The General Strike 1926: The Railwayman’s Story – Stand Firm, We Must Win

The nine days of the General Strike in May 1926 shook the foundations of British society as over 1.5 million workers across the country downed tools. For many in the trade union movement it was a simple act of solidarity with the miners who had seen their wages and terms and conditions progressively driven down in the years following the end of the First World War. It is estimated that, by 1926, miners’ pay had fallen by a third from the 1919 levels. Proposals to further reduce wages and extend the working day produced the famous response from the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, ‘Not a penny off the wages and not a minute on the day’. The decision by the TUC, in May 1926, to call out the transport workers, printers and iron and steel workers in sympathy with the miners met with almost total support from the unions and their members across the country.

In other quarters the TUC’s decision was seen as a General Strike and a challenge to constitutional government. With the shock waves from the Bolshevik revolution in Russia still fresh in the memory, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, called the Strike ‘a challenge to Parliament’ and ‘the road to anarchy and ruin’ [The British Gazette, 6 May 1926]. Well before the strike was announced, the Government had preparations in hand to maintain key services across the country to be run in each area by a centrally appointed Civil Commissioner. In South Wales, the Earl of Clarendon was installed on May 2 1926 in Dominions Building in Cardiff to work with the local authorities to maintain law and order, transport and food supplies. He also had at his disposal the local arm of the Volunteer Service Committee established to recruit local men and women to keep the docks and local transport services operating and, if needed, bolster the police force. In all, the local Volunteer Service Committees recruited over 12,000 volunteers in South Wales. Small numbers of men were used to provide a skeleton service on the railways and in the docks . The impact of the volunteers was perhaps most evident in urban areas and, in particular, in Cardiff, where they were used to run tram and bus services. Although the TUC urged its members to avoid confrontation, the Government was determined to maintain essential services and stationed troops in most cities and towns along with naval vessels in key ports.

Glamorgan Archives holds material that tells the story of the General Strike in South Wales from the perspective of the unions, local volunteers and those running the Volunteer Service Committees. Records such as school log books also trace the impact on local communities. The account below is one of a series that draws on this material. It was written by Trevor Vaughan, a railway worker and trade union official in Aberdare in 1926 [ref.: D/DX196/2].

The Railwayman’s Story

Trevor Vaughan was 26 years old at the time of the General Strike. He was the clerk to the Station Master at Aberdare High Level Station and an official in the Railway Clerks’ Association. He came from a family with a long tradition of trade union involvement.

There was a good Trade Union tradition in our family. My Father was on the GWR and for many years a signalman in the Aberdare Box and a member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (later the National Union of Railwaymen). My grandfather on my Mother’s side was a driver on the Taff Vale Railway. The first minute book of a branch of the ASRS in Aberdare includes his name as a Committee member. He died in 1894 at 52 years. Four of his sons – my Mother’s brothers – were Engine Drivers.

The RCA was unusual in being one of the few ‘black coated’ unions affiliated to the TUC in 1926. Trevor Vaughan represented the RCA on the Aberdare Trades and Labour Council and he was, therefore, co-opted onto the key union committees directing the strike in the Aberdare Valley. As with most union members in the South Wales valleys, he had no hesitation in responding to the call to strike in support of the miners.

In the Aberdare Valley when a call came for strike to support the Miners – irrespective of party or religion – there was a spontaneity in the response from the whole community. We were not only comrades in the Trade Union Movement but fellow members of the chapels and churches, clubs, sport and Friendly Societies. Most of my school friends and boys I played with in our street went underground. They usually wore their white duck trousers in the street the night before they went “under” – often with their fathers. It was an emotional appeal. I doubt whether half a dozen of my members who were out on strike had ever voted “Labour”. That nine days revealed to me that there was a Working Class and I was a member of it.

