Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Seventeen:
A solid strike kept passive

THROUGHOUT the nine days (4–12 May) the strike was rock solid. Workers showed both massive enthusiasm and dogged determination. Thus one historian of the strike, Julian Symons, writes:

The workers’ reaction to the strike call was immediate and overwhelming. There can be no doubt that its completeness surprised the government, as well as the TUC. From district after district reports came into the TUC headquarters at Eccleston Square, sending the same message in various words: the men were all out, the strike was solid. [1]

On the first day of the Strike, a TUC communiqué stated:

We have from all over the country, from Lands End to John o’Groats, reports that have surpassed all our expectations. Not only the railwaymen and transport men, but all other trades came out in a manner we did not expect immediately. The difficulty of the General Council has been to keep men in what we might call the second line of defence rather than call them off. There are also no reports other than those of a quiet, orderly and good-tempered desire to keep the peace of all sections of the community. [2]

On the third day of the strike, the British Worker reported:

The workers are growing more determined as the days pass. They are not ‘drifting back to work’. On the contrary, the trouble everywhere is to keep those men at work who have not yet been ordered to strike. [3]

On the basis of the TUC’s own local reports [4], and the Cabinet’s daily Intelligence Bulletins [5], it is clear that everywhere the strike was solid and growing in power by the day. More and more industry was grinding to a halt.

On 11 May, the last day but one, the Minister of Labour, who had nothing to gain by exaggerating the strike’s impact, told his colleagues that it was spreading to the flour-milling industry and would soon hit engineering and shipbuilding. Glasgow shows ‘not the slightest sign of a break’; in Manchester ‘there is no overall tendency of the men to resume and no likelihood of a change’; in London and the south ‘there are indications of a growing spirit among the rank and file that they will stay out until they are forced back by hunger’; in Cardiff ‘there is a definite tendency among printing trade workers and local authority employees, including tram drivers, to resume work, but not yet any indication of a breakaway among men in transport or the iron and steel industries’; Birmingham shows ‘no sign of any break but the temperature is much lower’. [6]

The most solid group of workers were the railwaymen. As the historian of the National Union of Railwaymen, P.S. Bagwell, writes:

From midnight on Monday 3 May, the engine fires were raked out, the wheels stopped turning, and the station platforms, signal boxes and goods yards were deserted. The response to the strike call was unprecedented. More railwaymen came out in sympathy with the miners on 4 May 1926 than had struck in support of their own demands on 26 September 1919. During the next ten days thousands of telegrams were received at Unity House reporting the transport situation in every part of the country. With almost monotonous consistency they told of the remarkable unanimity and loyalty of the membership. Sheffield, Cardiff, Newcastle upon Tyne and the Manchester District all reported ‘Response magnificent’; Bristol, Grantham, Toton, Masborough, Huddersfield, Leeds and Aberdeen reported ‘All solid’, whilst Plymouth reported an ‘Unexampled discipline’ from the 2,000 railwaymen on strike in that area ... Among the membership of the ASLEF the response was, if anything, even more complete. According to the official journal of that society ‘there were not fifty members out of 50,000 who failed to answer the call.’ [7]

Bagwell goes on to say that:

Whilst at no time in the strike there was a 100 per cent withdrawal of labour on the railways, the situation was not far short of this among the conciliation grades [drivers, firemen, guards, signalmen, shunters and porters] on 4 May, and had not changed appreciably by 12 May. [8]

This estimation is backed up by the government’s own figures. Thus Ministry of Transport files [9] for the locomotivemen revealed no more than a paltry drift back to work:


Men available for duty


Total staff

5 May

12 May

Great Western Railway




London, Midland and Scottish




London and North Eastern Railway








The situation was virtually no different amongst signalmen:


Men available for duty


Total staff

5 May

12 May

Great Western Railway




London, Midland and Scottish








On the last day of the strike, 98.8 per cent of all engine drivers, firemen and motor men were on strike in the Great Western Railway. The equivalent figure for LNER was 99.3, LMS, 98.8, and Southern, 96.7. Guards: GWR, 95.5; LNER, 98; LMS, 98.8; Southern, 93.8. Shunters: GWR, 97; LNER, 89.9; LMS, 98.9; Southern, 96.3. Signalmen: GWR, 88; LNER, 92; LMS, 90; Southern, 82. [10]

On the first day of the strike, only 3 to 5 per cent of the passenger trains were running and far fewer goods trains. At the end of the strike, when passenger services (run by blacklegs) rose to 15 per cent or so of normal, goods trains remained at 2 to 3 per cent.

