General Strike 1926

Despite the demise of the Soviet Union, the Russian Revolution of 1917 lingers in the collective memory of the people of Scotland. Many Scottish schoolchildren studying history are taught a module on ‘Lenin and the Bolsheviks’, and the term ‘Bolshi’ persists in everyday language. The People’s Palace Museum in Glasgow is home to the desk of John MacLean, Clydeside socialist, democrat, educator and trade unionist who served six terms of imprisonment between 1916 and 1923 for the offences of sedition and incitement to strike. Maclean became the Soviet Consul for Scotland and stood in the General Election of 1922. He was also elected alongside Lenin and Trotsky as an Honorary President of the Worker’s Government of Russia (First All Russian Congress of Soviets).

Nine years after the Russian Revolution, England Scotland and Wales came close to a similar revolution when for 9 days in May of 1926 workers across Britain took to the streets. They not only challenged the owners of industry and the Government, they actually threatened the very nature and existence of the state. For the first and last time in the modern history of Britain, collective action by the industrial masses created the potential of a revolutionary situation. The purpose of this paper is to offer something of the story of that General Strike and of its experience within Scotland and especially Perthshire.

Background to the 1926 General Strike:

The short-term causes of the General Strike lay immediately with the plight of the mining industry. Mine owners and management responded to an economic downturn in the industry by attempting to drive down the wages and working conditions of miners. The mineworkers were determined to resist wage reductions, and were supported in this determination by other key unions.

The industrial working classes defined British politics in the 1920s; some 7 Million workers (one in six of the population) were employed in heavy industry or the land. Two million men worked down the mines and hundreds of thousands of others were employed in the iron and steel industry, in the railways and docks, in the building and engineering industry and in textiles and transport.

A longer-term view of the 1926 General Strike sees it as the inevitable outcome of a struggle between classes that began during the First World War. Soldiers returning to Britain after the Great War did not find their land fit for heroes, rather one fit for zeroes. Miners that had spent years in trenches returned to pits where they were treated worse than before they had volunteered to defend the British Empire. The miners together with the dockers and railway workers formed in 1919 a Triple Alliance of one and a half million trade unionists. Very soon, this alliance came into conflict with the British Government. Firstly, in 1919 major strikes and demonstrations took place, although they ended in disunity and failure. Secondly, in 1920 a general strike was threatened to safeguard the newly emerging workers’ state in Russia by preventing British involvement in a war against the Bolsheviks. During 1921-22, the mines were given back by the Government to private ownership and wage cuts were introduced. When the miners responded with industrial action, lock-out notices appeared, troops were deployed at the coalfields and the government declared a state of emergency.

In all these events a pattern emerged that was repeated as tragedy in the 1926 General Strike; militancy by workers on the ground and the capitulation by their leaders. 1921 was no different, as hundreds of thousands of other industries came out in support of the mineworkers locked out on 31 March, the big unions’ leadership withdrew sympathy strike notices. The day that this occurred (15 April), became known as Black Friday. Its consequence for the mineworkers was wage cuts that reached as much as 40% in some pits.

With the French occupation of the German Ruhr, British mining received an economic boost and wages rose in the coalfields. When France withdrew from the region, cheap German coal exports once again came into Britain, which caused a slump in the domestic coal market. Some 20% of the coal labour force was laid off in the 1920s because of shrinkage in the domestic market.

In 1924, the Communist Party of Great Britain set up the National Minority Movement in the mining, transport, engineering and railway unions as a radical rank and file organisation. By 1926, three hundred of these revolutionary cells were active in coalfields and factories. The inevitability of a confrontation between the British state and the working class was assured. The coal question became the issue around which workers in other industries pinned their hopes. What happened to the miners would determine the fate of the entire class.

The British Government and state understood the nature of what was occurring in British industry and began preparations for the inevitable major showdown between the ruling class and the industrial working class. Events in Russia struck fear deep into the British ruling class psyche and so they made ready for battle. In 1919, the Prime Minister of the day Lloyd George formed the Emergency Supply and Transport Committee and this organisation acted effectively as a junta above Parliament to ensure defeat for the miners in the 1921 actions.

The Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin appointed Winston Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1925. His first budget overvalued the British pound to the level it occupied before the First World War in order to return to the Gold Standard. This reduced the profits of British industry whose captains chose to reclaim their losses by attacking the pay and conditions of their employees. Once again, the miners were the initial target. Stanley Baldwin made it clear that what his government required was pay cuts throughout British industry. Workers for a second time concluded that the struggle in the mining industry was the key to the future working conditions of all British workers:

“The miners occupy the front trenches of the position singled out for attack and if their wages are reduced it will be the beginning of a general wage reduction.”

