Skip to main content

https://archives.blog.parliament.uk/2021/04/23/nine-days-in-may-parliament-the-general-strike/

NINE DAYS IN MAY – PARLIAMENT & THE GENERAL STRIKE 

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: History, Politics

On May 3rd, 1926, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin stood before a packed House of Commons Chamber to inform his fellow Parliamentarians that the nation was now under the siege of a General Strike. After months of fear and loathing with the Trade Unions this most dreaded of outcomes had become a bitter reality 

Longer working hours, lighter pay packets and a flagrant disregard for their health and safety brought the coal mining community out in protest. The might of three million Trade Union Congress members were willing to stand with them in solidarity. 

In this blog Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer will examine the ‘nine days in May’ that placed Britain on the edge of revolution and how Parliament survived the shutdown and prospered.  

The British Gazette Front Cover , 3 May 1926, Parliamentary Archives, SAM/A/68)

 

DAY ONE:  Throwing Coal Out of the Pram 

The 20th Century may have been in full swing, but Britain was still overly reliant on the Victorian industrial staples of coal and iron. By 1925 the mining industry was beginning to ominously creak and found itself firmly under the cosh. Various Commissions all came to the same conclusion that mine owners and workers had to relinquish their obsession with profitability and pay to allow modern reforms 

That summer the Government reluctantly rubber-stamped a fixed subsidy plan to keep wagestabilised avoiding any more coal being thrown out of the proverbial pram. However, the subsidies would expire on the 1st May 1926 and as this date drew closer the doomsday scenario of a General Strike reared its ugly head.  

Day one in Parliament – Former Prime Minister, Lloyd George made this observation on future negotiations. 

Lloyd George - The miners and the mine owners have been negotiating for over 18 months. That has come to nothing. The Trade Union Congress and the Government have now intervened. I can see no hope left except Parliament. We have had two very grave and very impressive speeches couched in the language of conciliation. Neither was in the language of defiance. Therefore, I think the temper is still one in which negotiations are possible. But I am not sure how long that will last. There are very deep passions lying underneath—very and very fierce passions which have been growing for years.  

(Read the debate in full - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1926/may/03/oms-organisation-for-the-maintenance-of) 

 

DAY TWO Triple Threat 

In the twenties, the Trade Union Congress powerbase peaked based on the triple threat of miners, dockers and railwaymen. This formidable alliance would be the ballast for any striking activitiesYet behind closed doors, TUC leadership crossed swords on mass industrial action.  

General Secretary, Walter Citrine was conflicted after the failures of Black Friday in 1921 when a proposed General Strike was postponed at the last minute. While seasoned Trade Unionists like Ernest Bevin took a more carpe diem attitude believing his organizational skills would prevent past mistakes repeating themselves. The traditional May Day Parades were the calm before the storm as on that evening the TUC General Council voted unanimously to strike, and the drafting of lock-out notices began.  

Day two in Parliament  Industrialist, Alfred Monds gave his view on the TUC. 

Alfred Monds - Why should the general body of workpeople suffer because of the Trades Union Congress Council? Why should there be misery, why should people be involved in the dispute who have no reason to be involved? Hon. Members opposite and others concerned cannot have thought of the consequences of the action they have taken. They cannot have thought it out. They are attacking the whole of the working classes of this country. They are not attacking the capitalist. He is not going to be worried about it, I assure you. It is the workman who is going to be worried. 

(Read the debate in full - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1926/may/03/oms-organisation-for-the-maintenance-of) 

 

A print of a cartoon showing two men outside a house. One man is struggling carrying a bag of coal and another is smoking a pipe outside a door. 'Delivering the Goods' is written below the cartoon.
Coal Commission Report Cartoon – Punch Magazine, March 1926, Parliamentary Archives, BBK/G/5/4

 

DAY THREE The King & I 

Backstreet bookies had a great day when the traditional spring 1000 Guineas race at Newmarket was won by 25-1 outsider, PillionIn attendance was King George V taking respite from the capital which was now becoming the strike epicentre. The monarch sought reassurance in the good relationship he’d fostered with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.  