Other transport workers were less solid than the railwaymen. On the London underground 15 out of 315 trains ran on the first day of the strike, though these covered short distances only. Of London’s 4,400 buses, 300 were run with scab crews on the first day of the strike, but the number was down to 40 by the end of the week. None of the capital’s 2,000 tramcars were operating. [11] In most towns and cities public transport was paralysed. There were exceptions, however. In Birmingham, Edinburgh and Liverpool there were many scabs running transport, while other towns had a practically normal bus service – Bristol, Brighton, Southampton, Portsmouth, Cardiff, Oxford, Chatham, Grimsby and Maidstone, for example.

The situation was worse in the area of road goods transport. This was a key weakness. The industry had employed 392,000 workers (many of these were self-employed) in 1921. At most only 60,000 were organised in trade unions in 1925–6. [12] But the poor response in road haulage must be offset against the solid response of the dockers. With them stood the building workers, iron and steel workers, those in the metal and heavy chemical industries, all of whom were firmly out by the morning of 4 May.

The bureaucracy had not simply caused chaos in organising the stoppage of those it wished to see strike. It was clearly holding back floods of workers who wished to be involved, for the chief problem the officials faced was not getting people out, but keeping numbers at work. As Postgate and others remark:

This was a far more difficult task than the other, and the fact that it was the main task shows more than anything else what the spirit of the workers was. [13]

Evidence of this spirit was overwhelming.

Warrington’s Central Strike Committee sent a telegram to Citrine on 6 May: ‘Central Strike Committee urges withdrawal of all workers’. (Our emphasis.) York and District Trades and Labour Club wrote to Citrine on 7 May: ‘Our greatest difficulty is to keep the men at work who should remain there, they all feel that they should be out helping in the struggle.’ Bradford Worker, the official strike news bulletin, wrote: ‘The trouble everywhere is to keep those men at work who had not yet been ordered to strike.’ Rotherham reported to Citrine on 8 May: ‘Utmost difficulty in keeping uncalled men at work. Strong disposition to stop everything.’ From Eccles a telegram to Citrine on 8 May: ‘100 per cent out. Our difficulty to keep others at work.’

Again and again engineers came out although not called. Thus Merseyside Strike Committee reported on 4 May that all engineers and shipyard workers on the Mersey were out. Preston Strike Committee reported in a letter to the General Council on 10 May: ‘Engineering industry locally completely stopped, about 5,000 men being out. Also all at Leyland Motors and Vulcan Motors.’ [14]

For Manchester we are told on the second day of the strike:

The Amalgamated Engineering Union reports that its men had struck at works where members of other unions had been called out, including the railway shops, newspaper offices, and tramway sheds. [15]

In London:

The militant London district of the Amalgamated Engineering Union did not wait for the TUC’s ‘second-line’ instructions but called out all engineers in the first week except those engaged in health, sanitary and social services ... Lewisham’s main headache was in keeping in workers not called out. [16]

From Dundee we hear a similar story:

’Here as elsewhere our greatest difficulty in the first week was in preventing men ceasing work before being called upon to do so.’ Almost identical comments were sent from Manchester, Bristol and Sheffield. In the latter town it was said that many non-unionists had ceased work, as well as AEU members. [17]

In North Lanarkshire ‘by the end of the first week even second-line men came out before being officially called out by the TUC.’ [18]

Altogether about 50 per cent of all engineers came out on strike before they were officially called out. [19]

