Archives reveal the railway and miners' strikes a century ago

A Century of Discontent: Archives reveal how strike-hit Britain suffered from pay disputes, food shortages and violent clashes 100 years ago in scenes that are VERY familiar today

  • Period between the First and Second World War was marked by economic difficulties that are similar to today
  • The country’s first national rail strike came in the summer of 1911 and involved 200,000 workers
  • In 1919, another rail strike occurred after Government announced plans to reduce the rates of pay for workers
  • In 1921, the collection of that year’s national census had to be delayed when striking miners wreaked havoc 

Today’s strike by more than 50,000 rail and Tube workers have brought travel misery to millions.

In what marks the biggest railway walkout in 30 years, workers have downed tools over demands for an 11 per cent pay rise. 

But more than a century ago, strikes caused food shortages and led to violent clashes between police and workers.

In parallel to today, the period between the First and Second World War was marked by economic difficulties, labour and supply shortages, high inflation and a cost-of-living crisis.

The country’s first national rail strike came in the summer of 1911 and involved 200,000 of the country’s 600,000 railway workers. 

Bloody clashes ensued across the country. A mass meeting of 85,000 people outside Liverpool Lime Street’s station was charged by police with bayonets, and 350 people were injured during the violence in an incident dubbed ‘Bloody Sunday’.

In 1919, another rail strike occurred after the Government announced plans to reduce the rates of pay for workers.

And in 1921, the collection of that year’s national census had to be delayed when striking miners wreaked havoc. 

When the census finally was returned, one respondent – a labourer at a mine near Leeds – lamented that he had done ‘no sort of work’ since he and his comrades ‘were locked out for reduction of wages’. 

Five years later, the 1926 General Strike crippled the country as 1.7million workers from an array of industries downed tools.  

More than a century ago, strikes caused food shortages and led to violent clashes between police and workers. Above: Colliery workers ahead of miners’ strikes in 1921, which caused the national census to be delayed for the first and only time in history

A lorry load of special constables who have been called up for duty, driving to Lots Road, Fulham, to guard the local power station during strikes in 1919

In 1921, the collection of that year’s national census had to be delayed when striking miners wreaked havoc. When the census finally was returned, one respondent (above) – a labourer at a mine near Leeds – lamented that he had done ‘no sort of work’ since he and his comrades ‘were locked out for reduction of wages’

Records show how one family – John Brain and his two sons, aged just 14 and 16 – had downed tools from their roles at the Tredegar Iron & Coal Company in Monmouthshire, Scotland. It employed more than 4,500 people. They simply wrote ‘on strike’ on the census form when listening their occupations

The British strike of 1911 lasted three days, from August 17 until August 19. 

The Government used troops to ensure the railway lines remained running. 

However, the Daily Mail reported at the time how 500,000 tonnes of food that should have been delivered around the country was stuck in London because of the strike. 

The national railways strike in 1919 lasted for nine days. The government eventually agreed to maintain wages for another year.  

During the strikes, the Ministry of Food was forced to implement an emergency road transport system to prevent food shortages.

What was known as the Divisional Food Commissions Order was enacted giving government representatives the power to take possession of ‘all horses and road vehicles’ for transportation of goods around the country 

Newspapers from 1919 showed how volunteers were called on to help keep national services running during the unrest. Stations were so quiet that they were described as being like ‘cities of the dead’.

The Daily Mirror announced on their front page that they were dispatching the newspaper with the help of aeroplanes, due to the fact that most trains were out of action. 

The British strike of 1911 lasted three days, from August 17 until August 19. The Government used troops to ensure the railway lines remained running. Above: Soldiers escorting coal carts during the strike

Huge queues of travellers are seen waiting at Paddington Station on the first morning of the strikes in 1911

Photos also showed how citizens in London did rally to the volunteer call, with some seen being enrolled as special constables in the Metropolitan Police. 

Many respondents to the 1921 census were on strike when the poll was taken. 

Records show how one family – John Brain and his two sons, aged just 14 and 16 – had downed tools from their roles at the Tredegar Iron & Coal Company in Monmouthshire, Scotland. It employed more than 4,500 people.

They simply wrote ‘on strike’ on the census form when listening their occupations. 

However, the months of the miners’ strike in 1921 became known as ‘Black Friday’, due to the fact that the leaders of transport and rail unions decided not to support the striking miners. 

Up to that point, the main unions from the three industries had been part of what was known as the Triple Alliance since 1914. 

The miners’ strike on its own did still lead to the declaration of a state of emergency by the Government and the delaying by two months of the census. 

The miners finally returned to work in July 1921, when they were forced to concede their demands. 

Five years later, Britain saw its first and only General Strike, which lasted for nine days and was called by the Trade Union Congress over poor working conditions and low pay. 

The Daily Mail reported during the miners’ strike in 1921 how office staff had stepped in to keep collieries going 

A photo collage shows striking workers, stranded travellers, and lorries being filled with milk for babies in London

Last-minute negotiations with prime minister Stanley Baldwin’s government were called off after the Daily Mail’s printers refused to print an editorial criticising the proposed strike as a ‘revolutionary move’.

The workers participating in the strike – around 1.7million people – included railway workers, dockers and steelworkers.

Thousands of volunteers and special constables tried to replace the lost labour, and after nine days the TUC admitted defeat and called off the action.

Once again the RAF was drafted in during the 1926 General Strike to provide support. Pictured: delivering the mail by RAF plane

Wirral Colliery at Neston, just before the General Strike on 1926. Wirral miners were the first to come out when the employers cut their wages

The General Strike of 1926 was one of the largest in history, with 1.5 million workers on strike. Pictured: Herbert Smith (centre, wearing cap) President of the Miners Federation, with fellow trade unionists. Circa 5th May 1926

Mary McKee, head of content publishing operations at Findmypast, said: ‘There are clear parallels between the strikes proposed today and what we saw 100 years ago, with the strikes set to cause major disruption to national events like Glastonbury and Wimbledon.

‘100 years ago, the strikes were declared a national emergency and even caused the collection of the 1921 Census of England and Wales to be postponed; the first and only time a national census was delayed.

‘When the 1921 Census was finally taken on 19 June 1921, the frustration of individuals involved was evident in the many spoiled returns, giving a unique human perspective on this turbulent time. 

‘With no Twitter or Facebook, many turned to their Census records to vent their frustration at the situation and Government – the extent of which wasn’t fully realised until the recent reveal of the individual 1921 Census returns earlier this year.’

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