9. Labour unrest in war and peace 1910-1920

In Bristol, the prosecution of large-scale strike action between 1910-1914, reminiscent to that of 1889, returned but chiefly concerned non-craft workers employed in the transport and extractive industries. In parallel trade union membership increased sharply. The war years 1914-18 saw a marked decline in industrial action. Strikes were prohibited under the 1915 Munitions of War Act (see Table 1) but union membership, as elsewhere, continued to climb. Labour unrest returned once again towards the end of the war (see Table 2 below) and in the economic boom of 1919-20.


TABLE 2: Number of stoppages and aggregate number of working days lost, 1915-1918, in the UK and Bristol.


All industries and services in the UK

All industries and services in Bristol

No. of stoppages

Working days lost

No. of stoppages

Working days lost





















Source: H.A. Clegg (1994: Oxford University Press: Oxford) A history of British trade unionism since 1889, Volume 111, 1934—1951, pp. 240; J. Love (1986: unpublished MA thesis, Bristol Polytechnic) ‘Some aspects of business and labour in Bristol during the First World War’, p. 80. Reproduced from Kelly and Richardson (1996) p. 219.


The 1910 Dock Strike

The first major strike to occur in this period of heightened class tension began at Avonmouth docks on 21 June 1910. One commentator described the event as 'one of those dock strikes which are fit material for the student of irrational group psychology' (Neale (1970) p. 116). But as he acknowledges later one of the underlying causes of this dispute, and the ones which were to follow in 1911 and 1912, was undoubtedly related to the casual nature of dock work. The small core of permanent men and the larger number of regular dock workers attempted to utilise their union membership to control and restrict entry to the many casual workers looking for employment on the docks, with varying degrees of success, in order to protect their livelihood (Neale (1970) pp. 135-136).

The dispute in 1910 was unofficial. In solidarity with their comrades in Newport, Avonmouth men refused to load the Natal Transport, diverted from the Welsh port because of a strike. The employer, Holder Brothers and Company, hired scab labour to do the job. Immediately a thousand men stopped work and walked out. It took Gorman, the local dockers' union secretary, three days to persuade his members to return to work. But the return to work agreement collapsed after three additional foremen were sent to train the strike-breakers, working on the Natal Transport, in loading techniques. The men struck again demanding the sacking of these foremen. Despite appeals from Tillett who told the dockers that they were 'acting like children to be asking for men to be marched out in that way' the strike continued. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the dockers formed their own strike committee independently from the official union leadership. There was a temporary return to work between 26 June and 11 July when the foremen in question were sent on a fortnight's holiday but on their return the strike resumed and spread to the City and Portishead docks. It was 23 July before the dispute was finally settled (Neale (1970) pp. 116-124; R. Whitfield (1979: unpublished MLitt thesis, University of Bristol: Bristol) 'The labour movement in Bristol 1910-1939', pp.38-45).

The dockers' union

This was an important groundbreaking conflict that led to the dockers' union in Bristol to make a strategic decision to open its doors to all workers engaged in key occupations on the waterfront. This resulted in a single union emerging to represent the interests of waterside workers, an exceptional development in UK ports (E.J. Hobsbawm (1968: Weidenfeld and Nicholson: London) Labouring men, p. 210; Kelly and Richardson (1996) p. 218). After the strike workers with a more marginal association with dock work, such as the carters, joined the dockers' union. The Workers' Union (WU) had made the first significant effort to recruit Bristol carters but Ernest Bevin on behalf of the dockers' union successfully circumvented their efforts and became the first chairman of the Carman's branch in August 1910 (A. Bullock (1960: Heinemann: London) The life and times of Ernest Bevin: 1. Trade union leader 1881-1940, p. 22). Thus the union's influence now extended beyond the direct vicinity of the docks.

