More About Churchill, the Strikers and the Military, 1910-40.   Leave a comment

Originally published as a note in…

‘Our Prime Minister’ – Churchill and the Parliamentary Labour Party in May 1940:

In his BBC History of Britain, Simon Schama gave an extensive profile of Churchill as one of his ‘two Winstons’ (2000), the other being George Orwell’s fictional character in ‘1984’. No doubt Schama’s television series had an influence on the British public who voted for Churchill as ‘the Greatest Briton’ on the BBC television series two years later. But Schama presented Churchill’s career in a rounded way, free from the ‘great man’ approach taken by some political biographers and historians. He pointed out the irony that though it was Chamberlain who was forced to resign over the Norway debácle, which began in April 1940 and brought Churchill to the Premiership, it was the latter who, as First Lord of the Admiralty, who ‘had grievously miscalculated… the exposure of battlecruisers to attack from the air.’ As a result, a modest German force was able to frustrate British attempts at a landing. The whole campaign was a massive mess and by June the only substantial British bridgehead, at Narvik, was abandoned. Churchill might have been expected to take the lion’s share of the blame, yet somehow he escaped the whipping. This may have been because he had already begun his famous radio broadcasts and thereby to establish some of the public persona that was to boost morale so powerfully during the rest of the war.


Striking miners trying to catch some sleep between picketing in the power-house at the Glamorgan Colliery during the Cambrian Combine disputes which saw the Tonypandy riots in 1910.

His path to the premiership was not a smooth one, however. He was still not at all popular with most of the Tory backbenchers in the Commons, and even less popular with Labour MPs, many of whom had memories that stretched back to the general strike and even to Tonypandy, by then thirty years previous. In the country as a whole, however, the contrast between Churchill and Chamberlain was becoming clearer, not least because Chamberlain had backed into the war and somehow never seemed to manage to rouse himself from what had been a personal defeat. Churchill, on the other hand, ‘having argued for armed resistance to the Third Reich, was flush with vindication.’ When, on 9 May, Chamberlain went to the Palace to resign, and George VI asked him whom he should send for, the King is said to have been surprised, if not disappointed, that it was not to be Lord Halifax, whom both he and the queen liked and who had been a regular guest at Balmoral. The following day, it was Churchill who kissed the King’s hands as the Germans were invading Holland and Belgium. The following Whit Monday, when King George had received a personal call from Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands asking for asylum for her government-in-exile, Churchill went to the Commons to deliver a short speech, shocking in its quiet, truthful sobriety, its absolute moral clarity and its defiant optimism:

I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined the Government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat… You ask, What is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might… against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. … You ask: What is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory … for without victory there is no survival.

The cheers which followed these words came overwhelmingly from the Labour benches. There was now a sense – with Clement Attlee in the small war cabinet, and Arthur Greenwood, Herbert Morrison and above all Ernest Bevin at the Ministry of Labour, that Churchill was their prime minister. Chamberlain had been damaged by his failure to win the trust of the unions, but that was no longer an issue since Bevin and Morrison had been given massive powers. It was, in fact, the realization of that most unideological trade unionist Bevin’s passion for genuine management-union co-operation. War had brought the two Britains back together. Perhaps Brexit could do so now. If the Parliamentary Labour Party of 1940 was willing to put the events of Tonypandy and the General Strike behind it in the national interest, perhaps the ‘third-rate Lenins’ (Churchill’s grandson’s phrase) who lead it now should also consider putting their narrow ideological and sectional interests on one side in support of the current Prime Minister.


The civilian response to the government’s broadcast appeal on 14 May 1940 led to the formation of the Local Defence Volunteer forces to meet the threat of invasion. In August, the LDV was regularised as the Home Guard. Here, Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour and National Service, is seen inspecting the 101 London Battalion of the Home Guard.

Strikers and Soldiers in Southampton, Liverpool & Elsewhere, June-August 1911:

The two photographs below, although surviving in differing quality, are two of a single roll of film taken by a professional Liverpool photographer, Carbonara. The rising militancy of the trade unions and the determination of the Liberal government to meet that militancy with armed force if necessary is shown in the photographs taken during the transport strike at Liverpool and the first national railway stoppage. From Liverpool, comes a powerful study of a docker exchanging verbal blows with an army sergeant while a platoon of infantrymen with fixed bayonets regard with awe the audacity of the worker. The railway photograph from the Library of the National Railway Museum shows armed guardsmen and police on duty at the Clapham Junction North signal box. Both the Liverpool strikers and the railway workers won their battles.


Tom Mann, pictured above, addressing strikers in Liverpool, had been one of the leaders of the great dock strike of 1889, founder of the militant Workers’ Union, the first general secretary of the Independent Labour Party and of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. After eight years of trade union activity in Australia, he arrived back in England on 10 May 1910. He was, by that time, a labour leader of international renown with a capacity for appearing at the centre of struggle wherever workers were downtrodden; he was a catalyst for action. He returned from his years abroad, firmly propagating the ideas of syndicalism, industrial unionism, as a means of winning working class power. Within eight weeks of being home, he had launched a small publication, ‘The Industrial Syndicalist’. He wrote:

What is called for? What will have to be the essential conditions for the success of any such movement? That is should be avowedly and clearly revolutionary in aim and method … We therefore most certainly favour strikes and we will always do our best to help strikers.