One of the most encouraging things in the strike was that often non-unionists came out spontaneously. The textile workers were not called out but many cotton workers in Lancashire acted on their own initiative and struck. Thus Bob Edwards, a member of the Merseyside Council of Action, wrote:

The amazing thing was Chorley, which wasn’t a trade union town: I suppose 10 per cent of workers were in unions there. In fact, from a Socialist point of view, we used to say that it was as fertile as granite. But the whole of Chorley was closed. [20]

From Sheffield it was reported on 11 May: ‘Large numbers of non-unionists have enrolled in their appropriate union and joined the strikers.’ [21] Nearly two-thirds of all workers were not members of trade unions in 1926, but still a considerable number of non-unionists spontaneously joined the strike when their unionised workmates came out. Thus Postgate and others report:

members came out enthusiastically and were followed by the ‘nons’ (or even preceded by them). At Chelmsford the 200 union men among 3,000 came out – at one shop (Crompton’s) there were only six union men. [22]

The rock solid strike gives the lie to the TUC leaders’ excuse for ending action on 12 May when they claimed it was on the verge of collapse. Their action was far more effective in damaging the strike than anything the government could muster.

In particular the OMS was far from a success. By the government’s own admission it only marginally dented the industrial action. Thus Sir John Anderson, permanent under-secretary at the Home Office, wrote on 17 May:

The OMS was a useful lightning conductor before the strike but apart from the fact that it trained a few drivers its practical utility was almost nil. [23]

Most of the OMS volunteers lived away from the industrial centres; they came mainly from the south east of England, which had a large middle class. The City of Westminster produced the highest number of volunteers – 7,734. Leeds, on the other hand, provided only 400, while Manchester and Liverpool did not appear on the OMS list at all. [24] By and large the OMS volunteers were unsuitable for industrial work. On 12 May it was reported from the North East that of the 18,000 people who had volunteered for service up to that date, only 1,000 had been actually given jobs. This is probably some indication of the remarkable small number of jobs in which volunteer labour was able to replace men on strike. [25] In London and Home Counties Division 114,000 volunteers had registered by 11 May, of whom only 9,500 were actually employed. [26]

The efficiency of volunteers was very low indeed. Thus we are informed from Liverpool that volunteer dock labour had, by official calculation, only one-fifteenth of the productivity of regular dockers. That is, each volunteer shifted less than half a ton per twelve-hour day, compared to five tons per eight-hour day for the regulars. [27]

Limiting the struggle

The trade union leaders did everything in their power to keep the strike inert. First of all the General Council kept rigid control over all avenues of information. It ordered that only material which it approved could be issued:

The Publicity Committee instructs secretaries and officers of local organisations to confine their statements on the situation to the material supplied by the committee and to add nothing in the way of comment or interpretation. [28]

The General Council exercised firm control over the British Worker. A group of censors from the Press and Publicity Committee, E.L. Poulton of the Boot and Shoe Union, J.W. Bowen of the Post Office Workers, and Will Henderson, the son of the former Labour Party leader, looked over every line of the paper. As its editor, Hamilton Fyfe, noted, their chief purpose was to keep out of the paper ‘anything which might cause uncontrollable irritation and violence’.

Our task is to keep the strikers steady and quiet. We must not be provocative; our line is to be dignified, calm in our own strength; to make our statements forcibly, but with moderation of language. We shall print every day very prominently and in bold type, well displayed, this Message to All Workers:

‘The General Council of the Trades Union Congress wishes to emphasise the fact that this is an industrial dispute. It expects every member taking part to be exemplary in his conduct and not to give any opportunity for police interference. The outbreak of any disturbances would be very damaging to the prospects of a successful termination to the dispute.

‘The Council asks pickets especially to avoid obstruction and to confine themselves strictly to their legitimate duties.’ [29]

In addition, to avoid inflaming passions, the General Council decided that all general news should be excluded from the British Worker.

