It seems incredulous now to think that the Police would go on strike, but it was this period that ensured that no Police Officer can join a Trade Union. The dispute also had an ulterior motive for Lloyd George who wanted to make sure that the Government had full control over the Police and would not be at their mercy if they went on strike or supported other disputes. Another added incentive was to rid the ranks of those who they believed held Bolshevik sentiments.
This had all come to the fore during the last two months of the first world war when the Police went on strike in August 1918 for better pay and conditions. ‘We Policemen see young van boys and slips of girls earning very much more than what we get,’ said one Policeman to the Guardian ‘and, well, it makes us feel very sore.’
Despite it being a sackable offence there were many Police Officers who had joined the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO) which was formed in 1913. In its early years it operated as a secret society but with disgruntlement over wages failing to keep up with inflation, pensions, terms and conditions it made them organised and vocal.
The senior figures within the Police force decided that the best way of ending any potential trouble was to make an example of any union activity. When PC Thiel was openly vocal about fighting for better wages and conditions he was sacked. Rather than his fellow officers toeing the line they walked out in support of Thiel and to make a stand over their grievances. In London twelve thousand Police Officers had walked out when the strike had been called.
Due to the seriousness of the dispute Lloyd George had to come back from the front in France. With the country still at war the last thing that the Government needed was a breakdown in law and order especially with the troops still at the front. He agreed to their demands of reinstating PC Thiel, as well as an increase in pay but was carefully misleading in their requests for official union recognition.
Instead Lloyd George told them that ‘the government cannot recognise a union for the police in wartime.’ They took this to mean that a union would be in peace time rather than gaining confirmation that it would be when the war was over.
For many in the establishment it was a danger if the Police became unionised. Not only was there the fear that the Police may come out in support of other strikers if they became members of the TUC and the Labour party but might also encourage the army and navy for union recognition.
For the state to keep control it needed the Police and army at its side without worrying about their loyalty. Hence the reason why Lloyd George and his government sought to break any trade union activity.
The first roll of the dice for Lloyd George was appointing General Neville Macready as the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. An army man, Macready also detested trade unions and was seen as the perfect man to get rid of any dissenters. In 1910 he had been sent to take control of the armed forces and the local police force to put down the strike in South Wales.
Lloyd George’s next move was to set up the Desborough committee which was tasked into looking at the pay and working conditions of the Police force.
In June 1919 the Lord Desborough committee recommended an increase pay for all and free housing. As an afterthought but quite clearly a move to replace the union he recommended that a body similar to a staff association be set up to represent the views of Police Officers.
The Government announced that they intended to implement the recommendations by introducing the Police Act. Once this was passed then it would be a sackable offence for Police Officers to be a member of a union as well as going on strike.
However, the Government offered a sweetener to giving up their rights to join a trade union by allowing Police Officers to retire on half-pay after twenty-five years’ service to add onto the increase of wages that had also been agreed.
For NUPPO it left them no choice. It was either accepting the terms but give up trade union recognition and disband. It was a case of fight or die for NUPPO. A national Police strike was therefore called for the 31st July 1919 with the hope that its members would believe that trade union recognition was a matter worth fighting for.
Although membership for NUPPO had increased quite considerably after the 1918 dispute it was the government who felt that they were in a stronger position than they were the year before. With the offer of better wages and conditions in lieu of surrendering their right to join a union and strike the Government relied on this for the majority of Police Officers to accept.
The stakes were further raised with a carrot and a stick approach as the government announced that any Police Officer going out on strike would face instant dismissal. Furthermore, all pension rights would also be forfeited. However, to get them to think the ‘right way,’ the Government arranged that all Police Officers would be given an advance on their increase pay, that very week, of £10 each.
The strike was a disaster. For many Police Officers they had got what they wanted in terms of better wages and conditions without the need to strike. Added to which the loss of pension rights was too much to risk and were quite happy for the proposed Police body to represent their interests.
Another success for the government wasn’t just ensuring the loyalty and support of the Police but ridding them of the left-wing agitators who they felt were undermining their authority. However, there was only one city were the strike was highly supported and would cause significant problems and that was the second biggest city of the country, Liverpool.
Due to the unrest during the past year there was understandable concern about what might happen with the lack of Policemen if the strike was well supported in Liverpool. Not only that, but eight years earlier the Transport Strike had brought Liverpool to a virtual standstill and at the mercy of the strike committee. With the recent events with the mutinies that had taken place in the army, there was a fear that those with a political agenda might see this as an opportunity and use Liverpool’s position as the second city to attempt a revolution.
The reasons why the Liverpool Police strike was widely supported was not due to trade union recognition, but other conditions imposed on them by the watch committee. Pay was of course on the agenda but there was resentment from the junior ranks over the strict discipline that was enforced. Every day when called for parade they were marched around like soldiers on the drill square.
