05. The War and the Workers

Submitted by Steven. on December 19, 2012

Before the introduction of conscription in January 1916, huge pressures were generated to 'encourage' enlistment. This pressure was aided by a massive reorganisation as industry went over to a war footing, allowing ample opportunity for employers to 'shake out' men of military age. At the same time the cost of living rose rapidly, and these factors led to a wave of industrial unrest in early 1915 - for example on the Clyde and in South Wales.

The government's reaction was to proclaim:

that the rise in the cost of living is not by itself sufficient reason at the present time for increasing the wages of their employees. They regard this rise as a burden which must be shared in common by all classes in the country.1

One of the actions which helped break the government's stand was the 19-day strike in support of a war bonus by London tram men in May 1915, when 7,000 workers stopped work. The depots at Holloway and Archway were among the main centres of the strike.

The dispute was very violent. On one day alone (May 30th) eight trams were smashed up outside Archway depot, and a number of blacklegs were assaulted. There were many arrests and several strikers were sentenced to six weeks' hard labour. The reaction of the London County Council (LCC), which owned the tramways, was to sack all men of military age, telling them to volunteer for the armed forces, and it issued a statement which read:

Notice is hereby given that since the majority of men above military age have returned to work, men who are eligible for the services will not be taken back.
a) those who enlist will receive favourable consideration for re-employment, as far as may be possible, after the War.
b) any man of military age unable to enlist may appeal to the Chief Officer and state his reasons, and he will consider whether any circumstances allow any exception in his case. . . .

These were the conditions on which the men returned to work. The action of the LCC in forcing their employees into the mincing machine of the Western Front exposes the hypocrisy of its multiple memorials to 'Our Glorious Dead'.2

The strike was defeated, but the men were not. Within a few months the Islington Branch of the tram men's union had a membership of nearly 2,000. By August 1915 the LCC had conceded a 3s a week War bonus.

The case of the tram men was by no means unique. It illustrates the character of the pressure which the employers were encouraged to exert. This pressure was used as a potent source of propaganda by those socialist groupings which opposed the War. To quote from R. M. Fox again:

I resented this [the press campaign to encourage recruiting] and at enthusiastic meetings in Finsbury Park, Sunday after Sunday, I lampooned the press appeals. 'Have you got a sweating employer or a rack-renting landlord you can spare?' I asked. 'Let him join up to fight for humanity, for civilisation, for democracy, for the women and children, for all those causes in which he has always been so enthusiastic.' The audience was quick to take the point, and we were able to build up a centre of popular resistance to them on working class grounds.3

The recruiting campaign was backed by propaganda from the authorities retailing atrocity stories - mostly lies - and tales of German financing of all anti-War and 'anti-British' tendencies.4 These allegations, coming on top of the already overheated jingoistic atmosphere, created a climate of spy mania and rabid anti- 'alien' feeling. It is therefore not surprising that between May 12th and 14th, 1915 - possibly connected with the sinking of the 'Lusitania' in April - widespread anti-German riots raged in Islington, during which 51 shops owned by Germans or which had German-sounding names were smashed and looted (a bakery in Walthamstow called Strachan's was among the victims). There were also numerous and continuing assaults upon individuals. At least one of victims committed suicide.

Sylvia Pankhurst witnessed one of these riots in Hoxton, where she saw one woman - among many others - with her clothes half torn off and covered with blood, beaten and kicked until she was unconscious. When Sylvia Pankhurst appealed for help for the woman from soldiers in uniform who were watching and an officer who was passing by they took no action.5

On June 18th, 1916, there was a further wave of 'anti-German' rioting, and another on the 7th-8th July following air raids. There is no record of any arrests during these disturbances, although the police did make some attempts to protect property. A sinister if obscure part in these events, as well as the many attacks on anti-War meetings, was played by the Islington Anti-German League, whose Chairman was one Alderman Vorley.

Any account of industrial action in North London during the War must of necessity be limited and fragmentary, for unlike the Clyde, South Wales or the other major industrial centres, there was no concentration of large plants doing similar or related work. Industry in the area consisted of a large number of small or medium firms with no common production theme. Further complicating the scenario was the extreme mobility of labour during the War period with large numbers of workers going from Islington and other parts of North London to work at plants situated as far away as Slough, Tilbury, Enfield and Woolwich, and it was at these places of work where their primary industrial commitment lay.

