January 29, 2014

Shedding light on striking slides…

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/explorefurther/digital/sara/generalstrike

Lantern slideOver the past week or so we've been taking a break from the published strike bulletins and have started digitising a series of lantern slides. The glass slides (over 1,000) were used in the 1920s-1940s by the socialist activist and educator Henry Sara to illustrate his public talks on various social, political and historical subjects.

One of the subjects of his talks is the General Strike, and, as well as providing us with a great selection of images, it is also interesting to see how the strike was presented to a left-wing audience several years after its conclusion (the talk probably dates from around 1933).

Rather than buy ready-made slides, Sara created his own using images from newspapers, magazines and other publications that he had collected, so that the illustrations would exactly match his argument.

After putting the General Strike in the context of earlier examples of radical protest (from the 1381 Peasants' Revolt onwards), Sara focuses particularly on media reporting of the strike, and the role (and social status) of strike-breaking volunteers, the police and military. The slide on the left shows Oxford undergraduates working the trams in London - not exactly dressed like your usual tramwayman.

Henry Sara's General Strike lecture concludes with an image of a recruiting poster for the British Army and an extract from a speech made by the Prince of Wales in Mansfield (a coal mining area) in 1933: "I always say to young men that the best thing they can do is join the army". In the year that Hitler came to power in Germany, Sara gives his General Strike speech a topical twist by linking increased unemployment in mining areas, caused partly by the General Strike and miners' lock-out, to the current issue of increasing militarisation and rearmament.

January 10, 2014

Interesting times…

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/explorefurther/digital/gs

Polish coupIt probably shouldn't be a surprise, given the problems after the First World War, but one thing that comes across in the General Strike bulletins is that, compared to much of the rest of Europe, Britain was an oasis of calm in May 1926. In amongst the acres of coverage of the British strike (and the cricket results - Australia were thrashing assorted English teams), there are short paragraphs of foreign news which included:

Poland: There were three different Polish Prime Ministers in May. During this month a military coup by Marshal Józef Piłsudski overthrew the government, fighting resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people, and a general strike was called.

Germany: There was a government crisis over an attempt by President von Hindenburg to introduce a Monarchist flag, the whole Cabinet resigned, and a new government and Chancellor of Germany was appointed.

Hungary: There was an ongoing trial in Budapest of the police chief, M. Nadossy, and Prince Windischgratz for forgery. Their "patriotic" reason for forging the money was to raise money for a proposed fascist coup against the government (they had contacted Hitler in Germany regarding the plot).

France: Violent rioting by Royalists in Paris was triggered by police restrictions on Joan of Arc demonstrations. More than 100 policemen were reported to have been injured.

Soviet Union: Three officials were shot by the Cheka for speculating on foreign currency.

December 20, 2013

Horse play

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/explorefurther/digital/gs

Railway horses being tended by volunteersThe incomplete transition from horse power to the motor engine is noticeable in some of the reports on the General Strike. The trams and buses are no longer horse powered, motor cars and motorcycles clog the streets of London and convey messages across the country, and yet horses were still a key industrial 'resource'.

Questions were asked in parliament about the welfare of the horses owned by the railway companies (used to pull wagons which transported goods to and from the trains) - Lord Banbury, during discussion of his union-restricting Trades Disputes Bill, claimed that strikers had left Great Western Railway horses unfed and unwatered for 24 hours, the company quickly responded by saying that "their horses have not missed a single meal since the strike began".

Coal mines kept pit ponies - small animals to haul coal in the mineshafts - which were normally kept permanently underground (meaning that time - and therefore money - wasn't spent transporting them to and from the pit). In some mining areas the ponies were brought above ground and saw daylight for the first time in years during the strike. At Barnsley, "a local magnate said they would be having pit pony races before long. They would erect a temporary grand-stand, bookmakers would come in from neighbouring towns and a definite event would be made of the races. The ponies, or some of them, are seeing the light of day for the first time since the last mine stoppage." Horses were used in British mines until surprisingly recently - the last two pit ponies were made redundant in 1999.

December 06, 2013

Keep calm and carry on…

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/explorefurther/digital/gs

Dos for difficult daysYes, that phrase cropped up during the general strike - not on a variety of mugs, cards, t-shirts and assorted tat, but in the government's newspaper The British Gazette. An article on the strike in East Anglia ("Country Folk Carry on. CHEERFULNESS THE DOMINANT NOTE") comments that "on every side a magnificent answer has been made to Mr. Baldwin’s appeal, 'Keep calm and carry on'". Many of the newspapers contained appeals to the British public to "carry on", a prosaic phrase that would have had a deeper meaning in the 1920s - this was a slogan used during the First World War (a trench poem riffing on the phrase is reproduced here) - the implication being that we've beaten the Germans in the Great War, now we can beat the strikers on home territory.