He considered the Conservative leader as a safe pair of hands who could steer the situation towards conciliation with no blood lost. This fatalistic view was understandable as the slain Russian Czar, Nicholas II was his cousin and regretfully he had denied him asylum in Britain as the Bolsheviks ran amokThe 1917 Russian Revolution was inspirational to many UK socialists who were now frontline agitators. 

Day three in Parliament  The Marquess of Sailsbury (Lord Privy Seal) – read a message from the King to the Lords chamber 

Marquess of Salisbury - My Lords, it is my duty to read to your Lordships a Message which I have in my hand from His Majesty the King:— "The Emergency Powers Act 1920, having enacted that if it appears to His Majesty that any action has been taken, or is immediately threatened, by any persons or body of persons of such a nature and on so extensive a scale as to be calculated, by interfering with the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel, light, or with the means of locomotion, to deprive the community, or any substantial portion of the community, of the essentials of life, His Majesty may, by Proclamation, declare that a state of emergency exists; and the immediate threat of cessation of work in coal mines having, in His Majesty's opinion, constituted a state of emergency within the meaning of the said Act"His Majesty hint deemed it proper, by Proclamation made in pursuance of the said Act, and dated the 30th day of April, 1926, to declare that a state of emergency exists." 

(Read the debate in full - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1926/may/04/message-from-the-king) 

 

DAY FOUR: One Minute to Midnight 

It was at one minute to midnight on the 2nd May that the strike came into effect. The following morning the streets were eerily quiet with no buses or trains running. Despite management warnings, the Great Western Railway hadn’t a single strike- breaker. Unbeknown to the TUC & their affiliates Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks had done his homework with a secret contingency plan ready to roll, with a mass volunteer system.  

The Organisation for the Maintenance of Supply was centred around a volunteer system that proved hugely popular. A common spectacle in most cities was the long queues draped around OMS recruitment centres. His Special Constable conscription was criticized for its draconian undertones although that didn’t perturb any middle-class enthusiasm. Also robustly enlisting their services in manual occupations outside their comfort zones. 

 

Day four in Parliament  William Joynson-Hicks gave the House an update on his volunteering programme 

William Joynson-Hicks - I propose to-night to ask the community as a whole to enrol in much larger numbers as special constables. It is desirable that the country should know that there are men and businesses, the docks, the provision of food, the provision of electric light and gas, and the transport services, which in great communities like London must be carried on if the whole State is not to be dissolved in dire confusion, and I appeal to the whole House to assist me in protecting those who desire to do their work That is the right and the duty of the Home Secretary in any Government, and in all Governments, and I am appealing to-night to any able-bodied men who can give their time—and, after all, everybody ought to be willing to give their time—wholly to the State in order to protect the community in a time of difficulty and danger like this. 

(Read the debate in full - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1926/may/05/home-secretarys-statement) 

Typed letter on headed paper.
William Beveridge to Herbert Samuel, May 1926, Parliamentary Archives, SAM/A/66

 

DAY FIVE: Samuel to the Rescue 

When the strike broke out, Liberal grandee Herbert Samuel was enjoying break from it all in Lake Garda His recently published Coal Commission Report had been received unfavourably by the mining executives. They perceived the set of recommendations as akin to a nationalization structureResolutely Samuel accepted the invitation to act as a mediator in the negotiations which were in complete deadlock.  

On arrival in Folkestone he was picked up by motor racing champion, Major Henry Segrave who via the traffic-free highways dispatched Samuel at the Reform Club on Pall Mall in a speedily impressive one hour and ten minutes. The ‘saviour of the strike’ was warmly welcomed there by Labour MP, Jimmy Thomas who was acting as a TUC railway spokesperson.  

Day five in Parliament  Jimmy Thomas explained the TUC position 

James Thomas - When I say "I" I speak for the Trades Union Congress. Perhaps I had better use the word "we." We had not only accepted it, but we had taken the responsibility of saying, "Never mind what the miners or anybody else say. We accept it." That was at eleven o'clock on Sunday night. [Hon. MEMBERS: "What was it?"] The words that the Prime Minister had himself written down as being a common basis of settlement, not my words. [HON. MEMBERS: "What were they?"] The Noble Lord asks why did the Trade Union Congress support the miners? I answer him, because the whole trade union movement believed the miners were right. 

