The General Strike of 1926 brought much of Britain to a halt. This is the story of how industrial Middlesbrough was affected.
On 4 May 1926, millions of workers throughout the UK downed tools to support coal miners who had been “locked out” for refusing to accept lower wages and longer working hours.
Factories fell silent, trains and trams stayed idle, and there were no newspapers to be found. Nationally and locally, trade union officials began to establish an administrative network to control the strike, with permits issued to those carrying out essential tasks and pickets mobilised to bring those still working out in solidarity. On the streets, the police and army – some in tanks – were mobilised in an attempt to keep the country running and intimidate the masses back to work.
But with Britain close to the brink of revolution, the General Council of the Trades Union Congress lost its nerve and on 12 May and ordered a return to work. Many people were forced to return on worse terms and conditions than had existed before the strike, while the miners remained in dispute until November before they were effectively starved back to work.
In the wake of the strike, the government cracked down on trade unions with harsh new legislation designed to make their activities more difficult, while membership plummeted. Meanwhile, a trade union-funded investigation into local trades councils’ experiences during the strike revealed a near-disastrous state of unpreparedness.
Middlesbrough , one of the towns of the North East of England hardest hit by the years of economic depression, had been a centre of activity during the strike. With 45% unemployment in 1926, many of its inhabitants had little to lose. Some half dozen were arrested during riots which saw police baton-charge the crowds, and one man – a member of the strike committee and secretary of the local Communist Party – was sent to prison for two months for sedition.
As the union inquiry, carried out by Emile Burns of the Labour Research Department, discovered, however, the unions locally were so unprepared for confrontation that their efforts were severely hampered by the lack of a working typewriter.
The following account of organisation during the strike was submitted by the secretary of Middlesbrough Central Strike Committee – established by the local Trades Council – to Burns within weeks of the return to work.
Middlesbrough Central Strike Committee
The declaration of the General Strike found Middlesbrough Trades Council unprepared and without the necessary organised machinery for directing strike activities. In response to recommendations from several bodies, a Joint Meeting of the Executives of the Trades Council and the East, West and Borough Labour Parties was held on Tuesday the 4 th of May, and discussed the need for setting up a Publicity Committee to guard public opinion against misrepresentation of the industrial dispute by the Government and the employers’ forces throughout the country. The Joint Executives agreed to constitute themselves as the Publicity Committee and proceeded to arrange a series of outdoor meetings to be addressed on the General Strike situation by our various speakers. At the Trades Council Meeting on the 5 th May, the formation of this Publicity Committee was endorsed and steps were immediately taken to set up a Central Strike Committee, to be composed of the Trades Council Executive and two representatives from each Trade Strike Committee, which had already been formed.
The first meeting of the Central Strike Committee was held at the Labour Rooms, 88 Grange Road East, on Thursday 6 th May, at 3pm. The decision of the Trades Council re the forming of a Central Strike Committee was considered, and it soon became evident that centralised strike direction was not yet practical in Middlesbrough , owing to the fear on the part of some of the delegates that it would result in what was termed “domestic affairs of individual unions being interfered with”. The terms of the Trades Council resolution, however, were modified to meet the criticism by adding further words stating that the Central Strike Committee would not interfere with the domestic policy of any union, in any other than a constitutional way. Having regard to the discussion which took place on this point, it became evident that the Central Strike Committee could only hope to act as a co-ordinating and not a directional body at the outset, whatever may have been possible as the strike continued.
The reports received from the various delegates showed that in Middlesbrough the workers had responded most loyally to the General Council’s Strike call. It may safely be said that we have never known a strike entered upon with such enthusiasm and determination by the workers before. The principle of unity undoubtedly animated everybody, and the TUC [Trades Union Congress] General Council could depend upon the loyalty of the rank and file. Even those who had not been called out were eagerly waiting instructions from their ECs [Executive Committees] to down tools in order that they could take part in the great struggle on behalf of the miners. Various difficulties in bringing members of several unions out on strike were dealt with in our endeavours to maintain the united front.
The Central Strike Committee met daily at 3pm for a business meeting, whilst from 8am to 11pm various delegates arranged to be at the headquarters to deal with any emergency. The attendance of the delegates was not as good as it might have been, but this was no doubt due to the fact that the delegates were also members of their Trade Strike Committees, whose meetings they also had to attend.
The work of the Secretary rapidly increased, and it became necessary to appoint a Minute Secretary. Also, another room had to be engaged for secretarial work in connection with correspondence and dispatch riders. We had the valued assistance of 7 dispatch riders with motor cycles and side-cars, through whom we were able to establish connection with York, Darlington, Stockton, Haverton Hill, Hartlepool, Newcastle, South Bank, Grangetown, Recar, Loftus, Carlin How, Skelton, Brotton, Guisbrough, Great Ayton, Stokesley. Our headquarters were far from being suitable as an effective working centre. Little or no office equipment was available until the typewriter and duplicator, belonging to the Borough Labour Party, had been commandeered by the Secretary. Consequently, the issuing of Central Strike Committee bulletins was delayed and it was not until the strike had been called off that we were ready for issuing a regular daily Strike Bulletin. Towards the end of the strike we had the assistance of two shorthand typists from the Railway Clerks’ Association. We were also assisted by the staff at the offices of the Blast Furnacemen’s Union in issuing strike news and duplicating “Notes for Speakers.” TUC bulletins, which we received, were duplicated immediately after receipt and distributed to outlying strike committees, and also posted up on a number of display boards which we had secured at various points of the town.
The financial position of the Central Strike Committee has been materially helped by a grant which was received on the 7 th May from the Darlington and District Labour College (£7), whose chief concern in making the grant was to help the strikers in the great struggle, believing that success would be a tremendous educational force in bringing the working-class to a consciousness of their power. The expenses have exceeded this grant, and it has been decided to ask the Trades Council to meet the deficit. On the whole, the discussions which took place at the Central Strike Committee meetings while the strike was on were most orderly and instructive, and the experience should prove valuable to all the delegates.
On Wednesday, 12 th May, a report came that the strike had been called off by the TUC as a result of conversations with Sir H Samuel [chairman of the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry that had reported on the wages question in March 1926], and that instructions to return to work would be issued by the various Trade Union Executives. This method undoubtedly caused a certain amount of confusion and disappointed many who looked for an orderly return to work. Employers began to impose new conditions, with the result that the workers refused to start until they could be assured of pre-strike conditions.
Now that the General Strike was over, the unpreparedness of the Middlesbrough Trades Council was once again felt. The directing influence was lacking and each trade acted on its own. Workers were again approaching the employers in sections to secure a resumption of work on pre-strike terms. By sending out the strike instructions through the various Trade Union Executives, the TUC found it much easier to maintain a united withdrawal of labour than it was by the same method of procedure to secure a united resumption of labour. When a General Strike has been terminated, would it not be more practical if the question of securing re-instatement at the various works were under the control of the Central Strike Committee for each area? The bargaining power of the united front will be difficult to maintain under the method of each union approaching the employers separately.
The total number of strikers in this area was 10,964, and there were 3,250 Blast Furnacemen unemployed as a result of the strike. The conduct of the strikers was exemplary.
Source: The General Strike of 1926: trades councils in action, by Emile Burns (Labour Research Department. 1926)