The aim of such restrictions was to keep the strike, which the General Council had never wanted, in a state of inertia. The bureaucratic ideal of industrial action was summed up by the British Worker’s editor when he wrote on 7 May, day four of the strike: ‘Meanwhile, the mass of the Labour Movement is sound, sensible, straightforward. It has folded its arms and quietly awaits the result.’ [30] What a shame that the other side did not do the same.

Problems surrounded production of provincial editions of the General Council’s news-sheet:

Separate editions were planned for publication in Leicester, Manchester, Cardiff, Liverpool, Glasgow, Newcastle and elsewhere, but difficulties were placed in the way of their production partly by the printing unions and partly by the General Council itself, which feared that rash statements might be inserted in these separate editions. The multifold troubles involved in them is indicated by what happened in the cases of the Manchester and Glasgow editions. Fenner Brockway, secretary of the ILP, was asked to go up to Manchester and take charge of the local edition to be published there. Brockway was handed the copy and it was emphasised, both to him and to the local strike committee, that only material in the British Worker was to be used, with a different date-line. ‘No alterations permitted’, said the telegram to Manchester.

On Sunday 9 May arguments were still going on about the Glasgow edition, which had been set up with material not included in the original British Worker ... ‘We have a report lying on my desk now, saying that your people are wanting to extend the strike in all kinds of ways,’ Poulton said. ‘Will you see that all that stuff is kept out and nothing provocative put in.’ The Glasgow edition, again, appeared too late to be of much use. [31]

The first Newcastle edition of the British Worker did not appear until 11 May, the day before the strike ended. [32]

The General Council refused permission to publish for all labour papers except British Worker. Permits were sought by George Lansbury for Lansbury’s Weekly and H.N. Brailsford for the ILP’s New Leader. Although both these papers could be relied upon to support the trade union case, they were refused. Pleas were also made for the Daily Herald, the labour movement’s only daily paper, to be allowed to continue. The General Council, however, decided to abide by its plans for a complete ban and turned a deaf ear to all pleas for exemption. G.A. Phillips writes:

The British Worker afforded the General Council a powerful instrument of control over the conduct of the strike. It justified the attempted prohibition of any local publishing ventures and the silencing of the labour press, on the argument that competitors might promulgate conflicting and confusing orders or advice to the rank and file. ‘The real reason for [the] close shut-down of all printing,’ [Herbert] Tracey [of the TUC staff] told the London Society of Compositors on 6 May, ‘was to enable [the] General Council through its Publicity Committee to maintain absolute control of all news or propaganda connected with the strike.’ [33]

And what was the message of the British Worker? It is summed up by the list of things workers were expected to do:

Do all you can to keep everybody smiling – the way to do that is to smile yourself.
Do your best to discountenance any ideas of violent or disorderly conduct.
Do the thing that’s nearest – that will occupy you and will steady your nerves if they get shaky.
Do a little to interest and amuse the kiddies now that you have the chance.
Do what you can to improve your health, a good walk every day will keep you fit.
Do something. Hanging around and swapping rumours is bad in every way.

The General Council suggests that in all districts where large numbers of workers are idle sports should be organised and entertainments arranged. They will both keep a number of people busy and provide amusement for many more. [34]

Cardiff Strike Committee advised the men:

Keep smiling. Refuse to be provoked. Get into your garden. Look after the wife and kiddies. If you have not got a garden, get into the country, there is no more healthful occupation than walking. [35]

The most extreme expression of the philosophy of the leadership, victory by folding arms, can be seen in the following quote from the Bradford Worker, the official strike news bulletin:

Discipline, order, solidarity, confidence. Just the calm of it is fraying the nerves of our opponents. If there were riots and police charges and an excuse for machine-guns, they would understand. But this tremendous pressure of a power they cannot see, but which they can feel more and more intensely every hour, is unnerving. They cannot see what to do. There is nothing they can do. We have only to set our teeth and wait. [36]

When it came to instructions regarding picketing, the General Council’s advice was diabolical. The government largely had a free run, especially in the crucial are of food supplies. This was because pickets were actively dissuaded from making their action effective. Instead of physically confronting the state’s strike-breakers, friendly relations with the police were encouraged. For their part the police were only too ready to welcome the self-imposed docility of the strikers’ pickets.