A further limiting factor in getting a full picture of the industrial scene during the War years, especially in small and medium companies, was that by and large substantial profits were being made, and workers could usually find other ways of getting wage rises than strike action; and that even if they did strike it was unlikely that the news would penetrate very far, particularly in view of the rigorous press censorship imposed during the War.

Workers in government, state-financed or municipal undertakings had little scope for sorting things out at plant level, and it is therefore not surprising that a very high proportion of the documentable local struggles were in these fields.

After the defeat of the tram men in May 1915 the next group of workers to take action were Islington Borough Council workers.

Already in March 1915, workers at the municipally-owned electricity plant had unsuccessfully demanded a War bonus. In September 1915, council truck loaders had won some advances by tendering their notices - the wartime equivalent of strike notice - and in December 1915 delegates of the municipal workforce met at the Victory pub, George's Road, Holloway, and demanded a shilling a week War bonus. They stopped work on January 6th, 1916, and won their basic demands. Later in 1916, the Council's electricity supply workers won a further penny an hour increase, while trimmers in the same department got 3s 6d a week. In July 1917, local cemetery workers demanded 10s a week War bonus, while in that November council dustmen, roadsweepers and carmen struck for a 2d an hour increase.

Meanwhile, public transport workers were keeping the pot boiling. In May 1916, 10,000 workers employed by the London General Omni- bus Company struck; their demands included union recognition, a War bonus of 10s a week, and the reinstatement of 10 victimised men on the Palmers Green bus route. It speaks volumes for the change in atmosphere that the Company almost immediately agreed to go to arbitration and eventually conceded most of the workers' demands.

An outstanding example of the difficulties of describing wartime industrial struggle was the four week long engineers' strike in May 1917, which involved something like 200,000 workers nationally, directed against the extension of dilution (the use of non-skilled workers on skilled work) and the reduction of the exemption of skilled engineers from conscription. This struggle affected thousands of workers in North London; for example the Enfield Ordnance factories, the JAP engine works (Tottenham) and dozens of other plants in the area shut down. In some cases there were quite serious clashes with the police and what seem to have been organised mobs of 'patriots', yet there was little reference to this struggle in either local or national press, as the govern- ment had placed an embargo on all news of the strike until it was virtually over.6

As the War continued, thousands of jobs normally done by men were taken over by women, and nowhere was this process more marked than in public transport. By the end of the War, the London General Omnibus Company alone was employing over 3,500 women, and thousands more were employed by the other bus and tram operators in London as well as on the tubes.7

Both management and the unions had consistently opposed conceding the principle of equal pay for what was obviously equal work. On August 16th, 1918, there was a meeting of women at Willesden bus garage which decided, without consulting or even informing either the management or the trade union leaders, to strike the following day. The next morning Willesden stopped work; they were immediately joined by women at Hackney, Holloway, Archway and Acton depots or garages, and thereafter the strike spread like wildfire. By the evening thousands of women had stopped work. The striking was initially for a 5s War bonus, a demand which was superseded as the struggle con- tinued by the straight issue of equal pay, or as the strikers put it 'Same work-same money'.

The strike continued to spread. By August 23rd, women bus and tram workers at Hastings, Bath, Bristol, South Wales, Southend and Birmingham had joined in, about 18,000 women out of the 27,000 employed in the industry had stopped work, and in addition women working on the tubes - supported by some men - had stopped work on the same issue. The strikers had a series of mass meetings at the Ring, Blackfriars, where 4,000 women, many of them with children, well supplied with sandwiches and lemonade, made a day out of it. The strike was settled on August 25th after a tumultuous meeting at the Ring, and against very strong opposition, while the tube women remained out until the 28th. The women received the extra 5s War bonus, but the principle of equal pay was not conceded.

The details of organisation of this important struggle are obscure; indeed it is rather surprising that this strike, which must be one of the largest ever engaged in by women for their own demands, has not attracted more attention from historians of the labour movement.

