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The Great Unrest and strikes in Britain from 1910 to 1914

Updated on September 3, 2017

The Great Unrest of 1910-1914 - a clear start and end is hard to define and it could be argued that it started as early as 1907 - which was seen by ruling elites as a revolution, was characterised by strikes and riots caused by wage cuts and other attempts to reduce the living standards of the poorest sections of the community. As in 1918 and 1958 race riots (this time directed against Chinese businesses ) arose when employers tried to bring in cheap foreign blackleg labour. The government, as it had to, tried to restore order, going so far as to send gunships to target Liverpool, but some of its actions could be, and were interpreted as upholding the interests of the employers, and indeed in some cases they seem to have been initiated by employers also involved in politics.

When examined the Great Unrest has parallels with later periods of unrest. Unfortunately this period has all too often been interpreted in socialist terms which may explain why accounts of the period are downplayed in most textbooks.


In 1910 the Labour party was fresh and new, and supported the ruling Liberal party. Labour sought respectability and did not stand up for the working class, just as new “Labour” in the first decade of the 21st century failed, in the interests of Big Business, to prevent the sale of British Jobs overseas. In 1910 Union leaders were still in love with a government that had just passed legislation that prevented them from prosecution for organising a strike. The 1908 insurance act had come into force introducing sickness and unemployment pay which improved the situation of workers. According to the 1911 census the richest 1 per cent of the population held around 70 per cent of the UK’s wealth in 1911, compared with 23 per cent in 2001(Office of National Statistics. Pikkety's Capital in the 21st Century also analyses inequality at that time, which seems not to have varied widely across Europe ). A cynic should ask if the 67 percent difference between 1911 and 2001 was owned by non-uk residents and businesses, certainly there seems little evidence that the native population saw any of it. In any case by 1910 Liberal reforms to help the poor were coming to an end for financial reasons. In 2011 the need for austerity was cited for a similar trend.

But there had been a decade long widening of the gap between rich and poor, compared with the later 30 years of widening inequality that started in the Thatcher years and was disguised by a debt bubble and easy credit. Britain was being overtaken economically first by the US then by Germany and rather than try to compete better employers tried to screw the workers. Real wages dropped 10% between 1900 and 1910, food prices went up and new technology threatened skilled workers in engineering and other fields. In 2011 a similar process happened. A declining Britain giving aid to the much richer country of India (formerly part of the British Empire), jobs under threat not just from smart software but also from the sale of British jobs overseas, and austerity measures imposed both as a result of a bailout to the finance industry in order to let investment banks pay top staff huge bonuses and contribute to party funds and to pay for involvement in unpopular and redundant wars.

Between 1910 and 1914 some socialist activists, who called themselves syndicalists, saw trade unions as the way to bring about radical change. And between 1910 and 1914 they gained a lot of popular support and frustration at pay cuts lead to a wave of strikes. Outside the UK syndicalists created breakaway unions committed to direct action, while a leading UK syndicalist, Tom Mann, argued that socialism could only be achieved through the trade union movement and that parliamentary democracy was inherently corrupt. In this he ignored or was unaware of the tendency to become what you hate, assuming trade unions would remain uncorrupted by power and success.

Not everyone was ignorant of this: The Next Step platform of the Unofficial Reform Committee in the South Wales Miners Federation, originally drafted by a checkweighter said:

Leadership implies power held by the leader, Without power the leader is inept. The possession of power inevitably leads to corruption. All leaders become corrupt, in spite of their own good intentions. No man was ever good enough, brave enough or strong enough to have such power at his disposal as real leadership implies."

Unrest close to revolution

In 1911 strikes in Liverpool’s dock and railways turned into a city wide transport strike. The Liberal government then sent two warships up the Mersey and deployed armed troops to break a demonstration of 80,000 people, and later shot two people dead and succeeded in breaking the strike.

In 1918 troops rushed into the coalfields to break a national miners strike were met with syndicalist leaflets headlined “Don’t Shoot”. Mann and a comrade were jailed for six months for “incitement to mutiny”, a slightly unusual but legitimate use of the term. The coal miners' strike of the 1980s was less violent but rumours the government had used troops disguised as police against strikers persist.

The breadth and spontaneity of mass action in 1911 and 1912 shocked the political establishment. The government had to use carrots and sticks, intervening in negotiations while deploying troops against strikers. Union leaders were taken unaware and lost authority and control over unofficial action. The 872 strikes in 1900 included 18 in Lancashire alone. On 5th September school students in Llanelli, Wales protested against the caning of a boy and with in days pupils in more than 60 towns were in the street protesting their grievances, with one boy telling a reporter from the Daily Mirror "our fathers strike - why shouldn't we?"

