|An arrest of looters, August 1919|
During the aftermath of the first world war, labour unrest and disaffection in Britain were pronounced and widespread. The end of hostilities had immediately brought to the fore all those industrial problems which had been either set aside or dealt with on only a temporary basis during the war. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the police service. Here mounting discontent culminated in strike action in certain parts of the country both in 1918 and 1919 - the only period in which independent trades unionism has been openly practised in the entire history of the force. The successful strike in London in 1918 and the attempted, national police strike in the following year which failed are notable examples of the taking of 'direct action' within a hierarchically structured and disciplined organization. Up to 10% of the police forces in London and Birmingham came out on strike in August 1919 with more than a thousand policemen out in the Metropolitan area alone, never the less it was Merseyside which proportionate to the size of its force was really the key centre of the strike. More than half the Liverpool and Birkenhead forces as well as three quarters of the police in nearby Bootle answered the strike call. It was also Liverpool and the adjacent boroughs which were the most seriously affected by the consequences of the strike, in terms of public disorder, looting, damage to property and retaliation by the military with fixed bayonets and rifle butts. The significance of Liverpool in the strike was later emphasized by Prime Minister Lloyd George. He claimed that had Liverpool been wrongly handled and had the strikers there scored a success, the whole country might very soon have been on fire. As he saw it, the possible symbolic repercussions of the strike in Liverpool were far-reaching the actual outcome was, perhaps, even the turning-point for the entire labour movement, deflecting it from Bolshevist and direct actionist courses back to legitimate trades unionism once again Sporadic outbreaks of discontent, usually over pay, had occurred in the Liverpool force during the nineteenth century. At this period the police service was a collection of separate forces rather than an integrated system, such that in the city and borough forces pay and conditions were at the discretion of individual watch committees acting as the controlling police authority. After widespread complaints from the lower ranks at the time of the 'new unionism' upsurge of 1889-90, revised pay scales were introduced, constables starting at twenty-five shillings a week, rising to thirty-one shillings after twelve years of service. As a result the police in Liverpool were then better paid than in any other provincial city except Newcastle and Leeds.
By 1912, during a period of keen competition for labour, the Liverpool watch committee had agreed to increase the weekly pay of constables by one to three shillings according to length of service, as a means of reducing wastage and boosting still further a rising, though inadequate, trend of recruitment." A larger, net increase in the strength of the force was required to meet the needs of policing newly extended city boundaries and to comply with the compulsory Police Forces (Weekly Rest Day) Act passed by parliament two years earlier. Also, it was found necessary to make good the deficiency in numbers caused by the decision taken in 1900 to reduce the strength of the force as an economy measure which would save £8,000 a year on the rates.Yet difficulties were being experienced in obtaining the required level of recruitment and retention. A particular cause of the manpower problem related to conditions of the police pension scheme, the terms of which were more onerous in Liverpool than in other forces. In 1903, as a further economy to reduce expenditure on pensions in the second largest force in the country, the watch committee had increased the required length of service for securing maximum pension of two-thirds pay, from the usual twenty-six years to thirty years for all who joined the force after that date. This measure was said to have 'frightened off' many potential recruits who preferred to join another force in which maximum pension could be earned with four years less service. Concurrently with the 1912 pay increase to constables for recruiting purposes it had also been intended to grant the sergeants a rise of one shilling a week, but that proposed increase was doubled after a deputation of sergeants had approached the head constable and their grievances concerning inadequate differentials had received extensive publicity in a local newspaper. Because of the active recruitment policy being pursued, the force included an unusually high proportion of new men - 700 from a total of 1,800 constables having been appointed in the previous three years who were all at the lower end of the pay scale. After being refused any further pay adjustment the constables then sought permission to form a trade union, a request which the head constable strongly opposed and the watch committee rejected outright. With tightening labour market conditions in the period of high employment after 1910 the criteria for granting pay increases in the Liverpool force came to reflect explicitly not only local factors but also the terms of service prevailing in other large, neighbouring towns. As a result of police pay claims in the provinces in 1912 a conference was called by the Sheffield watch committee to consider adopting more uniform scales of pay and conditions