The history of industrial struggle during the War was deeply bedded in the conditions of life of the working class during that period. From the very first months of the War essential commodities began to disappear from the shops while prices escalated. The main effect of the government's attempts to restrict profiteering by controlling prices was the rapid disappearance of designated goods from the shops. Even in the first year of the War, food shortages, or rather the shortage of money to pay inflated prices, had begun to have an effect. By 1915 infant mortality rates had increased by over 10% and there was an increased incidence of tuberculosis among women.

year 1911 1915 1916 1917 1918
wages index 100 105-110 115-120 135 175
Cost of living 100 125 147 180 205
Food prices index 100 132 161 204 210 8

While the poor had to make do, the well-to-do, who by and large did very well out of the War, could afford to pay the increased prices. There was a huge growth in the black market. Both the Caledonian Road abattoirs and Smithfield meat market were the centres of thriving unofficial trades in meat, while some shopkeepers simply put up their shutters and dealt completely 'on the side'.

There were ludicrous government attempts to reduce 'waste' - throwing rice at weddings and taking in stray dogs both became criminal offences. 1916 saw the attempt to introduce meatless days, a proposal which did not go down too well with those who had far too many of them already. Well-fed middle-class matrons were sent round the country to lecture working-class women at factory canteens and similar venues on how to cut their consumption of food; their captive audiences, some of whom didn't have enough to eat, did not take too kindly to this, and some of the lecturers had rough rides.

As the War continued the queues got longer. Women had to spend ever more of their lives travelling from shop to shop trying to pick up individual items, sometimes waiting for hours; tempers rose, fights would start, and eventually police had to be used to control the crowds.

Throughout late 1916 and 1917 the food problem grew worse and in the bitterly cold winter of 1917-1918 matters reached a crisis. Gas and electricity were controlled - if you used more than your entitlement you could be cut off - and the quality and pressure of gas was so reduced that it was sometimes almost impossible to use it for cooking. Coal was very difficult to obtain, so that poorer families froze at home and went without hot food. The government had to introduce national kitchens to provide families with some of the basic necessities.

Even the solace of beer was affected. Its price had gone up 500% since the beginning of the War, and its quality - if drinkers of the period are to be believed - had declined by the same amount. Bread was heavily adulterated with barley, rice, maize, beans and up to one-eighth potatoes! It was not at all uncommon in Islington and other working-class areas for grocers' and butchers' delivery boys - by definition supplying the better off, the poor had to queue - to be mugged and their baskets looted. Even the dead were affected; there was an acute shortage of coffins and long delays in funerals led to great distress among bereaved families.

Unrest grew and in early 1918 the government finally had to introduce compulsory rationing. But the damage had been done. The cumulative effect of deprivation in the War years, observation by ordinary people of the transparent injustice of the system, the complete imbalance of the level of sacrifice, allied to a collapse in confidence in the objectivity of the authorities. This had a corrosive effect on the internal cohesion of British society, which substantially contributed to turning the anti-War radicals from a minority group into part of a growing movement with real mass support.

  • 1 Wal Hannington, op cit, p. 44. It was the government's reply to an appeal for a war bonus for Post Office workers.
  • 2 Even before the strike 2,000 tram men had already volunteered; the LCC had promised them half pay but in the event had only given these men 1s a week, which had not improved the men's temper. For further details of this strike see my article 'Lessons for the Past', published in Busmen What Next?, Solidarity Pamphlet 16, 1964.
  • 3R. M. Fox, op cit, p. 192.
  • 4 This propaganda was echoed by H. M. Hyndman, a leader of the BSP, in a widely publici sed letter to Clemenceau in 1915 in which he claimed that the ILP were receiving German money to finance their anti-War stand.
  • 5Sylvia Pankhurst, The Home Front, 1932, p. 194. I recommend this book-which unfortunately only covers events until the end of 1916 - to all who wish to understand the struggles in London during the early part of the War.
  • 6There is an account of this strike in The First Shop Stewards' Movement, by James Hinton, 1973, pp. 196-212. Like most histories of the period, it's a bit thin about events in London.
  • 7The struggle of women transport workers was not isolated. In the same month there was agitation among school teachers, and the unrest spread to workers at Woolwich in November - when 6,000 'munitionettes' took the day off and demonstrated in Whitehall. There were numerous other smaller strikes and demonstrations. For example, in October 1918 women street cleaners in Holborn struck; that they had strong local support was shown when there were violent clashes when housewives set about blacklegs with brooms. There was also a series of upheavals among the thousands of women 'temporary' workers at the Mount Pleasant postal sorting office at Clerkenwell; the unions representing 'inside' staff had refused the women membership, so they had to set up their own unofficial committees.
  • 8 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Prices and Wages in the United Kingdom 1911-1920.