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Transport Strike 1911

Over a hundred years ago, from mid June to late August 1911, Liverpool was a city virtually under siege. Up to 66,000 men, supported by their families, were on strike.

The Liverpool Transport Strike began on 14 June 1911

The alarmed civil authorities secured 500 extra police from Leeds and Birmingham and over 2,300 troops from six regiments in an effort to maintain law and order and to escort goods vehicles in the city. A warship, HMS Antrim, was briefly anchored in the Mersey. For several weeks the city came to a virtual standstill. In terms of the numbers involved it was the biggest dispute in Liverpool’s labour history. The 1911 Liverpool General Transport Strike involved dockers, railway workers and sailors, as well people from other trades. It paralysed Liverpool commerce for most of the summer of 1911. It also transformed trade unionism on Merseyside. For the first time, general trade unions were able to establish themselves on a permanent footing and become genuine mass organisations of the working class.

Baton Charge Transport Strike 1911

The police reserves were called out and began to clear the streets, and the crowd retaliating, made desperate attacks, throwing stones and bottles at the police. Hand to hand fighting followed. One party of 15 policemen was surrounded and... the officers were attacked with their own batons, the officer in charge being dangerously wounded. In Christian the residents took sides with the rioters against the police, throwing bottles, bricks, slates and stones from the houses and from the roofs

It is important to appreciate that the years 1906 to the outbreak of the First World War witnessed a period of national labour unrest involving a broad range of industries. Coalminers, cotton workers, construction workers and railway and transport workers had all been involved in disputes. It was the seamen who initiated the conflict by turning out on 14 June. For some months Joseph Havelock Wilson, the leader of the small National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union (NSFU), had sought without success to persuade the shipping firms to form a National Conciliation Board to consider a variety of issues. Rebuffed by the employers, Wilson threatened a national strike to begin from 19 June, but Liverpool seamen and those in some other ports were not prepared to wait and Wilson hastily declared the walkouts as official.

Bloody Sunday
Many meetings were held on St. George's Plateau, next to St. George’s Hall on Lime Street, including the rally on 13 August where police baton charged a crowd of 85,000 people, who had gathered to hear Tom Mann speak. This became known as "Bloody Sunday".  At one end of the Plateau during the meeting the Pathe picture people had set up a machine and the operator was busy taking a moving picture of the monster demonstration. When the police moved in and the crowd were hurrying to escape the batons, the operator kept on working. When the crowd dispersed he got away with his negatives. Had they been publicly exposed there would have been an outcry of indignation throughout the land at the brutality displayed. The Plateau resembled a battlefield, disabled and wounded men, women and children, lying singly and in heaps over a vast area. The picture was privately shown to a few of the prominent Labour leaders and speakers but the Liverpool authorities and the Government warned the Pathe people that they were not to show the picture in public, ‘or else’.

Bloody Sunday was “a symbol of the intolerance of the civil authority towards peaceful mass demonstrations”. No one had been killed but 350 people were treated in hospital and the resentment towards the imported police from Leeds and Birmingham was considerable. The growing tension had already resulted in the movement of soldiers of the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment to Seaforth Barracks. So after Bloody Sunday Liverpool came to a standstill, two thousand more troops were rushed to the city and the shipowners carried out their threat to close down cargo operations. That affected 15000 men and the strike committee called for a General Strike. According to the Daily Post and Mercury (15th August) some 66,000 workers responded. From this time on goods could only be transported under heavy military escort and it was the strike committee that decided on the carriage of goods by the issue of permits. A national railwaymens’ strike began on the 17th and lasted three days before the railway companies were persuaded to meet union representatives to discuss grievances. Also on August 17th the tramwaymen struck work followed by Corporation electric power station workers and scavengers. That said, it was the resolution of the railwaymen’s dispute at national level that heralded the end of the local transport strike and the dockers finally returned to work on the 25th following negotiations between the NUDL and the shipping companies. The tramwaymen had been dismissed for striking and it was only when the strike committee threatened to bring out all transport workers again that the Corporation Tramways Committee agreed to reinstatement. That tardy process was not finally completed until December.

 London And Liverpool Under Mob Law 
British Pathe  - (1911-1912)

In the police charges and subsequent unrest that carried on through the following night, over 350 people were injured. 3,500 British troops were stationed in the city by this time. Two days later, soldiers of the 18th Hussars opened fire on a crowd on Vauxhall Road, injuring fifteen, two fatally: John Sutcliffe, a 19-year old Catholic carter, was shot twice in the head, and Michael Prendergast, a 30-year old Catholic docker, was shot twice in the chest. An inquest into their deaths later brought in a verdict of 'justifiable homicide'.

The site of John Sutcliffe’s shooting on 15 August 1911, corner of Hopwood Street a
and Vauxhall Road, the morning afterwards.

Motor van carrying troops and police in Lister Drive 1911
In the week following Bloody Sunday, Liverpool and the whole of Britain was poised on the edge of catastrophe. The railway strike, which had been started by rank and file action in Liverpool, had been declared official by four of the five railway unions, the first national railway strike in history (the Railway Clerks Association had an official no-strike policy at the time, but its members still refused to cover any work of the strikers). The docks had been closed after the employers had declared a lock-out. Movement of goods across the country was almost impossible without police or military intervention. Even within cities, goods could not be moved as carters went on strike, and permits issued by Strike Committees were the only guarantee of the peaceful movement of food and other essential supplies. The government response was to pledge unprecedented police and military reinforcements in support of the rail owners, to try and keep the rail system moving. More than 50,000 troops were mobilised across the country, and police were despatched wherever the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, thought they were most needed.

1911 Mounted Police convoy during transport strike

The strike which lasted for three months, came to an end  on Thursday 24th August 1911 and troops were officially withdrawn on 28th August, however violence and looting continued for some considerable time afterwards. Industrial relations continued to be unsettled right up until World War one with unofficial stoppages occurring regularly.


Liverpool Central Library 
Liverpool Museum
Liverpool Records Office
Workers History -Eric Taplin

By Robert F Edwards

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