Trade Union Banner: Bristol Carters branch of TGWU

In the first six months of Bevin's chairmanship 2,050 carters signed up to union membership, thus he was able to persuade employers, with a history of anti-unionism, to concede union recognition (Bullock (1960) p. 24). The credit for these achievements has been accorded to Bevin's organising and leadership qualities (M. Stephens (1981: TGWU: London) Unskilled labourer and world statesman: A portrait of Ernest Bevin 1881-1951, p. 24) but it could well be argued that he was following events more than leading them. Once in control, however, there is little doubt that Bevin, who in 1911 became a full-time union official, and other trade union leaders, had a powerful influence in shaping union policy. For instance, as part of the union recognition agreement for carters 'came a commitment to use the Joint Arbitration Board to settle disputes' (Whitfield (1979) p. 45). Moreover, Bevin, following TUC policy, resolved to prevent strikes during world war one (Bullock (1960) p.65).

Strikes 1910-11

Seamen, bargemen and miners, as well as dock and railway workers, participated in strikes during 1911-12. A feature of these strikes was that many were initiated through unofficial action. The mining dispute of 1911 affected two out of six pits in Bristol and involved union and non-union workers. In fact 40 per cent of the participants were unorganised. William Whitefield, the local miners' leader, renounced the strikers but they continued their action for 3 months without official support before their dire financial situation forced them to concede to a settlement that fell well short of their initial claim (Whitfield (1979) pp. 54-56). Solidarity was again a feature of the 1911 and 1912 dock strikes as action was taken in support of London and Liverpool dock disputes as well as local and national railway workers. Bristol dockworkers, however, took the opportunity to exploit the situation to push their own demand for a closed shop. Bevin, revealing his foresight, took up this cause (Whitfield (1979) p. 49). It was the war that brought this period of industrial conflict to a temporary halt just a few months after the creation of the Triple Alliance between the Miners' Federation, National Union of Railwaymen and the Transport Workers' Federation. Although most commentators are of the view that a General Strike resulting from this alliance was unlikely, some voices have expressed a contrary opinion, which may well be in keeping with an observer's view in 1914 (G. Dangerfield (1961: Smith and Haas: New York) The strange death of Liberal England, p. 400). Even when the war started 2000 Bristol building workers refused to call off their one-month-old strike for better pay and shorter hours (Whitfield (1979) p. 126).

The syndicalist influence

Robert Whitfield could find no evidence of syndicalist involvement in Bristol between 1910-1914 (Whitfield (1979) p. 58). It must be said, however, that the form of industrial unrest described above resembles that of what Bob Holton calls proto-syndicalism, 'forms of social action which lie between vague revolt and clear-cut revolutionary action' (Holton (1976) p. 77). Direct action often in defiance of the union leadership, sympathy strikes, pursuance of the closed shop and the formation of a single union embracing all waterside workers constitute an unparalleled development in Bristol's labour history. The authorities representing the interests of local employers certainly viewed the level and intensity of labour unrest extremely seriously and did not hesitate to appeal to arms. On at least one occasion the military in Bristol 'fired over the heads' of workers allegedly 'attacking a signal box' (Whitfield (1979) p. 51). Moreover, there is evidence that some workers were sympathetic to the syndicalist movement. According to Holton the syndicalist paper Solidarity seems to have had a favourable reception in Bristol (Holton (1976) p. 147). It was available at a newsagent in the Horsefair, Bristol, as well as being sold directly by syndicalist agitators. Bristol could also provide a speaker, a clerk by the name of Herbert Eady, to advocate the syndicalist cause (The Industrial Syndicalist, 1, 9, March 1911, pp. 11-12).

Welfarism and paternalism

Although the numbers participating in industrial unrest between 1910-1914 were significant only a few industries were directly affected. Large manufacturing firms such as Wills, ES and AR, Mardon, Son and Hall (Mardons), with interests in printing and cardboard box manufacturing, and Frys chocolate factory seemed to have escaped conflict. Closer examination indicates why this might have been the case. It has already been suggested that the new emphasis on workers' welfare was, in Wills and ES and AR in the late nineteenth century, aimed at securing commitment and loyalty. It seems that in the twentieth century ES and AR driven by contingency factors took up a dual policy, welfarism and acceptance of union representation for male workers. In 1910 it granted recognition rights to the Bristol Typographical Society (BTS). By 1915 the BTS was well established in the company with 60 members (Bristol Records Office (BRO) 34463/16/17/18 Bristol Typographical Society, membership lists). Moreover, the evidence available suggests that in 1913, at the height of industrial unrest in the UK, the conditions were also favourable for the printers' assistants union, NATSOPA, to recruit male semi-skilled workers in the company. In the previous year the company had introduced profit sharing, an employee involvement strategy that again accords well with Ramsay's cyclical control theory referred to above.

