The General Strike of 1926 was called by the General Council of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in an attempt to prevent wage reduction and increased working hours for coal miners in the north of England, Scotland and Wales.
The coal industry had suffered greatly since the end of the First World War with the strike being the latest in a series of industrial disputes. While the dispute initially began in mining areas, other industry workers soon joined the miners in a move of solidarity. One of the key trigger events came as print workers in Fleet Street refused to print an edition of the Daily Mail containing a leading article attacking strike action. This led to a breakdown in negotiations between TUC and the government and resulted in TUC’s decision to proceed with a general strike which began on 4 May 1926. It was to be the first (and only) general strike in British history with the closing not just of mines, but transport, newspapers, docks and power stations. In total, somewhere between 1.5 and 1.75 million workers took part in industrial action.
However, the government was prepared and took control of the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) which had been set up the previous year to provide volunteers in the event of a general strike. In London, and elsewhere, efforts were made to ensure essential public services continued with a food depot set up in Hyde Park for volunteers and transport workers. Among those working at the depot were Jeanne Malcolm and Edwina Mountbatten, later Countess Mountbatten of Burma (pictured below). At the same time, Edwina’s father, Wilfrid Ashely, then Minister for Transport, was busy arranging contingency plans for transport services.
The government also ran an aggressive propaganda campaign which included the publication of The British Gazette, a highly patriotic newspaper which ran articles condemning the actions of the strikers while at the same time playing on growing fears of communism. As a result, the strikers failed to win over the middle classes with many instead volunteering as strike-breakers.
In a letter written by Henrietta Joseph, dated 18 May 1926, she discussed her experience of the strike:
“The strike was the most extraordinary experience I have ever known. There was not the horror and the anxiety of the war; but there was greater strangeness. One woke into a foreign world, where things were not done for us, one had to do one’s own arranging and fixing. Everyone was a pioneer. Life became an adventure. There were no newspapers. Letters were few and came seldom. Centuries of civilisation were swept away. As in the war, we all fraternised with one another. As days followed strange day, the resources of civilisation began to be foreshadowed rather than actually to appear as we got to know how things began. Gradually these young lords and varsity men became increasingly efficient at their jobs. The railways began to lose some of their amateurishness. One or two papers began to come out – almost life-like – in some cases there were 4 pages. The Times actually published a list of births, marriages and deaths. There was a side issue of an extra strike in Marylebone. The scavengers were out. No collecting of refuse. Then four varsity cricketers ran a dust cart of their own. On it was printed the legend ‘England collects the ashes’. Edwin was a special constable guarding our electric power station. (Amateurs ran the power stations.) We were all getting ‘into’ it. The world was starting again and doing its business in quite another way but doing it quite well. A millennium of sociability and brotherly love had begun. The universe was one big family party. Class distinctions were wiped out and then all of a sudden last Wednesday the general strike was called off. Gradually the world shook itself and came out of its dream. Now we are almost normal, it’s a matter of fact. We have passed through a great disaster, which politically and commercially we shall feel adversely for a long time, but it was a wonderful experience.”
MS 335 A2045/6/15
On 12 May 1926, after 9 days of action, the TUC announced their decision to call off the strike, having failed to significantly disrupt services. The miners eventually returned to work with their pay reduced and working hours extended. A year later, the government passed the Trade Disputes Act of 1927 making the type of sympathetic strike action that had created the General Strike illegal.