by all forces in the north of England and the Midlands, as a means of preventing pay rivalry and possible discontent arising from pay variations. Thus, in 1914 the Liverpool police were granted their claim for a further pay increase, the new range for constables being thirty shillings, rising to forty shillings, in line with the 'very generous' increases which had been awarded to the police in Manchester and Stockport. But, at the same time, the innovation of the special rent allowance which had been paid since 1900 in Liverpool to help meet the expense of living in an 'approved' house in a respectable area was terminated for all grades except inspectors and superintendents. This supplementary allowance had been regarded by the lower ranks as a 'subterfuge to escape pension liability', as well as being unpopular with unmarried men who did not receive the benefit.' In comparison with these revised pay scales, dock labourers and carters in Liverpool received the same weekly wage rate as the starting pay of constables, and cotton porters somewhat less at twenty seven shillings and six pence. The major consequence, however, of wartime wage stringency for the police service was that the pre-war equality in starting pay of the Liverpool constable in comparison with the labourer had come to be eroded and any advantage in relativities was now completely reversed. Despite an increase of seven to eight shillings in pensionable pay secured as a result of the 1918 police strike in London, whose terms of settlement were extended to certain other police forces, the pay of the Liverpool force had fallen below that of many unskilled workers.
Police have been banned from striking since 1919
when almost every constable and sergeant
refused to go on duty, causing havoc in London and Liverpool
Not only were police pay levels considered to be totally inadequate in Liverpool before the summer of 1919, but the extent and intensity of job duties were also regarded as excessive. Wartime conditions had meant that in addition to their normal functions the police had also to enforce lighting restrictions, undertake enquiries regarding army and navy pensions and enforce the National Registration Act, in Liverpool registering many thousands of aliens in the largest scheduled 'prohibited' area in the country relative to the size of its population. A further source of complaint related to the weekly rest day. In common with other forces, the Liverpool men had their legal entitlement to a weekly rest day suspended under the emergency regulations for the duration of the war and were given one day off per fortnight. But the particular problem in Liverpool was that the watch committee refused to pay anything at all for lost rest days until 1916, after which they then remunerated them at time and a half. The police felt that they had lost out since nearby forces such as Manchester had been paid for all the rest day worked up to 1916, as well as after that date. To make matters worse, the one fortnightly day which was allowed off in Liverpool was allocated in such a way that a constable always had the same weekday without variation.
After the 1918 strike in London the authorities took the view that it was essential to get the police services going again, the country then being at a critical point in the European war. The strikers were therefore not dismissed on this occasion and one of the terms of settlement was that, although the union could not be officially recognized during wartime, there would no longer be any objection to London policemen joining the union so long as it did not interfere with discipline or induce members to withhold their services. In Liverpool it was also tacitly understood that the watch committee would not oppose union membership on the same terms as in London. As a result, with the men now able to declare their allegiance to the union openly, both membership and confidence expanded rapidly. By early 1919 a Liverpool district canvass of union members showed that 98 per cent were prepared to take any action which the executive in London deemed necessary, including strike action.
|A soldier stands guard to prevent looting|
during the 1919 strike
Given that the union now sought participation in the internal decision-making processes of the force, it was felt that recognition would undermine discipline, threatening hierarchy and control by superiors in an organization founded upon authority. As the police were essential in helping to maintain the stability of the social order and existing class relations, it would not be possible to rely on the loyalty of a force which could disobey orders at the union's behest. There was also the related fear that the union would become further integrated within the labour movement, thereby preventing the police from maintaining order in future industrial disputes. Indeed, it was claimed that if the force were controlled by a union it would become a 'seething centre of Bolshevism'. In consequence, the 1919 strike was treated by the authorities not so much as a labour dispute but rather as an abdication by the police of their allegiance to the state and a challenge to publicly constituted authority. The strike of August 1919 was called against the Police Bill that would give effect to the central recommendations of the Desborough Committee which had just reported. The pay of the force was, for the first time, to be standardized throughout the country and substantially increased, with a range for constables of £3.10s. to £4.10s. per week - a rise of about one third for the Liverpool force.