(John Wheatley MP)

A new version of the Triple Alliance came into being extended across many sectors of the economy. The rail and transport unions agreed to impose an embargo on the transport of coal. The Government awarded a financial subsidy of £10 Million to the coal industry for nine months, and set up an inquiry under Sir Herbert Samuel into the future of coal mining whilst warning workers that the economic situation necessitated wage cuts across British industry. Previous inquiries had been ignored by the Government, and the subsidy was employed as a space in which final preparations where made for dealing with mass trade union action.

Despite statements like that of the miners’ leader, Arthur James Cook, “we [the unions] shall be faced with the greatest struggle … ever known and we are preparing for it,” the unions and the TUC did little to really set up structures for handling the crisis that was soon to begin. The government however set about disrupting the functioning of the Communist Party of Great Britain by arresting its leadership in the middle of October 1925 as they were preparing for the General Strike. Charges brought against these 12 leaders under the Incitement to Mutiny Act of 1797 related to a pamphlet produced by the Communist Party calling for soldiers in the British Army to form revolutionary groups. At the Old Bailey, all were found guilty and received sentences between 6 months and a year.

From the very start of the strike the leadership of the trade unions and their federations, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) were criticised for being timid in their response to the mood of their members and wavering over important decisions. In fact, it was claimed that a significant proportion of the union leadership feared victory:

“I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I fear is my own.”

(J.R. Cleynes – General and Municipal Workers Union)

To assist the Emergency Supplies and Transport Committee a volunteer group, the Government formed the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies. At the very start of the General Strike it had a staff complement of nearly 100 000.

The date of the General Strike was forecast 9 months in advance; on the day that the coal subsidy ended and the mine owners were predicted to issue lock out notices – the 1st of May 1926. Three days before this date the TUC approached the Prime Minister in an attempt to come to a negotiated settlement. Two hundred unions were behind the miners but the mine owners offered a settlement that meant a wage cut and an extra hour on a shift. At a special conference, the miners voted to reject these terms.

“All together behind the miners: Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day.”

(A Slogan of the day)

By this stage, the Government was tooled up and wearing full combat gear. Primed for the fight, it was in no mood for compromise.

The General Strike across Britain:

As expected on 1 May, a million mineworkers were locked out of their pits; not able to return until they agreed to reduced pay and increased hours. The TUC returned to the Government who offered a deal that included a 13% reduction in pay. This proposal was put by the TUC to the miners and was rejected by the miners’ union leadership by 12 votes to 6. Shortly afterwards the TUC (and in Scotland, the STUC) took direct responsibility for the dispute. Further talks became impossible after the Government walked out of talks in response to an unofficial walkout by printers at the Daily Mail over an anti-union article called ‘For King and Country.’

A vote was taken at the TUC for a strike to begin on 3 May at 11:59pm. The distribution of the votes were, 3 655 527- Yes, and, 49 911 – No. The Government made the strike illegal and declared a state of emergency. Coal, food and fuel supplies were stockpiled and put under strict control. The Emergency Regulations were imposed for 1 month, with a clause that they could be re-imposed for additional periods of a month at a time. Under the terms of the regulations, the government gained direct control of land, buildings, factories and services. The Labour Party proposed an amendment to the Emergency Regulations in Parliament, but was defeated by 317 votes to 95.

The British Parliament was sidelined as Regional Civil Commissioners were appointed and on 2 May given autocratic control over England, Scotland and Wales. The trigger for the taking of power by these commissioners was a one-word telegram sent out from the Government, “Action”. Britain was no longer ruled by Parliament, it was ruled by decree. All leave for members of the Armed Forces was cancelled, as troops and armoured cars were stationed at the key centres of industrial militancy – Lancashire, London, Scotland,and South Wales. All around Britain, warships were deployed. They were moored in the Tyne, the Clyde and at several other docks. Seven naval warships sailed up the River Clyde.

Very shortly, over 4 million workers left their places of employment as miners, printers, dockers, builders, iron and steel workers, chemical and metallurgical workers, railway workers, tram drivers, tube and bus drivers answered the call to a General Strike. Every pit in Britain ceased to operate. Only housing and hospital building workers, those in the gas and electricity supply industries, and sanitary, health and food (and milk) distribution employees remained at work, to provide essential services.

With so many printers out on strike, the Government did not have a direct means to reach the populace and so a state newspaper, the British Gazette, was set up under the editorship of Winston Churchill. All told, the British Government spent hundreds of millions of pounds on winning the General Strike.