A survey carried out by Emile Burns for the Labour Research Department into the activities of 140 trades councils during the strike reported the following:

Bath: ‘[pickets] have been complimented and thanked by Mayor and Chief Constable for maintaining perfect order; advised Mayor first day of strike to disband local specials as superfluosities.’

Ilkeston: ‘Police very good and sooner assisted than interfered with us.’

Leyton: ‘Very pleasant relationship with the police.’

Lincoln: ‘We had a fairly strong influence on city affairs, and the police asked us to supply the whole of the special constables – which we did.’

Selby: ‘Police assistance could not be improved upon; our strike police and local police worked in complete harmony.’

Swindon: ‘We worked so well with the police that when our autocratic Mayor sent two tramcars on the streets the police allowed our strike leaders to take charge of the situation. This was the only incident of excitement during the whole of the strike.’

Yeovil: ‘There was a good feeling exhibited by the town police throughout.’ [37]

Bradford Worker reported ‘police and strikers on best terms’:

If our men keep calm we are sure there will be no trouble with the Bradford police, who with their superiors know how to deal fairly in a crisis like this.

Grantham Joint Strike Committee, 7 May:

We have given them an assurance that there shall be no violence on the part of our men, and the chief constable has promised to inform us before taking any action, of any probable grounds for complaint. At present we are pleased to say that there is absolutely no indication of any unrest amongst us.

Preston Strike News: ‘We wish to thank the chief constable and his men for the courtesy and patience during this trying period.’

Victory Bulletin, Kingston and District Trades Council, 11 May: ‘The police were simply splendid.’

Bow and Bromley Strike Bulletin of 6 May included a message from George Lansbury:

Don’t quarrel with the police. We can and will win without disorder of any kind. Policemen are of our flesh and bone of our bones, and we will co-operate with them to keep the peace. [38]

Tilling’s bus strikers of Brighton actually presented the chief constable with a silver salver after the strike; and, generally, the atmosphere was more often one of mutual tolerance and even amity. [39]

In Sussex more than a thousand strikers ‘passed a vote of confidence on the local police sergeant and his constables which was received with musical honours.’ [40]

Heeding official advice, pickets often showed consideration for the difficulties the state faced in undermining the strike! For example, at Newcastle on 5 May a government report described how about 5,000 pickets assembled outside the Central Railway Station:

‘The crowd appeared formidable but at the request of the police superintendent they were addressed by a trade union secretary who advised them that disorder would hurt their cause. He said that these demonstrative tactics were putting an undue strain on the police. The crowd then dispersed.’ Such cooperation by strikers with the police was entirely in line with the TUC’s call to maintain order and discipline. [41]

To help good relations with the police, strikers were encouraged to engage in sport with them. The British Worker reported, under the headings ‘sports for the Masses’, ‘Strikers beat Police at Football’, ‘Music and Drama’:

In many parts of the country excellent amusement and recreation facilities have been provided for the strikers and their families. Special football and cricket matches and a variety of other sports took place yesterday, while there were plenty of indoor attractions, such as concerts, dramatic entertainments and whist drives. [42]

From Plymouth we are informed:

The sports committee were highly successful in their arrangements – concerts, billiard tournaments, card parties, cycle runs into the country districts, and football matches being arranged by them (on one occasion with the local police team, whom they defeated by 2 goals to 1 – this match being played at the request of our chief constable, whose wife kicked off). The local clergy were approached and asked to place their Sunday Schools at the disposal of the sports committee, which many did very readily, and in addition daily religious services were arranged and well attended. [43]

At Peterborough the Mayor and Chief Constable gave use of the sports grounds at reduced prices or free of charge to Committees who were organising concerts and games of tennis, bowls and football. [44]

At Banbury joint concerts were arranged and both sides competed in a tug-of-war. At Norwich strikers and police organised a series of athletic matches under the auspices of the chief constable. In all of the eastern counties between London and the Humber, strike committees worked with police and civic leaders ‘to keep the peace and organise recreations.’ [45]