He did not have to wait long before leading one of the fiercest strikes of the decade. In accordance with the ideas of industrial unionism, by November 1910 he had formed the thirty-six unions organising transport workers into the National Transport Federation. The first stage of the battle was fought against the rich International Shipping Federation who refused to employ any seaman who was a member of the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union. When, in the spring of 1911, every attempt at negotiation had failed, the time had come to challenge the owners, the men demanding the right to belong to a union and to wear the union badge, in addition to an increase in pay and an amendment to the conditions of medical inspection to which they were subjected. On 14 June the strike was declared in all the major ports and met with a powerful response. The ‘S.S. Olympic’, the largest liner built at that pre-Titanic time, was due to leave Southampton for New York to bring back American millionaires for the coronation celebrations. The ‘coalies’ refused to fuel her and the seamen refused to sail her. Within days, the arrogant shipowners who had declined to talk to the union conceded all its demands.


The eyeball to eyeball confrontation between the sergeant and the striker whilst the young private stares open-mouthed at the exchange holds in a moment of time the image of the unarmed worker challenging state power.

The lesson of solidarity was clear and in Liverpool on 28 June four thousand dockers came out demanding recognition of the National Union of Dock Labourers and application of union rules at the docks. Seamen, coalies, scalers and carters all followed in support. The strike spread rapidly throughout the city, tramwaymen and railwaymen, the latter against the advice of their leaders in the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, joining the struggle. The strike committee met daily, issuing permits for the movement of essential supplies, stopping the carriage of all other goods. The government responded by sending two gunboats up the Mersey opposite Birkenhead, guns trained on Liverpool. Cavalry and infantry with fixed bayonets were drafted in and hundreds of long stout staves ordered for the police. Mann wrote afterwards:

Let Churchill do his utmost, his best or his worst, let him order ten times more military to Liverpool, not all the King’s horses with all the King’s men can take the vessels out of the docks to sea.

On 24 August, with all their demands conceded, the strike was called off. So, unlike in the Cambrian dispute, the presence of the soldiers could not break the strike. Less than a week earlier, on 18-19 August, a first national rail strike had taken place. Unrest due to high prices, long hours and petty company tyrannies had resulted in railway workers following the lead of the Liverpool dockers, the men coming out on their own initiative on 23 July. The executives of the four main railway unions had asked for negotiations with the railway companies and were met with a firm refusal and a challenge to conflict. The general manager of one of the leading railway companies told ‘The Times’:

It is better to have a battle and fight the matter out.

Before the strike began, the Liberal government had assured the private railway companies that ‘every available soldier in the country’ would be put at their disposal. Churchill, as Home Secretary, ordered telegrams to be sent to all Chief Constables informing them that the regulations requiring civil authority requisition for the use of troops were suspended. He passed to the generals the power to decide how, when and where to disperse and use their troops. 58,000 soldiers were mobilised. Sentries with fixed bayonets were ostentatiously placed at the main terminal and signal boxes, as pictured below, and an army signalling station was set up in the Golden Gallery of St Paul’s Cathedral. General Burnley pre-emptively informed the Lord Mayor of Manchester that his troops were marching to the city. The railway companies tried to bribe the men to stay at work, the London Underground offering double pay while the Midland dangled a fifty per cent bonus. Despite these inducements, 200,000 men came out and within forty-eight hours the government and railway companies, in an astonishing volte-face, sat down to negotiate with the unions. Again, the threat of military force had failed to break the strikers’ determination.

However, although the strike, in general, passed off peacefully without the ‘battle’ predicted by some of the railway company’s management, a serious incident took place in Llanelli in South Wales, which provided the junction for the rail and ferry link to Ireland, and was therefore of strategic military importance. The two-day industrial action took place on Friday 18 and Saturday 19 August. A joint committee of trade unions was created to co-ordinate industrial action in the town, which organised a mass picket in Llanelli due to the ease with which strikers could blockade the Great Western Railway at the railway station. However, by this time a series of clashes with strikers had led to the deployment of a detachment from the Worcestershire Regiment. The involvement of the army has been associated with Churchill, the ‘villain of Tonypandy’, but in fact, it was coordinated, under the terms published by Churchill, by the Generals, on the request of local constabularies. The deployment and engagement of troops no longer required the Home Secretary’s approval, as it had done at Tonypandy.

On 19 August, a train containing blackleg workers was held up. The commanding officer of the troops, Major Brownlow Stuart, ordered his men to use bayonets to disperse the crowd. The train passed slowly so that it was pursued by strikers who boarded it and put out the engine fire, immobilising it. Troops followed but found themselves boxed in a cutting, as miners approached, some throwing stones. Stuart asked the local Justice of the Peace to read the strikers the Riot Act, which he apparently mumbled reluctantly. Stuart then ordered his men to fire shots towards the crowd. Two young men were shot dead. One was a 21-year-old tinplate worker named John ‘Jac’ John, who “had joined the picket line to support his less fortunate townsmen.” The other was a 19-year-old youth named Leonard Worsell, who was not involved in the conflict but had just come out into his back garden when he heard the commotion. In his report, Major Stuart claimed his soldiers were firing warning shots and were unaware of the men when they did so, but other witnesses claim they were deliberately targeted.

The troops’ action sparked not only the strikers but also other residents of Llanelli into a day of widespread disorder and rioting. One man was killed when he attempted to use dynamite to open an armoured freight carriage, unaware that the cargo was munitions, resulting in a massive explosion. On the following day, three more innocent people died from injuries sustained in the blast. One local historian, John Edwards believes that there was a conspiracy between Liberals and the chapels to silence further protests, though his aunt clearly referred to the Worcesters as “the murderers”. As such the riots were rarely spoken of in the town, such that most of its later residents were unaware of one of the more significant events in its history. One thing is clear. Though he may have been told of the troop and police deployments during the strike, Churchill did not order the Worcesters into Llanelli and had no part in the orders they were given. Nevertheless, the shootings may have been the source, through subsequent popular confusion, of the claims that Churchill gave permission for the soldiers to shoot at the striking miners in the Rhondda.


Posted February 27, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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