In May, 1926, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) called a General Strike in Britain and, for about nine days (from 3rd-12th May), it appeared to many people that the country’s industrial relations had reached a low-point. The Armed Forces were put on alert by Stanley Baldwin’s government and troops were stationed at docks, electricity stations, and with food convoys.
The government also made use of the ‘Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies’ (O.M.S.), a voluntary network that had been indirectly created by the Home Office for use in precisely such an industrial emergency.
In hindsight, it all proved to be a very ‘British’ and mild affair. While various factories saw mass pickets at their gates and the transport system was seriously impacted in some of the major urban areas, in other parts of the country life carried on relatively normally and things remained surprisingly calm and quiet. There were no major shortages of food (as some people had feared) and the predictions of alarmist commentators at the time that the nation would somehow slip into turmoil and ‘Red’ revolution proved to be unfounded.
In many parts of the nation, the strikers became fed up after just a few days and slowly drifted back to work. A special delegation from the TUC (see photo) eventually went to Downing Street and negotiated a ‘peace deal’ with the Conservative Prime Minister.
While there has been some research on how Kingston-on-Thames fared during the 1926 Strike, much less has been written about the impact of the event on the nearby town of Surbiton. So, how did Surbiton and its local municipal officials and inhabitants respond to the Strike? What arrangements were put in place for what some local dignitaries feared would be a long and drawn-out affair?
One key feature of the response of the local authorities was to issue what the Surbiton Times newspaper (on May 7th) called a ‘strongly-worded appeal for volunteers’, citizens who could offer themselves up on a temporary basis, and would act under the authority of the national government to help in the ‘feeding of the people’; they would be drawn from ‘all classes, irrespective of their views on the subject of the strike’.
A few days later, the local press gave details on the ‘strike measures’ that were enacted in Surbiton to cope with the national dispute. The chairman of Surbiton District Council, Mr. F.B. Ray, JP, explained the various measures that had been taken ‘to keep conditions of life normal during the Strike’. According to Ray, recruitment of local volunteers under the government’s scheme for maintaining efficient services had ‘proceeded well’, and ‘640 Surbitonians had volunteered’. Between 150 and 160 Special Constables had been enrolled and ‘valuable work’ had been accomplished ‘though the medium of a voluntary car service to enable business people to reach their work in London and elsewhere’.
Indeed, evidence suggests that local members of the National Citizens Union (formerly the Middle Classes Union), in conjunction with the O.M.S., were very active in organising the ‘Voluntary Car Service’ in the town. In particular, Mr. G. Owens-Beatty, of Beaufort Road in Surbiton, and who was a leading member of the National Citizens Union, appears to have put considerable time and energy into organising a large team of motor-car owners in Surbiton, with a special registration post at Surbiton train station. Commuters who were unable to catch trains into work due to the strike action on the railways were thus able to try and get a lift from the volunteer motor-car owners instead.
This ‘voluntarism’ in Surbiton was also seen in other ways, and local middle-class women seemed to be especially keen to encourage what they saw as a ‘community’ spirit during a time of emergency. Mrs. Amy Woodgate, for example, who was a member of Surbiton District Council (and chair of the Kingston and Surbiton Branch of the Women Citizens’ Association) helped register volunteers at Surbiton Council offices in Ewell Road (see photo), and the Association itself also registered as a body for volunteer service.
Similarly, to give another example, Mrs. W.A. Clowes took charge of a ‘rest house’ for the volunteer Special Constables on Surbiton Hill where, ‘assisted by a number of willing lady helpers’, she provided what the Surbiton Times called ‘a real home from home for the gallant volunteer policemen, who are intensely grateful for the benefits they derived from the hostel’.
On May 21st, the Surbiton Times, in an editorial which surveyed what had happened during the strike at local level, expressed great satisfaction about what it felt were the qualities on display by local people ‘in the face of direct adversity’, and proclaimed grandly: ‘The General Strike of 1926 will go down to history as an event which perhaps more than the Great War itself revealed the wonderful fortitude and resourcefulness of the British nation’. The newspaper’s editor also indulged in some rather stereotypical language and highlighted what he claimed was ‘that splendid spirit the true Britisher always displays in times of emergency’, when ‘thousands of volunteers came forward to render what assistance they could to prevent every-day life from becoming stagnant’.
While more research is required on the impact of the General Strike in Surbiton, the brief details above can perhaps provide us with some initial insights into the effects of the industrial action, and the response of various local people to this in the town.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(Images: WikiMedia Commons)