The Sheffield Forward, official publication of the Sheffield Trades and Labour Council, reported on 10 May under the headline Friendly Relations with the Police:

At Lewes the police and strikers have organised a public billiards match, whilst the Forest of Dean have received a letter from the local trade union organisations saying that union members are open to assist the police in maintaining order in any way the police think fit. [46]

About a week after the end of the strike, a concert was organised by Coalville Miners’ Committee, with an audience of 1,600. They were addressed by E. Holmes, chief constable of Leicestershire. He spoke about ‘the wonderful way in which the people behaved themselves in those trying times.’

He was absolutely certain that there was in the country a great volume of sympathy with the miners in their struggle. (Cheers) So he wanted to emphasise the importance of continued loyalty to the law by which they would increase that sympathy. (Cheers)

J. Smith, the local miners’ agent, said he thought ‘it was well that he should have a word at that meeting. They were really passive resisters and did not regard the police as a menace to the situation.’ [47]

In a letter to the editor of the Police Review, the secretary of the Newton Heath branch of ASLEF conveyed the unanimously adopted resolution of the branch on 23 May: the branch

hereby place on record its appreciation and offers its thanks to the superintendent and members of the staff of the Newton Heath Police Station, and to the members of the [Manchester] force who took part in assisting our members to effectively control themselves during the recent industrial dispute.’ [48]

One can see how successful the trade union leaders were in keeping the strike passive from the following fact: according to Police Review only 18 special constables were assaulted during the entire strike. ‘One Special was stabbed with a chisel, another had a broken wrist and a third was cut about the face.’ How tiny was the number is clear from the fact that the total number of Specials was 240,000, and that ‘43,800 truncheons were issued to Specials’. [49] Police Review pointed to the ‘tact and commonsense displayed by both sides.’ [50]

Because the officials encouraged workers to submit to state-organised blacklegging there were few arrests. The Home Secretary told the House of Commons that during the strike 632 people were imprisoned in England and Wales under the Emergency Powers Act and 409 in Scotland, making a total of 1,041. [51] This was a low figure, remembering the 3½ million workers involved in the dispute. The 9,000 arrested in the General Strike and the miners’ lock-out that continued till December 1926 can be compared with the 9,778 arrested out of some 140,000 miners in the 1984–5 strike. [52]

As we shall see, the logic of the class struggle was stronger than the orders of the General Council, and relations with the police were far from harmonious at all times. Violence broke out again and again.

Besides participation in sport, the other main cultural activity of workers on strike, it seems, was churchgoing. In Battersea:

On the second day of the strike the mayor approached several local churches suggesting that, ‘to mitigate the unnecessary congregation of the public on the streets’, churches and union halls should be opened to the public for rest purposes, and perhaps simple services or lectures could be given.

One minister, the Reverend J.W. Harford at the Lavender Hill Congregational Church, declared that he and his colleagues ‘unanimously fell in with the suggestion’. Not only would he open his hall and provide refreshments, but he would also be willing to give lectures. He suggested, under the heading Prophets and Priests of Democracy, lectures on Plato, Will Langland, John Wyclif and Thomas More. Other churches responded by opening their halls and, importantly, allowing their Sunday collections to be contributed to the Council of Action’s fighting fund.

On Sunday afternoon the local NUR Transport Joint Strike Committee organised a church parade with banners, to march from Unity Hall in Falcon Grove to the nearby St Mary’s Church. Having sung O God our Help in Ages Past, the congregation listened to a sermon. Subsequent events would suggest that, although there was some approval for what the vicar had to say, many present would have demurred had they not been in church when he said ‘... the railmen should remember that they are dealing with people with hearts. Why not get together and talk heart to heart.’ [53]

Lansbury’s Bulletin of 8 May reported:

Tomorrow is Sunday. You will come to our meetings at night, but I would like you to attend the Church Services nearest your home ... It is Christ’s gospel of passive resistance which you are practising today.

