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Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Forgotten National Railway Strike, 1911 - Part 1

The rise of the railway worker's unions in the late 19th century was inevitably going to cause conflict between them and company management at some point. Five main unions had formed by the turn of the century. These were the Association of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF), established in 1880, The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS), formed in 1871, The Railway Clerks Association (RCA) started in 1897, the General Railway Workers Union (GRWU), formed in 1889 and the United Pointsmen and Signalmen's Society (UPSS), which was begun in 1892. Thus, by the turn of the century unions were becoming an issue that the managers and directors of Britain’s Railways had to increasingly concern themselves with.

In late 1906 the ASRS initiated its ‘All Grades Campaign.’ The purpose of this was to force railway companies to provide better working conditions for its employees. Nationally, it demanded the institution of a maximum eight hour day for all those in traffic grades, and ten for all other employees. In addition, it demanded overtime payments and a ‘guaranteed week’ whereby railway employees would only work for a set period within seven days. Lastly, it campaigned for an increase of 2 shillings per individual that would not benefit from the eight hour day.

But one major barrier was in the way of achieving these goals. Simply put, the unions were not recognised by the management of the railway companies, (except in the case of the North Eastern Railway [NER]) and throughout 1907 Britain’s railway directors refused to meet with union officials. Faced with this staunch resistance, the ASRS decided to ballot its members in October 1907 on strike action. Predictably, and to no one’s surprise, 76,925 ASRS members voted for the action, with a paltry 8,733 opposing it. Yet, buy the time that this overwhelming result had been declared, the president of the Board of Trade, David Lloyd George, had started to intervene to avoid the country grinding to a halt.

At first he met railway company representatives on the 25th October, after which, on the 6th of November, the union officials were brought in. In one room he negotiated with the railway company managers and in another he dealt with the union officials. This allowed there to be negotiations, but without the railway companies having to formally acknowledge the union’s existence. The union was presented with a scheme that had been devised by Lloyd George and the company officials, and which had been drafted by the Central Railway’s General Manager, Sam Fay.[1] The outcome, while not overwhelmingly endorsed by railway officials, meant that the union could feel like they were making progress regarding their demands.[2]

The two principals of the scheme were conciliation and arbitration. [3] The scheme specified that there would be conciliation boards (sectional and general) that were to be formed from amongst the different types of workers within railway companies. The boards were comprised of elected officials from amongst the men and an equal number of representatives from the management.[4] So, in the case of the London and South Western Railway’s sectional board for the Permanent Way staff, the representatives at a December 1908 meeting were as follows:-

Present on the company’s side of the board:-
Mr. J.W. Jacomb-Hood – Chief Resident Engineer (Chair)
Mr. C. Johns – Permanent Way Assistant Engineer
Mr. A.W. Szlumper – London District Engineer
Mr. O.A.G. Edwards – Central District Engineer
Mr. W. Granger – Western District Engineer
Mr. A.H. Johnson – Signals and Telegraph Engineer
Mr. W. Cocks – Permanent Way Superintendent
Mr. G. Stredwick - Permanent Way Superintendent
Mr J. Goddard – Inspector
Mr. W. Buckmaster – Waterloo (Secretary)
Present on the men’s side of the board:-
Mr. B. Wicks – Assistant Foreman Clapham Junction (Chair)
Mr. E.D. Osborne – Platelayer, Nine Elms
Mr. E. Holtom – Foreman Platelayer, Chiswick (Secretary)
Mr W. Parker – Platelayer, Northam
Mr. W. Rickman – Platelayer, Lymington Town
Mr. H. Salter – Platelayer, Lapford[5]

The prime purpose of the boards was to negotiate on key points regarding wages and hours of work. If an issue could not be resolved at sectional level, it could be referred to a Central Conciliation Board that was made up of nominees from amongst the company’s managers and representatives of the employees on the sectional board. However, if negotiations stalled at this stage, issues could be referred to arbitration.

Across the industry many negotiations went to arbitration. Yet, after this process was complete many railway companies found way to circumvent arbitrator’s awards, which even then were not viewed as favourable by the employees. Indeed, this was backed up by the Board of Trade’s own returns which, rather than showing an increase in average wages amongst railway staff, showed slight decline between 1907 and 1910. Further, the conciliation boards could not discuss other issues regarding working conditions, and had to stick to the topics of hours of work and wages. Lastly, and to add insult to injury, by 1911 all the railway companies’ (except the NER) still did not recognise the unions. Thus, railway workers increasingly saw the conciliation scheme as being ineffectual. This, therefore, was the backdrop to the 1911 general railway worker’s strike.[6] This is discussed in Part 2 HERE.


[1] Pollins, Harold, Britain’s Railways: An Industrial History, (Newton Abbot, 1971), p. 135
[2] Howell, David, Respectable Radicals: Studies in the Politics of Railway Trade Unionism, (Aldershot, 1999), p.12-14
[3] Howell, Respectable Radicals, p.12-14
[4] Pollins, Britain’s Railways, p.134-135
[5] Dorset History Centre [DHC], D/WIB/Z/10, Reports, circulars and correspondence, mainly concerning employment; article on conditions of service reprinted from The Railway News, undated. [Some printed], Notice of Proceedings at Meeting of the Sectional Conciliation Board (Section D., Permanent Way Staff), Held at the Company’s General Offices, Waterloo Station, on Saturday, December 19th, 1908, p.1
[6] Pollins, Britain’s Railways, p.135-136

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