The Volunteer’s Story

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.

Over the past fortnight we’ve explored the stories of a railwayman and trade union official from Aberdare, and an officer of the Volunteer Service Committee. Today we examine the Volunteer’s Story.

On 16 July 1926 men and women from across South Wales attended the City Hall in Cardiff at the invitation of the Lord Mayor, Alderman W B Francis, and the Chairman of the Tramways Committee, Alderman W R Williams. The event was a grand civic reception for ‘Volunteer Drivers and Conductors who loyally served the Citizens during the period 4-15th May 1926′.  During the course of the evening those who had served ‘during the period of the National Emergency’ – more commonly known as the General Strike of 1926 – were presented with souvenir albums followed by musical entertainment and dancing until two in the morning. It was a high profile reception to celebrate their contribution to the maintenance of supplies, transport and law and order during the strike of May 1926.

Glamorgan Archives holds copies of the invitations and souvenir books presented to two of those who attended the reception, Ronald Pritchard who served as a Conductor on the Cardiff trams [Pritchard Family Collection, D414/4/1-2] and Cyril Small who was a Driver [Papers relating to mayoralty of Sir W. R. Williams, Cardiff City, DX701/9]. The Archives also holds the certificate of thanks from the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, and the Home Secretary, W Joynson Hicks, presented in May 1926 to Leslie Chapman for his service as a special constable in Cardiff during the General Strike.

D816_1

We desire on behalf of His Majesty’s Government to thank you in common with all others who came forward so readily during the crisis and gave their services to the Country in the capacity of Special Constables  [Leslie Howard Chapman Papers, D816/1]

The General Strike was a unique period in British history that divided the nation. For ten days there was a strike by the transport, iron and steel and print unions that threatened to bring Cardiff and towns and cities across the country to a halt. Many had rallied to the Government’s call for volunteers to keep essential services running. However, in other quarters there had been substantive support for the strike with rallies in Cathays Park attended by tens of thousands.  The civic reception was, therefore, seen in a very different light by the miners who were still on strike in July, and the thousands from the print, transport and iron and steel industries who had lost their jobs following the collapse of the strike, or had been forced to return to work on reduced hours and wages.

The papers held at the Archives do not provide details of how Cyril Small, Ronald Pritchard and Leslie Chapman fared during the tumultuous days of the General Strike in May 1926. However, they were probably in the thick of the action in Cardiff given that the most bitter confrontations followed from the decision by the Lord Mayor to break the strike by the bus and tram workers through the use of volunteers.

In all, over 12,000 volunteers came forward in South Wales in May 1926, including just under 7000 in Cardiff. In most cases the strike held firm and, due to lack of skills and numbers, volunteers working with management were only able to provide, at best, a skeleton service on the railways and the docks. However, in some cases they did make a significant impact. For example, over 600 men served as Special Constables in Cardiff and enabled the police to deploy large numbers of officers in central Cardiff throughout the strike. Although the TUC continually urged its members to avoid confrontation, the presence of up to 200-300 police in central Cardiff was a significant deterrent to those who might have looked for an opportunity to disrupt the work of the volunteers . The police also mounted armed guards at key locations throughout the city, including the Roath Power Station, and, if needed, they could call on troops from the Cheshire Regiment stationed in the city and sailors from Royal Naval in the docks.

The key area of confrontation between volunteers and strikers was the running of the trams in Cardiff. Initially, the strike was total but, within days, the Lord Mayor of Cardiff called on tram workers to return to work or be sacked. He also put measures in place to recruit volunteers, referred to by the strikers as the Lord Mayor’s Own (LMO), to run the service. Within days a limited tram and omnibus service had been restored to parts of Cardiff. Although, by and large, the unions instructed their members to avoid confrontation, the use of volunteers to run the transport service incensed many of the strikers and their supporters and resulted in attacks on buses and trams in an attempt to being the service to a standstill. In response, trams operated by volunteers were protected by police guards. At the height of the strike, on Thursday the 6th and Friday the 7th of May, large crowds blocked the progress of buses and trams on Queen Street and St John’s Square. The service was only restored after hundreds of police, including mounted police, were deployed to clear a route for the trams resorting, in at least one instance, to a baton charge to break up the crowds.

The running of the tram service in Cardiff during the General Strike created deep and ongoing divisions within the tram workers. At the end of the strike many of the volunteers were offered and accepted fulltime employment with the Cardiff Municipal Tram Service. Returning strikers, however, were given no guarantees and most were only taken back on reduced hours and hence reduced pay. This was a pattern repeated across the trades and industries involved in the General Strike, with union members, in some instances, losing their jobs or frequently only being able to return to work on reduced terms and conditions.

It is almost certain that Ronald, Cyril and Leslie were involved in some way in the above clashes. For example, it is very likely that Leslie Chapman was one of the hundreds of special constables deployed on the streets of central Cardiff at the height of the strike and he may well have been involved in the clashes on the 6th and 7th of May in Queen Street and St John’s Square. Ronald Pritchard and Cyril Small would have been very aware of the risks that they were taking in manning the trams during the strike, with their trams guarded on every journey by special constables. Volunteers were also often provided with a police guard on leaving work at night as they made their way back to the centre of Cardiff.

The civic reception, therefore, must have been the subject of mixed emotions. For Ronald, Cyril and Leslie it was probably just reward for a job well done. It was followed five months later by a further celebration with the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, who had branded the General Strike an attempt to impose a ‘reign of force’, being made a freeman of the city. Yet for many the strike had been a legitimate expression of support for the plight of the miners who had seen their wages and terms and conditions progressively driven down since 1918. Direct action had failed but there were other routes to fight for better working conditions, including support for the Labour Party.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

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