“It is a conflict which, if it is fought out to a conclusion can only end in the overthrow of parliamentary government or its decisive victory.”

(Winston Churchill)

Within Parliament, the Liberal Party under Lloyd George offered full support to the Government, and the House of Lords offered not even a murmur.

In some industrial areas, workers formed their own committees to coordinate the strike. In several of the coalfields where the Communist Party of Great Britain was strong, the National Minority Movement took responsibility for picketing and food distribution. Despite operating under the threat of arrest, communist and other left-wing activists kept up their agitation and organisation throughout the general strike. Workers’ Councils of Action came into being all across Britain to co-ordinate picketing, transport and all other aspects of the strike. In certain places dual power structures of state and worker competed against each other, sometimes violently. Local strike bulletins were established, roads blocked, transport controlled, and goods distribution permitted only under permission. Defence militias were formed in some places such as East Fife, which consisted of 700 workers who fought pitched battles with police and paramilitaries. The TUC (and STUC) stayed out of these groups condemning them. There was no overall national coordination of the Action Councils and Strike Committees, and the TUC (and STUC) where heavily attacked for reining in militancy. If national coordination could have been organised by the striking workers, then the General Strike might well have transformed from an industrial dispute into a full-blown challenge to the state and caused the social transformation of British society.

“There’s never been anything like it. If the blighters oleaders here … dinna let us down we’ll hae the capitalist crawlin’ on their bellies in a week. Oh boy, it’s the revolution at last.”

(A Scottish Independent Labour Party Activist)

Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Government delegated powers to each local and regional authority to recruit volunteer workers, control coal and food supplies and take over the running of transport – Three hundred thousand (mainly middle-class) volunteers were recruited during the General Strike In Scotland, the Lord Advocate put together an emergency administration, which divided the country into five regions. The Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies was formed and staffed by volunteers, a significant proportion of who were recruited from the far right of British politics. Volunteers came down from University and were employed to run buses and trams. Other strikebreaking students drove lorries and cars that were utilised to deliver goods and supplies.

“Keep steady. Remember that peace on earth comes to men of goodwill.”

(Stanley Baldwin)

Support amongst the dockworkers was almost total, with 13,960 out of 14,000 on strike. Student volunteers were brought down the River Thames to take over the dockyards but during their approach thousands of dockers attempted to occupy the docks. As they did so, a battalion of Grenadier Guards and hundreds of sailors met them and forced them to pull back. At other places in dockside, marines set up machine-gun emplacements, and pointed their guns at the strikers. Britain was close to civil war. In London, when the British Army protected food convoy made its way from the East end docks to the Emergency Food Depot in Hyde Park, fighting threatened to breakout between protestors and soldiers. Although full-scale rioting did not breakout across Britain, acts of violence and defiance did occur regularly.

On 5 May. the Times, newspaper’s printing presses were burned down, and on 10 May, the Flying Scotsman was derailed. Street battles between police and strikers took place across Britain. In Glasgow on 6 May over a hundred police officers with drawn batons attacked protestors. Many strikers were hurt in the ensuing violence and 66 arrested. The incident in Glasgow occurred after a group of miners picketed Ruby Street Tram Depot, with the intention of preventing trams from leaving.

In Scotland, Orange Flute bands joined the picket lines against the wishes of the organisation’s Grand Masters. Hundreds were arrested continuously throughout the General Strike. They were taken before Sheriff Courts and received sentences of up to 3 months hard labour. Complaints were made against police and special constables including accusations of acting as agent provocateurs, breaking up meetings, issuing beatings and assaulting protestors, carrying out arrests falsely, and committing perjury.

Perthshire and the 1926 General Strike:

The annual May Day Rally was held in Perth on 1 May 1926, organised by the labour movement and the Co-Operative Education Committee. John Traill and Andrew Bell chaired it, and the Perth Silver Band played to the audience. Amongst the speakers were:

Joe Sullivan – MP for Bothwell was a member of the executive of the Scottish Miners and previously a county councillor and MP for North Lanark.

Mrs Hardstaff – representing the Co-operative Movement

J. S. Simpson – representing the Independent Labour Party and the Labour Party and a member of NUDAW.

Mr. Birmingham – representing the National Union of Railwaymen and a local organiser.

Arthur Bayne – representing the National Union of Railwaymen and an executive member from Dundee.

During the General Strike the Perthshire Advertiser ran adverts on behalf of the Lord Provost of Perth, Thomas Dempster, announcing the imposition of the Coal (Emergency) Directions 1926, the Local Authorities (Coal) (Scotland) Order 1926 and the establishment of the Scottish Emergency Organisation Corporation of the City of Perth.

