The Outbreak of the 1926 General Strike (Classroom Activity)

On 30th June 1925 the mine-owners announced that they intended to reduce the miner's wages.The following month Ernest Bevin, the general secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU), moved a resolution at a conference of transport workers pledging full support to the miners and full co-operation with the General Council in carrying out any measures they might decide to take. A few days later the railway unions also pledged their support and set up a joint committee with the transport workers to prepare for the embargo on the movement of coal which the General Council had ordered in the event of a lock-out.

In an attempt to avoid a General Strike, the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, invited the leaders of the miners and the mine owners to Downing Street on 29th July. The miners kept firm on what became their slogan: "Not a minute on the day, not a penny off the pay". Herbert Smith, the president of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain, told Baldwin: "We have now to give". Baldwin insisted there would be no subsidy: "All the workers of this country have got to take reductions in wages to help put industry on its feet."

The following day the General Council of the Trade Union Congress triggered a national embargo on coal movements. On 31st July, the government capitulated. It announced an inquiry into the scope and methods of reorganization of the industry, and Baldwin offered a subsidy that would meet the difference between the owners' and the miners' positions on pay until the new Commission reported. The subsidy would end on 1st May 1926. Until then, the lockout notices and the strike were suspended. This event became known as Red Friday because it was seen as a victory for working class solidarity.

The Royal Commission was established under the chairmanship of Sir Herbert Samuel, a Liberal Party MP and former Home Secretary, to look into the problems of the Mining Industry. Other members included William Beveridge, Director of the London School of Economics and Kenneth Lee, Chairman of the Tootal Broadhurst Lee Company, a large Manchester cotton firm and Sir Herbert Lawrence, a member of the banking firm of Glyn Mills.

The government also established the Organization for the Maintenance of Supplies. It involved the drawing up of lists of volunteers who would keep services going in the event of a general strike. For example, driving trains and buses. Food and fuel depots were also established around the country.

The Samuel Commission took evidence from nearly eighty witnesses from both sides of the industry. They also received a great mass of written evidence, and visited twenty-five mines in various parts of Great Britain. The Samuel Commission published its report on 10th March 1926. Interest in it was so great that it sold over 100,000 copies.

The Samuel Report was critical of the mine owners: "We cannot agree with the view presented to us by the mine owners that little can be done to improve the organization of the industry, and that the only practical course is to lengthen hours and to lower wages. In our view huge changes are necessary in other directions, and the large progress is possible". The report recognised that the industry needed to be reorganised but rejected the suggestion of nationalization. However, the report also recommended that the Government subsidy should be withdrawn and the miners' wages should be reduced.

The National Union of Mineworkers was put in a difficult position when Jimmy Thomas, the general secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR), welcomed the Samuel Report as a "wonderful document". Arthur J. Cook, the general secretary of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain, advised delegates at a special union conference not to reject the report outright, so as not to jeopardise the support of the TUC. He was aware of the need to appear reasonable, but he also reaffirmed his opposition to wage reductions: "I am of the opinion we have got the biggest fight of our lives in front of us, but we cannot fight alone."

Considering themselves in a position of strength, the Mining Association now issued new terms of employment. These new procedures included an extension of the seven-hour working day, district wage-agreements, and a reduction in the wages of all miners. Depending on a variety of factors, the wages would be cut by between 10% and 25%. The mine-owners announced that if the miners did not accept their new terms of employment then from the first day of May they would be locked out of the pits.

At the end of April 1926, the miners were locked out of the pits. A Conference of Trade Union Congress met on 1st May 1926, and afterwards announced that a General Strike "in defence of miners' wages and hours" was to begin two days later. The leaders of the Trade Union Council were unhappy about the proposed General Strike, and during the next two days frantic efforts were made to reach an agreement with the Conservative Government and the mine-owners.

Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the Labour Party refused to support the General Strike. MacDonald argued that strikes should not be used as a political weapon and that the best way to obtain social reform was through parliamentary elections. He was especially critical of the leadership of the left-wing A. J. Cook.

