchased the estate. In May and June 1896 the Council issued summonses against ILP speakers such as Leonard Hall, John Harker and Fred Brocklehurst, who were fined and imprisoned when they refused to pay. This attracted a good deal of public interest and on 14 June 10,000 people attended the outdoor meeting. On 20th June Emmeline spoke to a crowd of 20,000, whilst her daughters Sylvia and Christabel collected donations. Mrs Pankhurst was also summonsed but her case was repeatedly adjourned and never came to court. On 29 June a protest was held on New Cross against the Council’s actions. and on 3 July Keir Hardie spoke at a meeting in Stevenson Square, attended by over a thousand people.

Keir Hardie was also summonsed and when he appeared before the bench on 14 July he announced that he intended to call 421 witnesses. The case was adjourned by the magistrates after the twentieth had appeared! In August the Council passed a new by-law prohibiting meetings in parks but the Home Secretary, no doubt mindful of the controversy created so far, refused to sanction it. Eventually a new by-law was passed, drafted by the Home Secretary, which promised not to refuse any reasonable request for the use of parks. Outstanding summonses were dropped. The ILP had been victorious.

Dr Pankhurst died suddenly on 5 July 1898 from gastric ulcers. He left no will and many debts. Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald acted as fundraisers to raise money to build a hall in his memory which eventually opened in November 1900 as the Pankhurst Memorial Hall on St James Road, Hightown, Salford. Keir Hardie gave the first memorial lecture there on 25 November 1900.

Devastated by their loss, the grieving family sold many of their goods and moved from Victoria Park to 62 Nelson Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock. With family finances in a parlous state, Emmeline took a job as a Registrar of Births & Deaths, acting as such from 8 November 1898 to 25 February 1907. Her daughter Christabel acted as her deputy from 4 November 1903 to 5 September 1906. The registrations took place at the family home, the public attending at advertised hours.

The family kept up their political activity, opposing the Boer War and thereby attracting much public hostility and some violence. In November 1900 Mrs Pankhurst was elected as a Socialist candidate on the Manchester School Board.

But by 1903 Emmeline and Christabell had become increasingly disillusioned by the lack of interest shown by the ILP whose leaders were, with the exception of Keir Hardie, either lukewarm on the issue of votes for women or in the case of Philip Snowden actively hostile. Thus on 10th October 1903 Emmeline called a meeting of like-minded ILP women at her house and they formed a new organisation – the Women’s Social & Political Union.

Initially the WSPU’s efforts were directed solely toward getting motions passed at ILP branches urging the leadership to take action. Keir Hardie gave his support, while Emmeline toured the branches and was elected onto the ILP Executive at its conference at Easter 1904. At the Easter conference in Manchester in 1905 the Pankhursts held a reception for delegates in their home.

After much lobbying they managed to get a Private Members Bill before the Commons, sponsored by the Liberal MP John Bamford Slack. On 12 May 1905 women packed the lobby of the Commons in support of the bill but it was talked out, being at the bottom of the order paper.

In the summer of 1905 Annie Kenney (1879-1953) a mill worker living in Lees, Oldham, who was a member of the local ILP and its choir, heard Emmeline and Christabel speak on women’s suffrage and immediately offered her services. She was soon fully involved as a public speaker. At her urging the Pankhursts set up stalls at wakes fairs in Stalybridge, Mossley and other Lancashire towns. Another recruit to the cause was Theresa Billington, a Socialist who had been brought up Catholic but become an agnostic. She was a teacher in Manchester who was a founder of the Manchester Teachers Equal Pay League. She became a paid organiser for the WSPU in June 1905.

With a general election in the offing (which many expected the Liberals to win), on 13 October 1905 Sir Edward Grey, a leading member of the Liberal Party (he was to become Foreign Secretary) came to speak in Manchester at the Free Trade Hall. The WSPU wrote to him, asking him to receive a deputation, but he did not reply. Christabel and Annie Kenny joined the audience, intending to heckle and with luck be arrested and imprisoned. This is Sylvia’s account from her book, The Suffragette Movement.

“Sir Edward Grey was making his appeal for the return of a Liberal government when a little white “Votes for Women” banner shot up. “Labour Representation” was the cry of the hour. Christabel thrust Annie Kenney forward, as one of the organized textile workers, and a member of a trade union committee, to ask. “Will the Liberal Government give women the vote?” Other questions were answered; that question was ignored. When it was persisted in, Annie Kenney was dragged down by the men sitting near her, and one of the stewards put a hat over her face. Christabel repeated the question. The hall was filled with conflicting cries; “Be quiet” “Let the lady speak” In the midst of the hubbub the Chief Constable of Manchester, William Peacock, came to the women and told them that if they would put the question in writing, he would take it himself to Sir Edward grey; but it went the round of chairman and speakers, and non of the vouchsafed a reply. When Sir Edward Grey rose to acknowledge a vote of thanks, Annie stood on a chair to ask again, whilst Christabel strove to prevent her removal; but Liberal stewards and policemen in plain clothes soon dragged them both from the hall. Determined to secure imprisonment, Christabel fought against ejection. When detectives thrust her into an ante-room she cried to her captors: ”I shall assault you!”; she retorted, when they pinioned her; “I shall spit at you!”. Her threat was not carried out in a very realistic manner, but she made as though to accomplish it, and she also managed to get a blow at the inspector as she and Annie Kenney were flung out of the building. Yet still she was not arrested. Outside in South Street she declared that they must hold a meeting , and when they attempted to address the crowd now flocking out of the hall, her desire was attained; they were now arrested and taken to the town hall.”

