Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Great Unrest - A Proposal for a London History Workshop


The Great Unrest of 1911-13 saw an upsurge in militant working class and labour movement action around wages and working conditions. The potential for a new wave of unrest in the light of the savage cuts by the ConDem Coalition Government makes that history of relevance. However, at the centre of the struggle 100 years ago were the armies of industrial workers particularly in the mines and transport. The modern blue collar working class has been decimated. The white collar working class of today is much less organised in trade unions, and their life styles make many of them regard themselves as middle-class. Meanwhile many of those who still regard themselves as working class consider they have been betrayed, and their history, culture and identify marginalised.

The Background

New ideas about industrial organisation and action were emerging with the labour and socialist movements: syndicalism, a rejection of parliamentary politics, the creation of industrial unions and advocating direct industrial action to win control of the economy. One the main advocates of syndicalism was Tom Mann, who had been a leading activist in the New Unionist wave 1889-92.

The Transport Workers Federation was created by the dockers and seamen. A wave of strikes swept the country involving seamen, dockers, miners and railwaymen. There was a massive strike of transport workers in 1912. The ASRS, the General Railway Workers Union and the United Signalmen and Postmen merged into the National Union of Railwaymen in 1912. In 1913 the NUR entered a Triple Alliance with the Miners and the Transport Workers Federation with a view to joint action for mutual assistance. Troops were used by the Liberal Government against striking miners in Tonypandy, with one killed and hundreds injured. This was also the time of militant action by suffragettes demanding the vote for women, and the Conservatives encouraging Protestant mutiny in Ireland against Home Rule. Out of a strike by the London Society of Compositors members merged The Daily Herald newspaper, which had the support of the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC which was represented on its Board by W Matkin, the General Secretary of the General Union of Carpenters and Joiners. From 1913 under George Lansbury's editorship it upset MacDonald and the Party's Parliamentary Committee withdrew its support and launched the short lived The Daily Citizen. The Liberals reversed the Osborne Judgement in 1913 allowing unions to have separate political funds, which revived the fortunes of the Labour Party. The militancy petered out.

Commemorating the Great Unrest

The hundredth anniversary of the Great Unrest begins next year. Its significance has been highlight in the editorial by Mike Squires in the current newsletter of the Socialist History Society. That editorial is supported by an article by Paul Burnham on the High Wycombe Strike of 1913, and a review of a new book on the South Wales Miners' Strike.

It occurred to me that it would be worthwhile to consider organising a History Workshop type event in London on the Greta Unrest, aimed at attracting people from London's vibrant networks of people engaged in community, local, family, labour movement and BME histories.

The initial ideas are:

(1)A project launch event at Bishopsgate Institute with speakers setting the scene and plenty of time for people to discuss how to set up local projects, including research sources.
(2)A workshop looking in detail at the events of the Great Unrest in each area of London: South West, West, North West, North East, East, South East London.
(3)A London History Workshop utilising the Great Hall at Bishopsgate Institute will bring together all the local work and examine the lessons and questions arising, including consideration of how in new conditions campaigning can reach deep into local communities.
(4)There should be a linkage to the New Unionist agenda created in the early period of mass mobilisation 1889-1892 started by the Match-Girls Strike in 1888.


To achieve these outcomes will take time and require the support of London members of many organisations including Socialist History Society, Society for the Study of Labour History, Labour Heritage, London Socialist Historians Group, Black & Asian Studies Association and the Friendly Societies Research Group, the support of trade unions, whose members were at the core of the Great Unrest, and the support and engagement of members of local history groups, like HistoryTalk in North Kensington. If pre-Workshop events were to be held in different parts of London good quality venues in each area will be needed. Good quality and wide-scale publicity through political, trade union, social and history networks. A website with blogging and networking features would be useful.

An early task will be identifying people already undertaking work on aspects of the Great Unrest in London, the establishment through the local networks of research groups to undertake local projects, and thought about ways in which this work can be linked into schools work on Citizenship.

London wide Workshop

Possible topics for speakers, panels and workshop sessions at the London wide event might include:

(1)Syndicalism. What was it in the period of the Great Unrest, what did it achieve, what has been its lasting been, are syndicalist ideas relevant to modern times?
(2)London's economy – what was happening?
(3)Effect of London living standards?
(4)The role of Tom Mann.
(5)Railwaymen's action across London.
(6)The response of the Liberal Government.
(7)The effect of the Liberals reversal of the Osborne Judgement in 1913 allowing unions to have separate political funds.
(8)The response of London's Municipal Reformers (Conservatives)
(9)How different was the Great Unrest in Ireland and what effect did that have on London's Irish workers?
(10)The response in different local communities
(11)The effect on the London municipal elections of 1912
(12)The response of the different local authorities and Poor Law Guardians.
(13)What led to the petering out of the Great Unrest?

Next steps

I have contacted a number of people active in the national groups mentioned earlier, and individuals involved in working class history activities in parts of London. I have asked them for their comments and to raise the idea at their Committee meetings to seek support. A planning meeting will then need to be held to agree a more detailed timetable and actions required. Once agreement on a detailed proposal has been reached then the proposal can be sent round the whole range of organisations from local history to trade unions and networks. There will also need to be preliminary exploration with potential funders.

If you are interested in becoming involved either post a comment in response to this blog or email me on

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