From Newport on the Isle of Wight we are informed that prior to ‘proceeding to a Special Brotherhood Service ... 200 strikers filed past the Cenotaph and placed on it a wreath of laurels.’ The Preston Strike Committee reported that on Sunday 9 May:

Meetings took place simultaneously all over the country of inter-denominational bodies praying that the parties concerned be brought together with a View of negotiations being resumed ... It is felt that the churches, irrespective of creed, have a golden opportunity in this crisis, of retaining the confidence of their respective followers. [54]

One can see how far many of the strikers were involved with pacifism, with non-violence towards employers, police and scabs, from events in Halifax. There management wanted the uniforms of the tramwaymen on strike to be returned so that they could clothe the scabs. The strike committee obliged!

On Thursday [6 May] the tramwaymen, at the request of the Tramway Committee, delivered up their uniforms. They marched in a procession supported by 4,000 strikers, and led by the local Labour mayor, Councillor W. Smith, passed in their uniforms at the depot in perfect order and amid great enthusiasm. [55]

In Wigan, where the railwaymen carried the burden of the strike on their backs, the editor appointed by them, on being chosen, ‘knelt ... acknowledged our weakness and asked for divine guidance,’ and on Sunday he produced the curious bulletin reproduced here, inexplicable in any other country.


No. 2. Sixth day of strike. Sunday May 9th 1926.


Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it Holy.

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with,
All thy heart, soul, mind and strength, and,
Thy neighbour as thyself.

Daily bulletin.
News from all points.
Situation magnificent.
Everywhere solid.

Public meetings well supported by eminent men of all shades of thought and from all stations of life.
(Wigan Strike Bulletin, Sunday 9 May)

All St Albans railway strikers formed into procession on one day and marched into the Abbey for a special service. And it was the same railwaymen who on the 13th refused to go back and wired to the General Council, cursing it and telling it to reimpose the strike. Shrewsbury’s official time-table one day began:

9.45 a.m. Intercession service at ――――― Chapel.
10.45 a.m. Strike Committee meets. All strikers may attend and listen.
12.00 Noon. Service at St Mary’s.

Postgate, Horrabin and Wilkinson commented on the above: ‘Some of the strongest fighting centres proved to be also the most religious ... Foreign socialists were unable to understand the part played by religion in the strike.’ [56]

The various religious activities during the strike remind one of the reaction of Trotsky and Lenin to the influence of religion over the British working class. Trotsky remembered:

I once visited, together with Lenin and Krupskaya, a ‘free church’ in London where we heard socialist speeches interspersed with psalms. The preacher was a printer who had just returned from Australia. He spoke about the social revolution. The congregation begged God in the psalms that he establish such an order where there would be neither poor nor rich. Such was my first practical acquaintance with the British labour movement nearly a quarter of a century ago (1902). What role, I asked myself at the time, does a psalm play in connection with a revolutionary speech? That of a safety-valve. Concentrated vapours of discontent issued forth beneath the dome of the Church and rose into the sky. This is the basic function of the Church in class society. [57]

Religion has been one of the principal forms of bourgeois influence on the working class in Britain.

The atmosphere of calm was not disrupted, but was on the contrary encouraged by the activities of Labour-controlled local councils. Only a small minority of them refused facilities for the recruitment of OMS volunteers or restricted their use. The majority of Labour councillors, like the mayor of Birmingham – who chaired the city’s Emergency Committee, saw their first duty as obedience to the law. [58]

To give respectability to the strike, to imbue it with patriotism, the TUC issued an instruction to strikers to wear their military decorations. Thus reverence for the law and God was matched by a patriotic regard for the British state. The British Worker of 9 May published an item under the heading Wear your medals, appealing

to ex-servicemen strikers to wear their badges and decorations at all demonstrations and processions, thus showing the public that the men the government is fighting today are the same men who fought for that government yesterday. [59]

Transport workers, many of them wearing their war ribbons, attended services at St Luke’s, West Norwood, and the clergy of that church were opening the men’s branch meetings with prayer. [60] On 10 May we are informed from Poplar: ‘War medals and service decorations are very common.’ The St Marylebone Bulletin of 10 May reported:

NUR members of the LNER at Marylebone have a grand array of medals and decorations covering every front from Mons to the end of the ‘Great War for Civilisation’ – France, Belgium, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Gallipoli and Palestine. It is suggested that all men in the strike should wear their war medals.

