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Extreme Measures

Strike disrupting the railway in 1926. . . . . .

Volunteers handling milk churns at Paddington station during the General Strike.

The 1926 General Strike saw some strikers going to extreme lengths to make their point against their employers. The Trades Union Congress had instructed the chosen unions in a coordinated effort to stop work at midnight on Monday 3rd May 1926. Action was called for in support of miners threatened with wage cuts and job losses. It was seen in many sectors, including railways, as a threat against people’s living standards. Some food trains were supposed to continue running under an agreement with unions, but many didn’t and volunteers had to move large amounts of perishables such as fish, milk, meat and produce.

Meanwhile, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had already implemented the Emergency Powers Act 1920 to take place from 30th April 1926. Among the provisions were that “if any person injures, or does any act calculated to injure, or to prevent the proper use or working of any public building, railway, canal, bridge, road, tramway, vehicle, telegraph or telephone line, cable or plant, mine, shop, factory, waterworks, gasworks, electricity generating station, or any works or plant used or adapted for use for the production, supply, storage or transport of food, fuel, munitions, water, light, heat or power, he shall be guilty of an offence against these regulations.” Anyone contravening the regulations would be liable on conviction to imprisonment with or without hard labour up to three months, or to be fined up to £100, or even have to go to prison and be fined as well. Such was the feeling that some chose to ignore all this and take action of their own. Across the country, some strikers’ actions were extreme;

- Complete lengths of rail removed;

- Keys removed from all chairs in lengths of bullhead rail track;

- Bolts and fishplates loosened in track;

- Grease applied to rails on severe gradients and in tunnels;

- Stones and other missiles thrown at trains and buses;

- Windows in railway buildings smashed;

- Rocks and pieces of metal placed on running lines;

- Fencing broken and removed;

- Large numbers of detonators placed on lines;

- Catch points tampered with;

- Signal wires cut;

- Intimidation of strike-breakers and their families;

- Strike-breakers’ homes daubed with paint and tarred and feathered;

- Barbed wire used around strike-breakers’ homes;

- Use of language likely to cause breaches of the peace;

- “Communistic activities”;

- Impeding work using general threats of violence;

- Locomotives in steam sabotaged.

Some strikers were jailed for misbehaviour whilst others were dismissed, fined, re-employed on casual labour terms, reduced to a lower grade, transferred or had their reinstatement process without wages or privileges deliberately drawn out. Staff records were marked up as ‘L’ (loyal) or ‘D’ (disloyal). As in other industries, “blacklegs” were shunned for long after the strike, if not permanently.

A well-loaded commuter train operated by volunteers unloading at Paddington station.

To take one example, the Great Western Railway (GWR) alone used over 16,000 volunteers to run the best possible service across its network under the circumstances. Almost 300 volunteer drivers were trained and used on the GWR, supported by almost 500 volunteer firemen. Over 200 clerical staff and students were trained in the basics of signalling to work signal boxes, although block working wasn’t really in operation as time interval working was more suited to the circumstances. Retired employees came back to work. The retired Paddington stationmaster worked as a train guard in the West Country. Windsor’s retired stationmaster went back to his old job while his successor worked the station signal box. Stationmasters used cars and bikes to move between and operate vital signal boxes and crossings. Most managers and supervisors chose not to strike: those who did were put “on the carpet” and had to explain themselves. An unfortunate curate in Swindon found himself transferred away from the town after he had preached a sermon in favour of the strike to a congregation with a high proportion of railway managers, foremen and those wanting to advance their careers. They had complained and temporarily worshipped elsewhere.

The strike is said to have cost the country £500 million. Around 82% of all 116,300 GWR staff started the strike on 5th May when only 202 passenger and freight trains ran. By 14th May with 79% of staff still striking, 1,392 passenger and freight trains were able to run. For the railway, matters returned to normal between the 15th and 18th May. However, miners carried on striking until the end of November.

Mike Peart

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[K01, K06, K07, K08]

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