The years before the First World War saw more strikes in the East End of London than ever before, and it was little wonder that unrest centred on this part of London. A centre for industry and imports, with a high proportion of poorly paid and casual workers, the East End suffered more than most from the driving down in wages and fall in living standards that beset Britain at the time. Great East End industrial conflicts of the late Victorian era, such as the 1887 match girls’ strike in Bow, and the dock strike of 1889, had been followed by ‘the Great Unrest’ – a series of crippling strikes in the years before 1914.
With the outbreak of war, East Enders buried many of their grievances beneath the patriotic fervour required to get through what would be the most terrible war yet for Europe. Regardless of the fact that most residents of Stepney or Shadwell had little idea and less interest in events in Sarajevo or Sinai, Londoners would pull together behind their boys … up to a point. In any case, strikes were officially banned: the TUC and the government had agreed on that. And with the Labour Party joining Lloyd George’s coalition government in 1916, there was no true opposition. But there were stresses. Wars are always meant to be over ‘by Christmas’ of course, but the conflict limped interminably on, and by 1917 Londoners were heartily sick of the endless casualties and the privations at home.
The shortage of manpower also had an inevitable effect on industry. Though women couldn’t do the heavy work on the East and West India Docks, they could replace men in the factories – munitions factories had mushroomed all over Bethnal Green, Stepney and Wapping – and it led to conflict on both sides. A series of unofficial strikes by men, protesting at the ‘dilution’ of the workforce by women), simply exaggerated the manpower shortage, and had the unexpected effect of forcing up piecework rates for the women. By the time the war ended in November 1918, London had even seen its first strike for equal pay by women working on the trams and buses – legislation wouldn’t arrive until the Equal Pay Act in 1970.
But perhaps the most alarming signal to any government is when the officers of national security start turning. There had been isolated mutinies within the British army, with enlisted men turning on their officers, but they tended to be summarily dealt with on the battlefield. More worrying was a demonstration called by the National Union of Police and Prison Officers on Tower Hill in August 1918. East End copper Tommy Thiel had been sacked for this union activities, and the vast majority of London bobbies downed truncheons in sympathy. A squad of 600 flying pickets ensured the strike stayed solid.
And there were other ways of protesting. With wages held down, a depressed wartime economy and strict rationing, East Enders were feeling severely pinched by 1918. Rent strikes became common (and would bleed into the Poplarism rate strikes of the 1920s): Londoners couldn’t avoid noticing that Russia’s role in the War had ended with a workers’ revolution, and many were sympathetic. For those female munitions workers, their reward at the close of hostilities in November 1918 was ‘thankyou and goodbye’. Many women saw their jobs disappear, while many others were given back to returning soldiers. And numerous soldiers returned to no job, no home and broken families. Their option was the Poor Law and the workhouse or begging on the streets of Whitechapel. The British Government scented revolt in the air, and became distinctly uneasy.
With the Armistice, the dam was broken, and four years of frustration came flooding through. Historian Walter Kendall argues that “the crisis British society faced between 1918 and 1920 was probably the most serious since the time of the Chartists”. The police union grew to 50,000 members, while mutinies in the army multiplied. Things came to a head in 1919, with Lloyd George’s misguided plans in for a British expeditionary force to the Russian port of Archangel. Not content with four years of exhausting conflict, Britain now planned to invade Russia and put down the Revolution. The scheme had to be abandoned when British soldiers declared solidarity with Russia and simply refused to embark. The Government backed down and demobilised the angry soldiers – more men would return to Civvy Street and no jobs.
Again in 1920 Lloyd George proposed military action against Russia (Poland and France had already invaded her western territories) and again the East End stepped in. In May that year, men at the East India Docks refused to load a ship called the Jolly George which was bound for Russia with a load of munitions for the Polish army. East End railwayman then stepped in, refusing to carry cargoes of weapons bound for the docks. And union members began to withhold their labour in pursuit of closed shops, forcing every employee to join the union.
There were some ironies though, and the enemy wasn’t always obvious. Black American writer Claude McKay was visiting London in these years, and spent time with Sylvia Pankhurst at the offices of her Women’s Dreadnought newspaper. There were some 60 sawmills in London, most of them out in the East End and most out on strike, and right opposite the Dreadnought’s 198 Bow Road office was one of London’s biggest. The union men told McKay indignantly that some of their fellows were still working. The part-owner of this home for scabs? None other than “George Lansbury, Labour member of parliament and managing editor of the Daily Herald…the strikers thought it would make an excellent story for the Dreadnought. So did I!”
Lansbury, of course, would do more than most to champion the cause of East End workers in the years to come. The 1920s would see East End dissent on an unprecedented scale.