Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Woolwich in the General Strike


In the early 1970s there was an attempt to set up a Workers Educational  Association Branch in Greenwich - as, then fashionable,  History Workshop.  To be honest the entire membership was Mary Mills, Deborah Thom, and Iris Dove.  The result of our work was a booklet - Woolwich in
the General Strike.  Deborah got the by-line and Mary did the typing.  The entire project then sunk without trace - except, that here is the text we produced.  Iris is now acting in various interesting
projects, Mary is still doing the typing - and Deborah?? Deborah if you are out there, and reading this - hope this scan is ok, and hope it was a worth while project for you.

So - this is what we published in a very very dodgy typescript.
(and there are several places I should have put "sic")

WOOLWICH in 1926 was, as its Medical Officer of Health said 'one of the suburban working class metropolitan boroughs'. It had then a population of 146,000 which was unevenly distributed throughout its three main areas; Woolwich with thirty-two people to the acre; Plumstead with
twenty-two and Eltham with only eight - this compared to a London average of sixty-two.   It was, however, a relatively prosperous borough for a working-class one and those in work earnt good wages. The Arsenal, although no longer the central force in borough life which it had been, was still the biggest employer. But, despite an extensive  campaign for alternative peace-time work - which had produced a few railway engines and milk churns – the workforce had been cut to around 8,000.  Other engineering works in the Charlton area employed large  numbers and Siemens in particular had 6,339 workers.  Unions in the Arsenal were well organised with the Engineers Union, the Amalgamated Engineering Union, the Workers Union and the breakaway Government Workers Union.  Other engineering works were not so well organised as  they were to become in the thirties.  Public service workers, and particularly transport workers, were also unionised.

WOOLWICH had a Labour Party that was unusually well organised at the local level since 1903 when they elected their first M.P, Will Crooks.   Since 1919 they had controlled the Borough Council and had an MP, Henry Snell, after 1923. The strength of this local organisation is partly attributable to the local Labour paper, The Pioneer, which had ceased publication in 1922.  What happened in Woolwich in May 1926 was to be a reflection of the stronghold that Labour's political ideas had on the Borough.

The STRIKE was called for May 3rd 1926 by the General Council of the TUC in support of the miners, who had refused to accept a payment which  the employers wanted to make after the withdrawal of government subsidy. The General Council called out certain categories of workers only - transport ..  printing ... iron and steel .. metals and chemicals ... building (except in hospitals and housing) .. electricity and gas (except lighting) and  Central Union offices were to direct the strike.
This left a gap which in many areas was filled by Trades Councils or ad hoc councils of action, to connect strikers across union boundaries at a local level.

In WOOLWICH and ELTHAM Dick Croy records that some people had tried to set up Councils of Action but that the Labour Party would not let them "anywhere near what was going on". There was no strike bulletin, such as Greenwich and Deptford organised through their Council of Action - at least we have found no evidence of one.

The Borough Council immediately set up local machinery. The Emergency Committee under the Mayor, William  Barefoot, met on 4th May to discuss the withdrawal of labour from the Power Station.  They persuaded the power  workers to  continue to supply hospitals, street lighting,
bakeries and laundries after three days discussion.  Other municipal employees were also persuaded to stay at work - the sweepers, the scavengers, the sanitary and health officers and the Public Baths
employees.  Initially they had all come out and the street lights in Woolwich stayed on for two days as a result - making the streets very bright.  There was no sense of urgency in their deliberations. They
took time to discuss moving the statue of Queen Victoria at a cost of £150.

They were preoccupied at this time in fighting the District Auditors’ attempt to penalise Council representatives for paying wages at 10%  higher than the National Agreement - this could have resulted in each member paying a £9,000 fine – but they did eventually win.

Mayor, William Barefoot, was a founding member and leading light of the Woolwich Labour Party.  He had edited the Woolwich Pioneer throughout its existence.  He saw the General Strike as a potential threat to public order and feared what he saw as Communist attempts to subvert peace. He arranged twice daily band concerts to 'keep people off the street'. The local Labour theatrical troupe, the Thespians, put on plays. Ethel Brooks remembers .... "we used to put these things on with
the young Labour entertainers every afternoon at the Town Hall, about three evenings a week as well to give the men something to do. They brought their wives and families and so every afternoon we were full up"

Woolwich was physically dominated by two major building complexes - the Arsenal in the North on the River, and the barracks on the hill.   As with the Arsenal some of the importance as an Army centre had been lost to Woolwich, but there were still 5,000 soldiers in the barracks. During the strike though, these solders were not used much locally - The Welsh Guards were sent to Silvertown to guard the Docks.

