1891: London bus workers' strike

Bus workers at a strike meeting.

A history of the first strike by London transport workers in 1891, which was over pay and conditions and largely successful. The article also contains some information about developments in bus workers' unions around the same period.

The first person to try and organise the London tram and bus workers into a union, was a young barrister called Thomas Sutherst.

He managed, with considerable help from the London Trades Council to organise between two and three thousand tram workers, into The London County Tramway & Omnibus Employees union founded in 1889.

London had some 8-9,000 bus and tram workers in 1891, the three main London Tram and Bus companies running services in the Capital were the London Road Car Company, Tillings and the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), the later the LGOC was by far the largest .

However, the LGOC was a notoriously bad employer, with employees sacked for “The slightest cause of complaint" crews were even expected to contribute to a fund to cover accidents, repairs and fines levied for any misdemeanours.

London bus and tram drivers wages in 1891 were 7 shillings a day and conductor 4 shillings 6 pence, this was comparatively low compared to other manual workers. They also worked long hours, between fourteen to sixteen hours a day with as little as ten minutes for lunch.

However, it was the introduction of new ticket machines that sparked the first ever London bus and tram strike in July 1891. The issue being the ability of the conductors to keep a percentage of the fares to subsidise their meager earnings.

Two mass meetings were called by the union, both starting after midnight, to enable crews to meet their shift obligations.

Over 3,000 bus and tram workers attended the first mass meeting at Fulham Town Hall in first week of June 1891 and a second meeting the following day at the Great Assembly Hall, Mile End Road

The Trade Unionist magazine of 6th June 1891 reported the Fulham Town Hall meeting and included the following remarks

“Great excitement prevailed during the whole meeting and speakers were frequently interrupted with snatches of song, Brakes and private buses conveyed the men to their different districts of London in broad daylight”

The London County Tramway & Omnibus Employees, union demands included:

  • 12 hour day
  • One clear day off every fortnight
  • A weeks notice of dismissal
  • Abolition of stoppages for accidentals
  • Daily wage of 8 shillings a day for drivers, 6 shillings for conductors and 5 shillings for horse keepers & washers

    When their demands were not met, the first London bus and tram strike commenced at midnight on Sunday 7th June 1891.

    The strike seemed to have secure generally high level of support from the public, media and the vast majority of bus and trams crews answered the strike call. Some men remained at work, but their efforts to take the buses and trams out were frustrated by the “angry mobs” of strikers.

    The strike soon spread to bus crews in other companies, the London Road Car Company, who came out on strike in sympathy and demanding the 12 hour day.

    London's other bus and tram company Tillings, was unaffected by strike and continued to run a normal service, having agreed to the unions terms earlier.

    One area of surprising support for the strikers came from the "entrepreneurs" who organised "Pirate buses", far from undermining the strike, they actually maintained the strike by paying large donations to the strikers to keep the strike going, thereby pocketing large profits, while providing only a limited service.

    On the second day of the strike the bus and tram unions President, Thomas Sutherst met the LGOC and LRRC directors to discuss the strikers demands, they agreed a 12 hour day but no significant movement on pay.

    The London bus and tram workers continued the strike for the rest of the week finally securing the following agreement.

  • 12 hour day
  • Drivers 6 shillings 6 pence a day (after one year)
  • Conductors 5 shillings a day (after one year)
  • Horse keepers and washers 5 shillings 6 pence

    As well as Thomas Sutherst, George Shipton Secretary of the London Trades Council “worked day and night addressing meetings and organising pickets” collected nearly £1,000 for the strikers

    The "Great Bus strike" was called off on Saturday 13th June 1891, after one week on strike, final agreement was reached on the 18th June 1891, however the return to work had not gone smoothly, some activists had been victimised and despite Sutherst assertion at Fulham Town hall that their would be no resumption of work until every union member reinstated, this failed to materialise and despite the efforts of even the Lord Mayor.

    While the strike was not totally effective in secure all its demands, importantly the union had won the right to a 12 hour day as well as putting down a marker for future generations of bus and tram workers.

    After the strike had concluded The London Trades Council agreed to pay £10 towards Fred Hammill costs while he organised the busmen’s union in the Capital.

    One interesting aspect of the strike was the attempt by a group of strikers to establish a London Co-operative Omnibus company to rival the private enterprise giants.

    They even purchased an omnibus to the front they attached a broom symbolising how they were determined to sweep the LGOC and LRCC away.

    Thomas Sutherst the unions President called for the "municipilisation" by the Council and arguing tat the council should buy the whole tram lines and rolling stock, as had happened in Huddersfield (The first municipal tram system opened in January 1883)

    The demise of Sutherst, London County Tramway & Omnibus Employee union was the result of the general, onslaught by the employees after the original flame of "New Unionism" that had spilt out the London Dock Strike of 1899.

    J. Hibbs states in his book that “In its short life it was a useful one and it was responsible for considerable improvement in working conditions of bus and tram crews”

    Later a Bus, Tram, Motor Workers Union merged with the London Cab Drivers Union (the later established in 1894) to form the London & Provincial Union of Licenced Vehicle Workers (LPU) established in 1913 but also known as the “Red Button Union” because of the colour of their union badge. The L PU was strongly influenced by syndicalism, and distinguished itself from the start as a highly political union, supporting nationalization of transport and opposing world war, while supporting the Russian revolution of 1917. The LPU was prominent in the August 1911 London strike wave that hit the capital as well as the 1915 Tram strike.

    While the union was now dominated by tram workers it maintained a separate London cab owners section under the leadership of branch secretary Blundy .

    The LPU's Journal was entitled the "Licensed Vehicle Trades Record", edited by George Sanders and produced fortnightly and cost 1d.

    The other union to have membership amongst London Tram workers was the Manchester based Amalgamated Association of Tramway & Vehicle Workers (AAT) established in 1889.

    The AAT tram union (which had members in West London at Chiswick, Hanwell and Fulwell) secured a larger base in London when it merged with the small London Tramways Employees Association in 1910. The AAT was known as the“Blue Button Union” again because of the colour of its union badge.

    See the article by John Grigg on the April 1909 Fullwell Tram strike led by Jack Burns

    In late 1919 early 1920 The LPU (109,425 members) and AAT (56,979 members) merged in to form the United Vehicle Workers.

    The United Vehicle Workers union became part of the Transport & General Workers Union on its establishment on January 1st 1922.

    This article was taken from the Hayes People's History website and can be found here.