The Trade Union Congress called the General Strike on the understanding that they would then take over the negotiations from the Miners' Federation. The main figure involved in an attempt to get an agreement was Jimmy Thomas. Talks went on until late on Sunday night, and according to Thomas, they were close to a successful deal when Stanley Baldwin broke off negotiations as a result of a dispute at the Daily Mail.

What had happened was that Thomas Marlowe, the editor of the newspaper, had produced a leading article, headed "For King and Country", which denounced the trade union movement as disloyal and unpatriotic.The workers in the machine room, had asked for the article to be changed, when he refused they stopped working. Although, George Isaacs, the union shop steward, tried to persuade the men to return to work, Marlowe took the opportunity to phone Baldwin about the situation.

The strike was unofficial and the TUC negotiators apologized for the printers' behaviour, but Baldwin refused to continue with the talks. "It is a direct challenge, and we cannot go on. I am grateful to you for all you have done, but these negotiations cannot continue. This is the end... The hotheads had succeeded in making it impossible for the more moderate people to proceed to try to reach an agreement." A letter was handed to the TUC negotiators that stated that the "gross interference with the freedom of the press" involved a "challenge to the constitutional rights and freedom of the nation". The General Strike began on 3rd May, 1926.

Primary Sources

The Subsidised Mineowner - Poor Beggar! Trade Union Unity Magazine (1925)
(Source 1) The Subsidised Mineowner - Poor Beggar!
Trade Union Unity Magazine (1925)

(Source 2) Will Paynter, My Generation (1972)

The coal owners gave notice of their intention to end the wage agreement then operating, bad though it was, and proposed further wage reductions, the abolition of the minimum wage principle, shorter hours and a reversion to district agreements from the then existing national agreements. This was, without question, a monstrous package attack, and was seen as a further attempt to lower the position not only of miners but of all industrial workers.

(Source 3) Tony Lane, The Union Makes us Strong (1974)

In 1925 the Miners, facing the possibility or a wage cut in an already badly depressed industry, appealed to the TUC General Council for help. It obliged by asking the Railwaymen and the Transport Workers to black the movement of coal: both promptly agreed, believing that a successful attack on the miners would be followed by another on them. The mere threat was sufficient to get government intervention and the impending crisis was postponed for ten months by the payment of a government subsidy to the coal owners' profits. It was well-understood by government and unions that the subsidy would expire in May 1926 and that the consequence would be yet another reduction in the miners' wages. That is another way of saying that both knew that there would be a General Strike in 1926: The unions, preferring the fool's paradise of the present, were jubilant at the concession of the subsidy and gave no thought to tomorrow.

(Source 4) William Joynson-Hicks, Home Secretary (August, 1925)

The danger was not over. Sooner or later this question had got to be fought out by the people of the land. Was England to be governed by Parliament and the Cabinet or by a handful of trade union leaders?

(Source 5) William Joynson-Hicks, The Times (October, 1925)

We have not thought it necessary or desirable to make a public parade of our willingness and ability to do that which is our duty, nor have we desired to assume what might be considered a provocative attitude by enrolling several thousand men who would be willing to assist in maintaining the services vital to the country's life. This being so, I told the promoters of the O.M.S. that there was no objection on the part of the Government to their desire to inaugurate the body.

(Source 6) The Workers' Weekly (28th August 1925)

Thirty-four weeks to go. Thirty-four weeks to go to what? To the termination of the mining agreement and the opening of the greatest struggle in the history of the British working class. We must prepare for the struggle.

A. J. Cook making a speech
(Source 7) Arthur J. Cook making a speech in Wales.

(Source 8) Herbert Smith, response to the publication of the Samuel Report (28th March, 1926)

We are willing to do all we can to help this industry, but it is with this proviso, that when we have worked and given our best, we are going to demand a respectable day's wage for a respectable day's work; and that is not your intention... Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day.

(Source 9) Jimmy Thomas, talking to members of the TUC (29th April, 1926)

When I was in the Government (in 1924), the railway sectional strike was on - you know, Bromley's strike. Well, do you know that I had on my desk every morning full details - photographs of letters that had passed, speeches made at private meetings - oh my God! ... They are going to smash it. It won't last more than a few days. A few people will get shot (indicating the General Council members and the miners), more of them will get arrested. The Government will arrest the remainder and say it is a case of putting them away for their own safety... Churchill is the man who will play the big part in this.