One local resident was sent with an artillery detachment to the Rhondda. The experience put him off politics for life and when he saw the homes of the Welsh miners he felt that politicians had done that
and he wanted no more truck with them.

Mr. Crosling, who was eleven years old ....... "can remember seeing the trams and buses with a policeman or a soldier manning the tram or bus along with the driver. They was also on the horsedrawn vans, lorries and the steam Fodon wagons."

Mr. Coleman, who was distributing strike pay got caught in convoy ...."We was in this convoy of troops carrying guns. Up came an officer  and he said 'Get out' we said  'you - get us out'. We was in the middle of the convoy with TUC-NUR on the front. He didn't like that but he was more worried than we were."

Locally the troops were confined to barracks – possibly because there were worries about them striking  too. Authority appears to have been more interested in volunteers but again many of these were not used.

Jock Offord was offered 'a few shillings' to enrol as a volunteer through his London University Officers' Training Corps but he spent the whole period of the strike sitting in Holly Hedge House on Blackheath playing cards and listening to the horrifying tales told by the other volunteers - many of whom were ex-Black and Tans.

Other volunteers were organised through the Organisation for the Maintenance of  supplies. The Masonic Hall was thrown open to them - the paper said there were 3,000 in Woolwich.   The local Labour Council  had got food and fuel distribution so well organised that it seems unlikely they had much to do. The Woolwich librarian was attacked for giving two special constables a lift in his car, an indication of the unanimity of support for the strike.

Transport workers came out almost unanimously. There were very few trams or buses. Some witnesses say that there were none. Mrs. Ivy Sumner was on holiday in Torquay and had an epic journey home on one of the few trains to get through, driven by two students. She then got a
tube to Lambeth North ........ and then she had to make her way with her cases on foot. "I left my friend on Canal Bridge as she lived in Bermondsey; then I walked all the way back to Humber Road".

Mrs. Nelson's sister walked every day to the BBC at Bush House from Plumstead. Others were luckier - Mrs. Selfe travelled on a furniture van which took a small group to the City regularly.

Newspapers give conflicting accounts of the availability of public transport but most commuters certainly walked to work.

The Free Ferry which never closed except for fog or when the river froze over struck this time. It was closed for two weeks because the crews continued to strike when the two skippers were demoted to make and only went back when their jobs were returned to them. This left only the two foot tunnels for the many who crossed the river.

The trains virtually stopped. The Plumstead NUR branch was the biggest in the Woolwich area, George Coleman was the Chairman .........we had a big meeting. We're going to finish at 12.0 midnight I said, and we did. Course we had a few stragglers ... four union members, I think, two
signalmen, 1 shunter and 1 clerk in the goods department. We didn't worry too much about then because we knew they could not run the railway - they couldn’t drive the engine.  Some got through, you had  these volunteers who used to go on the engine on the Bexleyheath line from Dartford, you’re like this (steep) going up the line. No more steam. They had to wait half an hour for steam."  Some of these trains ran out completely and got stuck blocking the line.

Volunteers faced other hazards if they managed to get a train through. Mrs. Attenborough described women in Charlton attacking the drivers ....... they were.....throwing onions and potatoes and carrots and parsnips anything they could lay their hands on in the way of vegetables, at every train that passed through the crossing. "

A few trains did get through and those who had worked on them used to leave the line and sneak out to avoid the pickets. The stations were picketed daily and sucessfully. The railway men held meetings at the Radical Club, not their usual place which was the Lord Derby. ASLEF (the driver's union) and the Railway Clerks Association were solid too.

Engineering workers were not called out to start with. The problem for union branches in the Woolwich area was that the definition of who should come out was unclear. There was a genuine problem in interpreting who was and who was not a metal worker, for example. At Siemens the electricians stayed in, but others came out. The Kentish Mercury reported that strikers came in to the shops and 'persuaded some of the youngsters, girls in the shops to come out.

