Rail Strikes of Long Ago


How the Great Western Railway (GWR) responded to strike threats and action. . . . . .



You’ve volunteered during a rail strike – now which bit does what? The cab of a GWR “King” class locomotive. Photo: Mike Peart’s collection.


With rail strikes very much in the news, I thought I’d take a look at how these matters were dealt with many years ago. Nationally, there had been eleven small-scale local rail strikes between 1836 and 1870. The Trade Union Act of 1871 gave legal status to unions, and the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) formed the following year.


On the GWR in December 1896, General Manager Joseph Wilkinson issued a circular to Station Masters following a strike threat by the ASRS. Station Masters were asked to interview each goods guard, brakesman, shunter and signalman on their station or depot’s pay bill. Each man was to be reminded that the GWR directors had always shown their willingness to consider and remedy any cases of apparent hardship. The men were then to be asked whether they intended to go on strike, or if they wished to resign and lose all their privileges, in which case they would have to give one month’s notice in writing. A form with the names of each man and their answers was to be returned to Paddington Head Office. In the event, over 90% of the men pledged to remain at work, and as a result no GWR man was dismissed.


In October 1907, at a time of great industrial relations unrest in the railway industry, all clerks working for the GWR received a circular from Head Office at their home addresses asking for replies to two questions: “Do you intend to be loyal to the company in the event of strike?” and “Are you prepared to undertake duties outside your own grade?” The Railway Clerks’ Association issued advice to its members to answer “Yes” to the first question and “No” to the second. President of the Board of Trade, David Lloyd George (later to be Prime Minister), met railway company chairmen and directors in an attempt to defuse the situation.


August 18th 1911 saw the start of the first national railway strike over union recognition, pay and conditions. Prime Minister Asquith threatened action by all civil and military forces and 58,000 troops were mobilised on the orders of the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill. A mass picket at Llanelli station in South Wales took place. Stones were thrown at trains, there was looting and The Riot Act was read by local magistrate Henry Wilkins. The picket was given one minute to disperse. Not all did and two men were shot dead by troops from the Worcestershire Regiment. The strike ended with a negotiated settlement after two days of looting and disorder. Not every member of GWR staff went on strike. The GWR’s personnel records for each employee involved were marked “L” for “Loyal” for those who stayed at their posts and “D” for “Disloyal” for those who didn’t. The GWR lost 96 wagons which were either set alight or vandalised, and further damage was caused to passenger coaches.


Then in September 1918, a railway strike started which mainly affected the GWR. Railwaymen in South Wales had refused new terms and conditions. At Reading, there were violent scenes at the strikers’ headquarters when a large number of soldiers, many of them wounded from war service, attempted to break up a meeting of railway strikers. Angry words led to blows being thrown and a free fight started in which many were injured. The strikers’ headquarters were partly wrecked.



You’ve volunteered to work a signal box – now which lever does what? What are all these bells and phones for? The interior of the Friars Junction signal box 3½ miles outside Paddington on the main line to the West. Photo: British Railways.

A year later in September 1919 there was a sudden strike called by the NUR in which 65% of the GWR footplatemen also came out in support. Railway companies and unions advertised their respective cases in national newspapers for the first time. Over 4,000 volunteers and naval stokers helped to keep some services running. Footplate volunteers were interviewed at Paddington by the Superintendent of the Line and the Locomotive Superintendent. If considered suitable they were sent to the London (Old Oak Common) shed for further testing on locomotive handling by Foreman Hancock and, if successful, put to work on services from Paddington to Southall, Slough and Reading. For a while, a time interval system was used, but eventually enough volunteers and instructors were found to staff the signal boxes between Paddington and Slough. Strikers lined the footbridge over the lines at Southall and shouted abuse at the crews of passing trains, while passengers on the station platforms shouted back. Missiles were thrown at passing locomotives by strikers, some of whom took notes and used binoculars to identify strike-breakers. To accommodate volunteers, suburban coaches in the sidings at Old Oak Common were coupled up to a locomotive to provide steam heating. They served as volunteers’ overnight accommodation with the GWR providing pillows and blankets and, in exchange for a “chit”, food in a dining car at the carriage shed. The MP for East Cornwall, a former GWR apprentice, fired a locomotive from Paddington to Reading and back. Obstructions were put on the line near Wootton Bassett, and a light engine with an armed guard was sent from Swindon to remove sleepers placed on the tracks. Strikers in Swindon tarred and feathered a house they believed to be occupied by a strike-breaker. Unfortunately, they got the wrong house and were made to undo their work.


Pay rates to railway staff which had been increased with a “war bonus” during the Great War were about to be reduced for NUR grades; footplate staff had already agreed their pay rates. The strike was partly due to the belief that Government management of the railways during and after World War One was affecting wages and conditions. On the GWR, 94% of goods and traffic department staff and 65% of footplate staff came out on strike. They were joined by 16 Stationmasters and 304 Inspectors. The Army was put on alert, and volunteers from GWR retired and salaried staff and the public took over numerous jobs to keep some trains running. On the second day of the strike just three trains passed through Newton Abbot. The 517 class 0-4-2 tank engine working the Bourne End (Bucks) to Marlow “Marlow Donkey” service was crewed by volunteers, but during their meal break footplate crew strikers threw out the locomotive’s fire and opened the blow-down valve emptying the boiler. Cattle from Ireland arriving at Fishguard couldn’t be taken on trains and had to be put into fields around the port to await the end of the strike. The ocean mails from Plymouth were sent to London by navy torpedo boat, and inland mail was taken by lorry around the GWR system. Food convoys of lorries run by the Army and others kept some essential supplies going. Petrol sales were restricted. Special constables guarded railway bridges. Some long-distance train services ran on main lines while some other local services ran although couldn’t always complete the full distance due to locked points. The GWR claimed to have run 200 trains on the sixth day of the strike. This strike, which had started eight days before, ended on 5th October 1919. The GWR promised a full service to resume on 7th October. Volunteers received a thank-you letter from GWR General Manager Charles Aldington CBE.


1926 General Strike, the General Manager’s poster for GWR staff. Photo: Mike Peart’s collection.


On midnight 3/4th May 1926 the General Strike started. On the 2nd May (Sunday) General Manager Sir Felix Pole had written a “Whom Do You Serve?” letter to all staff warning them not to join the strike, but over 80% did. Operationally, 98% of drivers, 99% of firemen and 92% of signalmen joined the strike. Skeleton services were run by volunteers such as engineering college students, former members of the forces and strike-breakers. 194 GWR trains ran on the first day of the strike, with 250 the following day and 300 the day after. Plymouth ocean traffic continued and 20 ships landed 3,000 passengers while the strike was going on and nine trains took the passengers to Paddington. The recently retired stationmaster at Paddington, James Page, volunteered as a guard on the Taunton to Barnstaple and Minehead branches. In London where stablemen were striking, hundreds of the GWR’s London area cartage horses at the Paddington “Mint” stables were cared for by volunteer women, some of whom were said to be “titled ladies”.