The women appeared in court the following day. Annie Kenney, speaking in her own defence, said that a large crowd had assembled, and, she admitted, blocked the street; but so long as they were to receive such treatment she, as representing thousands of factory women who had no votes, would be compelled to make the same kind of protest. They were fined but refused to pay and hence Christabel was sentenced to seven days imprisonment and Annie to three days. They were placed in the Third Division, wearing prison dress and eating prison food. According to Sylvia, Winston Churchill (then a prospective Liberal candidate for a Manchester seat) went to Strangeways prison to pay the fines but the governor refused to accept the money. Keir Hardie telegraphed his support. “The thing is a dastardly outrage, but do not worry, it will do immense good to the cause. Can I do anything?”

On their release a great crowd greeted them and Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper presented them with flowers. On 20th October both women addressed a crowded meeting in the very hall from which they had been ejected a week earlier. Keir Hardie also spoke. It was the beginning of the militant campaign for Votes for Women which over the next nine years would involve thousands of women and shake British society to the core.

Article by Michael Herbert

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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.

Paul Rose and the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster

Paul Rose, MP for Manchester Blackley, helped to set up the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster in 1965. The campaign attempted to raise the question of discrimination and civil rights abuses in northern Ireland, largely unsuccessfully.

Paul Rose was born in 1935 in Manchester and educated at Bury Grammar School and the University of Manchester. He was chair of the Manchester Federation of Young Socialists. He trained as a lawyer and in 1958 was called to the bar. Rose had no personal Irish connections, but apparently became interested in 1962 after addressing a meeting in Manchester on civil liberties and being been told about the situation in Northern Ireland. In the general election of October 1964 he was elected to the House of Commons for Blackley, Manchester. The Labour Party defeated the Tory party after 13 years with a majority of just 4 seats.

The Campaign for Democracy in Ulster was established in early 1965 at a meeting in a public house in Streatham by a group of Irish trade unionists and Labour Party members. The Vice-President was Paddy Byrne, who had been active thirty years before in Ireland in the Republican Congress. The first secretary of the organisation was Bill O’Shaughnessy. When O’Shaughnessy moved to Manchester in the late 1960s Byrne took over the post. The CDU’s aims were to achieve a reform of election laws in Northern Ireland; to secure a Royal Commission into running of the Stormont government and investigate allegations of discrimination; and to have the Race Relations Bill amended to include religion and then extended to Northern Ireland.

The CDU was publicly launched in June 1965 at a meeting in the House of Commons at which Patricia McCluskey was one of the guest speakers. They attracted interest from a number of MPs. Paul Rose agreed to become President of the CDU. As an organisation the CDU was in practice confined to London with only Manchester forming a branch for a while. In the Commons it attracted support from 60 to 80 MPs, principally Labour with a few Liberals

It soon became obvious that the Wilson government intended to follow exactly the line taken by its predecessors for nearly fifty years and claim that it was unable to interfere in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. CDU members made a number of attempts to raise issues in the Commons but were rebuffed each time. Eventually Harold Wilson himself stated in May 1966 that he was “not aware of any issue on which an inquiry is needed”. Attempts to amend the Race Relations bill to include religious discrimination failed, as did an attempt to have the remit of the Ombudsman extended to Northern Ireland. Some new impetus was given to the CDU in parliament by the election of Gerry Fitt as Republican Labour for West Belfast in March 1966 , who then worked closely with the campaign in their efforts to get Wilson to act on Northern Ireland.

Events in the summer of 1966 momentarily thrust the six counties into the headlines and provoked some British newspapers into taking a hard look at what was happening there. On 7th May an elderly Protestant woman, Mrs Gould, was killed in a petrol bomb attack on a Catholic pub next door to her home. Three weeks later a Catholic man named John Scullion was shot in Clonard Street off the Falls Road and later died of his wounds (the intended victim had been well known Republican Leo Martin). On 26th June Loyalist gunmen shot three Catholic barman from the International Hotel as they left a public house in Malvern Street, killing a young man named Peter Ward. The three killings had been carried out by a group formed by Gusty Spence (a former soldier and shipyard worker) which had taken the historic name of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Nearly thirty years later on 13th October 1994 Spence announced the Loyalist ceasefire in response to the IRA ceasefire announced several months earlier.