Another complaint was that despite being on low pay, the watch committee insisted that they should live in the ‘better off,’ areas of the city. As these were expensive places to reside in, they were expected to live a middle-class lifestyle on a labourers’ wage.
Like the other Police forces across the country the local watch committee on the day the strike was to commence, warned that if no Police Constable reported for parade by eight pm then they would be dismissed by the force. It was enough for some to report but more than half of the Liverpool Constables failed to show up for duty.
As word broke out that the Police were heavily depleted the mayhem started. There had been trouble previously but many saw it as an opportunity to show the authorities what they thought of them whilst taking advantage of taking goods to either sell or use. Simon Webb illustrates this in 1919 the year of revolution by saying ‘it was a spontaneously outpouring of anger, with a strong business edge.’
The authorities thought that by enrolling special constables who were sworn in and issued batons would be enough to deter any would be rioters. Not surprisingly the rag tag men of shopkeepers and businessmen was not enough to stop the riots that did break out. It wasn’t just lacking in numbers but training in dealing with violent crowds. At one point while a shop was being looted a special constable stood like a hapless goalkeeper as rioters swooped past him to take what they wanted from a shop.
Scotland Road, Byrom Street and Great Homer Street was where the main trouble started. Clothes shops, jewellers and pawnbrokers were the main targets as the looting spread across the city.
With no sign of the rioting and looting being contained with the broken windows and debris strewn about the street, like an invasion, the government resorted to calling in the troops. Not only that and to ensure that they meant business the super-dreadnought HMS Valiant was ordered to sail straight to Liverpool. Weighing in at 29,150 tons it was as long as London’s BT tower and with its eight 15in guns, twelve 6in guns and four torpedo tubes it was a match for any ship in the world. It set sail with two destroyers heading to Liverpool after getting permission from Winston Churchill.
There was a practical side for a naval task force so that the sailors could secure the docks and protect the docks from rioters. On the second night of the disturbances the dock gates had been set on fire. However, the other reason was to show the occupants of Liverpool that the government would use any force necessary to subdue the city.
It even led to the government of sending in troops with full battle kit on. Not only that but like Glasgow earlier in the year tanks were also sent to patrol the streets of the city. It was quite a surreal sight to see soldiers and tanks roaming the street in what was meant to be peace time. There was an unreal sense of being occupied and wondering what would happen next. Would the troops open fire on civilians, would tanks be used to smash the crowds?
It was enough to quell any disturbances during the day, but trouble reared its head on Saturday night as a jewellers’ window was smashed by the Rotunda theatre. An extract from Pat O’Mara ‘autobiography of a Liverpool slummy’ gives a vivid account of the looting.
“The bobbies were on strike! There were no bobbies! That could only mean one thing, and that thing happened. I was coming out of the Daulby Hall with Jackie Sanchez (having mooched the entrance fee from him) at the time when the first fever caught on. We went across the street to Skranvinsky’s chip-and-fish shop and listened to speculations over this new and strange strike. As we stood in the crowd a couple of bucks walked in, ordered in some chips and fish and refused to pay for them, suggesting to the hysterical Mrs Skranvinsky that she “get a bloody bobby!” Then they walked out, followed by others not yet paid up, who had taken the hint. Some leaned across the counter and grabbed handfuls of chips and fish and scallops, and without waiting to salt them, continued brazenly out into the street. Only Mrs Skravinsky’s screams kept those on the outside at bay.”
“There were no bobbies! We were outside. On the corners here and there stood the bobbies, grimly passive and, to signify the fact, with no official labels on their arms. Excited groups of hooligans eyed them wonderingly. A jewelry window just down London Road crashed in, and as bobbies smiled wonder vanished from the hooligans. Another window crashed in. It was the Lusitania all over again (in 1915 after the passenger ship the Lusitania was sank, riots broke out in an expression of anti-German feeling) only much more intense, since now there was no restraining hand at all. Hands were out grasping through the jewelry store windows. Inside other stores whose windows were bash in, respectable-looking men and women joined with slummies to gather up loot and flee homeward. Every store with anything worth steeling was broken into and the furnishings wrecked in the frenzy to get the best stuff available. I did not have anything like good luck until Ben Hyde’s pawnshop farther down London Road was reached. After the windows were bashed in, the place was ransacked, lockers pulled out, pledged articles tucked into aprons. I got hold of a couple of muffs that struck me, in my innocence, as very expensive things and once outside, fearing the riot would be short lived, I skipped away from Jackie, tucked two precious furs under my coat, and sped along the comparatively quiet streets for home.”