Then, as now, newspapers liked to fill space with lists, and lists explaining how to 'keep calm', 'carry on' and deal with the strike in an understated British manner appeared in various emergency publications and were reported on in the radio broadcasts. Competing examples can be seen in two papers published on 6 May - the Daily Mail's series of "strike don'ts" (e.g. don't spread rumours, hoard food, waste petrol, get depressed, go out of the house unnecessarily or criticise the government - "cheerful compiliance is a patriotic duty") and the Trades Union Congress's "Do's for difficult days".

November 27, 2013

Remembrances of projects past

Going through some of the General Strike sources, one name jumped out - that of Isabel Brown. During the General Strike, Brown (described as "a married and certified teacher, who gave her last address as Moscow, Soviet Russia") was sentenced to three months' imprisonment for making a "seditious speech" at Castleford, Yorkshire. A brief report of the case comments that "she admitted she was a member of the Communist Party and came to Pontefract to carry on a recruiting campaign" - at a time of fears over a "Red" revolution, that could be enough to put you behind bars.

The name was familiar from the Modern Records Centre's earlier project to digitise sources on the Spanish Civil War. By 1936, ten years on from her General Strike prison spell, Isabel Brown was heavily involved in the campaign for greater British intervention in the Spanish Civil War on behalf of the Spanish government, acting as Secretary for the (Communist Party linked) Relief Committee for Victims of Fascism and as a member of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee.

November 20, 2013

The fashionable place to be…

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/explorefurther/digital/gs

During the General Strike, the government put out a call for volunteers to temporarily do the jobs normally performed by the strikers - from driving trains to unloading goods in the docks. The volunteers were portrayed in much of the press as "patriots" defending the constitution against a potentially revolutionary mob, and the novelty value of members of the upper classes doing manual labour was a feature of many of the reports.

The most striking example I've come across so far is from the Daily Graphic of 11 May 1926 (day eight of the strike), which basically uses the type of language normally found in society gossip columns to report on the strike:

Volunteers“Be careful how you address me,” Prince George of Russia remarked jokingly when I met him in Piccadilly. “I am now a superior police officer" — he meant a special constable.
Up at Paddington young Lord Weymouth was acting as a stable hand, watering railway horses.

Outside Bond Street Tube station the Hon. David Tennant stood waiting to take his turn driving an underground train. Beside him Harry Walker, his bosom friend, was taking a breath of fresh air after his shift at being a lift man.

The last I heard of young Lord Ashley was that he had signed on to drive a railway train, the guard of which was to be Mr. Eddie Tatham.

Miss Betty Baldwin and her married sister, Diana, are early risers these days. Miss Baldwin drives working girls into town and sets out from Downing Street soon after six. Her sister is a canteen worker, and goes on duty at seven.

Lady Constance Milnes-Gaskell is in charge of one of the Hyde Park canteens. She had returned by the last train from Paris before the strike began, and, like a number of others, including Mrs. Cecil Harmsworth, has lost her luggage containing all her clothes.

Lady Eleanor Smith applied in turn to be an omnibus driver, a waitress in an express train restaurant car, a stable hand at Paddington, a canteen waitress and a clerk at a store in Victoria Street and also at the Carlton Club, before securing employment.

Lady Brecknock and the Hon. Mrs. Richard Norton, Lady Lettice and Lady Sybell Lygon, the Hon. Joan Yarde-Baker and Lady Betty Butler are some of those who have obtained work in Hyde Park.

This reads rather as though characters in P.G. Wodehouse novels are having spiffing fun strike-breaking. In a way, I suppose that this sort of coverage reflects the generally peaceful nature of the strike - to quote some stockbrokers who had had stones chucked at the windows of their train, it was an "adventure", a novel and temporary discomfort, rather than anything worse. However, you do wonder what the people who normally did this type of work (whether on strike or not) thought about it being portrayed as some sort of novel game. An example of the potential dangers of unqualified volunteers doing skilled jobs can be seen on the next page of the Daily Graphic, and is elaborated on in the Trades Union Congress newspaper 'The British Worker' with the headline "Five Railway Crashes... Four Dead".