Volunteer recruitment took place at the Guildhall (High Street) and over 700 signed up to help break the strike by offering their services as drivers of cars and carts or as good and merchandise handlers. In addition a Civil Constabulary was formed. By 3 May over 10,000 Special Constables had been sworn in nationally ready for duties. The Lesser City Hall was utilised as a Clearing Hall for local farmers and businesspersons looking to bring goods in or out of Perth via convoys. Blairgowrie and Rattray Town Councils amalgamated temporarily in order to implement the Coal Emergency regulations. In Bankfoot, many men came forward to become part of the Special Constabulary.

Elsewhere in Scotland, Glasgow was a main centre of strike activity, alongside North Lanarkshire and Vale of Leven, where Councils of Action were formed. Strike Committees came into being in North Ayrshire, and in the Stirlingshire coalfields, in East Renfrewshire and Perth. These bodies not only assisted coordination of strikes locally, but prevented strike-breaking volunteers from undermining the effectiveness of the General Strike.

When the General Strike was declared in Britain on 3 May 1926 many workers in Perth and its county decided to answer the call and come out. The most important sections of industrial militancy in Perth were the railwayman, printers and tramway men.

A key figure in the General Strike in Perth was Tom Murray. Originally, from a farming family in Tornaven, Aberdeenshire Tom Murray experienced the harshness of unemployment in the 1920s with the failures in the agricultural economy. He came to Perth as an organiser for a campaign against licensed businesses. This campaign’s remit lay within the ’No Licence Option’ of the Scottish Temperance Act. Tom Murray was a member of the Independent Labour Party, which he joined in 1919 and became active in the Perth branch, taking an organisational role in several parliamentary election campaigns. He was also a member of the National Union of Clerks. After the General Strike Tom moved to Edinburgh where he continued his political activity.

A decade later, Tom Murray volunteered to join the International Brigades in Spain to fight fascism and became a political commissar in the Machine-Gun Company of the British Battalion (15th International Brigade).

The Perth Strike Campaign Committee was responsible for coordinating action and making the strike as comprehensive as possible. One of its actions was to control the main roads in and out of Perth, so that only vehicles with a Strike Committee permit could do so. Tom Murray’s responsibility was to ensure that pickets controlled the roads to Forfar, Dundee, Edinburgh and Crieff. In his recollections, Tom Murray asserts that strikers and obstacles effectively blocked all these routes and that the authorities locally recognised this state of affairs. However, reports in the local press of the time dispute this statement.

Striking workers held mass meetings on the North Inch throughout the strike, which was very effective in Perth. The vast majority of the men on strike came from the railways – 1800 NUR and ASLEF members employed by London Midland & Scottish Railways (L.M.S) and London & North Eastern Railway (L.N.E.R.). Other strikers were road workers; tram company workers; and those employed at John Pullars & Sons Limited, Dyers and Cleaners and Campbell’s Dye works. The latter factory located where St. Catherine‘s Retail Park is today. This company was eventually amalgamated into John Pullars & Sons.

The first unions to come out in Perth were those of the railway workers, the NUR and ASLEF; followed by the printers. Railway men immediately organised pickets for the Railway Station. One consequence of the printers’ action was the closing down of the Perthshire Advertiser. John Pullars & Sons was closed down partly by striking workers and partly by the inability to get goods in and out of the factory. Another company involved in dying, cleaning and laundry, Thomson Ltd., which was located at Friarton, could only keep its laundry section going. At John Dewars & Sons, printers, joiners and other workers supported the strike call. The factory was soon closed down.

Outside the city, strike activity had significant but lesser effects. In Abernethy, two factories moved onto half time working, and buses and trains to and from Perth were disrupted. Strikers in Kinross occupied the Town Hall, which then became the headquarters of the strike committee. Pickets in Kinross controlled roads in and out of the town and issued permits to drivers wishing to use these roads. There were a number of scuffles between strikers and those that continued to work.

When the local authority began using volunteer drivers to run the city’s trams the Railway Strike Committee threatened to get the electrical workers that ran the city corporation’s electrical works to down tools. An ultimatum was presented to the authority but it is not clear from available reports what the result of the threatened action was. An attempt by strikers to block motor buses from leaving their base at Tay Street was a failure.

Another important local man involved in the strike committee was the railwayman, John Haig. A churchman and an elder of the United Free Church (located at Kinnoull Street in Perth). John Haig worked on the Perth-Edinburgh and Perth-Dundee lines.