As one of the few officials who could type, Trevor produced many of the messages that passed between the local strike committees during the 9 days of the strike – ‘Aberdare Solid’, ‘Stand Firm’ and ‘We Must Win’. In addition, he had experience of public speaking as a lay preacher, a talent that he used to good effect during the strike. However, undertaking such a role was not without risk. At his first public meeting, in Aberdare, he shared the platform with Max Goldberg, a train fireman, a member of the NUR and a known communist.

As a local preacher I stressed the Christian Brotherhood of Man and the sanctity of human personality. Max the Communist made the point “Here is the power on one side – the workers on the other – in between the Army, only the control of the army will get power”.

Subsequently, Max and two others were arrested . Max Goldberg was sentenced to two months hard labour and on release from prison his application for reinstatement was refused by the Great Western Railway.

It also fell to Trevor Vaughan to persuade strike breakers to fall in line with the majority of union members who supported the strike.

We had a few non-union blacklegs in our railway salaried service and even among those members who came out on strike, hardly one or two voting labour. I used to chase these blacklegs when they went to and from the office. One morning, before I was out of bed, my mother brought me a telegram. It read “come at ten – Hirwaun Joint”. I got on the back of a motor bike and when I arrived I was told that one of our members was working. He was Harry Morgan, Chief Clerk in the Goods Office at Hirwaun Station. I was almost instructed to “get him out”. Of course, I knew him well personally and had worked with him in the Aberdare Booking Office. I agreed to go around to his house. As I moved off I found half a dozen members of the Joint Committee accompanying me. This caused me some concern and at the end of the street I persuaded them to wait there until I came back. “Tiny” Morgan, as we knew him (he was very fat) was at home nursing the baby in a shawl Welsh fashion. I knew his wife was solid labour and would be on my side (it was usually the other way about). Both of us “had a go” at him, Mrs Morgan urging him to “go with Trevor”. Finally he agreed to meet me in the strike committee in Aberdare the following day. The strike ended a couple of days after and I was not sure whether he came out or not.

There were often difficult decisions to be made when dealing with strike breakers.

One difficult personal problem I had to deal with concerned the Chief Clerk at Aberdare High Level station, a close colleague of mine. To come out on strike in his eyes was tantamount to a Marxist Revolution, but he actually came out in loyalty to me. His wife, she had been brought up in a village outside Abergavenny, was under great strain with her husband on strike. He told me one day that he was very worried as his wife was not sleeping and that she was pregnant. I told him I could not take the responsibility of the consequences to his expectant wife and agreed for him to report for work and I would explain the circumstances.

As the strike moved into its second week support across south Wales remained firm. Trevor and his colleagues were, therefore, amazed when they heard on the ninth day of the strike that the TUC had asked the non-mining unions to return to work. Their initial reaction was that the Government must have agreed to the terms demanded by the unions. In particular the TUC claimed to have secured acceptable terms for the reopening of discussions for the settlement of the mining dispute. However, it became apparent later in the day, and over the following week, that the TUC had failed to secure any concrete concessions from the Government or the mine owners. It may be that the threat of legal action against the unions influenced the decision. However, there was also the suspicion that, faced by the determination of the Government to maintain essential services, the TUC feared that the further escalation of the strike, planned for 12 May, would have achieved little other than to increase the potential for clashes with the authorities.

With nothing gained for the miners and no guarantees that striking union members would be taken back by their employers, the TUC decision was a hammer blow to the strikers.

In spite of all the confident fighting speeches and high morale among the rank and file, the whole thing collapsed on the Friday night. There was a packed meeting of railwaymen in the Memorial Hall and the Aberdare Leader reported “Local Railwaymen decided at the Memorial Hall, Aberdare on Friday evening to accept the recommendation of the Union Executives and to return to work that there should be no penalties or victimisation”. In fact, there were no guarantees and many of my colleagues did not go back for months. With no coal coming from the pits, the railway company in South Wales had no work for many clerks. One young Clerk had only been on the railway a month but came out on strike but never got his job back.

National solidarity was in tatters and it was left to individual unions, at the local level, to attempt to negotiate a return to work for their members.

