One of the areas of expertise in Kingston University’s History Department is in-depth knowledge of the interwar period and, in particular, some of the key political and social upheavals of the 1920s and 1930s. A good example is knowledge of industrial relations disputes, including at the local level.
Just over ninety years ago this month, in May, 1926, Britain experienced a General Strike, called by the Trades Union Congress (T.U.C), and – for a few days at least – ‘normal’ life in many parts of the country was put on hold. We can trace some of the effects of the dispute in Kingston-on-Thames.
The strike, which lasted from 3rd-12th May, saw ’emergency measures’ being put in place in Kingston from day one of the dispute (Monday 3rd). On Tuesday morning, the local Surrey Comet was able to issue a one-page ‘Emergency Bulletin’, which noted that the Government ‘have taken all steps to preserve law and order’.
Rightly or wrongly, however, there were genuine fears held by some members of the local town council that law and order might still somehow break down and serious food shortages would occur. A representative from the central government came down to the Municipal Offices at Kingston and, with the assistance of the Mayor and the Town Clerk, the foundations were laid out for how the local network of the government’s ‘Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies’ (O.M.S.), and its many volunteers, could be organised to ensure food supplies and the maintenance of existing services.
An appeal was issued for more local volunteers in Kingston, who were asked to register at the Town Hall and other local Municipal Offices. It was decided that the most urgent requirements were for assistance in transport by road and rail, and the appeal stated that ‘offers of the use of motor vehicles will be especially welcome’.
Over the next two days (4th-5th May), the Town Hall was, according to the local Surrey Comet newspaper, ‘besieged by volunteers eager to help in the present crisis’. The paper noted that it was emphasised by the officials that ‘nothing in the nature of any attempt at strike-breaking was desired, the only purpose of the organisation being to maintain absolutely essential services’. In fact, in the Kingston district, by the Wednesday morning (5th May), a thousand volunteers had been registered, with the work divided up into clerical duties, motor-driving and general labour. As well as the main local police, the official ‘Special Constabulary’ was also called out for extra policing duties and used the Kingston Public Library’s lecture hall as their temporary headquarters. A number of volunteers were also enrolled as ‘Special Constables’, and equipped with emergency powers to detain troublemakers if necessary.
By 8th May, the Surrey Comet itself had been reduced in size and could only be published as an ’emergency edition’. The paper’s mechanical printing staff, while showing loyalty to their Trade Union, had still allowed a special shorter version of the newspaper to come out, containing brief items of news about the progress of the strike. The Comet also posted news updates outside its offices in Clarence Street in Kingston.
The first two or three days did see some overcrowding on buses and considerable activity by volunteer car drivers, and the very few trains that ran into Waterloo were also very full. Overall, however, as with nearby Surbiton and other local areas, Kingston remained relatively quiet during the strike, with little sign that the lives of Kingstonians were being seriously effected or disrupted. As the Comet noted in its emergency edition: ‘There has been nothing in the nature of disorder in this district. The men as a rule have been loyal to their Unions, and have complied with the instructions given, though in many instances with very great reluctance’.
At the local utility depots in Kingston, there were some signs of tension, but nothing had really interfered with the supply of power to the town. Kingston Gas Company, for example, managed to retain a full staff at work and a good supply of coal, even though customers were still urged to make ‘greatest economy of use’. At the electricity plant, things were a bit more pressured, but still calm. Many of the regular workers at the electricity station had joined the strike, and had been replaced by 50 volunteers. Mr. T.A. Kingham, the Kingston Borough Electrical Engineer, admitted to the local press that he was having ‘a very strenuous time’, being practically chained to his office owing to depleted staff, but he was nevertheless ‘quite optimistic as to being able to keep up the supply of current’. He said he had been able to secure an adequate number of volunteers to ensure continuity of current.
Meanwhile, the local Conservative M.P for Kingston, Mr. F. G. Penny, issued an appeal to every citizen to ‘stand fast and be calm’ and to do ‘all in their power to assist the Prime Minister [Stanley Baldwin] in the very grave and anxious days which are undoubtedly before us’. He said he hoped ‘reason will prevail’ and a satisfactory solution would be found to end the dispute. Penny was also enrolled by the Mayor of Kingston as a temporary Special Constable, and immediately reported for duty.
Arguably one of the clearest signs of the strike in the town could be seen in the series of evening meetings arranged by the ‘Kingston Strike Committee’ in conjunction with the local Kingston Labour Party. This series of meetings came to a climax on the first Saturday of the strike, when a ‘massed demonstration’ of the strikers of Kingston, Surbiton and Teddington was held in Kingston Market Place, in the centre of the town.
Estimated to be 1,000 in number, the crowd of strikers, which included men and women, heard a series of platform speakers. As the Surrey Comet noted: ‘Practically every speaker urged the strikers to keep calm and go about their legitimate duties as pickets and in other capacities in such a manner as not to arouse others to rowdyism, and to refrain from looting’.
In hindsight, there was very little likelihood of ‘rowdyism’ and looting breaking out in Kingston. The evidence suggests that many strikers were keen to get back to work as soon as possible, and there was probably a sense of relief when the T.U.C. called off the General Strike just a few days later.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(Images: Wikimedia Commons)