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.
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”
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.
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