The Military

In September 1910 70 miners went on strike over pay rates for a difficult seam at a mine in South Wales and this lasted till November when the union refused to call a national strike. The dispute involved pitched battles between strikers, troops and police imported from London, who were assisting strike-breaking (“scab”) labour. In Tonypandy in November 1910 one striker was killed and some 500 injured.

In Southampton seamen struck over wages and this spread to other ports with dockers and carters joining in. Even unorganised ports were affected. In hull 15,000 dockers rejected a proposed settlement with yells of "Let's fire the docks"

In Liverpool a railway strike over pay escalated to a general transport strike throughout the city. During the course of this strike Orange and Green (Protestant and Catholic) Irish workers marched together, something hitherto unheard of

Troops were being deployed, nominally to keep order but in many ways this could be seen as a move to assist the employers, an example of what Adam Smith might have called an Employers combine using state intervention in the Market. Salford was subject to a virtual military occupation. In Liverpool, with a gunboat standing by on the Mersey, the army shot dead two people after three days of guerrilla warfare in the city centre. With thousands of troops stationed, London was a city under virtual martial law.

However, with 120,000 workers closing almost every provincial port in the country the employers' strikebreaking organisation was exposed as ineffectual. Eventually shipping industry bosses had to concede a wage increase.

The end of the shipping dispute did not end the transport strike which had spread across the country.

The government apparently placed the army at the disposal of the railway companies: Troops stood by to quell disorder in many places but widespread support for the strikers alarmed the government who soon backed down

The Workers win

In 1912 there was a national miners' strike over a minimum level of pay for underground workers.

The Times said it was: "The greatest catastrophe that has threatened the country since the Spanish Armada". A Tory MP called for siege rations and martial law to defeat "socialist trade unionism". In Conservative circles some wanted revolvers stockpiled use against working class revolt.

The government, fearing more unrest, rushed a minimum wage bill through Parliament. A week later prime minister Asquith broke down in the Commons under the strain.

In January 1913 taxi drivers went on strike over wages. The employers eventually gave way. In the autumn the taxi drivers union led london busmen in a strike for union recognition.

And so it continued, with strike after strike and fear of revolution, till war broke out in August 1914 and the elites used the wave of patriotism to quell unrest and where possible reduce wages and increase hours. A similar wave of patriotism in 2001 was used to remove historic freedoms in the USA. War, like religion is something rulers find useful. In this period things moved quickly and the confusion of the times is reflected in the various accounts available on the web.

The Wrap

Perhaps the quote that has the most high level relevance to 2011 was this:

Perhaps the most salient feature of this turmoil at the moment is the general spirit of revolt, not only against employers of all kinds, but also against leaders and majorities, and Parliamentary or any kind of constitutional and orderly action”.

According to this was Quoted in James Connolly Selected Writings, p.23, London 1973 and came from the press of the time. Online is quoted only in Industrial problems and disputesBy George R. Askwith where it is attributed to a noted journalist and is part of a larger quote apparently from 1913. Regardless this mirrors the attitude the New York times reported in 2011 in the Middle East, that young people wanted democracy but had little more than scorn for the existing political establishment, framework and process.

The history of the period is confused, like the period itself. Most of the accounts on the internet are written with a socialist pen, whereas it looks like socialism latched onto public frustrations. It is possible to see parallels between the 2011 London riots and the 1911 riots in Wales where according to one account “Even respectable people stole all they could get their hands on”, and with the riots of the “Arab Spring” that started in late 2010 and is still continuing. The difference is that the Arab Spring is regarded as a struggle for democracy, while the Great Unrest is perhaps hidden to prevent the Great Unwashed realising they have far more power than the elites would like.


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    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

      Thank you, A;ex, for your fantastic article. What will the 30 November strike result in? One thing I hope for it will get these lot out and as you said the Great Unwashed really have the power. I always believed in that. It is like the man telling the horse he is the stronger one. One thing always baffles me. Isn't Socialism a cover for communism? All these communist countries seemed to have changed over and present them as socialist.

    • AlexK2009 profile image

      AlexK2009 6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Thanks Wooded. Actually it took more time to organise the information than to find it.

    • profile image

      Wooded 6 years ago

      Wow, you must have done a lot of research here! Great read - Voted up! =D


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