(Read the debate in full - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1926/may/05/home-secretarys-statement) 

 

DAY SIX: CPGBs 

If you were an MI5 agent in this period surveillance operations focused on the Communist Party of Great Britain's London headquarters. It was common knowledge that Moscow was funding their election campaigns which produced a respectable smattering of electoral successes. The previous Autumn twelve CPGB figureheads including leader Harry Pollitt were imprisoned under the 1797 Incitement to Mutiny Act 

The mercurial, Shapurji Saklatvala, MP for Battersea was never far from controversyInevitably he joined his incarcerated comrades after being arrested for a provocative speech he gave in Hyde Park that saw him receive a two-month sentence in Wormwood Scrubs. The CPGB later claimed that over a thousand of its members were charged for sedition offences under the new Emergency Power laws.  

Day six in Parliament  Speaker of the House, John Whitley detailed the arrest of Shapurji Saklatvala  

Speaker - I have to inform the House that I have received the following letters: Bow Street Police Court, W.C.4th May, 1926.SIR,I have the honour to acquaint you that Mr. Shapurji Saklatvala, a Member of the House of Commons, has been arrested and brought before me this day under a warrant issued by me on the 3rd instant upon an information laid by the Director of Public Prosecutions against him as a disturber of the peace and an inciter of other persons to cause breaches of the peace and other offences who should be ordered to enter into his recognisances and further to find sureties for his future good behaviour. I have adjourned the further hearing of the case until Thursday, the 6th instant, at 2 p.m., and have agreed to admit the defendant to bail in the meantime on his own recognisances in £100 with two sureties in £100 each. 

(Read the debate in full - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1926/may/07/imprisonment-of-member) 

 

Typed document
BBC transcript of a speech by Stanley Baldwin, May 1926, Parliamentary Archives, SAM/A/159

 

 

DAY SEVEN: Media Savvy 

Stanley Baldwin was smarter than most people gave him credit for. In the early days of his premiership, he appointed Winston Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer to keep him on sideAs the strike erupted Churchill took it upon himself to fill the daily newspaper void as striking printworkers had brought production to a halt 

His British Gazette became a labour of love with him revelling in the auspicious role of press mogul. In the world of wireless radio, the BBC’s reputation was rising under John Reith’s directorshipHe took editorial control of frequent news bulletins that became essential listening. Though the striking fraternity accused the BBC of being pro-government because their chairman, Lord Gainford had major mining interests.  

Day seven in Parliament  Winston Churchill defends the partiality of the British Gazette 

Winston Churchill - I do not desire to impugn the impartiality of any newspaper. At the time that the Government newspaper was started, it was started in consequence of the Newspaper Proprietors' Association saying that they were not able to publish any paper, and advising that there should be a Government bulletin to offer some news to the whole country. Since then we have succeeded in printing many copies. Last night we printed over 1,100,000 copies, and it is absolutely vital at this moment not to destroy one of the means of keeping the public informed of events. 

(Read the debate in full - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1926/may/10/news-print) 

 

DAY EIGHT: Keep Everyone Smiling 

Yes, the country was in crisis with rumours circulating of bread and milk shortages, nevertheless the show must go on…Theatres remained open throughout with Pathe News showcasing the Betty on Mayfair production. Filming its star attraction Evelyn Laye enjoying a ride home on a state-run charabanc. The Australian cricket team continued a tour of England with the forthcoming Ashes Test scheduled to start in June regardless 

The TUC motto was Keep Everyone Smiling, and its British Worker newspaper reported extensively on morale-boosting concerts, dances, and sporting events. On the weekend of the strike, they featured a football match that took place at Home Park, Plymouth between local tramway strikers and the police that attracted a crowd of over 10,000.  

 

Day eight in Parliament  Miss Arabella Lawrence, MP for East Ham North questioned the rising price of milk 

Miss Lawrence (by Private Notice) asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he will state the area to which the London Milk Order applies, and whether retailers are forbidden to sell milk at less than 8d. a quart? 

