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1919 Police Strike in Liverpool

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.

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Source: Journal of Contemporary History Ron Bean
Desborough  Report
Liverpool Daily Post,  23 January 1919. 

Police  Review,  9  May  1919

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