A meeting of the three railway unions was called in the Memorial Hall and a deputation representing the three unions was chosen to visit the various departments at the Aberdare Station to meet local Officials and to indicate we were available for work. As we proceeded towards the station we began to realise that it was a “cap in hand” affair. To quote the words of Aneurin Bevan in another context, as we approached the Officials we felt “naked”. We called in the Station Master’s Office (the office where I normally worked) and visited the Engineering and Goods Departments. We received a respectful reception from each Officer. We then moved over to the Loco Sheds where several hundred staff were employed as trainmen, fitters etc. The spokesman at the Loco was Ben Brace (ASLF) a very prominent member of his union nationally – a JP and Town Councillor. As we passed the office window we could see Mr Burgess, the Loco Foreman and one of his Shift Foremen the only two at the Depot not on strike. When we got to the office door we knocked and tried the knob – it was locked. We had no choice but to make our way into the engine shed and approach the glass partition where men booked on duty.

Mr Burgess and Fred Hussey came to the inside window and as the glass shutter had not been opened for nine days it was stuck and Fred Hussey broke the glass in opening it. The tension was electric! Ben Brace’s face was livid. To be humiliated in the presence of the other departments where we had had a respectful reception. Ben said “I thought you would have the courtesy to receive us in your office.” Burgess replied “We can do our business here, Ben”. Ben had to say that he was speaking on behalf of the Unions and that we were available to resume duty. Burgess replied “we will let you know when we want you,” and there the interview ended. It was absolute humiliation for men who had given their life time to the Company and we could do nothing whatever about it but walk away.

Across the county many men lost their jobs or were forced to return to work on reduced hours as employers took the opportunity to reduce numbers and, in many cases, retain those employed to break the strike. Trevor Vaughan was one of the lucky ones and returned to work on the railway at Aberdare.

Mr James, the Station Master, (we were good friends) called me back to the offices on Saturday morning and assured me that he had not done any of my work. Back on duty I had to compile a list for the Divisional Superintendent of the names of the “loyal” staff and those on strike. In the first column was one name “Mr James.” For the second column I just copied out the pay bill – about 120 names including my own together with Clerks, Inspectors, Signalmen, Guards, Shunters, Ticket Collectors, Porters etc.

And so ended nine days in which I experienced the “Baptism of Fire”.

But it did not end there for Trevor Vaughan and many others.

Involvement in the General Strike in a town like Aberdare was an emotional experience and it would be difficult to assess the influence it had on my personality. It brought me into close contact and intimate relationship with outstanding Independent Labour Party stalwarts who had suffered severe victimisation throughout the lives. Men of high integrity and intellectual quality. Everything in life that matters seemed to be at stake during that nine days. During my 45 years on the railway it was the only occasion when I knew what it was to be “out of work.” Along with thousands of my fellow workers in my home town I was facing reality something akin to the comradeship of the trenches in Flanders during the First World War.

On the one hand the strike was broken and the following year, to make a point, the Government enacted legislation to outlaw sympathetic strikes. The miners lock out continued throughout the summer and autumn before they were forced to accept defeat and return to work, where it was still offered, on reduced terms and conditions. As Trevor Vaughan noted:

It is difficult to believe that such a demonstration of solidarity among the working class – supported by the whole community as far as Aberdare was concerned – should suffer utter collapse.

However, the events of May 1926 made a firm impression on many men and women across the country. Direct action had failed but there were other routes to challenge the status quo and fight for better working conditions. In 1932 Trevor Vaughan was nominated as a Labour Party candidate for Aberdare Urban District Council and won a seat at the second attempt the following year. He went on to have a long involvement with local government, serving as Mayor of Newport in 1963, and he was awarded the CBE in 1967. Looking back on the events of 1926 he concluded:

There is no doubt that my involvement in the General Strike 1926 had a profound influence on the direction I was to travel in the years to come and the causes to which I would give the major portion of my life and energies.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s