On 3rd July, to coincide with a royal visit to Northern Ireland, the Sunday Times published a hard-hitting article compiled by its Insight team of investigative journalists, entitled John Bull’s Political Slum. “When the flags and bunting are hauled down after the Royal visit,” it began, “Mr Wilson’s government will still be confronted with a sharp alternative; whether to use reserve powers to bring elementary social justice to Ulster or simply allow Britain’s most isolated province to work out its own bizarre destiny. During the 45 years since partition the latter has often been negligently adopted with what looks like disastrous results.” The article went on to document political gerrymandering and high levels of Catholic unemployment and emigration and noted that the new Ulster town of Craigavon was going to be built in a Protestant area between Portadown and Lurgan, while the new University was going to the Protestant town of Coleraine and not Derry, the second city and natural choice.

In October Spence and another two other man were sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders. Press interest in Northern Ireland, momentarily aroused, swiftly waned.

As papers released from Stormont under the thirty years rule now reveal that behind the scenes Wilson and Home Secretary Roy Jenkins were putting some pressure on Terence O’Neill to introduce one person one vote and to abolish the business vote. At a meeting at Downing Street in January 1967 with O’Neill, Craig and Faulkner, Wilson referred to the increasing unwillingness of Labour backbenchers to accept the convention that matters transferred to Stormont could not be raised or discussed in the House of Commons, while Roy Jenkins emphasised that gerrymandering in places like Derry and the local government vote would soon come under fire from Labour MPs. They also referred to the deputations on Northern Ireland that Jenkins had received. It seems that as a result of the CDU campaign the Labour government was becoming exercised about matters in the Six Counties but was not prepared to publicly pressurise the Unionists to reform.

By June 1968 the central committee of the CDU were forced to conclude that the campaign had run out of steam. Only four members of the central committee attended meetings regularly and only three constituency Labour parties remained affiliated. They had not succeeded in getting a resolution on Northern Ireland to the party conference whilst a public meeting in Kilburn in April had only attracted 20 people, despite a large amount of flyposting. Paddy Byrne presented a bleak assessment of how things stood. “In short no mass movement has developed and there is no indication that one will”, for in his view the British left were “far too concerned to save socialism from extinction than to bother about Ulster, about which the mass of British people know little, care less.

Paul Rose, who acted as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Castle between 1966 and 1968, later claimed that after his visit to the six counties in 1967, she asked why a young man like him was concerned about Northern Ireland, “’What about Vietnam? What about Rhodesia?’ I just looked at her with incomprehension and said ‘You’ll see when they start shooting one another’. She was totally oblivious to this. I think their priorities were focused on other things to the extent that they were totally blinded as to what was going on in their own backyard”. Perhaps it was not so surprising that two years later, on 14th August 1969, Barbara Castle wrote in her diary that she “was astonished to learn from the news that British troops have moved into Derry”.

Speaking in a debate on Northern Ireland in the House of commons on 22 April 1969 (just before Bernadette Devlin made her maiden speech) Paul Rose said:

“The events in Northern Ireland this weekend are a classic illustration of unheeded warnings from my hon. Friends on this side of the House. An almost uncontrollable situation has developed because too little has been done too late.
“In the debate on Northern Ireland on 22nd February, 1965, before this situation had developed, I then advocated the setting up of a Royal Commission to investigate the grievances in Northern Ireland.
“Alas, the time for Royal Commissions is past. And the fault lies largely with hon. Gentlemen opposite from Northern Ireland, who on that occasion flatly refused to acknowledge that there was any cause for concern or anxiety at all about civil rights and discrimination in Northern Ireland. They were rightly concerned with the potato subsidy. The hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) informed the House that 36% of the nation’s pigs come from Northern Ireland. But not a word about discrimination or civil rights. We also faced the convention of non-interference, a convention which in that debate prompted my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr Delargy) to ask you, Mr. Speaker, what, apart from Short Brothers and Harland and Wolff, we could mention in a debate on Northern Ireland.
That convention is dead. It was killed when my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr Fitt) was seen by millions of television viewers, his head streaming with blood after a vicious batoning while surrounded by a group of members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.”

In 1970 Rose wrote a book called The Manchester Martyrs: a Fenian Tragedy, which was published by Lawrence & Wishart. He acknowledged the help given to him by Tom Redmond and Jimmy McGill (both members of the Connolly Association in Manchester). It was well written and readable account of the episode aimed at a general audience. Interestingly there was no mention of his involvement in Irish affairs in the introduction.

Rose left the Commons in 1979 and returned to the law, eventually becoming a Coroner and Deputy Circuit Judge.

Article by Michael Herbert

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

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