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 the school log books, also trace the impact on local communities.
Last week we examined and account of the Strike by Trevor Vaughan, a railway worker and trade union official in Aberdare in 1926 [DX196/2]. A very different perspective on the events of May 1926 is provided by the Edward Loveluck papers held at Glamorgan Archives [DLOV/148-149]. Despite widespread sympathy for the miners there was a very real fear in many quarters that the strike called by the TUC was the first step in the breakdown of law and order. The Government moved quickly to counter the print workers’ strike and produce its own newspaper, The British Gazette, with the first edition published on Wednesday 5 May. From the outset, Stanley Baldwin’s Government took an uncompromising approach to the strike. Under the heading ‘No Flinching. The Constitution or a Soviet’, the British Gazette stated:
The strike is intended as a direct hold up of the nation to ransom. It is for the nation to stand firm in its determination not to flinch. ‘This moment’ as the Prime Minister pointed out in the House of Commons, ‘has been chosen to challenge the existing constitution of the country and to substitute the reign of force for that which now exists….’
Mr Churchill pointed that either the nation must be mistress in its own house, or suffer the existing Constitution to be fatally injured, and endure the erection of a Soviet of Trade Unions with the real effective control of our economic and political life. The Chancellor, however, foresees the nation’s triumph in the struggle. ‘No one’, he declared, ‘can doubt what the end will be, but from every point of view, including our duty in the interests of the working classes of this country, we are bound to face this present challenge unflinchingly, rigorously, rigidly, and resolutely to the end’ [The British Gazette, No 1, Wednesday 5 May 1926, DX24].
The Government had put in place detailed contingency plans for the maintenance of essential services in the event of a strike. The first edition of the British Gazette contained details of the Civil Commissioners appointed at a regional level across the country, with the Earl of Clarendon charged with south Wales. Based at Dominions House, Queen Street, Cardiff, his remit was to work with local authorities to maintain law and order and the provision of essential services, in particular transport and supplies of coal and food.
The Civil Commissioners also had at their disposal a local Volunteer Service Committee chaired by a Government nominee and set up specifically to recruit volunteers to keep essential services running. In some instances the basis of a volunteer force had already been put in place by a body known as the Organisation for Maintenance of Supplies. The OMS had originally been created in response to a campaign led by The Times in 1925 for the establishment of a voluntary body, with branches across the country, ready to recruit volunteers in the event of a general strike. Although not officially a Government agency, Volunteer Service Committees, often supported by the OMS, played a key role in helping the Civil Commissioners maintain key services.
Edward Loveluck was a local architect from Bridgend who worked for the Volunteer Service Committee in May 1926. His papers illustrate the extent to which the Government was both determined to break the strike and had taken steps to put detailed plans in place to counter the strike in the run up to May 1926. On 22 April, two weeks before the strike was called, Illtyd Thomas, Chairman of the Cardiff Area Volunteer Service Committee, wrote to Loveluck headed ‘Secret and Confidential’, asking him to act as Vice Chairman with responsibility for the Bridgend District. Thomas’ letter confirmed that planning for service provision in the event of a General Strike was in full swing.
As you have probably gathered from information which has appeared in the Public Press, preparations are being made for the maintenance of Public Supplies should an emergency arise.
I have been requested by the Government to provide a Volunteer Service Committee which will comprise a deputy appointed by me and nominated official Representatives, namely a Food Officer, Road Officer, Railway Officer, Postal Officer, Coal Emergency Officer and Finance Officer, representing the essential services.
Loveluck was asked to lead in the recruitment of men and women in the Bridgend district willing to undertake:
…national service to assist to produce, handle or transport necessary food, fuel, light and power or such other duties essential for the maintenance and well being of the community, but not for the purposes of acting as strike breakers.