Camberwell Strike Bulletin, 10 May:

On Sunday morning, about 400 strikers from the Nunhead Bus Garage paraded in military formation to the Central Hall, Peckham, where a Church Service was held. All the men wore 1914–18 War Decorations – many of them wearing as many as six medals. [61]


1. Symons, pp. 61–2.

2. Page-Arnot, The General Strike, p. 175.

3. British Worker, 6 May 1926.

4. TUC Library, Box HD/5366.

5. CAB 27/331.

6. CAB 27/331, Supply and Transport Bulletin, no. 9.

7. P.S. Bagwell, The Railwaymen: The History of the National Union of Railwaymen (London 1963), pp. 472–3.

8. Bagwell, p. 475.

9. Quoted in Bagwell, pp. 475–6.

10. Calculated from figures in CAB 27/332, Supply and Transport Bulletin, 13 May 1926.

11. Crook, p. 390.

12. Phillips, p. 213.

13. Postgate, Horrabin and Wilkinson, pp. 25–6.

14. TUC Library, Box HD 5366.

15. E. and R. Frow, Manchester Diary, in Skelley, p. 163.

16. J. Attfield and J. Lee, Deptford and Lewisham, in Skelley, pp. 263 and 265. 

17. Morris, p. 37.

18. Carter, in Skelley, p. 115.

19. Jefferys, p. 233.

20. Morris, p. 33.

21. TUC Library, Box HD 5366.

22. Postgate, Horrabin and Wilkinson, p. 37.

23.  HO 45/12336.

24. HO 45/12336/2130, 11 May 1926.

25. A. Mason, The General Strike in the North East (Hull 1970), p. 48.

26. K. Jeffery and P. Hennessy, States of Emergency (London 1983), p. 114.

27. Merseyside Council of Action Strike Bulletin, no. 3, in TUC Library, Box HD 5366.

28. General Council circular of 5 May 1926, quoted in Postgate, Horrabin and Wilkinson, p. 36.

29. Fyfe, p. 33.

30. Fyfe, p. 39.

31. Symons, pp. 171–2.

32. W.R. Garscide, The Durham Miners 1919–1960 (London 1971), p. 193.

33. Phillips, p. 169.

34. British Worker, 5 May 1926.

35. TUC Library, Box HD 5366.

36. TUC Library, Box HD 5366.

37. Emile Burns, General Strike: Trades Councils in Action (London 1975), pp. 102, 132, 136, 137, 168 and 181.

38. TUC Library, Box HD 5366.

39. Postgate, Horrabin and Wilkinson, p. 59.

40. Christopher Farman, The General Strike (London 1974), p. 229.

41. Morris, p. 55.

42. British Worker, 9 May 1926.

43. Burns, p. 160.

44. Symons, p. 142.

45. Farman, p. 228.

46. General Strike in Sheffield, with an introduction by Bill Moore (Sheffield 1981), p. 24.

47. Police Review, 21 May 1926.

48. Police Review, 28 May 1926. Our emphasis.

49. Police Review, 28 May 1926.

50. Police Review, 21 May 1926.

51. Hansard, 2 and 10 June 1926.

52. Alex Callinicos and Mike Simons, The Great Strike: The miners’ strike of 1984–5 (London 1985), p. 223.

53. R. Mace, Battersea, in Morris, pp. 388–9.

54. TUC Library, Box HD 5366.

55. TUC Library, Box HD 5366.

56. Postgate, Horrabin and Wilkinson, pp. 42–3.

57. Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol. 2, p. 166.

58. Phillips, p. 162.

59. British Worker, 9 May 1926.

60. British Worker, 9 May 1926.

61. TUC Library, Box HD 5366.

Last updated on 15 August 2014