Frys, a Quaker company, decided to introduce welfare benefits after being hit by industrial action in 1889. This strategy entailed placing great emphasis on personal contact with workers enabling the hierarchical distinction between owner and producer to be reinforced. This fortification of authority helped to stabilise a paternalist relationship. Moreover, Frys argued that fair wages and good conditions for its largely female workforce made trade unionism unnecessary (S. Diaper (1988) 'J.S. Fry and Sons: Growth and decline in the chocolate industry, 1753-1918' in Harvey and Press (1988b) pp. 47-49). Mardons, following Wills, became part of the Imperial Tobacco Company in 1902, and distanced itself from the interests of other print firms. This is reflected in its opposition to the formation of the Bristol Master Printers' Association in 1906 and enabled the firm to continue to foster a paternalistic relationship with its employees that excluded trade unionism (D. Bateman (1992: a private publication) The origins of the Bristol Master Printers' Association, p. 16; D. Bateman (1988), 'The growth of the printing and packaging industry in Bristol, 1800-1914' in Harvey and Press (1988b) p. 99). The British labour management strategy of paternalism and welfarism acting as a deterrent to the development of class-consciousness should not be underrated (R. Fitzgerald (1988: Croom Helm: London) British labour management and industrial welfare 1846-1939).

Trade union organisation

The increase in trade union membership accelerated during the war years, although local data are sketchy. Whitfield records that locally the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) grew from 1,095 in 1913 to 3,159 in 1919. The NUBSO, helped by the acceleration in demand for army boots, expanded its membership from 1,268 in 1913 to 5,336 in 1919. There are no figures available for the dockers' union but their annual income, a strong indicator of membership, grew from £1,670 in 1910 to £27,791 in 1919. The income of the Gasworkers and General Labourer's Union (G and GLU) increased from £116 in 1910 to £3,750 in 1919 and the WU receipts expanded from £78 in 1910 to £1,924 in 1919 (Whitefield (1979) p.81). The organisation of women workers was also a feature of the First World War. The Bristol Women's Branch of NATSOPA, for instance, was 1000 strong by 1917 (NATSOPA Journal, July 1917, p. 7). The National Amalgamated Society of Warehousemen and Cutters (NASWC) also represented women workers in the printing and packaging industry and had a presence in Bristol. A Miss L. Dunn, after 18 years service with ES and AR, joined NASWC in 1916 and went on in the inter-war years to become a Bristol branch committee member of the National Union of Printing and Paper Workers and delegate to the Bristol Trades and Labour Council (The Paperworker, January 1943, p. 196).


The impact of technology had by this time played a part. Before the outbreak of war the boot and shoe industry had shifted from hand to predominately machine production within the space of two decades. The major defeat suffered by the NUBSO in the national lockout of 1895 enabled the industry to be mechanised without serious opposition from the union. Union membership declined rapidly until the First World War when higher demand and the shortage of labour strengthened the union position (Press (1988) p. 219-222).

The printing industry, a significant employer of labour in Bristol, started the process of introducing composing machines to replace the handcraft composing process in the early 1900s. In one Bristol firm, J.W. Arrowsmith, we are able to trace the impact of the mechanisation of composing. In 1900 the firm still set type by hand and employed 40 compositors representing 57 per cent of the workforce. By 1919 the number of compositors employed had fallen to 17 out of 100 employees, as a large part of the composing work in Arrowsmiths was now done on Linotype or Monotype machines (BRO 34463/67 Annual Report of Arrowsmiths Typographical Association 1919).

Although the mechanisation of composing took another decade or so to become universal, machinofacture of the printing process was already extensive by 1914 (The Census of England and Wales, 1911, 1921 and 1931, HMSO). Newly created jobs allied to the printing industry, however, outnumbered those displaced as between 1911-14 and in the post-war boom new products and new markets increased the demand for labour. In short this period experienced a tighter labour market, which corresponded with the expansion of the printing and packaging industry in Bristol and the advance of technological change. Printing machine minders, assistants and auxiliary workers exploited these favourable conditions to organise, join the print unions and negotiate the establishment of training schemes and apprenticeships. Thus the use of non-apprenticed labour and girls and boys operating small letterpress machines (platen presses) in many general-printing houses at the turn of the century was curtailed though not eliminated (N.B. Dearle (1914: P.S. King: London) Industrial training, p. 20-27; W. Knox (1986) 'Apprenticeship and deskilling in Britain, 1850-1914', International Review of Social History, 31, 1986, pp. 180-81).

Between 1910-1914, automation or the introduction of new technology was not a feature of the industries most severely hit by strikes; dock work in particular being relatively unaffected by mechanisation. By this time industries such as the boot and shoe now relatively strike free, had, as earlier mentioned, already won the battle to mechanise by defeating the NUBSO in the lockouts of the 1890s. On the other hand, in the printing and packaging industry major innovations in the production process had lagged behind some other industries. In a tighter labour market workers were generally able to take advantage of improvements in mechanisation to secure, without major strikes, union recognition, training for semi-skilled workers and a reduction in working hours. Zeitlin made clear that a national printing strike was averted in 1911 because the organisational strength of the printing unions forced a compromise to be reached in the provinces concerning a shorter working week and the thorny question of restrictive practices re the operation of composing machines. This settlement he implies effectively left control over composing machines in the hands of compositors and their unions. While this argument might be slightly overplayed, the introduction of composing machines did involve speed-ups and job losses, it does show that where trade unions were strongly organised some success could be achieved simply by the threat of strike action (J. Zeitlin (1979), 'Craft control and the division of labour: engineers and compositors in Britain 1890-1930, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 3, 1979, pp. 265-266).

Industrial relations in wartime Bristol

Table 2 above reveals that after 1914 the number of industrial stoppages subsided until the final two years of the war. In 1917 Bristol engineers, under the leadership of the shop stewards' movement, who promoted independent rank-and-file organisation, participated in unofficial strikes. There were frequent strikes in Bristol's boot and shoe industry and 2,000 aircraft woodworkers seriously disrupted production at the Filton and Brislington factories when they went on strike in 1918 for a war bonus and an increase in wages. After a number of workers were sacked for joining a trade union 750 tramway workers struck on 21 October 1917 demanding trade union recognition and a pay increase, forcing the company to concede to their demands. In May the following year they struck again for three days to secure a closed shop. In March 1918, Bristol building workers stopped work for 12 days in protest at the objectionable behaviour of a foreman and only returned after he was sacked. And in September 1918, there was an unofficial railway strike (The Labour Gazette, 1917-20).

A few observations are worth noting here concerning the experience of industrial relations in wartime Bristol. First that the wartime shop stewards' movement, so closely associated with labour unrest on Clydeside, touched Bristol. Second, stoppages occurred in firms where employers' authority had been largely unchallenged for many years, and in traditionally non-union firms such as the tramways. Third, strike action, when workers thought they were being unfairly treated, was taken even in prime areas of military production.

Clearly militancy did not wholly evaporate, despite the illegality of official strikes and the opposition of the TUC to unofficial stoppages. But in most workplaces in Bristol hostility between capital and labour during the First World War was not openly expressed. Many prominent figures in the labour movement either co-operated with the war effort, Bevin being one important example, or were distinctly pro-war such as Whitefield the local miners' leader and Frank Sheppard, who became the first labour Lord Mayor of Bristol in 1917. Some Bristol independent labour party (ILP) activists, in particular Walter Ayles, opposed the war on pacifist grounds but focused their attention on supporting conscientious objectors rather than workers in struggle (Whitfield (1979) pp. 143-157).

Bristol miners voted not to strike for the duration of the war and kept their word. Evidence exists, however, to suggest that some organised workers seemed unruffled either by world events or the industrial struggles taking place in industries of military importance. The 1918 union records of print workers employed by the Bristol firm J. W. Arrowsmith perhaps best reflect this view:

The Chapel has for many years led a very uneventful life. A Great European War might be raging, 1000's of our brave soldiers may go 'over the top' to meet the advancing Huns many falling in heroic charge, but nothing seemed to disturb our equanimity (BRO 1918 34463/67 Annual Report of Arrowsmith's Typographical Association Chapel).