The last line was to be the subject of much controversy for there was clearly a fine line between the use of volunteers to run services where union members were on strike and strike breaking. It was clear that the Volunteer Service Committees were seen as an integral part of the machinery being put in place at the local level to counter the strike. In a second letter, dated 3 May, Thomas provided Loveluck with a copy of a confidential Government Memorandum setting out how the Volunteer Service Committees would support the Civil Commissioners and their staff. It also contained details of codes that would be used during the strike to initiate, suspend and end action. The memorandum provided, as an appendix, a suggested format for a recruitment poster and a template for a Registration Card to record the details of volunteers. Although the posters were not to use the Royal Arms or the letters ‘OHMS’, it was clear that the committees were seen as a key agent in rallying public support for the Government in countering the strike.
Volunteers urgently required. Men, women and children must be fed. Essential services must be maintained. For these purposes volunteers are urgently needed. Are you prepared to serve?
The records produced by Loveluck for the Bridgend area show that, within days, he was able to recruit over 180 volunteers. It is often thought that the volunteers came primarily from middle class, white collar occupations that had little sympathy with the unions. To an extent the records bear this out with a number of solicitors, accountants and surveyors in the ranks of the volunteers. However, the volunteers also included large numbers of labourers, drivers, blacksmiths and gardeners. Given the origin of the strike it perhaps surprising that several gave their occupation as collier, collier’s labourer, tram driver and loco driver. The ages ranged from the 16 year old bus conductor to the 72 year old man from Southerndown willing to help with transporting food and coal. The records suggest that, while the strike was widely supported in mining areas, in the towns and cities the population was deeply divided. There was certainly no shortage of recruits, both men and women, ready to help with clerical work, deliver supplies by road and even to work on the docks and railways if required. After assessing the volunteers, Loveluck produced a summary of the skills that could be provided by the second week of the strike.
Special constables – 9
Railwaymen drivers – 2
Drivers – motor car 32, lorry 47, bus/tram 2
Motor cyclists – 11
Electricians/engineers – 13
Horse duties – 2
Dock workers – 1
Labourer – 23
Clerical – 29
Lady workers 13 [DLOV149].
Perhaps a surprising factor was the small number coming forward for work as special constables given that there was a significant campaign in the Cardiff area to increase police numbers. However, it is possible that the need for additional police was less pressing in areas such as Bridgend, Southerndown and Porthcawl. The volunteers also included 13 women, one of whom was Edward Loveluck’s wife. Most offered clerical or canteen work although some were prepared to help with transporting food and supplies. In his letter to Illtyd Thomas of 14 May, Loveluck confirmed that the measures put in place were working smoothly as the strike moved into its second week.
I telephoned the qualifications of the Locomotive Drivers on my list to you this morning and I enclose herewith the enrolment cards of same.
The lorry drivers canteen here has been open each night and has done excellent service and it will continue until further orders.
I understand tonight that a settlement has been reached with the Railway men, so probably the week end will see an end of the emergency. All is quiet and orderly in the Town and District, there is no shortage of anything except coal and this is strictly rationed.
There is nothing calling for special mention [Edward Loveluck to Illtyd Thomas, 14 May 1926, DLOV148].
By this time the strike was all but over with the TUC’s call for all but the mining unions to return to work. Four days later Thomas wrote to Loveluck confirming that his volunteers could stand down.
Instructions have now been sent from the Chief Civil Commissioner that all Recruiting Offices should be closed and the services of staff ended but I should be glad if the individuals who so kindly helped should remain available in case it may be necessary to re-open offices at short notice. All records and accounts should be preserved including registration cards until further notice [Illtyd Thomas to Edward Loveluck, 18 May 1926, DLOV148].
The papers end with a letter to Loveluck from the Earl of Clarendon, Civil Commissioner for south Wales, thanking him for his service, dated May 16 1926:
The national emergency is over and I am shortly returning to London but before I go I wish to thank you most warmly for the services you have rendered as Vice Chairman at Bridgend of the Cardiff Volunteer Service Committee. The work which you have done has been an important factor in the success with which essential services have been maintained in this Division, and I am most grateful to you for the help and assistance you have given me during the last fortnight.
There is still much debate as to precisely why the TUC called off the strike on 12 May. There is no doubt, however, that the work of the Volunteer Service Committees and men such as Edward Loveluck played a significant role in persuading the TUC that, at both local and national levels, the Government was a determined to resist the strike and there was no certainly that further strike action would be successful.
Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer