Liverpool and the 1911 General Transport Strike
Mass strikes, troops sent onto the streets, protestors getting shot, gunboats being sent up the Mersey with the guns positioned on the City itself, and the country seemingly on the verge of revolution it is a period despite all this instability that is hardly ever scrutinised with information about that era hard to come by.
Nevertheless it is a story that sounds eerily familiar in the sense of wages failing to keep up with the rising cost of living, poor workers rights and contempt for Trade Unions. Poverty was also rife despite Liverpool being the second richest City behind London. In short people were struggling to live and simply wanted a decent standard of living.
The initial seeds of discontent broke out amongst miners in the Rhonda mining areas of South Wales which later became known as the Tonypandy riots. Miners went on strike over the poor working conditions. This was inflamed even more by the lockout at the Ely Pit in Penygraig on September the 1st 1910. Miners were accused of deliberately working slow, when it was the new equipment that slowed them down.
Mass picketing was organised with all mines being shut apart from the Llywnypia pit which resulted in the Tonypandy riots. Trouble had broken out when miners tried to prevent strike breakers from entering. This resulted in miners being forced into Tonypandy square with the controversial decision by Winston Churchill to send in troops. Further rioting broke out within the area with the 18th Hussars being dispatched on the 9th November to quell the trouble. There was one casualty Samuel Rhys who died after being struck by a Policeman’s baton.
Sadly the miners were forced back to work in August 1911 but it resulted in further strikes with the miners gaining success when they striked in 1912.
The 1911 Transport Strike
In Liverpool the general transport strike stoked up a huge amount of unrest that led to yet another infamous decision by Winston Churchill.
It started with the seaman’s national strike with a huge demonstration by the TWF Union demonstration taking place in Liverpool May 11th 1911.
With the strike strongly supported the companies had to agree new terms with the union. Encouraged by this the dockers who also went on strike with yet again companies having to agree better working hours and pay.
It was the Transport strike during August that was to see matters escalate even further and near pushed the country to revolution. This incidentally was a national dispute with the railways going out on strike. This in turn was supported by dockers and other transport workers that saw the transportation of goods being brought to a grinding halt.
Tensions were rising with the shipping companies stating that the docker’s were in breach of their contract and declaring a lockout. To add fuel to the fire they also tried to call the military in as strike breakers.
For the authorities they were in essence alarmed at what they saw as a virus of support for the strike and were determined to stop it before it spread even more. Consequently when a mass demonstration at St. George’s Plateau in the City centre was planned (the prominent Trade Unionist Tom Mann was speaking) they quickly added troops and extra Police from other parts of the country. To feed the hysteria even more Winston Churchill sent a gunboat HMS Antrim up the Mersey with its guns facing the City. Another gunboat incidentally was also sent up the Mersey.
Looking back at the photos of the 13th August 1911 with the masses of people thronging the plateau it reminds you of the Arab Spring protests. As you look at the faces it dawns on you that these are ordinary people. All with their own hopes and dreams, skills, family and their own stories to tell. But above all though, it was a show of solidarity, of wanting steady work, better wages and living conditions plus a better future for their children which in some respects would be us.
Reading Fred Bower’s account of workers marching from all over Liverpool must have shaken the establishment. ‘From Orange Garston, Everton and Toxteth Park, from Roman Catholic Bootle and the Scotland Road area they came. Forgotten were their religious feuds. The Garston band had walked five miles and their drum major proudly whirled his sceptre twined with orange and green ribbon.’
‘Never in the history of this or any other country had the majority and might of the humble toiler been so displayed. A wonderful spirit of humour and friendliness permeated the atmosphere.’
On all accounts it was a nice hot sunny day. Indeed you can imagine marching with the other thousands feeling proud and excited. After all this is your chance to air your voice that you want steady employment, a decent wage and decent hours. Tom Mann a prominent orator is about to speak about your cause. It is a jovial and friendly atmosphere.
Then there is maybe a sound of alarm amongst the crowd. You look around puzzled only to be alarmed as Police on horseback charge indiscriminately. Chaos ensues as people try to flee to safety.
There are no records of why the Police decided to charge a peaceful crowd which resulted in a mass panic with 186 people being hospitalised and 95 arrests.
Fred reports how after the carnage caused by the Police that it resembled a battlefield with wounded men, women, and children, lying singly in heaps over a vast area.
One record states that the Pathe Picture people had been taking a moving picture of the charge. Somehow they got away with the negatives but Pathe were warned by the Government that under no circumstances were the pictures to be shown in public knowing a public outcry would ensue.
More disturbances broke out that night but rather than try to stem the damage already caused with Bloody Sunday the authorities continued to try to break the strike by bring in over 50,000 troops across the country and using brutal force. Troops even opened fire on civilians in Great Homer Street but far worse was to follow.
Following Bloody Sunday a convoy of prisoners who had been arrested on that day were being escorted by thirty-two soldiers of the 18th Hussars on horseback fully armed with live ammunition along with mounted Police. A magistrate was also present carrying a copy of the riot act. However before it could be even read a disturbance broke out on Vauxhall road with troops opening fire, injuring five people, two fatally. The victims were John W. Sutcliffe and a twenty-nine year old docker Michael Prendergast. Five days later, on the 19th August two more civilians were shot by troops in Llanelli. These are the last occasions in history when British soldiers have killed civilians on the streets of mainland Britain.
By now the situation was at breaking point not just in Liverpool but right across the country. Birmingham Police who had been dispatched to Liverpool had now been recalled back home to deal with disturbances there and due to the railway strike had to march the 40 miles to get a train to take them to Birmingham. Soldiers were also starting to desert rather than fire on their fellow-man.
The Government was shocked to the core as the dispute was steadily getting out of hand. Anymore fatalities or disturbances for that matter could be the powder keg to it erupting into full revolt.
It was with this point of view that Lloyd George persuaded the Prime Minister Asquith to call in the railway owners and force them to quickly come to a swift settlement with the Trade Unions. Not surprisingly the Unions won the concessions for their members to bring an end to a very troubled but united strike.
Despite calls for a public enquiry into the fatal shootings in Liverpool and Llanelli the Government did their best to sweep it under the carpet. Parliament adjourned on the 22nd August so further questions could not be raised whilst it was still fresh in people’s minds. Churchill himself (as Home Office files later revealed) ensured that minimum publicity was given to the Court Martial of a Llanelli soldier who had refused to fire on civilians and had deserted on the spot.
Not many people probably realise how unsettled that period actually was. This though is the history of ordinary people.
They shaped history by fighting for decent working conditions and a fair wage. Furthermore they also wanted better living conditions. All of our working rights such as maternity, the minimum wage, maximum working hours, various health and safety legislation are all thanks to people like those who took part in the 1911 strikes.
In turn it could be argued that they led the way into ensuring better housing was provided for people as well as the establishment of the NHS. After all the establishment were well aware of what working class power could achieve and probably viewed it as best to give in to some concessions. Nevertheless it is a fascinating part of history that should be discussed so that we can not only paint a true picture but find out how we got here today.