November 15, 2013

Rowdyism and slight looting

Broadcast transcriptWe have now uploaded all the available transcripts of BBC radio news broadcasts made between 4-14 May 1926. The transcripts appear to have been made by the Trades Union Congress - presumably keeping an eye (or an ear) on how the General Strike was being reported.

The BBC had been asked by the Chief Civil Commissioner to make official "announcements concerning public services, trains and such like facilities", and early broadcasts reported in particular detail departure times for the few trains running from London. This not exactly enthralling use of airtime was commented on by Herbert Farjeon in The Sunday Pictorial - ""Trains will run from Birmingham at ... Trains will run from Southampton at ... Trains will run for Liverpool ..." Whenever I clap headphone to ear a train seems to be on the brink of leaving for somewhere". Thankfully by day four of the strike, the BBC came up with the brainwave of separate special 'transport bulletins' "to interfere as little as possible with the items of more general interest and with our normal programmes", thus leaving the news bulletin freer to report actual news events.

The terminology used in the broadcasts seems to be designed to keep the nation calm. Various outbreaks of civil disorder are reported, but generally without using words as unpalatable as "riot" - these aren't riots, these are "exciting scenes" or "isolated hooliganism" caused by "gangs of rowdies" or "the hooligan element" (there are a few exceptions to this rule - Hull apparently suffered from a "recrudescence of rioting"). My favourite phrase was used to describe events in Glasgow - "rowdyism and slight looting" (how can you slightly loot?) - the broadcast goes on to emphase that everything is now under control - "some arrests were made" and "the city was extremely quiet to-day".

On 12 May 1926, the end of the General Strike was reported as breaking news on the BBC's 1pm bulletin, with the reading of an announcement telephoned through from 10 Downing Street. The news bulletin promptly finished, and normal radio service was resumed.

November 07, 2013

So what was this "general strike"?

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/explorefurther/digital/gs/

Rufford StarIn 1925, mine owners, faced with falling prices for coal (and smaller profits), announced their intention to cancel existing agreements over miners' wages and working conditions, and to cut wages and increase working hours. Unsurprisingly, this was opposed by the mine workers and their unions ("Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day"). The Trades Union Congress (the central co-ordinating body of British trade unionism) pledged to support the miners in any strike, and, to avoid a damaging industrial dispute, the government intervened on 31 July 1925 ("Red Friday") by providing a nine month financial subsidy and appointing a Royal Commission to look into the administration of the coal mines.

The Royal Commission (the Samuel Commission) reported in March 1926, and recommended a reorganisation of the inefficient mining industry, the reduction of wages and the end of the government subsidy. By the end of April and beginning of May 1926, the subsidy had ceased, miners had been locked out of their places of work by employers for refusing to accept the new conditions, and negotiations between the government and trade unions had broke down. The general strike - a strike by members of many trade unions in support of one section of workers - started.

Although it was called a "general strike" not all trade unionists were asked to stop work by the Trades Union Congress. Those affected were mainly transport workers, printing workers, building workers or in heavy industry (such as iron and steel), as well, of course, as the mine workers - a list of the unions involved was published in the second issue of the 'British Worker' (the TUC's newspaper).

The strike brought the country to a halt and provoked a debate over whether such methods were a "revolutionary" attack on the government and constitution or simply a larger than normal industrial dispute. Trade union leaders were concerned (nine years after the Russian Revolution) of the potential for the strike to be hijacked by "extremists" with political motives and didn't have full control of striking rank and file members. After nine days the general strike was called off, although the miners remained on strike.

From the point of view of the trade unions it was not a success. The miners continued to face either unemployment or worse working conditions, a new Act of Parliament was introduced in 1927 which curtailed union rights, and some of the strikers were victimised for their actions by employers. It remains Britain's only general strike - union leaders subsequently opted for political involvement over mass strike action.

About the project

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/explorefurther/digital/gs/

Unsurprisingly, given that many of our holdings relate to trade unions and industrial relations, the Modern Records Centre holds a huge amount of material on the General Strike. As it would be a life's work to digitise the contents of all of the thousands of files, we have been selective and over the course of the next few months will be digitising the emergency editions of newspapers, strike bulletins and other reports and printed items of ephemera which provide a vivid and immediate view into the events and perceptions of Britain's only "general" strike.

These digital resources will be made available online at www.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/explorefurther/digital/gs - more than 90 documents are on there already!

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