Soldiers were rushed to the scene as a stand-off between them and the rioters ensued. A magistrate tried to read the riot act, but this was jeered and ignored. With the crowd getting more hostile and fearing that they were going to be overwhelmed the soldiers fired warning shots over the heads of the rioters.
That may have been enough to quieten down that area, but the troops were still stretched. So much so that like the specials previously, some soldiers stood helplessly by as looters stormed a clothes shop and took their booty like a Viking raid on tour. One report mentions of men bringing a horse and cart and robbing a shop of its entire stock. In Birkenhead the riot act was read by a magistrate in an armoured car as trouble spread over the water.
Despite the special constables being effective as a cat flap in an elephant house, the mayor sent an appeal to be read out at every Sunday church service for all able-bodied men to sign up as special constables for the month.
To make matters worse a bakers’ strike had begun with the tram drivers now threatening to go out for better pay and conditions. Added to which the railway men were also considering in going out to support the Police strike.
In a move that would have made the government even more twitchy and wonder if it was a secret Bolshevik plot to overthrow the state, the local branch of the Labour party passed a resolution for a general strike ‘that the Liverpool Trade Unionists declare common cause with the National Association of Police and Prison Officers, and that in order to give immediate and necessary assistance a down tools be herewith declared. All trade unionists of this district are agreed to cease work at once on account of the attack made by the government on trade unionism.’
Even with the added presence of troops on the street and warships it still wasn’t enough to deter the rioters who were growing increasingly bolder. On the Sunday a brewery in Love lane was looted with men getting drunk on the beer. So much so that they did not notice a truck load of soldiers who had been dispatched to restore order.
A rumour had spread that the soldiers did not have live ammunition as the crowd became more hostile even though troops fired a warning shot. This led to a man called Thomas Hewlett grabbing hold of a soldier’s rifle and in the ensuing tug of war the rifle went off and fatally wounded Hewlett in the thigh as he died in hospital the following day.
Elsewhere in the city, stones were thrown at troops as matters became increasingly volatile as looting continued across the city. In one area troops fired on the crowd with one man being taken to hospital with a bullet wound to his neck.
By nightfall a large crowd started to congregate by St. George’s Hall by where the tanks were stationed. Looting had begun again along London road with the soldiers firing over the rioters’ heads as Police and special constables’ baton charged the crowd.
Fighting between the rioters and soldiers continued with a crowd charging two soldiers by Christian street. Warning shots were fired and with a body of Police Officers on the scene they launched a baton charge that managed to drive the crowd away.
It was reaching a critical condition as rioting and looting continued that the army set up a Lewis gun in London road. This showed the nervousness and the battle for control that the authorities deemed it necessary to set up a gun that was aimed along the length of the street so that they could fire right up and down the road. No matter that rioting and looting had taken place it was a frightening and sobering thought that the authorities were willing to fire on civilians. Paranoia it seemed was haunting the government that this was the start of a revolution.
Over in Birkenhead the troops had managed to just about to secure the docks to stop any fear that any saboteurs would sabotage any machinery. Troops were even stationed around Birkenhead town hall when a rumour spread that rioters were going to burn it to the ground.
The tram strike on the Monday went ahead which caused vast disruption as the majority of workers relied on the trams to get to work. Added to which there was still the prospect of the railway workers going out on strike to support the striking Policemen. To make the government even more twitchy at whether there was an uprising on the cards the Liverpool District Vigilance Committee had been set up.
A change in tactics also saw soldiers being relieved of their full kit and rather than carrying a rifle were issued pickaxe handles. Parts of Liverpool were called off limits to prevent further trouble. However, it was to be the weather and the heavy rain that stopped people congregating that following Monday night.
It was enough to put an end to the rioting and looting as it started to fizzle out. Over four hundred people were charged with looting or rioting. With regards to the Police strike, there was a recruitment drive to replace the Police Constables who had gone on strike. Not one man was reinstated with some having to leave the city to find work. Adverts by local firms made it specifically clear that any Police Officers who were dismissed need not apply. The figures state that 955 were sacked.
Sellwood of the Police strike 1919 (printed 1978) gives a vivid picture of the former Police officers having to return their uniform which they did by piling it up outside St. George’s Hall. ‘The uniforms started to pile up a mass of blue/black serge often interrupted by splashes of colour. Campaign ribbon medals above the tunic’s left breast pocket bore witness to the meticulous years of service given to the city and the country that the former wearers had given.’
For Lloyd George and his government, the strike had purged the Police of any unsavoury and suspected Bolshevik supporters. It also ensured that the state would always have control over the Police and even now it is illegal for a Police Officer to strike or join a trade union. There is of course a Police association where Officers can put forward their grievances, but they are not in the position to enter an industrial dispute. In short Lloyd George had ruthlessly shown his hand in curbing any further threats the Police Union NAPPO may have had.