None the less thousands of previously unorganised workers in Bristol, as elsewhere, joined trade unions adding impetus to those influential actors from industry, the State and trade unions seeking to construct a national system of collective bargaining to resolve the differences between capital and labour. Within twelve months of the war ending national pay bargaining, already a feature in some important UK industries before the war, became widespread (T. Adams (1997), 'Market and institutional forces in industrial relations: the development of national collective bargaining, 1910-1920', Economic History Review, L, 3, pp. 506-530).

Industrial conflict in the post-war boom

However, this development, aimed at reducing the incidents of industrial action through the institutionalisation of conflict, failed to stop the tide of labour unrest in the immediate post war period. The economic boom of 1919-1920 brought with it a revival of labour disputes surpassing that of pre-war levels. In Bristol once again dockworkers, seamen, transport workers gasworkers and Co-op workers participated in strike action (The Labour Gazette, 1919-1920). The evidence available suggests that international events had touched the development of class-consciousness among some workers. The Bristol dockworkers, at a mass meeting in October 1919, condemned the UK government's part in the blockade of the workers' government of Russia, brought about by the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, and also called upon the government to halt the supply of arms to enemies of the revolution (Whitfield (1979) pp. 171-172). More proactively in 1920 Bristol dockworkers boycotted three ships used for transporting arms and supplies to British Forces in Ireland whose role was to suppress Irish nationalist claims (Kelly and Richardson (1996) pp. 219-220). The militancy of Bristol dockworkers once the war had ended in 1918 is not in doubt. They first revealed their strength in April 1919 in a mass walkout in protest of the imprisonment of a docker, allegedly for the theft of two apples. They returned to work only after securing his release on bail pending an appeal (Whitfield (1979) p. 176). In the winter of 1920, an advance in wages was the issue in a two-week stoppage by 2,500 carters and drivers (The Labour Gazette, 1920).

Interestingly, even those organised workers seemingly untouched by labour disputes for many years, revealed the existence of antagonism in relations with employers. For instance, on 3 February 1919 Arrowsmith printers, characterised above for their passivity, broke with the tradition of holding chapel (union) meetings outside of working hours and off the employer's premises by stopping work to hold an emergency meeting 'around the stone'. They voted to ban overtime until notices were withdrawn against two compositors, taken on during the war years, in order to make way for employees returning from active service (BRO 34463/67 Minutes of Arrowsmith's Chapel Meeting, 3 February 1919; Richardson (1995) p. 267) under the dilution agreement (see Table 1). However, the threat to bring in scab labour, communicated through the voice of the works manager with full authority of the owners of this family firm, busted the will of the chapel:

The members of I [the] chapel looked at I [the] Father and the poor Father looked at I [the] men and it w [was] felt + [that] we were 'between the devil and I [the] deep sea'. It seemed as if our courage of a few minutes ago w [was] percolating through our finger tips (BRO 34463/67 Minutes of Arrowsmith's Chapel Meeting, 3 February 1919).

The chapel capitulated as the result of the intervention of the works manager and agreed to work normally. This example reveals the difficulties faced by many workers, even when organised in trade unions. To express discontent and more significantly take action to redress injustice in the workplace is never easy.

Another example reveals that workers without a radical leadership can be susceptible to bolstering their position at the expense of others. Men employed at ES and AR in Bristol, and organised in the National Union of Bookbinders and Machine Rulers (NUBMR), compelled ES and AR management to cease employing women to work on ruling machines. The NUMBR had only recently begun to recruit women members but in this case it proved to secure advantages only for its male members acting as an obstacle to gender solidarity on equal terms (Richardson (1995) p. 177; Kelly and Richardson (1996) p. 220). The reinforcement of gender divisions after the war, especially on Bristol Tramways in 1923, (Large and Whitfield (1973) p. 19; Kelly and Richardson (1996) p. 220) reveals the heterogeneous nature of the Bristol labour movement, as indeed elsewhere, an important point given Hobsbawm's reference to what he saw as the one time existence of a homogeneous working class (Hobsbawm (1981) pp. 2-4).