TOWER Hamlets has often been the focus of dissent, rebellion and rioting against the Government of the day. But for East Enders, the sight of armoured cars trundling along the East India Dock Road in peacetime must have been something of a shock.
It happened during May 1926. The whole country was on strike and, though the spark had been struck many miles from east London, dockers and many more joined in sympathy. And, months later, as the General Strike staggered to a bitter conclusion, the peace would be brokered in the heart of the East End.
Tower Hamlets had known its share of labour disputes of course. The matchworkers’ strike, centred on Bryant and May’s works in Fairfield Road, Bow, and the succession of docks strikes around the turn of the twentieth century were just two examples of hard-fought conflicts which had advanced the workers’ cause and given birth to the Labour movement.
But the 1926 strike erupted around the coalfields of Britain. In 1925 the mine owners announced that they would deal with falling prices by cutting the miners’ wages. The TUC protested bitterly and the Conservative Government, fearing the effect of a strike on an already tottering economy, supplied the money to make up the miners’ wages. Prime minister Stanley Baldwin declared the subsidy would only last nine months. And the pit owners pushed their case, saying wages would be cut by up to a quarter … any miners who didn’t like it would be locked out of the pits.
The TUC met on 1 May – appropriately international labour day – and called a general strike. To begin with they would bring out workers in the key industries – railwaymen, transport workers, dockers, printers, builders, iron and steel workers – a total of 3 million men (a fifth of the adult male population). Only later would other trade unionists, like the engineers and shipyard workers, be called out on strike. The Labour Party was desperate to avoid a walkout, fearing it would only harm the labour movement, and made frantic attempts over the following days to avert action, negotiating with the Government and the mine owners.
And they were close to agreement when printers at the Daily Mail refused to run a leading article attacking the pit owners. A furious Baldwin broke off negotiations and the General Strike began.
The months of subsidy to the mining industry had bought the Government time to build an alternative distribution system. And so the people of the East End saw food convoys motoring down the East India Dock Road with armed soldiers riding as guards.
Some of the precautions seem ludicrously over the top, with foot soldiers marching four abreast behind the trucks. But for Baldwin’s government it was an opportunity to make a show of strength – and smash the emergent labour and union movement. Nowhere was the policing firmer than around the docks – that lynchpin of the distribution system and hotbed of pilfering.
The strike was getting nowhere fast. Within days the TUC was looking for a settlement. Toynbee Hall’s position, with one foot in the establishment and the other amongst the poor and emerging union and labour activists in the East End, made it a natural go-between. The Spitalfields building hosted the meeting which brokered the end of the strike, and the TUC accepted a miserable settlement.
On 11 May the TUC General Council visited 10 Downing Street. They offered peace and demanded a guarantee of no victimization of the strikers. The Government refused to do so and the TUC capitulated. Cabinet member Lord Birkenhead wrote later that the TUC’s surrender was ‘so humiliating that some instinctive breeding made one unwilling even to look at them’.
The General Strike was over, though the miners held out till November. Gradually broken and trailing back to work they found they had been given longer hours, lower pay and were often victimised by the bosses. A year later, the Government turned the screw with the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act. This act made all sympathetic strikes illegal, forbade Civil Service unions to affiliate to the TUC, and banned mass picketing.
It seemed the Labour Party had got it right. Years later Winston Churchill, a member of that Tory cabinet, admitted that the wage subsidy had merely been granted to buy the Government time, to allow them to organize … and to smash the unions.