The London police strikes of 1918 and 1919

In true man-bites-dog style, the London police went out on strike in 1918 and 1919. 

Why is that man bites dog? Because when a government wants to break up a strike (or a demonstration, or a meeting) the police are the first people they think of. 

Why do I ask so many questions in my blog posts? Because it’s a cheap and easy way to organize my material. It’s a lazy habit but it works.

And I’m lazy but I work. It’s a good match.

The strike was so man bites dog that when the much-arrested suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst heard about it, she said, “The London police on strike? After that, anything can happen.” 

She’d been arrested multiple times for campaigning for women’s right to vote. The police, in her experience, were the ultimate in Thou Shalt Not. When they went out on strike it must’ve looked like the moment when parts of the Russian army joined the revolution.

Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.

Semi-relevant photo: To the best of my knowledge, no one human has bitten this dog. 

Background to the strike

At the time, a London policeman was paid roughly what an agricultural worker or an unskilled laborer would earn–in other words, not much. And to make it worse, the cost of living had more than doubled during the war, but their pay hadn’t done anything like keep pace.

What war are we talking about? World War I, which killed 886,000 young men in Britain (or by another count, over 700,000) and left I have no idea how many mangled. 

If you want more background on policing at the time, I’ll refer you to that noted expert on nothing, myself, in an earlier post.

Before I go on: You’ll notice I’m talking about police men. The war drained away enough men that women were pulled into the police forces to fill in. I can’t put my hand on any figures, but I’d bet the most important piece of furniture in the house (that’s the couch) that they were paid less. Probably considerably less. And told that this was the natural order of things. Because as women, they’d only go out and spend their pay on silly things like rent and food. There’s no point encouraging them.

So we’ll stick with the men’s wages. Especially since those are the figures I find quoted.

In case low pay wasn’t enough of a problem, the cops (gender neutral word marker there) who remained on the force were working a 96-hour week, with one day off every two weeks.

So basically, you’re looking at an unhappy workforce.

The National Union of Police and Prison Officers (called NUPPO by its friends and family) was founded in 1913. The central figure was John Syme, a former inspector in the Metropolitan Police who’d been fired for

Well, by one account it was for threatening to write to his MP (that’s his Member of Parliament) and by another it was for “undue familiarity” with his men. By a third account he was fired for supporting two constables who’d been fired. Those could easily be different ways of describing the same incident. So take your pick. I like “undue familiarity” myself. It has such a suggestive, Victorian ring to it, leaving me to wonder if they locked themselves in a toilet stall and had entirely too much fun or sat down with a cup of tea together after work.

And a biscuit. That’s where the real trouble comes from: biscuits. By which, if you’re American, you should understand that we mean cookies. I know you associate cops with donuts, but remember, this was a long time ago. Work cultures change.

By way of full disclosure, “undue familiarity” may have a Victorian ring, but Vic herself had been dead since 1901. It took a long time, though, to sweep away the traces she’d left behind.

Whichever it was, he’d been campaigning to get reinstated ever since.

The union stayed underground–wisely, given that five cops were fired for being members and that in 1917 the military police (who do you turn to when you want to police the police?) raided a meeting and seventeen more members were fired.


The 1918 strike

The 1918 strike started on August 30, two months before the end of the war, and it had two demands: increased pay and the reinstatement of Tommy Thiel, who’d been fired for union membership. 

Why Thiel in particular? 

Things happen that way. One person after another is fired, then someone who’s no more worthy gets canned and all hell breaks loose. 

You can’t predict this stuff.

The strike spread wildly and within a few hours over 6,000 cops had walked out, including members of the Special Branch, which worked–and still works–on national security issues. 

When those guys join your strike, the foundations of government tremble. Or maybe it’s the politicians who tremble. Either way, trembling gets done. Politicians look at each other and say things like, “We’ve got a problem here, don’t we?”

A day later, strikers marched to Whitehall, the center of government. A Scotland Yard official described them as “mutinying in the face of the enemy.” 

Scotland Yard? That’s the headquarters of London’s police force. It has nothing to do with Scotland. 

And mutiny? The war was still on, remember, even if the enemy wasn’t marching down London’s streets. If you want to win an argument during a war, drag the enemy into a sentence. 

By way of context, it’s worth remembering that the Russian Revolution had revoluted less than a year before, and the people running the country lost more sleep over the Bolsheviks than over the Kaiser. 

Of course I know that. I took a survey. It all happened well before I was born, but that didn’t stop me.

The prime minister, David Lloyd George, met with union delegates and agreed to their demands, promising to reinstate Thiel and raise their pay.

The strike ended triumphantly, without anyone noticing that they hadn’t won union recognition. 

Okay, they did notice but thought recognition would follow. Hadn’t the prime minister just met with them? How much more recognized than that can you get? And Lloyd George had said that union recognition would have to wait for the war’s end. 

Right, they said. Fair enough. Everything in due time.

Meanwhile, police in Manchester threatened to strike unless they were given a raise too. By October, police on several forces had gotten raises and by November union membership had gone from 10,000 to 50,000.


Round two

As far as the government was concerned, the strike had been roughly as predictable as a piano falling out of the sky, but by postponing union recognition it bought itself some time. It dedicated the next six months to defeating the union. The command structure of the police was reorganized, militants were isolated, moderates were won over, and partial reforms were introduced. 

Approved boards were established to represent the men, which gave them representation while edging the union off to the side. And although the ban on joining the union was lifted, its members weren’t forbidden to interfere with police discipline or to ask cops to withdraw from duty. Translation: You can join your poxy union if you want to, but there’ll be no more of this strike nonsense. 

Those phrases  about interfering with police discipline or withdrawing from dury didn’t come to me in quotes, but they have a starchy, quotationish sound, so I’ve left them as is. And with apologies, I’ve had to fall back on WikiWhatsia here. It’s usually reliable although it is subject to unpredictable fits of madness. I couldn’t find enough detail elsewhere and what it’s saying generally aligns with the other sources.

But back to our topic: The government set up a committee under Lord Desborough.

Was Lord Mr. Desborough’s first name? 

Of course it was.

The committee called for uniformity in police pay across the country, citing instances where cops were paid not just no more than unskilled workers but less.  

In 1919, the government passed the Police Bill, which established the Police Federation of England and Wales. In effect, this was a company union. It would represent the police but couldn’t strike. The law’s renewed periodically, most recently in 1996. 

The bill also prohibited cops from joining NUPPO, forcing the union into a strike. 

It was a disaster. Out of more than 18,000 London cops, just over 1,000 walked out.

In Liverpool, though, about half the force went on strike for several days. And although there’d been no violence or disorder during London’s 1918 strike, Liverpool saw both looting and rioting. The military was called in, working with cops who hadn’t gone on strike. Some 200 people were arrested and several were killed.

Smaller strikes took place in other cities and towns. 

Every last one of the nation’s striking cops was fired and the union was broken. 

On the other hand, policemen’s pay doubled and they became politically visible in a way that they hadn’t been before. 

What happened to the people who were fired? For most of them walk off the screen and disappear. A very few, though, I can account for. Several stayed active in the union movement. If I had to guess in what way, I’d say as organizers–it would have made them visible all these years later. Some became active in the socialist movement. The two strands wouldn’t have been entirely separate. Socialists were mainstays of the early union movement. One became the mayor of Hackney, running on the Labour Party ticket. At least one–Tommy Thiel himself–joined the Communist Party.

And one became a gentleman’s tailor and seems to have done well at it. He’d been banned from the City of London police station and In 1920 he asked for the ban to be lifted so he could visit old friends and try to pick up some customers.

His request was turned down.