on the Mersey, riots in Wirral, and almost everyone refusing to work!
look at the role played by Merseysiders in the biggest strike the UK has
ever seen, and launches a new internet archive about those ten incredible
Ten Days in the Class War
Merseyside and the 1926 General Strike
It was just eighty years ago - within living memory - and it took place
on the streets where we walk every day, but it seems like a different
world. Merseyside came to an almost total standstill as workers downed
tools and joined together to fight against the rich and the government
that represented them.
Liverpool is a city that was built on its status as a slave port, and
its docks. While slavery was officially abolished two centuries ago, the
docks and accompanying trades were run by workers whose living conditions
were often almost as bad as their unpaid counterparts. By the beginning
of the 1900s, workers whose parents and grandparents had come from Ireland,
Scotland and Wales were beginning to put their religious differences aside
so that they could unite and fight for better pay. In 1911, a transport
strike brought together dockers, railway workers and sailors in a campaign
that paralysed business for most of the summer. Eight years later, following
the end of World War One, 95% of Liverpool’s police went on strike,
with the many returning soldiers in their ranks looking to be rewarded
for fighting abroad. They were supported by many more workers in the city,
who sensed this was a good chance to get the cops on their side. Before
the army was called in, there was widespread looting, and the Daily Post
described the area between London Road and Scotland Road as a ‘war
Even though the schoolbooks normally claim that the 1920s was a time
of great prosperity before the ‘great depression’ of the 1930s,
they are talking from the standpoint of the already wealthy. For the working
class, conditions were still very hard, and poor people were getting increasingly
angry about the ever-growing gulf between their lives and those of the
rich. It just needed one spark to set that anger off.
Ever since World War One, the coal industry had been declining in Britain,
but the mine owners had got very used to their lifestyles, and weren’t
prepared to give up a penny in profit. So they announced a plan to reduce
wages. This incensed the miners, and the working class generally saw it
as a sign of things to come. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin confirmed
their fears, when he told representatives of the miners that “all
the workers of this country have got to face a reduction of wages”.
It became obvious to many that there was a conflict between the rich who
didn’t have to work for a living and the poor who did. It was class
The government announced that they would pay the ‘extra’
wages of the miners while an inquiry looked into the future of mining.
When the inquiry backed the demands of the mine owners that wages should
be cut by between 10% and 25%, the gloves were off. On 1st May 1926 –
International Workers’ Day – the Trades Union Congress declared
that all their members should refuse to work, and declared a general strike
"in defence of miners' wages and hours".
Though the government had been drawing up battle plans for over a year
(stockpiling coal, passing various laws), the TUC was caught almost unprepared.
Strange though it may seem, many union leaders wanted to avoid a confrontation
more than the government did, and feared that revolution could break out,
throwing ‘moderate’ leaders out of power. J.R. Cleynes of
the General and Municipal Workers Union expressed this clearly, when he
said “I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I
fear is our own.”
government declared a state of emergency, and warships docked all around
the country. HMS Ramilies and HMS Barham lurked ominously in the Mersey,
while two battalions of troops were sent to Liverpool. Clearly, Britain’s
second largest port was of great strategic importance.
Workers on Merseyside were among the best organised. Local activists
had begun to set up a ‘council of action’ ten months before
the strike, and had established a reliable network of communication. This
was important, because most of the commercial presses had been stopped
or severely restricted, and the Council of Action needed to let people
know what was going on. Out of four million strikers, Merseyside provided
about one hundred thousand. On the second day, the Council of Action reported
that all engineers and shipyard workers on the Mersey were out. In Birkenhead
and Wallasey, a group of strikers attacked the trams and brought them
to a halt. Some people returned to work after a few days, while a strange
alliance of unemployed and rich people became ‘blacklegs’
and crossed picket lines. But generally the strike was solid, and would
probably have continued far beyond ten days, had the TUC leaders not negotiated
a return to work with the government.
‘Not a minute on the day, not a penny off the pay’ had been
the slogan of the miners, but the TUC agreed to all mine owners’
and the government’s demands. The only concession they asked for
was that the law would prevent any victimisation of the strikers. When
this was refused, the TUC obligingly ended the strike anyway. As a direct
consequence, several hundred workers in Liverpool’s flour milling
industry were sacked for their role in the strike.
The working class made some limited gains in the period after World War
Two, but governments since the mid 1970s have mounted a sustained attack
on pay, union and unemployment rights. Poverty levels have risen dramatically,
while health inequality is at levels not seen ‘since Victorian times’,
according to a 2005 report published by the British Medical Journal. So
why don’t millions of people go on strike these days? Well, in March
this year 1.5 million joined a strike against the government’s plans
to make people work longer for their pensions. Ok, so it was only one
day, but it was a start.
Liverpool is a very different city now compared to eighty years ago.
The types of jobs people do are more office or shop based, instead of
the heavy industry that used to dominate. But the essential character
of work is the same. You go in, do your time, and the rich get richer
off your back. In fact, workers get an even smaller share of the money
they bring in than in 1926. What would our city look like if everyone
stopped working and demanded change? It’s time to start imagining,
because things can’t carry on the way they are.
A timeline of events on Merseyside during the 1926 general strike can
Comment left by James Hanson on 8th January, 2011 at 18:53
Merseyside was only created, as both a county and a geographical location, in 1972.
It didn't exist in 1926.
The River Mersey covers 70 miles in length and has two sides, yet you seem to only mention Liverpool which covers a short length of one side only.