(Source 10) Arthur Horner, Incorrigible Rebel (1960)

Arthur Cook and I spoke together at meetings all over the country. We had audiences, mostly of miners, running into thousands. Usually I was put on first. I would make a good, logical speech, and the audience would listen quietly, but without any wild enthusiasm. Then Cook would take the platform. Often he was tired, hoarse and sometimes almost inarticulate. But he would electrify the meeting. They would applaud and nod their heads in agreement when he said the most obvious things. For a long time I was puzzled, and then one night I realised why it was. I was speaking to the meeting. Cook was speaking for the meeting. He was expressing the thoughts of his audience, I was trying to persuade them. He was the burning expression of their anger at the iniquities which they were suffering.

(Source 11) Kingsley Martin, diary entry (26th April, 1926)

Cook made a most interesting study - worn-out, strung on wires, carried in the rush of the tidal wave, afraid of the struggle, afraid, above all, though, of betraying his cause and showing signs of weakness. He'll break down for certain, but I fear not in time. He's not big enough, and in an awful muddle about everything. Poor devil and poor England. A man more unable to conduct a negotiation I never saw. Many Trade Union leaders are letting the men down; he won't, but he'll lose. And Socialism in England will be right back again.

(Source 12) David Kirkwood, My Life of Revolt (1935)

The purpose of the General Strike was to obtain justice for the miners. The method was to hold the Government and the nation up to ransom. We hoped to prove that the nation could not get on without the workers. We believed that the people were behind us. We knew that the country had been stirred by our campaign on behalf of the miners. Arthur Cook, who talked from a platform like a Salvation Army preacher, had swept over the industrial districts like a hurricane. He was an agitator, pure and simple. He had no ideas about legislation or administration. He was a flame. Ramsay MacDonald called him a guttersnipe. That he certainly was not. He was utterly sincere, in deadly earnest, and burnt himself out in the agitation.

(Source 13) Thomas Jones, Whitehall Diaries: Volume II (1969)

It is possible not to feel the contrast between the reception which Ministers give to a body of owners and a body of miners. Ministers are at ease at once with the former, they are friends jointly exploring a situation. There was hardly any indication of opposition or censure. It was rather a joint discussion of whether it was better to precipitate a strike or the unemployment which would result from continuing the present terms. The majority clearly wanted a strike.

(Source 14) Ramsay MacDonald, diary entry (2nd May, 1926)

It really looks tonight as though there was to be a General Strike to save Mr. Cook's face... The election of this fool as miners' secretary looks as though it would be the most calamitous thing that ever happened to the T.U. movement.

(Source 15) The Daily Mail leader written by Thomas Marlowe that the print workers refused to print (2nd May, 1926)

A General Strike is not an industrial dispute. It is a revolutionary movement intended to inflict suffering upon the great mass of innocent persons in the community and thereby to put forcible constraint upon the Government. It is a movement which can only succeed by destroying the Government and subverting the rights and liberties of the people.

(Source 16) Stanley Baldwin, statement (2nd May, 1926)

Overt acts have already taken place, including gross interference with the freedom of the Press. Such action involves a challenge to the constitutional rights and freedom of the nation. His Majesty's Government, therefore, before it can continue negotiations, must require from the Trade Union Committee both the repudiation of the actions referred to that have already taken place, and... withdrawal of the instructions for a General Strike.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Study source 1. Explain how the cartoon encourages a hostile view of the mine-owner.

Question 2: Many people believed that the formation of the O.M.S., and the composition of the Samuel Commission, meant that a General Strike was bound to take place. Can you explain why?

Question 3: Give as many reasons as you can why it was in the interests of the Government to delay the possibility of a General Strike for nine months.

Question 4: Compare the views of Arthur J. Cook expressed in sources 9, 10 and 11.

Question 5: It has been suggested that the "the Daily Mail" incident was a plot between Winston Churchill and Thomas Marlowe, the editor of the Daily Mail. If this was true, can you explain the possible motives behind the plot?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.