Banbury Constituency Labour Party

THE GENERAL STRIKE – It was a myth that the General Strike was violence-free, writes Chris Farman for The London Review of Books

general-strikeMay 1926

Susan Pedersen repeats the comforting myth that the General Strike ‘was conducted virtually without violence’ (LRB, 8 August). It is true that in most parts of the country police and strikers co-operated, the most famous illustration being the football match played in Plymouth between strikers and members of the local constabulary. (The strikers won 2-1, a fact that Churchill, in his role as editor of the government’s emergency newspaper, the British Gazette, saw fit to suppress.)

But this was only part of the story. Each of the strike’s nine days was marked by violent clashes, and there were several attempts to sabotage railway lines. At Cramlington, near Newcastle, striking miners succeeded in derailing the Flying Scotsman, though no one was killed or seriously injured. A major flashpoint was London’s East End, where some of the most militant strike committees held sway. Mass pickets gathered on main roads in the early hours of Tuesday, 4 May, the first day of the strike, and during the day scores of vehicles suspected of carrying goods or office workers to and from the City were stopped and quite frequently wrecked: several were set alight, others thrown into the river. During a night of fierce street battles, thirty casualties were taken to Poplar Hospital, where one of the injured was said to have died. On 5 May, there were baton charges in Poplar and Canning Town and clashes around the Blackwall Tunnel, where cars were smashed and set on fire. In Hammersmith, seven buses were wrecked; strikers and members of the British Fascisti, who were prominent among the volunteers, fought a pitched battle and police made 43 arrests.The Manchester Guardian Bulletin reported on 6 May that;

” …. a new strikers’ plan borrowed from the French Syndicalists has been tried this morning in Camberwell; some women laid their babies on the road in front of commercial vehicles and when the cars stopped, men jumped on the footboards and turned out the drivers and smashed the machinery of the cars.”

There was also serious trouble in Scotland and many Northern cities. In Glasgow, rioting broke out on four consecutive nights and was, according to one report, ‘of the wildest description; pots and pans, iron bars, pickheads and hammers were used as missiles’. In Middlesbrough, a mob of four thousand wrecked railway stations and chained lorries to the railway lines. While navy ratings struggled to clear the tracks, fighting erupted at the bus station and outside a nearby police station. In Hull, the police baton-charged a crowd trying to prevent volunteers from offering their services at the town hall. As rioting spread, trams were attacked and burned and the civil authorities appealed for help to the captain of the Ceres, the light cruiser responsible for protecting Hull docks. While fifty of his men faced the crowd with rifles and fixed bayonets, he warned that, if another tram was attacked, he would man all the trams with navy ratings. The warning worked.

After only two days of the strike, the Manchester Guardian Bulletin observed that ‘the symptoms of disorder … can only lead in the end to rioting and bloodshed. A struggle of exhaustion on this scale can hardly end without scenes of violence on a scale of which for generations this country has had no experience.’ This fear was shared by the TUC and was a crucial factor in its decision to call off the strike on 13 May, leaving the miners to fight on alone.

Christopher Farman
Deddington, Oxfordshire
The General Strike by Christopher Farman is available from Amazon
Also, “Oxford’s Message to Hitler”, (Oxfordshire Limited Edition – page 77) Chris Farman looks back at the 1938 Oxford by-election which reflected divisions in the country as the Second World War loomed.
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