One of the most threatening sights of the General Strike in Perth must have been that of the columns of soldiers that marched through the town in full combat gear. Several companies of the 2nd Black Watch were brought down from the North in a show of state strength. From Perth, they marched through Fife and onto Stirling.

The End of the 1926 General Strike:

The first stage in the General Strike was defined by the efforts of the first league of big trade unions, but just as the TUC capitulated, a second phase began when other unions in the shipyards and engineering industry made the decision to join the strike. In fact, the actual day that the TUC pulled the plug on the strike, the amount of people on strike was 100,000 more than on the first day. An internal report by the Minister of Labour clearly states that on 12 May, the day the strike was declared over by the TUC, the strike was solid across Britain. The decision made by the TUC was an act of betrayal to the miners and all its members. The rank and file of the trade union movement were disgusted at the TUC.

“ A victorious army disarmed and handed over to its enemies.”

(A Glasgow Strike Official)

The details of the last moments of the strike expose the torridness of the TUC’s decision. Sir Herbert Samuel, Chair of the Coal Commission, had gone back to London from a holiday. After negotiating with the mine owners, he placed an offer before the TUC, which was a rehash of an earlier rejected deal that was accepted by them despite the feelings and opinions of the miners. The TUC was fearful of the revolutionary potential of the General Strike and it is probably for this reason that they accepted the deal and called off the strike.

Whilst the vast majority of strikers went back to work within the following week, the miners stayed out until November, when hunger and cold gave them no option but to capitulate, despite the help they received from Russian trade unions. Many went back to wages that were even less than the unemployment benefit level.

“The end of the General Strike came as a terrible shock. It was a stunning decision for our Strike Committee, which felt that it was really making progress towards a complete triumph. However, of course, it was an incipient revolutionary movement by that time. And we had to recognise that if we succeeded it meant practically the break-up of the British constitution.”

(Tom Murray)

The predicted wage cuts were soon implemented and nationally some 3,000 strikers underwent prosecution for actions undertaken during the General Strike; about half of these were for incitement. Victimisation of union activists was endemic and many never worked in their industry again. If it was not for local strike organisations and rank and file action the level of victimisation by managers might have been a great deal higher.

New legislation was introduced in 1927 to ensure that a general strike could not ever be organised again. Firstly, it required trade unionists to opt into the political levy, and secondly, it made solidarity strikes illegal.

One of the consequences of the strike was that the Scottish Labour Movement became national in its outlook. The strike experience had been common throughout England, Scotland and Wales; it was inevitable that for some time afterwards left-wing Scottish workers saw their destiny not in an independent Scotland, but rather in a socialist Britain.

Perth: Railwaymen in Perth were determined not to give in, and on 15 May, they held a mass meeting at the City Hall, which resolved to stay on strike. In fact, after the meeting, picket activity took an upturn as the railway workers sought a guarantee that everyone would get their job back and no one would be victimised by the employers. They were also opposed to the new working conditions that the rail companies had imposed. In spite of their efforts, not everyone was re-employed. The railwaymen returned to work on 19 May. Pullars re-opened but workers were placed on short weeks. Trams in Perth re-started immediately the General Strike ceased.

The 1926 General Strike in Scottish Literature:

Two important Scottish writers of the time produced poems about the General Strike of 1926:

Hugh MacDiarmid – The Ballad of the General Strike also known as The Ballad of the Crucified Rose (Camsheerie Rose).

Naomi Mitchison – Remembering 1926.

An Additional Note of Interest -The Case of James McIntyre Black:

After the strike James McIntyre Black of 25 St. Johnstoun Buildings, Charles Street, Perth was charged with the intimidation of a lorry driver on Craigie Bridge. It was alleged that on 10 May, that James McIntyre Black approached a lorry on the bridge, which, had stopped for a flock of sheep to cross the road, and demanded to see the driver’s Strike Committee permit. The lorry driver, David Stewart tried to claim that he was carrying essential milk supplies when in fact his load was aerated water and lemonade. A scuffle ensued when the permit offered was seen to be invalid. James McIntyre Black was alleged to have threatened to throw the lorry and its contents off the bridge – when this was stated in court the public burst in to laughter. Later that day the lorry driver and his passenger, company sales representative William Beaton, approached two police officers who then searched for James McIntyre Black. Sergeant Duncan McCallum found and arrested James Black on South Street.

James McIntyre Black denied the charges against him and was defended in court by lawyer, J. Rolla Mitchell. There were no independent witnesses to the alleged crime but James McIntyre Black was found guilty and fined £3, with an option of 20 days imprisonment.


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