|Military tents occupying the gardens during the |
Liverpool Police Strike 12th August 1919
A new representative body, the Police Federation, was to be established as a channel for the airing of grievances, independent of any body or person outside the police service. However, questions of discipline and promotion affecting individuals, a major sources of grievance in the Liverpool force, were to be completely excluded from its jurisdiction. The final blow was that membership of a trade union was now to be made unlawful for members of the force. Thus, the strike was one for the very survival of the police union itself. On Merseyside, in contrast to much of the rest of the country where the response rate was a total fiasco, the strike call was well supported by the lower ranks, especially by those who had been recruited in the years immediately prior to the war. Of the 907 striking Liverpool constables almost half were those with between five and twelve years of service, and of the remaining forty-eight sergeants who came out all had more than twelve years of service in that rank. No plain clothes or CID staff, however, refused duty. The watch committee adopted a firm line, as it had previously intimated, and all the strikers were dismissed with loss of pension rights. It had no difficulty in finding suitable, permanent replacements at the enhanced rates of pay and, as additional strike-breakers, more than 2,000 temporary special constables were recruited for the protection of property, mainly from bank staffs, business houses and the cotton exchange. The police union had recognized that it was not strong enough by itself to withstand the onslaught of the authorities and it now looked to organized labour for the support which had been pledged in the preceding months. In Liverpool, local officials later claimed to have been misled in that they had been assured that in the event of a police strike 90% of organized workers would down tools in support. Yet the reaction of the local labour movement to the strike was ambivalent and sentiment was divided. Meetings were called in support of the police, direct sympathetic action threatened and a strike-committee set up to negotiate for reinstatement. In contrast, much of the rank-and-file was more cautious of the newly professed affinity of the police for the labour movement and far less certain of the merits of extending the dispute by direct action. Some questioned whether the police organization could be looked upon as an ordinary trade union at all, whilst others were said to view the police strikers 'with contempt'. Despite their working-class origins, it was recognized that the police occupied a position of special responsibility to the governing authorities and were called upon to break up labour demonstrations. There were particular references to police brutality during the 1911 transport strike in the city. As a letter to the Police Review put it, the police service was not like an ordinary industrial occupation and the policeman, although of the workers, was not a worker - he was a 'class apart’. Certainly, most Liverpool workers were not prepared to strike without orders from their own national executives in London, which were not forthcoming. Once it became clear that not only had the strike failed nationally but also that the local labour movement would not come out in order to secure their reinstatement, the morale of the Liverpool strikers collapsed completely after the third week. They publicly announced that they now regretted their action, would abandon the union and 'respectfully begged' the watch committee to take them back. In effect, they had resumed a deferential attitude towards authority, but to no avail. They were told not to 'cringe' and 'whine' but 'to take a licking like men'. As regards representative organization, the remaining police were now left with the internal Police Federation through which to raise grievances for the authorities' consideration. But, in the case of the Liverpool force, it appears that the local branch had very little success in pressing its claims and obtaining concessions. It was, for instance, unable to secure reimbursement of local travelling expenses, improvements in other existing allowances or get back-pay for lost rest days since 1914. The head constable admitted that at the branch boards 'no undue time had been wasted by prolonged meetings and discussions'.
By 1924 constables on maximum pay received 55-60 percent more than the earnings of the average male worker in industry and this advantage endured for the succeeding decade and a half. Additionally, more generous scales of leave were introduced, universal rent allowances paid, a minimum length of service required in outside police duty to qualify for promotion, together with a compulsory retirement age so as to open up promotion channels. In Liverpool, daily hours of duty were reduced to eight for all ranks except detectives and the mounted police. The improvements in conditions of service were not only important in their own right, but on Merseyside they permitted the adoption of a more selective recruitment policy in making good the purging of half the existing force. For the most part, the strikers were replaced by ex-servicemen who were felt to be especially suitable for a disciplined organization since they were already socialized into the paramilitary mentality of obedience.
Source: Journal of Contemporary History Ron Bean
Liverpool Daily Post, 23 January 1919.
Police Review, 9 May 1919