May 5th

On May 5th, 1926, the British government issued the order to the Boards of Guardians to refuse relief to strikers. The context of this decision was the General Strike of 1926, in which the Trade Union Congress approved a strike of all unionised workers across the rail, transport, mining and shipping industries.

general strike 1926

The General Strike was the culmination of;

  • Years of economic hardship for workers due to the fall in production and price of coal; the increased ambitions of the unions after their achievements during WW1 (this included the nationalisation of the rail and mines and improvements to workers rights);
  • Rising trade union discontent since the humiliating Black Friday fiasco of 1921 (in which the Triple Alliance of the NUR – National Union of Railwaymen -, the NTWF – National Transport Workers Federation – and the MFGB – Miners’ Federation of Great Britain – collapsed);
  • The profiteering of mine owners during times of economic instability, at the expense of their workforce (mine owners had proposed wage reductions of 10-25% and the government’s report on the issue suggested wage cuts of 13.5%);
  • The return to the gold standard in 1925 (which created intense deflation, causing a shortage of currency, wage reductions and increased unemployment. What’s more, the stronger pound resulted in exports becoming less competitive in a thriving global economy, necessitating further wage cuts).

Boards of Guardians were responsible for the distribution and overseeing of poor relief (welfare) until 1930. As part of the government’s plan to crackdown on the strikers and pressure the workers into returning to work, poor relief was withheld. The extensive government effort to counter this strike also entailed the creation of a 1.5-1.75 million man strong reserve workforce (although very few were actually needed; in London only 9,500/114,000 volunteers received work). Most interestingly, a 300,000-500,000 workforce of middle and upper class volunteers had been recruited by the government. These men played a key role in reducing the impact of the strike;

  • The London underground was operated by 2,000 Cambridge University undergraduates;
  • The docks at Dover were operated by 460 Cambridge students.
The aristocratic grandson of the 2nd Earl of Lichfield working as a volunteer train driver during the General Strike of 1926.PNG

The aristocratic grandson of the 2nd Earl of Lichfield working as a volunteer train driver during the General Strike of 1926.

The strike began at 1 minute to midnight on May 3rd, after negotiations between the TUC and the government broke down 2 days prior. It lasted for 9 days, when the TUC finally contacted PM Stanley Baldwin and called the strike off. The strike was a clear victory for the Conservative government, primarily due to the capitulation of the TUC. Furthermore, support for the general strike among trade unionists appears to have been weak, whilst the government’s response was precisely calculated and coordinated.

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