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade – Sir Burton Chadwick - The area is the Metropolitan Police area of London. In reply to the second part of the question, the Government have issued no Order regarding the price of milk. All milk in the Metropolitan Police area has been required to be placed at the disposal of the London Milk Pool Committee, and the Government have issued a statement that the cost involved by the arrangements for the maintenance of supply justifies an increase in the price of 2d. a quart in London. 

(Read the debate in full - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1926/may/11/milk-supply-metropolitan-area) 

 

DAY NINE: Homburg Heavy 

Trench coats and homburgs were the uniforms of a typical TUC delegate as worn by miner’s supremo, Arthur Pugh. He’d been summoned down South to ‘take or leave’ the compromise of District Level Pay Awards advocated by Herbert Samuel 

The movement was now feeling the squeeze as legal expert Sir John Simon judged the strike unlawful under the 1906 Trade Disputes Act. A printed version of his Commons address was posted at railway stations to unsettle the numerous staff absentees. Ernest Bevin’s Transport and General Workers Union coffers were suffering from the strike onslaught with a £360,000 bill that could seriously affect future pension schemes. At noon on the ninth day Walter Citrine announced an inevitable termination of industrial action. 

Day nine in Parliament  Sir John Simon led the debate on the illegality of the strike 

Sir John Simon - The central proposition which I suggest that anyone who studies this matter fairly must accept is this—that this so-called general strike, whatever be the provocation or the explanation or the circumstances which caused it to be decided on, is not, properly understood, a trade dispute at all. I am quite willing to believe that it has had its origin in a trade dispute. I take the view that, so far as that particular trade dispute is concerned; my hon. Friends above the Gangway are very far from being people without reason for supporting most strongly the contention that the coal miners must have all the public support that could properly be given to them. But my point is that, once you proclaim a general strike, you are as a matter of fact, starting a movement of a perfectly different and a wholly unconstitutional and unlawful character. 

(Read the debate in full - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1926/may/11/illegality-of-proceedings) 

 

Front page of a newspaper style document. Typed black text.
British Worker, 12 May 1926, Parliamentary Archives, SAM/A/68

 

To the Victor… 

The dying embers of the strike saw a night of disorder in the volatile docklands of East London. This final tumult couldn’t spoil the victory for Stanley Baldwin. His normally unassuming façade was momentarily discarded. Basking in the adulation as a cheering mob of well-wishers accompanied him on the walk from 10 Downing Street to the Palace of Westminster 

Once there he avoided triumphalism with a balanced statement to the House titled in Hansard as an Appeal to Nation. The last men standing were the miners who defiantly stayed on strike until December when they forced to return to work very much ‘cap in hand’ to their bosses. They’d been their worst enemies putting working class pride before a fall. 

On this day in Parliament  Stanley Baldwin addresses Parliament on the General Strike cessation 

Prime Minister – Stanley Baldwin - The Trades Union Council came to see me this morning and told me that they had decided to call off the general strike forthwith. I said that it would be the immediate effort of myself and my colleagues to bring about a resumption of negotiations of the two parties in the mining industry, with a view to secure the earliest possible settlement. I can only add this at the moment. The peace that I believe has come—the victory that has been won, is a victory of the common sense, not of any one part of the country, but the common sense of the best part of the whole of the United Kingdom, and it is of the utmost importance at a moment like this that the whole British people should not look backwards, but forwards—that we should resume our work in a spirit of co-operation, putting behind us all malice and all vindictiveness. 

(Read the debate in full - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1926/may/12/appeal-to-nation) 

 

SOURCES 

SAM/A/159The Coal Commission and the General Strike, 1925-1927, Parliamentary Archives 

SAM/A/66The Royal Commission on the Coal Industry, and the General Strike, 1925-1926 

SAM/A/68The General Strike, 1926 

BBK/G/5/4The General Strike: Press Bulletins and other papers 

A Very British Strike: 3 May – 12 May 1926 by Anne Perkins 

British Pathe, General Strike (1926), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcrQvxteO08 

Hansard Parliamentary Debates 

Sharing and comments

Share this page

Leave a comment

We only ask for your email address so we know you're a real person

By submitting a comment you understand it may be published on this public website. Please read our privacy notice to see how the GOV.UK blogging platform handles your information.