Mr. Selfe remembers ........ " the industrial people were out but the staff used to meet at the top of the hill road that leads to Siemens and were conducted down by the police and military and let into the
building at the bottom".

Eventually the shortage of power and supplies meant that Siemens closed and Mr. Dormer for example was locked out. At Johnson & Phillips, which was quite well organised the Convener called the workers in and out  three times, in the end they stayed out but there was confusion.
The Arsenal was the problem for unionists. There were regular meetings of strikers in Beresford Square, just outside the main gates. This had always been the area for public meetings and every Saturday night various speakers, religious, political and commercial would hold forth there. The white collar workers stayed in at the Arsenal, although many of them were organised in unions, particularly the National Union of Clerks but they were not called out, and Mr. Selfe says .... the particular establishment system which penalised a worker both in pension and in job security if he went
out, and ensured that people were not prepared to come out unofficially.

On 5th May the engineers and those in the Workers Union came out. Ethel Brooks remembers  ....... "Few people went in, of course, I went on  picket duty at the Arsenal. People thought I was mad but I did it. My husband worked in the Arsenal and he was out on strike."

Dick Croy and others travelled around the Arsenal exhorting all the workers to come out. Some did not several witnesses reported that the  Arsenal worked all through but most did.   The Arsenal authorities played it  very coolly at first, circulating the offices asking for volunteer drivers and then in collusion with Pilbrown Workers Union Official, they wielded the big stick.

On Tuesday, May 11th, they posted a notice from Walter Citrine which came from the TUC Electricity Advisory Committee ordering them to  resume work" these men do not come within the category of the first  order issued on May 1st (declaring who should strike) and took the step
without consultation with their unions, any resumption must rest with the Trade Union to which they belong".  "Therefore all Workers Union government workers are to resume work tomorrow morning May 12th."

On the  Saturday May 9th the CSOF (in control of the Arsenal) had said .. "Men who have remained at work and who return to work by Wednesday May  12th  will be given preference for employment." Essentially the Trade  Union was to accept this reward for strike breaking .... The Shop Stewards Committee told the men 'stand firm be loyal to the miners, be loyal to the working class".

On the Wednesday, 13th May when the strike was anyway called off, the Arsenal workers went back in large numbers. There was to be great bitterness aroused by the strike inside the Arsenal, partly due to the attempts by Arsenal managers to victimise strikers, partly by the lack of unity between unions.

The Printers came out. Most local papers were not published, leaving gossip as the main source of information.

The relieving committees didn't meet during the strike except in Charlton so no cash was handed out - only food. However, they did relieve the wives and children of strikers in the week ending May 7th
1,324 were relieved, the next week 3,412. Mr. Dormer argued that he was locked out at Siemens and got relief for his wife and child..... "Look, I'm not on strike, I said, I got locked out, machines shut, just like that. I got locked out and I want relief for my wife and child. After a big battle I got some, but just for the wife and child, they didn't pay me anything. " He also reported that he bought the British Worker, the TUC paper, which appears to have been quite a common experience.   The paper was obviously sold wherever large crowds could be found rather than in a systematic way through
union branches. Others bought it in Beresford Square for example.

There were no shortages of food but prices rose. Milk went up 2d. a pint and meat prices rose too.  The Council Emergency Committee gave vouchers for the distribution of coal - 1 cwt per household per week. Mrs. Longhurst remembers  " I was just a child then, my father had his own coal round in Plumstead and they were very hard times. Coal then was 1s, 2d. per cwt. My brother and I used to go to the Plumstead Town Hall and collect 100 permits, one for each household, each month, no permit, no coal.

The permit system continued because the miners went on strike for another six cruel months.

There was little breakdown of public order too. One truck driver was arrested and fined for chalking
There was a big battle in Blackwall Lane because strikers marched on the Medway Oil and Storage Company where 200,000 gallons of petrol and kerosene were stored. They stoned the twenty-five policemen sent out to dispose them, were baton charged and fought back for twenty minutes. Two men were given five months with hard labour. The newspaper report says that they planned to fire the fuel, this seems unlikely in extreme.

Ugly scenes were reported at Johnson & Phillips between pickets and blacklegs but the pickets won the day and no damage was done to persons or property.

Two men in Charlton were given a six months prison sentence for trying to stop a bus in Charlton.

In Woolwich itself although the police patrolled Beresford Square but did not intervene. Dick Croy who had often been arrested for unemployment agitation was quite surprised that he was able to speak
freely on this question,

The TUC General Council called off the strike on 11th May. In Woolwich the Arsenal had already begun to return to work. The CSOF tried to stop the pay of 1,000 men on the grounds that that they had discharged themselves without notice but eventually he restored some of them but not all and some militants found themselves permanently outside the Gates.  Siemens and Johnson & Phillips both went back and the events of the strike proved a spur to greater organisation inside the factory.

Transport workers resumed work fairly speedily except in the NUR.

Conflicting instructions came from Unity House eventually they were called out again for three days and George Coleman and two others who had been told not to come back were re-instated. In other cases the railway companies successfully victimised their strikers, but not in this one. The miners were still on strike and the Woolwich labour movement preoccupied itself with supporting them, particularly the women.

"I've always been active in the Labour Party since I joined. It was also organised all over the country to sell little brass miners lamps at a shilling a time. It as very difficult to sell them as a shilling
was a lot of money and I had the job of organising the sale and visiting managers of cinemas to get permission to take collections. We raised quite a bit of money but it wasn’t as much as we would have
liked to have done."

The RACS based on Woolwich and covering all of South-East London had supported the strike from the first. Dick Croy argued for a donation of  £10,000 from RACS to the miners and won his case. Lily Paine, who was a  strong supporter of  the Women's Co-operative Guild said ......... "During the 1926 strike we went out with our collecting boxes. Our Co-op nationally provided the necessities of life for the Miners' families. we were given permission to sell miners' lamps outside the local branches and, in some cases, children of miners were taken in until the strike was over."

Winifred Foley in her book "A Child in the Forest" records how she was taken to Plumstead from the Forest of Dean because her father was on strike, she put on weight and was given clothes, and in general treated very kindly. Plumstead seemed very prosperous to her.                  

The General Strike was fairly general in Woolwich.  It was also fairly peaceful and such bitterness as was aroused was between unions rather than between classes. Labour had held the people from the borough together and ensured that the tiny Communist party had little effect on the strike.  Sympathy for the miners was manifest in everyone we spoke to although two people were not convinced that the General Strike helped them very much.   The labour organisations locally threw themselves perhaps more wholeheartedly into the support of the miners than they did into creating alternative working class organisations to run the strike.

This outline account was prepared by Greenwich Workers  Educational Association.  It was written up by Deborah Thom, typed by Mary Mills and printed by her and Iris Dove.
We hope to interview more people and reproduced this as a book with all the normal academic details.
Information comes from:-
Cole & Postgate The Common People, 1746-1946
Report of Woolwich in Medical Officer of Health's Report 1926.
Kentish Mercury.
Kentish Independent
Blackheath Local Guide
Woolwich Herald
Plumstead Gazette
Eltham Times.
O.F. Hogg A History of the Royal Arsenal Vol. II
R. Hyman The Worker's Union.
S. Jeffries  A History of the Engineers.

We would like to thank the following people who wrote to us, gave interviews or helped in some way : -
Mr. & Mrs. C. Selfe
Mrs. Grace Attenborough
Mrs. M. Nelson
Mr. G. Offord
Mr. G. Crosling
Mr. & Mrs. George Coleman
Mrs. Longhurst
Mrs. Ivy Sumner
Alice & Jack Loveman
Mrs. Lily Paine
Mrs. Ethel Brookes.
Will Fancy (for the loan of his interview with Dick Croy)
and the staff of the Local History Library at Woodlands, Mycenae Road, Blackheath.

We are aware that we have not stuck strictly to Woolwich but strayed over into neighbouring Greenwich since so many people lived in one and worked in the other we hope this is forgiven.
We are well aware that there are probably many errors and certain many omissions in this draft - if you can help us deal with any of them please contact: Greenwich WEA c/o Kidbrooke House  or Deborah Thom,BA

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